We studied countless entries in search of cruisers who nail the balance between smarts, skills, and spirit. Read our finalists' bios below and vote for your favorite by June 28. The winner will sail off into the sunset on a free cruise—and appear in an issue of Budget Travel.
Hometown: Clemson, S.C.
Years Cruising: 13
Number of Completed Cruises: 11
Best Tip: When going ashore, ask room service to prepare a picnic lunch; it's included in the price of your cruise.
Ted & Karen Beranis
Hometown: Bonita Springs, Fla.
Years Cruising: 12
Number of Completed Cruises: 17
Best Tip: Cruising with a crowd can get complicated. If you've never set sail before, test the waters as a couple first.
Martha & Ken Wiseman
Hometown: Romeoville, Ill.
Years Cruising: 38
Number of Completed Cruises: 65
Best Tip: Repositioning cruises give you more miles for your buck—and let you string together back-to-back cruises through different parts of the world.
Whatever the method of travel, Toni Vitanza, 50, runs a tight ship. A South Carolina-based flight attendant, Toni has logged plenty of miles—both nautical and air—and refines her packing, planning, and money-saving strategies with every trip. She's adamant about packing light, both to avoid overweight luggage fees and to spare the hassle of dragging heavy bags around. (Need proof? This self-described "big-haired lady from Texas" can fit all her cosmetics inside a tiny Altoids tin.) Knowing that time is the most precious part of any vacation, Vitanza also distributes highlighters to her cruise group members so they can mark the morning newsletter with activities they want to do, and she can coordinate the most efficient schedule for the day. When it comes to cutting costs, there is virtually no fee that Vitanza can't skirt. She brings walkie-talkies to avoid high cell phone bills, uses the onboard spa's steam room, sauna, and hot tub gratis (without booking treatments), and takes advantage of the little-known all-you-can-eat service in the dining room. ("You can try all the starters, all the desserts," Toni says. "On my last cruise, our waiter kept bringing us lobster until we were done.") She knows that you can get room service and picnic lunches for free, that checking your e-mail in an on-ship coffee-shop chain with Wi-Fi costs less than shelling out in the "Internet area," and that plenty of perks—a pair of fluffy spa robes set out in your cabin, late seating at a private table in the dining room, even a balcony upgrade—are often just a matter of asking. The one area in which Vitanza doesn't skimp? "I tip generously—in cash, placed in an envelope with a personal note and hand-delivered at the end of the trip," she says. "It has come back to me in spades in terms of travel karma."
Ted & Karen Beranis
Twelve years ago, Karen Beranis, 68, entered a reggae-dance contest in a Key West pub—and won a three-day Caribbean cruise. Inspired, she and her husband Ted, 76, both first-time cruisers, upgraded to a seven-day trip, marking the beginning of an annual tradition and a bona fide passion. For this couple, the point of cruising is simply having fun and meeting people—but they're not afraid to be strategic about it. The couple always pack their bathing suits in carry-on bags so that they can relax by the pool while waiting to check into their cabin, instead of sitting around in a mid-ship lounge, losing precious daylight hours. And as Ted says, "For our age group, an afternoon nap is a must! Three o'clock in the sack. Seriously. Then you can stay up beyond 10 or 11 p.m." It's a crucial reenergizer for a pair that prefers to spend every evening living it up in the ship's piano bar. As a pair of seafaring social butterflies, they've also found a surefire way to make friends wherever they go: Ted carries a pen and paper everywhere, and draws caricatures of dining-room tablemates and crew members to give away. (In addition to companionship, the sketches have also won them the occasional round of free cocktails.) Some of these encounters have even led to long-running relationships. "Once, on a pool deck, we lounged next to a couple we'd never met who lived in our hometown," Ted recalls. "We all became close friends and even traveled together for years afterward."
Martha & Ken Wiseman
The first few cruises the Wisemans went on, Martha cried every time the ship docked because she didn't want to leave the boat. But now, nearly 40 years later, Martha doesn't waste time on tears. Instead, the last (and first) thing she and her husband do on every cruise is: "Eat! Eat as much as you can because it's on your own nickel after that!" she says. The buffet obsession notwithstanding, Martha, a 61-year-old retired guidance counselor, and Ken, a 64-year-old retired educational technologist, stand out most for their against-the-grain opinions. Where many cruisers insist on packing light, Martha and Ken bring piles of luggage. "That's why we live in a motor home now—so we can bring our whole house with us wherever we go," Martha jokes. And while some savvy cruisers prefer crafting their own shore excursions, the Wisemans are committed to cruise-organized outings as a guarantee they'll get back on the ship in time—a lesson learned in Senegal when a foreign diplomat arrived unannounced and clogged traffic for hours. As other travelers rack up repeat voyages with a favorite cruise line (and earn dinner-hour recognition for their loyalty), the Wisemans put the highest priority on exploring the world—no matter who's steering the ship. "We're not loyal to a particular line," Martha says. "We're much more interested in the itinerary." That destination-based approach has taken them from Alaska to Bangkok (their favorite cruise) to London, Paris, and Rome (as a field trip with their high school students), and on a seven-day tour of Tahiti—plus nearly 350 other ports across the globe.