How to decide on a cruise holiday
There's an ill wind blowing across the oceans.
You can feel the turbulence even on dry land: erupting violence in the Middle East and North Africa combined with plunging European economies have sent a shockwave of trepidation around the world - and the result is that in order to fill their cabins, cruise-ship companies are offering the most amazing bargains.
How to find them
Check the internet. You'll find huge discounts, from 25% to as much as 70% off, so desperate are they to fill their bars and restaurants and cover their soaring fuel costs. So it's a buyer's market, and the later you book, the less you may have to pay - great news if you are a cruise addict like me.
I'm not sure exactly when I became a cruise junkie. The addiction crept up on me, though it was repressed at first because my late husband, Desmond Wilcox, was for years adamantly opposed to the very idea of cruise ships.
Having run away to sea himself when he was 14 to serve as a sail-training apprentice on the beautiful four-masted sailing ship Pamir, he was contemptuous of huge, modern, flat-nosed, smoke-belching "floating blocks of flats", as he called them.
Until, that is, the day 20 years ago when we were invited onto the QE2, docked in Southampton. We walked towards the gangplank, the flanks of the ship towering over us, and Desi's eyes shone as he saw the sweep of her handsome prow.
This was no block of flats. He was even more impressed as we strolled along the gleaming wooden decks and admired the brilliantly polished brass.
Finally, while he was chatting to the captain of the QE2 on the bridge, I watched Desi fall in love. That was fine with me. I could share him with a ship; after all, I had lived with his sailing fantasies and yacht dreams for years.
So off we went cruising together, at first pottering around the Med, and then venturing further and further across the oceans.
Top cruising tips
Since Desi died, twice or three times each year I've taken to the sea again. The truth is, married or single, old or young, if you know how to pick and choose, there's a cruise to suit every taste. So here are my top tips for people who go on cruises, gained over 20 years of happy sailing.
Size is everything
First, the size of the ship is important. You can find the best bargains on the biggest ships, especially if you're prepared to put up with the less opulent accommodation. And why not? You'll probably spend most of the time partying anyway, because these giant vessels offer spectacular round-the-clock entertainment.
Small ships, conversely, often cost more, because they can't profit from economies of scale. But though they offer less spectacular entertainment, they often excel in personalised care.
Pick your tour carefully
Secondly, pick your tours with care. Otherwise you may find yourself stuck on a coach for eight hours with a garrulous guide telling you the local property prices. Better to negotiate with a local taxi-driver - but confirm your fare in advance before you start.
Thirdly, choose your dinner companions with equal care. Many a feud has broken out over an undiplomatic political reference, or a large portion of Stinking Bishop (the world's smelliest cheese). My favourite cruise ships have obligatory 'open seating', so you sit next to different passengers every dinner time.
Additionally, count your 'sea days'. Those are the days reserved for your grandest, sparkliest outfits, so make sure you pack enough for every night. After all, there's no weight restriction at sea.
Keep bargains to yourself
Finally, there's a cruise to fit every bank balance - but never, ever discuss what you paid for your cruise with your dinner companions, no matter how well you get on with them. If you got an amazing discount, they'll hate you. If they did, you won't forgive them, and you'll feel cheated for the rest of the trip.