Pack up, we'll sail towards the sun, And sail away from cares. Board a floating hotel, We'll live like millionaires!

calypso

NEW OR ENLARGED vessels, reduced fares and a wave of strong competition among cruise lines mean good news this season for all those vacationers who long to go down to the sea on luxury liners.

In an economy still far from ship-shape, both first-time and repeat passengers are being wooed by an industry that is investing millions of dollars on increased capacity. From 1982 to mid-1985, 18 new or reconstructed ships with an estimated 15,000 berths will have been added to the 68 vessels that now belong to 25 members of the Cruise Lines International Association.

"The cruise industry... is the fastest growing segment" of the travel business, notes Ralph Bahna, chairman of cruise lines association. Three times as many people took a holiday voyage last year, compared with 1970. But since only 3 percent of the total American and Canadian population has ever taken a cruise, the companies are trying to woo passengers by packaging their products creatively to appeal to a variety of interests. Even itineraries and ports of call -- once primarily limited to a few predictable Caribbean sun spots, except for round-the-world sailings -- have expanded in hope of filling more cabins.

CLIA has mounted a campaign to convince millions of prospective passengers that not only have special rates -- including free air fare in some cases -- made cruising affordable, but the decks are not awash with prosperous over-60 seniors. True, on certain longer and more expensive voyages the age bracket does tend to rise, but 1981 industry figures show 37 percent of passengers were younger than 34 and 25 percent were 35-54.

Today's ships cannot, of course, match the size or grandeur of those Leviathans that once plied the Atlantic before the quicker, cheaper jets displaced them. The elegant style of that era, when fuel and labor costs were much less, has vanished, leaving only nostalgia in its wake. Regular transatlantic service afloat is almost a thing of the past, with only the giant QE2 and a few small Polish and Soviet vessels still on that route.

But no sensible traveler ever called a jet "romantic." The one-class ships that have recently entered service, and those being built or now on the drawing boards, are designed with the safety, comfort and convenience of today's cruise buff in mind. They still appeal to those who choose leisure over speed, who dream of buffets alfresco, balmy trade winds and the rhythms of steel drums or stranger music in out-of-the-way exotic ports.

The latest CLIA survey of cruising developments and trends paints a tempting picture of ocean travel despite cloudy economic skies:

* New ships are generally "bigger and roomier" than those of the '70s. For the 80s, the emphasis is on public rooms for on-board activities and dining, more deck space for the active passenger and more outside cabins overlooking the sea. (Britain's P&O Line, which is not a member of the association, recently announced that a $130 million, 40,000-ton ship being built in Finland will have 600 outside cabins high in the superstructure, each with a full picture window, while the dining and entertainment rooms will be down in the hull.)

* Equipment includes satellite navigational systems, fuel-saving engines, efficient stabilizers, in-cabin TV with first-run movies, video game rooms and computerized laundries. Some will feature gambling casinos, and there are usually duty-free shops which close when the ship's in port.

* The places ships are based reflect "the cruise vacation's rapid growth in popularity." This positioning of ships also involves new itineraries dictated by the pressure of competition. The proximity of the Port of Miami and Port Everglades to the Caribbean has enabled them to overtake the still-active Port of New York. Cruise ships are now embarking from elsewhere on the Atlantic coast, the Gulf of Mexico, the West Coast from Los Angeles to Vancouver, and from San Juan and other Caribbean ports. Destinations increasing in popularity include Alaska, the Mexican Riviera and the Orient and Pacific.

Among "stretched" and new vessels in 1982:

* Royal Viking Line cut its Royal Viking Sky in half and added a middle section to gain more cabin space. It did the same with the Royal Viking Star in '81, and will similarly expand the Royal Viking Sea this year.

* Pearl Cruises introduced the Pearl of Scandinavia (formerly the M/S Finnstar) on a variety of cruises to the Orient. It is based in Hong Kong.

* Scandinavian World Cruises continued to market the unique passenger-auto ferry service between New York and Florida which it inaugurated at the end of '81. Its flagship, the Scandinavia, can carry 1,000 passengers and 400 cars from New York to Freeport, Grand Bahama. There, connections can be made with the line's who smaller vessels, the Scandinavian Sun to Miami, or the Scandinavia Sea to Port Canaveral. The Scandinavia is new; the Sun, formerly the Caribe, and the Sea, formerly the Blenheim, were both completely refurbished.

* Home Lines' 30,000-ton Atlantic cruises between New York and Bermuda in the summer and to the Caribbean from Florida in winter. Built in France, she has eight passenger decks, 23 public rooms and carries 1,050 vacationers.

* Carnival Cruise Line's 36,674-ton Tropicale, based in Los Angeles, will cruise to Alaska this summer and to Mexico year-round beginning in September. She has 10 decks, three swimming pools (one with a 2-story water slide) and carries 1,022.

* Royal Caribbean's Song of America, largest of the '82 vessels at 37,000 tons, carries 1,414 passengers on 11 decks. One eye-catching lounge offers a 360-degree view from 12 stories above the ocean.

* Paquet Cruises 24,500-ton Rhapsody, formerly the Statendam, was reconstructed and refurbished to take 850 to Alaska in summer and to the Caribbean in winter.

* American Hawaii's 30,000-ton Constitution, carrying 800, joined the Independence for seven-day cruises in the Hawaiian Islands.

This year the West Coast will welcome two new ships, Miami one:

* Holland America's 33,000-ton Nieuw Amsterdam will sail to Alaska from Vancouver and to the Mexican Riviera from San Francisco.

* Sitmar Cruises' 38,000-ton Fairsky will join the Fairwind and Fairsea in the West Coast market.

* Commodore Cruises' 23,000-ton Caribe, formerly the Olympia, will be refurbished and modernized.

More are coming in '84 and '85. But what about prices?

Carnival's president, Micky Arison, recently told Travel Weekly: "The continued recession will force all suppliers to fight harder for the limited amount of discretionary travel dollars left in consumers' pockets."

The cost of a cruise now averages $160 to $200 a day per person, double occupancy. Singles usually pay a heavy additional charge for the privilege of being alone, though lines can sometimes arrange for sharing a cabin. Princess Cruises has offered a "Singles Supplement" plan that charges only 10 percent above the per-person rate for one person occupying a double stateroom, but cautions that the number of cabins set aside for "exclusive occupancy" is limited.)

Almost every line is touting some kind of "bargain" sale, with free air fare (often the total cruise cost may reflect the ship line's underwriting of only a portion of the air fare, but it still represents real savings); an air supplement based on departure city; discounts with special booking requirements; deals for families, and other packages. Due to the proliferation of cruise fares and the variety of offerings, it makes good sense -- especially for first-timers -- to consult a travel agent who knows the cruise scene instead of booking directly with the line. Agents handle about 95 percent of cruise bookings.

Late bookings remain a fact of life as Americans worry about tight budgets, so cabin space may be available up to the last week before sailing. For the dollar-conscious, a few examples:

* Sitmar offers clients who book a Caribbean cruise before March 31 a savings of $400 per couple. They call it the Super Saver fare, and it includes free air fare from more than 100 gateway cities.

* Norwegian Caribbean Lines has a Sea Saver fare, with savings of "30 percent or more" on 7-night cruises aboard the Starward, Southward, Skyward and Norway to ports in the Caribbean, Bahamas and Mexico. Passengers must select the week they want at least four weeks in advance; NCL picks the ship and confirms accommodations based on what cabins are in the alloted inventory when full payment is received. NCL also offers free air on selected cruises, but not in conjunction with Sea Savers, and it may end its free air program later this year.

* Royal Viking is advertising "$400 off per person on selected cruises."

* Carnival will continue its free air policy through 1983 and has an aggressive marketing program that includes incentives for family travel.

The industry emphasizes that, in cruising, you know essentially what your total cost is before embarking and there will be no expensive surprises.

Transportation, accommodations, all meals (excluding liquor), entertainment and activities are included in the fare. Tips and shore excursions are extra. Some lines provide special facilities and services for small children and teens so parents can have time alone.

Ships vary in terms of ambiance, style and quality, and in the number of stewards and waiters per passenger (which can affect the standard of service). They are registered in different countries and have officers and crews of different nationalities (there are only a few U.S. flag passenger vessels).

A knowledgeable agent can help you choose the right 3, 7, 10 or 14-day cruise to begin, and tell you what to pack. Don't expect to wake up on the "Love Boat." But, then again, you may not want to get much sleep either.