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Panama Canal cruises abound during spring, fall

(ran HT, PT, NP, TP, SP editions)

Question: This year for our 50th wedding anniversary, we are planning a trip through the Panama Canal. Are there any ships, either regular passenger cruise ships or freighters, that operate out of Key West or any South Florida ports that go through the canal?

How can we get information on freighters that carry passengers? _ Mr. and Mrs. J.M., Harrisburg, Pa.

Answer: The best time for you to take the cruise is in spring or fall, when you will have a good choice of ships on transcanal cruises from the Port of Miami, Port Everglades, Tampa and San Juan, Puerto Rico. Most are on positioning cruises, heading for the summer season in Alaska, and will return through the canal to Florida in early fall. These one-way cruises last from about 12 to 17 days, after which passengers fly home or extend their cruises to include Alaska.

Among the ships:

From Port Everglades: Ryndam, Statendam and Westerdam of Holland America Line, and the Dynasty of Cunard Line.

From Miami, Norwegian Crown of Norwegian Caribbean Line, Crown Princess, Sky Princess, Star Princess and Sun Princess of Princess Line.

From Tampa, Tropicale of Carnival Cruises and Noordam of Holland America Line.

From San Juan, Crystal Harmony of Crystal Cruises, Windward of Norwegian Caribbean Line, and Regal Princess of Princess Line. All of these are subject to change.

For freighter information, the best source is Ford's Freighter Travel Guide, 19448 Londelius St., Northridge, CA, updated twice a year. Price is $14.95 for one issue, $20 to get both yearly catalogs, including postage. Some bookstores stock these guides. All of the world's freighter travel opportunities are listed.

In some places, especially away from the coasts, it's hard to find a travel agent who is knowledgeable about cruising. You can do some self-education by checking big cruise-only agencies that operate nationally using toll-free phone numbers. For a listing of member firms, send a request along with a self-addressed stamped envelope to the National Association of Cruise-Only Travel Agencies, 3191 Coral Way, Suite 630, Miami, FL 33145. Or call (305) 663-5626.