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By Travel writer
msnbc.com contributor
updated 8/23/2007 10:39:13 AM ET 2007-08-23T14:39:13

More than 12 million people took a cruise vacation in 2006. And, according to the folks at the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), cruising is the fastest growing segment of the travel industry. So it’s a good chance that if you haven’t taken a cruise yet, you know someone who has — or who is thinking about it.

I, for one, was a determined non-cruiser until I spent a season on the cruise review team of a major travel Web site. My assignment: blend in and report back.

I failed the “be incognito” part of the job when I won a free makeover on day one of my first cruise. By entering the spa raffle, I’d unwittingly agreed to have my hairdo and make-up session, and the corny “reveal” event, filmed and broadcast repeatedly on the in-cabin TV network.

For awhile, having my mug on everyone’s cabin TV set made it easy to meet other passengers and chat about their cruise experiences. But current news reports about cruise ships scrambling to stay out of Hurricane Dean’s way reminds me of how tiresome my “Makeover Girl” TV show reruns became when a hurricane kept our ship at sea for an extra three days.

Still, it was a great introduction to the world of cruising and to being onboard cruise ships that some people describe as a cross between a megaresort and a small city, complete with the good and bad aspects of both. And while I assumed everyone on cruises was there to have a good time, I discovered that while most everyone remembers to pack their shorts and swimsuit, plenty of people leave their common sense and manners behind.

So, with the help of a few cruise veterans, here are just a few tips for ensuring smooth sailing during your next cruise.

Dress for success:  No, it’ not a business meeting or job interview, but most every ship has a dress code, which is usually “resort casual” during the day and more formal at night. The chance to dress up is actually part of the reason some people go on cruises. Look for suggested packing lists on a cruise line’s Web site and in its brochures, but if you find yourself unprepared for a “formal attire” dinner, you do have options: order room service, head for the buffet line on the Lido Deck or ask the front desk about renting an outfit for the night.

Enjoy your meals:  At one time all cruise ships offered “traditional” dining with assigned tables and assigned tablemates. Now open seating and multiple dining venues are the rule on many cruise lines. If you dread having to sit with the same people each night for dinner, be sure to sign up for a cruise that lets diners float. But if you have an assigned table and an assigned dining time, it’s important to show up on time. “And,” says one veteran cruiser, “If you want to order five desserts, go ahead. But don’t expect me to sit there and watch you eat them.”

Kids on board:  Plenty of cruises are super family-friendly, with supervised programs for kids of all ages and plenty of unstructured activities to fill long days. But you still need to keep an eye on your kids to make sure they’re safe and not disturbing other passengers in the pools, the dining rooms or other public areas. Consider bringing along or renting a set of walkie-talkies so you can stay in touch and setting regular times when everyone must check in. Better yet, choose some daily activities that everyone can do together, like bingo or one of those wacky poolside contests.

Don’t be a seat hog: Speaking of poolside, on some ships it takes nerves of steel or a secret strategy to get a deck chair or chaise lounge on a sunny day. Many people try to reserve space ahead of time by putting towels and personal items out long before they ever sit down. In fact, many cruise lines now regularly “sweep” the decks and remove anything that’s been untouched for 30 minutes. So use it or lose it.

Keep your germs to yourself:  Despite all that polishing and vacuuming, there are still regular outbreaks of norovirus and other illnesses on cruise ships. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) tracks them here. So keep your germs to yourself by washing your hands as often as possible. And keep your wits about you. Sadly, there are plenty of stories about theft, assaults and rapes on cruise ships. So don’t tempt fate: Lock your cabin and balcony doors, use the in-cabin safe and be alert when walking down those long hallways late at night.

Complain correctly: While cruising has become so popular that some people have made it a lifestyle, there are plenty of folks for whom a cruise is that once-in-a-lifetime, save-those-pennies special event. So if you’re disappointed that the lobster tails aren’t as succulent as the ones you had on your last five cruises or that the singers in the shows aren’t quite up to snuff, don’t ruin if for someone else by complaining over dinner or online. Take it up with the appropriate crew member or with your travel agent when you get home.

And if you happen to find yourself seated on the sundeck next to that week’s “Makeover Gal” once her fancy hairdo has had a few days to grow out, try not to make fun of her.

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