How to Pick the Best Cruise for You
With cruises, your choice of a ship can make or break the vacation. But many times that decision has as much to do with who you are as a person—and who you will be traveling with—as it does with any particular boat or cruise line’s perks or quirks. So here’s a cheat list for various types of cruisers and the lines that best suit them.
Children tend to love cruises, but some lines cater to them better than others—and a few won’t allow them on at all. The big name in family cruising, not surprisingly, is Disney and it does a superb job, hosting state-of-the-art kids' clubs and a rare splash area for toddlers. Any baby still in a diaper, even a swim diaper, isn’t allowed in swimming pools for health reasons on any cruise ship, so Disney’s run-around fountain area is an elegant solution to a very real problem for parents. Close runners-up, at least for kids over 3, would be Carnival and Royal Caribbean.
It’s important to note that no cruiseline except Europe's Costa Cruises accepts babies younger than 6 months of age on board, and some set the limit at 1 year. And if you’re considering a luxury cruise or expedition ship, know that many don’t allow children under the age of 14.
Those traveling alone get hit with a single supplement that can double the cost of a cruise on most vacations. The big exception are the new builds of Norwegian Cruise Line, all of which contain compact but comfortable and affordable studio cabins. (Pictured: the groovy hallways serving these solo digs.) In recent years, Cunard Line has added some one-person cabins, as has Royal Caribbean, Holland America and Costa, but none of these lines have the volume of solo cabins that NCL does (nor have they replicated the very attractive lounge that abut the studio cabins, allowing single travelers to mingle at their own bar).
With numbers there can be savings—or at least perks. Crystal Cruises offers free passage to the 11th person in a group; Carnival Cruise Line and Costa Cruises offer free fares to the 15th passenger. Other lines offer a free upgrade for the leader of a group instead, and many provide onboard credits to everyone in the group. And you’ll want to book as a group so that your reservations can be linked, allowing you to dine together and (if you want) have cabins in the same area of the ship.
By federal law, all cruise ships that ply American waters must comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. That has meant that all of the mainstream lines offer accessible cabins, wide enough to admit wheelchairs and fitted with appropriate shower facilities. Problem is, many able-bodied passengers have discovered that booking an accessible cabin gets them more space for no uptick in price, so they tend to get booked early. It’s also important to find out whether the ship you choose will visit any ports where passengers must be tendered (ride in a smaller boat) to shore. Sometimes these tenders are not wheelchair accessible, meaning you could be stuck on the ship during one of those days.
Weddings are big business for the cruise lines, but not every captain has the legal ability to perform the ceremony. The reason? Cruise lines flag their fleets in different areas of the world, usually as a shelter against taxes. Some of these countries allow captains to officiate weddings, others do not. To take the guesswork out of all this, know that captains on Azamara Club Cruises, Celebrity Cruises, Cunard Line, and Princess Cruises all can legally marry couples. With the other lines, you'll likely have to plan an onshore wedding, which sometimes is a more rushed affair, depending on how many hours you'll be spending in port.
Pursuing your passions (and hobbies) while on vacation can make that holiday much more fun. Cruise lines know this, and so a number are creating "specialty" cruises, partnering with outside companies to do so. That might mean a heavy metal music cruise with performances by people you admire; a bridge tournament sailing; or a cruise for people interested in scrapbooking, politics, or cooking. The types of specialty cruises seem to grow each month. For a good roundup of what’s available in the coming months, go to www.themecruisefinder.com.
On some ships the decks metaphorically roll up after dinner. This tends to be the case on the smaller, luxury lines; and on ships that tend to attract an older demographic (we're looking at you Holland America). So if you're the type who likes to party 'til dawn and needs a midnight buffet, consider Norwegian Cruise Lines, Carnival Cruise Lines, MSC, or Royal Caribbean. All of these have a livelier nightlife scene. On the river cruise front, Scenic Cruises, which books a lot of Australians, has the best nightlife options.
If you don’t care to get dressed up, then select a less formal cruise such as those offered by many of the small ships, or select larger ships as Norwegian Cruise Line and Oceania Cruises, which do not have official formal nights. If, on the other hand, having the chance to put on your finery appeals to you, select Celebrity, Regent Seven Seas, Cunard, or Holland America (and, to a lesser extent, mass-market lines such as Royal Caribbean and Carnival). Posh lines such as Crystal and Silversea will also have tux-worthy occasions