These websites help you choose the right cruise ship

LA Times | Travel

It seems as though everywhere you look you'll find a bargain -- department stores, auto dealerships and especially cruise lines. Thanks to the economic downturn and the number of new ships, this year the deals on the high seas are particularly good, says Pauline Frommer, author of Pauline From...

By Vani Rangachar // 01.21.09

It seems as though everywhere you look you'll find a bargain -- department stores, auto dealerships and especially cruise lines.

Thanks to the economic downturn and the number of new ships, this year the deals on the high seas are particularly good, says Pauline Frommer, author of Pauline Frommer's Travel Guides and a budget travel guru.

Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor in chief of CruiseCritic, a website devoted to cruising, says, "I don't think [prices] can go a whole lot lower. Cruise lines are pulling out all the stops." You'll find "really scandalous deals" close in, for example, in the Caribbean, she says.

Indeed, some websites are advertising cabins for as little as $40 a day per person.

But hold off for a bit before clicking that "buy" button.

Buying a cruise vacation is about more than getting the best deal, Frommer says. Cruises have personalities, and you have to find the line that suits you. Otherwise, you could be stuck on a ship you hate with no possible exit.

If you are a first-time cruiser, don't book online, Spencer Brown says. "You have to be careful," she says. If you have special needs -- you're a family with three kids, a solo traveler or have dietary restrictions, "anything outside the two-person box" -- you won't get tailored advice, she says.

A bricks-and-mortar agency will be able to tell you "Cabin 8034 is not good because it is over the disco," she says. But "if you've done Holland America every year, go for it" and book online, Spencer Brown says.

Just remember the cardinal rule of buying travel on the Internet: "Research, research, research," Frommer says.

To save you some time, we spent hours on the Internet to find sites to help you get started:

1. This site is one of the old-timers of the Web world, well respected and popular, and no wonder. It's one of the best consumer sites, dense with ship reviews, member message boards and cruise news. It has a soup-to-dessert approach to cruising and should be a first stop for anyone thinking of setting sail.

Worth visiting for: Message boards with comments, complaints and reviews from passengers. These are experienced cruisers who proudly list their cruises like medals on a uniform. Be careful or you'll be sucked in for hours.

2. This site isn't a cruise-only site, but travelers will find comprehensive profiles of ships and lines, including deck maps, ship reviews, amenities listings and virtual photographic tours.

Worth visiting for: The color-coded cruise calendars showing what ship is sailing when, the detailed deck maps (so you can find your cabin and the disco and see how far the elevator is) and reviews.

3. This brainchild of a travel agent is the Joe Friday of cruise sites: "Just the facts, ma'am." It has A-to-Z guides on ships and ports with photos, maps, climate info and fact files.

Worth visiting for: The photography, which is encyclopedic in its coverage. You'll see many angles on exteriors and interiors of the ships and ports. Unfortunately, they are devoid of humanity.

4. This is a deep site for those looking for more than the 411 on ships. You'll find message boards, articles for such niche cruisers as gays and lesbians, families and singles, and informative blogs. It's easy to navigate.

Worth visiting for: The articles. Publisher Paul Motter and his crew are unabashed fans of the cruise lines, so they know cruising and share. Be sure to check out the Consumer Affairs section.

5. After navigating CruiseCritic, CruiseSavvy felt a little like L.A. after a winter rainstorm: clean, clear and soothing. But the site is more show than substance. Member journals were mostly photos with very little info, and ship reviews were thin. The editors make a point of being anonymous, so their blog was perplexing; it has personality but you don't know whose. Also, posts are not dated so you don't know how fresh they are.

Worth visiting for: The consumer articles on such topics as "Intro to Cruising," "Choosing Your Cruise" and "Know Before You Go" are clearly written and informative for novice cruisers. The site says it provides "unbiased cruise information based on the experiences of real cruisers."

6. Another online community of cruise fanatics, though not as active as CruiseCritic's members. Reviews by some read like journal entries; some are useful. The site's editors welcome media trips (paid for by the cruise line), so read their comments and reviews with that in mind.

Worth visiting for: Cruise cams, the packing list, member photo albums (at least one that had no ship in sight, only holiday decorations).

7.: This new networking site for gays and lesbians who love to cruise has the usual blogs and forums. But its target audience gives it a novel twist on other cruise sites.

Worth visiting for: Thorough profiles, detailing planned cruises, members can meet other like-minded passengers before setting sail. You can find potential cabin mates here too.

8. This is the consumer website for the Cruise Lines International Assn., whose 23 members represent most of the lines sailing from North America. Most of the information is a promotion for cruising.

Worth visiting for: The links to tourism boards, port info and other useful sites.

So you've done your homework, and now it's time to buy. How do you find a good site among the thousands sailing the e-seas? See the checklist box (above) and check out these sites (below).

9. This site is an auction in reverse. You don't bid; the cruise agencies do. You'll also find deals and ship profiles, but the latter are not substantive.

Worth visiting for: Visit this site when you know when and where you want to cruise and which line or ship. The site claims it has more than 300 agencies that will compete for your dollars. Don't like what you see? You don't have to buy.

10. Other booking sites: There are plenty of other worthy booking sites to comparison shop. Among them: