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Step 1: Narrow your options

The cruise industry is so diverse that you can go on several cruises and have a completely different experience on each. To make the booking process simpler, the first step is to decide what type of vacation experience you want. You can cruise on one of Carnival's or Royal Caribbean's megaships where you'll have a choice of onboard activities from rock climbing to ice skating, but you may feel anonymous surrounded by thousands of fellow passengers. Or you can choose a more intimate ship where the staff and guests will all know your name, but there won't be a casino or theater for after-dinner entertainment.

After that, the most important considerations are where you want to cruise, how long your vacation will be, and when you will take your trip. The Caribbean is one of the best destinations for first-time cruisers and younger travelers. Long voyages to exotic destinations such as South America, Asia, and Africa attract an older, wealthier crowd. Alaska is ideal for active vacationers, and Europe is well-suited to travelers who yearn for long days of sightseeing.

Decide whether you want a short getaway (better if you live close to your departure port or have never cruised), a five- to seven-night trip (the most popular lengths), or a two-week vacation (not recommended for first-time cruisers). Also, think about whether you want to leave an extra day or two to explore the city from which your ship will depart.

If you're flexible on travel dates, you might want to avoid busier school vacation weeks, or choose a time based on weather or available deals. Also remember that while you can cruise some destinations year-round, like the Caribbean, others only offer seasonal sailings. For example, if you have your heart set on a voyage through Alaska's Inside Passage, you'll have to cruise in the summertime. No matter when you cruise, check weather forecasts to determine whether your planned vacation will occur during cooler months or hurricane season, and decide whether the possibility of less-than-ideal weather should affect your travel dates.

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