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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.
That’s why TPG put together a quick guide to 16 of the most popular brands, from cruise giant Royal Caribbean, which operates the world’s biggest ships, to small luxury players such as Crystal Cruises and Regent Seven Seas.
With just three small ships each holding fewer than 700 passengers, Azamara Club Cruises 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.
The self-described “Fun Ship” line is the king of short, affordable, fun-focused cruises from US 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 water slides. 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 ships at sea. Expect high-end design, cutting-edge art and on-trend restaurants. In short, it aims for sophisticates, not the party crowd. Its newest ship, the Celebrity Edge, aims to attract new-to-cruisers to the seas with a bevy of amenities and a sleek design.
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 on-board service, elegance and fine dining. Alas, you’ll pay a pretty penny for it.
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, which lives up to its billing as a true “ocean liner” with semi-regular, 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.
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. Ports of call include Hawaii, Bermuda, Cozumel and even Disney’s private island in the Bahamas. The downside? As with Disney’s parks on land, it doesn’t come cheap.
Tradition long has been a touchstone for this storied line, which dates to 1873 and is known for carefully crafted, globe-circling itineraries on mid-size ships. But it’s been shaking things up in recent years with lively new venues such as B.B. King’s Blues Clubs. Couples and retirees are the market; families with kids might want to look elsewhere.
A giant of cruising in Europe, Switzerland-based MSC is in the midst of making a big play for North Americans with newer, bigger ships based year-round in the Caribbean. Like Royal Caribbean and Norwegian, it operates giant, resort-like vessels that appeal to a broad audience.
Multi-story water slides, ropes courses and even go-cart race tracks are among the gee-whiz attractions you’ll find atop Norwegian’s giant, resort-like ships, which also are packed with eateries, bars, showrooms and casinos. 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 appeals to a mostly older crowd. In addition to standard itineraries, Oceania offers 180-day Around the World cruises.
This French cruise line has a fleet of luxurious yachts, including a 64-passenger, three-masted vessel that specializes in small ports. With its new Explorers-class ships, Ponant is doubling down on adventurous expedition sailings. If you’re looking for water slides and laser tag, this is not the cruise line for you.
Popular with middle-age couples, retirees and multi-generational 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. Rates start at $239 for a 2-day cruise.
For mega-resort fans, there’s nothing quite like a Royal 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. Their most popular itineraries are in the Caribbean, but they also sail to ports in Australia, India, South Korea and Croatia, among others. Rates start at $225 for a 2-night cruise.
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, it 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. Rates start at $2,790 for a 7-day cruise.
This Miami-based luxury line operates some of the most opulent vessels at sea, including the notably over-the-top Seven Seas Explorer. At $450 million, it’s one of the most expensive luxury ships ever and boasts some of the most elaborate accommodations at sea. Just be ready to pay up for it. One of the most popular itineraries is the Barcelona to Venice sailing with stops in Marseille, Monaco, Tuscany, Rome, Amalfi, Montenegro, Croatia and Slovenia. Rates start at $4,399 for a 7-night cruise.
If the idea of sailing on a big ship makes you cringe, small-ship specialist Windstar is the answer. Most of its six vessels carry just 150 to 200 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. Rates start at $1,799 for a 7-day cruise.
Founded in 2015, this fast-growing line is shaking up the world of upscale cruising with an all-new fleet of impeccably-designed, Scandinavian modern ships; unusual, port-intensive itineraries; and a “no-nickel-and-diming” philosophy. Just don’t bother booking the family. Kids under 18 aren’t allowed. Viking started as a river cruise line and offers sailings along the Danube, the Rhine, the Seine, the Douro and the Elbe, stopping in small ports that larger ships can’t access. They also have ocean cruises in various destinations, including one that sails Scandinavia in search of the Northern Lights. Rates start at $1,899 for an 8-day cruise.
Scheduled to debut in 2020, this start-up line backed by Richard Branson’s Virgin Group is promising to re-invent 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. Its first ship, the Scarlet Lady, will have suites by acclaimed designer Tom Dixon. Destinations will include Miami, Havana, the Dominican Republic, Costa Maya in Mexico, and Sir Richard Branson’s private beach club in the Bahamas. Rates start at $1,500 for a 4-night cruise.
Featured photo by Brandon Nelson/Unsplash.
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