Up until very recently, I was a cruising virgin. I'm a little embarrassed to admit that most of my impressions of life at sea were formed either while watching The Love Boat or reading scary newspaper accounts of shipboard viral outbreaks.

Then I sailed to the Bahamas aboard Norwegian Cruise Line's Norwegian Gem with my kids a few weeks ago. My maiden voyage was a fun, eye-opening experience, and not at all what I expected. Here are five common misconceptions I no longer labor under:

Myth no. 1: Once you're on board, everything is free.

Some of the best things cost extra, such as: shore excursions (especially those with a high wow factor, like dolphin encounters), specialty restaurants, sodas and cocktails, wine tasting, bowling, classes, room service, behind-the-scenes tours and gratuities. Plan on spending at least $200 to $300 extra per person on a seven-day cruise.

Myth no. 2: You'll be forced to pose for a cheesy souvenir photo with the ship's captain, and then buy it.

Unless you're a VIP, you'll actually have very little access to the senior officers on board. If you see them at all, it will probably be from a distance. You'll be photographed daily, but not with the captain. And you'll never be strong-armed into buying souvenir photos.

Myth no. 3: You'll have to dress up for dinner, and share a table every night with octogenarians.

Traditionally, cruises would assign tables, waiters and seatings for passengers, but things are changing. Flexible dining is gaining traction -- on many cruise lines you can eat whenever and wherever you'd like. On our cruise, my 6- and 9-year-old kids and I were never asked to share a table, even in the large dining rooms. You can probably guess why.

Myth no. 4: Cruise ships are unsanitary.

Outbreaks of gastroenteritis grab the headlines, but the truth is that these illnesses are common wherever people congregate (including hotels, conventions and summer camps). Stomach viruses are transmitted by the fecal-oral route, and have less to do with ship sanitation than plain old hand washing (or, in this case, lack of it). Cruise ships these days have mandatory hand-sanitizing gel on the gangway and at the entrance to every restaurant. Use it.

Myth no. 5: Modern cruise ships are so big that they sail smoothly in all but the roughest conditions.

Cruise ships are big, but guess what? The ocean is bigger. If there are waves, you'll feel them (especially out on the open sea). When it comes to seasickness, it's prudent to hope for the best but plan for the worst. Stock up on pharmaceutical and homeopathic remedies before you even set sail. It's better to have and not need them than to need and not have them.

Norwegian Gem seven-day cruises start at $649 per person based on double occupancy for an inside stateroom. 866-234-7350. www.ncl.com.