Career cruisers have the inside scoop on how to get the most
out of your summer vacation at sea

Don't wait till the last minute to book :

Travel agent Marni Becker, Director of Cruise Sales for Protravel International in New York City, says that depending upon where you wish to travel—Alaska? Mediterranean? Caribbean? Baltic?—there is still some availability, but that the most popular itineraries, ships, and cabin categories fill up early. You'll want to act fast if you want to book for travel this June through August. You still have time to book a summer cruise, she says, but, depending on the line, "you may not get that mid- ship verandah or suite." Think outside the box with theselittle-known cruises even better than the Bahamas.

Ask for help

Booking a cruise can be a daunting process, especially if you haven't done it before. "Use a travel advisor to match your lifestyle with the best possible cruise line for you," suggests Becker. "Remember, what your friends or neighbors like may not be your cup of tea." Trained travel agents can help you save money on your trip, as well as help you determine which cabin category is the perfect fit for your vacation. Best of all, whether you're traveling alone or with a big group, they'll know your best options.

Don't fly in the same day you set sail

"Get your vacation started at least one day before your cruise by booking a hotel room near the ship," suggests Christy Scannell, a Dream Vacations franchise owner from California. "That way you don't have to sweat out possible flight delays or traffic jams that could hamper getting to the pier on time. Instead, you can enjoy a restful morning and then make your way to the ship refreshed, relaxed and ready to enjoy your cruise." Avoid these other16 airport mistakes to know before your next flight.

Plan your excursions in advance

You have only one day to see most ports, even if, like Florence and Rome, they're incredibly rich and interesting. That means you won't want to waste time coming up with a game plan on the ground. Instead, pick up guide books or do some online research to determine the options and what you'd be most excited about seeing. "Figure out what you want to see in each port before you leave home," Becker advises. "That will save you time and hassle during your cruise." It will also ensure that you get to hit the highlights at each destination. Here aretips for picking the best cruise based on your travel goals.

Don't rush to strike out on your own

While it's easy to find a nearby beach in the Caribbean and plan to just taxi there and back, major European cities require some forethought, especially if you've never been there before. "Don't expect to simply do your own thing when you arrive in a cruise port," says Scannell, adding that getting the most out of a big city means that guided tours make a lot of sense in that part of the world.

Use a tour operator for your shore excursions

While cruise lines offer a wide range of tours in every port, and you always have the option of exploring on your own, tour operators can help you get to all the key sites in the limited time you have. Becker likes how efficient tour operators can be, and the fact that you can arrange private, customized tours. "Take into consideration your port times and what you want to get out of your experience in port. Do you want to tour the Hermitage en masse or do you want to visit specific works of art at your own pace?" she asks. "Do you want to wait in line to purchase admission into the Colosseum or do you want to skip that line and have a historian take you inside and explain its history?" Don't miss these other11 secret travel deals too good to pass up.

Plan your sea days as well as your port days

Cruise ship decks can really fill up on sunny sea days, but many ships have serene alternative spaces that you can book. "You are likely to see a lot of children on summer cruises, says Scannell. "For a more peaceful day on deck, look for the ship's adults-only areas. For example, Princess Cruises has The Sanctuary, where for a nominal fee you get a luxury lounge chair, beverage service, and soothing music."

Help kids learn from their travels

"School might be out for the summer but that doesn't mean learning needs to ends," says Scannell, and parents can use summer vacations as an opportunity to help children understand the world around them. "Have small children draw pictures of what they learned. Older children and teens can star in and narrate their own videos (or selfies) as they travel. Not only will these provide fun pieces to use for 'what I did on my summer vacation' at school in the fall, but they can be compiled for a family vacation scrapbook.