What is involved in choosing a cruise?

considering a cruise ship

It may seem simple, but choosing the right cruise for you is as intricate as picking the right house or car. You'll need to decide which cruise line, cruise ship, itinerary and embarkation port are right for you, while also keeping in mind what your budget is and how long you can be away from home.

For many cruisers, the choice begins with destination. Where do you want to cruise? Once you've figured that out, you'll need to find out which cruise lines sail to those ports and then begin breaking those choices down. You can do this on your own or ask a good travel agent to help.

For those who don't want to fly to their cruise, the embarkation port is the starting point of their search. You'll want to find out which departure ports are within an acceptable driving distance, and then look for which ships sail from those ports.

Figure out what's most important to you (itinerary, flying/driving distance, family-friendly vs. more adults, etc.), and then start your research there.

Are there big differences from cruise line to cruise line?

Yes and no. There are huge differences between a cruise line that falls into the mainstream segment (such as Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Norwegian Cruise Line and Princess) and those that fall into the luxury segment (for example, Crystal, Seabourn, Regent Seven Seas and Silversea). But within segments the differences are less obvious. Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Norwegian and Disney Cruise Line are the most family-friendly, but you'll find kids' clubs on Princess, Celebrity Cruises and Holland America Line as well. Holland America tends to attract an older demographic, but that doesn't mean baby boomers won't like other cruise lines, too. For a general sense of your cruise line's personality, check out Best Cruises for First Timers or Cruise Critic's cruise line corporate profiles.

How do I know if I'm a big ship or small ship kind of person?

cruise ships in port

It depends on what kind of experience you desire from your vacation. Do you like big hotels, don't mind crowds and prefer lots of daytime and evening activity? If so, you're probably a big ship cruiser. If you prefer intimate, boutique inns, prioritize your privacy and don't like crowds, and will happily keep yourself occupied with a lounge chair, a book and maybe an afternoon lecture or evening concert, you may want to look for smaller ships. Keep in mind, a "small" ship can be anywhere from 30 passengers (or fewer!) to around 1,000.

One thing to note about smaller ships is that you're more likely to feel the movement of the ship when it's at sea. (One exception to that rule is that you'll rarely feel any motion on a small river boat.

Find more about cruise ships sizes.

Are there cruises that leave within driving distance of where I live?

The vast majority of U.S. residents live within driving distance (up to seven hours) of a cruise port from which ships depart (called a homeport). U.S. homeports can be found in California, Florida, Hawaii, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, South Carolina, Texas, Virginia and Washington -- though cruise ships may not depart from every homeport year-round. Cruisers in several other countries may also find homeports within driving distance. In the U.K., ships depart from London, Southampton, Dover, Liverpool and Greenock; other European homeports include Amsterdam, Barcelona, Venice, Copenhagen and Athens, among others. In Australia, most cruise ships sail from Sydney, but Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide and Fremantle (Perth) offer some departures.

Are there certain times of year that are better for certain cruise itineraries?

summer cruising

Absolutely. In fact, there are certain itineraries you can only sail at specific times of year. Alaska is a great example, as you can only do an Alaska cruise between the months of May and September. New England and Canada cruises take place in the fall months (September and October), while Northern Europe itineraries run from May to August.

The most popular cruise destinations -- the Caribbean and Mediterranean -- can be sailed year-round, though Caribbean itineraries can be impacted by hurricanes from June through October. Find out more about the best time to cruise.

I don't have a lot of time for vacation. Are there short cruise sailings?

Yes! Cruise lengths can run anywhere from a three-night weekend cruise to 100-plus-day world cruises. If you don't have a lot of time, look for three- to four-night itineraries. Most cruise sailings range from five to 14 nights.

There are so many options for cruises in the Caribbean and Europe. How do I know which ports I should visit, or does it not really matter?

Cruise itineraries can be confusing. Eastern, Western and Southern Caribbean. Eastern and Western Mediterranean: What does all that mean?! If all you care about in the Caribbean is sun and sand, and maybe some shopping, which itinerary you choose doesn't really matter. Eastern and Western Mediterranean cruises will all stop at ports rich with history and culture. Check out individual itineraries and the descriptions of ports and the excursions you can take if you are looking to visit specific destinations or do particular activities.

Before you get your heart set on a specific itinerary or tour, know that a port call can be canceled or substituted with less than a day's notice if the weather is bad, a medical emergency forces the ship to change course or any other number of reasons. Never choose a cruise specifically because you want to visit one port; you could very well be setting yourself up for disappointment.

Cruising sounds expensive. Is there a cruise for my budget?

travel budget

Cruising can be expensive, but not always. Cruising can also get you great value for your money. Considering that some (if not all) food and activities are included in your base fare, the total vacation cost is often less than what'd you pay on a land vacation. Of course, this depends on which cruise line you choose, as well as your itinerary and what time of year you're cruising. Read through our list of Best Budget Cruises for more information on which trips are the most affordable.

Cruise ships also offer a variety of cabin categories, all of which are sold at different price points. An inside cabin with no window is a lot less expensive than a suite. Additionally, certain times of year are less expensive to sail than others. Taking a Caribbean cruise during hurricane season can net big savings, as can sailing the first or last few Alaskan season sailings in May or September.

How can I find out more about choosing a cruise?

You might like the following articles:

The What to Expect on a Cruise series, written by Cruise Critic's editorial staff, is a resource guide, where we answer the most common questions about cruise ship life -- including cruise food, cabins, drinks and onboard fun -- as well as money matters before and during your cruise and visiting ports of call on your cruise.