Looking For A Cruise? Set Sail On The Web

It may not have all the answers, but it's a good place to start

When Karen Thompson got serious about planning a cruise for her family, finding time to check out the options wasn't easy. As the mother of two teenage girls and a college-age son, she spends hours shuttling to soccer games when she isn't teaching at a local private school or caring for her sprawling Pasadena (Calif.) home. So Thompson started scanning the Internet, via Yahoo!, hoping to save time.

Visiting various Web travel sites, she turned up oceans of info on her desired destination--the Caribbean--but wound up opting for a shorter three-day trip from Los Angeles to Ensenada, North Baja California. Thompson says the Web worked wonders for her research, but when it came to making reservations, she phoned her trusty travel agent. "I wasn't going to trust some Internet site that may not be run by a travel agent who knew what he was doing," she says. "I'd rather talk directly to the person who's booking a trip for me."

That's the quandary facing would-be cruisers today. With more than 25 ship lines offering more than 6,800 domestic and international cruises, the Internet offers an easy way to negotiate the maze of choices. But when it comes time to plunk down as much as $20,000 per person and provide their credit-card numbers over the Web, many folks still prefer the comforting voice of a real, live agent to guide them through the unfamiliar territory of booking. Since travel agents don't necessarily reveal all the potential pitfalls, though, landlubbers pining for some salt air probably should start with the Internet, then decide later whether to book online or go through a conventional agent.

A handful of cruise lines do offer electronic booking, and you can reserve and pay online for a wide range of trips through some of the larger, general travel sites, including mytravelco.com and travelocity.com (table). Perhaps the most user-friendly is Disney's new travel site (disneytravel.com), though it offers only its own cruises.

TASTE TESTS. The Internet's forte is its wide range of information and informed opinion. Travelocity, for example, lets you search by region of the world, cruise line, or type of voyage--for example, trips for singles, families, or gays and lesbians. Expedia lists more than 250 free cruise reviews by Douglas Ward, president of the British cruise-rating company Maritime Evaluations Group.

For the real lowdown, Caribbean Cruise Center (cruise-connection.com) provides a lengthy list of ship reviews by cruisers themselves on such topics as food quality. For answers to specific questions, cruisecritic.com posts message boards for most cruise lines. If you're especially particular, you can check the Web site of the Centers for Disease Control (www.cdc.gov), which conducts unannounced sanitation checks on cruise ships twice a year.

Many sites offer photos of each ship's restaurants, pools, and guest rooms. The best shots can be found at mytravelco.com, which provides a panoramic virtual tour of 66 different ships on 19 cruise lines: With a few clicks of the mouse, you can rotate the view a full 360 degrees.

After homing in on an appealing cruise, the next step is pricing the trip. If you don't live near a port of call, you'll likely have to pay for not only the cruise itself but also plane tickets, ground transportation, and maybe even a short hotel stay. Not every travel site provides all this information, but some will tell you about all-inclusive packages and others will link you to sites detailing airfare and hotel tariffs. Expedia offers perhaps the broadest range of pricing data, with up to 1,000 different cruises at any given time, along with information on flights, hotels, and car rentals.

Finding the right price for a cruise can sometimes take a bit of dog-paddling. That could mean submitting information to an online agent such as Abracadabra (cruisemagic.com). Abracadabra asks for the number of passengers in your party and the desired point of departure. Within 24 hours, the site says, an agent calls back, outlining the options and the costs. If the price seems right, you can arrange a mutually satisfactory method of payment--or pay by credit card over the Web.

MIXED BAG. Just as in the airline industry, there's no rule of thumb regarding how to get the best price on a cruise. Sometimes conventional travel agents will have it, sometimes the Web. So shop around. Jim Solomons, a public information officer at the Orange County (Fla.) sheriff's office, even found that Disney can sometimes beat Disney. After two months of scouring the company's site, Solomons decided to call its toll-free line, where a representative suggested a package that would save him 45%. The rub: The ship was scheduled to depart in two days.

Regular travel agents sometimes charge more but offer services and advice that aren't always available online. On some sites, it's difficult to locate fees that may apply if a booking is canceled, and sometimes cancellation fees are hard to find or are in tiny print. That shifts one of the travel agent's responsibilities to the Net surfer. And if the traveler has a special medical or dietary need, or is handicapped, the site may not indicate whether the ship is up to the job. Most agents could answer that question.

For now, making cruise reservations on the Internet remains something of a mixed bag. If you want a tidal wave of information before making a decision, there's no better place to start. And even if you're pretty clear on where you want to sail, the Web can be a great place to pinpoint the cruise that best suits you. But if you're like Karen Thompson, who wants to minimize her risk and get some personal attention, travel agents may still be a lifesaver.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.