Certain cruise itineraries stand out as iconic. These are the classic sailings that take you to the great cruise destinations -- beyond the first-timer standards like a Caribbean cruise and sailing in the Mediterranean -- and really show off what a cruise vacation has to offer. If you're an avid cruiser, these are the trips you can't miss. Experienced travelers would agree that these destinations are ones best explored via ship or riverboat.
Whether you want to cruise to places that aren't easily reached by car or train (think remote fjords) or take one of the ultimate ship journeys (through the Panama Canal or down the Nile), you will want to keep these seven great cruise destinations in mind when you're deciding where to go on your next vacation.
Why They're Great: Transatlantic cruises -- especially on Cunard's Queen Mary 2 -- evoke the steam ships of yesteryear, when your only option for travel from America to the Continent was by ship. With no or very few ports of call, these journeys across the sea truly let you unwind. You can spend hours gazing out at the vast ocean, thinking deep thoughts; get caught up on your reading; or spend your days playing bridge, listening to fascinating guest lecturers and making new friends.
Best For: Travelers who want to experience the ship more than a particular destination, or who need some forced relaxation.
When to Go: Cunard's Queen Mary 2 is the quintessential transatlantic cruiser and offers ocean crossings year-round, except from January through April when it's off on a world cruise. For the most choice of ships, look for sailings during the spring and fall when cruise lines are repositioning ships from Europe to the Caribbean or vice versa.
Why They're Great: Gorgeous fjords with scenic waterfalls -- accessible via your cruise ship or smaller boat tour once docked -- are the hallmark of Norway cruises. The villages at fjord's end are much more easily reached by ship than by road, and you can enjoy a mix of quaint towns and vibrant cities. While the dreamer in you is going gaga over the views, your inner accountant is doing the dance of joy because it's much more affordable to visit Norway by cruise ship than to pay local rates for hotels, restaurants and land-based transportation.
Best For: Shutterbugs and other travelers who want to drink in Norway's breathtaking scenery -- while getting a bit of culture on the side.
When to Go: Summer cruises are warmer and the days are filled with light till late -- just be prepared for the occasional rainstorm.
Why They're Great: The River Nile is the heart of Egypt, and most of its ancient landmarks lay close to its shores. The classic way to pyramid-hop is via a river cruise, making the Nile a great cruise destination. If you loved "Death on the Nile," this is the cruise to try (just leave the murder and mayhem at home).
Best For: History buffs and travelers who want to see some of the great wonders of the world.
When to Go: Avoid the heat, and cruise between October and April.
Why They're Great: You can view one of the great engineering works of our time from shore, but to truly experience the Panama Canal, you must sail it. Panama Canal cruises will take you from the Pacific to the Caribbean in some of the largest ships that can squeeze into its many locks. Not only is the engineering intriguing but the itinerary takes you to ports in the Caribbean, Central America and Mexico with plenty of options for communing with nature, soaking up the sun on island beaches and playing in the water.
Best For: Professional and amateur engineers make up a large fraction of Panama Canal cruisers, but the cruises are great for anyone wishing to combine a tropical cruise with a bucket list experience.
When to Go: Wait until the rainy season ends in November and sail during the winter or early spring before the temperatures get unbearable.
Why They're Great: The iconic river cruise is often most travelers' first river cruise. Danube River cruises might be entry-level but they are still high on our list of great cruise destinations. You'll combine visits to key Eastern European cities, such as Budapest and Vienna, and sail past historic castles, expansive vineyards and beautiful countryside. Plus, you'll have the opportunity to catch a concert in the homeland of classical music.
Best For: Culture vultures interested in a mix of quaint towns and bustling cities.
When to Go: May through September is the peak of the Danube cruise season, and the best time to go. If you want to experience the region's Christmas Markets and don't mind less-than-perfect weather, opt for a late November or December sailing.
Why They're Great: Alaska cruises have become synonymous with travelers yearning to explore the northernmost state often choose a cruise, even if not avid sailors. That's because some destinations in Alaska's Inside Passage aren't accessible by car. You will see the best of the Inside Passage and the state's famous glaciers when traveling by ship, as well as be primed to spot whales, eagles and other wildlife along the way.
Best For: Nature lovers and outdoor enthusiasts who respond to the call of the wild.
When to Go: Summer cruises feature long days and warmer temperatures -- though be prepared for clouds, chilly weather and rain even in June, July and August.
Why They're Great: Baltic cruises are like greatest hits tours of Northern Europe. Itineraries feature one major cultural center after another -- St. Petersburg, Oslo, Stockholm, Copenhagen, Helsinki. You'd be exhausted trying to cram all these cities into one land trip, but on a cruise, you can enjoy a good meal, see a show and sleep in a cozy bed while the ship whisks you from one destination to the next.
Best For: Urban types who want to hit all of the world's great cities rather than wander about charming yet small villages and towns.
When to Go: Not surprisingly, June, July and August are your best bets for these northern destinations.