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Eight great websites every cruiser should know

SmarterTravel

It seems like every travel website wants to sell you a cruise. Most cruise lines take reservations through their websites, the big travel consolidators like Expedia and Travelocity will book your sailing in addition to your plane ticket and hotel, and even the airlines will sell you a cruise (and give you frequent flyer miles as a thank you).

With such a traffic jam of cruise-planning websites, it’s hard to know where to turn for helpful information and easy booking. I’ve sorted through dozens of cruise sites to find eight standouts—four for information and four for booking. With these sites, plus SmarterTravel.com’s Cruise section, bookmarked, you should have no problems planning a fabulous vacation at sea.

Cruise Critic

Cruise Critic (a sister site of SmarterTravel) is one of the foremost cruise websites on the Internet. Its editorial content includes cruise line and ship reviews, news briefs, port guides, and a variety of features to help you plan your next cruise.

The website also includes a wealth of reader-generated content. Its message boards are always active with cruisers asking and answering questions, commenting on recent cruise line policies and cruise news, and arranging meet-ups with other cruisers booked on the same sailings. It also features reader reviews, so visitors can compare an editor’s experience with that of the traveling public to gain a more accurate depiction of each ship.

Favorite Feature: The experienced cruisers posting to the message boards can answer practically any cruising question.
Could improve: The deals in the “Bargains” section lack editorial comments explaining whether the offer is actually a true bargain or not.

CruiseMates

CruiseMates is another online publication devoted to cruising. Its strength lies in its specialty sections, with articles on single, family, gay and lesbian, teen and kids, luxury, and first-time cruising. It also offers both editorial and reader reviews of cruises.

The site has many interactive features, including message boards and an online chat feature for scheduled sessions with the CruiseMates editors. Visitors can post photos of their recent trips or search for fellow cruisers on past and future sailings. Its three email newsletters deliver deals to your inbox, often with useful comments by Paul Motter, the site’s editor.

Favorite feature: The articles on different kinds of niche cruising make it easy to learn about cruises of interest to you.
Could improve: Articles sometimes seem overly positive about cruising and lack unbiased editorial criticism.

ShipParade

ShipParade puts a new spin on the cruise review website. The heart of the site is its photos—hundreds of pictures of the inside and outside of practically every cruise ship afloat, as well as ports-of-call. But Bart de Boer’s pet website isn’t just a photo gallery. Coupled with the pictures are ship reviews, port descriptions, and advice for cruisers.

The ShipAlphabet lets you search for ships in alphabetical order to view photos and statistics. The PortAlphabet combines photos with helpful tips for navigating each port-of-call. The reviews include many photos, details of the ship, and de Boer’s firsthand cruise experience.

Favorite Feature: A beautiful design makes each page look like a magazine spread, rather than an Internet site.
Could improve: The site’s light blue text on a dark blue background can be hard to read.

John Heald’s Blog

When Carnival Freedom Cruise Director John Heald took to the blogosphere, no one anticipated how popular his blog would be. As of June, the blog was among the top 100 most visited blogs on WordPress.com. Heald writes about his daily life aboard the Freedom, including stories of the adventures he has and the people he meets. He gives the inside scoop on the Carnival cruise experience.

Heald also answers cruising questions from readers. His blog contains photos of the ship and its destinations, as well as company news and interviews with other Carnival employees. If you love Carnival or want to know more about this line, you’ll probably find Heald’s blog entertaining and informative.

Favorite Feature: The no-holds-barred writing style means readers get the uncensored truth about onboard goings-on.
Could improve: The postings are long, making it difficult to dig out a specific piece of information. In addition, when Heald ventures into topics such as other Carnival ships and itineraries, his writing can begin to read like a Carnival sales brochure.

Cruises Only

CruisesOnly is one of the many cruise sites operated by World Travel Holdings, and it’s one of their best. The website is very easy to navigate and contains a ton of information. You can search for cruise fares through a typical search tool, or you can look specifically for last-minute, close-to-home, holiday, group, weekend, or balcony and suite deals.

In addition to a clean interface, the website has many pages of useful information for first-time cruisers. The About Cruising section has articles on the basics of taking a cruise vacation, and the Cruise Lines section provides expert and user reviews of the various lines and their ships. The Reviews & Ratings tool makes it easy to narrow down the many reviews to the ones applicable to your travel plans.

Favorite Feature: You can search for cruise deals in a variety of ways.
Could improve: The homepage is a little busy, but once your eyes adjust, you can easily locate the sections you want to read.

CruiseCompete.com

CruiseCompete.com offers a unique booking tool for cruisers who don’t want to spend the time needed to ferret out a great price on a cruise. Customers create an online account, and submit a quote request for a specific sailing or date. More than 300 travel agencies see each request, and agents will respond to your online account with their best fares. Instead of searching for the best deals online, would-be cruisers can sit back and let the deals come to them.

CruiseCompete also provides a list of cruise specials based on line, destination, or cruise theme. Customers still need to submit a quote to learn full details of each special offer.

Favorite Feature: No other site puts your cruise request in front of so many travel agents.
Could improve: Although it provides simple cruise line and ship reviews, CruiseCompete does not offer many informative articles to help cruisers choose the right sailing.

CruiseDirect

CruiseDirect is an online cruise agency with a newly revamped website. The new-and-improved site is quite easy to navigate—the pages contain lots of information without being too busy, and the multiple tabs make it easy to go back and forth between related pages. From the homepage, you can choose to search for sailings, view highlighted deals, or click on links to more information.

The Destinations section offers descriptions of ports, as well as maps, cruise calendars, weather, photos, and the best deals to the selected region. The Cruise Lines section provides ship information and reviews, as well as cruise calendars and deals. There are also special sections for last-minute cruises and group cruises.

Favorite Feature: Every informational page lists relevant deals at the bottom so you don’t need to click again to find what you want.
Could improve: The calendar function on CruiseDirect’s search tool is cumbersome, making it frustrating to search for a cruise months in advance. The Cruise Finder advanced search is much easier to use.

ShoreTrips

If you’re seeking an alternative to cruise line excursions, look to ShoreTrips for additional options. You can book full- and half-day trips with hundreds of tour operators in a variety of cruise destinations through this website. Just click on a region, then select a port to see the abundance of tours available for booking.

The website lists detailed descriptions of each trip, including price, departure days and times, special instructions, and traveler reviews. You can book tours directly or ask your agent to handle the ShoreTrips booking for you. You’ll need to register with the site in order to book, but once you do, you can create a TripPlanner and keep a list of all the tours you’re considering in one place.

Favorite feature: The helpful TripPlanner tool lets you keep all your potential and booked tours in one place for easy access.
Could improve: Although prices in general seem competitive, the Europe tours seem especially expensive—most likely because they’re either private tours or van tours rather than massive bus tours.

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