CRUISING THE WEB FOR DEALS
Chicago Tribune; Chicago, Ill.; Apr 2, 2000

Paul Grimes Special to the Tribune;
(Copyright 2000 by the Chicago Tribune)

Cruising 2000.

Little on the Internet is more mind boggling than shopping for a cruise.

"Hot deals" abound, but it can be extremely difficult to determine what are both truly hot and readily available.

For example, Yahoo, the Internet gateway with links to thousands of Web sites of all sorts, lists several hundred that market cruises. Despite sharp differences among them, it can be hard to tell some apart.

The address of one cruise site is www.icruise.com (also i- cruise.com, but you don't need the hyphen). A second's is www.1cruise.com and a third's is simply www.cruise.com. So if you confuse the letter i with the figure 1 or forget to use either, you'll get results that you didn't expect.

Two companies are named Cruise Center--one in Federal Way, Wash. (www.thecruisecenter.com), and the other in Vernon Hills, Ill. (www.cruisecenterweb.com). And in Millbrae, Calif., there is Cruise Central (www.kwik-link.com/kwik-link/database/cruises.html).

When you try to comparison-shop, you reach the next hurdle. It's often difficult to tell whether one deal is much better than another. The on-line travel agency Preview Travel (www.previewtravel.com) recently offered a seven-day eastern Caribbean cruise on Carnival's mammoth new Triumph at $739 a person. Cruise.com offered it from $715 and Carnival itself (www.carnival.com) from $639. But were they for the same sailings and for the same or similar cabins, situated in the same part of the ship? It was difficult if not impossible to tell.

Icruise.com, based in New York, claims to be the only site that displays a price for every sailing by ship and cabin category and offers up-to-the-minute word on availability. If your dates are flexible, however, you can't tell which of the Triumph's many cruises through the eastern Caribbean offers the best deal unless you examine each sailing separately.

Sometimes one site will really lowball the others for a specific sailing of a specific ship. Why? perhaps the agency has negotiated a super-special deal with the line. Perhaps the agency's area has been targeted as potentially fruitful (although the Internet transcends geographic boundaries). Perhaps it's a targeted last-minute offering, focused on Floridians with flexible schedules and don't need air transportation for sailings from Miami or Ft. Lauderdale.

Meanwhile, technology constantly improves. Live written chats between specialists and potential customers are being pioneered by the Cruise Professionals of Mississauga, Ontario (www.cruiseprofessionals.com), the Vancouver-based agency network Uniglobe (www.uniglobe.com) and an alliance of the on-line agency Travelocity and the luxury travel consortium Virtuoso (www.virtuoso- travelocity.com).

How comprehensive and objective are the cruise sites? That's a good question. All the major cruise lines have sites of their own, typically with photos of cabins and public areas, detailed deck diagrams, schedules, fares and other information. However, few book passage on-line. On the agency side, even those sites that claim to be comprehensive usually favor their so-called preferred suppliers -- those lines that offer them special deals and relatively generous commissions. If you , the consumer, can determine who the preferred suppliers are, it's wise to pick one of them or to shop elsewhere.

The Internet can be very helpful in seeking specialty cruises. When checked recently, Yahoo led to two tour companies that arrange cruises for dialysis patients and five that specialize in gay, lesbian and bisexual passengers.

Many sites review ships and cruises -- by professionals, passengers or both. Reviews range from glowing to the irate, such as the comment that dining room service on a 2,000-passenger superliner was "obtrusiveness masquerading as attentiveness."

An independent site called the Cruise Critic (www.cruisecritic.com), launched in 1995 and recently revamped under the editorship of Sharon Dodd, includes ship profiles, reviews and ratings. The original Cruise Critic, Anne Campbell, has departed and set up a vaguely similar site called Cruise Mates (www.cruisemates.com), with ship ratings and reviews and a substantial list of articles about different aspects of cruising.

Some travel agencies offer their own cruise reviews and ratings in electronic newsletters e-mailed free to subscribers. Among them is Cruiseman On-Line (www.cruiseman.com), edited by Jim Antista of the agency The Cruiseman in Garner, N.C. Meanwhile, a giant agency called Travel Services International, through its new Web site (www.mytravelco.com) is arranging on-line chats with cruise executives, such as Robert Dickinson, president of Carnival.

To get the best flavor of a cruise without sailing on it, nothing in my opinion beats the extensive reports in the CompuServe Travel Forum. You must be a CompuServe subscriber, however, to gain access. Once there, you'll learn how passengers evaluate their own experiences, from excellent to dismal. Many agency and cruise line sites have message boards for passenger questions, answers and comments, but contributions often are sparse. Much livelier is rec.travel.cruise, a discussion newsgroup whose archives exchanges are reachable through www.deja.com (look for the red arrow near the top of the home page). There you'll find mostly questions and answers -- the latter hopefully accurate and interesting.

Cruise lines have been slower than airlines, hotels and auto rental companies in going on-line. But they seem determined to catch up.

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