ABOARD NORWEGIAN SUN — Traditionally, dinner on a cruise ship is set for a specific time at a table with the same people for the entire cruise. Usually there are at least a few nights where formal dress in the dining room is required.

ABOARD NORWEGIAN SUN — Traditionally, dinner on a cruise ship is set for a specific time at a table with the same people for the entire cruise. Usually there are at least a few nights where formal dress in the dining room is required.

Seven years ago, Norwegian Cruise Line introduced a different system, which the company calls "Freestyle Cruising," on one of its ships. If you want to eat in a restaurant on an NCL ship, you show up between 5:30 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. and order off the menu. There is no dress code. You can ask for a table for two, or you can ask to sit at a large table and meet other passengers.

The concept has been a success, and is now available on all 15 NCL ships.

NCL promotes the idea as a way to dine when and with whom you want, at a choice of restaurants — and generally in less formal attire.

The flexibility to relax until early evening, then dine when we were ready — without having to pack five days worth of formal wear — fit well with what my wife and I like to do on vacation: Let our whims drive the schedule.

We sailed to Mexico aboard Norwegian Sun earlier this year. It was our first cruise — but not our last. We liked the freestyle system, and we fell in love with cruising.

On Norwegian Sun, the two main restaurants, sports bar and a couple of other places offer great meals for which you do not pay extra.

For $10 to $20 per person, the ship has a handful of other specialty restaurants that include a steakhouse, sushi bar and French restaurant where reservations are recommended.

Most other major cruise lines also offer a variety of dining options for those who want to skip the formal seating each night. Those options usually include buffets and cafes where you can dine as often as you like for no extra charge, as well as specialty restaurants for which you pay a small fee. In addition, many cruise lines require formal dress for the dining room on only a couple of nights, with casual dress on other nights.

But under the traditional system, if you want to eat in the formal dining room, you can't change your seating time or tablemates. Sitting with other passengers can be a wonderful way to meet new people. But there may be times when you'd prefer to eat alone, or where you're not a good match for the folks randomly assigned to your table. You may find yourself opting for the buffet even if you'd prefer the food in the dining room. The freestyle system avoids that problem.

Some other cruise lines have instituted similar flexibility. "Ships are changing, people's tastes are changing. There's more of a casual atmosphere out there," said Bob Sharak, vice president for marketing for the Cruise Lines International Association. "All the cruise lines are attacking this from different angles with different options."

For example, Princess Cruises introduced "Personal Choice Dining" in which passengers can either use the traditional fixed seating plan, or call the maitre d' and make reservations for a specific time each night. Princess passengers also can just show up at a restaurant on board and see if there's a table available.

Holland America offers "As You Wish" dining which also permits guests to choose either the preset dining time or flexible seating, where they can make reservations on a daily basis or just walk up during dining hours to get a table. Holland America first offered "As You Wish" on its Noordam ship earlier this year and will be rolling the program out to other ships in the fleet between now and July.

Another aspect of NCL's freestyle program is that a $10-per-person daily charge to passenger accounts to handle all tips. Some other cruise lines offer similar options, but it's usually not automatic.

Other observations my wife and I had as first-time cruisers:

Cruise ship staterooms are small but make good use of space. The advantage is, you unpack once and travel to different destinations without touching your bags again. The cruise experience allowed us to sleep in, run on the track around the ship or work out in the exercise room, eat when we were ready and just spend time alone relaxing on the deck or at dinner. There were only a few times we felt significant swaying on Norwegian Sun — a large ship at 848 feet. Various products, from wristbands to over-the-counter pills like Bonine, are available for those prone to motion sickness. The cruise industry follows various hygiene protocols to prevent outbreaks of gastrointestinal illness like norovirus. But experts say frequent handwashing — especially before eating — is the best way for passengers to protect themselves. On Norwegian Sun, as on other vessels, hand-sanitizer dispensers are located all over the ship. Booking a cruise need not be complicated or expensive. You can use a travel agent, book it yourself through the cruise line, or use a Web site that offers various deals. In our case, a pop-ad in an e-mail caught my eye for VacationsToGo.com, which advertises savings on cruises of up to 75 percent. I perused the trips and called the 800 number to talk to one of the agents. He said the company works with cruise lines to fill up rooms 90 days before the ships sail, which is where the savings come from. The price was $750 for both of us, including pre-boarding fees. Four weeks later, we were in Mexico. Shore excursions can add adventure and cultural experiences to your lazy days onboard. When we talked about what we wanted to do on shore, I learned about a dream my wife had: to ride horseback on a white sand beach. I had no idea! We signed up for a ride on the island of Cozumel, the second stop on the cruise. After a morning ride, we ate lunch at a resort and spent the afternoon on the beach.

A day earlier down the coast, we took an hour-long ride on a tour bus and explored the pyramids of Chacchoben, one of the old main Mayan distribution centers for wood and jade in the Costa Maya region. (Because of hurricane damage this summer, NCL and other cruise lines are skipping the port of Costa Maya for the near future, but excursions to see the Tulum Mayan ruins can be arranged from Cozumel.)

We live in South Dakota, and we wanted to go somewhere warm to celebrate milestone birthdays and just get a break. Our ship departed from New Orleans in January.

It was a great way to escape the long Midwestern winter, and we'll be doing it again.