Which cruise brand is best for you? A guide to the most popular lines
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Thinking about booking your first cruise? The sheer range of choices can be daunting. There are more than two dozen lines marketing to North Americans — no two alike.
Some of the brands — Royal Caribbean, MSC Cruises and Norwegian Cruise Line, in particular — operate massive vessels that are like giant floating resorts with deck-top waterparks and other over-the-top amusements. Others specialize in intimate, boutique hotel-style ships.
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Some lines, such as Carnival, are aimed at a budget crowd. Others operate vessels that are as luxurious as any luxury resort found on land. A few small luxury players such as Regent Seven Seas Cruises have ships with lavish suites that’ll cost you as much as $11,000 a day.
Where to begin? Below, you’ll find our quick guide to some of the most popular brands. As you’ll see, it’s not meant to be an in-depth review of the lines. It’s just a short overview — enough to give you a sense of which particular cruise operator might best appeal to you.
Once you’ve narrowed down the choices to a few brands that you think best fit your style, do a deeper dive into them and their specific ships, their itineraries and home ports, and their comparable costs (either on your own or with the help of a travel agent; we recommend finding a travel agent who specializes in cruises).
With just three small ships each holding fewer than 700 passengers, Azamara is one of the smallest players in the cruise business. But it has a loyal following of travelers who appreciate the upscale ambiance of its vessels, the inclusive amenities it offers (including gratuities and alcoholic drinks) and its destination focus. The line prides itself on offering longer stays in ports, including multiday visits. Its ships have an intimate, boutique-hotel feel. Pricing is higher than at the big, mass-market lines but not quite as high as you’ll find at luxury lines.
Carnival Cruise Line
The self-described “fun ship” line is the king of short, affordable, fun-focused cruises from U.S. ports to the Caribbean, Bahamas, Mexico and beyond. The choice of roughly one in five cruisers, its ships are notoriously lively, flashy and packed with fun features such as waterparks with multiple waterslides. Just don’t expect anything too fancy.
Designed to be a cut above mainstream options such as Carnival while still relatively affordable, this Miami-based “premium” line is known for some of the most stylish big ships at sea. Expect high-end design, cutting-edge art and on-trend restaurants. In short, Celebrity aims for sophisticates, not the party crowd (but it’s not a luxury product). Celebrity’s two newest ships, Celebrity Edge and Celebrity Apex, notably feature “infinite veranda” cabins that are open to the sea in a way we haven’t seen with ocean ships. They boast a glass wall that opens from the top to create a balcony-like effect.
Some say this is the ultimate luxury line. Despite its small size — aside from a budding river cruise operation, it offers just two traditional ocean ships and a small yacht — Crystal long has set the bar for onboard service, elegance and fine dining. Alas, you’ll pay a pretty penny for it. Crystal voyages often sell for as much as $1,000 per person, per day.
A storied line with roots that go back to the 1800s, this three-ship brand is perhaps best known for its 2,695-passenger flagship, Queen Mary 2. Queen Mary 2 lives up to its billing as a true ocean liner with semiregular, transatlantic service between Southampton, England, and New York. Cunard fans love the line’s relatively formal vibe (including nightly dress codes) and other nods to ocean liner tradition including evenings with ballroom dancing.
Disney Cruise Line
Meet-and-greets with Disney characters, Disney-themed shows and the most extensive kiddie fun zones on the high seas are just a few of the family-friendly allures of a Disney cruise. If you’re a Disney fan, nothing quite compares. If Disney isn’t your thing, well, this probably isn’t the line for you. The biggest downside of the brand? As with Disney’s parks on land, it doesn’t come cheap.
Holland America Line
Tradition long has been a touchstone for this storied line, which dates to 1873 and is known for carefully crafted, globe-circling itineraries on midsize ships. But Holland America has been shaking things up in recent years with lively new venues such as B.B. King’s Blues Club. Couples and retirees are the market; families with kids might want to look elsewhere.
A giant of cruising in Europe, Switzerland-based MSC Cruises is in the midst of making a big play for North Americans with newer, bigger ships sailing year-round from Florida to the Caribbean and Bahamas. Like Royal Caribbean and Norwegian, MSC Cruises operates big, resort-like vessels that appeal to a broad audience. For its Caribbean and Bahamas sailings, MSC Cruises traditionally has operated out of Miami. But it’s begun adding sailings out of Port Canaveral, too. It’s also recently opened its own private island in the Bahamas, the Ocean Cay MSC Marine Reserve.
Norwegian Cruise Line
Multistory waterslides, ropes courses and even go-kart race tracks are among the gee-whiz attractions you’ll find atop Norwegian’s giant, resort-like ships. The vessels also are packed with eateries, bars, casinos and showrooms. The brand is particularly known for its entertainment, including big Broadway shows. If you’re looking for a Las Vegas-style resort at sea, this is your line.
Oceania has carved out a niche with relatively small, upscale ships that offer a significant upgrade from mass-market vessels but aren’t quite as fancy (or pricey) as luxury offerings. Its six ships feature a relaxed, country club-like ambiance and inspired dining that appeal to a mostly older crowd. Itinerary-wise, Oceania is known for destination-intensive voyages that typically are 10 nights or more in length, with some globe-circling trips as long as 180 days.
This France-based line is a specialist in expedition cruising, a type of cruising that involves traveling to remote, hard-to-reach places on small, hardy vessels that carry their own landing craft. Operating a fast-growing fleet of tough but upscale expedition ships (none carrying more than 264 passengers), it’s known for voyages to places like Antarctica and the Arctic. If you’re looking for waterslides and laser tag, this is not the cruise line for you.
Popular with middle-aged couples, retirees and multigenerational families, the “Love Boat” line’s ships aren’t as flashy (or big) as those of Royal Caribbean and Norwegian, and that’s just the way its customers like it. They also like its wide range of itineraries, which include voyages in Asia and Australia as well as closer-to-home places like the Caribbean. They’ve long been one of the dominant lines in the Alaska cruise market.
Regent Seven Seas Cruises
This Miami-based luxury line operates some of the most opulent vessels at sea, including the recently unveiled, notably over-the-top Seven Seas Splendor. At $600 million, it’s the most expensive luxury ship ever built, and it boasts some of the most elaborate accommodations at sea. Just be ready to pay up for them. Splendor’s suites — and every cabin on the ship is a suite — often start around $1,000 per person, per day and can cost as much $5,500 per person, per day.
For megaresort fans, there’s nothing quite like a Royal Caribbean vessel. The line’s biggest ships are more than 20% bigger than any others afloat and feature every type of amusement imaginable, from rock climbing walls and surfing pools to Broadway shows and ice skating rinks. Families, in particular, will love it. Royal Caribbean sails everywhere in the world, but its heaviest presence is in the Caribbean and Europe.
Another leader of luxury cruising, this five-ship brand offers all-suite vessels, top-notch service and elegant cuisine that includes dishes created by star chef Thomas Keller. As with other luxury lines, Seabourn offers a wide range of itineraries around the globe, and it soon will be getting into more adventurous, expedition-style cruising with two new, 264-passenger vessels.
Exquisite service, refined dining and well-appointed accommodations are hallmarks of this Monaco-based luxury line. So is an industry-leading array of off-the-beaten-path itineraries. Its growing fleet of small expedition ships will take you everywhere from the Arctic to Papua New Guinea in style.
The Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection
Fans of upscale hotel chain Ritz-Carlton will feel right at home on one of this line’s yacht-like vessels. Or, at least, that’s the idea. The cruising arm of Ritz-Carlton isn’t actually in operation yet, and — after multiple construction delays — its first ship is now more than a year behind schedule. Dubbed Evrima, the 298-passenger vessel — now due in April 2021 — will appeal to Ritz-Carlton regulars with an elegant, residential look. The company is promising spacious cabins, a stylish spa and lots of deck-top lounge space for sunning, plus five separate restaurants.
Initially known just for river cruises, this fast-growing line has been shaking up the world of upscale ocean cruising in recent years with its first ocean ships. Designed to carry 930 passengers apiece, the vessels — there currently are six of them, with six more on order — are impeccably designed with Scandinavian modern interiors and offer unusual, port-intensive itineraries. They’re also mostly all-inclusive, as Viking long has subscribed to a “no nickel-and-diming” philosophy. Just don’t bother booking the family. Kids under 18 aren’t allowed on Viking.
Scheduled to debut in May (after more than a year of delays), this startup line backed by Richard Branson’s Virgin Group is promising to reinvent mainstream cruising with a hipper, more inclusive, younger vibe (though not too young; its ships will be adults-only). Think tattoo shops, drag queen brunch and no upcharges for tips or eateries. Virgin’s first ship, Scarlet Lady, which is finished but not yet sailing, has suites by acclaimed designer Tom Dixon. Destinations will include the Dominican Republic, Mexico and Sir Richard’s private beach club in the Bahamas.
If the idea of sailing on a big ship makes you cringe, small-ship specialist Windstar is the answer. Its six vessels carry just 148 to 342 passengers — fewer than fit on a single big-ship lifeboat — and are wonderfully intimate. Romantic types will love Windstar’s three vessels with sails — a relative rarity. Foodies can choose one of the James Beard-themed cruises, which include market tours and cooking demos with a Beard Award-winning chef.
More guides that will help you plan a cruise:
- The 5 most desirable cabin locations on any cruise ship
- The 8 worst cabin locations on any cruise ship
- 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
- Guide to picking a cruise line
Featured photo courtesy of Royal Caribbean.
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