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Popular European cruises are filling up fast

Few regions of the world are as perennially popular for cruisers as Europe. And if you've been thinking about cruising there this year, you may want to put your thoughts into action and book that cruise toute de suite.

In fact, early bookings for this year's European cruises, which sail from late spring through early fall, are already so brisk that cruise executives predict the choicest cabins could sell out soon. And because these folks know a good thing when they see one, you're not likely to see European cruises steeply discounted.

Also there is virtually no increase this year in the overall number of berths there (with the exception of a new Royal Caribbean Cruise Line ship that will debut in Europe this summer). However, the variety of European cruise options is vast.

Choices range from mainstream cruise ships and boutique luxury vessels to riverboats, barges and sailing ships. Although a knowledgeable travel agent can be an indispensable resource to help you narrow those choices, so can knowing what is important to you for a vacation.

For instance, do you prefer intensive sightseeing and lengthy time in port? Perhaps an educational experience on a ship with guest lecturers is more to your liking. Or maybe you enjoy a large ship with an abundance of fitness facilities and entertainment. You even might consider which of these suits you better: a laid-back ship with a relaxed dress code or a more formal, elegant vessel.

Also, cruises in Europe appeal not just to Americans; expect an international mix. And while the cosmopolitan flavor found aboard some ships in Europe appeals to many American passengers, others may prefer their cruise experience more homogenized. It's important to choose the ship that fits your preference. Such household names as Princess and Holland America, for example, deliver reliable and consistent cruising styles that appeal to North Americans.

If you're toying with the notion of cruising on a lesser-known ship, you might be thrown a curve or two. Most passengers aboard Costa Cruises' European sailings, for instance, are Europeans, and shipboard announcements, and sometimes even shore excursions on these vessels, can be delivered in five languages.

Also, expect to find more smokers among European passengers. This is particularly true aboard Europe's large fleet of riverboats, which are popular with European vacationers.

If your travel tastes run to education, consider ships that offer guest lecturers. Until recently, expert lecturers were featured mostly on the small, luxury yachtlike vessels of such lines as Seabourn and Silversea Cruises. But this year, more lines are expanding their roster of guest speakers. All European sailings of Holland America's Statendam, for example, include on-board lecturers with in-depth knowledge of the regions visited. For example, lecturers in Cunard's Royal Viking Sun's "Insight Series" are members of the Smithsonian Institution's education branch and are wizards on history, architecture and archaeology.

Swan Hellenic's 300-passenger Minerva, which entered service last year, has high levels of enrichment. One of the first ships to return to Dubrovnik, Croatia, it carries top-flight lecturers aboard all its cruises. The experts accompany small groups ashore.

Often cruise lines give short shrift to major European cities from which their cruises begin or end. Passengers who fly to such cities as Athens or Barcelona to begin a cruise might not get a chance to see much. So consider making the most of your vacation with a cruise/tour package. Cruise/tours usually include the voyage, pre- and/or post-cruise hotel stays with transfers and round-trip air fare between the United States and the European ports of embarkation and disembarkation.

From May to October, two-week cruise/tours between Istanbul and Rome on Orient Line's Marco Polo, for example, include a seven-day Greek Island/Turkey cruise, three-night hotel stay in Istanbul, two nights in Rome and a half-day of sightseeing in both cities.

During May and September, Orient also offers voyages aboard the 500-passenger Ocean Majesty, a ship it has chartered for the Eastern Mediterranean. It features an all-English-speaking staff and a casual dress code.

Other lines offering cruises with tours include Royal Olympic Cruises, formed by the merger of Sun Line and Epirotiki, and Renaissance Cruises, which operates 114-passenger yachtlike ships in the Greek Isles, Scandinavia and Russia, and the Eastern Mediterranean.

Renaissance also has chartered the Aegean I, an informal ship that can carry 500 passengers. The ship has a casual dress policy and English is the first language. The line markets the Aegean I to Americans looking for Mediterranean/Aegean vacations at moderate cost. Starting prices of $1,499 for a five-day sailing include two-night pre- and post-hotel stays and air fare from New York. Fares do not include taxes or port charges, which can add several hundred dollars.

Even mainstream cruise lines are getting into the vacation-extender act. Princess, for example, which offers standard pre- and post-cruise hotel stays, is offering passengers some novel opportunities, such as a six-night package linking a three-night hotel stay in London with three nights in Paris, including transportation between the two cities on a high-speed train. And an intriguing pre-cruise option on all Crystal Harmony Europe voyages offers a four-day stay at actor Jane Seymour's 14th-century manor house, near Bath and Stonehenge.

Although most passengers on European sailings are generally older, you may be cruising with the kids. You're in luck: RCCL, whose extensive facilities for families include combined staterooms and teen discos, will debut the 1,950-passenger Enchantment of the Seas in Europe on July 13. The ship will call in Spain, Portugal, the Canary Islands, France and Italy on alternating seven-night itineraries that can be combined into 14-night vacations without duplicating any ports of call.

For more information on these and other European sailings, contact a travel agent.