The 9 best cruise lines for weddings

Know what to expect and the nuptials can be smooth sailing

There's good news for couples who want to get married in a beautiful location without the hassle of planning a formal, sit-down dinner for 300 of their closest friends. Many cruise lines now offer a variety of services to help you plan a shipboard or shoreside ceremony, which, of course, is combined with a romantic cruise honeymoon.

Planning a cruise wedding can be as easy as making one call. Just dial and, poof! In-house wedding coordinators will begin arranging the ceremony, menu, cake, flowers and music. Some will even help you to obtain wedding licenses or provide invitations and thank-you notes. And it's easy to let them handle all the extras from tuxedo rental to hair and spa appointments.

An onboard wedding can be a great value, as well. Prices start at about $795 (the sky's the limit) on top of the cost of the cruise. Typically, onboard weddings are held in a ship's chapel (if one exists), a lounge, the library or a boardroom. But the larger ships can offer offbeat ceremony locales aboard a carousel or on a rock-climbing wall. While the members of the wedding couple must be passengers on the cruise, most lines with full-service packages include an option for landside guests to come onboard for a couple of hours for the event.

Married folks can also get in on the fun with onboard vow-renewal ceremonies a perfect way to celebrate on your anniversary trip.

Caveats to consider
Weddings and vow renewals at sea can, indeed, be the ultimate in romance. But, before you book your cabin, remember these tips:

1. If you want to get married at sea by the captain, you're limited to only a handful of cruise lines, due to legal limitations that are based on ships' countries of registry. On the "can officiate" list are Celebrity Cruises and Azamara Club Cruises, whose ships are now registered in Malta. Princess Cruises' captains are also able to marry couples at sea; its ships are registered to Bermuda.

2. Several cruises lines have private islands for wedding or vow renewals. Disney Cruise Line captains can lead wedding ceremonies onboard or at Castaway Cay. However, because senior officers cannot perform legal ceremonies, the actual "legal" marriage (and paperwork signing) must occur in the cruise terminal before the ship leaves Port Canaveral not terribly romantic. Holland America conducts weddings and vow renewals at its private island, Half Moon Cay, during its Caribbean and Panama Canal cruises.

3. For the most part, it's the big-ship, mass-market cruise lines that have embraced full-service weddings. Some, Crystal Cruises and Cunard, don't allow onboard weddings (though Cunard does conduct vow renewal ceremonies). Others mostly in the high-priced luxury category like Seabourn don't have a problem with wedding or vow renewal plans, but they eschew packages, opting to provide customized amenities to these guests.

4. Weddings have become so popular on some ships that Carnival, Celebrity, Azamara, Holland America and Royal Caribbean levy surcharges for certain times of the year.

5. Cruise-ship weddings may not be for everyone. If you've always dreamed of picking out each flower yourself or getting married in your hometown in front of 300 people, you may not be happy with this simple approach. And, getting married legally while at sea is complicated, so plan to have your ceremony on the ship while it is in port, or plan well in advance.

6. Weddings in ports of call can be fabulous, but what happens if the ship has to cancel the call? Consider very carefully ports that require ships to tender; Grand Cayman, for instance, can be a highly unpredictable site, as winds often hamper tender operations, causing cruise ships to skip stops at the island. For the same reason, we do not recommend planning a shoreside wedding at a Caribbean locale during hurricane season (June through November).

7. And, while many brides start planning their dream nuptials a year to a year and a half in advance, don't jump the gun by planning land-based, post-cruise celebrations too early. Couples have been bumped from their wedding cruises due to full-ship charters after they booked forcing them to reschedule everything.

Check out our picks for the best cruise options for weddings.

Princess Cruises
Why? Princess is a prime choice because, of all the lines offering shipboard wedding options, it provides the best combination of features, services and facilities. Princess' Weddings at Sea packages are available on all ships, and most ships have dedicated wedding chapels. (The exceptions are Dawn Princess, Ocean Princess, Pacific Princess, Royal Princess, Sea Princess and Sun Princess.)

Package Details: Princess offers three wedding packages. The "Tie the Knot at Sea" package, for $1,800 plus a $450 license fee, includes use of the onboard wedding chapel, a candlelit ceremony officiated by the captain, use of a wedding coordinator, live music, two floral arrangements, a rose bouquet for the bride, groom's boutonniere, the services of a photographer and a selection of prints, wedding cake, Champagne and two keepsake flutes, and a keepsake wedding certificate. The "Tie the Knot Harborside" package ranging from $1,300 to $2,000, plus licensing fees up to $500, based on destination includes priority check-in and boarding for the couple and guests, an onboard wedding ceremony performed by a nondenominational officiant, a wedding coordinator, recorded music, silk floral arrangements, a bouquet and boutonniere, a photographer and one included print, wedding cake, Champagne and a keepsake certificate. The "Tie the Knot Ashore" package, ranging from $1,800 to $2,200, includes a beach or garden ceremony, transportation for the couple, an officiant, a wedding coordinator, a bouquet and boutonniere, a photographer and one included print, cake for two, Champagne and a keepsake certificate. Receptions, photography packages and enhanced ceremony options are available at extra cost.

Coolest Quirk: Not only can your ceremony be conducted at sea by the captain, but the line has also installed state-of-the-art technology that allows you to broadcast the ceremony live, via Webcam, to friends and family on land. Some Princess captains are pretty romantic; on one particular cruise over Valentine's Day, the captain casually announced he'd conduct vow renewals for anyone who wanted them, and about a half-dozen couples showed up.

Caveat: Depending on the destination, licensing fees can add an additional $500 to a "Tie the Knot Ashore" package.

Vow Renewals: Princess' "Renewal of Vows" package costs $220 per couple and includes a group ceremony, an orchid bouquet and boutonniere, a commemorative certificate signed by the captain, a bottle of Champagne, two souvenir Champagne glasses and a framed photo of the ceremony. The "Deluxe Renewal of Vows" package, at $495, adds a few extra amenities, such as breakfast in bed and a 25-minute massage or facial.

Celebrity Cruises/Azamara Club Cruises
Why? When Celebrity re-registered almost all of its ships in Malta, it became one of just two lines (Princess is the other) that can legally marry couples at sea. Couples can tie the knot on all of its ships (except Xpedition), as well as aboard Azamara's two ships.

Package Details: Celebrity and Azamara put brides and grooms in touch with "The Wedding Experience," a wedding planning organization that handles weddings onboard cruise ships (as well as destination weddings). The "Nautical Nuptials at Sea" package begins at $2,500 and includes a captain-led ceremony, an event coordinator's services, live music, one hour of photography (photographs sold separately), cake, Champagne, a bouquet and boutonniere, plus some additional romantic turndown amenities post-ceremony (see Coolest Quirk). Couples can also arrange shoreside and in-port shipboard weddings, presided over by an officiant rather than the captain. Both in-port shipboard weddings (starting at $2,195) and shoreside weddings (starting at $2,895) include all of the "Nautical Nuptials" features, except for the turndown services; shoreside ceremonies include transportation to the ceremony site.

Coolest Quirk: Couples who book the "Nautical Nuptials at Sea" package get some romantic extras, such as chocolate-covered strawberries, bottles of Champagne, Champagne flutes, his-and-hers robes, fresh in-room floral arrangements and rose petals on their beds on their wedding nights.

Caveat: Licensing and regulatory fees are not included. (A license for a wedding at sea is $700, for instance.) Also, the number of wedding ceremonies performed on each sailing is based on the captains' availability. A $100 surcharge is in effect for May, June, September and October weddings. Azamara and Celebrity recommend that couples book their wedding packages in advance to allow time for the processing of marriage licenses and legal documents; all legal documentation should be completed and submitted about 10 weeks prior to sailing.

Vow Renewals: Both Celebrity and Azamara offer vow-renewal packages. The "Aisle to Isle" option at $475 includes the services of a pre-cruise event manager, an officiant, recorded music, Champagne and cake for two, a certificate, a rose and matching boutonniere and one hour of photography services (photos sold separately). The $650 "True Love Knot Renewal" throws in some photos (including one signed by the captain), Champagne flutes, an upgrade to a bouquet and breakfast for two delivered to the stateroom.

Disney Cruise Line
Why? It's a fun and quirky choice particularly for second-wedding folks who have young kids and Disney offers a low-stress, low-hassle package.

Package Details: Disney's "Cruise Collection" wedding package is available on all cruises out of Florida. Packages start at $2,500 and include a Florida marriage license, bridal bouquet and boutonniere, the services of a wedding officiant, a solo musician (typically a pianist), Champagne toast, two-tier wedding cake with keepsake topper, a special wedding gift and Disney wedding certificate, an 8x10 color photo, $100 onboard credit for the wedding couple, in-cabin Champagne and strawberries, and dinner for two at Palo, the line's adults-only alternative restaurant, found on all Disney ships. The assistance of a wedding coordinator is also included.

Coolest Quirk: Dress-steaming is included in the package price. We love it, too, that you can opt for a ceremony on Castaway Cay, Disney's private island. (Packages start at $3,500, and an event there can accommodate up to 48 guests.) Just remember our advice about hurricane season.

Caveat: Beyond the cake and Champagne, Disney's wedding package does not include a reception or other services for wedding guests, though an appetizer/open bar reception is available at an additional cost. You can invite additional guests to your wedding ceremony, but events with more than 10 guests need to request special permission and incur an extra cost. Note that, if the couple is married onboard, the captain or a ship officer will preside over the ceremony. But, the legal marriage must take place on embarkation day, while the ship is still docked in Florida. If the marriage occurs on Castaway Cay, it's performed by a Bahamian official, but the couple will be legally married before the ship departs.

Vow Renewals: A renewal of vows package is available for $2,500 per couple for an onboard ceremony or $3,500 for one on Castaway Cay. It includes all the amenities of the wedding package for up to eight guests, except the marriage license.

Carnival Cruise Lines
Why? Carnival appeals to younger couples with its spirited ships and more affordable wedding package prices. Carnival Spirit, Carnival Pride, Carnival Legend and Carnival Miracle have onboard chapels, though you can buy Carnival's wedding packages on any of the ships in the fleet.

Package Details: Carnival offers three wedding packages. The "Just for the Bride & Groom" package starts at $1,195 and includes an official civil ceremony with a bouquet for the bride and a boutonniere for the groom, a Champagne toast with keepsake flutes, a wedding cake with cake topper, prerecorded wedding music, a decorated bridal aisle and a photographer. (Prints are extra.) The "Welcome Aboard" package costs $1,635 and includes all the aforementioned amenities, plus a cocktail hour with an open bar and hot and cold hors d'oeuvres, a traditional two-tiered wedding cake and coffee service. The "Deluxe Romance" package starts at $1,795 and includes all of the above, plus a 90-minute reception and an ice carving. Prices for packages and marriage licenses, which are extra, vary based on the port in which the ceremonies are performed. Videography services, live music and tuxedo rental are also additional. Shoreside packages are available in certain ports, such as Key West, San Juan, Grand Cayman and Barbados.

Coolest Quirk: We like the easy-to-use, free online gift registry that makes it easy for guests to contribute to a couple's destination wedding. It provides couples with a wedding Web site, blog, e-mail wizard, photo album and Facebook/Twitter uploaders.

Caveats: Plan ahead, if possible; weddings are available only when in port (including embarkation ports), and there's a maximum of three allowed per day. Additional surcharges apply for certain months May and June, in particular as well as holidays.

Vow Renewals: Carnival offers vow renewals, starting from $385, including a shipboard ceremony performed by the captain, a Champagne toast, flowers, wedding cake, photography services and recorded music; up to eight guests are permitted. A deluxe package, starting at $735, adds a one-hour reception with an open bar and hot and cold canaps; it allows up to 20 guests.

Norwegian Cruise Line
Why? NCL offers a vast array of options, which can turn basic packages into full-blown extravaganzas, and their ships feature a wide range of restaurants with easily available romantic dining for two.

Package Details: NCL offers two basic packages "Onboard Aisles" for shipboard weddings and "On Shore Aisles" for those held on land. Both packages are available in a wide range of ports in the U.S. (including Alaska and Hawaii), Canada, Mexico, Europe, the Caribbean and Bermuda.

"Onboard Aisles" starts at $1,650 per couple. The package includes a three-hour pre-wedding coordination meeting with the line's wedding planner; priority embarkation for the couple and their guests (if the wedding is on embarkation day); snacks and refreshments in the couple's stateroom upon embarkation; a ceremony, conducted by a local, civil official; prerecorded music; a basic bouquet and matching boutonniere with one bloom; a wedding cake; one bottle of private-label sparkling wine; and a keepsake certificate.

"On Shore Aisles" packages start from $2,300 for picturesque weddings in Barbados and go up from there for weddings in Florence, Rome or Venice, or in a colonial chapel in New Orleans. The package includes the same amenities as "Onboard Aisles," except for the priority boarding and in-cabin snacks. It also includes private taxi transportation for the bride and groom to the wedding location in port.

Marriage licenses are extra in all cases, and prices vary depending on local authorities.

In addition to the basic packages, there is a huge range of a la carte options, including spa and beauty services (not available on embarkation day), flowers (including custom orders), live music, photography and videography, transportation to and from the ship or wedding location, tuxedo rentals and a wide variety of wedding receptions from cold hors d'oeuvres with an open bar at $29 per adult to a full, sit-down luncheon for a minimum of 25 guests at $48 per person.

Coolest Quirk: Couples can add a conch shell aisle ($250 and up) or fresh rose arch ($700 and up) to shoreside ceremonies. They can also purchase "message in a bottle" invitations, customized message boards, wedding program fans and other extras.

Caveat: An extra wedding coordinator, at $150, is required for every 25 guests above the first 25.

Vow Renewals: The "Affirmation Aisles" vow renewal package starts from $550 and includes the same amenities as the "Onboard Aisles" package.

Royal Caribbean International
Why? Royal Caribbean's program rivals NCL's in terms of variety, with one extra: Its coordinators will arrange shoreside ceremonies at various ports of call. Royal Caribbean is also the first line to offer adventurous shipboard and destination weddings through a subprogram, Explorer Weddings. And, with Royal Caribbean's newest ships, there are cooler onboard sites for ceremonies.

Package Details: There are three avenues to Royal romance. The "Shipboard Duet Package," starting at about $1,995, is the most basic and includes a wedding coordinator, onboard ceremony with officiant, one hour of photography, recorded music, a bouquet and boutonniere, chocolate-covered strawberries and sparkling wine. The "Shipboard Harmony Package," from $2,295, allows for a few more extras, including a Champagne breakfast in bed and nicer flowers in the bride's bouquet. The third option is a shoreside wedding that includes transportation to the ceremony site and all the options of the Duet package. (Prices start at $2,395 but vary more widely, based on the shoreside wedding site.)

Receptions are not included in the price of the ceremonies, but several options are available. They include a formal wedding lunch at $48 per person, a buffet with bar service for $48 or hot and cold hors d'oeuvres and bar service for $32. There's a 25-person minimum for the lunch or buffet and a minimum of 16 and maximum of 50 guests for hors d'oeuvres. Other add-ons include entertainment, cake and ice carvings.

Booking an Explorer Wedding adds an adventure component by combining exotic-destination cruises with themed weddings or vow renewals. Swap nuptials, for example, on the FlowRider onboard surf simulator (onFreedom of the Seas, Liberty of the Seas, Independence of the Seas, Oasis of the Seas and Allure of the Seas), in the grand "Central Park" area or on the carousel aboard Allure and Oasis of the Seas, or on top of an Alaskan glacier, in a rainforest, midair in a hot-air balloon or in a medieval castle in port. Packages include the wedding ceremony and officiant, wedding coordinator, ceremony music, a bouquet and boutonniere, sparkling wine, chocolate-covered strawberries, a keepsake Explorer Weddings marriage certificate and use of a photographer. Onboard Explorer Weddings start at $300, plus the cost of one of the traditional onboard wedding packages. Shoreside Explorer Wedding packages start at $2,595.

Coolest Quirk: The aforementioned shoreside ceremonies, which run the gamut from simply scenic (a beach in San Juan, Puerto Rico) and funky (a winery in Santorini, Greece) to exotic (a ceremony atop a glacier in Juneau, Alaska). Plus, it offers the ability to arrange a ceremony in a memorable onboard location on the line's largest mega-ships.

Caveats: Watch out for a la carte charges that can add up. For instance, couples who want to plan a Royal Romance wedding less than 45 days from sailing pay an extra $250 late fee. You'll pay $150 for a wedding coordinator if you have an onboard reception, and wedding parties of more than 25 guests require an additional wedding coordinator for another $150. Weddings on Voyager-class, Freedom-class and Oasis-class ships (which have chapels) have become so popular that there is also a $100 surcharge for shipboard wedding ceremonies on those vessels. Beyond that, an additional $100 surcharge applies to weddings and vow renewals scheduled in May, June, September or October. Holidays such as New Year's Day, Valentine's Day, Easter, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Eve are subject to a $200 surcharge.

Vow Renewals: The "Royal Encore Shipboard Vow Renewal" package, at $595, includes a shipboard ceremony performed by your ship's Cruise Program Administrator, recorded ceremony music, bouquet and boutonniere, keepsake certificate, chocolate-covered strawberries, sparkling wine and use of a photographer. The "Labadee Shoreside Vow Renewal" package, for $695, includes a ceremony on secluded Dragon's Point Beach within Royal Caribbean's private playground on Haiti (cordoned off from the rest of the island), as well as the aforementioned sparkling wine, strawberries, flowers and certificate. Couples can also arrange a shoreside vow renewal ceremony on CocoCay, Bahamas Royal Caribbean's actual private island.

P&O Cruises
Why? Not all of P&O's ships cater to the same clientele and knowing who you're sailing with definitely comes in handy when planning an event as important as your wedding. Arcadia and Artemis are child-free (nobody under 16 allowed onboard), while Aurora, Azura, Oceana, Oriana and Ventura do allow children. The line's food and wine offerings have been revamped over the past two years, elevating the cuisine selections.

Package Details: Beginning at 699, the "Weddings at Sea" package includes the ceremony venue, ceremony conducted by the ship's captain, floral arrangements for the ceremony, music, certificate, Champagne, a professional photographer to capture the big day, an onboard wedding coordinator, invitations and thank-you notes. Brides and grooms receive V.I.P. treatment, starting with a bottle of Champagne, flowers and fresh fruit delivered to their cabins on embarkation day.

Coolest Quirk: You can book a shore excursion like a gondola ride in Venice or snorkeling in the Caribbean to personalize your day. (Keep in mind, though, that the cruise line cannot guarantee your request.)

Caveat: Licensing fees will cost an additional 249. Other services like the cake, wedding album, Champagne breakfast in bed, reception parties/dinner, videography, and spa and salon services are not included, and pricing is available upon request.

Vow Renewals: For 250 per couple, the "Vow Renewal" package includes a ceremony conducted by the captain, an iced celebration cake, a bouquet for the bride, a matching buttonhole for the groom, Champagne and a professional photographer during the ceremony. Gifts given to the couple are two Champagne flutes, a silver-plated frame, a photo of your choice and a certificate signed by the captain.

Holland America
Why? Holland America offers a variety of ships and itineraries worldwide, extra amenities when a minimum number of staterooms is booked and cool in-port offerings like on-site ceremonies at a glacier in Juneau. A focus on high-end culinary concepts appeals to food-focused guests, and a sophisticated clientele appeals to older couples. Almost all of Holland America's ships have dedicated chapels.

Package Details: Weddings for couples only (no guests) start at $795 for a simple onboard ceremony for two for North America and Caribbean sailings. That price includes priority check-in for the bride and groom, an on-site wedding coordinator, an officiant and a keepsake wedding certificate. The line also has three additional wedding packages with increasingly stepped-up amenities. The "Anchors Away Shipboard Wedding" package for $1,395 adds a bridal bouquet and matching boutonniere, a single-tier wedding cake, an elegant table with flowers and linens, a bottle of Champagne, photography services and one 8x10 photo, a commemorative photo album and recorded music. Shipboard weddings take place on the day of sailing, prior to departure in Fort Lauderdale, Tampa, Key West, Halifax, New York, San Diego, Seattle and Vancouver. In Key West and Halifax, the price is $1,695; in New York, the price goes up to $2,495. The "Rembrandt Shipboard Package" ($1,895) available in Fort Lauderdale, San Diego, Seattle and Vancouver offers all the amenities of the "Anchors Away" package, but it adds 10 5x7 photos and transportation for the bridal couple via chauffeured limo to the pier the morning of the wedding. And, the line's "Royal Dutch Deluxe Package" for $2,595 ups the offerings of the Rembrandt package with a more elaborate bridal bouquet, a bottle of premium Champagne, an additional 20 5x7 photos, a floral arrangement in the stateroom, chocolate-dipped strawberries and a bottle of Champagne at turndown and a 30-minute massage for two. The package is available in Fort Lauderdale, Seattle and Vancouver.

For those who want to wed on Holland America's private island in the Bahamas, Half Moon Cay, the $1,900 package includes a local Bahamian wedding officiant, the marriage license fee, a copy of the marriage license, a tropical bridal bouquet and matching groom boutonniere, chocolate-dipped strawberries set up on a table with linens and fresh flowers, a bottle of Champagne, recorded ceremony music, a photographer and one 8x10 photograph, a commemorative wedding album and a keepsake wedding certificate.

The line also offers packages for a variety of destination-based weddings in various ports-of call, including a two-hour event on Cockle Shell Beach in St. Kitts, starting at $2,150, or one atop a Juneau glacier for $2,975.

Coolest Quirk: The line offers special wedding extras when a minimum of eight staterooms is booked for a destination wedding through its Group Advantage Program. The bride and groom get a free stateroom upgrade and a commemorative wedding cake for 16 guests. The entire group gets lunch at Pinnacle Grill (Holland America's upscale alternative restaurant), a private wine tasting and chocolate-covered strawberries, plus a bottle of in-room Champagne. We also love the destination wedding options with packages for events atop a glacier in Juneau or among lush tropical foliage on a sacred pond in Hawaii.

Caveat: If more than eight nonsailing guests attend the onboard wedding, some form of reception must be booked. Weddings in Half Moon Cay are not available from September to mid-November. The line levies a $150 surcharge on package prices for sailings from December 24 to January 4 and February 11 to February 18. There's a $100 surcharge for weddings in May and June.

Vow Renewals: Holland America's Renewal of Vows package includes a corsage for the bride, invitations, a 10x7 candid photo sheet, dinner for two any night at the Pinnacle Grill and a post-ceremony celebration with music, Champagne, wine and hors d'oeuvres. The cost is $114 per couple and $12.50 per guest (for celebration only).

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