Choosing an itinerary can be a daunting task, particularly for first-time cruisers. "I don't know which cruise line to pick, where to go or for how long," Cruise Critic member CaledonHockley posts in our First Time Cruisers forum. "Has anyone else felt this way?"
The answer is: of course. After all, cruise ships visit more than 2,000 ports around the world -- but that doesn't mean every itinerary is right for you.
Ready to choose the perfect cruise itinerary? We'll show you the way.
Top 3 Things to Consider
Before you get into specifics about where to go, you'll need to take these general considerations into account.
1. Length: Cruise itineraries range from three-night weekend cruises to 100-plus-day trips around the world. If you are uneasy about spending a full week or more aboard a ship, ease into cruising by trying out a shorter cruise. The Caribbean, the Mexican Riviera and the Bahamas are regions in which you'll commonly find three-, four- and five-night trips.
2. Embarkation port: Do you want to fly to your ship, or would you rather drive? From the East and Gulf Coasts of the United States, you'll find itineraries to the Caribbean, Bahamas, Bermuda and Canada/New England; from the West Coast, there are cruises to Hawaii, Alaska and the Pacific Coast of Mexico.
If you want to drive to a nearby homeport, your destination options are limited. If you want to fly, the whole world of cruising is at your disposal, but you'll need to deal with the added expense of airfare and luggage restrictions.
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3. Vacation style: For some travelers, reading a book a day on the beach or by the pool is paradise, while others are rejuvenated by sightseeing, shopping and interacting with locals. Research potential cruise regions carefully to make sure that the ports of call you'll visit jive with your personal preferences.
Also, consider that the most affordable cruise ships often visit the busiest, most popular ports; if you want to get off the beaten path and go to less touristed destinations, you might be looking at a more expensive trip.
Destinations to Consider
First-time cruisers gravitate toward a few popular destinations, depending on their vacation goals and interests. Learn more about cruise regions as you narrow down the best cruise itinerary for your family.
Caribbean and Bahamas: Many first-time cruisers choose the Caribbean or Bahamas, where itineraries tend to be one week or less. These cruises operate mainly from Florida ports but are also available from places like New Orleans, Galveston, Baltimore and New York.
The ships take you to island paradises where you can soak up sun on the beach, try water sports, sample the local cuisine and shop for souvenirs. Many include a beach party at a tropical island owned by the cruise line; you can't even visit these unless you're on a cruise ship.
Standard Caribbean itineraries are either Eastern Caribbean (visiting places like Puerto Rico, St. Thomas, St. Croix and St. Maarten) or Western Caribbean (visiting Grand Cayman, Jamaica and Mexico). Southern Caribbean cruises are either longer or depart from Puerto Rico to visit a range of islands, such as St. Lucia, Barbados or Martinique. Short Bahamas cruises feature ports like Freeport and Nassau, plus private islands. Longer sailings will add visits to Florida or other Caribbean islands.
Alaska: Cruise visitors flock to Alaska from May through September for the history, frontier ambiance, wildlife and -- above all -- the scenery, with glacial views being a highlight. Most cruises depart from Seattle, Vancouver or ports near Anchorage and last about seven days. Choose a roundtrip cruise for easier flight arrangements or a one-way voyage if you want to tack on a land trip within Alaska.
Europe: A cruise to Europe is a great way to see this vast region. You can hop from country to country without unpacking and repacking your bags. The Mediterranean is now a year-round market, while Northern Europe and river cruises have shorter seasons. Itineraries generally range from seven to 14 nights.
Eastern Mediterranean cruises generally visit Greece and Turkey, while Western Mediterranean voyages call on France, Spain and Italy. Northern Europe cruises include Scandinavia and/or Russia, while river cruises can visit places such as Germany, Austria, Hungary, the Netherlands and France.
Bermuda: These cruises are plentiful in spring, summer and fall, with weeklong departures offered from the East Coast. Beaches, golf and historic attractions are Bermuda's big draws. Bermuda-exclusive itineraries often stay three days in port, though hybrid itineraries might call for just a day or two.
Hawaii: Popular with honeymooners, Hawaii dishes up lush and volcanic landscapes, beach time and water sports, as well as a taste of local culture. It's an exotic destination that's entirely American (so no need to exchange currency). Norwegian Cruise Line is the only major cruise line offering weeklong all-Hawaiian-island itineraries roundtrip from Honolulu; other lines generally offer lengthier cruises that depart from the mainland U.S. and have several days at sea.
Cruise Lines to Consider
Deciding what kind of ship you want to sail on is an important factor in assuring an enjoyable cruise vacation -- and may actually dictate where you decide to go.
Mega-ships: These 3,500+ passenger behemoths generally visit the greatest-hits ports, making them great options for first timers. They also have lots of tour options and plenty to do onboard. However, the popular destinations they visit can also be crowded with multiple cruise ships and packed with tourists, so don't expect secluded beaches and hidden gems.
Small ships and yachts: Ships carrying fewer than 1,000 passengers can dock in smaller harbors to visit out-of-the-way destinations and escape the crowds. However, you'll pay for the privilege. Most small ships are classified as luxury, with top-notch dining and service, plus higher base fares.
Riverboats: River ships ply the major rivers of Europe, Asia, South America and the U.S. They're small with minimal onboard attractions, but they offer more time for passengers to explore on land than oceangoing ships, which often spend multiple days at sea. They're also a good choice for those who get seasick, as rivers are calmer than the ocean.
Expedition ships: Rugged, ice-strengthened vessels explore the far corners of the Earth, including Antarctica and the Arctic. You'll find onboard expedition teams that are knowledgeable about science and nature, Zodiaks for water-based exploring and occasionally surprising luxury touches.
How Cruise Critic Can Help
Now that you've got the basics, it's time to choose your itinerary and plan that cruise. Still perplexed? Here are some additional resources you might find helpful.
Cruise Critic's Cruise Reviews: Read cruise ship reviews by Cruise Critic's experts, as well as fellow cruisers. See how they rate the various ships on cabins, dining options and more.
Destinations: Get advice on the best attractions, restaurants and activities in ports of call around the world.
Advice: Looking for the best cruises for families, seniors or couples? Want the lowdown on cruise line policies, new cruise ships and industry trends? You'll find it all in our Cruise Planning section.
Cruise Styles: If you're looking for more information on cruises that fit your lifestyle (family, gay and lesbian, travelers with disabilities) or specialty cruising (world cruises, theme cruises and river cruises), you'll find your own niche here.
Cruise Critic's Message Boards: Correspond with other cruisers about all things cruise-related and ask questions of experienced travelers on our forums.