Let the Experts Switch You To.CRUISE CONTROL; ABOVE PAR: Royal Caribbean's Independence of the Seas, above, Even Has a Miniature Golf Course, While Chef Jacques Thorel, Left, Will Launch a New Menu aboard Silversea's Silver Wind Next Month

Article excerpt

Byline: Roger Bray

SHATTERED illusions are the most common cause of wrecked holidays. You book a cruise hoping for dressy, intimate dinners and quiet, moonlit nights watching the wake unfurl. You get queues at the buffet and noisy children.

Or the reverse happens. Having taken note of cruise-industry claims that the average age of its customers has fallen, you decide a holiday at sea might not be such a bad idea after all. But passengers on the ship you pick are mostly 50-plus.

Choosing the right ship and the right itinerary is crucial - far more important than when booking a land-based break, which offers opportunities for escape.

The average price of a cruise has fallen behind inflation over the past decade. During the same period, the number of Britons cruising, swelled by an army of firsttimers, has more than doubled.

Small wonder then that the number of specialist travel agents offering expert knowledge has also rocketed.

They almost always save customers money, compared with going direct to a cruise line. It could be ten per cent or more - a significant saving on a holiday that can cost upwards of [pounds sterling]1,500. But more importantly, they can make sure you won't wind up feeling trapped and miserable.

While old hands say cruise quality is now almost universally high, there are huge differences of style and service - whether aboard Carnival Cruise Lines' 'massive armada of fun' or the 49-passenger Hebridean Princess, some of whose cruises include guided hikes from ports.

Diversions on board range from the rock climbing wall, ice skating rink and miniature golf course on Royal Caribbean's spectacular Independence of the Seas, which can carry 3,634 guests, and a circusskills training school as on P& O's Ventura, to more sedate computer lessons and digital camera tips aboard Crystal Cruises' top-end luxury vessels. Dining can be casual or 'black tie optional', as on some evenings on Seabourn's small, sumptuous all-suite 'yachts'.

As P& O's sales director Giles Hawke notes: 'Most cruise companies have shiny white ships but there the similarity ends. Even within our fleet, we have child-free ships, we have contemporary design-led ships specifically geared towards families and providing entertainment for all ages and we have ships for a more experienced cruise passenger.' More than nine out of ten P& O customers book through agents, he says. 'We work closely with specialist agents to arm them with the training and first-hand experience to enable them to fit the customer profile to the right ship.' Marc Bennett, Thomas Cook's director of cruising, says: 'There are a number of wrong decisions you can make when booking. The classic is people who want to put their glad rags on in the evenings but find themselves on a ship offering informal or buffet dining.

' We have a call centre of 150 people, and nearly every one of them will have been on five different ships.'

THOMAS COOK has helped swell the ranks of the rapidly growing Association of Cruise Experts, which provides agent members with training and information. …