Many people dreaming of a vacation at sea, especially those eager to do the homework, look for a good book. Not only is it fun and rewarding to study up on the ships and ports, but it makes good economic sense to pick the right cruise, right cabin and right destination.

Cruise travel guidebook authors lay out the facts and express their opinions, providing details and judgments you would never find in a cruise company’s brochure. They compare the lines and their ships, shed light on new developments and offer money-saving tips. Besides being good investments as planning tools, these guides make trusty traveling companions once you hit the high seas, particularly the ones that concentrate on ports of call.

The titles described below may be available in bookstores and libraries; if not, they can be ordered online. As with any print guides that are researched and written months ahead of publication, it’s possible that some content may be outdated by the time you see it, though few major changes are likely to occur.

Consider the following guides as personal planning resources or gifts for friends:

Berlitz Complete Guide to Cruising & Cruise Ships 2013

Berlitz Complete Guide to Cruising & Cruise Ships 2013

Berlitz Complete Guide to Cruising & Cruise Ships 2013 by Douglas Ward (Berlitz, 688 pp., $24.99). Many consider this the gold standard of books on cruise vacations. It’s been called the bible of the cruising world.

Now in its 28th year, the encyclopedic source rates nearly 300 ships on a five-star system, with 2,000 points the highest possible score. The total is based on separate ratings for accommodations, cuisine, service, entertainment, the cruise experience, and the ship itself. Earning top ratings are small ships like Hapag-Lloyd Cruises’ Europa and those in the Seabourn, Silversea, and Sea Dream fleets.

Alphabetically, each ship is critiqued in one to three pages, though Royal Caribbean’s Allure of the Seas merits four pages, including a whole page devoted to “What’s Good and What’s Not.” Especially helpful are each vessel’s vital statistics and a highlighted phrase that captures its essence in a glance. The banner verbiage for MSC Melody, for example, is “A well-worn ship for budget-minded families,” while Cunard’s Queen Victoria is described as “A pretend ocean liner that suits British tastes.” (The meticulous Ward, president of England-based Maritime Evaluations Group, often injects a British, or at least European, point of view and includes ships that cater to the non-American market.)

Just as valuable as the ship-by-ship reviews are introductory chapters (slick paper, color photos) on destinations, ship and cabin selection, major cruise line comparisons and succinct profiles of smaller cruise companies. The chapter “What the Brochures Don’t Always Tell You” addresses questions frequently asked by first-timers and experienced cruisers. Readers also get advice on best choices for seniors, families, honeymooners, solo passengers and those with special needs. Among the sidebars: “15 Things an All-Inclusive Price Doesn’t Include” and “The Pros and Cons of Cruising When Pregnant.” (

Frommer’s Cruises & Ports of Call

Frommer’s Cruises & Ports of Call

Frommer’s Cruises & Ports of Call by Heidi Sarna and Matt Hannafin (John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 694 pp., $24.99). A big chunk of this lively guide is devoted to reviews of cruise lines and their ships, which are grouped into mainstream, ultra-luxury and small ship/adventure chapters.

In defining each company, the authors offer a broad-brush overview that starts with “The Line in a Nutshell,” followed by “The Experience” and then “Pros” and “Cons” in bullet-item form. Carnival Cruise Lines, for example, is described as “the McDonald’s of cruising” and “serves up a very casual, down-to-earth, middle-American Caribbean vacation.” Among Carnival pros: “fanciful, sometimes wacko, decor” and “large standard cabins.” Among its cons: “At breakfast and lunch, the buffet restaurants are jammed; expect a 20- to 30-minute slow shuffle…along with a few thousand other passengers.”

After observations about each line’s passenger mix, dining, entertainment, activities, and service, individual ships go under the microscope and get rated on a scale of 1 to 5 in eight categories.

Frommer’s guide devotes considerable space to North American and Caribbean ports, with tips on organized sightseeing and independent exploring. Early chapters provide advice on planning, booking and preparing for the cruise. (

Fodor’s The Complete Guide to Caribbean Cruises (Fodor’s Travel Publications, 677 pp., $23.99). Filled with friendly advice, this is a highly practical guide done in typical Fodor’s style. The first half is devoted to the cruise experience, the second to destinations.

Ships are not rated by stars or numerical scores, but crisp reviews spell out the details that help distinguish one cruise line and cruise ship from another. To sum up the line’s appeal, short blurbs give three reasons for choosing or not choosing the line. The only visuals are little sepia-tone photos of ships and their facilities. The first four chapters provide planning tips, with “Close Up” sidebars on topics ranging from cruise manners to smoking onboard.

In coverage of U.S. ports of embarkation and Caribbean ports of call, Fodor’s Choice orange stars are attached to the top recommendations, while black stars denote places “highly recommended.” Also see Fodor’s Caribbean Ports of Call (432 pp., $17.99). (

Caribbean Cruises

Caribbean Cruises

Caribbean Cruises (Insight Guides, 400 pp., $24.99). Large color photos and maps distinguish this slick guide, one of many titles in the lavishly illustrated Insight series. The first 100 pages discuss the cruise experience, but the bulk of the book concentrates on what to see in the islands. Riveting photos of wildlife, tropical plants, idyllic beaches, and island residents will spur your wanderlust. Nitty-gritty details of visiting each port are tucked in the small-print “Travel Tips” section in the last 91 pages. (

Frommer’s Alaska Cruises & Ports of Call by Fran Wenograd Golden and Gene Sloan (John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 312 pp., $19.99). Packed with charts, maps, and color photos, this attractive, easy-to-use guide is a gold mine of information for anyone contemplating a summer cruise in America’s Last Frontier.

The first chapter, “Best of Alaska Cruising,” singles out the best ships for luxury (Regent Seven Seas’ Navigator and Silversea Cruises’ Silver Shadow) and top ships in such categories as entertainment, cuisine, and family fun. After some cruise planning advice, including differences between Inside Passage and Gulf of Alaska itineraries, the glossy guide goes on to examine each cruise line and rate its Alaska-market ships (and individual aspects of the cruise experience) on a five-star scale. Subsequent chapters cover ports of embarkation (like Seattle, Vancouver, and Anchorage) and ports of call, offering shopping tips and top choices for cruise-line shore excursions, tours offered by local agencies, and independent exploring within walking distance of the ship and beyond. (

Frommer’s Caribbean Ports of Call

Frommer’s Caribbean Ports of Call

Frommer’s Caribbean Ports of Call by Christina Paulette Colón with Felisa Mahabal (John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 373 pp., $17.99). Thicker than Frommer’s Alaska guide but minus the color photos and glossy paper, this one offers tons of practical information on more than 30 ports, from Antigua to Trinidad & Tobago. In addition to big-time stops like San Juan, Nassau, and St. Thomas, it covers less-visited islands as small as Nevis, Bequia, and Bonaire.

As in the Alaska guide, readers are directed to the best shore excursions and locally offered tours. Readers get tips on the main attractions, best beaches, where to play golf and go diving, car and bike rentals, and how to get around by public transportation. Also discussed are shopping and recommended bars and restaurants. For those interested in pre- or post-cruise stays, there are chapters on Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Tampa, New Orleans, New York, and other ports of embarkation. (

Rick Steves’ Mediterranean Cruise Ports by Rick Steves with Cameron Hewitt (Avalon Travel, 1,320 pp., $26.99). The only cruise book written by the public television personality and prolific Europe guidebook author tells the destination-minded passenger how to make the best use of limited time in places like Barcelona, Venice, the Greek Isles, and Istanbul.

He writes, “Make it a point to be the first person down the gangway (or in line for tender tickets) each day, and make a beeline for what you most want to see.”

In typical Rick Steves fashion, the guide targets the independent-minded traveler seeking a meaningful cultural experience while in port just a few hours. After some general tips on Mediterranean cruising, the book dishes out specifics on ports of call, like how to get from the cruise terminal to major attractions by taxi, bus, train or foot. Sights are rated with one to three triangles, three meaning “don’t miss.” Readers get suggestions for self-guided walks and organized tours, plus restaurant options and souvenir ideas. The hefty guide is loaded with costs, phone numbers, hours of operation and maps. (

Fodor’s European Ports of Call

Fodor’s European Ports of Call

Fodor’s European Ports of Call (Fodor’s Travel Publications, 560 pp., $16.99). This guide covers a lot of ground, spotlighting 85 ports in the Mediterranean, Baltic, and North seas, plus the coast of Norway. Readers get the lowdown on museums in Amsterdam and Lisbon, beaches on the French Riviera, and excursions from Naples, Malaga, and Southampton. Israel and Egypt are included as well. The “Coming Ashore” section explains how to get from ship to town, while “Best Bets” sidebars show port highlights at a glance.

Fodor’s also publishes The Complete Guide to European Cruises (806 pp., $23.99), which includes ship reviews as well as port reports. (

Mediterranean by Cruise Ship by Anne Vipond (Ocean Cruise Guides, Ltd., 368 pp., $21.95). Captivating color photos distinguish this gift-worthy guide to ports from Iberia to the Black Sea. It’s especially strong on putting destinations in a cultural and historical context. Chapters covering ports by region are preceded by discussions of trip preparation and cruise life, history, and art and architecture. Inviting sidebars spotlight examples of popular shore excursions and topics as diverse as Turkish carpets, Neapolitan pizza and bullfighting in Spain.

The Vancouver-based publisher’s series of gorgeous color cruise guides by the same author also includes Northern Europe, Alaska, the Caribbean, Hawaii and the Panama Canal, priced from $19.95 to $21.95. (