By Travel columnist

Most of the bases for cruising have already been covered: We know how to keep your floating vacation afloat, how to find the best ships for singles, how to survive a cruise with Norwalk virus and how to cruise with the kids. But, as recent news stories have warned us, there may be a dark side to cruising for those who are not prepared.

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Terry Riley, Ph.D., author of the book Travel Can Be Murder, says, “Your personal safety while traveling is — and always will be — your responsibility.” But just what steps should you take to keep safe on a cruise ship? Follow these nine tips and you will be on your way.

1. Check out the report card
Whenever you get 1,500 or 2,000 or even 5,000 people together in one place, you are bound to share a lot more than a good time (remember the Norwalk-like virus?). Luckily, ships get report cards — just like you did in elementary school.

The best reports come from the Vessel Sanitation Program of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which routinely inspects ships for cleanliness, repair, food preparation and storage, water quality, hygiene, pest management and many other things. Check out your ship’s report card on the CDC website before you book your passage. It will let you know the results of the last inspection and exactly what grade the ship received. It will take you back to fifth grade, believe me.

2. Keep your guard up
It is natural to let your guard down on vacation, especially on a cruise ship. Life is good, the water is warm, the booze is flowing, the food is scrumptious — the ship seems like Paradise Island. You are living large, and that’s precisely when you’re most apt to get into trouble.

You need to be aware of your surroundings on a ship just as you would in a big city. Don’t walk down darkened hallways; keep your distance when tempers flare; don’t accept drinks from strangers. If your gut tells you something is wrong, it probably is. And don’t keep it a secret, either; notify the Purser’s Office the minute you suspect trouble.

3. Use the ship’s safe
Leave the Rolex watch and the Gucci handbag at home — no one is looking and you’re on vacation, so you don’t need to worry about the time. Keep most of your cash and valuables (especially your jewelry, return tickets and passports) in the ship’s safe.

The lightweight safe in your cabin is fine for storing small everyday items like your address book and tip money, but never put anything in it that you can’t afford to lose. Do you know how many of those cabin safes are left locked when passengers disembark at the end of a cruise? Now guess how many crewmembers know the bypass code for opening them.

4. Watch what you eat
If you are lactose intolerant in the United States, you will be lactose intolerant on a ship. If stateside seafood makes you puff up and itch, so will the onboard seafood. With the myriad options for dining on a cruise ship, you can certainly be adventurous. Just don’t be reckless.

Shipboard water is usually pretty good, but you should always insist on bottled water on shore. And make sure it is a sealed bottle (yes, I have seen “bottled” water refilled from the tap on a ship and on a plane).

Know how your food is prepared, too. Is it heavy on the mayo in the hot Caribbean sun? Is the steak served tartare? And if you are served something you don’t like, for heaven’s sake, send it back. On a port call in Ocho Rios, Jamaica, I was served some “almost-still-clucking” chicken — not what I was expecting at a purportedly five-star restaurant! So be aware, and don’t be afraid to ask that your food be prepared the way you like it.

5. Watch the booze
Booze will always compromise your judgment, perception, and behavior. While everyone likes to have a few umbrella drinks aboard ship, don’t let them get out of hand. Why not? Because booze on a boat is the same as booze on land — only you are moving forward at 20 knots and perhaps pitching back and forth in 20-foot seas.

And trust me, it is never a good idea to see if you can lean out over the railing like Kate Winslet in “Titanic.” Nor should you try to walk what you perceive to be a gangplank. Most of today’s ships are equivalent to 10-story buildings … moving forward … with 12-foot propellers underneath. Can you say “Cuisinart”?

6. Watch the gambling
Crooks cruise too, so cash-in your winnings periodically and take them to the ship’s safe; if you win big, ask for an escort. Don’t ever make a scene; it will only draw attention to you and make you a target for crime. For the same reason, be careful about flashing your money outside the casino, too. If you win, congratulations! Just keep the celebration low-key.

7. Watch out for the crew
No, they are not out to get you, but you need to understand that these are folks whose standard of living is most likely lower than yours by a considerable margin. You will likely be perceived as the wealthiest of the wealthy. Most crewmembers are honest and hard working, but don’t give them any opportunity to take advantage of you. Jewelry on the night table — even your loose change or iPod — is but a quick grab for a cabin steward, a maintenance worker, or the kitchen worker who refreshes your fruit plate.

Most ships don’t allow crewmembers to interact with guests outside of their regular duties. The exceptions tend to be the cruise director and the captain’s staff. While you may be tempted by that cute little honey from Serbia named Irena (or that hunk from Hungary), never agree to go to a “crew-only” section of the ship — the invitation may be a set-up to ensure that your cabin is vacant.

8. Land ho!
Be careful on your shore excursions. The cruise lines organize the shore trips because they are moneymakers for them; in return, you get some assurance of quality and security. You can save a buck (or many) by going it alone, of course, but beware. Make sure you negotiate any fares and fees upfront. Most cabbies are honest when the cards are on the table, but if you do not agree in advance, the sky will be the limit and you may find yourself in a police station for failure to pay the fare.

If you are not happy — speak up early. Once in St. Lucia, a cabbie took my kids and me into an “ambush” of local vendors — all friends of his. We did not buy anything, and we told the cabbie that if it happened again, we were out of the car and he was out of a fare. The rest of our tour was fabulous.

9. Report anything suspicious
While the crew-to-guest ratio looks pretty low in the brochure, much of the crew actually works behind the scenes and is not permitted any guest interaction; moreover, many may not speak your language. Most of the senior crew will be looking out for guest safety, but they cannot be everywhere at once. As Dr. Riley says: Ultimately, your safety is your own responsibility.

Keep your eyes and ears open. If something looks odd to you, it probably is. Is there a creepy guy hanging outside the teen club? A man who is asking dozens of single ladies to dance? A couple that is fighting in public left and right? Take a walk to the Purser’s Office and let the staff know. They will appreciate it, and you might just head off tomorrow’s top story.

Now that you are rethinking that cruise you just booked, sit back and take a deep breath. This information should not be a vacation-breaker. It’s just common-sense advice taken from Main Street and put on the Lido Deck. According to the U.S. Maritime Administration, which keeps tracks of passengers sailing on cruise ships, 9.4 million people cruised in 2004, so it can’t be all that bad. In fact, cruising is a fabulous experience, and it’s probably a lot safer than crossing your own street.

Just think safe, and it will be smooth sailing all the way.

John Frenaye is the president of JVE Group, Inc., a diversified company based in Annapolis, Md. With a background in business management, he writes about the travel industry as an insider with an outsider's perspective. E-mail him or visit his Web site. Try visiting Tripso's forum.

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