It's been said that planning a cruise can be more confusing than filing your own income taxes. If only there weren't so many decisions to make. Consider that there are roughly 200 different ships, belonging to over two dozen cruise lines. Some of those ships have over 20 different stateroom categories, and the largest ships can have as many as 15 decks. Then there are choices about itinerary, onboard activities, and shore excursions. Some cruise lines are better for younger kids, while others are geared to older kids and adults. Never fear. We've tracked down six essential sites to help you research and plan a family cruise. As for your taxes -- sorry, but you're on your own with those.
Best for: Getting your feet wet
The family section of this popular cruise site is jammed with useful information about cruising with kids. For a quick snapshot of the latest programming on kid-friendly cruise lines, see "What's New in Family Cruising." Throughout the site, you'll find great advice on packing, planning, and getting the most out of your cruise.
Narrow down the options
Best for: News and reviews
There is a wealth of terrific practical information on this comprehensive cruise resource. We particularly love the Find a Cruise tool, which fast-forwards the often time-consuming process of finding an ideal cruise ship. You start by choosing your preferences for destination, cruise line, lifestyle, and price. You can fill in just a few parameters -- say, region and budget -- or narrow the field further by adding more specifics, such as departure city, ports of call, or special interests. Then hit "go" and presto! -- up pops a list of cruise ships that fit your wish list. Take the time to explore the rest of this site, which brims with reader reviews, expert advice, and up-to-date cruise industry news. Check out the Editor's Picks articles for expert recommendations on the best ships for teens, shore excursions for kids, family-friendly staterooms, and more.
Find comfortable digs
Cruise Deckplans (www.cruisedeckplans.com)
Best for: Choosing a cabin
Many an unlucky family has boarded a cruise ship only to discover that what they thought was a great last-minute deal turned out to be a cabin located directly below the disco or right next to the ship's engine room. If only they had checked out Cruise Deckplans before plunking down their cash. This awesome site is the key that unlocks the otherwise impenetrable armory of cruise ship layouts. Choose a cruise line, select your vessel, and you can view deck-by-deck layouts of the entire ship. One of the many genius features of this site is "Drag it Decks," which lets you see what is located on the decks immediately above and below your cabin. Stateroom categories are color-coded, with detailed floorplans and descriptions of in-cabin amenities. Is there a window or balcony? How private is the verandah? Does my cabin have a shower or a tub? It's all there. Want to see your cabin before you book? For $11.99, you can buy a lifetime site membership and get access to cabin photos, 3-D diagrams, and tools for comparing staterooms on the same ship. If your family loves cruising, this just may be the smartest $12 you ever spend.
Plan some fun
Best for: Shore excursions
Sure, your cruise line will try to wow you with slick brochures about their fun shore excursions. What they won't tell you is that you can find very similar excursions for considerably less if you just knew where to look. This independent site offers a huge array of outings from 400 local tour operators on 22 Caribbean islands. You'll also find reviews posted from other travelers, with enough details to help you know exactly what to expect and what to bring.
Snag a steal
Best for: Finding an agent with a great deal
Shopping around doesn't mean that you have to contact every travel agent out there. CruiseCompete lets you to reach over 100 large agencies simultaneously via e-mail to see if they can beat your best quote for a specific cruise. If an agency can beat it, you'll get a response via e-mail. The best part: It's free with no obligation to buy.
Cruise Direct Online (www.cruisedirectonline.com)
Best for: Nabbing a discount
This cruise booking supersite is chock-a-block with cruise discounts, shipboard credit, and other great deals -- especially if your dates or destinations are flexible. The site is impressively intuitive, letting you search the deals database by cruise line, destination, or port.
WeJustGotBack.com is an authoritative online guide to family trip-planning. The site features reviews of kid-friendly hotels and resorts, expert planning advice, readers' travel tips, destination insider guides, regional getaway ideas, vacation deals, and more.
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