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Some ABCs to launch informed passengers

If your book-discussion club, church choir or Bucs boosters group reflects the national average, about nine out of 10 of you have never been on a cruise.

This column is for you.

It's also for those readers who have cruised but have questions about the industry's typical practices and operations.

Last year, more than 7-million cruise tickets were sold for U.S. departures, despite a huge slump after Sept. 11. Those passengers sailed aboard the 140 or so ships that called regularly on U.S. ports.

Prompted by a decade-plus of robust growth and customer-satisfaction levels of about 80 percent, the major companies are launching 14 more ships this year.

But with 90 percent of American adults having never sailed, the experience itself can be puzzling. A few noncruisers are even snobbish, not deigning to go aboard. Here is a primer, arranged alphabetically, addressing common concerns.

A is for airfares; can you save money by booking your own rather than having the cruise line fly you to and from the embarkation city?

Cruise companies make so many reservations that they get volume discounts. Also, the cruise lines are aware of flight delays and sometimes hold the ship's departure for late arrivals. However, if the cruise line books your plane ticket, you will seldom get frequent-flier miles, you may not get the most direct routing to the departure port, and you will pay for your own transfer from airport to dock.

Travel Holiday magazine reports that for an additional charge, typically $35 to $50, some cruise lines will arrange nonstop flights and preferred departure times.

B is for balconies; do all ships have them? No, but most of the newer vessels have them by the dozens.

The main benefit of a balcony or verandah: You have a relatively secluded sun deck, where you can have room-service meals, read a book, try for that all-over tan _ and avoid the throngs jamming the pool deck. Balcony cabins cost more.

C is for cabins and crew members, both major components of your trip. We'll talk cabins first.

Beyond having a balcony, the better cabins are close to elevators and stairways, and they are not under or above the disco or casino. To avoid sensing an exaggeration of the ship's motion, book a cabin in the middle of the ship, not too many decks high. To select a cabin, study the deck-by-deck diagrams to understand its location.

Inside cabins are cheaper; if you see the cabin as a place to change clothes and to sleep, and you won't miss looking out a non-opening porthole at the water, book inside.

Now, as for the crew: Who are they and where do they come from?

On all but a handful of ships calling on U.S. ports, you will find few Americans or Canadians working onboard. The overwhelming majority of cabin stewards, dining room waiters and bartenders will be from Central European and Third World nations.

This is because they are eager for any work, even the shipboard standards of low wages and long hours, without union representation. Contracts for most crew members run for six to 10 months.

Workdays can be grueling: Bartenders hop from lounge to lounge depending on their opening hours; waiters reset the tables as soon as the dishes are removed and then try to rest before returning to the dining room for the next multicourse meal. While passengers have the option of leaving the ship at each port of call, crew members are far more restricted.

So you will seldom meet an American or Canadian worker other than entertainers or cruise staff _ those relentlessly perky people cajoling you to join in the pool-side games or dance lessons.

By the way, most casino workers, shipboard photographers and salon staff are Brits, recruited and trained by U.K. concessionaires.

The ship's officers _ those men and women in the spiffy white military-style uniforms _ are most likely citizens of Western Europe. The captains and navigational officers are most likely graduates of the maritime colleges of Norway, Italy, Finland or England.

Ship policy generally allows only these white-uniform types access to all decks, corridors and public rooms. Cabin stewards have their own shipboard version of a hotel's backstairs corridors; similarly you won't see waiters outside the dining areas except when delivering room service.

While tightly restricted against ondeck appearances, the crew does have its own dining areas and bar _ one place the crew can get away from us.

E is for excursions, the chance to do something in an exotic locale other than wander downtown near the dock. One online poll of passengers rated this the No. 1 reason for cruising, with 25 percent ranking it tops.

To add to the lure _ and increase their revenue _ mass-market cruise lines typically schedule numerous shore options. For instance, Celebrity Cruises has 22 excursions during port calls at Cozumel, Mexico; Holland America offers 19 trips after reaching St. Thomas, U.S.V.I.

Cruise companies line up local firms to provide guides, transportation, dive instructors, trains to Alaska's interior, and so on. For this service, the cruise companies charge more than the onshore agents would charge if you simply walked up to the booking office or cab stand.

The trade-off is that the cruise line has made some effort to be sure their onshore providers are responsible and honest. But many passengers don't want the tour-herd mentality of boarding one more minibus and are content to hire their own guides or boats.

Another option attractive to passengers on longer cruises are destination hotel packages before or after the sailings.

F is for fares; why are they often significantly less than those printed in the glossy brochures?

Think new-car sticker price vs. deal-closing amount. Cruise prices fluctuate depending on the itinerary and time of year.

Because of the permutations of dates, itineraries, differences between ships even within a company, and the variety of cabin categories, I recommend using a travel agent to help with the choices and reservations.

Some agencies are "preferred providers" that steer passengers to certain cruise lines and thus gain volume discounts, or the lines may notify these agencies via fax and e-mail of special, short-notice sales.

These agencies can pass some of that discount on to their customers, making them more likely to be repeat clients.

Also, to help win over a customer or to reward a regular one, agencies can ask their cruise sales representatives for significant upgrades in cabin categories. Even the medium-size ships, carrying perhaps 1,800 passengers, can have more than a dozen cabin categories. Size, balconies and location are the main variations aboard any ship.

I is for itineraries; how do cruise executives decide where to send their ships?

The vast majority of cruises depart from Florida, San Juan, Puerto Rico, or America's Pacific coast. With so many large vessels heading to the same islands or ports, the popular ones can get crowded. A Key West shop owner told me in January that 10,000 passengers were expected off five vessels that day.

While the Caribbean has a multitude of islands and coastlines, not every small country wants to be overwhelmed by the arrival two or three times a week of bargain-seeking throngs with little interest in local culture except as a photo-op.

A port must meet certain criteria before a cruise line selects it: It must be safe, there must be sufficient infrastructure to accommodate the visitors _ English-speaking guides, taxi drivers, waiters, handicraft vendors _ and it must offer something beyond one more beach.

The cruise lines are scouting new locations constantly to keep itineraries fresh. Because polls have consistently shown Americans' fear of traveling overseas since Sept. 11, many companies canceled summertime Mediterranean itineraries and are keeping those vessels sailing around North and South America.

The lines have undertaken major efforts to make their ships and passengers more secure _ even arranging to have divers search the ships' hulls for explosives. The companies acknowledge it is easier to maintain a secure perimeter in this hemisphere than in places much closer to the breeding and training grounds of terrorists.

The Holy Grail for itinerary planners is Cuba. The major cruise lines, most of them based near South Florida ports, have contingency plans for their ships to travel that short distance to the island. But executives are loath to admit these plans exist because they don't want to attract the sometimes-violent opposition of Cuban-Americans who would consider that sort of trade to be propping up Fidel Castro's troubled economy.

K is for kids; do they go on cruises, too?

Yep: Carnival Cruise Lines, for instance, expects to have 350,000 children on board its 18 ships this year.

All of the major lines have free activities programs for children, usually organized by age groups from about 3 years to the mid teens. Many vessels offer babysitting for an extra fee.

Many ships have indoor play rooms, computers and juke boxes for children, as well as designated swimming pools. Cabins with children receive a daily activities newsletter.

How long a cruise your children will enjoy probably depends on how easily they make new friends and how willingly they take direction. My two teenage sons move in opposite directions, and while the younger one loves to cruise, his brother grew out of enjoying it at age 15 after cruises on two ships.

Some parents wonder about taking infants and toddlers onboard. Until your child is old enough to qualify for one of the organized sessions, you will be in charge of the little nipper. And yes, there are gaps in the ship railings that line all open decks.

M is for meals _ I didn't make you wait too long, did I?

Despite the anecdotes, it is not quite 24-hour eating. Generally, there are snacks and sweets available between the three major meals, with the famed midnight buffet looming. These extravaganzas, very heavy on desserts, tend to be for show as much as for satisfying hunger. Some ships actually stage a photo opportunity, allowing guests to parade, snap pictures of and drool at the ornate carvings (made from ice, fruits and colored lard) and platters of chocolates and pastries.

That online poll of passengers cited above found that only 7 percent said that what they most liked about cruising was the food. Regular cruisers can probably identify with that, for most ships' dining rooms are notable for quantity, not quality.

There have been major efforts in recent years to add more continental touches to the many courses, to offer duck, lamb and fish instead of just beef, chicken and lobster.

Diversity is also being added with special-cuisine restaurants _ steak houses, Italian, Asian _ aboard the newest large ships. Nutrition-conscious offerings are noted on most menus.

A recent innovation is eliminating traditional assigned seating for dinners. Designated "freestyle" dining, this substitutes come-when-you-want/sit-where-you-want for the usual early and late dinners at specified tables.

On page 2E today is a long list of ships, with a numerical score for each. This is supplied by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which is charged with inspecting the galley _ the kitchen _ of any ship with a certain minimum number of passenger berths that calls on a U.S. port.

These inspections are to be carried out at least once every six months, if the ship is in a U.S. port that often. Dozens of mini-inspections are involved: How close are hot and cold prepared foods set next to each other before being served, how cold are the walk-in refrigerators, where are the cleaning solutions and tools kept vis-a-vis the food, etc.

The maximum score is 100; 85 is considered unacceptable. But unless there is concern by the federal inspectors that a ship's galley could be spreading disease, the ship will be allowed to leave port.

There are a few, annually revised, cruise-ship guidebooks that make ratings of ships. But no author can visit all of these ships each year and compare everything from cabin size to level of entertainment to variety in itineraries to menu quality.

I advise potential passengers to consult both a guidebook and a travel agent; ask the agent when the last time was that he or she sailed on that ship.

T is for tipping; do you really need to give all those tips?

Consult the information above about the crew's hours and low wages, and you are likely to agree with the cruise lines' typical "recommended" tip of $3 or $3.50 a day for your cabin steward and your waiter.

Some lines, such as Holland America, tell passengers that tipping is optional, while others supply a set of envelopes to stuff with cash before dinner the last night on board. Some drinkers like to tip a favorite bartender early on the cruise, to guarantee a heavy hand during the pouring.

The choice to tip or not is always yours.