TRANSCRIPT

Trip Coach: September 9, 2008

Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor of CruiseCritic.com, answered your questions about the latest in cruise ships and booking strategies.

By , Tuesday, Sep 9, 2008, 11:38 AM

Carolyn Spencer Brown: Hello—and apologies for my late start. I'm here and will be firing answers back to you—you've already asked some terrific questions. And if you have any answers to contribute, please feel free to jump in.

Let's get started.
—Carolyn

_______________________

Wethersfield, Conn.: Carolyn, We are looking to book a cruise on the New England Norwegian Sprint cruise leaving NY on Oct. 12, 2008. All of the balcony rooms seem to be full on most of the New England cruises on all cruise lines including this one. Is there any way to sneak in a balcony room somehow? Do they tend to hold on to some until the very last minute booking, or when they are full, they are full and that's it? Thanks.

Carolyn Spencer Brown: Hi, Wethersfield. First let me say I did a one night cruise to nowhere on Norwegian Spirit and adored the ship.

Balcony cabins really do sell out fast—and it's, alas, likely that you may be out of luck. What I'd suggest is that you make sure your travel agent (or NCL if you booked directly) knows that you're interested in upgrading (and paying for it) and then stay on top of the situation, call every week until you leave if you have to.

Cruise lines don't hold on to much—they're under pressure to sell out every cruise. And I daresay that if cabins are left they'll be outsides or possibly insides. So stay on it and good luck.

_______________________

Merced, Calif.: Hi, Carolyn. My husband and I have been very disappointed with vegetarian selections on recent cruises. While other guests are enjoying a variety of entrees, we have pasta night after night. Are some lines more vegetarian friendly? Is there a way to encourage preparation of more innovative dishes? We love San Francisco's Millenium Restaurant and cookbook, and May Wah in New York has fantastic vegetarian lobster. Thank you.

Carolyn Spencer Brown: We're actually working on a story on cruising for vegetarians and our writer, who's a vegetarian herself, has the same complaints. The lines have definitely gotten on the ball with menus that incorporate more healthful fare—but in this case they're behind.

I don't know of any line that really goes all out to cater to vegetarians at this point but it doesn't hurt to put a little pressure on the industry to recognize these passengers.

_______________________

Revere, Mass.: We are getting married Oct 10, 2009. We would like to take a cruise but unfortunately it is hurricane season. I have started to look at Greece for cruises. This will be our first cruise. Any advice on a cruise line? Thank you.

Carolyn Spencer Brown: First of all, you're smart to avoid the Caribbean at that time of year. Second? I don't think there's a more romantic place to cruise than Greece and heck, it's the most beautiful time of the year.

What I'd recommend would depend a bit on your age and budget. But, sky's the limit-wise (since it is your honeymoon), if SeaDream is still in the region then that would be my first choice. The two SeaDream ships are more inclusive than most, completely romantic (check out the Balinese beds above the smokestack), offer flexible dining (no rigid rules about who you sit with and when) and only carry 110 passengers.

If you like the big ship style cruise, I'd then suggest going with Princess; ships have nightlife, lots of balconies, flexible dining, and excellent alternative restaurants. And terrific spas and fitness programs. Make sure you aim for one of Princess' newer vessels (like Crown Princess, Emerald Princess, Ruby Princess); not sure which is in the Isles at that time.

Best of luck to you.

Anyone else have a good romantic pick?

_______________________

Oceanside, Calif.: We wish to visit South America by cruise ship but do not know what is the best time to go. I understand that the swing season is the cheapest—when is that? Also what are the best places to visit? —Joy

Carolyn Spencer Brown: South America as a cruise destination is still (amazingly to me) under the radar. It's just fantastic, you've got European cities like Buenos Aires, gorgeous beaches in Rio and other parts of the Brazilian coast, nature all throughout Argentina (penguins, tundra) and then the incredible Chilean fjords which are like Alaska's but better (and less trafficked).

The season typically runs November - early March (it's the flip side of the Northern Hemisphere so it's the region's spring, summer and fall). And as always, cruises in the beginning and at the end tend to be good values. Also, remember too that low season for cruising in general is lowest after Thanksgiving and before Christmas—which fits right into prime time South America—so I expect there will be plenty of good deals.

South America is basically divided up into Amazon cruising and round-the-horn trips. The latter is a better choice for your first time. You go between (generally) Buenos Aires and Santiago, dipping sometimes as remotely as the Falkland Islands and even drive-bys in Antarctica.

Make sure you spend a few extra days in B.A. if you can—it's a Parisian influenced South America city that's magic.

_______________________

Granbury, Tex.: Besides Disney Cruise Line, what cruise line is best for hosting families with children under 10-years-old?

Carolyn Spencer Brown: I think that Royal Caribbean has an outstanding program for kids of all ages so I'd definitely recommend the line. Especially the newer ships, which have more bells and whistles (recreational options, water parks, etc.). One note: Nickelodeon just completed its first ever charter—complete with characters and special events—and it was outstanding! We launched a story on a mom's trip with her son that's really fun. Incidentally, that trip took place on Royal Caribbean's Explorer of the Seas....

_______________________

Phoenix, Ariz.: Which line and destination have the best singles cruises? We're women, with ages ranging from 45 to 65.

Carolyn Spencer Brown: Hi, this is such a broad question—I'll try to get you started and then let's see. In the big ship, mass market end of things I really like NCL's newer ships for women traveling together; it's got great spas, flexible onboard ambience (no rigid rules about how you dine), lots of restaurants, and plenty of nightlife.

For a somewhat more sedate experience, I also like the upscale Crystal; there are gentleman hosts to dance with, a great spa, nice alternative restaurants. The line practices a set-seating, set-tablemate evening dining scenario and I've noticed that it takes more care in matching passengers.

If you want a singles cruise persay, my suggestion is to book through one of the handful of travel operators that specializes on putting these together.

_______________________

Folsom, Calif.: Carolyn, we want to take an Alaskan cruise/land tour next July 2009 for our anniversary. Which cruise is the best option where we can include Denali National Park? We are able to depart from San Francisco, Seattle, Vancouver—just about anywhere on the west coast. Is Princess the only option w/lodging?

Thank you,
Karen

Carolyn Spencer Brown: Hi, Karen. Holland America, like Princess, is also very strong in land/cruise tours and has been running them for eons. I'd definitely look at those two first. Other lines do offer the tours—Royal Caribbean and Celebrity for sure—but I think Princess and HAL offer the best variety.

_______________________

Asheville, N.C.: Carolyn, I have a 14-year-old daughter who lives with her mother in Atlanta. I want to do a cruise with her in Summer 2009 or during the December holidays, most likely in the Caribbean. I really want this to be a great father-daughter experience. She loves the outdoors and is a trooper when it comes to adventure. Any suggestions?

Carolyn Spencer Brown: Hi, you sound like a cool dad. I'd definitely try for a Western Caribbean itinerary that calls at places like Belize, Cozumel, Mexico's Riviera Maya and Jamaica; there are so many fun, adventurous tours, from ziplining to scuba. If she's 14, I'd suggest you look at lines like Carnival and Royal Caribbean which do a very good job with teens—both in their onboard programs and on-shore tour options. Good luck, have a blast.

_______________________

Sitka, Alaska: We (my husband and I) are planning a spring trip of up to three weeks to Greece. One of us is able to comfortably walk very short distances (several city blocks) though otherwise in excellent health. We are thinking a ten day cruise and selective use of shore excursions, combined with about five days in Athens prior to departure, would help us to optimize what we see. What do you recommend in terms of types of excursions, given these circumstances? Many thanks.

Carolyn Spencer Brown: Hi, Sitka. My husband was just in your fair town the day before yesterday and he adored it!

If you really want to absorb and experience the region, I'd suggest you take a look at a line called Swan Hellenic. It's U.K.-based (though does market to North Americans) and it offers such a fantastic onboard enrichment program that's connected to on-shore tours. It's primarily aimed at passengers who are pretty well traveled, want to really learn something on cruises, and who are older—55-plus—and so not so interested in beaches and ziplining and that kind of thing.

I'd definitely recommend you add on a visit to Athens—three days might be better than five or you'll wear yourselves out before you even get onboard. Athens is frenetic....

_______________________

Greenville, S.C.: What is the best way to not get seasick & what is the best thing to do if you do get sick?

Carolyn Spencer Brown: Thanks for the question, Greenville, SC. Most of today's cruise ships are so big and well stabilized that you won't feel any motion—and probably won't get seasick. If you are prone to motion sickness, however, there are many remedies to take along. If you are very prone to seasickness, ask your doctor before you leave home for the Transderm patch, available by prescription. Otherwise, queasiness can usually be relieved by an over-the-counter medication like Dramamine or Bonine.

Alternative remedies include ginger capsules and acupressure wristbands, available at most pharmacies. If all else fails, I find that a nice ginger ale settles my stomach!

Wishing you smooth sailing...

_______________________

Pittsburgh, Pa.: We're cruising on the Crown Princess Nov. 2nd with a stop in Grand Turk, which was devastated from the hurricane. Would you know if Princess has an alternative plan?

Carolyn Spencer Brown: Hi, Pittsburgh, Pa.: It's probably too early to tell about November but the news is pretty bad we hear.

We're closely monitoring the situation in Grand Turk, as are the cruise lines. Princess has not yet announced any alternative plans for its Crown Princess due there later this fall; at this point, damages to the island and the cruise center are still being assessed.

However, my best guess it that upcoming itineraries will indeed be impacted—you can check the cruise line's Web site or news sites like Cruise Critic for the latest information.

_______________________

Shelton, Ct.: We're first-time cruisers. Do you have any suggestions for a family cruise with teenagers over New Year's (3-4 nights) from New York City?

Carolyn Spencer Brown: Shelton, Ct., hello! It may be tough to find a cruise that fits those exact specifications (departure date and port, and length). You'll definitely want to check with your travel agent about booking a sailing.

However, we can recommend some cruise lines that do a great job with teen travelers. For example: Norwegian Cruise Lines' Norwegian Gem, which sails from New York on weeklong Bahamas cruises this fall, features a teens-only club/disco, an arcade, a huge sports court and Nintendo Wii on the big screen. Another line to consider is Royal Caribbean, which bases ships in New York's Cape Liberty Cruise Port (across the river in New Jersey).

There aren't many three- or four-night trips out of NY, though you'll find some in the five- and six-night range.

Enjoy your first cruise!

_______________________

Fort Worth, Tex.: Is it better to book early with the discounts offered by cruise lines or wait until the last minute? Are "last minute" bookings always poor cabin choices? —Dennis

Carolyn Spencer Brown: Last minute bookings don't always result in poor choice, Dennis, but more often than not you'll get a good deal but might not have much say in what's left over. I really recommend that if your cabin location or style really matters to try to check out offers earlier. You may pay more up front but often cruise lines, which really want to encourage people to book cabins as far out as possible (they'd love it if everyone commmitted a year ahead of time!) so they throw in some value-added stuff, could be a free upgrade or onboard credit or pre-paid gratuities.

One time where you might score is around the three month mark; that's the point when people who've made deposits have to come up with the full payment and often travelers will drop out at that point...

_______________________

Fairfield, Calif.: We go on a ladies trip every year around March or April. There are 3 or 4 women. We have been to New Orleans; Savannah, Ga.; Santa Fe, N.M.; and on an Alaskan Cruise. We like to run a 9- or 10-day trip. Any suggestions? We don't want to spend a ton of money. A cruise is great as long as it has a balcony and our rooms are together or we are all in one suite. Must have individual beds. We like to shop and explore.

Carolyn Spencer Brown: Fairfield, I'm going to second my earlier advice to Phoenix, who asked about singles cruises, and recommend a line like NCL, again, newer ships (such as Norwegian Gem, Pearl and Jewel).

These ships even have a huge suite called the Garden Villa; it's pricey but if you all could stay together it'd be a blast.

_______________________

Cadiz, Ky.: I want to take my 9-year-old nephew on a cruise, but I do not know if he requires a passport or if his birth certificate would suffice. Does he require a passport? At what age is a passport required? Thank you!

Carolyn Spencer Brown: This is a great question, Cadiz, glad you asked it. If the child is not yours—you must have special documents with you, notarized, that give you permission from the parents to take him out of the country (which all cruises do, even U.S.-based trips). He'll also need his passport but don't forget the first because you will not be permitted onboard otherwise.

_______________________

Chandler, Ariz.: I am looking to plan a family reunion, lots of couples age "60" up, but also, children in their 30s with kids. I would like to know what cruise line, what time of year and where it may go that would give us the best deal for our money and time. Planning 24 months out, and getting ready to start for 2010. (Total number of guests may be as many as 15 couples.) Any deals to make with cruise lines? With large groups? Departing out of Los Angeles, or San Francisco preferably, but if Bahamas is in the picture, would not mind a Florida departure.

Carolyn Spencer Brown: Congratulations and good luck! We have a useful piece on the site called At Your Service: Planning a Friends and Family Cruise. It was written by someone who tackled a similarly immense trip planning project (and it was her first cruise!) and it'll give you her perspective.

For multi-generational groups, I like Princess a lot. There are a wide variety cabins styles and prices (so people on a budget can stay on one while those who want to splurge on minisuites and balconies and the like can do that too). There are dining rooms with traditional seating—if you want to have your own tables every night—as well as more flexible options. The kids' program is terrific, ship features are fun—from spas to on some vessels the fabulous Movies Under the Stars outdoor cinemas. It's a line that really balances well in terms of appeal to a wide variety of travelers, from seniors to children.

I definitely recommend taking this to a travel agent—let them deal with getting deposits and final payments and such. And ask them about cruise line policies on freebies: most lines will give you one free fare for every 10-20 berths booked (varies between lines); book more than that and you could get a full cabin at no extra charge.

Once you figure out which line would work, I think you should settle first and foremost on your itinerary—and determine the home port that works best. If your group is a blend of eastern and western folks, you might even consider departing from Galveston (Houston).

_______________________

Milwaukee, Wis.: My wife and I have just booked a cruise on Azamura Cruise Line on February 12, 2009 to some different ports. How do you rate this cruise line? It claims you have a butler for each cabin. Is this true?

Carolyn Spencer Brown: Hi, Milwaukee, Wis. Yes, it's true: Every stateroom on Azamara's ships comes with its own butler. The line has dubbed its style of cruising "deluxe"—pitted firmly against Oceania Cruises. Deluxe falls somewhere between "luxury" (the likes of Crystal) and "premium" (Celebrity, for example). Go with an open mind.

Because Azamara is still in its early stages of development, the line has garnered mixed reviews since its launch. But it's certainly nice to count on having butler service without having to break the bank on an expensive suite. And, as you referenced in your question, the itineraries are often fascinating.

_______________________

Louisville, Ky.: My husband and I will be celebrating our ten year anniversary in September 2010. We are taking a trip without our children. What do you recommend for our anniversary cruise trip?

Carolyn Spencer Brown: Great question, Louisville, Ky. These days, there are just a few adults-only ships—British line P&O's Arcadia and Artemis are two. Otherwise, there are definitely cruise lines that cater better to couples than others. And, for your anniversary, you might consider a trip to a more exotic destination that tends to attract less children and inspire more romance. Have you considered Regent Seven Seas' Paul Gauguin in Tahiti? You can renew your vows onboard during a special Polynesian blessing on deck.

Other cruise lines we like for couples include Norwegian Cruise Line (specifically the ships that feature the private Garden and Courtyard Villa suites), Princess and, for the luxury minded, Crystal and SeaDream (Balinese beds on the top-deck at sunset...need I say more?).

_______________________

Rehoboth, Mass.: I would like to book a cruise for next summer and I have my husband and myself and 3 kids who will be 19, 18 and 11. Which cruise would be better—the Celebrity leaving Aug. 18 going to Egypt, Israel, Greece, Turkey, and leaving to and from Rome or should I consider a Royal Carribean Jewel of the Seas cruise covering Russia, Finland, Denmark and more leaving July 4th? Where can I get the best rates for either?

Carolyn Spencer Brown: Hi, Rehoboth, Mass. The answer to your question really depends on whether your placing more emphasis on the itinerary or the ship. In terms of the vessel, I'd recommend the Royal Caribbean option for your family's cruise to Europe, as that line offers activities and amenities for all age groups—and you have 'tweens and teens in your pack!

Jewel of the Seas in particular features a rock-climbing wall and special facilities including a teens-only disco. However, the Eastern Mediterranean itinerary with Celebrity might be a better fit than the Baltic, depending on your children's interests. Take time to think about what everyone in your family will want to get out of the trip—than plan accordingly. Good luck.

_______________________

Louisville, Ky.: What are the best cruise lines for kids? We have two girls. We want to do a cruise in June 2009. The girls will be 4 and 2.

Carolyn Spencer Brown: Louisville, Ky., I am sure your two girls will love cruising. I'd suggest looking for a cruise line that has children's programs tailored to their age groups. If they'd like to stick together, Carnival places 2- to 5-year-olds together in its Toddlers group for arts and crafts and sing-alongs.

Royal Caribbean, on the other hand, has a different break down that would place your children into different groups. 18-36-month-olds fall under Aquatots, where they can participate in sing-alongs and play with age-appropriate toys while your eldest would hook up with the Aquanuts for activities like story time and "toilet paper soccer." Other cruise lines with stellar kid's programs include Disney, Princess, NCL and, for luxury-minded folks, Crystal.

_______________________

Marana, Ariz.: Two 50-60 year old couples planning a cruise next summer to Scandinavia. Can you recommend the best Scandinavian cruise that takes in either fjord areas or east side of Scandinavian countries? We prefer smaller ships. Thank you.

Carolyn Spencer Brown: Marana, Scandinavia is absolutely one of the most delightful regions in which to cruise. For the most part, the itineraries either focus on the Norwegian fjords OR the Baltic (rarely do they combine).

I'd probably suggest the Baltic as a first-time cruise in the region. The major cities are magnificent—Stockholm, Copenhagen, St. Petersburg, Helsinki and you might also get to visit less well known places like Estonia and Latvia.

If you prefer smaller ships my heartiest recommendation is to look into Oceania Cruises; we featured a virtual cruise report this summer (go to the site and click on reviews, then scroll down to our virtual section) from Oceania Regatta in the Baltic and it was really informative.

The fjords are gorgeous and should not be missed but I think that the capitals are really compelling and St. Petersburg is magic...

_______________________

Cabot, Ark.: There are six retired people that would like to go on an Alaskan Cruise (anytime) from any port on any cruise line. Could you tell me what would be the best and cheapest time to go? We want to go on land for about four or five days. Is it cheaper to just book the lodges on land separately or go with the cruise line?

Carolyn Spencer Brown: Hi, Cabot. If you're not too picky about the weather being a bit unpredictable (might be gorgeous but also might not), shoulder season in Alaska is delightful (late April, May and then again in early September) as kids are still in school and it's not as jam packed with ships and people as it gets during the summer months. So it's an excellent value time.

Re: the land tour, I think it's probably much more convenient to simply book through the cruise lines (earlier I'd recommended HAL and Princess); they do an excellent job, and offer a seamless experience between ship and land, both in arrangements and in ambience.

_______________________

Goshen, Ind.: Are there any other cruise lines besides NCL that have freestyle cruising where you can choose where and when and with whom you eat? Also, are there any others that opt out of the formal night? With baggage costs as they are, you can eliminate a lot by not taking those kinds of clothes.

Carolyn Spencer Brown: Yes, most of them are attempting to introduce some form of freestyle dining (that's actually NCL's word) to the evening meal (most if not all are open seating for breakfast and dinner already). But many of them are experiencing growing pains. What makes the adjustment difficult for cruise lines who've long offered just the formal option is that the ships (and their kitchens) weren't designed to serve people restaurant-style; they were meant to operate like hotel convention operators.

Beyond NCL, the cruise line that does the best job of offering both a set-seating and flex-seating option at dinner is Princess, by a long shot and it's available on all of its big ships. Beware though: Princess also operates three small, delightful vessels (Royal Princess, Pacific Princess and Tahitian Princess); none of these offer the flex option at dinnertime.

_______________________

Winnipeg, Canada: I'd like to see Polynesia and Southeast Asia—far away countries, but I have problems with flights longer than some 7-8 hours. So I'd rather take a boat from any port of North America and back. I'm not limited in time. Any chance I could find anything suitable? Thank you.

Carolyn Spencer Brown: Hi, Winnipeg, Canada. If you've got the time, there are definitely options out there that will get you to Southeast Asia and/or the South Pacific. But if you're thinking strongly about those regions—and you need to cruise out of a North American port—it's likely that you'll have to take a world cruise, which can extend over months.

Here are two choices that come to mind:

• Holland America's Amsterdam has some 60-plus-day voyages scheduled for fall 2008 and 2009, leaving from Seattle, Los Angeles and Vancouver, and then returning to the West Coast roughly two months later. You'll get to stop in several Southeast Asian ports (Da Nang, Phu My, Bangkok (Laem Chabang), Ko Samui, Singapore), then several South Pacific and Hawaiian stops.

• Upscale line Crystal Cruises has a 106-night world cruise sailing out of Los Angeles this coming winter/spring 2009. The voyage will extensively cover the South Pacific (Nuku Hiva (Marquesas), Rangiroa Lagoon, Moorea, Papeete, Bora Bora, Rarotonga, Suva, Noumea, Bay of Islands), head to Australia, then Asia, then Alaska, before returning home.

_______________________

Auburn, Ala.: Do you know of any cruise lines or ships which offer truly non-smoking cabins? That, and double beds (not singles), are deal-breakers for our vacation plans. Thanks. —Patti

Carolyn Spencer Brown: Hi, Patti from Auburn, Alaska. Thanks for your question. In 2006, there was a fire started onboard Star Princess. It began in, you guessed it, a passenger's cabin.

For reasons of safety—and of course the obvious health risks as well as strong customer feedback—these days there are many, many lines that actually prohibit, or will be prohibiting, smoking in cabins. Here are a few where lighting up in your accommodation is a no no.

• Azamara Cruise prohibits smoking in all cabins—including balcony space.

• Celebrity is adopting a no smoking in cabins policy beginning this October.

• On Oceania Cruises, a mid-size ship line that falls just short of being luxury, smoking is only permitted in two small areas on each of the line's three ships.

• From October 2008, P&O Cruises will make three ships in its fleet—Artemis, Oceana and Ventura—completely smoke-free in inside spaces, with lighting up limited to some outside areas and on cabin balconies.

• Royal Caribbean has banned smoking in cabins. But you can still light up on the balcony.

• MSC Cruises' ship are mostly smoke-free, and smoking in cabins is restricted.

The lines to avoid for smoke-related reasons? Carnival, NCL and Princess—three of the biggest.

As to your other cabin-related query: Most mainstream lines feature double beds that can be put together to form a queen. Single beds are more the provenance of cruise ferries and special single cabins.

_______________________

Scottsdale, Ariz.: Hello, Carolyn! My fiancee and I are attempting to plan a honeymoon for April of next year and we were wondering what suggestions you would have for younger (we are in our early thirties) couples where we could combine one week of cruising in the Caribbean with one week just lounging on the beach! What's your best suggestion for cruise line, ship and itinerary that would be fun yet not a circus? Thank you!

Carolyn Spencer Brown: If you want to avoid the circus, Scottsdale, aim for smaller ships. I'd recommend Windstar (they're sailing ships with cruise ship amenities) and the aforementioned SeaDream, which is also incredibly romantic. Both cruise the Caribbean and both tend to visit some of the lesser known islands so you'll be away from the crowds onboard and in port.

I think the Southern Caribbean is the most interesting region—and again, it's a bit more off-the-track than Eastern or Western itineraries.

Congratulations!

_______________________

Garden Grove, Calif.: My husband and I are 40-years-old and we are going on a Mexican Rivera cruise Oct. 5-12, 2008 out of Los Angeles. Do you have any excursion suggestions for the ports of Cabo San Lucas, Mazatlan, and Puerto Vallarta?

Thank you,
Julie

Carolyn Spencer Brown: Hi, Julie. I have tons of suggestions but for ease you may want to check out our port profiles on each—go to Cruise Critic and click on "ports," then Mexican Riviera.

Will say that Cabo, which is a bit of a fraternity town, isn't my favorite (I like more peaceful adventures) but there's a darling town about 20 minutes away, on the Sea of Cortez, called San Jose del Cabo. Lovely village square, lots of history, boutique shopping (with lots of elegant jewelry shops) and charming small restaurants and cafes. It's an excellent day trip!

_______________________

Ellicott City, Md.: What cruise would you recommend to Antarctica which isn't on an adventure or "Russian freighter" type ship?

Carolyn Spencer Brown: Hi, Ellicott City. It's important to note that a handful of mainstream lines, such as Holland America and Princess, do include Antarctica on some S. America itineraries but they do not actually call at places there. They just ride around so you can see what it looks like. Is that what you're looking for? Otherwise, you're pretty much restricted to adventure-oriented ships.

We featured a trip to Antarctica virtual story last year on a Lindblad ship—one of the top eco-adventure companies—and it sounded magnificent. Otherwise, just look for ships that offer some glimpses of Antarctica...

_______________________

Montgomery, Ala.: My husband and I (50 & 49) have signed up to go on a cruise with two other couples the week of July 4th, 2009. They picked the cruise ship—the Carnival Spirit—as they love cruising. We've never cruised and enjoy wildlife, scenery, and getting off the beaten path. I'm worried we are going to spend $10,000 for this trip and it not be something we'll truly enjoy. Are there other cruises/land excursions that give people a more up-close and personal experience for the same amount of money? We would rather get to see Alaska's wildlife and scenery as well as getting to experience fishing in Alaska. We are going on a 10-day trip (7-day cruise & 3-day Denali add-on). I've found some small ships but the cabins are cramped and small. Also they tend to be more than $10,000 for 2 people. Any ideas?

Carolyn Spencer Brown: You're probably not going to like this answer, Montgomery, but it's not the cruise for you. If you're going because you want to travel with your friends, then focus on that aspect. While you can get away in port while on a big ship cruise, you really have to make an effort and it's tough. This is a cruise that's meant to be as much about the ship—casino, nightlife, etc.—as it is about Alaska.

Having said that it sounds like you'd much prefer an adventure-oriented cruise and yes, they're more expensive. Ships are way smaller (100-plus passengers instead of 2,000), they tend to be more inclusive (shore excursions are often included), enrichment is a priority and shore tours ofter more thoughtful experiences. Two lines I'd look at for this kind of trip are Cruise West and American Safari.

We featured a story last summer from a writer who did a big ship trip in Alaska but aimed to get more personal experiences from it than are the norm (check out our Alaska section; it's titled Come Aboard and the ship is Celebrity Mercury) and she had success but it was still a mass market cruise.

_______________________

Seattle, Wash.: I am planning on taking a cruise next year to the Caribbean with my mother who is 67-years-old. Are there any excursions designed for those who are seniors?

Carolyn Spencer Brown: Seattle, Wash., thanks for your question. Cruise lines generally categorize their shore excursions by activity level. Carnival, for example, has "easy" (non-strenuous), "moderate" (walking, sometimes on stairs or uneven surfaces), "considerable" (paddling, climbing) and "extreme" (for the most active travelers), and also designate clearly which tours are wheelchair-accessible and which take place only from the comfort of a motorcoach.

You may want to print out your cruise line's list (check their Web site for it), then sit down with your mother to discuss what she'd like to see—and how much activity she can reasonably do. In most ports, a wide variety of choices should be offered, many of which are tailored for senior travelers. Have a great time!

_______________________

Miami, Fla.: Hi, Carolyn. Is it possible to book a transatlantic repositioning cruise to get from the US to the UK or Europe in June and just pay the prevailing fare?

Carolyn Spencer Brown: Hi, Miami. Most of the repositionings occur in March/April (a few in May) and then again September/October/November; your timing is off, alas.

Check Queen Mary 2, the Cunard ship that's the only one around to offer a regular season of crossings. That'd be your most likely bet. Good luck.

_______________________

Las Cruces, N.M.: When I pick a cruise category such as ocean view and it says "to be assigned" does that mean I will probably end up with an obstructed view or a less desirable cabin by an elevator or over a noisy area?

Carolyn Spencer Brown: Noisy area? Possibly. Obstructed view? Not if you purchased a full-on windowed cabin. The guarantee concept is really confusing to a lot of people. Basically what it means is that you opt to book a certain type of cabin but don't get to pick where it is (typically when you book a cruise you'll be told your cabin # immediately and can often request port or starboard, mid-ship or aft).

So you get a price break for booking a guarantee. The guarantee is you'll get at least the cabin you paid for at a discount (because you might wind up underneath the all-night Lido buffet). You might—and this is what our readers love about the guarantee—get a better category. It's a toss of the dice...and it's a risk. If you're picky better to just book the regular way.

_______________________

Costa Mesa, Calif.: Regarding dialysis on board cruise ships: Where and when we cruise now depends on availability of dialysis treatment on ship. How do we find out on what ship/cruises is that available? (We used to cruise yearly until the health problem.) Thanks for info.

Carolyn Spencer Brown: There are several lines that feature dialysis treatments onboard. As you probably know, the use of the services is not free. You'll need to check with the individual line for pricing.

Holland America is a definite choice, and one that we've quite a bit of positive feedback on. Several Royal Caribbean and Celebrity ships also feature the treatment option.

Also, check out this website for more specific info: dialysisatsea.com—it's a great resource for finding out exactly what ship offers the treatment option.

_______________________

Marlton, N.J.: Do you think a cruise is a good way to see the Mediterranean (Nice and other Riviera stops)?

Carolyn Spencer Brown: Hi, Marlton, N.J. In the Mediterranean—actually, all throughout Europe—cruises are an excellent "sampler," visiting several ports and sometimes several countries all in a week or two. And because the euro's value is soaring against the U.S. dollar, it's much cheaper to cruise to Europe than plan a land-based trip there.

However, a day in port is not enough time to see everything and it's easy to suffer sightseer's burnout on port-intensive itineraries. If you have your heart set on exploring just the French Riviera, you may decide to take a cruise first, to figure out which ports you like best, then plan a land-based trip to them later.

_______________________

Benton, Ariz.: We have a Superior Balcony booked on the Voyager of the Seas for February 2009. Do the balcony rooms have a refrigerator/mini bar? Also, is there a way we can find out what the "call drinks" such as a gin and tonic or margarita would average in cost? I realize there is the automatic 15 percent gratuity added to all alcoholic beverages.

Carolyn Spencer Brown: Benton, Ariz.—yes, the Superior Balcony staterooms on Voyager of the Seas do include a mini-bar. Cost of call drinks can vary depending on the region the ship is sailing in, but we've found them to be pretty reasonable across the board where Royal Caribbean is concerned. Expect to pay about what you would at a bar on land. To save a little on libations, try the drink of the day—normally about $4.

_______________________

Highland, Calif. : Should a customer expect a travel agent to extend some type of courtesy for repeat customer loyalty? I have given my travel agent at least 20 bookings (ourselves and friends) and have never been given even a bottle of wine. Many people I know have been given wine, on-board credits, free specialty restaurant credit, credit toward gratuities, etc.

Carolyn Spencer Brown: Yes, you should expect some show of appreciation. I think you've been overlooked, Highland.

_______________________

Atlanta, Ga.: The women in our family went on our first cruise on Celebrity Century to Key West and Grand Cayman. We want to do another not very expensive tour to Southern Caribbean for 5 nights. We've heard that Celebrity is the best (food, rooms) and are hesitant to go with another line. Celebrity only has 7-day cruises to South Caribbean, which we can't do. Any suggestions?

Carolyn Spencer Brown: Hi, Atlanta, Ga.! A women-only cruise sure does sound like fun. Your situation is a tough one because most Southern Caribbean cruises tend to be a little bit longer as it takes a bit more time to sail down to the region. In fact, I do not know of any shorter-than-a-week options. Have you considered another region—maybe Bermuda? Royal Caribbean offers a handful of five-night cruises to that region. You'll also have better luck finding short cruises to the Bahamas and Western Caribbean.

_______________________

Augusta, Maine: My friends, husband, and I are planning a trip to cruise on Royal Caribbean's Oasis of the Seas in March 2010. As a first-time cruiser, I'm wondering which restaurants and places are included in the quoted price. Are coffee shops and ice cream parlors extra? I know that room service is included, but I'm not sure about the rest and am very uncertain about how dining works. Should I make reservations prior to our trip?

Carolyn Spencer Brown: Hi, Augusta. My husband and I are booked in January! So we'll have to let you know...

Right now Royal Caribbean has not announced its restaurant concepts but should in the next few months so stay tuned to Cruise Critic.

I would make reservations beforehand (if you can) if it's for a special occasion. If not make them immediately upon boarding.

_______________________

Ft Lauderdale, Fla.: My husband and I are doing our first cruise (a belated honeymoon in New Zealand/Australia on Celebrity). We have an inside cabin. What is the best strategy to see if we can get a free/cheap upgrade? Thanks!

Carolyn Spencer Brown: Best strategy? Stay on your travel agent, emphasize the honeymoon, and er, pray. What a fantastic trip—regardless of the cabin. You won't spend too much time there...

_______________________

Schenectady, N.Y.: With all the taxes and surcharges paid on cruises today, are they income tax deductable?

Carolyn Spencer Brown: Nope, sorry. The only time even a portion of a cruise is deductible is if it's part of a business (or continuing ed) trip and only then partially.

_______________________

Onalaska, Wis.: My wife and I are booked on H-A's new Eurodam. Have you had any initial reports on this vessel? Thank you.

Carolyn Spencer Brown: Yes, I cruised on Eurodam in July. It's a beautiful ship—stay tuned for our report (should launch in the next weeks).

_______________________

Hendersonville, N.C.: We found the information on cruisecritic.com regarding our August 2008 cruise to the Baltic to be outdated. How often is the website updated with current information?

Carolyn Spencer Brown: Hi, Henderson. Please drop me a note and tell me exactly what was outdated so we can fix it. We are constantly updating stories—we cover such a wide swath of topics that even with constant updating we're grateful for help from readers who spy something out of tune. So do let me know.

_______________________

Albuquerque N.M.: I want to take my teenage grandchildren on a cruise. What cruise ships or lines have good onboard activities for teenagers? What are the best cruise ports? Thank you.

Carolyn Spencer Brown: I'd aim for Royal Caribbean's newer, bigger ships (Voyager class, Freedom class) and I'd head to the Western Caribbean. The itinerary is fantastic for active-minded travelers and offers everything from jungles to gorgeous beaches to Mayan ruins. What a nice grandma you are!

_______________________

Orinda, Calif.: I am considering taking a cruise sponsored by USC Trojan Travel entitled "Ancient Wonders of the Mediterranean." It is an 11-day voyage from the French Rivera to Turkey aboard the M.S. Le Diamant. The cost is $4,045 per person plus airfare. Do you consider this a good value? What is your opinion of the cruise ship? Do you know of any comparable cruises that you would recommend more? My husband and I have been reluctant to take a cruise but this one, which features a USC faculty member and a guest editor from Bon Appetite, intrigued us with its academic/history and food/culture focus.

Thank you for your help!
—Mary

Carolyn Spencer Brown: Hi, Mary. Le Diamant is a beautiful, small ship that once was owned by the upscale Regent Seven Seas Cruises and was named Song of Flower. I've heard only fantastic things about the ship and your program sounds like an awesome experience. Yes, it's a good value, and University-organized trips (it's all the rage) tend, more than other types of cruises, to emphasize onboard enrichment and interesting conversation.

Enjoy.

_______________________

Carolyn Spencer Brown: Thanks so much for all the great questions—and many apologies if we didn't get to yours. It's been a blast; thanks.