Sitting down to pick the right ship for your next vacation is like going to a speed-dating event. You can't take all day getting to know someone, but you need to figure out whether your personalities match. In cruise parlance, that translates to the fact that there are tons of cruises from which to choose -- but who's got the time to winnow out the mismates? As well, while cruise lines do try to convince travelers that they can offer an all-things-to-all-people onboard experience, we're increasingly seeing them carve out distinctive lifestyle niches. Celebrity is aiming at the spa and gourmet traveler, Carnival's focusing on nightlife and entertainment, and Princess is hyping its romantic offerings.
Still, picking the perfect ship -- like choosing the perfect love match -- is tricky. Even if lines and ships seem similar at first, they all have their own perks and quirks. Keep these hints in mind:
It may not be immediately obvious which lifestyle vibe a cruise line is going after. The best way to get started on finding your cruise match is to check out advertisements in glossy magazines and online, read ship reviews and explore cruise forums.
Once you've chosen a line, realize that ship amenities and personalities can vary widely within its fleet. Royal Caribbean may be famous for its off-the-deck recreational options -- such as surf parks, boxing rings, ice skating rinks, miniature golf courses, water parks and the like -- but did you know that these features are not necessarily available on the fleet's older, smaller ships? The same goes for Princess, whose older ships lack some of the newer models' fantastic features, such as the Crown Grill seafood restaurant, the Sanctuary adults-only space and Movies Under the Stars.
Match the ship with the destination, as the onboard atmosphere can change from one sailing to the next. A summer Holland America cruise in family-friendly destinations like Alaska and the Mediterranean will have more kids and a younger vibe. The same ship on a multi-week voyage to exotic destinations like South America, Australia or Asia will likely attract more mature travelers -- with a resulting ambience that's far more laid back.
What's Onboard: Look for a rock-climbing wall, in-line and/or ice skating rink, basketball and volleyball courts, dive and snorkel shop, mini-golf and Challenger Arcade with virtual reality toys. Freedom- and Oasis-class ships also have onboard surfing and a boxing ring, and Oasis of the Seas has an onboard zip line (as will Allure when it debuts in fall 2010).
Cool Extras: Johnny Rockets Diner, cruising's first chain eatery, offers fantastic burgers, onion rings and hot fudge sundaes 'til 1 a.m. The ships' spas and fitness facilities are state of the art.
Other Lines: NCL's Norwegian Gem, Norwegian Pearl and Norwegian Epic sport cruising's first bowling alleys (we also love the rock-climbing walls and Wii tournaments onboard).
What's Onboard:Celebrity Cruises' newest class of ships feel contemporary and sleek in style and give off an ambience more like an upscale boutique hotel than a cruise ship. Culinary adventure is a major thrust; the ship's alternative restaurants include the Continental-influenced Murano, the steak-and-chop-focused Tuscan Grille, the Mediterranean-inspired Blu, the innovative Qsine and the fabulous, casual Bistro on Five. Bars onboard are intimate and cozy; favorites include the clubby Michael's, the icy Martini Bar and the futuristic Quasar. The two-level spa offers a barber shop for men and a gorgeous relaxation room.
Don't miss cruising's first-ever glass blowing studio at sea or the Lawn Club, which offers a natural touch by featuring real grass.
Cool Extras: Cabins feature an entirely new design, with much thought and emphasis placed on transforming typically tiny cruise ship bathrooms into roomier ones. Entertainment onboard focuses more on small, intimate musicians and performances (though the main venue's Cirque du Soleil-like acrobatics are pretty wacky).
Other Lines:Crystal Cruises -- whose mid-sized ships offer a lovely balance of superb dining and service with more big-ship amenities than are typically available on smaller upscale vessels -- is one of the few lines where passengers dress up, every now and again, in black ties and gowns. Oceania Cruises and Azamara Club Cruises, which operate 700-passenger mid-sized ships, sport a more casual vibe but also feature an elegant ambience (along with terrific dining and service).
What's Onboard: Norwegian's poker tournaments are some of the most lucrative at sea. Texas Hold 'Em games feature live dealers instead of machines. Plus, Norwegian Jade has introduced the themed Monte Carlo Night party, held in the ship's casino, to add more glitz and glamour to the slot machines and blackjack tables.
Cool Extras: Norwegian's Bar Central situates a variety of after-hours options in one location. Three bars (themed around the alcoholic beverages in which they specialize), a cigar lounge and a live piano music venue cozy up to each other, making the area a lively locale once the sun goes down.
Other Lines: For sheer size, Royal Caribbean's Freedom- and Oasis-class ships have the largest casinos at sea, while Celebrity's Solstice-class ships have gone high-tech with wide-screen high-definition slot machines, dealer-less Texas Hold 'Em tables and a completely coinless operation. Carnival offers annual slot, blackjack and poker tournaments, in which the winners of the preliminary onboard tournaments get free balcony cabins on sailings hosting the final tournaments.
What's Onboard: The model for the original "Love Boat," Princess is serious about romance, offering onboard classes on rediscovering intimacy in your relationship and tear-jerker movies on the in-cabin TV. It is one of very few cruise lines whose captains are licensed to perform weddings at sea. The effort to appeal to romantics also extends to dining -- a must to try is the balcony brunch (or balcony dinner) and, in the spa, a rasul treatment includes a mud bath for two.
Cool Extras: The Sanctuary, the ship's adults-only sun deck, offers an elegant, upscale respite from madding crowds around the main pool area; you can enjoy an al fresco massage, borrow an iPod and snack on healthy treats. Sabatini's Italian specialty restaurant offers outdoor seating, and the cozy Adagio Lounge is perfect for a pre- or post-dinner cocktail.
Other Lines: Any of Windstar Cruises' three ships, masted for romance under sail, are wonderful choices. The South Pacific, easily the most romantic of all cruise regions, is home to Paul Gauguin Cruises' namesake Paul Gauguin -- a favorite among older couples celebrating elegant honeymoons and anniversaries. And SeaDream Yacht Club's two 110-passenger yachts feature relaxed cruising on an uber-elegant scale.
What's Onboard:Disney Cruise Line caters to kids from as young as three months to teenagers. Babies and toddlers can play on swings and bouncy chairs in the Flounder's Reef Nursery, while toilet-trained and older kids can enjoy the expansive kids' center or take part in activities like cookie-making, pizza parties, computer games and video-making. Mickey and Minnie lead a cast of cartoon characters, who make appearances throughout the ship and on Disney's private island, Castaway Cay. Multiple Disney-themed dining areas boast kid-friendly menus, and staterooms are family-friendly with split bathrooms and pullout couches or Pullman beds.
Cool Extras: Adults are not left out of the fun on these ships. An adults-only pool area features hot tubs, an outdoor bar and a coffee shop (serving frozen beverages). The Palo Italian restaurant is an elegant reservations-only eatery with ocean views (make reservations online before your cruise, or you'll get closed out), and the Route 66 entertainment zone lets adults play, while the kids are sleeping snug in their beds (or having their own fun in the Oceaneer Club and Lab).
Other Lines: Royal Caribbean has teamed up with Fisher Price to offer the Aqua Babies and Aqua Tots programs for kids -- ages 6 - 36 months -- where parents and kids play together. Kids, ages 3 – 17, are broken up into five groups with age-appropriate kids' lounges and activities.
What's Onboard: Teens on Royal Caribbean can chill out in teens-only venues: Fuel, a dance club with "mocktail" bar; the Living Room, a posh lounge for just hanging out; and the Back Deck, a private sun deck area. The 12 - 17 set can learn to DJ with the onboard Scratch DJ Academy or lose their quarters in the large video arcade.
Cool Extras: Teens -- and their families -- will also enjoy Royal Caribbean's active onboard amenities, such as the FlowRider surf simulator, ice skating rink, zip line and mini-golf. Teens also lead the multigenerational pack ordering burgers, fries and shakes at Johnny Rockets; ice cream at Ben & Jerry's or the Ice Cream Parlor; and pizza at Sorrento's.
What's Onboard: Oceania excels with its multiple restaurants, inspired by celebrity chef Jacques Pepin -- a well-known cookbook author, TV host and former personal chef to French heads of state. The Italian Toscana serves up Italian soups, pastas and entrees with inspired touches, including a selection of flavored olive oils and a giant wheel of Parmigiana Reggiana. Polo Grill steakhouse satisfies meat-lovers with 32-ounce steaks in its clubby top-ship setting. A more casual, yet still gourmet, alternative is Tapas on the Terrace -- the nighttime identity of the lido buffet, which does a small bites menu (and offers under-stars al fresco dining). You'll find white-glove service and delectable treats at afternoon tea, located in the Horizon Lounge.
Cool Extras: With its comfortable couches and faux fireplaces, the lively Martinis lounge is the happy hour spot. The ships' libraries, with their whimsical, painted murals and (another) faux fireplace, are gorgeous places to tuck in with a good book. Oceania is among the lines competing to offer the cushiest, most dream-inducing beds at sea, and it is very much a contender.
Other Lines: Crystal Cruises offers superb, Continental Asian fusion and Italian cuisine in a formal setting. Seabourn also gets high marks for its onboard restaurants, whose menus are designed by celebrity chef Charlie Palmer.
Royal Caribbean's Freedom-class ships (Freedom of the Seas, Liberty of the Seas and Independence of the Seas)
What's Onboard: Measuring some 12,500 square feet, the fitness centers on these ships are not only enormous, but also feature top-of-the-line cardio and weight-training equipment; studios for Pilates, yoga, spinning, aerobics and circuit training; and a 20-foot-by-20-foot boxing ring, as well as punching bags. Outside the gym, passengers can get a workout at the rock-climbing wall, ice skating rink, sports court, onboard surf simulator or jogging track.
Cool Extras: The Solarium is the perfect place to unwind with hammocks and two whirlpools, cantilevered over the sides of the ships for ocean views. Or, try the spa for a full selection of treatments, including acupuncture and teeth whitening.
Other Lines: Exercise enthusiasts looking for a more upscale cruise should choose Crystal, which has introduced Tour de Spin indoor cycling classes and the Walk-on-Water healthy walking program, which employs weighted vests and Kinesis equipment for 360-degree movement. Onboard amenities also include paddle tennis courts, golf driving ranges and putting greens, and a wraparound Promenade Deck for walking.
What's Onboard: For great snorkeling, scuba diving, jet skiing, windsurfing and sailing opportunities, consider any of Windstar Cruises' ships, which include retractable, onboard marinas. On Costa Rica cruises, Windstar ships carry onboard PADI instructors, offer ship-conducted dive trips through dive instruction teams and run certification courses.
Cool Extras: Windstar's ships are motor-sail yachts, meaning they have full sets of sails but can also travel under motor power like regular cruise ships. Sailaway is much more exciting, as sails are hoisted, and passengers gather on deck to watch the port slip away into the distance.
What's Onboard: Norwegian Gem and Norwegian Pearl introduced the Bliss Ultra Lounge, which combines a bowling alley, trendy bar and dance club into an unforgettable late-night venue where passengers can hang out with drinks on velvety lounge beds or bowl strikes while rock music plays and lights flash. Both ships also feature NCL's signature Bar Central, where three separate bars serve up beer and whiskey, martinis and cocktails, and wine and Champagne. We also love the ships' themed dance parties, like Monte Carlo Night in the casino and White Hot Night in the Spinnaker Lounge. In addition to Bliss, Norwegian Epic offers two outdoor nightlife venues, an Ice Bar, a comedy club, a jazz club and a dueling piano show.
Cool Extras: NCL, which pioneered the concept of "freestyle dining" (encouraging passengers to forego a traditional dining room dinner scenario and instead choose from about ten unique eateries), views the evening repast as both entertainment and sustenance. The ships' multiple restaurants include Teppanyaki -- where chefs juggle and perform as they cook your food tableside -- and Blue Lagoon, serving up comfort food 24 hours a day. The French Le Bistro and the clubby Cagney's Steak House are more intimate and upscale. New on Epic are The Manhattan Room supper club and O'Sheehan's Neighborhood Bar and Grill.
Other Lines: Carnival's nightclub district, featuring discos, piano bars, casinos, live music and karaoke, rocks all night long.
What's Onboard: Discovery's soft-adventure cruises offer destination-focused voyages in which enrichment and learning is as important as the ports visited. The ship offers longer-than-average cruises to exotic places.
Cool Extras: Although the ship can carry more than 800 passengers, it typically carries only 500 - 650, so it never feels crowded onboard.
Other Lines:Holland America Line's beautiful ships offer relatively roomy cabins and activities that typically are of more interest to older passengers (such as afternoon tea, big band music and showings of classic flicks at the onboard cinemas).
For more recommendations, check out Cruise Critic's Editor's Picks features.