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For the best trip, exercise cruise control

Curiosity and serendipity led to our first cruise 29 years ago. Driving over a drawbridge in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., we saw the cruise ships berthed at the port below and wondered what they’d be like. Some 134 cruises later - you can tell we like them - we are often asked for tips for first-time cruisers.

That’s a big bunch. Nearly 10 million vacationers took a cruise in 2004, according to Cruise Lines International Association, an organization of 19 member lines with 150 ships, and about half were first-timers, a proportion expected to hold steady for several years.

Our first tip is a basic one: Educate yourself. Read cruise guidebooks and magazines such as Cruise Travel, www.cruisetravelmag.com, and Porthole, www.porthole.com, and cruising sites such as www.cruisediva.com and www.cruisecritic.com. Peruse deck plans in cruise brochures for details without marketing hype on facilities and cabin location.

Ship size is important, and choices are plentiful. At one end are huge, 3,000-passenger floating resorts with dozens of dining and entertainment venues, shopping malls, multilevel casinos and full-service spas that will likely appeal to those who like large hotels and resorts, said Charles Doherty, editor of Cruise Travel magazine. At the other end are intimate 100-passenger yachtlike vessels, “some with the refined elegance of an upscale boutique hotel, others with the casual, friendly ambiance of a bed and breakfast,” Doherty said.

Scores of ships fall along the spectrum between these extremes, each offering a unique experience, he said.

Who is on the ship matters, too.

“Set sail with people your own age,” advised Linda Coffman, creator of the Web site www.cruisediva.com and author of Fodor’s “The Complete Guide to Caribbean Cruises and Caribbean Ports of Call 2006.” People who seek relaxing cruises but don’t do their homework can end up being bombarded by conga lines and loud pool music, Coffman said.

While nobody can say for sure who will be on a cruise, retirees are generally attracted to traditional vessels such as those from Cunard Line and Holland America, and to longer voyages. They have the time and money for them.

Young people are drawn to shorter cruises and adventure voyages like those of Windjammer Cruises. Families with children often cruise during school holidays and seniors in the fall.

More tips: If you like spa treatments and big gyms, select ships with large health clubs, like those of Celebrity, Royal Caribbean and Carnival. If you are traveling with grandchildren, look into Disney Cruise Line ships.

For dining variety, pick vessels with alternative restaurants, like Crystal ships and Cunard’s Queen Mary 2. For enrichment programs, select one with guest lecturers and learning facilities like the ships of Crystal Cruises that feature a studio for Yamaha keyboard lessons and Berlitz language classes.

If seasickness concerns you, large ships ride the waves better in rough seas. Reserve a cabin midship and in the middle deck - the most stable location - and ask your doctor for a remedy.

In our first cruise 29 years ago, we told the travel agent what we could afford and she did the rest. Our cabin was fine but now we know not all cabins in the same price range are as desirable. Look over deck plans and avoid noisy areas near the children’s club, elevators, disco, theater, over the engine room, near the anchor or under the jogging track.

Look for an itinerary that fits your schedule and includes your dream ports. Make sure the ship stays in port long enough for what you want to do. If the ship does not dock but disembarks passengers on launches at some ports, it cuts into your time.

Travel agents specializing in cruises are usually abreast of specials. You may cruise for less than $100 a day on budget lines like Carnival and moderately-priced lines like Royal Caribbean.

Humberto and Georgina Cruz are a husband-and-wife writing team who work together in this column. Send questions and comments to AskHumberto@aol.com or GVCruz@aol.com.