Planning my first cruise, I felt as overwhelmed as a child cut loose inside a toy store. There were too many choices, too much temptation and too many tears ready to roll in the event of a bad decision. As I flipped through glossy brochures and surfed cruise line Web sites, I imagined myself on every cruise: there's me aboard a "party boat" to the Caribbean, a luxury yacht in the Mediterranean and an expedition ship in Antarctica. Like a kid faced with a towering shelf of games, I wanted them all, but knew that I could have only one. I feared that I would make the wrong pick.
Frustrated, I ended up calling a cruise specialist, who asked me to describe myself as if I were signing up for a matchmaking service. Was this vacation planning or psychotherapy? But his approach helped me uncover the mystery of cruise planning. First, you need to figure out what kind of traveler you are and which type of vacation you want. Start by asking yourself: Are you a solo traveler who likes to laze by the pool by day and electric slide through the night? Or are you a member of a Type-A family that runs on rechargeable batteries and works off a checklist of vacation experiences? Perhaps you are one half of a power couple with cultured-pearl tastes and gourmand appetites. Think about whether your ideal cruise ship would focus on fine dining, a party scene, adrenaline-pumping activities, nonstop socializing or just endless opportunities to sleep. You should also factor in such practicalities as budget, the departure port and the length of the trip.
Once you have completed this task, you are ready to match your personality with the appropriate cruise line. This, unfortunately, is the hard part. To the untrained eye, all cruise ships look alike -- huge, luxurious and teeming with activities. Yet discernible differences take shape upon closer inspection. For instance, I initially confused Celebrity Cruises and Carnival Cruise Lines -- both C names -- but later learned that the lines are as different as French Bordeaux and Milwaukee's Best. Holland America and Norwegian Cruise Line both sound exotic and European, but the former offers a classic vibe catering to a more mature clientele, while the latter has resort-style mega-ships with a family-friendly bent.
So how do you figure out a cruise line's personality and whether it's compatible with your needs? You could ask a travel agent like I did, or simply read our shortlist. Below, we recommend the best cruise lines for a specific type or group of travelers, as well as runners-up. So dry your cruise planning tears, and get ready to find your perfect cruise line.
Why: Carnival is the Everycruiser's line, appealing to a broad spectrum of vacationers who share one common trait: they all want a crazy-fun escape without going bankrupt. The combination of Carnival's sizable fleet (24 ships), wide reach (Mexico, Europe, Bermuda, Alaska, Caribbean, etc.) and flexible durations (two-night mini-cruises to 15-night transatlantic and Hawaii sailings) translate to low prices and frequent deals. In fact, many Floridians consider the Bahamas cruise their "local" weekend jaunt.
Highlights: Carnival eschews long cruises to exotic destinations for the most accessible trips: three- to seven-night cruises to popular destinations in the Caribbean, Bahamas and Mexico. Time it right, and a cruise could cost you less than if you'd stayed home -- say, $50 per person, per night. Carnival keeps its cabins simple, with plenty of standard insides and outsides, and does not go overboard with a plethora of fee-extra venues onboard. For budget rates, avoid holiday periods, especially school vacations, and consider an Early Saver rate, which could knock 20 percent off the price.
Carnival Cruise Fares:
Runner-up: With a dozen ships, including the 4,100-passenger Norwegian Epic, Norwegian Cruise Line has space to fill. There are regularly last-minute deals, some as low as $50 per person, per night. The ships also offer numerous free activities and a variety of complimentary dining venues.
Why: The cruise line fills your vacation days and nights with sporty and social activities that keep older kids busy and, more importantly, looking cool. The packed schedule, overseen by an attentive crew, lets parents enjoy their own downtime without worrying about their charges growing bored and antsy.
Highlights: Older kids need distractions and special attention; Royal Caribbean gives them both. Depending on the ship, the line tap into the T-sets' bottomless well of energy with rock-climbing walls, zip-lines, ice- and inline-skating, surf simulators, a boxing ring, and basketball and volleyball courts. For its youth programs, RCI wisely splits up 'tweens and teens into their appropriate age groups. They also treat the underage crowd like mini-adults with such sophisticated amenities as Generation YSPA, a spa especially for the primping generation and their adolescent needs; a teens-only "casino"; a backstage tour of the ship; and a no-elders-allowed lounge where they can dance, drink mocktails and socialize with their confreres until past their parents' bedtimes.
Royal Caribbean Cruise Fares:
Runner-up: Norwegian Cruise Line appeals to teens with its exclusive spaces (clubs and lounges for teenagers), pop culture and retro-hip activities (bowling, Nintendo Wii, "American Idol"-style shows) and special packages, such as the Teen Passport Program, a grab-bag of surprises that include smoothies, a DJ party and a pizza blowout.
Why: After years of running wildly popular theme parks and resorts, Disney really gets what parents and small children need on vacation, from entertainment and dining to childcare. The company brings this knowledge into play on its cruise ships, designed to please every member of the family.
Highlights: Disney Cruise Line is rare in the industry for attending to the needs of babies and toddlers. It allows tots as young as 3 months onboard (most lines start at 6 or 12 months), provides nurseries for little sailors up to 3 years old and has a water play area available to the diapered set. The cruise line also fills its ships with its signature characters, such as Mickey, Goofy, Cinderella and her princess pals, who engage youngsters at breakfasts, teas and meet-n-greets. Its expansive play areas are themed after popular Disney and Pixar movies, with plenty of high-tech games, and interactive (and often educational) programming. Cabins and dining establishments are tailored for families, taking into account the practical (split bathrooms with tub/shower combos) and the whimsical (restaurants with fairytale decor).
Disney Cruise Fares:
Runners-up: Norwegian Cruise Line renovated its kids' clubs in 2012, adding new programs for babies and toddlers. It also partnered with Nickelodeon to bring SpongeBob SquarePants and Dora the Explorer to select ships. Royal Caribbean has a partnership with Fisher-Price to offer age-appropriate activities for little cruisers, and a number of its ships, including Oasis of the Seas and Allure of the Seas, feature nurseries.
Why: Holland America, an elegant mid-size line, has traditionally drawn a more mature crowd by emphasizing the classic cruising experience over partying and pushing the adrenaline limits. The company also has one of the strongest return rates in the industry, translating to a passenger base that is unwaveringly loyal to the brand.
Highlights: HAL offers quieter pleasures, such as the Culinary Arts Center, which focuses on cooking demos, tastings and shoreside market tours led by top chefs; a self-guided art tour of the onboard collection; and Explorations Cafe, which houses a library and hosts visiting lecturers who speak on art, history and other topics. The athletic pursuits, such as a golf putting green, yoga and tennis, don't require a 21-year-old's physique. Under the never-ending Signatures of Excellence initiative, the cruise line is expanding the fleet's enrichment programs and renovating public areas and staterooms with such comforts as the Mariner Dream bed and high-quality cotton linens.
Holland America Fares:
Runner-up:Regent Seven Seas, which describes itself as "upscale but not uptight," trades in ease and style. Passengers bunk, for the most part, in balcony suites and dress for dinner in "elegant casual" attire (no need for extra luggage filled with tuxes and gowns). With all-inclusive fares, cruisers don't have to sweat the details. The price includes unlimited shore excursions, pre-cruise hotel stays, beverages (fine wines, premium spirits), prepaid gratuities, specialty dining and more.
Why: Norwegian reached out to solo cruisers when it introduced the Studio concept on Norwegian Epic. These cabins, specifically designed for solo travelers, come with hip minimalist furnishings (including disco mood lighting and milky-white padded walls), access to an exclusive lounge and no dastardly single supplement.
Highlights: In 2010, 4,100-passenger Norwegian Epic debuted with 128 Studios, 100-square-foot cabins that are perfect in size and price for parties of one. Cruisers who book this category of cabin also receive keycard-activated access to the Living Room, a gathering place with a bar, snacks and special activities that encourage platonic (and romantic) pairings. The ship also offers a slew of watering holes (Svedka Ice Bar, Bliss Ultra Lounge), hip entertainment (Second City improv show, Blue Man Group) and events (shipwide pub crawl) where singles will feel comfortable, even without a plus-one.
Norwegian Epic Cruise Fares:
Runner-up: P&O Cruises' Azura, which carries more than 3,000 passengers, invites solo travelers aboard with its own single cabins. While not as hip or as numerous as Norwegian's, the 18 single accommodations come in inside and outside categories and measure about 130 square feet. Solos lucky enough to score one of the popular cabins-for-one also get treated to complimentary water and a "pamper pack."
Why: Celebrity's expansive dining plan incorporates wine and flavors from around the globe. Multiple dining options cater to passengers' unique tastes and dietary restrictions.
Highlights: Celebrity is innovative with onboard cuisine, offering a high-quality experience in its buffets and main dining rooms, but going all-out in its specialty dining venues. The line was one of the first to introduce spa cuisine on its ships, beginning with small healthy-choice buffets and now offering Blu, a dedicated spa restaurant. Other specialty restaurants put a creative spin on traditional international cuisines. Among the options: Qsine (Celebrity Eclipse, Silhouette, Summit and Infinity), which serves creatively presented world fusion dishes; Silk Harvest (Solstice, Equinox), a passport to pan-Asia; and a series of French-inspired venues with various names, including Murano (on Celebrity Century and all Solstice-class ships). Gourmands on a budget should consider the line's beverage and specialty dining packages.
Celebrity Cruise Fares:
Runner-up:Seabourn is a member of Chaine des Rotisseurs, an esteemed gastronomic society (est. Paris 1950) that advances the art of sophisticated dining. In addition, the cruise line previously worked with Charlie Palmer, the celebrity chef known for his award-winning steakhouses on the mainland. The result is superb cuisine in the Restaurant, Seabourn's main dining room venue, and in Restaurant 2, an alternative venue serving more adventurous dishes. The luxury cruise line lets passenger dine for free in all venues, and it offers complimentary wine at lunch and dinner.
Why: Uniworld River Cruises prioritizes visits to cultural and historical attractions, and included shore excursions are jam-packed field trips that take in everything from quaint towns to worldly wonders. Itineraries may take in Russia's onion-domed churches, medieval French cities, China's Three Gorges Dam or Egypt's temples and pyramids.
Highlights: The intimate vessels (averaging 130 passengers) sail in Europe, Russia, Egypt, China, Vietnam and Cambodia and often dock near the ports' city centers, allowing passengers to easily walk to the main attractions. When distances are too far, the ship arranges motorcoach transfers; passengers never have to ferry between the ship and the shore. Uniworld encourages learning with its Signature Lectures enrichment programs and tailor-made excursions based on interests and experience. More active culterati can grab free bikes or Nordic walking sticks and strike out on their own. Or, for company, soak in the surroundings on a "Gentle Walking Tour." Onboard entertainment and menus incorporate each country's traditions, including local performers and artisans.
Uniworld Cruise Fares:
Runner-up:Cunard and its trio of Queens ooze culture like an Oxford don. The cruise line introduced the Cunard Insights enrichment program in 2007, inviting onboard such luminaries as a NASA astronaut, a polar explorer and British wit John Cleese. Passengers can also indulge in cultural pursuits with ballroom dancing, West End-style theater (in a box seat, no less), a planetarium (one Queen Mary 2 only) and a string quartet bidding the sun adieu.
Why: Lindblad's expedition ships carry the torch of Norwegian explorer Lars-Eric Lindblad, who created the first incarnation of the company in 1958 with trips to such remote and forbidding destinations as Antarctica (he led the first tourist trip there in 1966), China (another first in 1978), Papua New Guinea and the Amazon. Lindblad, whose son later expanded the company with marine-centered sojourns, is also considered a forefather of eco-tourism. True to its legacy, the cruise line takes its adventures seriously, mixing conservation efforts with educational and active diversions, such as naturalist-led glacier hikes and deep-water snorkeling.
Highlights: The company seeks out exotic itineraries in the Arctic, Antarctica, Galapagos, Amazon and other less-mainstream cruise destinations. On its Arctic trips, passengers sail aboard an ice-class vessel that easily slips through frozen passageways populated with polar bears. Its Cape Horn-to-Cape of Good Hope itinerary follows in the choppy wake of ancient surveyors and modern-day solo circumnavigators. On its Antarctica sojourns, National Geographic naturalists, marine specialists and photographers live onboard, providing a steady stream of eco-insights and information. For closer views, the cruise line equips its ships with Zodiacs, sea kayaks and underwater cameras. The company also advances sustainable practices and supports many conservation programs in the fragile destinations it visits.
Lindblad Cruise Fares:
Runner-up:InnerSea Discoveries, which first cruised the Inside Passage in 2011, explores Alaska in a trio of expedition vessels small enough to wiggle into secret harbors and through narrow waterways. Cruisers are invited to immerse themselves in their natural surroundings with such land-and-sea excursions as whale-watching, stand-up paddleboarding, hiking, kayaking and polar bear plunges. American Safari Cruises, a division of InnerSea, oversees a fleet of luxury yachts that ply waters rich in adventure and wildlife, such as Alaska, Hawaii, the Pacific Northwest's Columbia and Snake rivers, Washington's San Juan Islands and Mexico's Sea of Cortez.
Why: Silversea, founded by a Roman family with exquisite Italian taste, proves the adage that good things come in small packages. With a fleet of six ships of modest size (132 to 540 passengers), the company can maintain its ultra-luxe standards and personalized service, including oceanview rooms, private butlers, bottomless flutes of champagne and a nearly one-to-one ratio of passengers and crewmembers. To be sure, you will pay for such pampering: prices typically start at about $2,000 per person and go north from there.
Highlights: Silversea favors understated elegance over excessive opulence. With Art Deco flourishes, the vessels evoke the 1930's Golden Age of cruising, but with a 21st-century polish. The all-suite accommodations come with ocean views, butler service and Italian marble bathrooms accessorized with full-size baths, Bvlgari or Ferragamo bath soaps, and aromatherapy scents by Italian perfumer Laura Tonatto. For dining, Silversea's partnership with the esteemed Grands Chefs Relais & Chateaux, which represents international culinary greats, guarantees the highest class of cuisine, including the six-course meal at Le Champagne, the only R&C wine restaurant at sea. Diversions are tasteful, not super-splashy; they include food demos, wine samplings and dance lessons. In addition, guest lecturers of high note -- best-selling authors, an Egyptologist, an ambassador and a space travel expert -- accompany passengers on sojourns with three or more at-sea days. And, in a nod to the ocean culture of yore, gentlemen hosts guide single ladies by the waist for a twirl on the dance floor.
Silversea Cruise Fares:
Runner-up:SeaDream Yacht Club upgrades cruising to yachting with its pair of luxury mega-yachts that carry a max of 112 discerning sailors. The all-inclusive price is generous with the perks: open bar, mountain bikes for onshore exploration, laptops and a watery playground with such toys as personal watercraft, glass-bottom kayaks and Sunfish, for a mini-yachting outing. For the ultimate indulgence, enjoy a Champagne and caviar spread, served from the water by waiters in full uniform.
Why: The luxury cruise line offers a singular experience in the ultimate honeymoon/anniversary/special occasion destinations of Tahiti, French Polynesia and the South Pacific. Adept in shallow waters, Paul Gauguin can access secluded ports often ruled out by larger vessels. In December 2012, the company will expand its fleet and itineraries with the 90-passenger Tere Moana, which will summer in Europe and winter in the Caribbean and Latin America.
Highlights: Paul Gauguin doesn't skimp on romance: all cabins boast ocean views, and a majority have queen-size beds and private balconies. Couples can feel the ooh-la-la over a Polynesian-accented French meal at the fine-dining restaurant, L'Etoile, or during a private sunset dinner served on their stateroom balcony. The spa caters to twosomes with couples' treatment -- try the 40-minute aroma steam bath for two or a massage on a private islet off the coast of Taha'a. For a honeymoon-style extension, tack on a stay in an overwater bungalow in Bora Bora, Tahiti or Moorea.
Runner-up: Romance fills the sails of Windstar Cruises, a trio of multimasted yachts that float through such dreamy destinations as the Greek Isles, Costa Rica and the Windward Islands. Wind Surf, the world's largest sailing ship, holds no more than 312 passengers; the others max out at 148. After a gourmet meal or an alfresco cocktail, couples can hunker down in cuddly nooks and gaze at the stars, sea or each other.
Why: Two of the four ships sailing under the French Country Waterways banner fit a dozen passengers maximum; for the other pair, subtract four. In addition to the personalized size, the luxury barges thread along cozy canals, the shores almost close enough to reach out and touch.
Highlights: French Country Waterways, which travels in Champagne, Burgundy, Alsace-Lorraine and the Upper Loire region, avoids the hordes on land and sea. The barges evoke a warm European guesthouse, with public spaces indoors and out that encourage socializing or solitude, depending on your needs. During shore excursions, passengers travel by private motorcoaches to family-run wineries, castles and other outings that keep groups small. Each voyage includes a boast-worthy meal at a Michelin-starred restaurant. If you really need "me" time, borrow one of the bikes onboard, and cycle around the darling villages.
Runner-up:Blount Small Ship Adventures is a family-run operation with two vessels boasting cozy, homey environments with a maximum of 48 cabins. The company eschews big-ship norms. For example, cruisers can bring alcohol onboard (the ships provide mixers and storage for free), and at port stops, passengers can disembark from a ramp that extends from the bow, an antidote to crowded gangways and tenders. Due to their diminutive size, the ships can navigate myriad destinations (e.g., Guatemala's Rio Dulce, New York's Thousand Islands, Rhode Island's Block Island) often off-limits to bigger vessels.