The best Caribbean cruise for every type of traveler
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There is no shortage of choice for a cruise to the Caribbean — the most popular place in the world for cruising. More than 200 cruise ships spend at least part of every year in the region. Cruise-selling websites list thousands of individual Caribbean sailings.
This can be great news for would-be Caribbean cruisers. But it also can be overwhelming. With so many options, where do you even begin? Which one of these ships and sailings is the best?
As someone who writes full time about cruising, I get the latter question a lot — and I always answer the same noncommittal way: It depends. The best ship and sailing in the Caribbean for whom? The best for me? The best for you? The best for your kids?
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When it comes to picking the best cruise in the Caribbean, as with picking the best cruise anywhere, a lot comes down to tastes and preferences. Some people love the big-resort feel of the biggest-of-big ships. Others are horrified by the very idea of them. Some people demand (and are willing to pay for) the highest levels of luxury. Others are on the tightest of budgets. The best cruise for a family with kids isn’t necessarily the same as the best cruise for a couple looking for romance.
Even if you know the kind of ship you want, there’s also the issue of destination. For some would-be cruisers, port stops are a big factor. For others, it barely matters. There are some cruisers who like to spend every minute they can off the ship. There are others who never leave.
Which kind of cruiser are you? It’s important to think that through before you start narrowing down your choices.
The bottom line is: The best Caribbean cruise for you depends a lot on your travel style. Below, we’ll help you narrow down the choices by looking at Caribbean cruises by broad category type. Keep in mind, this is just a beginner’s guide. Once you have a rough idea of the type of cruise for which you’re looking, you’ll want to do a deeper dive into specific ships, their itineraries and home ports, and their comparable costs (either on your own or with the help of a travel agent who specializes in cruises).
The good news is that, in the Caribbean at least, there really is something for everyone — and not just when it comes to cruising. Don’t miss our new guide to the best points hotels in the Caribbean and our guide to using points and miles to fly to the Caribbean.
Best Caribbean cruises for megaresort fans
If your idea of a great vacation is a week at a big, bustling resort filled with every sort of amusement known to humans, you’ll probably want to start your Caribbean cruise search with a look at the biggest vessels from Royal Caribbean, Norwegian Cruise Line and MSC Cruises. These three lines dominate the world of megaresorts at sea with 21 of the planet’s 25 biggest and most-amenity-filled vessels (more than a dozen of which are deployed at least part of the year in the Caribbean).
If “more is better” is your mantra, many cruise aficionados (myself included) will tell you to narrow things even further by just typing these two words into your search engine: Oasis Class. When it comes to megaships, there’s nothing in the Caribbean quite like the four vessels of the groundbreaking Royal Caribbean series. Each ship is over 20% bigger than any other cruise ship afloat and, hands down, the ultimate seaworthy resort experience.
All of the Oasis Class vessels spend at least part of the year in the Caribbean. Sailing to the region out of the major cruise hubs in Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Port Canaveral and, soon, Galveston, Texas, the massive ships offer everything from multiple outdoor pool zones and giant waterslides to surfing simulators, rock climbing walls and zip lines. And that’s just on their outer decks.
The insides of the ships are filled with more lounges, bars, restaurants and shops than you can imagine, plus huge casinos, spas and showrooms with Broadway shows. They even have indoor ice skating rinks, just in case you want to get your Michelle Kwan on.
What you won’t find on the Oasis Class ships, which include the new queen bee of the cruise world, the 18-deck-high, 1,188-foot-long Symphony of the Seas, is intimacy. These are vessels that can carry as many as 6,780 passengers when every berth is filled. They operate with around 2,200 crew. That means you could be sharing your Caribbean vacation with nearly 9,000 people.
If the above sounds downright insane to you, it is. But keep in mind that the biggest megaresorts on land are even bigger. The biggest resort in the U.S., The Venetian in Las Vegas, has 7,092 rooms. That means it can hold more than 14,000 guests, assuming two people per room.
The typical big-ship itinerary in the Caribbean revolves around such oft-visited cruise destinations as St. Thomas, St. Martin and Cozumel, Mexico. But for many cruisers, where these vessels go doesn’t really matter. These are cruises where it’s really all about the ship.
Best Caribbean cruises for families
In the family cruise arena, the big players in the Caribbean include Royal Caribbean, Norwegian, Carnival Cruise Line and Disney Cruise Line. In this category, too, Royal Caribbean’s Oasis Class ships often are touted as the vessels to beat. This is, again, because of the incredible array of attractions their size allows. No other ships boast as many activities that will get a teen or tween’s heart racing. The vessels also offer plenty for the littlest ones, including dedicated, no-extra-charge kids clubs. There are supervised activities for kids as young as 3 years old.
Also loaded with family-friendly attractions — including the longest go-kart track at sea (yes, this is now a thing) — is Norwegian’s 1-year-old Norwegian Encore. Sailing to the Caribbean out of Miami, the 3,998-passenger vessel isn’t quite as big and activity-packed as the Oasis Class ships. But it’s right up there among the 15 biggest passenger vessels ever built.
Several nearly-as-big Norwegian vessels filled with family-friendly amusements, including Norwegian Epic and Norwegian Escape, also sail regularly to the Caribbean.
Other top picks for families include the many Caribbean-focused vessels of cruise giant Carnival (which carries more children than any other line) and the Caribbean-bound ships of Disney. The former is a top choice for budget-constrained families as fares for Carnival itineraries, on a like-for-like basis, often are significantly lower than fares for itineraries at other lines. The latter is the obvious choice if you’re a Disney lover.
Note that Disney die-hards will tell you there is no other line for families than Disney. And, indeed, if Disney is your thing, nothing in cruising quite compares. Just be prepared to pay up big time for the privilege of sailing with Captain Mickey. You’ll likely pay significantly more for a family cruise with Disney than for one with either Royal Caribbean or Carnival.
Best Caribbean cruises for travelers on a budget
The undisputed leader in the Caribbean cruise market when it comes to affordability is Carnival. Not only does Carnival offer lower fares than you’ll find at most rival lines, it also purposely deploys its Caribbean-focused vessels to a wider variety of U.S. “home ports” than other lines to make traveling to them less pricey.
You’ll find Carnival ships sailing to the Caribbean from all the major Florida cruise hubs, but also from ports as far-flung as New York City; Baltimore; Charleston, South Carolina; Mobile, Alabama; New Orleans; and Galveston, Texas. The idea is that a large percentage of the U.S. population can reach a Caribbean-bound Carnival ship by car, saving the cost of flights.
With one exception, Carnival ships aren’t as big as the biggest Royal Caribbean and Norwegian vessels. But they’re still packed with a lot of fun-focused attractions, including multiple pool areas, waterparks with waterslides and, on the newest Carnival ships, the line’s signature, deck-top SportSquare areas with ropes courses, basketball courts, miniature golf courses and other outdoor amusements.
In part because of its low prices, Carnival has a huge following. It accounts for nearly 1 out of every 5 cruises taken worldwide. But it isn’t for everyone.
The self-described “fun ship” line is all about fun in a very loud sort of way. Entertainment at times is as lowbrow as the line is low cost. This is, after all, the brand that famously holds a Hairy Chest Contest around the pool deck on every voyage, to a standing-room-only, hooting and hollering crowd.
Carnival ships also can feel a bit cramped at times. One of the ways that the company keeps its fares low is by jamming a lot of people onto its ships. Many of the line’s vessels have a “space ratio” — a measure of the amount of interior space available per passenger — in the low 30s. By contrast, most Royal Caribbean ships have space ratios above 40. The typical Norwegian Cruise Line ship has a space ratio between 36 and 41. Luxury lines such as Seabourn have some ships with space ratios above 70.
Best Caribbean cruises for solo travelers
When it comes to catering to solo cruisers, the king of the hill in the Caribbean is Norwegian — at least among the big-ship lines. The Miami-based cruise operator in 2010 began adding entire zones for solo travelers to the center of every new ship it deployed to the region. You’ll now find these zones on Caribbean-focused vessels like the Norwegian Encore, Norwegian Breakaway, Norwegian Getaway and the San Juan, Puerto Rico-based Norwegian Epic.
Each of these solo cruiser zones, which are unrepeated in the industry for now, includes dozens of cabins for solo travelers, all clustered around each other. They also have a private lounge with a bar and television where solos can mingle at daily hosted happy hour gatherings.
Known as Studio cabins, the solo rooms in these complexes measure around 100 square feet, which is super tiny. But they’re superbly designed to maximize storage space. I sailed solo in one of the cabins on Norwegian Epic, and I was smitten. I particularly loved its futuristic, “Jetsons”-like design, and the multicolored mood lighting.
One big caveat with Norwegian’s solo cabins: They’re all “inside” rooms without an ocean view. That said, most have a window that looks out onto a corridor.
Another line that’s shaping up to be a leader in the solo cruise market in the Caribbean is Virgin Voyages. The startup cruise operator’s first vessel, Scarlet Lady, has 46 cabins specifically designed for solo travelers. That’s a big number for a ship with just 1,330 cabins overall. Based on early images of the rooms released by Virgin Voyages, they might just become the coolest solo cabins around.
Solo travelers also will find that some small-ship lines and luxury lines such as Silversea Cruises and Crystal Cruises cater heavily to solo travelers, with fare specials and dedicated onboard programming.
Best Caribbean cruises for luxury lovers
For those who wouldn’t be caught dead on a vessel that doesn’t have butler service and free-flowing caviar, the Caribbean can be a tough spot. Many of the world’s most luxurious cruise ships spend a lot of time in Europe and Asia, or gallivanting around the globe on exotic world cruises. For some luxury lines, the Caribbean is almost an afterthought.
The line that many longtime industry watchers (including me) consider the epitome of high-end cruising, Crystal Cruises, only has six sailings in the Caribbean planned for 2021. Crystal’s 980-passenger Crystal Serenity is arriving in Miami in mid-November for the briefest of Caribbean seasons.
The money-is-no-object crowd will have better luck finding Caribbean itineraries from luxury lines Regent Seven Seas Cruises, Silversea Cruises and Seabourn Cruise Line. Each of these luxury purveyors typically sends at least two vessels to the Caribbean for part of the year. Still, you’ll usually only see them in the Caribbean during the winter months. For luxury cruises in the Caribbean, the period between April and October is pretty much a dead zone.
Some of the most interesting luxury itineraries in the Caribbean come from Seabourn. The line’s 458-passenger Seabourn Odyssey spends its winters sailing one-way voyages between Barbados and St. Martin with stops at several lesser-visited Caribbean ports. The ship’s Barbados-to-St. Martin run brings calls at St. Vincent, Martinique, Guadeloupe, Nevis, Antigua and St. Kitts. The St. Martin-to-Barbados itinerary features visits to Tortola, St. Barts, St. Kitts, Guadeloupe, St. Lucia and the Grenadines. The two trips can be combined back to back to create a 14-day Caribbean adventure. Silversea also has a handful of voyages out of Barbados, which is something of a hub for small upscale vessels sailing in the Caribbean.
Best Caribbean cruises for off-the-beaten-path travel
Seabourn and Silversea aren’t the only lines that offer sailings to the Caribbean’s less-popular ports. Several small-ship cruise operators including Star Clippers, Windstar Cruises and Ponant have made the off-the-beaten-path corners of the Caribbean something of a focus.
Star Clippers sends two vessels to the Caribbean each winter that sail out of St. Martin and Barbados. They travel to lesser-visited destinations like the Iles des Saintes, a group of islands that are dependencies of Guadeloupe, and Tobago Cays, an archipelago in the Southern Grenadines.
The two Star Clippers vessels (the 170-passenger Star Flyer and 227-passenger Royal Clipper) are, notably, sailing ships. They make for a wonderfully different and alluring cruise experience as compared to what you’ll find on the vessels of most lines. Hopscotching from island to island on the Royal Clipper, in particular, is an electrifying experience. More than 400 feet long with five masts and 42 sails, it’s one of the largest square-rigged sailing vessels in the world.
Also offering Caribbean voyages on sailing ships as well as small motor ships is Windstar. The line’s Caribbean itineraries include such lesser-visited places as Little Bay, Montserrat; Gustavia, St. Barts; and Mayreau, the smallest inhabited island of the Grenadines. Mayreau is home to fewer than 300 people.
In past years, Ponant also has offered a handful of Caribbean sailings out of Fort-de-France, Martinique, that include stops in Mayreau, Tobago Cays and several other secret Caribbean spots. The line also has offered rare-in-the-industry sailings out of Puerto Morelos, Mexico (near Cancun), that feature calls along the northern coast of the Yucatan Peninsula.
Ponant’s itineraries for 2021 are in flux due to the coronavirus pandemic. But we expect to see its unusual Caribbean itineraries return in the coming years.
Planning a cruise? Start with these stories:
- The 5 most desirable cabin locations on any cruise ship
- The 8 worst cabin locations on any cruise ship
- A quick guide to the most popular cruise lines
- 21 tips and tricks that will make your cruise go smoothly
- 15 ways cruisers waste money
- 12 best cruises for people who never want to grow up
- What to pack for your first cruise
Featured image courtesy of Royal Caribbean.
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