Jane Archer, cruise expert and Telegraph Travel columnist provides a non-cruiser's guide to cruising.
Congratulations! You are reading this, which means you are one step closer to booking a cruise. Now all you have to do is read on, decide which cruise line sounds up your street, gen up on the cruising basics and you'll be setting off on the high seas in no time.
Sounds too much like hard work? Not at all. Choosing a cruise is fun -- it's your next holiday, after all -- but it is important to get it right because every ship is different, and forewarned is forearmed when it comes to picking your room or setting your budget.
Choosing your cruise line
Looking for a lively holiday on a large family-friendly, resort-style ship, with lots of fun activities and an unashamedly American vibe? Check out Norwegian Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean International and Carnival Cruise Lines.
For big ships with American style, try Princess Cruises and Celebrity Cruises, or head to MSC for a cruise with European flair.
If you prefer to holiday with fellow Brits, P&O Cruises is just the ticket, or Fred. Olsen, Cruise & Maritime Voyages or Thomson Cruises if smaller ships appeal.
Feeling sophisticated? Then book with Cunard or Holland America Line.
Choosing your accommodation
Most cruise ships have four categories of accommodation -- inside, outside and balcony cabins, and suites. Not surprisingly, inside cabins (the smallest rooms, without a window) are the least expensive, and suites (which are spacious, usually with separate living and sleeping areas) are most costly.
Prices also vary by location, so you'll pay less for a cabin on the lower decks (a good place to be if you fear you might be a poor sailor) and more for being higher up the ship. Watch out, as some outside cabins have a lifeboat view instead of sea.
As a general rule of thumb, a cabin towards the back of the ship is near the restaurants, while one at the front is near the theatre and spa. For a happy medium, choose one that's midships (but balcony cabins at the aft of the vessel often have bigger verandas and might be worth snapping up).
Setting your budget
All the cruise lines mentioned here include accommodation, entertainment, most activities, and food served in the main dining rooms and self-service buffet in the price. You can help yourself to free tea, coffee and water from a machine, and afternoon tea is also complimentary. One of two even serve free ice cream.
What's not included
The biggest expenses on a cruise are excursions, and soft and alcoholic drinks, which usually carry a mandatory 15% service charge). Several cruise lines have drinks packages that reduce the price and help with budgeting, but they are not cheap so think carefully how much you are likely to imbibe before buying.
Bottled water and freshly made coffee and tea also cost extra; likewise dining in the speciality restaurants (these are smaller and more personal than the dining rooms, with food cooked to order) and spa treatments -- massages, facials, manicures, pedicures and much more. There is usually also a fee for using the spa's sauna and steam rooms.
Some cruise lines have a more upmarket afternoon tea, with white-gloved waiters and an orchestra, for a price (as well as the complimentary tea). Others have paid-for behind-the-scenes ship tours. All charge for using the internet and laundry.
You should also budget for crew gratuities because, although they are not obligatory, they are expected as a thank-you for the good service. A per-person, per-night charge (anything from £3.50 to about £9) is added to each onboard account. This can be adjusted or removed on request.
On port days, once your ship is docked and cleared by local authorities, you can go ashore. In some ports (Barcelona, Monaco, Venice and Helsinki to name a few) that means a short walk, bus or taxi ride to the city; in others, it's a long way (Rome is two hours from the port of Civitavecchia, Florence is 90 minutes from Livorno).
Cruise lines have excursions, but if you want to go alone, be sure to do some research before so you know train or bus times (ships won't wait long if you are late getting back to the port) and any additional costs.