Cruisegoers learn to love the Web

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Picking a cruise itinerary used to be a hassle. You had to wade through a dozen brochures, and you didn't get a good sense of the differences between itineraries. But that's starting to change. An Australian cruise company called Clean Cruising has come up with an innovation sure to sweep the U.S. cruise industry soon: virtual cruise itineraries.

Let's say you'd like to learn more about a Princess cruise off the coast of Alaska. Go to the website of the online travel agency (and environmental champion) Then click on the Alaskan itinerary you'd like to learn more about. On-screen, you'll find a Google map that's marked with each port of call. Click the "Play 3D Movie" button, and you'll be able to follow a virtual cruise ship as it traces the ship's charted course along the surface of the earth. The website uses Google's latest technology, but you don't have to download any software to enjoy it. Even better, this website uses a special overlay of photos and video. At each port of call, you can a see a panoramic view of what the stop looks like.

Here's the revolutionary, industry-changing part that's great news for budget travelers...

Within a couple of years, I bet that all of the cruise lines have Web services such as this one--yet even fancier versions. You'll be able to see panoramic views of each port of call. By clicking your mouse, you'll be able to see images and videos of different beaches, restaurants, and on-shore excursions. You'll be able to overlay satellite images of typical storm patterns in any region, getting a prediction of what the weather will be like based on historical patterns for a particular time of year. You'll also be able to see how busy any given destination is by seeing all the other cruise lines that make that same stop as the ship you'd like to sail.

In short, the appeal of using online services to pick your cruise will only grow. And eventually, the Internet will steal away from travel agents their near-monopoly on the sale of cruise tickets. And if the examples of the airline and hotel industry are any sign, cruise prices should drop under the pressure of competition and price transparency.

Tool around with this visual cruising service (which includes itineraries offered by major U.S. cruise lines in popular North American destinations) by clicking here. (Say wha? For an explanation of mashup Google maps, click here. For a Google Earth explainer, click here.)

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