All About Cruises: How to Pick a Cruise Line
Everyone is always asking me how I’m able to see so many places around the world… It’s a simple answer: cruises.
I love cruises. ‘Traveling’ to many places tends to be equated with ‘hassle’, leaving many likely to pick one place and stay there rather than travel around to more than one destination. But with cruising, this hassle disappears. From the second you arrive onboard- you unpack once, and then your hotel moves… you don’t. You have a “home” on board, and your ship will take you wherever you want to go, and often to destinations you never would have thought of (one of my favorite cruise destinations I’ve ever been to was Estonia! What an awesome surprise!). You’ll go to bed with the world floating by and wake up to a new destination every day. Is there anything better than that?? On a cruise, your hotel (more like float-el) is your transportation… leaving you to enjoy the perks of experiencing a sampler of many different ports all while enjoying onboard luxury that rivals, if not exceeds, any hotel.
The thing about cruising, however, is that people tend to be pretty polarized about it. I’ve heard many people brush off the idea of cruising by saying something to the extent of “oh cruises aren’t my thing”– often because they’ve been on (or heard horror stories of) one of the lesser cruise lines, which equates to saying “I don’t like hotels” after staying at the Motel 6 and never having experienced the Four Seasons. Which brings me to my first point:
The Cruise Line is Everything
I have personally been on Windstar, Oceania, Princess, Royal Caribbean, Celebrity, Norwegian & Carnival cruise lines and there are many more I am dying to try. I also traveled on Semester at Sea, a college study abroad ship program, for 5 months, so I can proudly say I’ve actually lived at sea. Using my own experiences along with countless other travel outlet’s rankings and detailed analyses on top cruise lines, I’ve created my tiers of cruise lines into the infographic at the top.
So, which cruise is right for you?
Crystal: Crystal Cruises exemplifies luxury on a large-ship scale. Boasting one of the industry’s highest passenger-to-staff and passenger-to-space ratios and, as such, one of the most loyal repeat customer bases in the business. With the largest ships in the luxury class, Crystal has more options in terms of entertainment, socializing, casinos, spas, fitness facilities and on board activities than on most of it’s smaller luxury counterparts. Crystal has paved the path for onboard innovations such as boutique restaurants at sea (Some of Crystal’s onboard restaurants offer carefully crafted menus of famed chef Nobu Matsuhisa) and has attracted more families over the years through improving their kids programs, all while faithfully keeping with cornerstone cruise traditions like elegant afternoon tea, paddle tennis, casinos, activities like bingo, putt putt, and napkin folding. Longer, more exotic cruises on Crystal attract a 55-plus crowd, but Crystal has developed a reputation as the multi-generational family cruise line of choice for wealthy travelers, particularly in their Alaskan and Caribbean itineraries. People onboard Crystal tend to dress up, particularly on formal nights, but even sticking to an “elegant casual” attire during the day.
Silversea: Silversea is the luxury cruise line that I am dying to try. It is an all-suite, all-inclusive luxury line that creates an upscale yet casual atmosphere for travelers and features creative itineraries mixing exotic locales with mainstream ports and cities. What people love about Silversea tends to be the all-inclusive policy, covering gratuities and unlimited beverages, wine, liquor, beer and soft drinks, as well as the stellar service onboard. Like with most of the luxury cruise lines, you won’t find yourself ever having to wait in line for anything or lift a finger, really. Silversea passengers tend to be affluent and then some. They are heavily skewed toward professional types and are generally (like with most luxury cruises) somewhat older than those found on larger, mainstream ships.
Regent: Regent, like Silversea, offers a uniquely inclusive plan that covers everything from the cruise price to pre- and post-cruise tours and hotel stays, gratuities, shore excursions and beverages from liquor to sodas. The onboard experience tends to be very familial, as passengers travel together through these complimentary tours and bond with each other, creating a friendly and social ambiance on board. The ages of people on board tend to match up to the itineraries, so seven-night mediterranean voyages attract a slightly younger, more active crowd, while lengthier cruises appeal more to their core audience of well-seasoned traveler retirees.
Azamara: Azamara has two beautiful ships that hold less than 700 passengers, offering an incredible blend of on-board amenities (multiple open-seating dining venues, a casino, a big fitness facility, etc). Yet the ships are still small enough to feel quaint. They often will create itineraries with overnight stays in certain ports, allowing a more immersive experience than many other lines.
Oceania: Oceania is tied with Windstar as my favorite cruise line that I’ve ever been on. There is a lot to love about Oceania. One of the most standout things about the cruise line is that the food is top notch. Oceania has hands down the best food of any cruise line I’ve ever experienced. One of their best features is their complimentary “specialty” restaurants on each ship that you can make reservations at, including the Polo Grill Steakhouse, where you can spoil yourself with perfectly seasoned steaks paired with a great bottle of red wine and all of the delicious steakhouse sides and fixins. Or my favorite, the Toscana Italian Restaurant, which boasts everything from melt-in-your-mouth homemade pastas to 20 different varietals of italian olive oil and fresh baked bread that will have you dreaming of Toscana’s food for months, or in my case, years after you return home. Besides the specialty restaurants, the dining room and the buffet are also all top notch. And, if that’s not enough five-star food for you, they also have a poolside grill that whips up everything from fresh burgers and chicken filets to delicious salads and french fries. Is your mouth watering yet?
Oceania also has incredible service. Their ships are on the smaller side (as all of the elite tier ships are), which allows them access to smaller and more elite ports that often only yachts can reach. They have just enough entertainment that you feel like you can keep busy when you’re not in port. One of my favorite on-board activities was their cooking-class-at-sea, which is a full cooking class kitchen available on a couple of their newer ships.
Windstar: Having just gotten off my first (and surely not my last!) Windstar cruise, it’s hard to imagine a more perfect vacation. Ranked as the World’s Best Small Ship Cruise Line by CondeNast, Windstar’s fleet of ships includes three sailing yachts and three yachts. These yachts often visit ports of call inaccessible to traditional big cruise ships and offer the benefits of a cruise without losing the exclusive feeling of being on a private yacht. The sailing ships, in particular, are some of the most beautiful and romantic ships on the sea. The food was fantastic, and the service was unbeatable. with only 115 guests and 150 crew, the crew knew us by the first day. The crew were familial with each other as well as with the guests, always accessible, proactive and jovial. They really made the experience. Windstar also features an amazing water sport platform off the back of their yacht when they are anchored, featuring kayaks, water trampolines and other water activities for you to do in port. It’s SO much fun. I also LOVE that they do an outdoor barbecue on each of their cruises, beautifully set at sea with the ship anchored for a couple hours. We had fresh lobster tails and steak and paella and sangria and danced to live music under the setting sun. It was one of the many highlights of the trip.
Cunard: Cunard cruises embodies big-ship luxury with a golden era feel. Cunard’s fleet, consisting of Queen Mary 2, Queen Victoria, and Queen Elizabeth ships, capitalize on Cunard’s rich tradition in the cruising industry and epitomize high-class luxury. In fact, one of Cunard’s most famous traditions is that the passengers in the best and most expensive cabins dine in the exclusive “Queens Grill” and “Princess Grill” restaurants. They also have access to a shared lounge and outer deck area, where they can dine al fresco. Not to worry if you’re more “Jack” than “Rose” though, there is still the two-deck high Brittania restaurant, the Lido Buffet, and a veranda restaurant open to everyone, as well as a British pub on board!
Disney: The Disney branch of cruise ships had big shoes to fill, with many people expecting the trademarked incredible Disneyland experience at sea, and Disney cruises does not disappoint. If their slogan isn’t already “The happiest place at sea”, it should be. A floating paradise for families, the main pool areas on all four of their ships are geared toward families; there’s a pool for younger kids with a 200-ft. Mickey water-slide, and a small sprinkler tub for toddlers. An adults-only pool exists as well on Magic and Wonder, and on Dream and Fantasy ships, the grown-up area encompasses several decks and bars. Dream and Fantasy truly create a waterpark-at-sea with AquaDuck, the first-ever watercoaster on a cruise ship. Clearly visible atop the ship, the coaster propels riders along on a raft up and down four decks of the ship — at one point swinging out 13 feet off the side, 150 feet above the ocean!
Royal Caribbean: Royal Caribbean has one of cruising’s most famous, and most over-the-top fleets. Ships range from mid-sized to state-of-the-art mega-ships. The line has the two biggest ships in the world — Oasis of the Seas and Allure of the Seas, with the newest & biggest Harmony of the Seas debuting in 2016. The line famously brings innovative activities to sea, including indoor skydiving, bumper cars, surf simulators, circus school, and rock climbing walls that are sure to keep your family busy. We used to go on Royal Caribbean ships as a family, and I can tell you, from experience, that these are very fun trips for kids. While not gourmet, Royal Caribbean’s food is usually good enough to please most of their passengers. Most of th eships offer the choice of a fixed dining schedule or flexible dining for dinner, with open seating for breakfast and lunch. Royal Caribbean’s, as well as Princess’s, ships definitely cater to families and a younger set than other cruise lines.
Princess: I am a huge fan of Princess. Princess Cruises are a wonderful option for travelers of any age. Their ships feature expansive facilities, from their spacious spas and fitness facilities to their amazing kids club that serves ages 3 to 17, and their quality entertainment venues from casinos to discos and nightclubs. Princess’s food is good for their tier, offering a mix of culinary themes and different specialty restaurants varying by ship class. Dining and entertainment aside, Princess’s flagship ship may be most famous for being the setting of the Love Boat series in 1977. Princess’s ships range from midsize to mega-ship but all uphold a sophisticated ambiance that you don’t see on every cruise line.
Celebrity’s fleet of ships sails seasonally up the East and West coasts, around the Caribbean, Europe and South America, with year-round itineraries in the Galapagos Islands. Cabins are exceptional and the varied onboard activities ensure there is something for everyone. I did a Celebrity cruise through the Panama Canal and up until recently it was my favorite cruise we had done. Celebrity is great for families with great on-board kids programs that keep your kids occupied without the overall ship feeling overly kid-centered.
On NCL’s newest ships, they offer a large number of amenities ranging from luxury villas to martini and champagne bars to interconnecting cabins, onboard bowling alleys and electronic restaurant reservation systems. Norwegian also often features aggressive discounts, past initiatives including $99 kids’ fares and even cruises as low as $25 a night before taxes. The ships attract a diverse crowd- primarily American ranging in age from young families to older retirees as well as cruisers with disabilities.
“The fun ships”, Carnival cruises are all about just that- Fun. Offering great value for the money, these ships attract a younger crowd, everyone from spring breaking collegiates to families, and everyone in between. Carnival, headquartered in Miami, is the world’s largest cruise line and has gotten a bad rap in recent years due to incidents on cruises with engine fires as well as sewage problems. As much fun as I had on my spring break Carnival cruise in college, most of us agreed that we would not be returning on a Carnival cruise. Although “fun” is number one for these ships, service, food, and even technical standards seem to take a backseat as a result. I’m not saying you can’t have a good trip on a carnival cruise, because I’m a firm believer that anyone can have a great time on a cruise, but I would personally steer friends away from this cruise line.
Cruises Have Something for Everyone
My love affair with cruises began when I was a kid going on them with my family, from a young age, my parents realized that this was the way to travel with their kids. Everyone had constant entertainment on the ship, with kids’ clubs for me and my brother, comedy shows and poolside entertainment for my parents, great unlimited food, a friendly crew, and a beautiful view of the ocean horizon. It allowed us all to have our own activities and “me time” while on vacation, but always ended the night with family time at dinner. The thing about cruises is they really have something for everyone, whether you’re a young family with priorities of keeping your kids occupied while you rest by the pool, or you’re a young honeymooning couple with priorities of romance and relaxation, or a group of friends looking to see a lot of places while having a “home base” on board, or you’re a retired couple looking for comfort and great service while seeing the world.
Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor in Chief of CruiseCritic.com has said “What we’ve seen in the last 15 years has been that cruising has really evolved and revolutionized and become much more young and spirited and recreationally oriented.” While cruises used to be geared toward a post-retirement set (and some lines still are), they are increasingly appealing to a younger, more active set of travelers.
Every traveler is different, and cruises are evolving with the evolving mix of travelers. Some travelers want options and organized excursions to choose from so that all they have to do is sign up and the rest is done for them. But there are also travelers that like to be able to step off the dock in a new country and explore it on their own. Some cruisers want entertainment and shows, some want more exclusive events like a relaxing sunset sail barbecue, but aren’t fans of the more in-your-face entertainment. The cruising industry is getting bigger and bigger every year, and with that, better and better. What some people fail to recognize though, is that these days there is a cruise line for every type of traveler. Your cruise is what you make of it!
The biggest misconceptions of cruises:
Misconception #1: Your vacation will be over-planned and over-scheduled
While some cruises will give a “schedule” of events that might misconstrue someone into thinking their vacation time will be planned for them, this is a mere catalog of activities to choose from, and there is no assumption that you will attend any of the events or shows at all! In fact, most cruises are moving away from “set” dinner times as well, allowing a more relaxed and flexible dinner experience so as to not make anyone feel as though their vacation time is being scripted for them.
In my most recent cruising experiences (on Oceania and Windstar), you were given a window of time you could eat breakfast lunch and dinner, with some spots being open all day for snacks and meals (like the poolside grill on Oceania, the yacht club cafe on Windstar as well as room service on both cruises!). This allowed total flexibility, and I never felt like I was in a rush if I was getting back late from a port, for example, but still wanted time to get dinner.
Misconception #2: “It’s going to feel overcrowded”
Cruises get a bad rap for small rooms and long lines. I will say that on board some of the bigger cruise ships, this is something you might experience. But, if this is a priority for you, you will never feel overcrowded on any of the elite ships. They are built as luxury yachts, with space at top-of-mind. On my Windstar yacht we only had 115 passengers (and 150 crew!!!), which felt so exclusive and private, it was absolutely amazing.
On the flip side, if you don’t mind crowds, some of the bigger cruise ships like Royal Carribbean have some VERY cool perks, like rock climbing walls, ice skating rinks, surf machines, ziplines, and even entire shopping malls. If you are looking more for a city-at-sea, than these can be really cool and fun travel experiences. I LOVED going on these big ships as a kid… sensory overload!
Let me know what you think about cruising! And get out there and try one if you haven’t already… The sunsets are impossible to beat. xo