Even as Cruise Critic's roll call boards are, er, running over with holiday spirit from travelers heading off on their Christmas and/or New Year's cruises, there's no reason to be blue if you're staying home. Instead, think about next year, which is, of course, right around the corner. The time off most folks enjoy during 2006's last week offers a bit of extra time to plan -- and of course Cruise Critic will be launching fresh reviews, news and bargains throughout the rest of the year.
So where should you go? We'll help you get started, but encourage you, natch, to follow your own so-called seas.
Escaping Winter -- As Soon As Possible: The first three weeks of January (after the New Year's cruises end) are among the best bargain times of the year. If you're heading out at the last minute and don't want to bother with flights (and are lucky enough to be within reasonable distance to cruise ports), consider the Mexican Riviera from Los Angeles and San Diego; the Western Caribbean from New Orleans, Galveston and Tampa; and the Eastern Caribbean from Miami, Ft. Lauderdale and Port Canaveral. And don't forget less seasonal ports (like New York), which offer "gotta getaway getaways" even in the heart of January darkness. Keep an eye on our bargains section -- we update it regularly even through the holiday season.
Offbeat: January and February are prime months for South American getaways, and cruise lines are offering some really interesting trips down "there" (southern hemisphere, mostly, meaning seasons are swapped and they're celebrating late summer). You can opt for mainstream (Princess, Holland America and Celebrity), or try something a little more exotic (via Costa's all-Brazilian coast itineraries).
Valentine's Day: Guys -- and gals -- who haven't yet glommed onto the perfect holiday gift, here's a big old hint: Buy your sweetheart a romantic cruise for Valentine's Day (you won't even have to leave the house to buy this gift -- just download pages from your line of choice, but don't forget to actually book it!). This time, consider small, more luxury-oriented ships whose pampering service, lovely cuisine and small-ship privacy are conducive to romance. The sultry ambience of the Caribbean is a good bet at this time of year too, as most luxury operators, including Seabourn, Oceania, SeaDream, Windstar and Regent Seven Seas have at least one ship in the Caribbean.
Spring Break: Believe it or not, spring break is closer than you think. If you're planning to take your brood somewhere, use this time to research your options and book your cabin. Many March and April cruises sell out (with premium price tags to boot), so it's important to book now -- particularly if you have specific cabin requirements. The Caribbean is a mainstay, of course, but for West Coasters, Hawaii and the Mexican Riviera are great options.
One tip: When planning a family cruise, you don't just want to match your gang to a ship in general; take a look at age ranges. For the younger set, ages 4 - 10, aim for cruise lines' newest ships, especially those from Royal Caribbean, Princess, NCL, Carnival and Disney. But if your kids are older -- say 16-plus -- why not consider an adventure-oriented cruise on a line like Cruise West or Lindblad?
And if your kids' ages range widely -- say, three-year-olds, 12-year-olds and those in between! -- go for the big ships (and we mean the really big ships) that emphasize lots of activity and recreation, such as Caribbean Princess, Freedom of the Seas, Carnival Liberty, Pride of Hawaii and Coral Princess, among others.
Adventure and Exotic on a Budget: Wallet feeling kind of limp but you're still in need of a getaway? Penny-pinching travelers who crave more unusual ports of call (and have no problem being gone for weeks at time), should consider unique, one-ship lines like Discovery World Cruises and Orient Lines. Who knows ... you could find yourself in Antarctica next year! As well, some European lines such as Costa operate in the Mediterranean all year round (and because weather can be stormy in the winter months, it's the best time for a bargain in this part of the world).
And, ahh, Summer in Europe!: Destinations, timeframe (July and August especially) and ships that are hot, hotter and hottest for summer need to be booked soon if not already. Of note for 2007? Disney's first Mediterranean season and Carnival Freedom's big-ship adventures in the Greek Isles, among others.
Remember, this is just a taste of the hundreds of ships and itineraries available! Continue your research with our nifty Find a Cruise feature.
--by Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor
--Valentine's Day photo is courtesy of SeaDream Yacht Club.