How to Choose the Best Cruise Line

compare choose which best cruise lines

Not sure how to find the best cruise line for you? We created this comparison of the different options — and their strengths and weaknesses — so you have everything you need to know in one place.

Azamara Club Cruises

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Size: Small
Cost: Moderate
Style: Couples, luxury
Activity Highlights: Cruises to locales in the Far East and South America feature lots of long 2- to 3-day stays so you get an in-depth look. 
Food Highlights: No end-of-cruise surprises — fares include alcohol, as well as soft drinks and tips.
Low Points: Homogenous passenger profile means you’ll be cruising with an active but older crowd.


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Carnival Cruise Line

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Size: Large
Cost: Low
Style: Party, couples, family
Activity Highlights: Some ships may quiet down before midnight, but nightlife on these vessels lasts into the morning. Drop-off kid programming starts at age 2 (most start at 3), allowing parents to take a night off.
Food Highlights: We love the 24-hour pizza and (on some ships) the Indian food in the buffet Lido deck restaurants and the new (complimentary) burgers by Food Network’s Guy Fieri.
Low Points: These ships are loud (décor-wise and in terms of volume) and lack learning opportunities.


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Celebrity Cruises

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Size: Large
Cost: Moderate
Style: Couples, family, learning​
Activity Highlights: Edgy offerings include art tours using iPad devices, Apple stores, and outdoor lawns (covered with real grass) for picnics. Spas are both large and well-designed. 
Food Highlights: Chic bars serve molecular gastronomy cocktails. Specialty restaurants include creative Qsine, which serves sushi pops and has menus on iPad devices.
Low Points: Lots of things cost extra, from the spa’s Thalassotherapy pool and steam room to Lawn Club cabanas and some classes.


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Costa Cruises  

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Size: Medium, large
Cost: Low
Style: Couples, party, family
Activity Highlights: International passenger mix adds flavor to the cruise experience. Lively audience participation includes contests and costume parties, creating a fun atmosphere.
Food Highlights: A focus on Italian food the way real Italians like it: thin-crust pizza without excessive sauce and cheese, and pasta tossed in rich sauces.
Low Points: Announcements in multiple languages can get long and tedious.


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Cunard Line  

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Size: Large
Cost: Moderate
Style: Couples, learning, family​
Activity Highlights: Great lectures, the biggest libraries at sea, and impressive art and memorabilia collections make the ships as much of a learning opportunity as the destinations. The drop-off nursery for babies is a surprising perk on ships otherwise popular with older cruisers.
Food Highlights: Afternoon tea includes scones with proper clotted cream. The grand 2-story main dining rooms are the most elegant grand restaurants at sea.
Low Points: Nightlife can be a real yawner; no one seems to stay up past 10 pm.


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Disney Cruise Line

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Size: Large
Cost: Moderate, expensive
Style: Family​
Activity Highlights: Amazing kids' facilities and large cabins make traveling with the whole brood a breeze; high-quality stage productions blow us away. Calling in Castaway Cay, the line’s private isle is like visiting a resort for the day.
Food Highlights: Rotating dining program lets you take your waiters with you; Disney Dream and Disney Fantasy win over adult foodies with the upscale French restaurant, Remy.
Low Points: High rollers may miss not having a casino onboard. On sold-out cruises, the packed pool deck is a mob scene, with kids elbow to elbow in the water.


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Holland America Line 

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Size: Medium
Cost: Low, moderate
Style: Couples, family, learning
Activity Highlights: Extras include free movies in a real theater, impressive cooking classes, and the best combination Internet café/onboard library at sea.
Food Highlights: Look for free canapés in bars before dinner. Poolside lunch buffets (mussels and crab legs!) are impressive at this price point.
Low Points: Sleepy nightlife means you might be hanging with the staff after dinner since other guests go to bed early.


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MSC Cruises

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Size: Medium, large
Cost: Low
Style: Couples, party, family​
Activity Highlights: Low fares are sometimes shockingly low ($399 per person per week?). Kids under age 11 always sail free in the same cabin with their parents. Med cruises are offered year-round, so you can visit in the less crowded off-season. 
Food Highlights: Dining options include an Italian venue with a slow-food ethos, where you can sample locally sourced and produced food.
Low Points: The international passenger mix means there isn’t always the community feeling you get on other lines, since people speak different languages.


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Norwegian Cruise Line 

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Size: Large
Cost: Low
Style: Couples, party, family
Activity Highlights: Edgy entertainment includes improvisational comedy and family-friendly Blue Man Group shows. Nickelodeon characters (think Dora and Sponge Bob) delight little ones, while everyone else has a go at water slides and the trampoline. Studio cabins wow singles.
Food Highlights: Open-seating specialty dining options number 10+ on most ships and include a Brazilian steakhouse and Chinese noodle bar, and Ocean Blue gets rave reviews on Norwegian Breakaway.
Low Points: Standard cabins are among the smallest at sea.


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Oceania Cruises

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Size: Small, medium
Cost: Expensive
Style: Couples, luxury
Activity Highlights: Standard outside and balcony cabins on the newest ships, Marina and Riviera, are super roomy. Design is elegant (picture boutique hotels rather than Las Vegas casinos). Cooking schools include plenty of do-it-yourself workstations. 
Food Highlights: Newer ships have a whopping 9 dining venues (unheard of for ships of their modest size). Seven are complimentary, and all have lots of tables for 2. Jacques Pepin’s restaurant is sure to impress. Soft drinks and water are included. 
Low Points: Nightlife sometimes peters out before it even gets dark.


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Princess Cruises

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Size: Large
Cost: Moderate
Style: Couples, family
Activity Highlights: Outdoor spaces include wraparound promenade decks (perfect for jogging) and an adults-only sunbathing area. 
Food Highlights: You’ll find excellent buffet spreads at breakfast, lunch, and dinner; pizza made from scratch is offered by the slice poolside and in pies in (complimentary) Alfredo’s restaurant.
Low Points: The tiered balcony design on half the fleet means you can peek at your neighbors below — so much for privacy. The glass-bottomed SeaWalk that juts over the edge of the new Royal Princess is less of a thrill than it sounds.


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Regent Seven Seas Cruises  

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Size: Small
Cost: Expensive
Style: Couples, luxury, learning
Activity Highlights: All-inclusive fares set an industry standard, covering shore excursions, flights, airport transfers, and a free pre-cruise hotel night. Formal nights are optional, creating a more laid-back vibe. Even standard suites are large.
Food Highlights: The 4 to 5 complimentary restaurants include a steakhouse and an Italian venue. All-inclusive alcohol includes a bar set up in your cabin.
Low Points: There can be a lot of families on summer and holiday cruises, resulting in 100+ kids on small ships not built for them. The result: packed pools.


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Royal Caribbean International

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Size: Large
Cost: Low
Style: Couples, party, family
Activity Highlights: Climbing walls, ice skating rinks, zip lines, and bumper cars keep kids and grown-ups alike busy. Broadway productions include “Chicago,” “Saturday Night Fever,” and “Hairspray.”
Food Highlights: Johnny Rockets diner is well worth the $4.95 cover charge — for the food and the relatively intimate surroundings.
Low Points: Cabins are tight, especially on the older ships; food in main dining rooms can be underwhelming.


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Seabourn Cruise Line

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Size: Small
Cost: Expensive
Style: Couples, luxury, learning
Activity Highlights: Optional formal nights mean you don’t have to wear a jacket and tie, and all-inclusive pricing means you don’t have to sign a check every time you have a drink. 
Food Highlights: Gourmet dining includes the impressive Restaurant 2, serving small plates over many courses. The fresh fruit smoothies and sherbet are refreshing and healthy.
Low Points: Passengers are homogenous; don’t expect to meet anyone who isn’t wealthy, well-traveled, and older. 


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SeaDream Yacht Club

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Size: Small
Cost: Expensive
Style: Couples, luxury
Activity Highlights: Adult toys range from mountain bikes to Wii consoles, keeping the vibe playful. The water sports platform offers easy access to kayaking, sailing, water scootering, and more. Pricing is all-inclusive, and service is over the top: 95 crew cater to 112 guests, an impressive ratio. 
Food Highlights: The Champagne and caviar beach parties are the elegant, adult version of a fun college party. Diverse menus in the 2 restaurants include Japanese, raw food, and pan-Asian dishes.
Low Points: You won’t find one balcony, not even in penthouse suites.


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Silversea Cruises

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Size: Small
Cost: Expensive
Style: Couples, luxury, learning
Activity Highlights: Lots of 7-night cruise options around the world, plus Galapagos cruises offered year-round, give luxury seekers choices. Walk-in closets, marble-clad bathrooms with separate shower and tub, Belgian pillow chocolates, and Pratesi linens are included in the (all-inclusive) pricing.
Food Highlights: Impressive cuisine includes a pan-Asian restaurant and an art deco-style supper club serving small plate dishes on Silver Spirit.
Low Points: The lines’ longer cruises attract an older clientele, which tends to retire to bed early.


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Windstar Cruises  

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Size: Small
Cost: Moderate
Style: Couples, offbeat​
Activity Highlights: The wonderfully casual atmosphere includes sail-away sunset barbecues on deck, a no-jackets-required dress code, and a lively water sports platform. 
Food Highlights: Soft drinks and bottled water are included in fares, so you won’t feel nickeled and dimed.
Low Points: These yacht-style cruises are best for outdoorsy and casual types; others may miss some of the formalities.


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Join the discussion

Which cruise line is your favorite?


Posted by Cruzeworthy

If cruising with kids or teens (under 18), I would suggest Royal Caribbean, or pretty much any other line than Carnival. That is more of an adult-oriented drinking party ship. Loud booty music blaring pretty much everywhere, not a relaxing type of atmosphere. More for spring break partiers, if you are into that. If you want to be able to lay out on the deck with more room (not crowded like sardines) with an umbrella and relax, choose another cruise line.

Posted by CasualObserver

@firsttimefamily - Hi, I would suggest looking at Carnival Cruise Lines as your best option. CCL (and Disney) is probably the most family friendly line(s) - with enough activities to keep both adults and children entertained while aboard.

Posted by CasualObserver

Mostly accurate (snapshot)assessment of shiplife across the lines here. Although, I would suggest that if discussing average base fares(not including additional costs -- ie. a la carte/electives etc.) -- If Princess is considered "Moderately" priced, I would suggest that Celebrity, HAL and perhaps RCCL are also in a similar price class. Cunard, Azamara and Windstar would be a noticeable step up in price from those three. Carnival, NCL, MSC and Costa are the only lines listed here that I would suggest being fit for the "budget" tag.

Posted by firsttimefamily

Planning a first time cruise for the whole family. 8 adults and 4 kids (2, 6, 9,9). What is the best budget friendly cruise line? We want visit the Bahamas and stay 5-7 nights. We want to leave January 2016.

Posted by jrl

First time cruise. Father and age 16 daughter. Spring break. April 12-/ 7-8 days. suggestions would be???

Posted by DancingCats

I'm a solo female traveler who enjoys longer (14+) cruises and sea days, not big on late night party atmosphere. I enjoy learning things, group activities, performances (rather than comics), and especially meeting people. Being retired, I need to keep the cost moderate to low. Have primarily kept to Holland America's smaller ships where it is easier to run across the same folks so you get to know some. Any other suggestions for me?

Posted by PaulGS

Too much attention to nightlife and not enough on shore excursions and their costs as well as extra costs such as WiFi, port charges, taxes, laundry, gratuities, and other "Extra charges). You also forgot Viking cruises.

Posted by Hedgeley

Where's Viking?

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