For cruise virgins, the sheer volume of options can be bewildering. But don't fret -- to get you started we've created a potted guide to some of the best options around for first-timers looking to find their sea legs.
Best for ex-U.K. Cruises: P&O Cruises and Celebrity Cruises
Why? P&O is the longest and most established cruise line sailing from British shores. It has a fleet of ships sailing from Southampton, with both adults-only and family-friendly onboard environments. Among the line's biggest and most amenity-laden ships are sisters Azura and Ventura. Celebrity Cruises, a premium U.S. cruise line, offers a growing variety of ex-U.K. cruises out of Southampton on one of its hottest new ships, Celebrity Eclipse, part of the line's much-touted Solstice class.
Ship Highlights: Azura boasts the first-ever restaurant at sea from a Michelin-starred chef -- the Indian-styled Sindhu -- in addition to a wine bar and steakhouse created with BBC TV's wine expert Olly Smith. Passengers can enjoy the three-deck atrium overlooking an art gallery, bookshop, library, shops and a dance floor. Sea days are enhanced with an open-air cinema, The Playhouse Theatre, a gym featuring ocean views and the relaxing Oasis Spa.
Ventura also adds some glitz and glamour to the usual cruise repertoire by teaming up with famous names like celebrity chef Marco Pierre White, who offers fine dining in his own signature restaurant, The White Room, and Toyland character Noddy, who entertains younger passengers. Circus workshops and a giant Scalextric track for electric car-racing also keeps families amused on sea days. Diners can choose from 11 cafes and restaurants and 12 bars and lounges.
Celebrity Eclipse features sweeping balcony views from 85 percent of all staterooms. It offers restaurants that range from unique upscale dining with Qsine to the Tuscan Grille for Italian fare and the Asian-inspired Silk Harvest. Passengers can walk on fresh grass in a country club atmosphere at the Lawn Club, take a global wine tour in Cellar Masters, enjoy therapeutic rituals from all around the world in the AquaSpa or browse the internet in Eclipse's modern cafe.
Where do they go? Both Azura and Ventura spend the summer season sailing to the Mediterranean, Canary Islands, Norway and Fjords, and the Baltic, with cruises ranging from two to 17 nights.
Celebrity Eclipse offers a range of eight- to 14-night cruises from Southampton to Scandinavia and Russia, the Mediterranean, Iceland, the Canaries and the Azores.
Best for Trans-Atlantic: Cunard
Why? Cunard's pedigree speaks for itself. Since 1840, this cruise line has been offering sailings across the Atlantic on its stately ocean liners, specifically built for this type of voyage. Now offered on Queen Mary 2, the biggest and most amenity-laden vessel in the fleet, the six-night sailings are well known for their traditions, service and style. They aim to recapture the golden era of shipping before the days of flying.
Ship Highlights: The most elegant big ship at sea, Queen Mary 2 exemplifies the romance of ocean cruising. Dining becomes a grand occasion, while afternoon tea is a formal, white-gloved affair. Yet, the ship still offers modern comforts like a state-of-the-art gym and health spa, one of the largest libraries at sea and the first -- and only -- planetarium on a cruise ship.
Where does it go? Queen Mary 2 spends a majority of the year crossing the Atlantic between Southampton and New York. Some transatlantic cruises start in Hamburg.
Best for Mediterranean Fly-Cruises: MSC Cruises and Princess Cruises
Why? With a heavy-leaning Italian ambience and yearlong sailings throughout the Mediterranean, it's no wonder MSC declares the Mediterranean the heart and soul of its global operation. Winter cruise ports of call include such cities as Messina, Barcelona and Santorini. Splendida is MSC's Mediterranean flagship, sailing its seas year-round as part of the line's cutting-edge Fantasia class of ships.
British-American-owned cruise line Princess Cruises, known for introducing innovative features like flexible Anytime Dining, offers much in the way of Mediterranean cruising. Ruby Princess' Mediterranean voyages range from 12-night cruises to a 31-night Mediterranean Grand Adventure, including overnights in popular ports like Venice.
Ship Highlights: A self-proclaimed "taste of la bella vita," Spendida prides itself on its ideal blend of technology and luxury. Passengers can enjoy a specialty Balinese massage, a Turkish bath or the solarium in the Aurea Spa, while knowing that Splendida's innovative systems are promoting energy savings and environmental protection. Splendida is home to six restaurants and 20 bars and lounges, a theatre, a 4D cinema, four swimming pools and a sun deck. Cabin types range from a standard with a single bed to a Yacht Club Royal Suite, complete with butler service.
Like her Grand Class sisters, Ruby Princess boasts the most popular Princess features, including a three-deck piazza; the ScholarShip@Sea program, with extended features, such as Mixology@Sea for those wishing to make the perfect martini; the Skywalkers nightclub; and Movies Under the Stars. Other amenities include virtual golf simulators, pools, spas and a library. Dining options range from Italian and steakhouse specialty restaurants to traditional dining rooms and casual poolside meals, while nightlife options include a speakeasy cigar lounge, a casino and the Princess Theatre.
Where do they go? During the summer months, MSC Spendida sails between Italy, Spain, Tunisia and Malta; in winter, it adds France, Gibraltar and Morocco to its route.
Ruby Princess sails to Italy, Spain, Portugal, Monaco, Morocco, and France April through October.
Best for Caribbean Fly-Cruises: Norwegian Cruise Lines
Why? Having begun operations under the name Norwegian Caribbean Line, this line claims to have invented modern Caribbean cruising more than 40 years ago and was in fact the first contemporary ship line to develop new ports throughout the islands. Norwegian also started the move toward more onboard flexibility with its "Freestyle Cruising" concept, enabling passengers to eat where, when and with whom they want. The 4,100-passenger, 155,873-ton Norwegian Epic, one of the largest cruise ships in the world, is the latest and greatest offering from the line; it sails to Caribbean destinations.
Ships Highlights: Passengers are never bored on Epic, which hosts the first Blue Man Group performances at sea, the Cirque Dreams dinner theater, an Aqua park, bowling alleys, a chilly ice bar, a state-of-the-art fitness centre with rock climbing, and a teen disco. Meal options include more than 20 different dining facilities, though some -- like Shanghai's Chinese Restaurant and the Brazilian steakhouse, Moderno Churrascaria -- require additional cover charges. Lodging options range from studios for solo travellers to private courtyard villas, complete with concierge and butler service.
Where does it go? Norwegian Epic sails a series of seven-day Eastern and Western Caribbean cruises departing from Miami.
Best for Traditional Cruises: Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines and Voyages of Discovery
Why? Fred. Olsen is a family-owned company with a strong following among British cruisers who love the cosy, friendly atmosphere aboard its ships. The line offers more of a taste of how cruising used to be -- before the age of the mega-ships -- with set meal times, formal nights, captain's cocktail parties, onboard lectures and after-dinner quizzes. While Fred. Olsen does attract families on some of its ships, the line mainly appeals to an older clientele. Fred. Olsen's Balmoral, which launched in 2008, is the fleet's biggest ever, but there are cosier choices like Boudicca, Braemar and Black Watch.
Simplicity is at the heart of Voyages of Discovery; the 'fleet' consists of just one ship -- 550-passenger Voyager -- and there are neither extra or hidden onboard fees nor a casino in sight. Known for its insightful lectures at sea, extended time at each destination and a more intimate atmosphere, Voyages of Discovery attracts like-minded passengers seeking simpler, more traditional cruises.
Ship Highlights: Fred. Olsen ships have all the expected amenities -- swimming pools, hot tubs, beauty salons, card rooms, etc. Boudicca, refitted in January 2011, now sports a new gym facility with sea views and additional passenger cabins, while Balmoral, launched in 2008, features three restaurants, a grill and cafe, plus a small casino.
Voyages of Discovery's Voyager, refurbished in 2011, includes pools, Jacuzzis, bars, lounges, alfresco dining, libraries, card rooms, gyms and cinemas. The standout onboard activities are the destination-themed talks and lectures given by experienced cruise staff and guest speakers in the ship's lecture theatre. Excursions onshore are a main highlight of these cruises, and passengers are given ample to time to explore their destinations.
Where do they go? Fred. Olsen ships depart from a huge range of U.K. ports on cruises to the Mediterranean, Northern Europe, the Caribbean, and the Baltic, as well as sailings to the Americas and round-the-world cruises to the South Pacific, Australia and Asia.
Voyages of Discovery offers myriad cruise types and destinations from U.K. ports, including no-fly cruises to the Baltics, the Caribbean, Northern Europe and Scandinavia, as well as a 147-day Grand Voyager journey.
Best for Family Cruises: Royal Caribbean
Why? Royal Caribbean International is one of the largest U.S. cruise lines, with a very family-friendly focus, and the company has been gradually increasing its presence in the U.K. Based out of Southampton, Independence of the Seas is a member of the line's Freedom-class of ships; all have extensive children's facilities, indoor shopping malls, ice-skating rinks and water parks.
Ship Highlights: From the ship's Royal Babies & Royal Tots program offering interactive activities for the youngest of travellers and Adventure Ocean youth programs with educational and entertaining experiences meant to put the "cool" back into learning for ages 3 to 11, to tween and teen programs, nursery services and sitters at sea, Independence of the Seas is a veritable family-friendly oasis. Adults and children alike can take their pick from a mouth-watering array of activities that include the FlowRider surf simulator, H20 Zone water park, rock-climbing wall, ice-skating rink and even a full-size boxing ring. Adults are not forgotten, as they have a total of 25 restaurants, bars and lounges from which to choose.
Where does it go? Independence of the Seas offers sailings that range from four-night mini-cruises to 14-night voyages to the Mediterranean and Canary Islands. The ship leaves the U.K. during the winter to sail the Caribbean, but it comes back in the spring.
Best for Luxury Cruises: Seabourn
Why? Seabourn prides itself on being at the very top of luxury cruises, with impeccable service, desirable destinations, inclusive extras like coffee and cocktails, and the highest ratio of space per guest in the industry, all in an intimate and unpretentious setting with like-minded passengers. The fleet's latest and most luxurious are Seabourn Odyssey (introduced in 2009), Seabourn Sojourn (2010) and Seabourn Quest (2011).
Ship Highlights: All three ships include the signature Seabourn Square, a "living room" instead of a lobby with easy chairs, sofas, cocktail tables and concierges; the largest indoor and outdoor spa on any luxury ship; private verandas on 90 percent of suites; whirlpools, swimming pools and sun decks; a nine-hole putting green; and a panoramic Observation Bar. Various dining options allow passengers to eat restaurant-style whenever, wherever and with whomever for every meal. They can also sample tasting menus or enjoy grilled specialties on the patio.
Where does it go? From seven-night Caribbean and Mediterranean cruises and journeys throughout Southeast Asia, South America and Africa to 100+-night jaunts around the globe, these ships offer a virtually endless range of destinations and cruise types.
Best for River Cruises: Viking River Cruises
Why? This Norwegian-owned company is one of the most established operators on Europe's waterways, with a fleet of 25 vessels that offer sailings on the major rivers of Europe, Russia, the Ukraine, China, Vietnam and Cambodia. The latest and greatest are Viking Prestige, Viking Legend and sister ships Viking Helvetia and Viking Sun. It's slated to be a big year for Viking River Cruises in 2012, with the fleet expecting six new additions by fall.
Ship Highlights: All four ships are slightly larger than their predecessors, but they feature sleeker shapes for added flexibility. The ships' amenities include sun decks with 360-degree views, restaurants, bars and boutiques. Viking Prestige also features the Aquavit Terrace, an indoor/outdoor area for viewing, relaxing and dining at the bow of the ship. The newest vessels, Prestige and Legend, are the first "green" ships to sail the fleet, boasting hybrid diesel-electric engines, which allow for 20 percent fewer emissions and reduced noise and vibrations.
Where does it go? All these vessels cruise the Rhine or the Danube, offering trips from eight to 10 nights.
Best for Cultural Cruises: Voyages to Antiquity
Why? Combining meticulously planned itineraries, destinations and speakers with the luxury of boutique-style cruising, Voyages to Antiquity offers cultural travel at its best, from explorations of western civilisation to excursions through the Orient. Voyages to Antiquity's unique amenities include guided sightseeing at each port of call and economy flights with British Airways to and from your cruise. The mid-sized Aegean Odyssey is ideal for Mediterranean island and coastal cruising, visiting smaller, less-crowded ports, charming villages and ancient sites inaccessible to big cruise ships, as well as navigating the rivers of Southeast Asia.
Ship Highlights: With a mere 350-passenger capacity, Aegean Odyssey is great for those looking to avoid crowds and experience a more intimate cruise setting. With open-seating restaurants and an outdoor terrace, afternoon tea, room service, seven bars and lounges, a library, a lecture theatre, a pool, spa and Jacuzzi, Aegean Odyssey's size does not restrict its amenities. In addition to the included excursion programs and a knowledgeable onboard staff, guest speakers accompany each cruise to give talks relevant to each itinerary.
Where does it go? Aegean Odyssey sails the Mediterranean, Aegean, Adriatic, Black and Red Seas from spring to fall, offering winter cruises to India and the Far East.
Best for Value-Priced Cruises: Cruise & Maritime Voyages
Why? Britain's newest privately owned cruise line prides itself on offering exceptional value, undercutting the competition with low rates and special offers and fostering a leisurely and traditional cruising atmosphere. Cruise & Maritime offers various group discounts, Super Fare discounts up to 25 percent off for early bookers and a "Bring a Friend" option from only £39, which allows a third or fourth passenger to share select cabins with two full-fare-paying adults. The fleet consists of sister ships, adults-only Marco Polo and Ocean Countess, both carrying around 800 passengers and departing from a range of British ports that include London Tilbury, Hull and Liverpool.
Where does it go? Both ships offer a range of destinations, including the Caribbean, Mediterranean, Baltic, Norwegian Fjords, the Arctic Circle and South America's Amazon.
Best for Over-50s: Saga
Why? Saga is a British-based cruise line that's exclusive to passengers 50 years of age or older. The ships and cruises are designed specifically with this demographic's needs in mind, placing an emphasis on comfort, service and ease of travel. Saga Ruby is the fleet's ocean-cruising flagship.
Ship Highlights: With just about one crewmember for every couple onboard the 661-passenger ship, Saga Ruby prides itself on its attentive service, from porters carrying your bags upon arrival to tuxedo-clad waiter service in the Dining Room and pampering experts at Ruby's Spa Aquarius. Additional amenities include a welcome cocktail party, a theatre, a traditional library, a ballroom, 24-hour room service, bars and lounges.
Where does it go? Saga Ruby travels all over the world, with one 100+-night world cruise each year. In addition, Saga Ruby offers a variety of cruises to the Caribbean, the Mediterranean, the Far East, Europe and the Netherlands.
--by Sara Macefield, Cruise Critic contributor; Updated by Christina Livadiotis, Cruise Critic Contributor