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cruiseRISMEDIA, November 6, 2009—(MCT)—If you are one of the 80% of Americans who have never taken a cruise, this column is for you.

Cruising can be rife with misconceptions: You get sick, seasick, bored, overfed or overindulged with drinking, gambling, shopping. While all of these things can be true, what happens to you is up to you. What and how much you eat, drink, gamble and shop is your decision. 

If you get bored seeing new places, well, that might be a problem. With the size of today’s ships and their sophisticated stabilizers, however, you are very unlikely to get seasick. Setting those concerns aside, consider that a cruise can be a wonderful experience, an easy way to relax, visit new destinations, enjoy free entertainment, catch some rays and meet a multitude of fellow travelers. 

For first-timers, the trickiest part of cruising is finding the right ship at the right price. You can shop the Internet all you want, but ultimately, you probably will be confused and overwhelmed by the many choices of ships and itineraries. You need to find a knowledgeable travel agent, perhaps a cruise specialist, to help you navigate the sea of options. “There are no advantages to booking directly with the cruise lines — none,” said Nancy Kelly of Kelly Cruises in Oak Brook, Ill. (Travel agents sell 90% of all cruises). 

Kelly offers these tips for first-time cruise shoppers: 

-Have an approximate departure date in mind and, if possible, a second or third choice. Rates can fluctuate from week to week and by the type of accommodations — outside cabin, inside cabin. Opt for flights that get you to your port with ample time before sailing, allowing for potential delays.

-Have a destination in mind- Caribbean, Alaska, Europe, something more exotic, as well as how long a cruise you want. If, for example, you are interested in Alaska, be aware that May and September are “shoulder seasons” when rates are lower, but the weather is cooler than in June through August.

-Be honest about your budget for the trip. You need to factor in airfare, gratuities, shore excursions and beverages that are not included.

-Make sure you have a valid passport. If you do, check it to be sure it won’t expire for at least six months after your cruise. Make sure that the legal name on your passport matches the name on your airline ticket and cruise document.

-Buy travel insurance to protect your vacation investment should you have to cancel. Buy from an independent company, not the cruise line. 

As you warm up to a cruise vacation, know that you have 23 cruise lines and 130 new ships (since 2000) to choose from. If you like big vessels, you can choose ships that carry 2,500 passengers and have more restaurants, rock-climbing walls, skating rinks, spas, shopping arcades, casinos, fitness centers, Las Vegas-style nightclubs and entertainers than most people can handle. You can scale down from that to the 500-passenger range, many of which are no less posh but just less amenity-laden. 

(c) 2009, Chicago Tribune.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.