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 websites, I imagined myself on every cruise: a "party boat" to the Caribbean, a luxury yacht in the Mediterranean and an expedition ship in Antarctica. 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 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 and teeming with activities. Yet discernible differences take shape upon closer inspection. For instance, I initially confused Celebrity Cruises and Carnival Cruise Line -- both C names -- but later learned that the lines are as different as French Bordeaux and Miller Light. 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 if a cruise line's personality is 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 in a variety of categories, as well as runners-up. So dry your cruise planning tears, and get ready to find your perfect cruise line.
1. Best Value for Money
Winner: Carnival 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), emphasis on popular destinations (Caribbean, Bahamas and Mexico) and dedication to accessible three- to seven-night itineraries translates to low prices and frequent deals. Time it right, and a cruise could cost you less than if you'd stayed home -- say, $30 to $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.
Runner-up: With 13 ships, including 4,100-passenger Norwegian Epic and 4,028-passenger Norwegian Breakaway and Getaway, Norwegian Cruise Line has space to fill. There are regularly last-minute deals, some as low as $50 or $75 per person, per night. The ships also offer numerous free activities -- including fabulous Broadway shows and live music and comedy -- and a variety of complimentary dining venues.
2. Best All-Around Cruise Line
Winner: Princess Cruises
Why: A solid line with something for everyone, Princess has a large fleet with ships ranging in size from 680 passengers (double occupancy) to 3,600 passengers. Its itineraries cover the globe; the line is a leader in Alaska cruising, and offers mainstream trips to the Caribbean, Mexico and Europe, plus exotic voyages to Africa and Asia. Onboard, tradition meets innovation. Princess offers all the prerequisites -- spa, multiple dining venues, kids programming, varied entertainment -- but was the first to introduce poolside jumbo movie screens; adults-only, spa-like deck spaces; and a dining-shopping-entertainment-people-watching hub in its atriums, called the Piazza.
Runner-up: Norwegian is a great choice for anyone's first cruise, as the line eschews traditional cruise elements (assigned dining, predictable production shows) for an experience more akin to a land-based vacation in Vegas or a resort. Ships offer multiple dining venues (dine when you like, as long as a table is available), popular shows and performance groups imported from the mainland, and cabins ranging from affordable insides to pricey suites with exclusive access to private sun decks, restaurants and lounges. Solos flock to its studio cabins, and families appreciate a kids club that accommodates children ages 6 months to 18 years.
3. Best for Families With Tweens or Teens
Winner: Royal Caribbean International
Why: Older kids need distractions and special attention; Royal Caribbean gives them both. Depending on the ship, the line taps into the T-sets' bottomless well of energy with rock-climbing walls, zip-lines, ice- and inline-skating, surf simulators, boxing rings, 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 spa treatments designed especially for the primping generation and their adolescent needs; DJ lessons; teens-only casino nights; backstage tours of the ship; and no-elders-allowed lounges where they can dance, drink mocktails and socialize with their confreres until past their parents' bedtimes. The packed schedule, overseen by an attentive crew, lets parents enjoy their own downtime without worrying about their charges growing bored and antsy.
Runner-up: Norwegian Cruise Line appeals to teens with its exclusive spaces (clubs and lounges for teenagers), sophisticated parties and theme nights (black-light Glow Party and a dress-up, dinner-and-a-show evening), and pop culture and retro-hip activities (bowling, Nintendo Wii U, "American Idol"-style shows). Plus, late-night dining venues and top-deck activities like waterslides, rock-climbing walls and ropes courses will keep the hardest-to-please cruisers busy and happy.
4. Best for Families With Small Children
Winner: Disney Cruise Line
Why: Disney really gets what parents and small children need on vacation, from entertainment and dining to childcare. The line is rare in the industry for attending to the needs of babies and toddlers; it 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 planned events and spontaneous encounters. 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).
Runner-up: Carnival has teamed up with Dr. Seuss to rejuvenate its kids programming. Look for Seuss-a-Palooza parades with character cameos (Cat in the Hat, Sam I Am), a "Green Eggs and Ham" character breakfast, and lots of story time. The Camp Ocean facility is one of few to both accept two-year-olds and employ counselors who will change diapers. It also has options for childcare and parent-kid playtime for babies and toddlers too young for Camp Ocean. Loads of casual dining options, water-play areas and mini-golf, and large standard cabins (as well as family-focused options) just add to the line's appeal for parents.
5. Best for Mature Cruisers
Winner: Holland America Line
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. It offers quieter pleasures, such as the Culinary Arts Center, which focuses on cooking demos, tastings and shoreside market tours led by top chefs; self-guided art tours of the onboard collections; 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. Even innovative additions to the entertainment lineup keep the company's loyal cruisers in mind. HAL has introduced "Dancing with the Stars" ballroom dancing events, a B.B. King's Blues Club and dinner events featuring menus by epicurean stars like famed New York restaurant Le Cirque and Michelin three-star chef Jonnie Boer.
Runner-up: Oceania caters to the over-50 set, with passengers who tend to be well traveled and well off. The line's intimate 684- to 1,252-passenger ships focus on the finer aspects of cruising: a plethora of fine dining venues, tranquil pool decks with cushion-topped loungers, inviting standard cabins and truly luxurious suites. Highlighted activities include cooking workshops at the Bon Appetit Culinary Center and art classes taught by experts at the Artist Loft. Its port-intensive itineraries center on Europe, but expand out to bucket-list destinations such as the Panama Canal, South America, Asia and Australia.
6. Best for Singles
Winner: River Cruises
Why: If you want to cruise on your own, consider forgoing the typical ocean voyage for a river cruise. Riverboats, whether in Europe, the U.S. or Asia, tend to be small (under 200 berths) with open-seating dining at large tables and included group tours, which foster a communal spirit. Plus, many lines offer low or no solo supplement deals on select sailings; for instance, Tauck is offering no single supplement on all European river cruises in 2015.
Runner-up: 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 and no dastardly single supplement. Cruisers who book this category of cabin also receive exclusive access to a gathering place with a bar, snacks and space for socializing. The line now has various versions of these cabins and their affiliated lounges on Breakaway, Getaway and Pride of America.
7. Best for Foodies
Why: The fact that Oceania has famous French chef Jacques Pepin as its executive culinary director speaks volumes about its dedication to fine onboard dining. The main dining rooms offer high-quality fare in an open-seating plan, and even the buffets and poolside grill fare refuse to disappoint. Specialty venues are all fee-free (minus special wine-pairing menus), and range from the Asian-style Red Ginger to Italian Toscana and French bistro Jacques. And if eating mouth-watering cuisine isn't enough, you can learn to prepare it yourself with classes in the Culinary Center.
Runner-up: Celebrity is innovative with onboard cuisine, and its expansive dining plan incorporates wine and flavors from around the globe. The ships offer a high-quality experience in their buffets and main dining rooms, but go all-out in the specialty dining venues. Among the options: Qsine, which serves creatively presented world-fusion dishes; Silk Harvest, a passport to pan-Asia; and a series of French-inspired venues with various names, including Murano. Gourmands on a budget should consider the line's beverage and specialty dining packages.
8. Best for Entertainment
Why: All Norwegian ships offer musical revues, comedy and improve shows, live music and guest performers, but the line really shines with its newest ships: Norwegian Epic, Breakaway and Getaway. The line takes its inspiration from land-based winners, and cruisers can experience Broadway musicals like "Legally Blonde" and "Rock of Ages"; sizzling dance shows like "Burn the Floor"; comedy by Second City improv; and music by Grammy winners, dueling pianists and blues bands. The line turns meals into theater with dinner shows including The Illusionarium and Cirque Dreams. And even kids will be star-struck with a variety of Nickelodeon-themed events for their entertainment pleasure. Throw in plenty of bars, discos, bowling and Wii, and you will never be bored onboard.
Runner-up: Royal Caribbean is also on the cutting edge of onboard spectaculars. The line also features Broadway shows ("Cats," "Mamma Mia!"), but takes performances out of the theater with ice skating shows in onboard rinks, high-diving acrobatic shows at the pool-based AquaTheater and aerial shows in ship atriums. New ship Quantum of the Seas will feature the high-tech entertainment venue Two70, which pairs floor-to-ceiling windows of digital screens and six large roboscreens with live dancers, singers, aerialists and musicians. It will also host a cast of cover bands and Dreamworks characters for family-focused fun.
9. Best for Culture Buffs
Why: 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 (on Queen Mary 2 only) and string quartets that bid the sun adieu. Audience participation is encouraged; you can learn the art of acting with Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) members and wax poetic in onboard book clubs.
Runner-up: Azamara Club Cruises is all about immersing passengers in the destinations they visit. It does so with port-intensive itineraries featuring long days or even overnights in port. On every cruise, the line offers a free shore excursion (called an AzAmazing Evening) which highlights the "sights, sounds and tastes" of the region visited. Onboard, general cultural activities might include guest lecturers, cooking demos and wine tasting.
10. Best for Adventurers
Winner: Lindblad Expeditions
Why: Lindblad 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. Shore excursions trade bus tours for educational and active diversions, such as naturalist-led glacier hikes and deep-water snorkeling. The company also advances sustainable practices and supports many conservation programs in the fragile destinations it visits.
Runner-up: Un-Cruise Adventures combines off-the-beaten-track eco-tourism with luxury cruising in Alaska, as well as the Sea of Cortez, Coastal Washington and British Columbia, Hawaii, and the Columbia and Snake rivers (with Galapagos soon to come). Its expedition vessels are small enough to wiggle into secret harbors and through narrow waterways, and 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.
11. Best for Luxury-Seekers
Winner: Regent Seven Seas Cruises
Why: Regent Seven Seas is arguably the most inclusive of the biggest luxury brands. Its fares include all-suite accommodations (the majority with balconies), meals in main and specialty dining venues, pre- and post-cruise tours and hotel stays, gratuities, shore excursions and beverages from liquor to sodas (in your suite, at dinner or in the ships' public areas). The ships are on the larger size for luxury, carrying 490 to 700 passengers each -- small enough to create a social onboard atmosphere without the crowds of a big ship, but large enough to offer spacious cabins (the smallest is 301 square feet) and enough dining and entertainment venues to prevent boredom. Luxury touches abound, whether it be a butler in your penthouse suite or a meal prepared by Le Cordon Bleu chefs. Wherever in the world you choose to sail, you will be truly pampered. Be on the lookout for the 750-passenger Seven Seas Explorer, which will debut in summer 2016 with over-the-top suites and the highest space and staff-to-passenger ratios in the industry.
Runner-up: Seabourn is all about the finer things in life without getting stuck in the past. The cruise line, known for its superb service and gourmet cuisine (it's a member of Chaine des Rotisseurs, an esteemed gastronomic society), is dumping its three oldest vessels to focus on its newer trio of 450-passenger ships, with a fourth 604-passenger ship debuting in 2016. The Odyssey-class triplets feature vast spas, spacious cabins (starting at 295 square feet) and gorgeous suites, and a mostly-inclusive pricing policy covering drinks, dining, entertainment and gratuities. Look for signature touches such as a "Pure Pampering" bath drawn by your cabin steward, complete with strewn flower petals and aromatherapy scents.
12. Best for Romantics
Why: Romance fills the sails of Windstar Cruises, a trio of multi-masted yachts soon to be joined by a trio of luxury cruise ships (one, Star Pride, is already in service). These intimate vessels, carrying between 148 and 312 passengers, float through such dreamy destinations as the Greek Isles, Costa Rica, the Windward Islands, the South Pacific and the Far East, and seek out interesting small harbors and coves where other lines don't go. If you want the romance of stargazing under billowing sails, choose one of the original ships (Wind Surf, Star and Spirit); for more spacious accommodations and private verandahs, opt for a newer acquisition (Pride and upcoming Breeze and Legend). By day, doze on a padded lounger by the pool; by night, choose Candles Grill for an alfresco dinner date (though all dining venues are superb). All ships have water sports platforms for floating, kayaking, sailing, water-skiing, windsurfing and diving in aquamarine waters worldwide.
Runner-up: Paul Gauguin Cruises offers a singular experience in the ultimate honeymoon/anniversary/special-occasion destinations of Tahiti, French Polynesia and the South Pacific. Its namesake ship doesn't skimp on romance: All cabins boast ocean views, and a majority has 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' treatments -- try the 40-minute aroma steam bath for two, or a massage on a private islet off the coast of Taha'a. Paul Gauguin's second ship, Tere Moana, offers a yachtlike experience in the Caribbean, Latin America and Europe.
--By Andrea Sachs, Cruise Critic Contributor, and Erica Silverstein, Senior Editor