Hey, it sure beats napkin folding .
Cruise lines also give passengers the choice of cruises of various length in order to help them schedule convenient cruise vacations. Short three- and four-day sailings, for instance, are among the most popular ways to get your feet wet. Disney Cruise Line , a longtime packager of short cruises with land-based vacations, also has introduced seven-day seagoing holidays, a first for the real resort-connected cruise line.

Carnival, however, may be the master of choice in the category of cruise-length permutations. This fall, the new Carnival Spirit will introduce a unique eight-day itinerary from Miami, with weekly departures on successive days of the week. The added day not only gives passengers a longer cruise, but it also creates the illusion of a cruise departure every day of the week, Dickinson says. The first cruise leaves on Monday, the next leaves on a Tuesday and so on. The concept works well in another way: When you arrive, say, in St. Thomas, a port notorious for ship crowding, "for five of those seven days, [Carnival will] be there when no one else is," Dickinson explains.

Today's ships' medical facilities are nothing to sneeze at, either. In the old days, a ship's doctor might be a podiatrist nabbing a two-week vacation break. These days, some ships are virtually floating hospitals. New technology allows shipboard doctors to work with shore-based specialists to deliver the highest level of medical care possible, including transmission of X-rays and electrocardiograms. Holland America just introduced Med Serve on its flagship Amsterdam -- a program affiliated with the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston. Princess, the first line to introduce such technology, has a telemedicine program aboard the Grand and Ocean Princesses, with electronic link-ups to Cleveland Clinic Florida in Fort Lauderdale.

The most novel notion of choice in the medical field, though, may go to Holland America. Want your teeth whitened to complement your tropical tan? You can do it on Zaandam, where a dentist provides a range of cosmetic and traditional dentistry. Apparently, even a toothache is no reason to abandon ship. Those with limited mobility also will be glad to know that some Holland America ships have innovative tender transfer systems that allow passengers in wheelchairs to access tenders with dignity.

Indeed, technology may have ushered in the greatest changes. Practically across the fleets, access to the Internet has become the ultimate choice, according to Mimi Weisband of Crystal Cruises. It lets you keep in touch with family, friends or office while you're away. And this eliminates the conundrum of whether you can get away from work in the first place to cruise. Of course you can. Nowadays, nary a ship of any major cruise line is unplugged. In fact, Crystal Cruises recently added Internet availability in every cabin via telephone. When Crystal introduced its ComputerUniversity@Sea in 1997, only about 10 percent of its passengers sent or received e-mail. Today, the line says, it's up to 66 percent, more than six times the initial usage.

Advanced communications technologies on Silversea's ships means that passengers get free printed stock-market updates at the end of every business day. Plus Internet cafes aboard each ship boast a terminal dedicated to the Bloomberg Reports.

In another twist on the computer age, Princess' Golden Princess , which debuts in May, will have a wedding cam that beams live pictures of your shipboard wedding over the Internet.

The upshot of all this? Cruises offer so much freedom today that there's only one limitation left that doesn't mimic a land-based resort: You can't just walk off the ship through the front gate whenever the spirit moves you. But, oh, what there is to do on board! One of the biggest shifts over the past five years, according to Cunard Lines, is the trickle-down of luxury elements from the upscale end, especially when it comes to dining choices.