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Talk Today at USAToday.com

Travel: Linda Coffman, Cruise Diva

Tuesday, Aug. 20, 2002 -- 1 p.m. ET

A life-long love for ships and voyages at sea seduced Linda Coffman into a writing career. Linda put her extensive cruising experience to use by creating CruiseDiva.com and the bi-monthly "Sea Views" e-mail newsletter to provide unbiased and practical information to the thousands of Internet users who research their travel choices online. Her cruise vacation columns and articles also appear in a variety of magazines and Internet travel web sites. You will find Linda's comprehensive cruise travel advice at http://www.cruisediva.com/


Houston, Tx: Is the Temptress still cruising Costa Rica, have you taken one of its cruises, and if so, what review would you give the line and its itinerary? (I have never found a review for this line nor the itinerary.)

Linda Coffman: In May 2002, Cruise West announced that the former M/V Temptress Explorer was renamed Pacific Explorer. The 100-passenger ship was built in the U.S. in 1995, registered in Honduras, remodeled in 1998, and sails between November and August along the Pacific coasts of Costa Rica and Panama. According to Richard G. West, Cruise West chairman & CEO, "We are at the beginning of a long-term presence in this very attractive destination, in partnership with the Costa Rican owners of the Pacific Explorer. And since Costa Rica and Panama represent a new Cruise West destination, we decided to distinguish the occasion with a new ship's name as well." He said that Cruise West is now finalizing 2003 departures of three different itineraries, for a combined total of 23 departures January through April, July through August, and November through December. You can view the Central American cruise brochure online at http://www.cruisewest.com.

While I haven't personally sailed on the Pacific Explorer, I know people who have. They enjoyed the casual, laid back atmosphere as well as the experience of "eco-cruising" and presence of naturalists on board. The Pacific Explorer is fully air conditioned, has four passenger decks, private facilities and large picture windows in all cabins, a lecture room and Sun Deck bar. The cuisine is international with an emphasis on Central American specialties. Itineraries feature national parks, wildlife refuges, jungle river trips, offshore islands, coral sand beaches and the Panama Canal.

Pittsburgh, Pa: In your opinion, what's the best cruise line sailing today?

Linda Coffman: It's difficult to choose which cruise line is the "best" because one has to weigh individual priorities and expectations against what the various companies offer. What is best for me might not be the ideal choice for you. To get a flavor of what to the cruise lines are like, you might want to read through some of the Cruise Line Profiles and the Cruise Lifestyles explanation on CruiseDiva.com at http://cruisediva.com/cruiseline_profiles.htm

Reading past passenger reviews is another way to determine whether a cruise line is best for you. There are over 100 reviews on my web site and fantastic databases of reviews can be found on Cruise Addicts at http://www.cruise-addicts.com/



Scottsdale, AZ: Linda - what is your opinion on the battle between Royal Caribbean International and Carnival over Princess Cruises? Which of the two would you prefer to see win, and why?

Linda Coffman: Goodness... which suitor will win the hand of the Princess? It depends on the decisions of federal regulators and odds presently seem to favor Carnival Corp. Carnival has a very good track record of acquiring other cruise lines and allowing them to retain their identity, but if they win this one they will dwarf the rest of the passenger shipping industry. If Royal Caribbean prevails, they will be slightly but not grossly larger than Carnival.

Personally, I would prefer that Princess Cruises remain independent. While the "economies of scale" practiced by big cruise lines keep fares low, I like to see more individuality and competition between the cruise lines.

Frederick, MD: Is there really as much food on ships as people say? If there is, how much weight do most people gain?

Linda Coffman: Yes! There is an old Cruise Director's joke that we embark as passengers and depart as cargo. Food IS abundant and tempting on cruises--it's often available 24 hours a day in numerous restaurants, buffets, and room service. However, you don't have to gain weight on a cruise. There are light choices on most menus and some ships even have special heart-healthy and spa cuisine. Speaking of spas, modern cruise ships offer a variety of exercise and fitness programs to help passengers stay ship-shape. And there are stairs everywhere. Forget the elevator and use the stairs.

Frederick, MD: What is your favorite ship? Why?

Linda Coffman: My favorite ship would be a composite of all the features I've enjoyed from the various ships I've sailed on. While my "first" ship was the largest afloat at the time--the SS Norway--and I will always have a special place in my heart for her, I prefer smaller ships. You just can't find the intimate atmosphere and high level of service on a large vessel that is available on a small one.

The staterooms and service on Silversea ships are exceptional and the social interaction and romance of Windstar vessels can't be beat. Cruises on Silver Whisper and Wind Surf are among my all-time favorite experiences.

Frederick, MD: Have you ever had a cruise you didn't enjoy? What was bad about it?

Linda Coffman: We once cruised with a group of friends on a ship that felt terribly crowded. Most of the triple and quad cabins had three and four passengers in them and the ship itself had few quiet corners to relax. We had a lot of fun with our group, but it was a cruise experience that I wouldn't want to repeat.

We learned a lesson from that cruise and now seldom sail during peak summer months.

Stone Mountain, Ga: Is it safe to let the cruise lines take your luggage from the airport to the ship?

Linda Coffman: With tightened security these days, the usual procedure for cruise line transfers is for passengers to identify and retrieve their own luggage at the airport. It is then loaded on the bus that takes you from the airport to the pier. It's perfectly safe.

Stone Mountain, Ga: Is there really a midnight buffet every night?

Linda Coffman: No, the days of elaborate nightly midnight buffets are largely a thing of the past. Those buffets resulted in a lot of waste and some cruise lines have replaced them with 24-hour casual dining venues and strolling waiters who make their way through public rooms offering treats from trays of canapes.

However, don't despair. You will usually find a "gala buffet" (often on a formal evening) and possibly a late night deck party buffet. One of the most popular buffets is a "Choco-holic Extravaganza" that features everything chocolate!

Miami, FL : I'm a busy executive that would love to cruise, but the sailing schedules offered by many luxury cruise lines don't seem to fit my hectic and unpredictable work schedule. Are there any cruise lines that offer greater flexibility in their sailing schedules?

Linda Coffman: I can understand why you would be frustrated. You can leave any ship after a few days, but you have to pay for the entire cruise. Silversea Cruises' "Personalized Voyages" sounds like an option for you. A Personalized Voyage allows passengers to create their own cruise vacation itinerary by enabling them to embark and debark from a wide selection of enticing Caribbean, South American, and European ports. Your cruise ship is essentially a luxurious floating hotel that takes you where you want to go and you pay for only those days you actually spend on board. For more information, see their web site at http://www.silversea.com/

Miami, FL: What is Norwegian Cruise Line's Freestyle Cruising program? what does that mean?

Linda Coffman: I absolutely love Norwegian Cruise Line's "Freestyle Cruising" because of the choices it affords me. Freestyle means setting your own schedule and customizing your cruise to fit your lifestyle. Traditionalists may still ask for the same waiter and dining room table each evening. However, Freestyle allows passengers the option to choose open seating in the main dining rooms or to dine in any of the a la carte and specialty restaurants at their preferred time and with whom they please.

In addition, resort casual attire is always appropriate. The option of one formal evening is available on all cruises of seven nights and longer. Freestyle features are outlined on the Norwegian Cruise Line web site at http://www.ncl.com/freestyle/index.htm

I view Freestyle Cruising as a small ship feature with big ship choices. My husband and I enjoy dining with new friends we meet on board and fixed "seatings" just don't allow us the opportunity to do that.

Lincolnton, NC: How formal is formal night?

Linda Coffman: It can be as formal as you are comfortable with. From past experience, I've noticed that passengers generally dress up more on longer and more expensive cruises but I've seen tuxes and beautiful sparkly dresses on 4-night cruises as well.

Many men still like to wear a tuxedo on special occasions but a dark suit is fine. We women seem to adore the festive atmosphere of formal evening the most, though. Cocktail dresses (long and short) are most prevalent but if you have a gown that makes you feel beautiful--wear it!

My favorite formal dress is a plain, ankle length, sleeveless black sheath. I've accumulated a variety of jackets and accessories over the years to dress it up or down and have no qualms at all about wearing it for two, or even three, evenings on a cruise.

Men have the advantage of not having to pack a tuxedo--they are available for rent on many cruise ships and a rental form will be included in your cruise documents. And here's a hint, ladies. If you've been a Mother-of-the-Bride, your dress for the wedding is probably ideal for a formal evening on a cruise.

Another hint... to avoid wrinkles, leave your formal outfits on their hangers and cover them with plastic dry cleaning bags. Then just fold them over in the suitcase and they should come out uncreased.

Hobe Sound, Fl.: Hi, Which cruise lines offer the best opportunity to do ballroom dancing?How does one find that info out since many agents are not ballroom dancers? Is it true that the Star Line introduced the Freestyle Dinning concept on most NCL ships?Is it considered a success?My jury is still out!! Do you feel the S/S Norway will soon become a day trip type gambling ship? I've been on the NCL Sea, Star, and S/S Norway( traditional dining) since January. Thanks, Dancin' Joe

Linda Coffman: You'll find bands that play a wide variety of music on all ships and some cruise lines offer "theme" cruises especially for people who enjoy ballroom dancing, big band music, oldies rock 'n roll, etc. Individual cruise line sites often highlight this information--you can find a list of links to the cruise lines at http://cruisediva.com/cruise_lines.htm

Yes, Star Cruises' fleet has had a form of "freestyle cruising" for years and they did introduce it on NCL. It depends on who you talk to as to whether it's a success. Passengers either love it or hate it--a lot depends on their expectations. Personally, I enjoy it.

No one really knows the SS Norway's ultimate fate. However, at Seatrade earlier this year, NCL CEO Colin Veitch said that they have no plans to scrap her as she has a loyal following and sails full.

St. Paul, MN: Currently, a birth certificate and a picture driver's license is all I need to get into Canada or Mexico/Carrib islands from the USA... is there a change coming - that we'll need a passport instead. Thank you, Julie Weyer, St. Paul, MN

Linda Coffman: At the present time, Americans need only show proof of citizenship for cruises to the Caribbean, Mexico, Canada, and Bermuda. You need a certified copy of your birth certificate and a government-issued picture ID, such as a drivers license. For any other foreign travel, you do need a passport. It’s the ultimate form of identification and I foresee a day when we will all need one. Believe me, a passport really smooths the way through airport and cruise port security.

Houston, TX: We have 4 children, ages 2-13, and wondered if cruises offered adjoining rooms for large families like ours. Preferred arrangement would be a nice suite for us with an adjoining bedroom, even if it was on the interior.

Linda Coffman: Yes, they do. When you look at a deck plan in the brochure, you'll see a symbol that indicates adjoining cabins. Those are a good choice for families because each cabin has its own bathroom. Royal Caribbean has "family suites" complete with two bedrooms and bathrooms that are very roomy. Being top-drawer accommodations, you won't find suites on the inside of the ship--they will all have an ocean view.

Stuart , FL: Do you think the Celebrity Cruise Line ships have the best cuisine of all the large ships?

Linda Coffman: Food is a very personal aspect of any cruise. What I like might not satisfy someone with a more discerning palate. I've always enjoying dining on Celebrity ships, though.

Santa Monica, CA: I'm 26 and looking for a cruise that would have people of my age on it. I've heard that most cruises are usually for people who are (How do I say this nicely?) old. Can you recommend any?

Linda Coffman: You'll find fellow passengers in all age groups on cruises these days. Cruises are no longer for the "newly wed and nearly dead"--a stereotype that is difficult to overcome! To find other twenty-something passengers, select a short cruise (4 to 7 days) in the Caribbean on one of the contemporary cruise lines--Carnival, Norwegian, Royal Caribbean. Longer, more expensive cruises to exotic destinations usually attract an older crowd.

Eclectic, AL: We like to drink Champagne while on a cruise but, if applicable, every bottle carries the 15% gratuity. Can you suggest with whom to negotiate a reduced price for a case or half case of champagne, wine or liquor early in the cruise.

Linda Coffman: If you buy your champagne on board, you will be assessed the gratuity on most cruise lines. Holland America and Windstar, plus some of the luxury lines, are exceptions. On a Silversea cruise, Moet and Chandon champagne flows freely.

One way to solve your dilemma is to pre-order your champagne from a "Bon Voyage" type gift service. They will deliver it right to your stateroom. Well Wishers offers such a service online at http://www.wellwishers.com/

If you bring your champagne to the dining room, be prepared to pay a "corkage" fee for the wine steward to serve it to you.

Novato, CA: I will be cruising to Alaska in early September, but I am having a difficult time deciding on the clothing I should bring. Help!!

Linda Coffman: You don't need HEAVY clothing. Light layers work best--you can add and subtract layers as the weather changes. And it varies a great deal in Alaska. Gloves and something to cover your ears are essentials for the day your cruise ship visits a glacier.

Burgettstown, PA: Are there any cruises that stay on an island for a few days instead of 6 hours here and the next day 8 hours someplace else? That is what the 2 cruises that we went on were like and we didn't like it.

Linda Coffman: Yes, but you'll have to move up to the more upscale lines. Silversea and Radisson have some ports of call on their itineraries where they overnight and spend at least two days.

Kailua, HI: I am going on a Norwegian Cruise Line trip of Hawaii. I walk with a cane and it is most difficult to walk long distances. Should i take a wheel chair?

Linda Coffman: If you feel you need it, then by all means take a wheelchair. They are only available on the ship for emergencies. If you don't have your own, you can arrange to rent one at your embarkation port. Two companies that are often used by passengers of Holland America Line for wheelchair rentals are:

CareVacations-STARS
Phone: 877-478-7827
Fax: 780-986-8332
E-mail: stars@carevacations.com

Scoot Around
Phone: 888-441-7575
Web site: www.scootaround.com

LA, CA: When will cruise ships be residential? What can we expect when that happens?

Linda Coffman: There already is a residential cruise ship--The World of ResidenSea. If you're interested in buying an apartment, be prepared to pay millions!

Gilbert, AZ: I always read articles talking about some family of four that found a 7-day Caribbean cruise for under $1000. Do you know any websites where these bargains can be found?

Linda Coffman: There are bargains to be found, both online and with your local travel agent. Check some of the cruise community sites such as Cruise Addicts http://www.cruise-addicts.com and Cruise Critic http://www.cruisecritic.com and click on the advertising banners for a start. You can join in a discussion on their message boards and get members' opinions on the agencies you find.

Williamsburg, VA: How do you choose the location of your room? Any preference? Why?

Linda Coffman: I prefer mid-ship, simply because you feel less motion in that area. The lower your deck, the less motion you feel. Also, I like to be fairly close to stairs or an elevator in order to get to other areas of the ship more quickly.

Richardson, TX: Could a cruise ship be a susceptible to terrorist?

Linda Coffman: Yes, a ship could be a terrorist target. Thankfully, security is tight these days and it seems an unlikely threat.

Johnson City, TN: What do you think about the Nude Cruise offered by Bare Necessities on Carnival Cruise line next February out of L.A.?

Linda Coffman: Those cruises are very popular with naturalists who want to take a vacation with others who share their lifestyle. I think the baggage handlers probably appreciate having less luggage to deal with :)

Roselle, NJ: I've notice that many cruise lines are including gratituties in the fair price. Is this best for the workers who get a small salary and not their separate tips for the services provided? Does the cruise line itself get the "lion's share" of the gratuity or the employees?

Linda Coffman: I've posed that question to employees on several cruise lines that now automatically charge the gratuities to passengers' accounts. They have told me that the crew members get the entire amount allocated for tips.

Charlotte, NC: Is it safe to book a cruise with an online travel agent? What do you look for in a good agent?

Linda Coffman: There are many reputable online travel agents, ranging in type from large agency conglomerates to mom-and-pop agencies. All are competing for cyber-savvy clients' attention and it never hurts to check pricing from a variety of sources. As a rule, the Internet and 1-800-number brokers will do a decent job for you. They offer discounted fares, but not always the lowest, so it pays to check around. If you know precisely what you want and how much you should pay to get a real bargain, and if you don't mind dealing with an anonymous voice on the phone, by all means make your reservations when the price is right. Just don't expect the personal service you get from an agent you know. And be prepared to spend a lot of time and effort on the phone if something goes wrong.

How do you find a cruise travel professional you can trust? First off, look for signs indicating you're dealing with a Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) affiliated agency. Preferably, your agent should be certified as an Accredited Cruise Counselor (ACC) or Master Cruise Counselor (MCC) by CLIA. Those agents have completed a demanding training program, including touring or sailing on a specific number of ships. They've make it their business to know all they can to serve their clients' needs. You can find CLIA members by searching their web site at http://www.cruising.org.

Baton Rouge, LA: I've heard horror stories about airline flights arriving late and people missing their ship. If we book our flights through the cruise line, will they wait for us?

Linda Coffman: Weather and other issues can wreak havoc on your travel plans, especially when you are flying to your destination. You’re wise to be concerned about on-time flights. The best plan is to arrive in your embarkation port city a day early. If that’s not possible, try to book the earliest flight out in the morning of your sailing day. While I’ve seen ships wait for late arrivals, they usually only do so if a large group of passengers booked by the cruise line is on the late plane. Using a cruise line “air & sea” program won’t guarantee that your ship will wait, but cruise line personnel will be available to assist you with a hotel and flight arrangements to meet the ship at the first port of call. Ask for “air deviation” when you book your air & sea cruise and for a small fee you can request better flight arrangements.

Chicago, IL: What's the best cruise for a family?

Linda Coffman: All mainstream and premium cruise lines offer a wide range of programs and activities that make them appropriate and lively vacations for families. A cruise is unique in that aspect—-there’s something to appeal to everyone. For a truly youth-oriented cruise, you can’t beat Disney Cruise Line. They have marvelous facilities for children of all ages and the youngsters love meeting their favorite Disney characters on board. Their entertainment is pure Disney—-very polished and professional. A big plus for parents is accommodations with a family-friendly layout.

Seattle, WA: What kind of life do the gentlemen hosts have on the cruises?

Linda Coffman: I had the opportunity to interview a gentleman host last month and he described his hosting duties to me. In addition to dancing with unaccompanied ladies, he worked closely with the Cruise Director's staff and participated in activities such as trivia, bridge games, chess, and he also accompanied shore tours. The hosts are volunteers and are not paid. In fact, they pay a small fee for the cruise! They are assigned to regular passenger cabins and, depending on cruise line, sometimes get complimentary laundry service and a small on board charge allowance. You can find out more on The Working Vacation web site at http://www.theworkingvacation.com

Springfield, VA: We cruised on Renaissance Cruise lines and saw them go belly-up after 9/11. Recently we were contacted to say they were back on the open seas. How likely are they to keep their ships afloat this time and is there any risk to sailing with them again?

Linda Coffman: Sorry... that is not a rebirth of Renaissance Cruise Line. The e-mail you received is from a travel agency. Apparently, the name and trademark were recently sold to them.

Alexandria, VA: I like to travel alone but all prices are listed as double occupancy. What provisions can be made for "loners?"

Linda Coffman: Some cruise lines offer a "single share" program and they match you up with a cabin-mate. If they don't find another single, then you get the entire cabin for the single fare. Otherwise, you are looking at approximately 120% to 200%, unless you can find a special deal.

Jacksonville, FL: Why do the cruise lines have such a rigid dress code for dinner? I wear clothes like that everyday to work and want to loosen up on vacation and wear shorts.

Linda Coffman: The dress codes are a shipboard tradition and many passengers take a cruise especially to experience that special ambience. You can wear shorts all day on any ship, but if you really want to go casual and wear them in the evening, Windjammer Barefoot Cruises might be for you. If you are willing to wear long pants at night, try NCL, Windstar, or Star Clippers. All have a "resort casual" evening dress code.

Tampa, FL: I would like to go to Europe and am a single, retired widow. Would a cruise be a good way for me to travel on my own?

Linda Coffman: Absolutely! A cruise is an easy and safe way for women on their own to travel. Your ship takes you to interesting destinations and you’ll find other women to go on tours, dine, and shop with you. Plus, there are porters and stewards to handle luggage and you only have to unpack one time. Some cruise lines have “gentlemen hosts” on board certain sailings to dance and socialize with unaccompanied women so you never have to feel out of place. You can find them on Silversea Cruises, Cunard Line, Orient Lines, Radisson Seven Seas Cruises, Crystal Cruises, Holland America Line, and World Explorer Cruises.

Knoxville, TN: My wife and I have been on several cruises and we’d like to move up a little. Is a suite really worth the extra expense?

Linda Coffman: Yes and no—-suite amenities vary and what you get for your money depends on the cruise line that you choose. Suites are always roomier so that’s a big advantage. Some include just the basics plus a few extras, such as welcoming champagne and flowers. Others offer free laundry and dry cleaning, special suite concierges, lounges, daily canapés and tea served to you, and even butler service. You might be offered priority embarkation and tender tickets as well.

On the other hand, you could move up by booking a standard stateroom on an upscale cruise line. It’s sort of like buying a house—-you never want the most expensive one in an average neighborhood if you can get an average one for the same price in a better part of town. A standard stateroom on a luxury line can be comparable in price to a suite on a traditional or premium cruise line, yet the entire experience is more elegant. Often, the fare is more all-inclusive and you don’t pay for things that are extra on other ships, such as tips and wine at meals.

Portland, ME: Is there a limit on how much luggage I can bring?

Linda Coffman: No, but the days of steamer trunks are long gone! If you are driving to port, you can bring just about anything you can get in your car; however, if you are flying, the airline will have restrictions on how many bags you can check as well as what you can carry on the plane. Check with them to find out their regulations. My advice is to pack as light as you can. Many modern ships have laundry rooms and you can use them to cut down on essentials—-wash your unmentionables during the cruise and you don’t have to pack as many. Be sure to check first, though. Not all ships offer self-service and the ship’s service can be priced by the item, which really adds up. A wise sage once said travelers should pack half the clothes they think they need and take twice as much money.

DALLAS, GA: MY WIFE AND I ARE PLANNING OUR FIRST CRUISE IN JANUARY. WE WILL BE ON THE CARNIVAL SHIP CALLED FANTASY. IT WILL BE A 3 DAY TRIP TO NASSAU. WHAT WOULD YOU RECOMMEND WE TAKE FOR EXTRA MONEY. WE ARE NOT ALCOHOL DRINKERS.

Linda Coffman: You can set up your on board account by using a credit card. Everything you sign for on the ship will be in your final bill, which you receive the last morning on board. I estimate that we will need $100 per shore day--that's very high and we always come home with extra cash. Try to plan what you will do ashore and that will help you to determine how much cash you will need.

MAGGIE VALLEY, NC : WE WANT TO GO ON A CRUISE NEXT YEAR, SHOULD WE BOOK IT NOW OR WAIT FOR BARGINS LATER....THERE ARE SOOOO MANY SHIPS NOW, IS IT POSSIBLE FOR THEM ALL TO FILL UP?

Linda Coffman: By booking now you are more likely to get the stateroom category you prefer on the ship of your choice. Booking close in might save you a few dollars if the fare is lowered (not always the case), but the ship may be fully booked if you wait.

Atlanta,Ga: Our family wants to go on a 3-4 day cruise. My father-in-law has to have dialysis 2 times as week is there a cruise line that we can accommodate his needs? Are you aware of some other way we address this need??

Linda Coffman: Take a look at the Dialysis at Sea web site at http://www.dialysisatsea.com

Their web site has a calendar of cruises that include their services.

NY, NY: My family is planning a trip for my parents 50th wedding anniversary in 2004. In total there will be 40 people, half adults and half children ranging in ages from 18 to 2 years of age so obviously we need a "kid-friendly" boat. There are a lot of first time "cruisers" and everyone wants to be able to spend as much time together as possible (dining room?) Which lines should we look at?

Linda Coffman: Any of the contemporary cruise lines or premium cruise lines will offer you a wide range of activities for all ages. With such a large group you might find one of Royal Caribbean's "mega" ships fits the bill.

Boston, MA: I am sailing with Holland America for Christmas this year. I have never been on a holiday cruise. Do the cruise lines to special things for holiday sailings?

Linda Coffman: Yes, they really pull out the stops with gorgeous decorations and holiday dinners. There are religious services, as well as caroling, with passengers and crew alike taking part. You can also count on a visit from Santa Claus.

Philadelphia, PA: What tall ship cruises are still available, preferably with a concentration on diving and snorkeling? My husband and I have been on the Sir Francis Drake and Windjammer's Fantome (both unfortunately later lost in hurricanes) and we'd be interested in going again. Thanks!!!

Linda Coffman: Of course the rest of the Windjammer fleet is still sailing to some interesting ports in the Caribbean. Star Clippers is another line that is a step up from Windjammer and offers the same concentration on water sports. For a luxury sailing experience, Windstar aren't tall ships but have sails nevertheless, as well as a full range of diving and snorkeling activities.

Atlanta, GA: Where is the best place to find the best deal on a cruise, directly from the cruise line or from a travel agent?

Linda Coffman: Contrary to what conventional wisdom might suggest, cutting out the travel agent and booking directly with a cruise line won't necessarily get you the lowest price. Cruise line reservation systems simply aren't set up to deal with direct calls from potential passengers; however, they will usually take your reservation and ask if you'd like to assign it to a travel agent. Without an agent working on your behalf, you are on your own. If the cruise line lowers their fare, it will be up to you to discover it and request the lesser amount yourself. A good agent will do that for you.

Metairie, LA: Have you gotten any comments on the concept of free-style cruising offered by Norwegian lines? We just completed a cruise with them and were not impressed.

Linda Coffman: Freestyle Cruising is a new concept and some passengers embrace it, while others just don't care for it. I like it a great deal, but I also realize that I might have to wait for a table in the dining room if I arrive at the same time as half the other passengers on the ship. That's the biggest complaint that I've heard--that waiting for a table isn't a "choice" that passengers counted on.

Erie, PA: My fiance and I have just signed up for a 10-day cruise around Italy, France, Greece, Spain and Malta. This will be our first cruise---do you have any advice that will make it an unforgetable experience. Also, we are not sure about seasickness, should be get the patch just in case or an over-the-counter med?

Linda Coffman: First off, do a bit of homework before you leave. Find out all you can about your destinations so you can make the most of your time ashore. That's a wonderful itinerary to fascinating ports that are rich in history.

Seasickness probably won't be too much of a problem unless you are prone to motion sickness. In that case, I'd be prepared with one of the over the counter remedies such as Bonine. You might want to discuss the patch with your doctor--some people report unpleasant side effects from it.

To make it the experience of a lifetime, simply relax and soak in the atmosphere. Late night walks on deck in the moonlight are extraordinary!

Spotsylvania, VA: Do you have any favorite Web sites dedicated to cruising besides, naturally, your own?

Linda Coffman: My favorite interactive cruise site is Cruise Addicts at http://www.cruise-addicts.com -- The message boards and chat sessions are fun and informative and the site is moderated.

Dearborn Heights, MI: I am a 38 year old single male looking for a singles cruise that offers me the opportunity to meet new women for dating possibilities. Who has the best singles cruises?

Linda Coffman: Look into the Windjammer Barefoot Cruises that are especially for singles.

Canton, IL: Why don't cruise lines include drinks in prices? I would be willing to pay an extra amount to avoid all the bar tabs. It would even out in the long run because some people drink lots while others do not drink.

Linda Coffman: While most cruise lines don't include drinks, there are a few that do. Silversea and Seabourn include all drinks and Radisson includes everything but mixed drinks. Some of the other cruise lines sell drink "cards" for soft drinks, beer, or mixed drinks and you can save a bit of money with them.

Montreal, Canada: I want to plan a cruise on NCL however I heard they might be going under?

Linda Coffman: Oh my! That rumor is going around again? No... NCL is owned by Star Cruises, the largest passenger shipping company in Asia. They just announced that NCL will launch their newest ship in December and plan another new one for 2004.

Los Angeles, CA.: What is the best way to visit ports/cities other than taking the costly tours from the ship?

Linda Coffman: Research your ports of call on the Internet and with travel guide books. You can go it alone and arrange transportation upon arrival (there are usually plenty of taxis at the pier) or arrange for private tours ahead of time.

Beloit, Wisc: Are there any cruise ships that do not allow children? We are looking for one with the least amount of children aboard.

Linda Coffman: Celebrity Cruises is offering a few adult-only sailings this year and you'll find few children on the more upscale ships such as Windstar, Silversea, and Seabourn. If you select a longer cruise while school is in session, you are likely to find fewer children on board.

Bethesda MD: Which cruise line has the most European/international feel?

Linda Coffman: The European-based cruise lines offer a continental experience. Costa, Royal Olympic, First European, and Peter Deilmann's Deutschland might be your best choices.

Springfield, MO: What would be the best cruise line for a high school senior trip?

Linda Coffman: Probably a three or four night cruise would be your best bet. My recommendation is either Carnival or Royal Caribbean. Be advised, though, that you will need plenty of chaperones as there are age restrictions.

Gulf Shores, AL: Where do the cruise lines market their unsold last minute cabins? By last minute, I mean the ones within a week or two of the sailing date.

Linda Coffman: They are often made available to Florida agents whose clients don't have to worry about high-cost last minute airfare.

Nashua, NH: Is Carnival somewhat of a party cruise line as compared to Holland ? Does the time of the year make a difference on the age group that you find on the ship. Example, March verse May

Linda Coffman: Carnival is the "fun ship" cruise line and generally has a livelier atmosphere than the more elegant Holland America. Yes, time of year does make a difference. You will find more young people (children, teens, college students) on cruises during spring break and in summer months.

Niskayuna, NY: Is it appropriate to bring a 1 year old along on a cruise?

Linda Coffman: Yes, but choose the cruise line carefully. Some will not accept children that young in the nursery. If you need babysitting assistance, be aware that there is a charge and it is not always available.

Miami, Fl: We have the opportunity to vacation on either the Norwegian Sun or RCCL Voyager for about the same price. Which would go with?

Linda Coffman: They each have their attractions. The Voyager of the Seas has some spectacular facilities, including ice skating and rock climbing. On the other hand, the Norwegian Sun is a smaller ship (although still large!) and Freestyle Cruising on NCL gives you the choice of open seating dining and resort casual attire. A lot depends on how you want to spend your time and what type cruise experience you desire. Voyager of the Seas is a more traditional cruise, even though it is one of the largest ships at sea.

Lyons, NY: We will be taking a cruise next February. Is it a good idea to book your shore excursions using one of the online companies, or is it a better idea to book with the cruise line once we're on the ship? Are the online companies reputable?

Linda Coffman: Yes, the online companies I've dealt with are quite reputable and can often save you money in the long run. However, if I were booking an all-day excursion that takes me far from the ship, I tend to lean toward a ship's tour. In case of a delay, the ship will wait for your tour bus to return. If you're on your own, well, you're on your own and the ship could sail without you.

Johnstown, Pa.: What exactly is done with the tremendous amount of human waste that is generated on the hundreds of cruise ships each year and why are they being hauled into court and fined for illegal dumping?

Linda Coffman: Wastewater is processed on board and discharged according to environmental regulations. After a spate of fines for illegal dumping, the cruise lines have pretty well cleaned up their acts and I believe you'll see far fewer such discharges and fines in the future.

Racine, WI: What cruise line offers the largest rooms, etc.? I am 6'6" 300+lbs and in the past ocean liners were very small living, sleeping and bathing was uncomfortable.

Linda Coffman: Carnival Cruise Line boasts the most generous standard rooms on their cruise ships. To insure that you have plenty of elbow room, book on a newer ship. A mini-suite or suite will be even more spacious and some have larger bathrooms with bathtubs.

Columbus, OH: What cruise ships allow men and women to tan "au naturel" on the top sun deck?

Linda Coffman: They are not completely "au naturel" but Carnival's ships have a "topless" suntanning area on the highest open deck. I've noticed women going topless around the pool on other lines but it's not encouraged, especially when children are present. You may find sunbathing dress standards somewhat more relaxed on European cruise lines as well. But total nudity is only acceptable on "nude cruise" charters.

Bethesda, MD: Odd that I ran across your profile on USA Today because I received a call from my travel agent who stated that my planned cruise to Cozumel and Grand Cayman is being changed by Royal Caribbean to Ocho Rios Jamaica and Grand Cayman. I am furious because I hate Jamaica and choose this cruise to see Mexico and the Cayman Islands. My friends are going to call the agent to see if we can get an upgraded room because of the inconvenience or maybe even transferred to another cruise, which would cost us about $200 (not including airfare). What would you suggest in a matter such as this? P.S. - We didn't get insurance so we don't want to cancel and loose our money or a vacation all together.

Linda Coffman: The fine print in all cruise contracts includes language that states an itinerary can be changed. Fortunately, you found out before sailing date and have a keen travel agent working with you. You don't say when your sailing date is, but if visiting Mexico and Grand Cayman is important to you, I would opt for the transfer of your booking to a different cruise if possible and practical. Your agent might be able to get that for you at no additional charge because of the itinerary change. I don't think an upgrade is out of the question, either. It never hurts to ask!

Incidentally, insurance wouldn't have covered you in this situation.


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