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Ships ahoy: Your guide to the perfect cruise vacation

Tracy E. Hopkins is an accomplished writer, blogger and editor living in New York City. She has expertise covering travel, fashion, health and entertainment.

Sail away on a cruise getaway

If you’ve never been on a cruise and still equate cruise vacations with childhood memories of the cheesy antics on The Love Boat, it’s time to rethink cruising as a getaway option. Modern cruises are bigger, better and offer just about any and every amenity and activity passengers can dream of year-round.

Married couple on cruise

"There are cruise ships of all descriptions and itineraries throughout the world to suit everyone's tastes, interests and budget," says Lanie Morgenstern, director of communications for the Cruise Lines International Association.

"Travelers have the ability to choose the size of their ship, the type of cruise [they want], and the destination they want to visit."

Based on responses to the CLIA's latest consumer study, 36 million Americans plan to take a cruise in the next three years, up from 33 million in the 2008 study and 31 million in 2006. Morgenstern points to the "perceived value for money spent" and the plentiful choices as the main attractions for both first-time and seasoned cruisers.

"No other type of vacation enjoys a higher rate of repeat business than cruising," she says. "This is because the large majority of first-timers are so satisfied that they come back for another cruise."

If watching too many Lifetime movies has you concerned about cruise safety, however, Morgenstern assures the safety and security of passengers is a top priority for CLIA members.

"Cruise ships are safe and secure environments, equipped with 24-hour security personnel on duty who are trained to respond to a variety of emergencies," she says. "Additionally, the design and construction of cruise ships, including railing heights, are part of strict international and national regulations that are updated on a regular basis."

Now that you're ready for to set sail, you need to decide where to go (the CLIA reports the Caribbean, Alaska, Bahamas, Hawaii and Bermuda are the top five destinations) and which type of cruise fits your travel style and interests.

1Family fun or couple time?

Girl on cruise ship

Who wouldn't want to spend the holidays with Mickey, Minnie and Goofy? To make the most of a family cruise during the holidays, Disney offers special holiday events that start with its Thanksgiving cruises. The fun activities include nightly tree lighting in the atrium lobby, where a young guest helps Disney characters illuminate the three-deck-tall tree; family holiday crafts such as decorating stockings, building gingerbread houses, making holiday cards and creating holiday animation cells; holiday storytellers sharing Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa tales; and a story just for Disney Cruise Line guests about the magical feeling of the holidays on a ship.

For more information: www.disneycruise.com | 888-DCL-2500

But Mom and Dad shouldn't feel too left out. To ring in 2012 in style, Disney's Christmas cruises include a special New Year's Eve party, complete with music, sparkling wine in commemorative flutes and a midnight countdown.

Carnival also has plenty to do and see for families. The budget-friendly cruise line offers a top-rated children's program, with activities and facilities that cater to the 670,000 kids who sail Carnival every year. And for a kids-free cruise experience, Carnival has adults-only Serenity retreat areas on 14 ships in its fleet. To inspire relaxation and tranquility, Serenity is decorated with colorful umbrellas, comfortable chaise lounges and chairs, thatched roofing, teak-like decking and offers oversized whirlpools, full bar service and, of course, breathtaking sea views.

For more information: www.carnival.com | 866-257-0815

2Good things, small packages

SeaDream Yacht Club

Whether you like the festive atmosphere of a large cruise ship or the intimacy of a smaller ship or yacht,  you're can't go wrong with one of these top-rated cruise lines.

According to the Berlitz Guide to Cruising & Cruise Ships, SeaDream Yacht Club is rated the "world's best small-ship cruise line." SeaDream's twin yachts -- SeaDream 1 and SeaDream II – each have 56 staterooms and are praised for their elegant informality, personal service provided by a crew of 95, state-of-the-art facilities, inclusive open bar and gratuities, ocean-view accommodations, luxury spa and fine cuisine. Itineraries include the Caribbean, the Mediterranean and the Amazon.

For more information: www.SeaDream.com | 800 707-4911

At the other end of the spectrum is cruise behemoth Royal Caribbean International. The cruise line's Oasis of the Seas and Allure of the Seas were named to Frommer's "Best Cruise Ships of 2011" list. With exclusive entertainment performances, culinary concepts and seven distinct themed areas (including Central Park, Boardwalk, Vitality at Sea Spa and Fitness Center), Allure of the Seas is reportedly the world's largest cruise ship. She spans 16 decks,  carries 5,400 guests at double occupancy and features 2,700 staterooms.

Allure of the Seas and Oasis of the Seas alternate western and eastern Caribbean itineraries from Fort Lauderdale.

For more information: www.royalcaribbean.com | 866-562-7625

3Freestyle Cruising

Norwegian Cruise Line has revolutionized the industry by allowing guests more freedom and flexibility with freestyle cruising. That means no dress codes or assigned seating for dinner and more lodging options for couples and families. Norwegian has 11 freestyle cruising ships, providing guests the opportunity to enjoy a relaxed cruise vacation on some of the newest and most contemporary ships at sea. Norwegian's largest and most innovative freestyle cruising ship, Norwegian Epic, debuted in 2010, and the cruise line has two 4,000-passenger vessels slated for arrival in spring 2013 and spring 2014.

For more information: www.ncl.com | 866-234-7350

4Health and fitness

NCL Epic Spa

Although you can certainly consume all you can eat, cruises are also a good place to start or maintain healthy eating habits. For instance, MSC Cruises' culinary approach is based on the heart-healthy Mediterranean regimen. Both light and vegetarian options are available for every meal, even at the specialty restaurants. Additionally, all the ships' restaurants can prepare gluten-free items for guests with dietary restrictions. Fresh smoothies, fruit and vegetable juices and a variety of herbal teas are available at MSC Aurea Spa. Kids' dinner menus are developed with a calorie count established by dietitians.

For more information: www.msccruises.com | 877-665-4655

For spa and fitness enthusiasts, Norwegian's Epic ship boasts a 31,000-square-foot spa and fitness center -- the largest at sea. The luxurious Mandara Spa has 24 treatment rooms, two private villas for couples, two exotic steam rooms and specialized spa services including the Epic 24 Karat Facial. The ship also hosts more diverse fitness classes than any other ship at sea, including TRX and kettlebell training, which helps build muscle, increases flexibility and tightens the core.

5Food for thought

Crystal Cruises

With renowned chefs including David Burke, Marcus Samuelsson and Jacques Torres part of its elite Culinary Council, Holland America Line is at the forefront of culinary-themed cruising. Along with the cruise line's award-winning master chef Rudi Sodamin, these top chefs guide the cruises' culinary direction and contribute signature recipes. Passengers can enjoy each meal in the main dining room with crisp, white linen and fine crystal and china table settings. Or once per cruise, guests can dine in the ambient Pinnacle Grill for "An Evening at Le Cirque," a unique taste of Sirio Maccioni's famed New York restaurant. Signature Le Cirque menu items include its lobster salad and crème brulée.

For more information: www.hollandamerica.com | 877-932-4259

On Crystal Cruises, guests can opt for Wine & Food Experiences of Discovery trips. In 2012, six voyages are scheduled featuring cooking demonstrations by Michelin-starred chefs, regional food history presentations from acclaimed food writers, wine tasting and education from certified sommeliers and winemakers, and mixology classes taught by the world's finest cocktail masters.

For more information: www.crystalcruises.com | 888-722-0021

Tell us

Are you a cruiser? Share your expert cruising tips below!

More on cruises

Cruise trends for 2011
Top 3 East Coast cruises
5 Best cruises for teens

Photo: Norwegian Cruise Lines, SeaDream Yacht Club, Crystal Cruises
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