A cruise can make for an incredible vacation, packed with romance, fine dining and more. It can also be a fateful trip.

In the first few months of 2014 alone, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, eight cruise ships reported outbreaks of norovirus, the highly contagious virus that causes nasty vomiting and diarrhea. Far worse, in 2012, 32 passengers on the Costa Concordia lost their lives when the ship hit rocks off the coast of Italy.

Fortunately, headline-making events on cruise ships are relatively rare. For most passengers the worst things that will happen onboard are relatively minor annoyances like seasickness, sunburn or a lost suitcase.

Even so, you can boost the odds that your next cruise will be nothing but smooth sailing.

Before you go

Do your homework. The CDC maintains a list of the latest hygiene inspection scores for virtually every cruise ship that sails through U.S. waters. And you can scan cruise line crime statistics at this United States Coast Guard site. Before you sign up for any shore excursions, vet the companies offering them by searching online for safety information and customer ratings.

Roll up your sleeve. Depending on your health and where the cruise is headed, you may need certain vaccinations. Check out the CDC’s travelers’ health website.

Register. Heading for foreign shores? Sign up with the U.S. State Department’s free Smart Traveler Enrollment Program. You’ll receive safety alerts about your destinations and make yourself easier to locate in an emergency.

On board

Really pay attention during safety drills. If you fly often enough, it’s probably okay to tune out the flight attendant’s seat belt demo. But on a boat, it’s imperative to pay attention during muster drills. This is when you’ll learn about the life jackets, lifeboats and what to do if the ship must be evacuated. According to Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) rules, cruise ships are required to conduct a muster drill within 24 hours of setting sail. Be aware, though, that most cruise ships hold a muster drill before departing. And make sure your cabin has the proper-size life jackets for all family members.

Don’t drink yourself silly. Yes, you’re on board to have fun. But in the unlikely event of an emergency you’ll need to have your wits about you. Know your limits when it comes to alcohol and stick to them.

Keep your hands clean. So many people, so many hands, so many germs — so much potential to catch a bug on the boat. The best way to protect yourself is to wash your hands often — before you eat, after bathroom visits, before you touch your face. Tuck some antibacterial hand gel or wipes in your bag or pocket to use when you aren’t near soap and water.

Know the difference between “sea sick” and seriously ill. Seasickness is certainly unpleasant, a mix of dizziness, nausea and even vomiting. But it’s very different from a contagious illness like norovirus.

“The main symptom of seasickness is vertigo,” says William Schaffner, MD, an infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee. “It feels like the illness is coming from your head and not your stomach.” You can often ease a wave of dizziness by gazing at the distant horizon. If you know you’re prone to seaksickness, Schaffner recommends packing scopolamine patches (available at most drugstores).

A viral illness doesn’t stop with dizziness; it may cause fever and muscle aches, too. Let the medical crew know if you think you’ve caught a bug on board. Rest in your cabin and follow the ship doctor’s orders until you feel better. If you get sick within two or three weeks of your return, be sure to tell your physician that you recently traveled, especially if you know that other passengers were sick. If you were overseas, specify which countries the ship visited even if you did not go on land.

If you see something… that’s right: Say something. If you happen to notice that a fellow passenger seems ill, for example, let a crewmember know. Do the same if you see someone doing something that could put himself or others at risk. Keep in mind that crime, including theft and sexual assault, can happen anywhere, including on a cruise. Take common-sense precautions. You wouldn’t wander around alone at 3 a.m. in a unfamiliar city; don’t do it aboard ship either.