Think all cruises are alike? Not only do ships come in all shapes and sizes — from 110-passenger sailing vessels to 5,000-passenger megaships — but the cruise experience can differ dramatically from one destination to the next. Here’s how to find the cruise that’s right for you.
I’ve enjoyed cruise vacations for more than 20 years — on sailing yachts so small I felt at one with the sea and megaships so large I hardly knew I was afloat. I appreciate the expediency of being able to visit several fascinating places in a single week while only having to unpack once. Cruises are also a great way to explore remote destinations like Antarctica from the comfort of what’s basically a floating hotel.
The cruise experience varies greatly among vessels and ports, so there really is something for everyone. I’ve even converted friends who never thought of themselves as “cruise people” into true enthusiasts. But with so many options available, the key to a successful cruise is booking the right one.
Find the right itinerary.
Most of us have a travel style, and we choose destinations accordingly. Cruising is no different. After circling the globe on ships, I’ve learned I prefer itineraries that offer a mix of culture and adventure. But there are several kinds of cruises to choose from.
Fun in the Sun:
Tropical itineraries are extremely popular, and cruise lines send many of their ships to sunny destinations like the Caribbean, Mexico and Hawaii. These cruises are great for travelers looking to relax, spend time on beaches, snorkel or check out islands for a potential future resort stay. They also tend to be among the most affordable options, as even luxury lines offer some of their lowest fares on tropical sailings.
Cruising in Europe is entirely different. Whether you sail the Mediterranean (to visit cities like Barcelona or islands like Sicily), the Adriatic (to see Venice, Dubrovnik and other culture-rich ports), the Baltic (to call on Scandinavian capitals as well as historic St. Petersburg) or the Aegean (for a Greek Isles odyssey), the experience is bound to be culturally enriching — but at a demanding pace. You’ll do a lot of touring and walking, so look for an itinerary that includes one or two days at sea to allow yourself some rest time. European cruises also tend to be higher priced, but there are usually great deals on sailings at the beginning (April-May) and end (September-October) of the season
Outdoors enthusiasts can find plenty of excitement during a cruise: heli-hiking on glaciers in Alaska, close encounters with indigenous wildlife in the Galapagos, landings at international research stations in Antarctica and Northern Lights sightings in the Arctic. Known as expedition cruising, most of these itineraries don’t come cheap, though Inside Passage itineraries in Alaska can be the exception. All in all, they provide access to places that are otherwise difficult to visit any other way.
Long-distance locales can also be explored via ship — including islands in the South Pacific (Bora Bora and Fiji) or the Indian Ocean (Bali and the Seychelles), and even Australia, New Zealand and Asia. Some cruise lines offer itineraries focused on an entire country.
While these are the most common itinerary types, you may find other possibilities as well. You’ll get the best value on an 11- to 16-day repositioning cruise (when ships are moved from Europe to the Caribbean in fall and back the other way in the spring), although most days are spent at sea.
The state rooms on cruise ships are compact, so pack for your cruise accordingly.
Choose the right ship.
Once you know where you want to go, your next step is finding the right vessel. You can go big, small or anywhere in between — just keep in mind that a ship’s size generally correlates with its onboard ambience. But ships of every size offer a range of prices, experiences and quality.
My personal preference is midsize ships, but some cruisers love the myriad options aboard mega ships, including multiple pools and hot tubs, dozens of bars and restaurants and several entertainment venues. Other travelers crave the service and intimate camaraderie of smaller vessels.
Before you book, look into when a ship was last refurbished. Cruise lines spend millions of dollars annually to update older vessels with features matching the newer ones, and a recently renovated older ship can offer both great value and a comfortable cruise experience.
The major cruise lines have large ships accommodating 1,500 to 5,000 or more passengers, and each line has its own personality. Travelers who love the vivacity of Las Vegas may consider Royal Caribbean or Norwegian Cruise Line, both known for nightlife and entertainment. Princess Cruises and Holland America Line focus more on food and culture, and Celebrity bridges the gap between fancy and fun.
Vessels accommodating 700 to 1,500 passengers are the hallmark of cruise lines such as Viking Ocean Cruises, Azamara Club Cruises, Oceania Cruises and others (though Holland America Line also has a few ships in this class). They’re large enough to offer dining and entertainment diversity, but not too big as to feel overwhelming. With the exception of Holland America sailings, you’ll pay a premium for these cruises.
These boats, which accommodate just 110 to 700 passengers, offer an entirely different cruise experience. The ships you’ll sail with Seabourn Cruise Line, Silversea Cruises and Ponant are like floating boutique hotels complete with upscale amenities and a typically adults-only ambience — all of which is reflected in their high fares. Priced a bit lower, Windstar Cruises offer itineraries on both motor yachts and sailing ships. Star Clippers, with its trio of tall-masted schooners, is the most casual option.
Now that you have the crucial info, all that’s left is to imagine yourself on deck — bon voyage cocktail in hand — embarking on an adventure to discover new places and revisit old favorites. Maybe I’ll see you onboard.
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