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Several factors go into choosing a cruise line: price, destination, ship size, onboard amenities and themes. / Doug Armand/Getty Images


Gangway! Cruising is hot, and summer sales are making these getaways even more tempting. Here are tips to enhance your planning, packing and pleasure.

Honestly, it's not all-inclusive

Contrary to many sales brochures, cruises are not all-inclusive. Your cabin, food and passage between ports are included in the fare. These are not: specialty restaurants, alcohol, soft drinks, spa treatments, gambling, shore excursions, tips and many onboard sports activities. Airfare to and from the ship is not included but can often be added on at a discounted price.

Be choosy

Several factors go into choosing a cruise line: price, destination, ship size, onboard amenities and themes. The first question you should answer is, “Who’s going?” Cruises are designed for specific ages and social groups such as families, couples or singles. Then ask yourself, “Where do I want to go?” Finally, “How much can I afford to spend?” And be sure to anticipate at least 20% more than the cruise price for the onboard extras.

Save on travel agents

Make sure in writing that if your fare drops, your travel agent will refund the difference without a fee or penalty, and make sure you can get your deposit back if you cancel by the final payment date. Travel agents will bid for your business on by lowering prices or throwing in free extras.

Yes, buy the travel insurance

You think it will never happen, but plan for illness and accidents requiring hospitalization or evacuation. Ship doctors have the right to quarantine you to your cabin or put you off the ship in a foreign country with no reimbursement if they suspect you could be contagious. Make sure you have extensive insurance coverage that includes not only medical bills, but reimbursement for the unused portion of the trip. When traveling to foreign countries, it’s best to buy evacuation insurance. The companies Global Rescue and Medjet Assist will evacuate you to your home hospital, not just the “closest hospital,” which could be a first-aid clinic in the jungle.

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Dining options

Cruises are known for the quantity of food served, not necessarily the quality. Buffets and “Assigned Seating” dining are the norm, but “Anytime Dining” is becoming more popular. Specialty restaurants usually are not included in the price and require advance reservations. Check your seating location as soon as you board — and tip well to change it. Choose the late seating for dinner if you have shore excursions planned or you won’t have time to change.

Jump on those shore excursions

Shore excursions are always group tours. Reserve them well ahead of your cruise dates because they fill up quickly. If you don’t like bus tours, hire a local taxi to take you on a private tour. Just allow plenty of time to return on time — or the ship will leave without you. When leaving the ship, always take your passport, a credit card and the phone number of the port agent in case you need assistance on land.

Jacket required

Confused over what to wear to dinner on the “formal night” of traditional cruises? Not long ago, tuxedos and gowns were required after dark for first-class passengers on ocean crossings. Today, most ships have loosened the definition of formal dress to include business suits and cocktail dresses. More recently, budget and family cruises are appealing to casual passengers who prefer a relaxed vacation or don’t own formal wear. While each cruise line has its own definition of “formal,” a jacket for men is definitely the minimum.

The next wow: A water park on the sea

For those families who want more fun in the sun, Norwegian’s Breakaway will debut in May 2013, with the most extensive top-deck water park at sea. Features include five three-story water slides, four hot tubs, a kids’ Squirt & Spray Aqua Park, a rock climbing wall and a 40-element ropes course that takes climbers 8 feet over the side of the ship.

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