* Call a travel agency that specializes in cruises. In most cases, you will pay nothing to book through a travel agent (though you should ask) because they are paid a commission by the cruise line. Some travel agents may push a particular cruise line; ask which companies are considered preferred suppliers by the travel agency (which means the agents are offered additional financial incentives for selling cabins). Have a clear idea, before you call an agent, of the parameters for your cruise (cost, destination, length) and be honest about individual preferences. To find a travel agent in your area, call the American Society of Travel Agents (1-800-965-2782, www.astanet.com/pub) or the Cruise Lines International Association, the industry's public relations arm (1-888-927-8473, www.cruising.org). You can also check cruise line ads, which list local travel agencies, in the travel sections of Sunday newspapers, including this one.
* The Internet is an increasingly useful resource, both for gathering information (particularly as an opinion forum for fellow cruise passengers) and for actually booking your cruise. Excellent sites for research not affiliated with travel agencies include www.about. com and America Online's Cruise Critic. Cruisemates (www.cruisemates.com) is another; it's a new site run by former AOL Cruise Critic Anne Campbell. All three offer ship reviews and cruise-matching functions.
Only a couple of cruise lines permit direct booking via the Web; these include Renaissance and Carnival. Preview Travel sells a number of cruises on its Web site, but only those belonging to Royal Caribbean and Celebrity can be booked online. However, most of the mass-market lines will take reservations over their toll-free sales line (though the higher-end cruise companies tend to prefer dealing with travel agents).
* Among the many guidebooks available, "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Cruise Vacations" (Macmillan, $16.95) by Fran Wenograd Golden and "The Unofficial Guide to Cruises" (Macmillan Travel, $19.95) by Kay Showker are the most useful for neophyte cruisers.