Trip Coach: April 29, 2008

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

Carolyn Spencer Brown: Hi. I'm Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor in chief of Cruise Critic, an interactive Web site that focuses on cruise travel, from ships to destinations. There are already a healthy number of questions here -- thank you -- and I'm ready to tackle your answers.

And continue to fire away -- if you have an opinion on any of the answers (or questions for that matter) feel free to chime in. We'll add your voice to the conversation!

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Branchville, N.J.: Greetings! Having never been on a cruise ship, I'm wondering if, for quiet evenings alone in our cabin, my husband and I may bring aboard a few bottles of wine. If not, do most cruise ships have liquor stores where you may purchase a reasonably priced bottle? Thanks for your advice! Karen P.

Carolyn Spencer Brown: Hi, Karen P. This is one of the most contentious issues in cruising because most lines have now levied restrictions on how much booze you can bring onboard (Carnival even tried for a time to restrict bottled water! -- that didn't last long).

They say it's for safety reasons (so that underage passengers are drinking alcohol unmonitored) and they say it's because it makes luggage too heavy and thus too strenuous for baggage handlers and okay, I'll give them a little of the benefit of doubt.

I think ultimately they want you to drink their liquor in their bars.

However, if you're reasonable and moderate, you can pack wine or liquor (carefully) in your suitcases, at least a bottle or two, to enjoy in your cabin or on your balcony. However, they do have the right to confiscate and I can't promise they won't (haven't heard too many stories about folks who've had that happen). I've brought a bottle of wine onboard in my carry-on, on NCL a few years back, and that was taken away and returned at cruise's end, but that's the only time.

I've also brought a bottle, again, nothing that would raise alarms, on from shops in ports and have not been hassled.

Some lines do sell liquor onboard that you can take back to your cabin. You won't get duty free prices though.

Curious: what are other readers' experiences on this issue?

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Beaufort, S.C.: My two sisters and I are looking for a cruise of South America which will include a teeny bit of Antarctica. Does such an animal exist?

Carolyn Spencer Brown: Hi, Beaufort. Great question. Weird answer to follow. Here's the thing. If you want a "bit" of Antarctica you can book a trip on any of the mainstream, big ship lines but know this: what they describe (and I quote this from Princess Cruises' Web site) as "Antarctic Wildlife: See great colonies of penguins, seals and abundant sea birds as you float nearby a dazzling icescape of remote Channel Islands" is the at sea equivalent of a "drive by". The ships are too big to actually get too close to land but you can still get a feel for the general environment.

If this is what you want, look for a cruise that goes "round the horn" (either from Buenos Aires to Santiago or reverse).

If you want a more in-depth cruise that actually does let you get off the ship and explore, try lines like Lindblad and Hurtigruten. They're lots more expensive but¿it's one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences for some.


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Wethersfield,Conn.: What is the latest news on the Barefoot Windjammer cruises? Where are the boats?

Carolyn Spencer Brown: Windjammer's demise was truly sad -- and bad for people who want to cruise in a uniquely small ship, low key way. Officially the company is kaput. The company has not been sailing since last year -- but its never come out and said "we're out of business" either. But it is out of business; the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, which regulates Sellers of Travel in Florida, tells us that Windjammer Barefoot Cruises is no longer licensed to sell travel there and that effectively puts the kibosh on rumored plans of a renaissance.

The ships have been impounded. Crew members ultimately did not receive the money they were owed -- at least not yet -- and they've scattered¿.

Oddly, and quite frankly very irresponsibly, the company's Web site is still up and looks like, for all intents and purposes, the line's still sailing. Don't buy anything!

In the meantime, there are other options out there, none quite like Windjammer but still¿. You can try Maine Windjammers and, though a bit more upscale, Star Clippers has a trio of gorgeous ships that sail in Europe, Asia and French Polynesia.


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Hilton Head Island, S.C.: I am a recent widow who traveled on cruises. I cannot afford single supplements and really don't want to take a cabin mate I don't know from a cruise line. What do I do in order to continue to travel?

Carolyn Spencer Brown: In terms of controversial, right up there with alcohol restrictions is the solo surcharge issue. It's become increasingly more expensive for people who travel alone -- and who don't want to participate in cruise line roommate matching programs -- to find a reasonable deal on a voyage. That's because, in this era of cruise ship building, cabins are configured for two (at least two) and actually built off site, prefabricated, and slipped into place onboard. They all look alike. Used to be cruise lines built cabins onboard and there were singles and doubles and quads and they accommodated different needs.

There are a few ships/lines out there that court solo travelers and offer cabins with no surcharge -- among the best are mostly British lines, like Swan Hellenic, Fred. Olsen, Saga, and Cunard's QE2.

One thing I really like about Fred. Olsen, which just started marketing to N. Americans, is that its solo cabins are actually decorated with a single passenger in mind (for instance, one of the twin beds is taken out and extra seating, via comfy armchair or loveseat, is added to make it feel homier).

Cunard recently announced that, following QE2's transfer out of its fleet this fall, it will offer travelers who book on its Queen Mary 2 (which has no dedicated single cabins) a special rate so that's worth investigating. Holland America's Prinsendam, another very special one-of-a-kind ship, also has some solo cabins.

As well, sign up for tour operators and travel agencies who specialize in single travel and who offer specials from time to time. If you can get on their email lists, the offers will appear, hassle-free, in your box¿.

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Lenexa, Kans.: My husband and I along with a group of friends (ages 50-65) are planning a cruise to Hawaii in 2009. What are the pros and cons of cruising Hawaii only or from mainland to Hawaii and flying back?

Carolyn Spencer Brown: First can I just say that cruising around Hawaii is one of the most magnificent voyages available? Just fantastic. I've done it twice and wouldn't hesitate to go back.

Basically you have two options. You can take a trip from the West Coast (say, from Seattle/Vancouver or Los Angeles/San Diego) that's a minimum ten days -- five days at sea to get there and five days around the islands. If you have the time and you like sea days, that's a great option (there's another choice and that's a roundtrip from the West Coast, where you spend five days coming, five days returning, and five days in ports).

Norwegian Cruise Line may be down to just one ship in Hawaii these days but if you really just want to see the islands, its Pride of America -- spiffy, new, all the amenities -- is a fantastic option. It sails, year-round, seven night cruises out of Honolulu; there's not much at sea time. The ship is more like a floating hotel, each day another port (and in some cases there are overnights, such as with Maui). It's the best way to cruise Hawaii if being on the islands matters.

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Columbia, Md.: Hi, Carolyn. My wife and I are in our mid-30s and we've been on about half a dozen cruises and we both love it. We've been on Royal Caribbean, Carnival and Princess and I think the whole cruising is the best way to vacation.

My question is that I have taken my entire family (all 18 of us) on a cruise last august and will be going with my wife's family (12 this time) on a cruise in February 09.

Our families had to split in to 5 or more different rooms on multiple decks, but I was wondering, how do you book those huge Presidential or Royal suites that have multiple rooms inside, jacuzzi on your private balcony and separate living room and I've seen one Travel channel show with a piano inside once. Those rooms are not bookable online, they are not listed on any websites so how can you book them? Do you have to be a VIP? Can anyone book those rooms? I'm sure they are thousands to tens of thousands but after paying for 12 people for balconies and junior suite rooms, I think the huge suite maybe worth it. Can you help me understand how they work?

Thanks,

J.B.

Carolyn Spencer Brown: Hi, J.B, great question. Anyone can book high-level suites, but your observation that reservations cannot be made online is 100 percent correct. Certain accommodations -- say, Presidential and Royal Suites -- aren't released into general inventory because there are minimum passenger requirements that need to be met, and the cruise lines have to keep a close eye on capacity.

Think of it this way: Where hotel bookings are priced per room (and can accommodate any number of people, up to a maximum), cruise bookings are priced per person.

For information about booking these types of suites, you can contact any cruise travel agency. You can also contact the cruise lines directly, most of which have special reservation desks set up to help people who are interested in booking "big" suites (generally more than five people).

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Bakersfield, Calif.: Is November a good time for a Mediterranean cruise that includes the ports for Rome, Florence, Naples and Nice? Thank you.

Carolyn Spencer Brown: Autumn in the Mediterranean is actually the very best time to go! While, sure, you might get rain and such, you might not -- and it's warm enough for short sleeves and cotton sweaters, at least in the daytime, with none of the absolutely sweltering heat of summer. The other huge benefit? You miss out on the crowds. In summer, Europe's port cities are popular with land travelers to begin with; add in 5 - 10,000 people a day coming off cruise ships -- and it's a throng.

Third plus? November's a value-priced time to cruise. So: you'll get a better deal, have more quality time in port, and temperatures will be comfortable. Sounds good to me¿.

Just bring an umbrella.

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Phoenix Metro - Ariz.: What can you tell us cruisers--factually and statistically--about the "internal" policies and practices of the various major cruise lines serving North America, to discount cruise fares if there are unsold cabins six weeks or less before the cruise departure date? Such discounts, if significant percentages, could be of great value to clients who are able to travel "on short notice." As a solo cruiser, I am particularly interested in discounting policies of the cruise lines that would tend to reduce the "single supplement" by significant percentages, or even eliminate it, for "last minute" solo cruisers when there are unsold cabins only a few weeks before cruise departure. Responding by highlighting differences between specific cruise lines, as to these practices, would be helpful.

Carolyn Spencer Brown: Hi, Phoenix.

Last-minute cruises are defined roughly as those sailings that depart between 60 days and six months in the future. In terms of facts and stats, there's no magic number that the cruise lines adhere to (so, if a cruise is leaving in two weeks, there's no guarantee that it will automatically be discounted by 50 percent or $100, etc.).

You indicated interest in cruises six weeks out or even sooner. You'll often find the best discounts are on off-season cruises (there's a reason why it isn't sold out, after all) -- Caribbean during hurricane season, for example. For the best variety, however, consider sailings about 60 days out. The two month mark is almost always the "last call" for travelers to cancel existing reservations without penalty. If there are more cabins leftover than a cruise line would like, they will often reduce the fare -- sometimes quite heavily -- so that they can sell out the ship.

Some cruise lines will extend a discount on solo supplements on close-in sailings, or, if you are really lucky, eliminate the surcharge altogether -- but again, there's no hard and fast rule as it all depends on how well a particular ship is selling, the time of year, etc. Your best bet for finding an affordable cruise as a solo traveler is to shop around and, again, remain open to traveling during non-peak times. And one last thing to consider is upgrading to a luxury cruise. Upscale brands like Crystal and Regent Seven Seas Cruises are among the cruise lines that offer occasional price breaks to solo cruisers (surcharges of 25 percent of the fare or less). So you may be able to sail for less on a luxury ship than you would on a mass market ship with a heavy supplement!

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Ashburn, Va.: Tell me, when truly is the best time to go on a cruise to avoid the kiddies but not get caught by a hurricane?

Carolyn Spencer Brown: Hi. Hurricane season officially falls between June 1 - November 30 and in the past few years I've seen it start early once and end late (well into December!). I'd suggest January, post holiday, as a good time to avoid the, er, kids (and it's one of the best times of year, at least in the Caribbean and the Mexican Riviera, to snare a really great deal).

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St. Petersburg, Fla.: Hi Carolyn, How has the declining economy and the state of the airlines affected the cruise line industry? Even in this climate, it seems like cruise fares are actually climbing non-stop!

Carolyn Spencer Brown: The only thing that's really climbing, St. Pete, is fuel surcharges that cruise lines are levying on passengers (it's up to $10 per person per day in some cases). We're seeing fares at frankly pretty decent rates, otherwise, and hear from cruise travel agents that we can expect summer prices to continue to drop, especially in Alaska and Europe....

Stay tuned!

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Huntsville, Ala.: Hi Carolyn. My family takes a cruise every year. We book online ourselves. How do you find out about repositioning cruises and what are the pros and cons for them outside of the air ramifications?

Carolyn Spencer Brown: I love the idea of a repositioning cruise because you often get to go to ports that aren't on the same-old, same-old list. I did a cruise on Holland America's Zaandam last year, San Diego to Vancouver, that was wine themed and great fun. I also once did a seven night Atlantic crossing, no ports, between Dover and Boston; got a little bored on that one, LOL.

You're right about air ramifications -- it can cost you to go one way or to fly out of different airports.

By the way, one of the absolute cheapest ways to cruise is to take a repositioning crossing (most commonly via the Atlantic; Pacific crossings take a lot longer and so are pricier). If you like sea days there's no other better way to go.

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Lawrenceville, Ga.: I want to take an Eastern Carribean Cruise on Holland America's newest ship, Eurodam. It doesn't sail until Feb. 28, 2009, but I am confused about when to "lock" in the best price. Is there really an advantage to booking early if I don't care where my cabin is, or should I wait for a deal??

Carolyn Spencer Brown: If you really care about your cabin location or type, book it sooner rather than later. Particularly when it's on a new ship, as Eurodam, which actually debuts in July, is....

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Longmont, Colo.: How can Single cruisers find good prices on cabins? Are there certain cruise lines who are lenient with the prices for just One in a cabin? Thank you so much. Clare

Carolyn Spencer Brown: Hi, solo cruisers are out in force today and we've answered a couple -- and will answer as many more as necessary. So read through all....

To Clare's specific question about cruise lines, I didn't mention in my earlier answer that luxury lines are often quite lenient -- and have sales on various destinations. But remember: it being luxury, the cruise is going to be more expensive to begin with.

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Greenwood, Ind.: What is the trick to get a room with a balcony cheaper? Kathleen Fox

Carolyn Spencer Brown: Hi Kathleen, one of the best ways to get a balcony for the price of, say, a standard inside -- actually, a great deal in general -- is to know your seasons and when they're soft. Cruises during a region's shoulder rather than peak season can often be found for a song, allowing consumers to snap up better accommodations for less dough. Cruise Alaska in May or September for example, rather than during the height of summer, or visit Europe in early spring or late fall. Hurricane season in the Caribbean (roughly June through November, with its height in September-October) also prompts fare fairs¿but keep in mind that in all of these cases, there's a reason why these cruises are cheaper (weather's a big one).

If you are able to travel last minute, you might also snag a bargain basement balcony that way. Look for deals about 60 days out -- that's the deadline for passengers to cancel without penalty, and if a lot of cabins are released back into inventory, cruise lines often offer deep discounts.

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Clarkson, Nebr.: We were considering a family cruise with our 20 year old daughter. Recently, a frightening TV expose about a 23 year old who just "disappeared" while the ship was at sea has made me reconsider. What are the safety issues of cruises? What is the frequency of this type of thing?

Carolyn Spencer Brown: Hi, Clarkson. Thanks for bringing up the safety issue because this is really important. A cruise, like most other types of travel, is generally quite safe. But like anything else -- if you want to find trouble, you probably can. It's frightening to hear stories about people who "fall overboard" or who disappear and having covered these stories for the Web site for the past five years I will tell you that to fall overboard you really have to make an effort. And people who "disappear", tragically enough, usually do so on purpose.

I would suggest you lay down some ground rules with your daughter, just as you would if you'd taken a family vacation to Orlando or Boston or London. What's her curfew? What's appropriate behavior? What's allowed, what's not allowed? I'd also recommend you buy walkie talkies (or just use your cell phones) to keep in touch with each other; ships are pretty big.

Would anyone like to chime in with insights about cruising's safety problem perception?

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New York, N.Y.: What are your thoughts about cruising in Asia? Will pricing issues stop people from cruising there? How about airfares in getting to Asian embarkation ports?

Carolyn Spencer Brown: Hi, NYC. I just went on my first Asia cruise and it was awesome. Asia's so huge and sprawling and with so many distinctively different cultures, with countries side by side, that it's a challenging place to visit for a first timer. More than say, countries of the Mediterranean, which are all slightly different but have enough similarities that it's easy to get along.

My trip went from Bangkok to Beijing, about two weeks (I had to get off in Shanghai and go home because of a commitment) and it was just the right way to sample the various countries and to figure out where I want to go back for longer stays. Really loved Hong Kong and Shanghai, liked Singapore (boy it was steamy though), should have flown in a couple of days early to Bangkok instead of just one day.

A couple of things to keep in mind. The flight's a bear though less onerous than it used to be. We flew Thai Airways, nonstop, from JFK. It was 17 hours but have to say the service was great, coach seats were fine, AVOD for non stop entertainment, and it wasn't bad at all. I'd definitely recommend you try to fly non-stop if you can; people on our cruise who'd had to connect had the worst stories.

What's interesting about Asia now is that it's just starting to grow beyond "specialty" lines -- upscale, small ships that are pricey -- and big ship lines like Princess are offering sailings there. What that means is that with economies of scale, fares are really quite reasonable (though of course you have to factor in the air) and on my trip there were a lot of folks onboard who weren't necessarily wealthy¿.

Keep this in mind: Asia cruise season generally runs from October - March and you could (especially into December) run into typhoons that could divert your ship. We had to cancel both calls to Vietnam ports, a huge disappointment, because of that. If there's a place you want to visit that's so important that missing it would ruin the entire trip, go by land.


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Los Angeles, Calif.: A group of ten of my girlfriends and I are celebrating (most of us) turning 30 this year with a three night cruise from L.A. to Mexico. Are there any birthday or other group benefits that we could get? Also, is there a preferred cruise company for this type of trip and our age group? Thanks so much! Elisabeth

Carolyn Spencer Brown: Hi, Elizabeth, and congrats on the milestone. You are pretty much limited to the lines that offer three nighters from L.A. and that's Carnival. Which frankly is a perfect choice!

Book your cruise through an agent and find out if you get any discount for ten bookings -- and also ask the agent to put in a request for birthday cakes. The lines have cut back on the latter in the past few years (people were wasting the freebie) but you never know....

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East Aurora, N.Y.: Please tell me how you would cruise to or from Alaska?

Carolyn Spencer Brown: Hi, East Aurora. Personally, I love Vancouver so I'd probably opt for a cruise that either departed or returned (or a round trip) there so I could spend a few extra days. There are really two main options for big ship cruising in Alaska. You can do a seven night roundtrip Inside Passage cruise (these typically are based in Seattle or Vancouver). Ports of call could include Skagway, Juneau, Ketchikan, a day in a fjord, and possibly Victoria. This is a good option if you're time crunched and if you're budget crunched (because flights are cheaper if you buy round trip).

The other is a ten night trip between Anchorage/Seward and Seattle or Vancouver; there you get to see a few more ports, like mystical Sitka, and possibly offbeat places like Haines, Icy Strait or Prince Rupert. But you'll fly in and out of two different airports.

Since I've done a big ship cruise to the Inside Passage and seen the "highlights" ports, I'd love to next try a smaller ship trip that's a bit more adventurous, like with Cruise West.

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Red Bank, N.J.: When do you expect summer 2010 Baltic itineraries to be released? We're planning a family reunion and need lots of advance time. We intend to sail Celebrity Cruises. Thanks!!

Carolyn Spencer Brown: Typically, cruise lines release itineraries about a year ahead of time so we're seeing plans for summer 2009 come in just now. I'd start really paying attention in April of next year. Good luck!

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Salisbury, N.C.: Everyone tells me to book my first cruise over the internet, but I'm overwhelmed with the choices of on-line booking sites. How does one sift through and find a reliable on-line booking site? I'm a seasoned travleler that always books my own air, train, accomodation, etc. for all my travels, but am thouroughly confused on how to go about picking a cruise site.

Carolyn Spencer Brown: Salisbury, the fact that a cruise is a bit more complex of a vacation choice is one of the reasons why travel agents really are important to cruise travelers. Frankly, I'd find yourself a good travel agent (one that you can talk with) and let them help you winnow out your choices. A good agent will pre-qualify you: what are your lifestyle preferences, what's your budget, where do you want to go and when, what type of trip are you looking for.

You can also do this research online at sites like ours that provide info for first time cruisers -- and in fact I highly suggest that you do your homework before you go to an agent so that you're prepared to answer the questions.

Once you've become relatively experienced (at least, if) at what you want from a cruise trip you can book online with confidence -- but the first time out, I'd go for the personal touch.



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Spokane, Wash.: When planning a big reunion cruise for a holiday such as New Years eve how far in advance can we get cruise dates and destinations, and how far in advance do you advise booking the cruise?

Carolyn Spencer Brown: I'm going to answer this question in two parts because it mirrors other, similar queries, in we've gotten here. First, to Spokane: you can get dates in advance about a year (sometimes 13, 14 months) ahead of time. Second, to anyone planning to host a big reunion or celebrate a special event, or who's simply locked into a specific timeframe for a cruise vacation: plan ahead. Book as soon as you can. The earlier you book the more choices you will have. And yes, there might -- or might not -- be some kind of great deal closer in to sailing but you're taking a huge risk if you really can't be flexible.

This advice also applies if a specific type of cabin -- a huge suite, family accommodations, interconnecting staterooms, back-of-the-ship balconies -- really matters. These are the first to go and you'll rarely find a good sale on them. So just book them.

As well, if you're working with a good travel agency, you can let them know to alert you if the price goes down (you'd be credited with the difference) but I'll also suggest that you, from time to time, check on prices yourself and don't count on a harried and overworked travel agent to remember!

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Vancouver, Canada: We are going on a 7 day Alaska Cruise in June from Vancouver to Seward. 4 adults who are age 50-ish, no kids. My questions are about shore excursions: Do you have any advice about whether to go on excursions in every single port, or is it better to leave some time for exploring on your own? And is it smarter to book excursions in advance and through the cruise line, or wait til you get into port and do it then? And do you have any opinions on "can't miss" shore excursions in Alaska? Thanks!

Carolyn Spencer Brown:
I'm going to take a look at the question posed by Vancouver and another by Birmingham cause they're on similar topics. Ports in Alaska tend to be nestled in the wilderness, and shore excursions tend to be of the outdoor variety and very active. With the scenery and wildlife the main attraction, tours by train (in Skagway), floatplane (in Ketchikan), helicopter and even dogsled (in Juneau) are offered. For an even more exhilarating view, try a zip-line tour in Icy Strait Point or Bear Creek (near Ketchikan).

Cruise lines have been offering even more offbeat excursions in recent seasons, including crab-fishing and even -- as strange as it sounds -- snorkeling. If you're looking for an active excursion, it's hard to miss with any of these options. Booking activities in advance is always a good idea. But don't feel like you're limited to shore excursion offerings; Alaska's a pretty easy place to find independent operators, too.

Just be very cautious when dealing with companies that offer flight-seeing expeditions.

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Newark, N.J.: I want to take a last minute trip to Greek Isles in September/October--specific islands to visit are Mykonos, Santorini, and Rhodes. what ship offers this itinerary, and how late can a cruise of this type be booked? Thank you.

Carolyn Spencer Brown: Sounds like a great plan -- and you'll have plenty of variety. These are what I call the "greatest hits" Greek ports -- just about every big ship sailing itineraries in the region visits at least some if not all. That goes for Carnival, Celebrity, Royal Caribbean, P&O, Costa, MSC, Princess, Holland America, etc. September and, frankly, October's even better, are still busy times for ships in the Eastern Mediterranean.

It's almost more important that you narrow down your ship preference first -- then match it (or the cruise line) up with the itinerary.

We're hearing that prices in Europe are slated to drop -- so keep a close eye on deals and such. I wouldn't wait much longer than mid-July to book (well, two months out) and you should be prepared for not getting first choices in cabins and dining times, if that's applicable. Shore excursions might also be sold out. But it sounds like the last minute savings would be worth it to you.

The major crux is going to be getting air at the last minute and you may have to pay through the nose on that¿.

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Pensacola, Fla.: We are traveling on Royal Caribbean in June, and one of our ports is Cocoa Caye, is the scuba diving excursion worth the money?

Carolyn Spencer Brown: Haven't done this shore excursion -- anybody else out there been on Royal Caribbean's Coco Cay? Since it's a private island, you are limited to Royal Caribbean's own vendors so can't book independently....

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Langhorne, Pa.: Why are the cruise lines putting grass and trees on the cruise ships? The main reason my husband loves a cruise is because his asthma and allergies are not bothered by trees, grass and flowers being on the water away from land. I am sure my husband isn't the only person bothered by the foliage.

Carolyn Spencer Brown: Well, let's just put it this way: more ships WON'T have grass than will so there's still plenty of choice for you out there! I think that cruise lines are trying to find creative and innovative ways to compete with on-land resorts (for which grass and foliage is usually part of the experience) and also to create unique niches amongst their cruise line brethren. It's fun, I think, but again, if it's not your cup of tea there's such variety in ships that you'll find something that is.

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Bradenton, Fla.: We are considering a cruise for the first time but there seems to be so much information out there. What is the best way to sort out the info and compare cruise lines and ships for amenities versus cost? In other words, how do we get the best bang for our money as someone new to cruising?

Carolyn Spencer Brown: The best approach is to simply take things one step at a time. Some of basic questions you'll need to address: Where are you interested in cruising? Would you prefer a small and intimate vessel or a mega-ship with all the bells and whistles? Who will be traveling with you? Will you need a family-friendly ship, or a more mature luxury liner? Once you've identified your priorities, it will be much easier to find what you're looking for -- and to assure that your booking costs will be money well spent.
Every ship is different and each cruise line has its own distinctive identity. For instance, Disney is (naturally) excellent for families while luxury lines such as Crystal and Seabourn cater more to affluent couples. In general, finding a cruise line that matches your needs is the most important step (remember, you'll be spending more time on the ship than you will in port).

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Brooklyn, NY: I would like to plan a cruise for sometime this year with my husband, 14-month-old daughter, my parents(60's) and my brother(30). We would like to go to the Bahamas or the Carribbean, leaving from a local port such as Brooklyn or NJ. I am interested in freestyle dining: dine anytime, anywhere. Do we have to worry about hurricane season? Would it be more economical to book one big suite for all of us or separate rooms? Which criuseline(s) would you recommend for our group?

Carolyn Spencer Brown:
If it's freestyle cruising you want, check out the line that originated the concept. Norwegian Cruise Line sails cruises to the Caribbean roundtrip from New York virtually year-round, primarily on Norwegian Spirit and Norwegian Gem. Norwegian Spirit is also scheduled to sail 6-day cruises to the Bahamas from May through August in 2008. Hurricane season, June 1 to November 30, should always be a consideration when booking a Caribbean cruise. Although the chances of your cruise being affected by a hurricane are marginal, even during the high season, the possibility of missed ports or other inconveniences due to unexpected storms must be taken into account.

As far as the question of booking a suite rather than individual cabins for your group, that will likely require some research on your part. Most cruise lines offer suites that sleep up to six, eight people, but usually require that you pay a premium to get them. It's usually best to call the cruise line directly for detailed pricing on those suites before making a determination on the economics.

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New York City, N.Y.: We'll (3 active single women) be on RCL southern carribean cruise on May 11, 2008. This will be our 1st cruise. Would like to know what to expect from a cruise vacation. We are thinking of doing a zipline and discover scuba excursions. Which island do you recommend for those activities? We also would like to include culture and food in our excursions, which island is best for these excursions? And of course, shopping for designer bags, which island is best? Additionally, I read a forum about rampant crime in St Martin/St. Maarten just recently about broad daylight attacks on tourists. Aside from using our common senses, what information can you share with us to be safe in the carribean? Thanks so much.

Carolyn Spencer Brown: What can you expect on your first cruise? You'll be spending most of your days exploring onshore, and your evenings roller blading, ice skating and rink climbing. Royal Caribbean boasts these more active onboard features, and the pace is a touch more "up tempo" than other lines. There are also plenty of dining and watering hole choices (I'm partial to Johnny Rockets' burgers).

If you want to go the active route onshore, you'll find no shortage of excursions, from snorkeling, to swimming with stingrays to 4x4-ing in Barbados. SCUBA classes will be available everywhere. For great dives St. John National Park is a top choice (you'll have to take a 20-minute ferry ride from St. Thomas, but it's worth it).

That's a pretty heavy port schedule for a Caribbean cruise -- only one sea day -- so it might be a good idea to balance the activity you're looking for with a beach day, in say, Antigua (which has a phenomenal number of stunning beaches).
St. Thomas is arguably the most touristy of your stops, and with it comes a shopping mall-ish vibe and an endless array of duty free shopping options (in reply to your purse concerns).

St. Martin, the French side of the dual St. Maarten/St. Martin conglomerate, features a plethora of trendy boutiques offering a more chic shopping experience.
As for your concern about crime, the economies of these islands rely on their well-built, well-maintained tourist infrastructures. Honestly, crime doesn't pay for them (or their image). That said, common sense is always the best guide. Remember you're a guest in these countries, so take some precautions. Stay together, check the U.S. State department Web site, don't flaunt your cash (no fanny packs), don't stray too far off the main area, and do your research. You'll be fine.

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Bethesda, Md.: What cruise ship would you recommend for a midprice first time cruise to the caribbean (not sure--east or west) at the end of June/early July? We have people from 30-55 going on this trip and our we're interested in food. Thanks in advance!

Carolyn Spencer Brown: Hey Bethesda,
Give your age range and interest in food, I would recommend cruising on one of Norwegian Cruise Line's newer ships. Both Norwegian Pearl and Norwegian Jewel offer reasonably priced 5- to 8-night summer Caribbean cruises out of Miami that would fit the bill. Onboard there's a French bistro, a steakhouse, a casual Italian kitchen ("Mama's"), a Tex-Mex spot and an Asian fusion trio that include a hibachi-style venue and a sushi bar. One thing to remember: You'll have to pay a surcharge to eat in the majority of the specialty dining options ($10 - $25 per head, alcohol extra), so factor that in when you're calculating trip costs. Eating in the main dining room is, of course, gratis (so is room service.)

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Littleton, CO: We are sailing on the RCCL Brillance of the Sea with this itinerary: 25-Nov Barcelona, Spain. 26-Nov Villefranche (Nice), France. 27-Nov Livorno (Florence/Pisa), Italy. 28-Nov Civitavecchia (Rome), Italy. 30-Nov Mykonos, Greece. 01-Dec Kusadasi (Ephesus), Turkey. 02-Dec Santorini, Greece. 03-Dec Piraeus (Athens), Greece. 05-Dec Naples, Capri, Italy. 07-Dec Barcelona, Spain. We will be a party of 6. We would be interested in a tour that would point out areas of Biblical significance . Can we safely book a tour from someone on the dock for Athens, Rome, Ephesus and Pompeii? Or are there tour companies you can recommend for us to arrange a tour to see the archeological sites that would be more economical than going through RCCL? Thank you, Roberta

Carolyn Spencer Brown: Good question. It's no secret that lines charge more, and sometimes substantially more, for their own versions of shore excursions/tours. We should say, that when you book through the line, you do get added convenience (you can put the charge on your onboard bill, you'll be escorted off the ship) and a bit more piece of mind (if a cruise-line sponsored excursion is running late, the ship might wait for you, and you'll better taken care of).

But carefully planning and booking on your own can save a not insignificant amount of money. And often, if you do the research, booking on your own will provide a far more intimate -- ship excursions might have 40 people and only one guide -- and rewarding experience.

That said, you will be able to pick up guides in port, but I definitely wouldn't recommend it. With a limited time in each city, the gamble isn't worth it. Pre-planning is key, and you must the research. The good news, you still have time before your fall cruise.

Research online, visit specialty tour operators Web sites, ask questions of them, read destination guides. Another great place to go for help is a destination message board. For example, on our destination boards, you can ask folks about past experiences with tour operators.

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Delton, Mich.: I'm planning a cruise with a friend and my 16 year old daughter first week of April 2009! What cruise line would be better for a teenager? What warm destination would be interesting for her?

Carolyn Spencer Brown: For me, Royal Caribbean or Carnival are the easy choices. Royal Caribbean's newer vessels -- Freedom of the Seas, Liberty of the Seas -- have the most active onboard options by far (surf simulator, ice rink, rock wall, mini-golf). The ships also feature a teen nightclub, a coffee-house style hang out (with a bank of Internet-connected computers), and DJ-ing classes (through an agreement through Scratch DJ academy). Carnival boasts regular disco evenings, special teens-only shore excursions, and PlayStation 2 and Microsoft Xbox consoles.

Both lines put a special emphasis on teenage travelers. Each have gone so far as to split up their teenage kid's programming (from lumping 13 - 17's together into 12 - 14's and 15 - 17's), so your 16-year-old won't be stuck with a whiny little 13-year-old.

If you're looking for a warm weather getaway, the bigger, newer ships from these lines are sailing primarily in the Eastern and Western Caribbean, so that's your basic option
One note to remember, however: If you're going to be cruising during the school year -- unless it's a common break period -- you'll find far fewer teens onboard than you would in the summer.

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Toronto, Canada: Hi Carolyn. I am a 1st time cruiser, going to Mediterrenean this October. Ports of call include France, Italy etc. Just wondering if I should book the excursion from the cruiseline (more expensive) or it wouldn't harm to book excursion from other vendors.

Carolyn Spencer Brown: It really depends on the excursion, Toronto.... If it's an attraction that's logistically complicated for whatever reason, you may be better off on a ship's tour. If it's something simple -- go it on your own. Just depends....

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Fairbury, Nebr.: We have a Princess cruise booked for Aug. 25 departure with air included from Omaha to Vancouver. Are the cruise lines reliable in booking flights that guarantee you arrive in time for the departure? I'm very concerned with how screwed up the airlines are these days that we may miss our cruise. Any advice?

Carolyn Spencer Brown: The cruise lines charge you a premium to book through them and what you're paying for is peace of mind if things do go wrong. Which frankly is always a possibility.

There's a misnomer that if you book cruise line air, the ship will wait for you if you're late. Unless you're on a 300 person charter filled with passengers, it probably won't. It will pay your expenses to get you to the next port of call.

I frankly prefer to book my own air, make sure I get in a day early (at least -- for trips to Asia, I'd give yourself a couple of days), and buy travel insurance. After that you just have to go with the flow.

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Norrristown, Pa.: Which cruise lines are best equipped to handle handicapped passengers?

Carolyn Spencer Brown: First off, most vessels built in about the last five years will have staterooms that have been purpose-built to accommodate cruisers with disabilities -- and most lines adhere closely to ADA requirements, with some even going several steps beyond.

Here are two solid choices.

Holland America's Rotterdam is a good choice for disabled cruisers traveling with non-challenged passengers: four of the ship's 23 wheelchair accessible staterooms have connecting doors to adjoining non-handicapped staterooms. Amsterdam offers 18 outside and five inside cabins with wheelchair access. The line is also credited with installing the first wheelchair-accessible tender transfer system on board their ships.

Princess' Grand-class ships offer the most accessible cabins in various categories ranging in size from 233 to 312 square feet. Princess Cruises claims the highest number of wheelchair accessible staterooms in the industry, and offers special wheelchair-transportation gangway mechanisms on most of their ships and accessibility for major destinations in Alaska through lift equipped coaches, vans and ADA approved hotel rooms.

Royal Caribbean has installed pool lifts on most of its ships, so passengers with disabilities can enjoy the swimming pools. We're also told that Royal Caribbean even has wheelchair-accessible tenders -- but when we asked a spokesman to identify which ships were so equipped he couldn't come up with an answer.

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Marietta, Ga.: My husband and I are taking our 16 year old daughter, and her 16 year old girlfriend on a cruise. It starts June 1 on Royal Caribbean Adventure of the Seas, with travel in the Southern Caribbean. My question is: what is the best way to stay in touch with them? A friend of ours had walkie talkies, and they were a problem because of the channels already being in use. Someone suggested using our cell phones. When I wondered whether we would have to pay long distance charges every time, they said no, if we were on the same plan. But that got me wondering: would cell phones even get a signal at sea? We are on Sprint. Thank you! Joan

Carolyn Spencer Brown: Hi Joan. I'll answer your last question first -- you can get cell phone service from some providers on certain ships. Sprint does have a partnership with Royal Caribbean but you will have to pay a preset roaming rate (check with Sprint for specifics on your plan).

That said, I think walkie talkies would be a more affordable option, and I do see families with them often while traveling. A ship's steel construction does present a challenge in terms of reception, but good equipment with a
long range should work reasonably well. Pick something with different frequency options in case other cruisers have the same idea.

For advice on specific brands that cruisers have had luck with, you may consider posting your question on message boards, such as the ones at Cruise Critic. And if you are worried about taking up too much space in your luggage, I saw wrist watch walkie talkies on Amazon recently -- though I do not know how well they would work on a cruise ship!

Over and out.

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Gallatin, Tenn.: Is it better to go with a cruise line or with a travel agency?

Carolyn Spencer Brown: It really doesn't matter all that much -- though to be honest cruise lines really would rather you go through an agency. As well, they'll offer soft perks along with fares though prices are pretty much the same everywhere....

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San Antonio, Tex.: Hi, Carolyn! Host Mach from Cruise Critic here! Everyone in Texas is wondering which line will be the first to bring a ship to the new Bayport cruise terminal. There's lots of conjecture on the boards about this. I'm betting on NCL. What are your thoughts? Also, what to you think of new RCCL Genesis class ships? Too big or the wave of the future? Thanks a bunch!! Host Mach

Carolyn Spencer Brown: Hi, Host Mach! Thanks for stopping by. I'm with you on Houston and NCL....

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Boston, Mass.: I am thinking about booking a cruise in March 2009 and would like to know if you think it would be better to book now, or wait for a sale or last minute deal?

Carolyn Spencer Brown: March can be tricky with spring vacations and such. Without knowing which line and where -- it's hard to advise, alas.

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Ocean View, Del.: When is the best time to book a cruise to Alaska? Is it better to book a 7 day cruise and make your own land reservations or book the whole thing through the cruise lines? Thank you, DD

Carolyn Spencer Brown: The best time depends on what you think is best. Want the best chance for good weather? Go in July, August. Want the best possible price? Try the shoulder season months of May and September. Want to avoid crowds and hordes of kids? Ditto the shoulder season advice.

I think Alaska's one of the easiest cruise regions in the world to book your own tours but I'd definitely suggest doing so in advance and really doing your homework. If the tour is challenging, logistically, it's often a good idea to book the tour through the cruise line (as the ship will wait if your group is late returning). Anything related to flightseeing -- definitely through the cruise line and even that's no guarantee.

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Richmond, Va.: We have never been on a cruise and looking on the internet...the info is so vast...we don't know what is the best deal and the best ship. We want to go before all of our kids graduate and leave home. We have one in college and 2 in high school. We want to go somewhere neat and unforgettable and not so commercial. Can you help?

Carolyn Spencer Brown: Hi, Richmond. You have good questions, but you need to hone in on what you're looking for. Where do you want to go? What's your budget? Timeframe?

At that point, start researching on sites like ours and pick up tips, hints, deals, reviews of ships, reviews of ports, etc.

And then go to a travel agent and say "I think we've honed in on this -- how can you help us"?

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Rancho Cucamonga, Calif.: My wife and I are both in our early thirties and are taking a Eastern Carribean cruise on Carnival. What advice can you give us on saving $ for excursions.

Carolyn Spencer Brown: I'd recommend you do your own thing. It's so easy in the Eastern Caribbean to hop into a safari cab, or on a ferry, to go to beaches and such. You can bring your own snorkeling gear (buy it at Kmart). The ship provides beach towels for use while on the cruise.

And if there's an excursion that really intrigues that the ship is offering, do some google searching to find out if there's another operator in the same place offering similar experiences -- for less. Good luck!

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Captiol Hill, D.C.: Hi Carolyn! Thanks for doing this chat! My fiance and I would love to see SE Asia via a cruise for our honeymoon later this year. Do you have any recommendations for a couple in their 30s? Good food is a plus! We sailed on Oceania before and loved it. PS-Does anyone ever give discounts for honeymooners?

Carolyn Spencer Brown: No, nobody gives honeymooner discounts, LOL, Capitol Hill, but it's a good idea! Southeast Asia is just magnificent, it's a great cruise. You might check out something romantic like Star Clippers -- it operates a sailing ship that does Asia in the winter.

I'd definitely go with Oceania there...in a heartbeat.

If it's your honeymoon and money isn't necessarily everything, I'd opt for something offbeat and smaller than the big ship experience.

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Orlando, Fla.: In your opinion, what are the chances of being upgraded to a better cabin when you book a 'guaranteed' rate? I always see a "this cruise is sold out" at the guest services counter, so do they actually have extra cabins?

Carolyn Spencer Brown: This is such a challenging question -- we've done a story on the topic and lines don't like to be revealing about this. What happens when you book a guarantee is that once the three month "full payment required" period passes, the lines have an idea of who put down deposits -- but then didn't actually come through for the trip. So then there's always some extra availability.

Getting upgrades should be regarded as a treat but I frankly wouldn't suggest you book a guarantee if you really, really want to have it. If that's the case, just buy the category of cabin you want.

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Harrisburg, Pa.: Mississippi riverboat cruises seem different than the rest of the cruise industry in terms of prices, options, etc. What advice do you have for getting the best deal on a cruise on the Mississippi?

Carolyn Spencer Brown: A river cruise is absolutely a different animal than a mainstream sailing. For starters, the vessels are smaller and generally much more casual, and the itineraries focus on smaller towns and villages. Because it is aspecial, niche experience, it isn't as easy to find a deal as it is for
mega-ships that sail in well trafficked cruise regions.
Our best advice is to join the mailing lists for the major river lines that operate on the Mississippi -- that way, any promotions that may arise will be delivered directly to you. Here are two to consider:

Majestic America Line operates sternwheelers on several different routes: north, south, Cajun, etc. At the moment, MAL's fleet includes American Queen and the Delta Queen. Delta Queen's safety exemption is set to expire in November, after which there will still be two boats on the Mississippi: Mississippi Queen and American Queen.

The other option is New Orleans-based RiverBarge. Its barge-like vessel, River Explorer, is very long (600 ft.) and made of two two-deck sections; it is pushed along the river just like a barge would be. It specializes in
Cajun itineraries but does go north in the dead of summer.

We appreciate that teachers and retired teachers cruise on River Explorer at half price when traveling with a full fare passenger.

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Manasses, Va.: Hello, I would like to take a cruise with my husband and our 8 year old son. What cruise line do you recommend for a family, other then Disney (it is way toooo expensive)? Our son is very mature for his age. Thanks for the help. Mrs Roth

Carolyn Spencer Brown: Hi, I'd try Royal Caribbean -- particularly its newer ships -- which really appeal to families with active kids. They have good kids programs and fantastic facilities -- ice skating rink, rock climbing wall, putt putt golf, basketball, and even surf parks on some ships! And because the ships attract families, in some cases from all over the world, your son will have a chance to meet an amazing variety of kids....

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Syracuse, N.Y.: Hello. Do cruise ships offer "open houses," to allow prospective sailers to view the cabins? My wife, our 8-yr-old daughter, and I are interested in a sea cruise. One item of concern: Just how small are the showers, the bathrooms, and the cabins? If we're going to be on the ship for a week, the novelty of cramped quarters would wear off quickly. This and any other info you could offer for us would be welcome. Thank you.

Carolyn Spencer Brown: Very rarely, Syracuse, and I've only ever seen it done in the U.K., where travel agencies offer trips to ships to their good customers. Barring a personal visit, most cruise line Web sites offer so much visual detail that you can really imagine yourself on board....

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Yellowknife, NT, Canada: My partner and I are planning a 6 months sabbatical and intend to tour the Mediterranean nations from January to June 2013. We thought it might be wonderful to finish off our travels with a transatlantic cruise from Europe to North America. I am having trouble finding westbound transatlantic cruises that take place in June. Do you know of a cruiseline that may have a cruise, a repostitioning cruise would be great, in the month of June? Aingeal

Carolyn Spencer Brown: Hi, Yellowknife. Your problem is just that you're too early -- Queen Mary 2, Cunard's ocean liner, does a regular season of crossings but won't be releasing itineraries until about a year before. So check then.

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Scottsdale, Ariz.: Dear Coach, we are interested in taking our 20 lb terrier with us on a transatlantic cruise. What are our options/restrictions?

Carolyn Spencer Brown:
You really only have one option, and that's Cunard Line. There are kennel services aboard the line's Queen Elizabeth 2 (QE2), which is retiring this November, and Queen Mary 2 (QM2).

On Queen Mary 2, your terrier will have to spend his/her/its time in one of the 12 kennels (can't join you in bed in your cabin). You can visit several times per day, and there's a designated area for "walking." There's also a dedicated Kennel Master who takes care of responsibilities such as feeding, walking and cleaning.

Every country has different pet quarantine laws, so depending on which direction you're heading -- Southampton to New York or the opposite -- your buddy will have to remain under observation when you debark.

Contact Cunard directly for kennel rates.

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Carolyn Spencer Brown: Many thanks for the fantastic questions -- wow, I'm bushed -- and sorry if we didn't get to all of yours. Check out our site, though, we have tons of info, ranging from editorial stories on various topics such as ship reviews, tips and first time hints, and destination-oriented profiles, and also a fantastic community of cruise travelers who are happy to debate issues and answer questions.

I felt badly that I didn't to one poster's question on cruising with infants -- but we do have a story on the topic on our site (go to the site and search "infants").

Thanks to our great editorial team at Cruisecritic.com for helping out with answers -- and hope to see you all at sea.

Carolyn

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