A leisurely cruise aboard a luxury ship or expedition vessel usually provides a satisfying and comfortable vacation for older travelers, with all basic expenses included in one price. And most cruise ships have an attentive service staff that makes a special point of looking out for senior cruisers.
Cruises are easier for senior travelers than motor-coach tours because passengers need to pack and unpack only once during the trip rather than every time the tour changes hotels. An air-sea package with transfers usually includes the services of cruise line representatives who meet arriving planes and supervise transportation from the airport to the ship or an interim hotel.
The key is to spend time and attention selecting the right ship and itinerary. For example, anyone who uses a wheelchair or tires easily climbing stairs needs to examine the deck plan of the ship to make sure elevators access all the public areas.
Many older single women choose cruise ships that offer a staff of gentlemen hosts who ask single ladies to dance in the lounges before and after dinner, as well as acting as bridge partners or escorts for passenger groups going ashore.
Cruise lines that carry dance hosts include American Hawaii Cruises, Celebrity Cruises, Commodore Cruise Line, Delta Queen Steamboat Co., Holland America Line, Norwegian Cruise Line, Orient Lines, Premier Cruises, Regal Cruises, Royal Olympic Cruises and Silversea Cruises. To avoid the singles surcharge that most cruise lines add for one person occupying the space of two, look for ships that have a few single cabins, such as American Hawaii's Independence, Commodore's Enchanted Isle, Cunard's QE2 and Vistafjord, Norwegian Cruise Line's Norwegian Majesty, Orient Lines' Marco Polo or Regal Cruises' Regal Empress. Crystal Cruises usually charges a smaller surcharge--115%--than other lines, which charge 150% to 200% of the per-person, double-occupancy price.
Lines such as Carnival, Celebrity, Cunard, Delta Queen, Holland America, Norwegian Cruise Line, Princess, Royal Caribbean and Royal Olympic provide a singles share program that provides a roommate of the same sex and general age range.
Make certain, too, that the cabin category you're considering provides two lower beds rather than an upper and lower berth, as is often the case in the lowest-priced category.
When studying the itinerary, note where the ship will dock--as opposed to where it anchors offshore and takes passengers in by tender (small boat). Going up and down a steep gangway on the side of the ship and transferring to a bobbing launch calls for steady footing. You're better off with a ship that docks at most or all of its ports. (An exception is Norwegian Cruise Line's Norway, which is so large it must anchor offshore in the Caribbean but has a 450-passenger tender that loads passengers level with the gangway doors without any stairs to negotiate.)
If you're concerned about the possibility of a medical emergency, remember that a ship's size and itinerary affect how quickly you can get sophisticated medical care in an emergency. Large ships usually have a bigger medical staff and more facilities. A few, the QE2, for example, even have a landing pad for a helicopter.
Any ocean-going ship carrying more than 12 passengers is required to have a doctor aboard. That does not mean a fully stocked pharmacy is on hand, so passengers must be sure they carry an adequate supply of prescription medications.
If you have any special dietary restrictions, make sure your travel agent sends them to the cruise line at the time of booking. You'll find low-fat, low-calorie and low-salt dishes listed on virtually every ship's menu. Some other tips:
* Try not to radically change your normal eating pattern. For instance, if you eat a large lunch and a light dinner, follow the same pattern aboard.
* Don't sign up for all-day tours or both a morning and afternoon shore excursion in hot island ports; tropical weather can be enervating.
* On deck and when going ashore, always wear comfortable shoes, sunblock and a hat. Natural fibers such as cotton and linen are usually cooler than synthetics.
A free booklet called "Seniors' Guide to Cruising" and a toll-free 24-hour hotline for senior discounts on upcoming cruises are available from the Cruise Line Inc. To order the booklet, call (800) 777-0707; to listen to the prerecorded hotline, ask for Ext. 2613.
Slater and Basch travel as guests of the cruise lines. Cruise Views appears the first and third week of every month.