By Anita Dunham-Potter Travel columnist
updated 10/20/2008 9:20:08 AM ET 2008-10-20T13:20:08

It’s a blissful thought: sailing off into the sunset on a cruise vacation. Cruising can be an exciting and affordable vacation option. Of course, it’s important to find the right cruise at the right price for your getaway. After all, there are more than 160 ships in the fleets of the 24 major cruise lines and thousands of itineraries worldwide.

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Here’s what to consider when selecting your cruise.

Style of ship and cruise line
Cruise lines have their own distinct personalities and ships that reflect them. The size of a ship really does matter. Large ship cruise lines Carnival Cruise Lines and Royal Caribbean International provide a party atmosphere with glitz and high energy. Small ship operators like Silversea Cruises and Seabourn focus on quiet luxury and a more refined experience.

To make sure a line’s usual clientele and ship size is a good match for you, check over the line’s brochures and site. It also doesn’t hurt to visit the bustling online message boards at Cruise Critic and Cruisemates — member postings can offer valuable insight regarding a particular ship and cruise line.

Where to go
Cruise ships can take you almost anywhere on the planet, from the Caribbean or Europe to Asia or Antarctica, so explore a range of possibilities before settling on a preferred route. When you’ve found a trip you love, go over the schedule carefully. If traveling internationally make sure you have valid passports, visas, and any required immunizations.

If you need to fly to your cruise port make sure you allow enough time to get to the ship. Ideally you should try to get to the port at least a day in advance; this added buffer allows you to start off your hard-earned cruise vacation with less stress.

When to go
The holidays, spring break and summer are high season and that usually means higher prices. The shoulder seasons of mid-fall and early spring offer great cruise deals, and may be even more appealing than high season. An Alaska, European or Caribbean cruise in May or September, when the kids are in school, translates into fewer people in port.

Just before and after shoulder season, cruise lines move their ships from one home port to another in a strategic fleet movement that’s called “repositioning.” Of course, those ships don’t move around empty; instead, what you get is a “repositioning cruise” (or “repo cruise”) — a unique, one-way itinerary that is available only once a year. Repositioning cruises are often highly discounted meaning they are a great value.

Lastly, some of the cheapest cruises come during the Caribbean’s hurricane season, particularly in September and October. The price can come at a cost though — your itinerary may be changed and your cruise could be shortened or prolonged.

Pick a stateroom
Consider your itinerary when reserving a stateroom. If you can afford to splurge, a balcony stateroom provides you a private space to relax and get away from the crowded decks. Still, not all cruises are ideal for balconies. A trans-Atlantic crossing doesn’t make a lot of sense for a balcony since the ship is at sea for days and the weather is often cold or too windy to enjoy the space. On the other hand, the appeal of a balcony on an Alaska, Caribbean, European or South American cruise offers amazing scenery that should not be missed. Smaller inside staterooms are adequate for budget-minded cruisers who seem more likely to spend most of their time utilizing the ship’s public spaces.

A great cabin can make or break your cruise. If you’re on a romantic getaway don’t assume you’ll get a bed for two. Check with the cruise line to make sure you reserve a stateroom that offers a queen or king bed option, not fixed twins or pull-down pullman beds.

Lastly, study the ship’s deck plan. Passengers with disabilities might want to book near elevators. Watch out for staterooms with obstructed views — usually the lifeboat deck and those with close proximity to noisy areas like lounges, discos, theaters, pool areas, room service and steward service areas. Staterooms midship on lower decks are best for those prone to seasickness.

Getting the best price
Cruise lines offer travelers a host of discounts, so consider every source when looking for a deal. Check out your credit card as many offer discounts or points towards cruises. Look at all the clubs you belong to, from AAA, airline frequent flier programs and college alumni associations, to union memberships — see if they offer any deals or special rates for members. Also, if you’ve previously cruised with a cruise line you may be in for a repeat cruiser discount.

The majority of cruises are booked by travel agents. Big online agencies like Expedia, Travelocity and Orbitz along with large cruise-only agencies offer competitive prices on a number of cruises. Still, many cruisers prefer to use a local travel agent, but make sure you shop around. Visit Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) at Cruising.org and search by ZIP code. When you talk to an agent, ask about last minute specials and if they are holding any group space on various cruises. But keep in mind for popular itineraries the best prices are often booked months in advance.

Lastly, watch your spending once onboard. Cruise lines do not make the bulk of their profits from the actual cruise fare — they make it from onboard spending options like bar tabs, spa services, shore excursions, and boutique purchases.

Don’t be vexed when choosing a cruise vacation. If you do a little research on options and pricing you can board the ship without a care in the world. And that’s the only way to cruise.

Bon voyage!

Sound off! Do you have a comment, an idea, a complaint or a problem for Anita to solve? Send her an e-mail and you might find yourself in her next column. And check out her blog, ExpertCruiser.com.

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