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Which cruise brand is best for you? A guide to the most popular lines

Aug. 15, 2022
15 min read
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Editor’s note: This is a recurring post, regularly updated with new information.

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.

The list of brands includes everything from giant companies such as Royal Caribbean and Carnival Cruise Line, which are household names, to lesser-known small operators such as Windstar Cruises.

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 water parks 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 upscale 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).

Related: TPG's ultimate guide to picking a cruise line

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Azamara

With just four ships, each holding fewer than 700 passengers, Azamara is one of the smallest players in the cruise business. However, 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 multi-day 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.

Related: 5 things to love about Azamara's newest ship

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, Carnival Cruise Line's ships are notoriously lively, flashy and packed with fun features such as water parks with multiple waterslides. Just don’t expect anything too fancy.

Related: The ultimate guide to Carnival Cruise Line

A passenger on Carnival Cruise Line's Carnival Vista prepares to slide down the ship's Kaleid-O-Slide. The water tube attraction is part of the vessel's WaterWorks waterpark area. (Photo by Andy Newman/Carnival Cruise Line)
A passenger on Carnival Cruise Line’s Carnival Vista prepares to slide down the ship’s Kaleid-O-Slide. The attraction is part of the vessel’s WaterWorks water park area. (Photo by Andy Newman/Carnival Cruise Line)

Celebrity Cruises

Designed to be a cut above mainstream options such as Carnival while remaining 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 trendy restaurants. In short, Celebrity aims for sophisticates, not the party crowd (although it’s not a luxury product).

Celebrity’s three newest ships, Celebrity Edge, Celebrity Apex and Celebrity Beyond, notably feature “infinite veranda” cabins that are open to the sea in a way we haven’t seen with other ocean ships. They boast a glass wall that opens from the top to create a balcony-like effect.

So-called Infinite Veranda cabins on Celebrity Edge are open the sea in a way that we haven't seen with ocean ships. (Photo courtesy of Celebrity Cruises).
An infinite veranda cabin on Celebrity Edge. (Photo courtesy of Celebrity Cruises)

Crystal Cruises

For many years, this was considered by many to be the ultimate luxury line. Then it shut down in early 2022 after its parent company went bankrupt. Now it's in the process of making a comeback under new owners.

At least initially, it'll return with just two ships. The question remains as to whether it'll set the bar for onboard service, elegance and fine dining, as it once did.

Cunard

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. The ship 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.

Related: Queen Mary 2 is the star of Meryl Streep’s ‘Let Them All Talk’

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.

Related: A first-look photo tour of Disney's newest ship, Disney Wish

Mickey and Minnie waiting for guests to arrive outside the new Disney Wish. (Photo courtesy of Disney)

Holland America

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.

However, 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 for this line. Families with kids might want to look elsewhere.

Holland America cruise ship Ms Zaandam in Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska. (Photo by Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images)
A Holland America cruise ship sailing in Alaska. (Photo by Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket/Getty Images)

MSC Cruises

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. It also offers sailings from New York City.

Like Royal Caribbean and Norwegian, MSC Cruises operates big, resort-like vessels that appeal to a broad audience. Among the highlight of its cruises in North America are stops at its new private island in the Bahamas, the Ocean Cay MSC Marine Reserve.

MSC Meraviglia is one of five MSC Cruises ships with a full-blown waterpark on its top deck. (Photo courtesy of MSC Cruises).
MSC Meraviglia is one of several MSC Cruises ships with a full-blown water park on its top deck. (Photo courtesy of MSC Cruises)

Norwegian Cruise Line

Multistory waterslides, ropes courses and even go-kart race tracks are among the gee-whiz attractions you’ll find atop Norwegian Cruise Line'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.

Norwegian Cruise Line's newest ship, Norwegian Encore, has room for 4,004 passengers at double occupancy. (Photo courtesy of Norwegian)
Norwegian Cruise Line’s 3-year-old Norwegian Encore has room for 4,004 passengers at double occupancy. (Photo courtesy of Norwegian Cruise Line)

Oceania Cruises

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.

An Oceania Cruise liner. (Photo courtesy Oceania Cruises Blog)
An Oceania Cruises vessel. (Photo courtesy of Oceania Cruises Blog)

Ponant

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.

A Ponant vessel anchored in the Maldives. (Photo courtesy of Ponant)

Princess Cruises

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. It's long been one of the dominant lines in the Alaska cruise market.

Related: The ultimate guide to Princess Cruises

A Princess Cruises ship. (Photo courtesy of Princess Cruises)
A Princess Cruises ship. (Photo courtesy of Princess Cruises)

Regent Seven Seas Cruises

This Miami-based luxury line operates some of the most opulent vessels at sea, including the notably over-the-top, 2-year-old 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 as $5,500 per person, per day.

At 4,443 square feet, the Regent Suite on Seven Seas Splendor is bigger than the average home in the United States. (Photo courtesy of Regent Seven Seas Cruises)
At 4,443 square feet, the Regent Suite on Seven Seas Splendor is bigger than the average U.S. home. (Photo courtesy of Regent Seven Seas Cruises)

Royal Caribbean

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.

Related: The ultimate guide to Royal Caribbean

The Perfect Storm complex of waterslides is a highlight of the top deck of Royal Caribbean's Harmony of the Seas. (Photo courtesy of Royal Caribbean).
The Perfect Storm complex of waterslides is a highlight of the top deck of Royal Caribbean’s Harmony of the Seas. (Photo courtesy of Royal Caribbean)

Seabourn

Another leader in luxury cruising, this six-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. It also recently jumped into more adventurous, expedition-style cruising with a new, 264-passenger vessel designed to operate in polar regions such as Antarctica and the Arctic.

Silversea Cruises

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.

Silver Cloud, a luxury cruise ship operated by Silversea Cruises, leaves Tower Bridge in London. (Photo by Isabel Infantes/PA Images via Getty Images)
Silver Cloud, a luxury cruise ship operated by Silversea Cruises. (Photo by Isabel Infantes/PA Images/Getty Images)

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 nearly three years behind schedule.

Dubbed Evrima, the 298-passenger vessel — now due on Aug. 31 — will appeal to Ritz-Carlton regulars with an elegant, residential look. The company promises spacious cabins, a stylish spa and lots of deck-top lounge space for sunning, plus five separate restaurants.

Related: The ultimate guide to the Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection

The 298-passenger Evrima will have a yacht-like profile with a marina at its back. (Image courtesy of Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection).
The 298-passenger Evrima will have a yacht-like profile with a marina at its back. (Image courtesy of Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection)

Viking

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 seven of them, with several 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.

Related: The ultimate guide to Viking cruises

Children are not allowed on any Viking ships (Phot by Marjie Lambert/Miami Herald/TNS / Getty Images)
Children are not allowed on any Viking ships. (Photo by Marjie Lambert/Miami Herald/TNS/Getty Images)

Virgin Voyages

This startup line backed by Richard Branson’s Virgin Group is reinventing mainstream cruising with a hipper, more inclusive, younger vibe (though not too young; its ships are adults-only). Think tattoo shops, drag queen brunches and no upcharges for tips or eateries.

Virgin’s first ship, Scarlet Lady has suites by acclaimed designer Tom Dixon. Destinations include the Dominican Republic, Mexico and Sir Richard’s private beach club in the Bahamas.

Related: I've been on more than 150 cruise ships; here's what I think of Virgin Voyages' Scarlet Lady

(Photo courtesy of Virgin Voyages)
Scarlet Lady is the first ship for Virgin Voyages. (Photo courtesy of Virgin Voyages)

Windstar Cruises

If the idea of sailing on a big ship makes you cringe, small-ship specialist Windstar could be 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 demonstrations with a Beard Award-winning chef.

A Windstar sailing ship in French Polynesia. (Photo courtesy of Windstar)

More guides that will help you plan a cruise:

Featured image by Michel Verdure
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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  • Earn 80,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $1,200 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®
  • $300 Annual Travel Credit as reimbursement for travel purchases charged to your card each account anniversary year.
  • Earn 5x total points on flights and 10x total points on hotels and car rentals when you purchase travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards® immediately after the first $300 is spent on travel purchases annually. Earn 3x points on other travel and dining & 1 point per $1 spent on all other purchases
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Best premium travel card for value
TPG Editor‘s Rating
Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
4 / 5
Go to review

Rewards Rate

10xEarn 10x total points on hotels and car rentals when you purchase travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards®.
5xEarn 5x total points on flights through Chase Ultimate Rewards®.
3xEarn 3x points on other travel and dining.
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  • Intro Offer
    Earn 80,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $1,200 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®

    80,000 bonus points
  • Annual Fee

    $550
  • Recommended Credit
    Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

    740-850
    Excellent

Why We Chose It

If you are looking to take your premium rewards to the highest level, this card is really a no brainer in our eyes. Chase's Ultimate Rewards make points easy to redeem, with a wide range of 10 airline and three hotel transfer partners and a friendly user interface. Despite the high annual fee, Chase is consistently adding new benefits to keep the card competitive in a fierce premium rewards field.

Pros

  • $300 annual travel credit as reimbursement for travel purchases charged to your card each account anniversary year
  • Access to Chase Ultimate Rewards hotel and airline travel partners
  • Unlimited 3x points on the broad category of travel and dining
  • 50% more value when you redeem your points for travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards®
  • Broad definitions for travel and dining bonus categories

Cons

  • Steep $550 annual fee
  • May not make sense for people that don't travel frequently
  • You must spend the $300 travel credit before earning 3x points for travel and dining
  • No automatic hotel elite status
  • Earn 80,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $1,200 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®
  • $300 Annual Travel Credit as reimbursement for travel purchases charged to your card each account anniversary year.
  • Earn 5x total points on flights and 10x total points on hotels and car rentals when you purchase travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards® immediately after the first $300 is spent on travel purchases annually. Earn 3x points on other travel and dining & 1 point per $1 spent on all other purchases
  • Get 50% more value when you redeem your points for travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards®. For example, 80,000 points are worth $1,200 toward travel
  • 1:1 point transfer to leading airline and hotel loyalty programs
  • Access to 1,300+ airport lounges worldwide after an easy, one-time enrollment in Priority Pass™ Select and up to $100 application fee credit every four years for Global Entry, NEXUS, or TSA PreCheck®
  • Count on Trip Cancellation/Interruption Insurance, Auto Rental Collision Damage Waiver, Lost Luggage Insurance and more