If buying and enjoying a cruise were only a matter of learning port from starboard and fore from aft, consumers could rest easier. Instead, anyone contemplating a vacation at sea faces a battery of unfamiliar and easily misunderstood terms. Is it good or bad to be repositioned? Should your dinner portions be measured in gross register tons?
Here's a quick cruise vocabulary guide.
Brochure rates: What nobody should pay. This is the seafaring equivalent of hotel "rack rates" — the fare figures that cruise lines put on their printed materials, even though most passengers, buying through travel agencies, pay 20 percent to 40 percent less. Unlike hotels, cruise lines always quote rates per person, not per room or cabin. Also, when a cruise isn't selling well, the lines send faxes to travel agents announcing special discounts, so if you have a flexible schedule, ask your agent about faxes.
Cruise-only: A phrase to watch out for when comparing prices. A cruise-only price excludes the cost of flying to your point of embarkation. Some fares do include the cost of airline tickets.
Funnel: That's the ship's smokestack, where the cruise line's logo is usually displayed.
Inside cabin: A windowless room, usually the most affordable cabins on the ship. Ship designs are evolving. Royal Caribbean's Voyager of the Seas, for instance, has rooms that look down on its interior mall and promenade.
Inventory: Encouraged by the profits of the 1990s, the North American cruise industry, dominated by Carnival, Royal Caribbean and Princess, has embarked on an orgy of shipbuilding. From 1999 through 2003, about 52 new ships are expected to join the marketplace, bringing to 200 the number of ships in the market and pushing the number of beds to about 226,000. There's a good chance this will mean better prices for consumers.
Maiden voyage. A new ship's first excursion with paying customers. With the host of new ships making their debuts in the next three years, there will be a steady stream of maiden cruises. But beware. If a shipyard is delayed in delivering a ship, which has happened repeatedly in the last three years, it's the travelers on that maiden cruise whose plans are canceled.
Passenger Service Act: This law, which dates to 1886, limits foreign-flagged ships from transporting passengers from one U.S. port to another without making a stop in a foreign country. The law was written to protect U.S. maritime companies from foreign competitors. But because nearly all oceangoing cruise ships today fly foreign flags, thereby avoiding U.S. income taxes, minimum-wage laws and other restrictions imposed by U.S. legislation, you'll rarely find an oceangoing cruise with an all-American itinerary.
Port charges: Multiple legal battles have been waged over these fees, which may sound like government levies but can also include other business expenses associated with bringing a ship to port. In the 1990s, the average port fee began growing. On three-day itineraries, the port fees added 30 percent to the price advertised in large print. Several state attorneys general sued the major cruise lines, and in settlement agreements, many lines promised to reform their practices, but it's still common to find advertised prices followed by added port fees. Always ask about port fees and add them in before comparing prices.
Repositioning cruise: These are the itineraries ships sail between seasons: routes from the Caribbean through the Panama Canal and up to Alaska for the summer, for instance, or across the Atlantic to the Mediterranean. Usually offering fewer port calls (and thus more uninterrupted sea time), these cruises often carry the lowest prices of the year.
Seatings: On many cruise ships, the formal dining room can accommodate only half the ship's passengers. Hence passengers are assigned a spot and table mates at the early seating (around 6 p.m.) or the late seating (around 8 p.m.). Older, or less energetic, travelers usually end up at the early seating, so there's often a rush among those who prefer to dine later to secure 8 p.m. seating slots. In recent years, as baby boomers have shown more casual dining habits and ships have grown larger, many cruise lines have introduced alternative restaurants that give passengers more control over when they dine and with whom.