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How to Plan the Perfect Family Cruise

By Candyce H. Stapen
January 12, 2022
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So many ships, so many destinations! It isn't easy finding the right mix of amenities, ports and costs

Before our first cruise, my husband and I wondered whether seven days in the same cabin with our children was sane or sadistic; if the kids could forgo T-shirts and sibling rivalry at our formal dinner seatings; and if we'd return fat, bored, and broke. Instead, we had one of our best vacations ever.

Since then, more than eighteen years ago, we've been on many cruises together. Cruising's not perfect--the ports get flooded with "boat people," shore tours can be expensive, and the food can be mediocre--but being on a ship frees us from the usual family nemeses: packing, unpacking, schlepping suitcases and dealing with cranky children in a hot car.

"Cruising is a very easy way to travel," says Barbara Koltun, a Potomac, MD clinical social worker. "Life is simple and fun. All you have to do is pick your shore tour. The rest is taken care of. You do not have to worry about what the evening's entertainment will be or how much dinner will cost and there's something for everyone to do." Last summer the Koltun's sailed to Alaska with 13-year-old Sarah and her grandparents.

Like many cruisers Wayne Poverstein, a Morris Plains, NJ, high school teacher appreciates the freedom cruising affords parents and kids to do things together and apart, including eating. "Kids can get whatever they want to eat whenever they want it. Most of the time on a cruise, Shaun, at 12, 14, and 16, didn't want to be stuck in a 1 ½ to two hour dinner with us. He was interested in eating hot dogs and pizza with his new friends. And that was fine with Mary Jane and me."

It's no wonder that the family market, according to the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), has grown nearly 200 percent in the past five years. In 2004, CLIA projects that 1.1 million children, age 17 and younger, will have sailed, up from 1 million in 2003.

But to sail on the ship of your dreams, plan ahead. You need to pick the voyage as well as the vessel that's right for your family. And so that you don't go overboard on your budget, you need to book wisely, choose shore tours carefully, and be mindful of all the extra ways cruise lines in recent years have come up with to separate you from your dollars.

Choosing the right destination and cruise length

Part of cruising's allure is getting what you wish for, so be honest about practical issues and whether your family prefers sand and sun, rainforests, glaciers or European capitals with 17th century churches.

Caribbean cruises work well for all ages, especially with tag-alongs tots or teenagers. Give a pail and shovel to a 2-5-year-old, sit him on the sand near the water's edge, and he can dig and play for hours. Give a teen some dollars to try WaveRunners, and parasailing, and she'll be back to beg for more money before you've even read three pages of your novel.

Caribbean and Scandinavian cruises can be budget-stretchers because you can forego the cost of organized shore tours and still have fun. In Jamaica, Aruba, Curacao, and other islands, simply take a taxi to a nearby beach. In Copenhagen, Oslo, Stockholm, and Helsinki the ships dock within an easy walk or short cab ride to the city center, making it easy to stroll, window shop and find the museums. Most lines also run either complimentary or inexpensive shuttles to town.

European/Scandinavian capitals, however, go over best with history-oriented pre-teens and teens. They tend to like browsing the boulevards, touring the castles, and of course, shopping the trendy stores for sweaters, jeans, and jackets. However, beware of voyages that promise London, Paris, Rome, and Florence. You'll get there but only after a 1 ½-2 hour bus ride from the port. That not only adds transportation costs, but lots of opportunity for scowls, as few tweens and teens willingly get up early then sit quietly when stuck in traffic.

Alaska's best for nature loving kids age 10 plus who want to hike a glacier, dog sled, fly over an ice field, sea kayak through bays populated with seals, or take a float trip through a Bald Eagle preserve. Such active outings, on average, cost $100 or more per person, per port. Despite the expense, doing at least one of these gets you beyond the tacky port areas and into America's last, great wilderness.

Feeling tentative about cruising? Then, book a three-to-four day sail, a less costly option that enables you to sample ocean life and convince yourself that you really can stomach undulating waves. However, on a short voyage you might miss one of cruising's great lures: lazy sea days for lounging and admiring the limitless horizon.

Choose a children's program that fits your family's needs

Children's facilities and activities not only vary from line to line but also may differ among ships flying the same flag. Most programs operate at sea from 9am to 10 pm except for meal breaks. From 10 pm to about 1:00am most lines offer group babysitting for a fee. Before you book, be sure that the kids' program functions for your age child and for your sailing.

Pre-schoolers: With a non-potty-trained two-year-old, choose Carnival because their counselors change diapers. Norwegian Cruise Line's program accepts two-year-olds but counselors beep when it's time to redo the Pampers, a situation that may leave your tot wet and whining.

Disney's children's program divides into a group for ages 3-4 and another for ages 4-5, a system that works well for timid youngsters who may be unused to group play. On each ship, Flounder's Reef, one of the few nurseries at sea, tends to infants as young as twelve weeks for an hourly fee. The facility has limited capacity and hours.

For kids still young enough to believe in fairy dust, Disney offers dream encounters. On no other line can your kids take tea with Wendy, dance with Snow White, kiss Belle, or figure out how to help Peter Pan foil the dastardly Captain Hook.

Gradeschoolers: Kids ages 6 to 12, the easiest cruisers to please, like most any program as long as they meet a new buddy. Scavenger hunts, art and crafts, and big-screen computer games play well with this crowd.

Good options: Disney because of its innovative sessions in cartooning and science fun, and its sensitive grouping of ages 5-7, 8-9, and 10-12; RCI because of its caring and counselors and separate programs for six to eight year-olds and nine to eleven year-olds.

Avoid NCL with children ages 8 through 12, particularly if they've sailed before. These junior cruisers will rebel against NCL's policy of only allowing teens 13- and older to sign themselves into and out of the children's program. Most lines start this self-policing policy with eight-year-olds and junior cruisers relish their new-found freedom to roam in mini-bands from the pool deck to ping pong to the pizza parlor.

Unless large numbers of kids participate, both Holland America and Princess lump ages 3 to 7 together, a strategy that could make shy little ones feel overwhelmed and older kids selfconscious about being with "babies."

Teens: RCI offers the best program and facilities for teenagers, the hardest passengers to keep happy. First of all, RCI separates 12-14 and 15-17-year-olds, a philosophy that acknowledges a pre-teen's non-kid status without forcing a shy eighth-grader to keep up with a seen-it-all high school junior. Secondly, RCI gives teens ample territory to meet. They can gather at the Living Room, a hang-out, or dance at Fuel, the non-alcoholic disco. The Navigator, Mariner, Monarch and Sovereign of the Seas also add the Back Deck, a teen--only fun and sun spot.

Disney's also added more space for teens. Ages 13-17 years-old hang-out and dance in the Stack on the Magic, and, beginning Oct. 17, in a similar top deck club called Aloft on the Wonder.

Unless large numbers of teens sign-up, Disney, Princess and Holland America mix thirteen year-olds with seventeen year-olds, an often undesirable situation.

Be savvy about pricing and extra costs

Brochure rates are deceptive. Often high-volume, cruise only agencies can get you the same cabin for less. Often, but not always, especially now that RCI and, starting January, Carnival, require travel agencies to offer only those rates approved by the line. "We're trying to level the playing field by offering the same rates to big agencies as well as to small agencies" says Carnival spokesperson Jennifer de la Cruz.

>For the lowest rates, book with a high-volume, cruise only travel agency, whether online or over the phone, and always shop around.

"We still get volume discounts from some lines," says Tara Rogers, World Wide Cruises, cruises.com. "On an NCL seven-day Caribbean cruise we can generally save a couple $250 on an inside cabin and more on a deluxe cabin. RCI still offers us discounted happy hour rates' on Tuesdays, when they try to unload inventory."

High volume agencies also can often get their clients upgraded on a space available basis. "We play by the rules," notes Mark Venezia, CruisesOnly, cruisesonly.com, "but by partnering with other companies we provide added value often in the form of upgrades or cash back or shipboard credit. For example, through the end of the year if you book an NCL cruise from a port near you, you get a free $100 gas card so you can drive to the dock. And with us, you always get someone on the line. We're here 24/7."

Extra Fees: It used to be that except for drinks, shore tours, gambling, spa treatments and the occasional specialty coffee, everything else onboard came with your cabin price. Not any longer. Although cruise lines haven't "unbundled" these items, charging for services and amenities once included for free, the ships now offer a range of new possibilities, each at a add-on.

To avoid busting your budget, simply say "No" or just be selective. A firm talk ahead of time and a family limit on such extras as Hagen Daz ice cream Sundaes, specialty dinners, wine tastings, computer workshops, and intensive Yoga may head off some on-board conflict.

Candyce H. Stapen has written 24 family travel books, including National Geographic Guide to Caribbean Family Vacations.

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Cruises

European River Cruises

What's the experience like? Because the boats rarely carry more than 200 people--10 times fewer passengers than the average ocean liner--river cruises are decidedly more intimate. They're also less frenzied; the main activities are relaxing on deck and low-impact sightseeing. "It's neat to sit and watch people fishing, kids playing, and other boats going by," says Shirley Linde, author of The World's Most Intimate Cruises. Some of the newer riverboats do have gyms or pools, but most are without the bells and whistles of ocean cruisers. Entertainment, such as it is, comes in the form of a piano bar, cultural lectures, or the crew doing cute song-and-dance routines from their homelands. You'll be fed well, but not constantly (no 24-hour buffets). Typically there's a single restaurant serving a buffet breakfast and lunch, and a multicourse dinner with a choice of entrées. Dress is almost always casual. Can a river cruise sub for a traditional tour? Whereas big-ship cruises in Europe often stop far from the actual destination--the port of Civitavecchia, for example, is an hour from Rome--the major plus of a riverboat is that it pulls right into the middle of preserved medieval towns such as Bamberg, Germany. The downside is that these aren't big-ticket destinations. If you have your mind set on seeing the Parthenon or Big Ben, then no, a river cruise doesn't work. River cruises explore smaller towns and villages, and give a terrific feel for the Old World. Like traditional guided tours, river cruises sometimes offer special-interest itineraries that focus on wine, gardens, or classical music. But on a boat you don't have to switch hotels every few days. "It's a great way to experience different cultures," says Eike Grabowski, a travel agent from Shallotte, N.C. "I'm not crazy about getting up at 6 a.m. and putting my luggage outside the door." Where are cruises offered? Popular options are the Danube, often combined with the Main and featuring visits to castles and gothic cathedrals in Hungary, Austria, and Germany; the Elbe, which meanders through Germany and the Czech Republic and stops at Dresden, completely rebuilt from the notorious bombing in World War II; France's Rhône and Saône, taking clients through the scenic regions of Provence and Burgundy; the Seine, for Paris as well as Claude Monet's hometown of Giverny; the Po in northern Italy, frequently themed around opera; and Russia's Volga River, connecting Moscow and St. Petersburg. A more unusual choice is Portugal's Douro River, where vineyards and wild, undeveloped landscapes are the backdrop. What about barges? Barges are smaller (6 to 50 passengers), slower (max of around 5 mph vs. 12 mph on a river cruise), and are usually seen on narrow waterways, notably in France. Private groups often rent an entire barge, and because the vessels are so easy to navigate, self-drives are possible. Brokers such as The Barge Connection book self-drives starting at around $2,000 a week for a six-berth barge, as well as crewed voyages that, depending on cabin sizes, amenities, menu, and staff, cost $1,600 to $5,000 per person per week. Who's onboard? For journeys lasting 10 days or longer, the average passenger is educated, well-traveled, and over 60. Weeklong cruises attract more folks in their 40s and 50s, as well as occasional young couples. Families with children are uncommon, and some lines don't even allow anyone under 12 onboard. Will everyone speak English? Crews on all ships will speak some English, and the staff on lines such as Viking River Cruises, Uniworld, and Avalon Waterways, all of which cater to the North American market, will be fluent. Operators based on the Continent, such as CroisiEurope, attract mostly European passengers, so you may not be able to communicate with everyone. What are cabins like? Standard cabins on ships built in the 1980s can be as small as 90 square feet, while the average room on many new boats is 200 square feet. Nearly all lines offer only outside cabins, so you can expect a window and a view. The cheapest rooms are just above water level, where the scenery isn't as good. Riverboats are narrow, so they rarely have room to provide balconies. It's standard for cabins to come with a hair dryer, air-conditioning, and TV. When should I go? The peak seasons are late spring and early fall, when temperatures are neither too hot nor too cold. You'll find the cheapest prices during the iffy periods of early spring and late autumn, and some lines have discounts during the hottest weeks of July and August. (The savings might be negated because that's when airfare costs the most.) Many passengers plan their cruises according to the agricultural cycle. "If you're interested in wine, you may want to go when the grapes are being harvested in the fall," says author Linde. "And if you want to see tulips in Holland, go in April." How much? It depends on the cruise line and the season. Avalon, a middle-of-the-pack line, has a seven-night "Tulip Time" cruise through Holland and Belgium starting at $1,600 per person. Viking, which offers a similar level of luxury, lists promotions on its website, sometimes bringing rates down to less than $1,000 for a week. Grand Circle Travel, a general tour operator that markets to Americans 50 and older, offers nine different river cruises in Europe, sometimes for as little as $1,000 with airfare from New York. The international clientele of Sea Cloud Cruises are used to paying over $3,000 a week for outstanding food, sophisticated atmosphere, and huge cabins with marble floors in the bathrooms. What costs extra? The cruise price covers three meals per day, and oftentimes afternoon tea, wine at dinner, and guided excursions. Tips are not included. There'll be an envelope in your cabin for gratuities; the standard is for each passenger to leave around $10 per day--preferably in the local currency.   The Barge Connection 888/550-8580, bargeconnection.com   Viking River Cruises 877/668-4546, vikingrivercruises.com   Uniworld 800/360-9550, uniworld.com   Avalon Waterways 877/797-8791, avalonwaterways.com   CroisiEurope 888/863-1212, croisieurope.com   Grand Circle Travel 800/248-3737, gct.com   Sea Cloud Cruises 888/732-2568, seacloud.com   Peter Deilmann Cruises 800/348-8287, deilmann-cruises.com

CruisesTravel Tips

6 Easy Ways to Save on a Cruise

1. BOOK EARLY By reserving six to 12 months ahead of your cruise, you can lock in an early-bird rate that's 25 to 50 percent lower than the published "brochure" rate most lines advertise. You'll also have a wider selection of itineraries, dates, and cabins, and possibly get better deals on airfare and hotels. If prices go down after you book, a good travel agent—or the cruise line itself—should help you get the new lower rate. See the 10 Most Popular Cruise Ports on Earth 2. OR BOOK LATE Yes, it runs completely counter to what we just said about booking early, but if you wait 60 to 90 days before you want to sail, cruise lines often drop prices significantly to fill any remaining spaces on their ships. If you're willing and able to white-knuckle it, this is when you can nab a weeklong Caribbean cruise for under $500. But of course, you won't have as much choice of itinerary or cabin, it may be tricky to find a low airfare to your port, and last-minute fares are typically nonrefundable. 3. REQUEST A DISCOUNT Asking the right questions can work magic. If you're a return customer, mention it when booking and politely inquire whether you're eligible for a discount—it can shave 5 to 15 percent off your fare. Since cruise prices are based on double occupancy, a third or fourth person in your cabin should get a 30 to 60 percent discount. If you're 55 or older, don't be shy about asking for a 5 percent discount; likewise, active and retired servicemen and women should always ask if the line offers them savings. 4. USE A TRAVEL AGENT Sites like Kayak and Expedia have put you in the driver's seat—sometimes literally—but don't underestimate the role a good agent can play in finding you the right deal. Many have reserved spaces they can sell you at a discount, and they can explain whether an advertised "free" upgrade or all-inclusive package is for real or just a ploy. They can also advocate for you if rates drop after you've booked your cruise. 5. GO BIG Large groups—like family reunions at sea—can be complicated to pull together, but they can also knock big bucks off the price of cabins. A group of 16 people in eight cabins, for instance, can sometimes get a steep discount on the 16th fare, or in some cases a free berth. For large groups, booking a year in advance is advised to ensure you get the block of cabins you want. 6. TRY SHOULDER SEASON You won't save a ton, but sailing when most folks stay home can nab you a modest bargain—maybe 10 percent off typical high-season rates. Here are the best times to find deals in four highly popular cruise regions: Caribbean. September and October, the non-holiday weeks in December, and early January to Presidents' Day. Europe. Mid-March and April, September to December Alaska. May and September Bermuda. April and October 

Cruises

Cruises of a Lifetime You Can Actually Afford

Whether you're an experienced cruiser or a newbie, we all have one thing in common: We're on the lookout for that knockout, can't-miss cruise of a lifetime—that we can actually pay for! For a lot of us, that means we want to sail somewhere rich in natural beauty or history (or both!); enjoy living, playing, and eating on the ship itself; and bring home great stories and souvenirs. If that can be wrapped in a neat weeklong package for under $1,000, I'd call that a smashing success. So, what's your dream cruise? We identified three categories that get most travelers' adrenaline buzzing: a string of knockout Mediterranean ports of call, venturing up Alaska's Inside Passage to see glaciers, and, of course, sailing to the Caribbean's inviting ports and beaches. But when you start wading into the sea of cruise itineraries, styles, and prices, those dreams may start to feel out of reach. I turned to some experts to ensure smooth sailing. MEDITERRANEAN ODYSSEYS "Mediterranean cruises are popular from early spring through the late fall, and you can find cruises that include memorable ports like Barcelona, Istanbul, or Santorini," suggests Linda Garrison, About.com expert on cruises. "You can definitely find a seven-day cruise for less than $1,000." (Airfare to a European cruise port like Barcelona is another matter, of course, and part of your Mediterranean cruise planning may have to include using some frequent flier miles to get you across the pond!) "This year, Norwegian Cruise Lines, Costa Cruises, and MSC Cruises have the most seven-to-12-day Mediterranean cruises selling for less than $1,000 per person in an inside cabin," Garrison notes. "The Norwegian Epic sails from Barcelona for seven days and visits Naples, Rome, Florence, Cannes, and Mallorca." The Mediterranean also raises the possibility of adding a continent to your collection of passport stamps: "The MSC Splendida, which sails from Barcelona for seven days, not only visits Marseille, Genoa, Naples, and Sicily, but also La Goulette, Tunisia—in North Africa," Garrison says. To explore a little farther east, the Costa Fascinosa sails round-trip from Venice to ports of call in Italy, Croatia, and the Greek isles. And you can save even more money by sailing in the off-season—either early spring or late fall: "The Norwegian Jade and Norwegian Spirit sail 10-, 11-, and 12-night cruises of the Mediterranean in November or December 2014 starting at $999 or less. Imagine boarding the Norwegian Spirit in Barcelona, stopovers in Italy, Greece, and Turkey, then disembarking in Venice 12 days later!" If you're willing—and able—to pay a little more ($1,149), you can even get an inside stateroom on Cunard's fabled Queen Elizabeth for the seven-night Pearls of the Adriatic cruise, embarking from Rome and visiting the ports of call Corfu, Kotor, and Dubrovnic before disembarking in Venice this June CHILLIN' IN ALASKA If weather predictions hold true, El Nino may mean that 2014's exceptionally cold winter may be followed by an exceptionally hot summer. The cure for the summertime blues? Head north—way north. "Alaska can be expensive," cautions Garrison, "but at least five cruise lines are sailing to Alaska on seven-night cruises during the months of May through September for less than $1,000 per person, including Carnival, Celebrity, Holland America, Norwegian, Princess, and Royal Caribbean." In some cases, the price tag can be even lower: The popular Celebrity Solstice sails seven-night cruises round-trip from Seattle to the Inside Passage of Alaska for 17 weeks this summer, with prices as low as $649 per person for a week in May. Garrison assures us, "Even mid-summer cruises can be had at a good price." CARIBBEAN DREAMS When most people think "cruise," the first thing that comes to mind is a Florida departure for Caribbean islands—browsing colorful markets in exotic ports like Nassau. The good news is, there are more than 2,000 Caribbean cruises to choose from in 2014 and competition is fierce, which helps to keep prices relatively low (except during holidays). "Disney Cruises caters to families," notes Garrison, "so obviously its prices are best during the school year." The Disney Magic was significantly renovated in 2013: "Cruisers can sail round-trip from Florida's Port Canaveral for seven days in late October/early November for about $1,000 per person." If you want to try a really big ship, you can sail on the world's largest—Royal Caribbean's Oasis of the Seas and the Allure of the Seas—for about the same price. "This year is the 100th anniversary of the Panama Canal, and the Holland America Zuiderdam sails a dozen 10- or 11-night cruises of the Caribbean that include a partial transit of the canal." An inside cabin will run you less than $1,000. "You can keep costs down on a Caribbean cruise by driving to the embarkation port," says Garrison. Of course, south Florida, where many Caribbean cruises embark, is a long drive for most Americans. Midwesterners, rejoice: "Carnival Cruises has two of its newest ships based in ports easily accessible to those who live in the middle of the country. The Carnival Dream sails from New Orleans, and the Carnival Magic sails from Galveston, TX, on seven-day Caribbean cruises at affordable prices—often less than $100 per day per person." MAKE PRICE WARS WORK FOR YOU This year may be one of the best to embark on your affordable dream cruise. Especially in the Caribbean. New mega-ships (see "New Ships," below) will add more than 15,000 berths to the Caribbean in 2014, likely leading to price wars that can mean big savings for cruisers. Sherri Eisenberg, editor-in-chief of Bon Voyage, a digital cruise magazine published by Cruiseline.com, says "Competition is going to be fierce in the Caribbean. The new ships are going to try to outdo one another to get people onboard. You'll probably find bargains on older ships trying to fill occupancies." Eisenberg suggests that if you're considering booking a bargain on an older vessel, make sure to read recent customer reviews (rather than the reviews published when the ship debuted—that can mean an outdated review from 10 or more years ago). Of course, Eisenberg knows customer reviews—Cruiseline.com is a carefully curated source of authentic reviews (read: not public relations posts masquerading as customer reviews). In addition to thousands of brand-new berths, the Caribbean is also seeing an influx of ships that formerly cruised the Mediterranean due to the high cost of airfare from the U.S. to Europe. The MSC Divina offers seven nights from $429 with kids 11 and under sailing for free; the Norwegian Getaway offers seven nights from $649; Regal Princess offers seven nights from $749; and Quantum of the Seas offers eight nights from $1,059. NEW SHIPS! Just when you thought cruising couldn't get any more elegant... These new mega-ships not only offer every comfort and convenience you'd expect from world-class vessels. They are also bumping up the activity and adventure factor, says Eisenberg. Skydiving, racing, top chefs, and unique shore experiences are just the beginning. MSC Divina. Give a hearty North American welcome to this Italian ship, which arrived in the Caribbean from Europe in November 2013. Sailing year-round out of Miami, 3,500 passengers can enjoy an Eataly restaurant, Formula 1 racing simulators, infinity pool, and an authentic Italian-style espresso bar. And in deference to its new home in America, smoking is now prohibited in most onboard areas. Norwegian Getaway. Want to explore the Eastern Caribbean aboard a ship that pays homage to the culture of its native Miami? The Getaway is Norwegian's second "Breakaway" Class ship and will allow 4,000 passengers to indulge in restaurants from star chef Geoffrey Zakarian, an Illusionarium magic-themed show, and an offshoot of Los Angeles's Grammy Museum, "The Grammy Experience." Water slides, more than 20 bars, and Broadway-style theater and dance productions will encourage you to carpe every diem. Regal Princess. Debuting in May, this sister ship to the Royal Princess will help introduce 3,500 guests to the "next generation" of vessels. Princess's biggest-ever top-deck pool will host nightly water and light shows, the ship will show "movies under the stars," and the jaw-dropping SeaWalk lets guests walk 28 feet beyond the ship's edge to savor sea views (including the water 128 feet below!). The ship will also balance kid-friendly amenities with adults-only fun. Quantum of the Seas. Sure, you have to wait till November for this ship's "firsts," but it won't disappoint: The RipCord by iFLY is an onboard skydiving adventure; North Star is a glass capsule that extends 300 feet above the ship), and SealPlex is an immense sports and entertainment center that will feel more like an onboard amusement park. Want an inside stateroom bargain and an ocean view? "Virtual Balconies" will do the trick!

Cruises

Simplifying EasyCruise

Having completed its maiden voyage along the French and Italian Riviera last summer, EasyCruiseOne--the orange ship owned by EasyEntrepreneur Stelios Haji-Ioannou--is now sailing among the Caribbean islands of Barbados, St. Vincent, Martinique, Bequia, Grenada, and St. Lucia. Cabins start at $16 a night, and while a typical cruise lasts one week, passengers can book anywhere from 2 to 14 nights (easycruise.com). Don't miss the boat EasyCruise docks by day and sails by night. The ship is supposed to stay in port until midnight. But sometimes it leaves earlier, due to weather; a sign next to the security officer on the boarding deck has the day's return time. There's a half-hour window before the boat pushes off. Ask for deck five or six You choose the class of cabin when you book--there are four--but specific cabins aren't assigned until check-in (it's first come, first served). Decks five and six are tops, mostly because they're farthest from deck three--where people gather late at night at the reception desk in the lobby. Don't forget to bring . . . everything The only products you can count on are liquid soap, sheets, and towels. Here's what there isn't: an alarm clock; Internet access; magazines, books, or newspapers; a radio; or a single phone. Not all cell phones work at sea, either, so it's wise to consider a GSM model. Redecorate as necessary The $16 fare is for double occupancy in a standard cabin: a closet-size room with a shower, toilet, sink, and two single mattresses on the floor. "If you're cruising alone, stack one mattress on top of the other," suggests Sarah Freethy, a TV producer who spent last summer filming the ship's Mediterranean cruise and is now onboard shooting for the Travel Channel. "You'll double the floor space, plus the bottom mattress becomes a box spring." Get to the hot tub early Upon returning each evening, everyone makes a beeline for the Jacuzzi. Problem is, it only seats six. "Board the ship an hour before everyone is supposed to be back," says cruise director Neil Kelly. "You'll get a nice, long soak before the party gets started." Eat onshore Local island food is far better, and cheaper, than the ship's pub fare. A plate of conch fritters at Dawn's Creole, a beach bar in Bequia's Lower Bay, costs only $4 (784/458-3154). Smuggle in alcohol All passengers are told to declare liquor upon boarding. In theory, a security officer takes your booze and returns it when you leave. But they rarely check. So he may not find that 25-ounce bottle of Eclipse rum you bought for $6 at the Mount Gay factory in Barbados (246/425-8757). Create your own excursions All cruise lines, including EasyCruise, charge a lot for excursions anyone can book onshore for less. Consider the ship's Friday Party Night event in Anse La Raye, St. Lucia. The fishing village on the island's west coast hosts a street party, with reggae, lobster, and rum galore. EasyCruise charges $43 to bring passengers there; alternatively, you can take the 3C bus to town for only $2, and eat and drink well for under $10. Don't count on hand-holding Joyce Bentzmen, a marketer from Washington, D.C., read up on which public buses to take on each island instead of taxis. In Martinique, for example, she saved $38. "EasyCruise provides an empty framework," she says. "You have to fill it in yourself."