The best travel agents have been on multiple cruises and know firsthand what they're talking about. Agencies come in all shapes and sizes, from small neighborhood stores to huge chain operations, and since pricing these days is fairly competitive between all types of cruise agencies, it's really service that distinguishes one agency from another. Booking a cruise on-line is fine if you don't need any hand-holding, but nothing can replace speaking with a real live, experienced agent. They can share all kinds of insider-y info, from which cabins have their views obstructed by lifeboats to which are near loud areas such as discos and the engine room, which ships and itineraries you should avoid if you're not looking for a party vibe, and what the major differences are between cabin categories.
I asked a group of experienced agents (listed below) 10 questions about cruising, here's what they had to say.
Mary Jean Tully, Chairman & CEO The Cruise Professionals (tel. 800/265-3838; www.cruiseprofessionals.com). In the business 24 years.
Sharon Turnau, President & CEO Landmark Travel (tel. 800/547-0727; www.landmark-travel.com). In the business 20 years.
Steven Gelfuso, President & CEO CruiseBrothers.com (tel. 800/827-7779; www.cruisebrothers.com). In the business 27 years.
David Shields, Vice President Cruise Members Only (tel. 800/999-3543; www.cruisemembersonly.com). In the business 34 years.
Sherrie and Charlie Funk, co-owners Just Cruisin' Plus (tel. 800/888-0922; www.justcruisinplus.com). In the business 34 years and 26 years, respectively.
Walter Littlejohn, President Chartwell Vacations (tel. 800/772-2103; www.chartwellvacations.com). In the business 21 years.
Sherry Laskin Kennedy of Vacation Shoppe (tel. 866/7-CRUISE; www.vacationshoppe.com). In the business 17 years.
Eric Maryanov, President All-Travel (tel. 866/565-3214; www.all-travel.com). In the business 29 years.
John Figone, President Cruisemarketplace (tel. 800/826-4333; www.cruisemarketplace.com). In the business more than 55 years.
What has been your favorite cruise ever and why?
Tully: Crystal Serenity sailing around the entire coast of Africa, I experienced safaris, the sand dunes of Namibia, and the markets in Zanzibar. It was fabulous with so many different cultures.
Turnau: Song of Flower in Alaska in 1992. It was an intimate, great little ship with amazing staff, food and highly personal service.
Gelfuso: The Galapagos Islands aboard the Celebrity Xpedition. The scenery and wildlife were incredible and I loved being on a small ship -- when we came on board the captain greeted everyone personally and we got to know all the passengers on the ship.
Shields: Celebrity's Summit from Venice to Barcelona in May, 2006. It was my fiftieth birthday spent with my family and the itinerary included some of my favorites -- Venice, Florence, Rome and Santorini.
Sherrie Funk: Insignia in western Mediterranean in October, 2006. Ship was fabulous, food wonderful, service impeccable and the ports were my favorite places to go.
Charlie Funk: My best memories are of cruises with days at sea to kick back and do nothing unless I wanted to.
Littlejohn: A summer 7-night French & Italian Rivera cruise on Windstar Cruises; ports were Monte Carlo, Cannes, Portofino, St. Tropez, and Corsica. The weather was terrific and our little Windstar ship fit right in with all the mega-yachts in each port, plus the food was outstanding.
Kennedy: It has to be my first cruise. My parents and I sailed aboard the SS Matsonia in 1961 from Los Angeles to Honolulu. An 8-year-old girl from the South Side of Chicago was hooked; I fell in love with cruising.
Maryanov: It's impossible to choose a single itinerary, though my favorite ship is Regent Seven Seas Navigator.
Figone:Crystal Serenity, October 2006, 11 nights Venice to Rome; very easy ports to get in and out of as well as a great itinerary.
What has been your least favorite cruise and why?
Tully: Mass-market cruises to the Caribbean -- too many people and too many line ups.
Turnau: Three-day cruise to the Bahamas in 1971 on the MV Freeport; ship had no stabilizers and the crew had never hear of Right Guard deodorant.
Gelfuso: 3-night cruises -- they are just too short!
Shields: My least favorite cruise itinerary is the eastern Caribbean. I am not a sun and sand person and it's just a bland itinerary.
Sherrie Funk: Imagination to the western Caribbean. We went in the fall when prices were at their cheapest. Formal night for some meant a black t-shirt. This cruise was disastrous in every way because of the passengers on board.
Charlie Funk: There was the one cruise where the ship took on contaminated water in Cartagena and I got to meet about 400 or so fellow passengers in the infirmary.
Littlejohn: 1-night cruises to nowhere -- they are too short!
Maryanov: Never been on a cruise I did not like. If not the ports, there is always the ship itself; a trip is what you choose to make of it.
Figone:Carnival cruise in the Caribbean; too mass-market as well as being a floating ATM machine.
What's your favorite size ship?
Turnau:700 passengers or less.
Gelfuso: Medium to small -- I like the more intimate and personal feel of the smaller ships.
Shields: My favorite ship size is between 800 and 1,200 passengers.
Sherrie Funk: 600 to 1,500 passengers.
Charlie Funk: About 700 passengers.
Littlejohn: Queen Mary 2.
Kennedy: The 700 passenger ships.
Maryanov: 700 to 1,000 passengers.
Figone: Ships with 800 to 1,000 passengers are easy to get around and there are very few lines to deal with.
What's your one best piece of advice for a first-time cruiser?
Tully:Deal with a travel agent who knows the product.
Turnau: Always tip upfront to ensure service.
Gelfuso: Get a balcony cabin -- it's a great value and really enhances the experience.
Shields: Know what type of person you are and what you really want to accomplish on your cruise, so you can select the proper cruise line and itinerary.
Sherrie Funk: Don't try to do everything on the agenda or you will need a vacation from your vacation.
Charlie Funk: Interview a local travel professional as closely as you would a financial planner. If the travel pro does not start off by learning about your likes and dislikes, expectations and lifestyle before recommending a trip, run to the nearest exit.
Littlejohn: Choose the ship, the destination and the accommodations that best suit your lifestyle and personality.
Kennedy: Don't pack your valuables or medical needs in checked luggage and purchase travel insurance.
Maryanov: You must have a veranda, it changes the entire experience.
Figone:Start with a 5- to 7-day cruise either in the Caribbean or a costal cruise, and go with a friend or two.
What insider tip would you share with your best friend?
Tully: Accommodations are important, so never take the minimum categories.
Turnau:Lower decks and amidships offer the most stable ride.
Gelfuso: Be as flexible as possible with your travel dates and itinerary to find the best deal possible -- recently there was an 18-night transatlantic cruise for just $499.
Shields: In most ports (especially in Europe) I would tell them to investigate the destination on their own at their own pace.
Sherrie Funk: On European itineraries, take five or six couples who are your best friends and family and do private shore excursions with them so you can spend more time at the places you choose.
Littlejohn: Get on the ship and run to the spa and book your appointments.
Kennedy: Book one of the Sweet Sixteen special balcony staterooms on Celebrity's Millennium-class ships; you can't see them in the brochure diagram.
Figone: When taking a cruise stay in a veranda or better stateroom and look for an agency that gives you top service and an incentive to book.
What's your favorite itinerary in the world?
Tully:Too many to choose, though Mediterranean, Africa and the Orient are all fabulous.
Turnau:Greece and Italy.
Gelfuso: The Orient -- it is so drastically different than anywhere else in the world.
Shields: My favorite is any European itinerary; I love the history, architecture and the different cultures, from Iceland to Turkey.
Sherrie Funk: Any cruise in the Mediterranean that includes Rome, Florence and possibly somewhere along the Amalfi Coast.
Littlejohn: 6-night transatlantic crossings and also Greek Isles and French/Italian Riviera cruises.
Kennedy:Any transatlantic crossing, especially a westbound sailing -- I love 25-hour days!
Figone:Northern Europe/Norwegian Fjords in the spring or fall.
Which cruise itinerary would you never ever do again and why?
Tully: Panama Canal, once you have done it, it is enough.
Turnau:Alaska, I've done it four times.
Shields: I never say never anymore, but the travel time to Australia & New Zealand is not worth what I get out of the destination.
Sherrie Funk: Mexican Riviera. It's the same old stuff, just a different day.
Charlie Funk: The western Caribbean (Cozumel, Grand Cayman and Ocho Rios) has so many ships calling that being in port with 10,000 or so of your new best friends can make the visit a bit trying.
Figone:Caribbean; too many people and too many ships doing the same ports on the very same day.
Tully:Again, too many to choose, though my favorites include Marrakech, Istanbul, Monte Carlo, Rome, Hong Kong, Cape Town and Bordeaux.
Turnau: Sorrento because of the beautiful scenery and so much to do on the Amalfi Coast -- Pompeii, Capri and Positano.
Shields: It is a toss up -- Venice or Santorini for completely different reasons.
Sherrie Funk: Florence.
Charlie Funk: For sheer beauty and hospitality, Tallinn, Stockholm, Fanning Island and Barcelona -- and practically any port on any river cruise -- are hard to beat.
Littlejohn: Portofino, Italy.
Kennedy: For an exotic experience, Manaus, Brazil is fantastic. One thousand miles up the Amazon River and you are in a large, bustling city in the middle of nowhere.
Maryanov: I love them all, but I really like starting a cruise in Monte Carlo and the feeling of just being there.
Figone: Vancouver and Venice.
Least favorite port?
Gelfuso: Estonia -- there is nothing to do or see there.
Shields: Nassau or any Caribbean port that does not have golf.
Sherrie Funk: Martinique and Guadeloupe.
Charlie Funk: St. Petersburg; the damaged façades of the Winter Palace, Hermitage, and other historic sites were disappointing.
Kennedy: Isla Margarita, Venezuela: once was enough.
What's the first thing you do when you get on board a ship?
Tully:Smile, unpack and then relax.
Turnau: Book dinner reservations at alternative restaurants then unpack.
Gelfuso: Explore the ship.
Shields: If I take any shore excursions they are pre-booked and my dining timings are set before I get on board, so the first thing I do is get acquainted with the ship, walk around and talk to the crew.
Sherrie Funk: Have lunch then explore the ship to get my bearings.
Charlie Funk: Drop off carry-on bags, find the buffet for a quick snack, make reservations for alternative dining restaurants and explore the ship.
Littlejohn: Book spa appointments.
Kennedy: Immediately after heading to the buffet, I go to the top deck and work my way down to the lowest public deck, to get acquainted with my new surroundings.
Maryanov: Take a full walk around the ship and explore all the public areas.
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