If you're thinking about cruising for the first time or want to book your next cruise vacation, chances are excellent you'll explore online to find out your options. You will not be disappointed, either. There is a great deal of information about cruising online. Just know one thing: a lot of that material is produced by the cruise industry itself.
You can not blame the major cruise lines for having very detailed websites about their own offerings, but there are also travel agencies and other travel insiders who run websites with reviews and encouragement about cruising. While these sites often offer great information and are accurate, you have to realize that they have an agenda. They want you to book a cruise.
The Internet is kind of like TV, but with no distinction between the commercials and the programming. It's actually like having a TV where some of the coolest programs turned out to be commercials and some of the short two-minute announcements in-between turned out to be programming.
So how do you know who to trust? In my opinion, you can trust all of the cruise company websites and affiliated sites (many of them also have blogs and related sites) but look for two things.
First, you want to see the company take clear ownership of the site. In other words, if you go to the Princess Cruises web site, you should know you're at the website run by Princess Cruises. Whatever business is behind the website should identify itself clearly on the site.
The second thing is you should recognize, as a savvy consumer, that you're hearing from a company that wants your business. Beyond that-business-run sites are great.
I actually visit cruise sites all of the time to learn about new itineraries, ports of call, and special sales. You can even use some of these sites to get an "inside look" at the state rooms, plans of the ships, and destination details. I can not imagine booking a cruise without these sites.
You can also find plenty of sites with more general information about cruising that provide you with descriptions of many different packages from different companies. Some of these are run by travel companies who make money when you book a cruise-no matter what brand you pick. Again, these sites are great as long as you know who is running them and why.
Many sites offer the opportunity for various passengers to "review" or comment on a cruise vacation. I'm always a little wary of these for a few reasons.
First, way back when I first started out as a writer I was a theater reviewer. Reviewing is much harder than you think. A good reviewer has to balance her specific experiences against a broader picture. A professional reviewer has to keep in mind that what he's evaluating has to be framed within the context of what its creators intended and keep any personal preferences out of the mix. For instance, a chocoholic reviewer has to be able to give a fair review to vanilla, even if he'd never pick that flavor in a million years. For example, "The Dark Knight" was hailed by many as a great movie, but I do not care for that genre. A good reviewer has to be able to rise above personal preferences and even specific experiences to craft a review that will be useful to most readers.
A lot of amateur reviewers tend to be extremists. They either rave and wax poetic (if they had a good time or met some great people) or savagely berate (if things were not exactly the way they expected them to be). I've read cruise reviews where a passenger howls because she called for extra towels and they were not delivered immediately or reviewers who slam the entire line if their medium-rare steak was delivered medium. A professional reviewer might note such things but they would only factor into the review if a pattern emerged of substandard service.
So how can you learn about cruises online?
The best first stop for getting information is to go to the big, splashy websites run by the cruise lines because they have definitely put the best and most effort in making sure you have a fun, convenient, and informative online experience. After all, they want you to get to know their product. There is not a better place anywhere for you to get all the details (and great images) of any specific cruise, but you need to remember that you are visiting a source that wants you to spend your money … with them.
Next, visit sites runs by businesses affiliated with the travel industry but keep in mind that they may be trying to steer you to a particular purchase.
Take all passenger-written reviews with a grain of salt-make that all reviews. You know that two people on the exact same cruise can have very different experiences.
Travel guides and books or TV programs by third-parties are great sources of information because these folks have the luxury of not caring whether or not you take a cruise. They just want to give you some information about what you've got to know for cruising.