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Do your homework before booking a cruise

Special to The Los Angeles Times

Taking a cruise can be an easy vacation. You pick a ship, an itinerary, pay and go. But as cruise lines offer an increasingly long list of amenities and accouterments, some at an extra charge, and target specific audiences, you need to do some homework to land a cruise that meets your wants and offers the best bang for the buck.

Here are 10 mistakes a savvy cruiser can avoid:

• Ignoring the sun when booking a cabin. If you've booked a cabin with a balcony and want to enjoy sitting in the sunshine, you will want to know where Old Sol is going to be. If you are taking a voyage north-south, one side of the ship gets morning sun, the other the afternoon sun. If you are crossing the North Atlantic in fall or spring, the sun will rise and set on the south side of the ship, so if you want sun from early morning to late afternoon, book a cabin facing south, choosing the port (left) side going east to west and the starboard (right) side west to east. If you prefer shadows, book the opposite side.

• Expecting fresh fish at dinner. Unless you see sailors trolling off the stern for today's catch, you can assume that most ships were provisioned at the home port. After a couple of days, you can expect that most perishable food came aboard frozen or ripening. This is where the more luxurious lines stand out, flying in fresh fish at port stops.

• Getting lax with sanitary precautions. Aboard ship, wash your hands frequently and always before eating, especially after touching the elevator buttons, door knobs or stairway handrails on the way to the dining room. Use the antibacterial liquids in machines scattered around the ship. With constant washing, cruise ship surfaces are cleaner than most public places. Your fellow passengers are not.

• Leaving the country without a passport or insurance. Even if the cruise line says you don't need a passport, get one just in case you need to return quickly to the United States or obtain help from the State Department outside the country. Don't forget to check your out-of-country medical coverage; you may want to buy short-term insurance. (I also carry medical evacuation insurance.)

• Booking an inaugural cruise without considering the risks. If your goal is to be first on a new ship, buy a cabin on that initial voyage, at least the one that the cruise line says will be the inaugural. But be aware that inaugural cruises are notorious for delays and that the ship may not be completely shipshape. You will certainly encounter crew members who don't yet understand their jobs.

• Underestimating the expenses. On the last evening of your cruise, you will get a bill for onboard expenses charged to your credit card. Basic sustenance is included in the cruise rate, but daily charges can be hefty on the large mass-marketed vessels.

These ships don't nickel-and-dime you anymore; they hit you for 10s, 20s and 100s. You may pay as much for expenses as you do for the cruise, which is something to consider when you compare cruise rates. Amenities are more often included in the rate on the pricier ships.

The big-ticket item for many vacationers is their beverage bill: cocktails and wine with dinner, of course, and also soft drinks and bottled water.

Shore excursions can cost $100 or more. Ice cream parlors, digital arcades, Internet use, spa treatments and some exercise classes can carry extra fees.

With few exceptions, your ship will automatically add to your bill a charge for staff tips, typically at $10 per day per person.

• Failing to ask specific questions about children's programs. If you're taking the children, ask about activities for their age groups on your vacation dates; some cruise lines offer children's programs only at specific times of year.

Some ships are well prepared for children of all ages, with activities and pools in segregated areas; others have no designated zones and fewer trained employees.

On some cruises (notably during school holidays), children are likely to be aboard in large numbers, especially on such family-friendly ships as Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Princess and Norwegian.

If you don't want to be around the little darlings, book your cruise at another time. Ask your travel agent.

• Arranging your own shore excursion without sufficient research. Booking directly with tour operators at port stops can be cheaper and better than what cruise lines offer. But be careful if you decide to roam off the beaten track into a potentially dangerous adventure. Cruise passengers have been injured and have died on excursions on which safety measures were not followed.

Make sure the outfitter has a good reputation (check out TripAdvisor.com and other sites that may have user reviews) and insurance (ask for proof) and that you make sure you have allowed plenty of time to get back to the ship. It may be worth the extra cost to let the cruise line handle the details, just for peace of mind.

• Using elevators aboard ship instead of climbing the stairs. Keeping fit on a cruise is difficult, even with the athletic equipment, treadmills and jogging track. If you can, take advantage of opportunities to exercise, such as using the stairs instead of the elevators. Within a few days, that stairway to the dining room on Deck 12 from your cabin on Deck 5 will seem shorter and easier, and the evening's dessert will be less of an indulgence.

• Heading home without a plan for lunch. Yes, the ship fed you so well that you may need to diet as soon as you get home. But what about the journey home? If you are flying, especially with short connection times, you could be eight to 12 hours without an opportunity for a meal.

Some cruise lines send their passengers home with a box lunch. Some airports offer healthful food for carryout. Make sure you will have something to eat on the way home. At the least, bag some snacks from the breakfast buffet aboard ship.

David Molyneaux, a frequent cruiser, is editor of TravelMavens.net and a blogger at TravelMaven.typepad.com.

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