by Lisa Oppenheimer
People are falling in love with cruises all over again. Close to 11 million people booked a cruise in 2004 (a record, says the Cruise Lines International Association), and the industry looks to be cruising toward another all-time high in 2005. Nearly 70 ships have launched since 2000, and more are scheduled for the coming year, including Royal Caribbean's hotly anticipated Freedom series.
People who like a lot of activity love cruises, but those looking for peace and quiet might be less enamored. Even sprawling ships have finite space, and things can feel cramped. Frequent activity reminders, via loudspeaker---you'll hear them everywhere, including your cabin, from roughly 8:30 a.m. on---can interrupt your reverie, not to mention your sleep. And making sure you're on time for all the shore launches and on-board events can impede relaxation.
Still, many doubting Ahabs have come away from their first cruise so pleased that they repeat the experience many times. To ensure success, you'll want to consider a couple of things before shipping off:
Cabins: Staterooms, once closet-size, have gotten bigger but remain smaller than your average land resort room. Opting for an outside cabin (as opposed to windowless and inside) gives the illusion of more space, as does paying for a balcony, an increasingly common perk (on Disney, for example, nearly half the rooms have balconies). If you're bringing the kids, look into family rooms (such as on Royal Caribbean's upcoming Freedom of the Seas) with extra room for all.
Dining: Traditional dining plans mean same time, same restaurant every day. If that sounds too restrictive, ask about ships with free-form dining (an increasingly popular plan) that allows you to choose your restaurant and reservation time.
Kids Clubs: Elaborate kids clubs entertain young 'uns so well you may never see them. Ask about ages and requirements up front: Day of embarkation is not the time to learn that your child does not qualify for a kids' club for potty-trained children age 4 and up.
Ports: Ships today leave from roughly 30 ports, including Boston and Galveston (instead of just South Florida), so you can skip the fly/sail hassle. If you are flying, book your air passage through the cruise line, or risk losing your shirt if flight delays cause you to miss your ship.
Shore Excursions: Thrill seekers can opt for everything from parasailing to zip lining to safaris. But budget ahead as off-boat activities will cost you.
Enlist an Expert: CLIA-certified cruise specialists are required to cruise on multiple ships, and to tour many more. As a result, they can spontaneously cite ship facts, such as which have the smallest cabins and the best kids' clubs. CLIA's site (cruising.org) has a search engine for finding someone in your area.
Finally, no matter your level of enthusiasm, start small. Seven days (or 38, as on the Queen Mary) can be an eternity if you're one of those viewing the scenery with your head hanging over the rail. First timers should consider a three - or four-day jaunt to start. If you love it, you can always go back. Bon Voyage.