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by Lee Foster

Whether watching mammoth chunks of ice crash from an Alaskan glacier or scanning the Caribbean horizon for the next island, just what are the attractions of a cruise ship vacation?

The decision-free, care-free, ship environment is certainly one major pleasure. On a cruise ship, once you have paid for your ticket, no further decisions are mandatory. Your lodging is settled, without packing and unpacking. Meals are taken care of and are generally luxurious. Entertainment is provided. And the ship, a resort in itself, can take you from destination to destination without the need for airport connections or customs hassles.

A cruise vacation can also be as active or passive as you choose. The refugee from a high-pressure job may want nothing more than sun, a deck chair, a good book, and three sumptuous meals a day, free from a rigorous schedule and the evening news. But at the other end of the spectrum the on-board disco may pulsate until dawn. In the mid-range of activity there are “theme” cruises, such as wine tastings or Big Band era nostalgia. Attractions on board may range from computers to massages, fitness tracks to entertainment celebrities.

Spas and workout facilities are a major current emphasis. And, usually, there will be ports of call, such as the gold rush town of Skagway in Alaska or the Dutch island of Curacao in the Caribbean.

The diversity of modern cruising is impressive. Adventure cruises go up small waterways in yacht-size boats to exotic locations. Upscale cruises offer all imaginable amenities. Affinity cruises unite chocolate lovers or sports fans who long to cruise with world-class athletes. Counselors handle kids on the larger cruise ships.

Mega-ships hold as many as 4,000 passengers. About a third of cruisers are over 60, but the fastest growing cruise segment is 25-40 year olds.

The variety in cruise companies and styles is exhilarating. Princess Cruises blankets the scene with an upscale worldwide product, while Bergen Line focuses all its attention on the coast of Norway. Carnival concentrates now on megaships that are worlds unto themselves, while Wind Spirit provides a quality experience for 120 passengers interested in visiting the small islands and ports of the Caribbean and elsewhere. Cruising has not become bland and homogeneous. Rather, diversity is the reality.

The sea itself is a special place for a vacation. Going down to the sea in ships has always been a romantic adventure. To be at sea, underway on a large and luxurious ship, taking in the sea breeze, is exhilarating. In one sense, the sea is an isolated and otherworldly place. On the other hand, modern cruise ships offer easy telephone hookups to call home. Large cruise ships even engage the services of a doctor and nurse.

One aspect of cruising is the casual meeting of good people who are enjoying a good time and have one thing in common–they are on a cruise. A cruise is one time in modern life when you are likely to step out of your immediate circle of friends or associates and discover the pleasure and humanity of other ranges of people. When sitting next to a stranger at dinner or on a deck chair, there is a friendly mixing and openness on a cruise. The mixing extends far beyond Love Boat romances.

If you contemplate making a cruise ship vacation, you will not be alone. Cruising attracted 4.6 million travelers departing last year from North American ports. Carnival is the largest single cruise company in terms of passengers, carrying over 500,000 passengers per year. Cruise travel is a growing segment of travel, increasing each year. Even that large segment, however, means that only about 11 U.S. adults in a hundred have set foot on a cruise ship.

A travel agent who specializes in cruises can supply you with plenty of brochures and the personal experience that will match your wishes with a particular ship. The questions to ask are: Where to cruise, What ship to cruise on, When to cruise, How long to cruise, and How much to spend.

SOME SUGGESTIONS

Here are some tips:

*Consider making your first cruise a short 3-4 day cruise to see how you like it. These short cruises are growing in popularity. On the other hand, a week or 10-day cruise gives you a thorough sample of what cruising is like.

*If you’re just getting started in traveling, make sure that you have your household situations covered during the trip: mail taken in or held, papers taken in, pets managed, and house plants watered.

*Get a passport if you don’t have one. If you fly to your cruise departure point, always take your passport, money, cruise tickets, and medicines as carry-on luggage. Assume that you could get along without any checked luggage, in case a lost baggage problem arises. Be sure to carry a picture ID, such as a driver’s license, in this era of electronic airline ticketing.

*Do some of your own cruise research by writing to cruise lines for their literature and by surfing on the Internet to cruise web sites, but depend on your local travel agent to make your booking. Almost all cruise bookings (about 95 percent) are through travel agents. An agent’s expertise can be crucial in getting you a good fly-cruise combination.

*Coordinate your evening dining time selection (usually there is an early and a late seating) with your planned shore excursions and general preference. You usually dine at the same table for the duration of the cruise.

*If you plan to buy “duty free” items, especially major purchases, check out what their prices are locally, in your hometown, before going. Duty free may be an illusion compared to your local discount shopping prospects. Generally, you will be able to return with $400 in duty free goods, paying 10 percent on the next $1000 of goods, though there are individual country and commodity preferences.

*Tipping policy will vary with the cruise line. For example, Holland America has a “no tipping required” policy. Other companies will specify the range of people not to forget, starting with your room steward and dining room waiter. Expect total tipping to run about $15 per day per person.

If you’re looking for a carefree vacation with excellent cuisine, consider a cruise vacation. The large number of repeat customers (about 84 per cent) in cruise travel suggests that many travel consumers enjoy what they have experienced.

For more information contact Cruise Lines International Association, 910 SE 17th St., Suite 400, Fort Lauderdale, FL 33316; 754/224-2200; www.cruising.org.

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