The cruise lines are deploying a record number of ships in Europe for 2008 and that means beaucoup choice for you. For example, Royal Caribbean will have seven ships in Europe this summer, including the brand-new Independence of the Seas, the largest cruise ship ever based in Europe. Holland America will have six ships there. Carnival Cruise Line, king of the Caribbean, will have its two newest ships, Carnival Splendor and Freedom, based in Europe this summer. You get the picture. Cruisers can choose from all sorts of itineraries -- from the French Riviera to the Norwegian fjords, and from short 3- and 4-night cruises to 7-nighters and longer 10-, 12-, or even 20-night options. Most ships head to Europe between the months of April and November, though a few sail there year-round.
"Europe is hot these days; it's safe to say it's the no. 1 cruise destination in the world," says Mike Driscoll, editor of industry bible Cruise Week.
Travel agent Sherry Kennedy, owner of The Vacation Shoppe in Satellite Beach, FL (tel. 321/773-3811; www.vacationshoppe.com), says at this point you can get a 10-night cruise for as low as about $1,000 a person for an inside cabin. These kinds of rates might not last forever; Driscoll cautions that waiting to the last minute will mean you'll have to take what you can get.
Most industry insiders will tell you that a ship's lowest cabins (insides) and highest category cabins (suites) will sell out first. Kennedy says, for example, aboard Celebrity Cruises' Constellation, on all 14-night Baltic cruises in June and July, the Concierge Suites, Royal Suites and Penthouse Suites are waitlisted already.
Driscoll says in the summer of 2007, it was the 7-night itineraries that more likely had last-minute space. And then there's airfare to consider: flights to major embarkation ports like Barcelona, Venice and Rome can be tough to get if you don't reserve months ahead of time.
Driscoll says it's advisable to book at least six months ahead, especially for cruise tour packages, cruises longer than 10 nights and more unique itineraries.
When you're ready to put down the plastic, reputable travel agencies include those listed in our cruise deals column. If you're shopping for a high-end cruise (for example, Silversea, Crystal or Regent), definitely use an agency that's affiliated with an agency group whose members specialize in luxury cruises. Agency groups include Virtuoso (tel. 866/401-7974; www.virtuoso.com) and Signature Travel Network (tel. 800/339-0868; www.signaturetravelnetwork.com) and their members are typically super knowledgeable and can pass on extras to clients, from cabin upgrades to private cocktail parties.
Of course there's more to snagging a great cruise than just the price. Travel agent Sherry Kennedy, owner of he Vacation Shoppe in Satellite Beach, FL (tel. 321/773-3811; www.vacationshoppe.com), shares her top tips for bagging the Europe cruise of your dreams.
1. Always arrive at least one day prior to the departure of your cruise. Not only will you begin your trip well rested, but in case of flight delays, you won't go into panic mode making catch-up arrangements.
2. Purchase travel insurance. An insurance company that acts as the primary insurer will make filing a claim less complicated and you won't have to worry about out-of-pocket expenses. If you should be delayed getting to the ship, an insurer will reimburse for "catch up" expenses to meet the ship.
3. If possible, avoid Italy in August. It's hot, crowded and hotel prices are sky high.
4. If you can't get to a bank that will convert USD currency to Euros, Kronen, Kroner, Rubles, etc. prior to your cruise, don't worry. You can always use the convenience of the cashier/purser on board your ship. Yes, there is a commission to pay, but it's not much higher than what you can find in any city, and why spend valuable shore excursion time searching for a currency exchange? Stop by the purser's desk during a dinner, late at night or during one of the shows; if you wait until the morning of arrival into a "new currency" port, be prepared to wait in line.
5. One of the best things to do in a new port is to try the local cuisine. Walk, take a taxi or book an inexpensive shore excursion that will get you into town then browse the shops, chat with the store owners and find a special place for lunch.
6. Instead of making a "donation" to the casino, save your money and have all your clothes laundered or dry-cleaned two nights before you debark. You'll arrive home with a sweet smelling suitcase and not be faced with two days worth of wash and fold.
7. Since most European cruises are port intensive, opt for late dining, even if you are an early eater. Nothing is more frustrating than rushing back to the ship, struggling up the gangway tired and laden with packages, and not having the luxury to take a pre-dinner nap.
8. One-way cruises in Europe (as opposed to voyages round-trip from one port) can be a good value. Air fares used to be astronomical for an "open-jaw" (fly into one city and out of another) ticket, though currently, air fares between the states and in and out of two different European cities have been very comparable to a round-trip ticket. Overall, cruise prices are typically lowest early and late in the season.
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