Looking back 25 or so years ago, cruises were still regimented and rather stuffy affairs with dress codes and rules at dinner dictating where you sat -- and when.
While there are still options for fans of 'traditional' cruising, picking the right line these days requires a bit more homework, as cruises are simply so much more diverse. Whether you're travelling with grandchildren, celebrating retirement or marking a special anniversary, it's important to choose the right ship. None bar cruisers on the grounds of advancing age -- quite the contrary -- but some older travellers don't particularly want to be cruising in the company of 800 or more schoolchildren or on a ship where nightlife, constant blaring music and riotous pool games are the biggest selling points.
If you like formal nights and fixed dining, no problem: there are ships to suit. Maybe you enjoy the dressy bit but want freedom to dine at your leisure. That's no problem either. Some cruises have themes -- bridge, for example, or walking or gardens or classical music. Many offer 'enrichment' classes, easy and unpatronising introductions to new computer skills, such as setting up a blog or learning to edit digital photographs. Many lines nowadays realise that age is not a barrier to adventure and include active, sometimes physically challenging, excursions. Some have entertainment geared very much to Brits of a certain age while others have contemporary standup and high-energy dance shows.
Which one's for you? Check our picks.
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Updated May 30, 2018
1. Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines
Why? While other lines cast around for a younger following to fill their ships, Fred. Olsen is at ease with its role as a comfortable favourite for Brits aged mainly over 65. While some cruises in summer carry children, mainly travelling with grandparents, many departures are labelled adults-only. The ships are a small and manageable size, with a sleek, classic profile. Dining and entertainment are geared to older tastes without compromising quality, and the line offers some top-notch guest speakers. There are cabins for singles and, in the evenings, gentleman dance hosts.
Ship shape: The line has four ships and is in the midst of an extensive, fleet-wide upgrade. Boudicca was refitted in March 2018; Braemar in December 2017; Black Watch, late 2016; and the 1,350-passenger Balmoral in December 2017.. Balmoral was voted 'Best Mid-Sized Ship for Entertainment' in the 2018 Cruise Critic U.K. Cruisers' Choice Awards. Although there are very few balcony cabins, accommodations are comfortable, and there's a wide choice for singles. Fred. Olsen has also just branched out into river cruising with a dedicated vessel, Brabant, joining the fleet for the 2018 season and sailing the Rhine, Moselle and Danube.
What's so special? Fred. Olsen offers everything from mini-breaks to a full world cruise, as well as a broad programme sailing from a variety of British ports, including Newcastle, Liverpool and Rosyth. In addition, there's a range of fly-cruises from exotic ports and in winter, a series of voyages to Norway, chasing the northern lights. On board, there's a wide variety of entertainment, from art and craft classes to yoga, Pilates and ballroom dancing. Most cruises carry guest speakers covering anything from history to the arts, or politics. Guest entertainers and comedians all cater for British tastes. Gentleman dance hosts sail on every ship as dance partners for single women.
Time out? Excursions have evolved with the times, so as well as the usual range of coach and walking tours, there are helicopter excursions, hikes, wine tasting and cultural experiences on offer. Fred. Olsen Cruises also has a long-standing association with Ramblers Holidays, offering walk-and-cruise voyages, booked through Ramblers Holidays and led by an experienced walking guide, who takes small groups off on long, often demanding hikes in each port.
2. Saga Holidays
Why? You can't even book a Saga cruise unless you are 50 or older, but those who have passed their half-century are allowed to take a companion aged 40 or older. The reality is that most passengers are well beyond 60, but they tend to be an active, enthusiastic and well-travelled crowd.
Ship shape: The line has two ships -- Saga Pearl II and Saga Sapphire, with a new one, the much grander Spirit of Discovery, under construction and due to launch in summer 2019. Saga Pearl II will retire in the spring of 2019. For now, though, Saga Pearl II remains a firm favourite among passengers, not least because it has a whopping 60 single cabins -- that's almost 25 percent of the total number of cabins (253). The ship reflects Saga's trademark style and ambience with traditions such as afternoon tea, ballroom dancing and cabaret-style entertainment. The 706-passenger Sapphire was Saga's first venture into a more stylish and contemporary-style cruising, while still retaining an essentially British feel. Spirit of Discovery, meanwhile, will be a new class of ship altogether. Carrying 999, the ship will have the feel of a stylish hotel, with all balcony cabins (including more than 100 singles across different grades), a grand dining room, multiple speciality restaurants and contemporary, bold decor, with a specially commissioned collection of work from British artists. A second ship in this class, Spirit of Adventure, has already been commissioned.
What's so special? For starters, single cabins don't cost the earth. Saga ships are also praised for their high food standards. Don't miss the line's delicious afternoon tea -- and check out the spectacular cheese board. Saga's crewmembers are hand-picked for their sympathetic attitude to older passengers and are famed for their friendly, caring attitude; this line is a good choice if you have any kind of disability. Gratuities are included in the price, so there is no end-of-cruise worry about tipping. Wine is included with meals, too. Saga also takes the hassle out of getting to port by including a private taxi (U.K. only). The ships are anything but fuddy-duddy, especially the new Spirit of Discovery, and many people who try Saga for the first time become regular travellers.
Time out? Excursions are a mix of the more traditional coach tours and active, experiential tours. Some of Saga's itineraries are extremely ambitious, and passengers join the cruises knowing they will be visiting some challenging ports with only the most basic infrastructure -- the kind of places where the experience is fantastic but things can, and do, go wrong. These include remote parts of Africa and lesser-known spots in Asia. There's also a series of winter cruises to Norway, in pursuit of the northern lights. A new initiative, Explore Ashore, starts in 2019 and offers passengers a concierge service to help them tailor their time ashore, whether that means simply organising a taxi to a museum or arranging a full tailor-made experience ashore. Saga has its own foundation, the Saga Charitable Trust, and some excursions visit projects supported by the Trust.
Why? With a pedigree going back to 1840, when Queen Victoria was on the throne, Cunard is the ultimate in tradition for those who want to remember cruising as it once was.
Ship shape: The three black-hulled, red-funneled vessels -- Queen Mary 2, Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth -- all offer the same Cunard traditions, yet vary in size. QM2 is the world's biggest (and only true) ocean liner, carrying 2,691, while Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth are smaller, carrying 2,061 and 2,081 passengers, respectively. Queen Mary 2 had a thorough refit in 2016, followed by Queen Victoria in 2017, with Queen Elizabeth due for a refit in late 2018. These refits have introduced contemporary touches while retaining the grandeur and heritage of the ships; they really are very smart indeed now.
What's so special? Passengers really stick to -- and enjoy -- the dress code and several formal nights. The emphasis is on elegance; a string quartet plays in the ballroom, and tea-time is a special occasion with white-gloved waiters. Plus, passengers in premium cabins (Britannia Club, Princess Grill, Queens Grill) get their own a la carte dining rooms away from the crowds. On Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth, Queens Grill and Princess Grill passengers also get a private sunbathing deck. Dinner is at a fixed time in the main dining room, and open dining can be found in the three Grills classes. This is not to say a Cunard voyage is stuffy. The lecture programme is one of the finest at sea, while there are all sorts of attractions, from the only planetarium at sea on Queen Mary 2 to superb spas, the new gin bar on Queen Victoria. All three Queens have children's clubs and multigenerational cruises are a growing phenomenon.
Time out? Transatlantic voyages on Queen Mary 2 are the last word in relaxation, with six or seven days at sea to do as little (or as much) as you want. Excursions on cruises other than crossings are more standard fare, usually coach tours, geared toward older passengers.
4. Cruise & Maritime Voyages
Why? The company operates mainly from Tilbury, on the east side of London, which goes down well with travellers who don't want airport hassle. Cruises from north-of-England ports, including Liverpool and Newcastle, are popular with the local markets there. The audience is mainly older Brits, and food and entertainment onboard are very much geared to a mature age group, although a couple of multigenerational cruises have been introduced due to popular demand. Prices are extremely competitive, and as such, Cruise & Maritime attracts people curious to try cruising for the first time.
Ship shape: Cruise & Maritime has five, soon to be six ships but not all of them serve the U.K. market; Astor, for instance, is based mainly in Australia. British passengers are most likely to sail on Marco Polo, an elderly vessel much loved by older cruisers for its stylish teak decking and classic profile; Astoria, a small ship carrying 550; the 1,250-passenger Magellan; or the flagship, Columbus, which carries 1,400. All four are older ships, with a wide variety of cabin grades, but points to note are the 64 attractive balcony cabins on Columbus, installed in a nod to modern-day cruising, and the fact that both Columbus and Magellan have a wide number of cabins allocated to solo travellers.
What's so special? CMV offers a traditional, gimmick-free cruise experience at competitive prices. You'll find swimming pools, an assortment of bars and lounges, traditional cabaret-style entertainment and some excellent speciality restaurants but don't expect the last word in luxury. The itineraries are interesting; the programme of ex-U.K. cruises is impressive, featuring anything from mini-cruises to winter voyages to Norway, round-Britain cruises, the Canaries and longer voyages. Columbus will offer a world cruise in 2019, while Magellan will spend winter 2019/20 in the Caribbean. On some longer voyages, it's possible to get a bargain 'two for the price of one' offer,
Time out? Excursions are tailored to older people who want to see the sights in comfort, so expect comfortable, guided sightseeing rather than hardcore adventure. Excursions are, like the cruises themselves, competitively priced.
5. Hebridean Island Cruises
Why? If it's good enough for royalty, it's got to be a winner with British over-55s prepared to pay for a bit of luxury.
Ship shape: The line has just one ocean-going ship, the very posh 50-passenger Hebridean Princess, on which the Queen celebrated her 80th birthday. The ship sails the Scottish Highlands, making the occasional foray south to Ireland, the Channel Islands and the north coast of France. Hebridean also charters the classic river cruiser, Royal Crown, to offer a similar "Hebridean" experience on the Rhine, Moselle and Dutch waterways -- included drinks and excursions, guest speakers, whiskies brought from Scotland and even some familiar faces, as senior crew members from Hebridean Princess are brought onboard for the river cruises. Royal Crown carries 90 passengers and is very elegant in a classic sense, with teak decks, arched picture windows and Art Deco-style rosewood and mahogany furniture.
What's so special? Everything is included in the price, from drinks and excursions to tips. Dinner is served in one sitting. There are lectures by day when passengers are not ashore, and background piano music, poetry readings and whisky-tastings are offered in the evening. All in all, this is about as close to a country house party as it gets. Passengers tend to be well-heeled (this is an expensive product) and adventurous; the "Footloose" walking tours in particular attract serious walkers.
Time out? Just before the dinner gong, the cruise director will explain all of the details about the next day's excursions, from walking distances to comfort stops. Hebridean offers a series of "Footloose" cruises that focus on walking, with walkers divided into active and slower groups. Non-walkers are still offered the usual tours on these voyages. On Royal Crown, shore excursions typically focus on local culture and history, with walking tours paced according to the slower passengers, visits to local vineyards and castles.
6. Voyages to Antiquity
Why? Voyages to Antiquity offers a single ship, Aegean Odyssey, exploring European destinations of historical interest in summer and in winter, Africa, Asia and the Indian Ocean. The whole experience is heavily geared toward culture and discovery and the audience is almost without exception mature.
Ship shape: Aegean Odyssey is an older ship, built in 1974, although refits have kept the decor fresh. It offers bright, airy accommodations and a smart indoor-outdoor restaurant with alfresco dining in the evenings (in addition to the main dining room). The ship carries 386 passengers, so has an intimate feel, and is very single-friendly, with 39 cabins allocated to solo travellers.
What's so special? Voyages to Antiquity makes a point of going deeper into a destination, for example, calling at small, off-the-beaten-track islands in Greece, or ports in Croatia where bigger ships cannot fit. The guest lecturers offer a high-brow series of talks; the focus onboard is very much on culture, so don't go expecting nightlife. Most excursions, as well as wine with dinner, are included in the price.
Time out? Because tours are included in the price, there's heavy take up, and most passengers, who come from North America and Australia as well as the U.K., are happy to be ashore all day. Overnights in popular ports mean a chance to explore early, before the crowds, or to take special evening excursions like a private glimpse inside St. Mark's basilica in Venice, for example.
7. Noble Caledonia
Why? Noble Caledonia offers a huge cruise programme, including ocean and river cruises, on a range of chartered ships -- but it also operates three of its own: Hebridean Sky; Caledonian Sky, Island Sky, with a maximum capacity of 118. All three attract a following of educated, adventurous passengers, mainly over 50 (due to a combination of high-end prices and the fact that there are no facilities for children onboard), looking for in-depth exploration with a degree of luxury.
Ship shape: All three ships are extremely comfortable, with extra-large cabins, cosy lounges and food of excellent quality. Each offers alfresco dining on the aft deck as an alternative to dinner in the elegant dining room. On expedition cruises, passengers are often ferried ashore to remote landings by inflatable Zodiacs. The less mobile should probably opt for itineraries where the ships dock alongside.
What's so special? The ships all offer a real house party atmosphere, encouraged by the fact that there's informal open-seating dining, wine included with dinner and excursions included in the price. Friendships are quickly formed. These are not ships for night owls; because everybody tends to be out on tour every day, many retire early, and evening entertainment tends to be a pianist in the bar. Guest lecturers travel with every cruise and some voyages have a theme, for example, opera, with guest performers on board and concerts ashore.
Time out? There's a comprehensive shore excursion programme, with almost all tours included in the price. Many are full-day and include meals at local restaurants, encouraging passengers to try local cuisine.
8. P&O Cruises
Why? P&O Cruises has a fleet of seven large and mid-sized, contemporary ships, two of which, Arcadia and Oriana, are dedicated to an adults-only market. From spring 2019, Aurora also moves over to the adults-only fleet. Sailing mainly from its home base, Southampton, P&O Cruises offers a wide range of Mediterranean and North European cruises, as well as a fly-cruise programme, long voyages from Southampton to the USA and the Caribbean, and on Arcadia, a world voyage.
While five ships in the fleet are family-friendly, they nonetheless offer voyages that would attract a mainly adult following, especially the long cruises in winter to exotic destinations. Dance fans might want to try one of the "Strictly Come Dancing" themed cruises (there are four every year); stars from the popular TV show come onboard and the programme includes lessons, displays of the costumes and contests overseen by the show's judges.
Ship shape: Each ship is different. The 1,880-passenger Oriana is geared more to classic tastes, with an Art Deco style, but nonetheless has six restaurants and multiple bars. Aurora is similar in size, carrying 1,874, and in 2019, will undergo a refit before transferring to the adults-only fleet. Arcadia is bigger, carrying 2,094, with a contemporary look.
What's so special: These three ships offer the facilities of a modern, big ship (spas, gyms, multiple dining options and several bars) but manage to retain a relatively intimate feel; they're probably as close as you can get to an adults-only cruise with a bigger ship feel in that there's so much choice, from yoga to wine tasting to bridge. Food and entertainment are geared to British tastes, from afternoon tea to British beers and a wide range of British gins (the line even produces its own gin, Anderson's). After dark, expect anything from full production shows to cabaret and stand-up. There are themed voyages, too; as well as the "Strictly Come Dancing" cruises, there are several food-themed departures with the line's "Food Heroes" onboard, among them chef Marco Pierre White, patissier Eric Lanlard and wine expert Olly Smith.
Time out: P&O offers an imaginative range of excursions aimed at active passengers as well as those who prefer traditional sightseeing by coach.
9. The Majestic Line
Why? This tiny cruise line, sailing out of Oban on the west coast of Scotland, offers a chance to potter gently around the Western Isles, getting really close to the wildlife and blending in perfectly with the beautiful scenery and tiny villages around the islands and coastline. Cruises range from three to 10 nights and passengers are typically over 60.
Ship shape: The Majestic Line has four ships, all of which have the look and feel of a traditional 1930s gentleman's yacht. Glen Massan and Glen Tarsan are former wooden fishing boats, adapted to accommodate 11 in comfort, with ensuite cabins and a cosy lounge/dining room adorned with yachting memorabilia. Glen Etive is purpose-built and takes 12, with a similar vibe, while sister Glen Shiel joins the fleet in 2019.
What's so special: The food onboard is spectacularly good, in a modern, elegant and healthy sense, rather than fussy or minimalist. All local produce is used, right down to mussels harvested from the sea that day. Good wines are poured with dinner. The ships are completely informal and very cosy; friendships are quickly struck up over the dinner table. What's best about exploring Scotland in such a small ship is the flexibility of the itinerary and the fact that you will visit beautiful bays and anchorages in genuinely remote spots, where bigger ships never go.
Time out: There are no organised tours, as such; you'll anchor or tie up alongside and the crew will recommend places to visit, whether it's a nearby castle, a local whisky distillery or a walking route. Itineraries are not cast in stone, but unfold according to weather and the wishes of the passengers.
10. Viking Ocean Cruises
Why? Popular river cruise line Viking has moved seamlessly into ocean cruising over the last couple of years, building a fleet of, so far, six beautiful 930-passenger ships, the last of which, Viking Jupiter, launches in 2019. Four more are on order. Viking seems to have cracked the formula for a grown-up, stylish, informal and inclusive cruise product. Everything from excursions to wine with dinner, tips and speciality dining is included in the price. The ships sail all over the world, from Europe to Australia, Alaska and the Caribbean. Children under the age of 16 are not permitted on ocean cruises, but in reality it's rare to see any older teenagers and Viking's audience tends to be well over 50, with experiences onboard tailored to this market.
Ship shape: Each ship is identical. The decor is lovely; calming and restful, with many Scandinavian influences reflecting the cruise line's roots, from reindeer throws on chairs to big windows and natural textures such as limestone, granite and soft wool, in earthy colours. Every cabin has a balcony. There's a variety of restaurants, from the main dining room to Manfredi's, an Italian grill, and Mamsen's, a traditional Nordic deli, specialising in waffles with berries and cream. There's no charge to eat in any of these.
Each ship also has a stunning spa, with free access to a thermal suite with an indoor pool, various saunas and steam rooms and an ice cave. There's an infinity pool on the aft deck, too. The ships are lively in the evenings, not least thanks to an intimate jazz club, Torshavn, small enough and dark enough to have guests of all ages crowding the dance floor.
What's so special? The food on Viking's ships is outstanding, wherever you eat; the seafood buffet at the World Cafe is exceptional, as is the afternoon tea in the Wintergarden. But it's the look and feel of the ships that passengers love; the calming Scandi decor, the friendly crew and the fact that there's no penny-pinching over things like crew tips and Wi-Fi.
Time out: One tour is included in every port, although these do tend to be standard sightseeing trips, either by coach or on foot. A range of more adventurous and experiential excursions is available for a fee and these fill up quickly.