By Anita Dunham-Potter Travel columnist
updated 9/21/2009 11:59:42 AM ET 2009-09-21T15:59:42

Looking to getaway this winter? What could be more fun than sailing to an exotic port while the folks back home are shoveling snow?

More than 10 million North Americans will set sail this year, making cruises the fastest growing segment of the travel industry. More cruise ships are afloat and more departure ports exist than ever before. Even better, all this extra capacity means better deals. How do you get the best one? Here are five tips.

Tip 1: First-time cruiser? Get a good travel agent
If you are a first-time cruiser you’ll want to find a qualified and highly-recommended travel agent to help you get started. Booking a cruise is a confusing purchase and unlike booking a hotel room or airline ticket there are many things to consider when picking a cruise vacation, which includes choosing the best itinerary and cruise line for your budget.

There are a number of factors that can impact your enjoyment of a cruise. For example, choosing the right stateroom. Accommodations on the same ship or even the same deck can be very different. Likewise, some cruise lines are better than others if you are elderly, have special needs, or are traveling with children. “A true cruise specialist will be able to match you with the best ship and deal,” says Stewart Chiron, a cruise industry expert who is nationally recognized as The Cruise Guy.

How to find a qualified cruise agent? Visit Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) Web site where you can find a certified travel agent in your area by typing in your zip code.

Tip 2: Cruise the Web for deals
If you’re an experienced cruiser, you may want to book your cruise on your own. Large online cruise discount agencies offer some of the lowest cruise rates anywhere. Travel megasites like Expedia, Orbitz and Travelocity often have excellent deals as well, particularly on last-minute cruises. Even the cruise lines themselves offer enticing online deals especially to customers who’ve sailed before. Either way, plan on doing some research on the Web.

Tip 3: Document check
Some cruise lines allow passengers to fill out immigration and other pre-departure documentation online, which can speed up boarding. Nonetheless, it is always your responsibility to make sure if your cruise itinerary requires a passport, birth certificate or visa.

U.S. citizens need a passport for cruises that stop at ports in South America, Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia and Antarctica. Additionally, U.S. citizens who travel by air to the Caribbean, Canada, Mexico and Bermuda to catch their ship must have a passport.

Top 10 short cruise vacationsHowever, if you are cruising to and from the Caribbean, Bermuda, Mexico, and Canada from a U.S. port you do not need a passport — this is deemed a “closed loop” voyage. A “closed loop” voyage or itinerary occurs when a vessel departs from a U.S. port or place and returns to the same U.S. port upon completion of the voyage. Per the WHTI Land and Sea Final Rule, travelers on “closed loop” voyages are not subject to the same documentary requirements for entry to the United States as other travelers.

If your voyage falls under the closed loop rule you only need to carry a government-issued photo ID (such as a driver’s license) and a certified birth certificate (children traveling with an adult require a birth certificate as well). A certified birth certificate has a registrar’s raised, embossed, impressed or multicolored seal, registrar’s signature, and the date the certificate was filed with the registrar’s office, which must be within one year of your birth.

Keep in mind this rule is for U.S. citizens cruising from a U.S. port. If you are taking one way itineraries you will have to have a passport. For example, if you start a cruise in Vancouver or Seattle and end in Seward or Whittier Alaska you must have a passport. Ditto for cruises starting in Los Angeles and ending in Acapulco, cruises starting in Miami and ending in Barbados, or cruises starting in Quebec and ending in New York City — you’ll need a passport.

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Although many countries require only a passport, some call for U.S. citizens to get visas, too. Newer ports of call in Brazil, Turkey, and Russia require them. There’s a difference with Turkey and Russia: Turkey allows cruise ships to acquire “blanket visas” that cover all passengers and Russia allows guests of cruise ships to bypass a visa if they tour with approved tour operators. However, if you want to see the sites of Russia sans tour guide you will need a Russian visa.

Another thing to keep in mind when applying for a visa is that some Middle Eastern and African countries will not issue visas or allow entry if your passport indicates travel to Israel. Also, some countries like South Africa require blank pages for entry/exit stamps.

Tip 4: Insure your vacation
Most cruise lines offer travel insurance, as do several independent third-party insurers like Access America, Travel Guard and Travelex, to name a few.

Most travel insurance policies include coverage for five kinds of problems: trip cancellation (or interruption), trip delay, emergency medical expenses, emergency medical evacuation and lost or stolen luggage. There are even new policies offered that have cancel for any reason and job loss protection.

It’s important to understand that ordinary medical insurance coverage doesn’t travel the same way aboard ship as it does within the United States. Sometimes coverage doesn’t extend to foreign travel at all. Medicare beneficiaries should always purchase travel insurance when they cruise, because they do not have Medicare coverage outside the country.

Another consideration: medical evacuation and transportation services, which are seldom covered by ordinary medical insurance policies. According to MedjetAssist, an Alabama-based evacuation operation, domestic air medical evacuation services average $10,000 to $20,000, while international transports can exceed $75,000. If you travel more than once a year, consider buying an annual policy; both MedjetAssist and Travel Guard offer this kind of policy, which can be purchased for as little as $185 a year.

Tip 5: Watch onboard spending
While you can easily find a reasonable cruise, even for $50 to $100 day per person (which includes accommodation, food, and entertainment), be aware that you most probably will face additional fees. 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. This is more prevalent as ships get bigger offering more spending opportunities like specialty dining and enrichment programs.

Finally, tipping is expected — the norm is $10-$12 per person, per day for your cabin steward, dining room waiter, assistant dining room waiter. There is usually an additional discretionary tip for the Maitre‘d.

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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