NEW YORK - It's been an event-filled year for the cruise industry, with ships housing Katrina evacuees, ports in New Orleans and Mexico damaged by storms, a freak seven-story wave washing over one ship and a pirate attack on another.
But for average cruise vacationers - and there will be an estimated 11 million of them this year - the HEAD:s are not as important as the nitty-gritty of planning a trip.
"The weather issues are unfortunate, but people understand that weather is weather," said Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor at CruiseCritic.com. "The pirate attack, the rogue wave - they're pretty bizarre and unusual, but they're more of a curiosity than anything else," especially since passengers were not seriously injured in either incident.
What cruisers do want to know are the basics. How much will it cost, what's the itinerary, how do you book a trip, and what is there to do on board?
The Cruise Lines International Association says 90 percent of cruisers still book through travel agents. But even cruisers who use travel agents may want to begin their research on the Internet. CLIA, which represents 19 major cruise lines serving 97 percent of the North American market, has a Web site at http://www.cruising.org featuring cruise news and listings for travel agents who specialize in cruises. Every cruise line also has its own Web site. Or check out sites like http://www.411cruise.com, http://www.cruises.com, http://www.cruiseweb.com and http://www.cruisedeals.com. Compare prices, departure ports, dates and destinations, whether you end up booking online or not.
The Web also offers reader reviews and advice. CruiseCritic.com's commentary on the pros and cons of children on ships is amusing but also a bit disturbing. More than one reader wrote in about unsupervised children getting drunk on board, while a captain's wife penned a column for the Web site about the occasional havoc wreaked by kids gone wild at sea.
Itineraries are a top consideration for cruisers. The Caribbean remains the cruise industry's No. 1 destination, with 41 percent of cruises tracked by CLIA making ports of call there. Next most popular were the Mediterranean and Alaska.
But cruise lines also vary their itineraries with new ports of call each year. For example, Crystal Cruises' world cruises plan to stop in Ashdod, near Jerusalem, in 2007; it will be the company's first call in Israel since 1999.
This year, hurricanes had a major impact on Gulf region itineraries. Carnival's Holiday, which had been home-ported in Mobile, Ala., was chartered by the federal government as part of the Katrina relief effort and is now docked in Pascagoula, Miss. Ships that had been home-ported in New Orleans are operating from other Gulf ports in Florida and Texas. But New Orleans is starting to appear on itineraries again, with a British-based ship, the Minerva II, confirmed for a port call in February. Other ships are due back in the Big Easy in spring and later next year.
In Cozumel, Mexico, docks were damaged, but ships are offering service by tender, meaning they moor offshore and passengers are ferried in. Carnival reports that it has resumed service at all the Mexican ports they used prior to Wilma, but some itineraries have been modified where land facilities are not yet able to accommodate the number of visitors they had before.
Round-the-world cruises remain popular, with more lines offering more options. Some passengers will sign up for the whole three-month tour, but 10-day or two-week chunks of global itineraries are also available. In 2007, Cunard will recreate the bygone days of glamorous ocean liners by scheduling the Queen Mary 2 for its first world cruise. The ship will depart for its 80-day trip from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on Jan. 10, 2007, at the same time that the QE2 heads off on its 25th voyage around the world.
In Hawaii, meanwhile, cruises have grown from a seasonal business to a year-round industry, led by NCL America, which has three luxury liners serving the islands - the Pride of Aloha; the Pride of America, which launched in June as the largest U.S.-flagged cruise ship ever; and the Pride of Hawaii, debuting summer 2006.
Other new ships due out in 2006 are the Concordia, from Costa Cruises, the largest cruise line in Europe; Holland America's Noordam; MSC's Musica; Princess Cruises' Crown Princess; and Royal Caribbean's Freedom of the Seas, which will eclipse the Queen Mary 2 as the largest passenger ship ever when it sails on its maiden voyage to the Caribbean in June. Amenities will include a rock-climbing wall, ice-skating rink and a Flowrider, an onboard surfing machine.
But destinations are not the only thing to look at in booking a cruise. Consider themes, celebrity guests, on-board activities, land-based excursions and even which brands cruises partner with. Spencer Brown, the CruiseCritic.com editor, points out that to appeal to parents, Royal Caribbean has partnerships with Fisher-Price toys and Johnny Rockets, the '50s-style burger-and-fries chain, which has devised a kids' menu for the ships. Other Royal Caribbean programs range from "murder mystery" themes for whodunit fans, to "Harley Cruises," in which guests bring their motorcycles on board and then head off on bike tours at every port of call.
Carnival also offers programs appealing to a wide variety of tastes, from a series of cruises for racing fans featuring NASCAR legend Rusty Wallace, to an upscale menu with items like foie gras terrine and petits four designed by a three-star Michelin chef from France, Georges Blanc. The meals are structured so that one person can order a Georges Blanc entree while a diner at the same table can have a regular American-style steak. Some of Blanc's selections will be offered at no extra charge in Carnival's main dining rooms, while others will be offered in the ships' upscale supper clubs, which carry a $30-a-head charge.
Radisson Seven Seas Cruises has an ongoing partnership with Jean-Michel Cousteau - son of the famed ocean explorer Jacques - to provide lectures and excursions related to oceanography and the environment. Other Radisson programs include shopping with experts from the BBC's "Antiques Roadshow" in Turkey, Greece and Rome, and Polynesian island adventures like parasailing, a kayak safari and swimming with stingrays.
"People want to go home and talk about their experiences," said Bob Sharak, CLIA's executive vice president. "People still like to get a suntan, but they also want to go home and say they were up in the trees with howler monkeys."
Programs on Crystal Cruises include talks by celebrities like actress Debbie Reynolds and skater Dorothy Hamill; art classes, such as learning to sculpt using chunks of alabaster; and an onboard gallery of stunning photos of life in China. The images carry the cachet of a big name: They are sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution, which also sends lecturers on Crystal Cruises. This is the first time the museum has sent an exhibit to sea.
MSC Cruises, meanwhile, offers "Baseball Greats," cruises where passengers can interact with Hall of Famers Bob Feller, Ralph Kiner and Earl Weaver. And Holland America is installing culinary arts centers on all of its ships where guests can learn from celebrity chefs, cookbook authors and other experts.
Although the six new ships debuting in '06 will increase the supply of cruises, don't count on prices dropping. The cruise industry has been able to maintain a 102 percent capacity (which means every cabin is occupied, and a few rooms house more than two people) for the past few years despite an increase in berths. Prices have crept up, but you can still cruise for four or five nights (depending on itinerary and room) for under $500, especially in fall, early spring and other off-peak times.
According to CLIA's 2004 survey, 70 percent of cruisers plan their trips at least four months in advance. So if your heart is set on a date or destination, "it's a good idea to book as early as possible to guarantee the itinerary of the ship and the cabin you want," said Sharak. "Typically you also get better deals when you book early."