With ever more new cruise ships and new package deals to fill them - even experienced sailors often need a little guidance to navigate among them. Here are some publications that can help.
Only smiling faces and alluring descriptions to entice you aboard characterize the Cruise Vacation Planner produced by the industry's Cruise Lines International Association. But then, that's its job. For a free copy, call 888-Y-CRUISE.Considerably more substantial is Porthole, a slick year-old magazine created by a Fort Lauderdale, Fla., publisher whose mission is to promote cruising among both newcomers and old salts. It's heavy with ads but isn't funded by the industry, according to managing editor Lesley S. Abravanel. Porthole prints readers' comments and criticisms as well as its own ship reviews and timely free-lance articles (there's a piece in the current issue about the Titanic). Readers regularly find news about cruise promotions, destinations and itineraries (including self-piloted boating adventures and tall-ship journeys). Every issue has a directory of cruise-related Web sites and a question-and-answer column by Gavin MacLeod, who played the captain on the TV series "The Love Boat" and is now a spokesman for Princess Cruises (which helps with the replies). You'll find the magazine on newsstands; or for a peek, visit (http:www.porthole.com).
The Shipboard Cruiser is a 5-year-old monthly based in Orlando, Fla., with detailed updates on ships of more than 65 worldwide lines. Editor-publisher Phil Beach says it sells no advertising or travel of any kind, and "although favorably disposed toward cruising, the newsletter maintains an objective editorial approach, criticizing when warranted." It's $49 for 12 issues (mail check or money order to The Shipboard Cruiser, P.O. Box 533737N, Orlando, FL 32853-3737). For a descriptive brochure, fax your name and address to 407-422-3608 or visit (http://www.shipboard
cruiser.com). Each issue also includes summaries of recent cruise-ship inspections by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
(The CDC's Vessel Sanitation Program conducts surprise inspections on all ships that visit American ports and rates them on water, food preparation and holding, potential contamination of food and general cleanliness, storage and repair. The latest scores are available free through the centers' fax-back service by calling 888-232-6789 or via its Web site: (http://www.cdc.gov/travel).
Most service-oriented travel newsletters discuss cruise issues from time to time (the most exhaustively researched articles consistently can be found in Consumer Reports Travel Letter).
Cruise fans will find a helpful list of "Cabin Locations to Avoid" and lots of other cruise news in the January-February issue of Travel Companions, a 17-year-old newsletter based in Amityville, N.Y., that focuses on solo travelers but regularly contains solid advice and news for any traveler. Single issues are $6, credited toward an annual subscription - $48 for 12 issues or $99 for nine monthly issues plus eight months' membership in the companion exchange. Call 516-454-0880.