How to Pick a Cruise Line

--by Erica Silverstein, Cruise Critic

Sitting down to pick the right cruise for your next vacation is like going to a speed-dating event. You can't take all day getting to know someone, but you need to figure out whether your personalities match. In cruise parlance, that translates to the fact there are tons of lines from which to choose -- but who's got the time to winnow out the mismatches? While cruise lines try to persuade travelers they can offer an all-things-to-all-people onboard experience, we're increasingly seeing them carve out distinctive lifestyle niches. Celebrity is aiming at the spa and gourmet traveler, Carnival's focusing on mass-appeal food and entertainment, and Royal Caribbean is targeting active families.

Still, picking the perfect ship -- like choosing the perfect love match -- is tricky. Even if cruise lines seem similar at first, they all have their own perks and quirks. And even the same line can offer different experiences based on the age and size of a ship and the destination and time of year you're sailing.

Which line best matches your personality? Here's a cheat sheet to get you started. We recommend having a frank discussion with a travel professional who is knowledgeable about all of the cruise options. Truly there is no substitute for someone who can navigate the myriad choices and match them up with you particular interests and needs.

It is important to note that the same cruise can be a different experience for different people. For example, a couple sailing aboard Royal Caribbean’s mega-ship Oasis of the Seas (or her sister ship, Allure of the Seas) might choose late nights, sleeping in, exercising, dancing and dining in the specialty restaurants, while a family on board might choose totally different experiences and activities. At the end of the cruise, everyone has enjoyed themselves and is satisfied with their vacation, but for completely different reasons.

Best to consider for Romance --------------------------

Windstar: Nothing says romance like a sunset sailaway … complete with billowing sails. Windstar's fleet of three intimate motor-sail-yachts offer luxurious touches (like L'Occitane toiletries and high thread-count bedding, personal service and fine dining) and port-intensive itineraries in honeymoon-worthy destinations in the Caribbean and Europe.

Paul Gauguin Cruises: The line's namesake ship sails in the idyllic South Pacific year-round. It's a favorite for romantic getaways, honeymoons and anniversary celebrations, perhaps due to itineraries stopping in remote islands and offering plenty of time to splash about in bathing suits or lie in the tropical sun. A second ship brings the romance to Europe and Caribbean.

Princess: The cruise line that owned the original Love Boat still clings to the notion that cruising is the ultimate in romance. While midsized and large ships might not be your idea of romance, Princess turns on the charm with alfresco balcony dinners for two, adults-only sun decks with spa-like atmospheres and several alternative dining venues perfect for date night.

Best to consider for Seniors --------------------------

Holland America: HAL's midsize ships appeal to mature travelers with their cruise traditions (afternoon tea, gentleman hosts, ballroom dancing), comfortable cabins and focus on enrichment with cooking and technology classes. In addition, its wide range of itineraries -- from family-friendly one-week sailings to weeks-long exotic journeys and world cruises -- appeal to retirees looking for multigenerational trips or long vacations to new places.

Cunard: Another great line for classic cruising, Cunard offers the only regular season of transatlantic crossings on its flagship Queen Mary 2, evoking the days of the great ocean liners. Onboard, you will be dressing up for formal dinners and ballroom dance parties, attending performances of well-regarded plays or jazz concerts, sipping Darjeeling and nibbling scones at afternoon tea, or playing lawn bowls on deck.

Best to consider for Families with Little Kids --------------------------

Disney: It's no surprise that Disney leads the pack for introducing the little ones to cruising. Its ships offer nurseries for babes as young as three months, themed playspaces for preschoolers and school-age kids, plenty of Disney character interaction (including dress-up princess teas and pirate parties), and cabins that cater to families with split baths (with tubs), extra berths, a room-diving curtain and childproof balcony locks.

Royal Caribbean: As Royal Caribbean rolls out toddler playspaces and nurseries with babysitting to more of its ships, it continues to solidify its reputation as one of the better family bets. The line has always been a leader with innovative kid programming and expansive youth facilities. Now partnerships with Barbie and Dreamworks are bringing the characters little ones love onboard with parties, parades and photo ops sure to please preschoolers and their parents.

Carnival: A kids' program that starts at age 2, onboard waterslides and aqua parks, and plenty of free, kid-appealing food options also makes Carnival a standout in the family department. Add in some of the largest standard cabins in the industry (plus family-specific staterooms), the interactive "Hasbro the Game Show," lots of homeport sailings and affordable cruise fares, and the family vacation has just found a new destination.

Best to consider for Families with Older Kids --------------------------

Royal Caribbean: The line's tricked-out mega-ships are a hit with tweens and teens, offering everything from rock-climbing walls and onboard surfing to DJ classes, zip lines, high-energy shows and late-night free pizza. Teen clubs feature the latest in video games plus disco and lounge space.

Norwegian Cruise Line: Older kids will appreciate Norwegian's "Freestyle" approach -- no set dining times or eating with strangers, no strict dress code (jeans are always acceptable) and plenty of choice for entertainment and food. Teen clubs offer gaming stations, exclusive parties, teen outings to see the Second City show onboard and late-night snacks. Plus, onboard facilities like video arcades, water parks, outdoor sports courts and cool musical venues and shows mean no one ever complains of being bored.

Carnival: The cruise line offers separate cool clubs for tweens and teens, and shore excursions just for 12- to 17-year-olds, chaperoned by the youth staff. Look for ships with outdoor movie screens, water parks with waterslides and soaker areas, ropes courses and mini-golf for all-day fun.

Best for Fitness Enthusiasts --------------------------

Royal Caribbean: Boxing? Check. Ice skating? Got it. Surfing, rock climbing, basketball, jogging track and huge gyms with cardio machines, free weights and weight machines, and class space for Pilates, cycling and aerobics? It's all there. Add in active shore tours (kayaking, hiking and more) and plenty of space for dancing the night away, and you've got a fitness lover's dream cruise.

Norwegian Cruise Line: First it was onboard bowling in a funky disco setting. Then it was a rock climbing and rappelling wall and a two-story climbing cage. Now new ships are debuting ropes courses and group classes in TRX suspension training, Flywheel indoor cycling, bootcamp, Fight Klub and high-kicking exercise classes taught by Rockettes-trained instructors. Large gyms, sports courts and large-screen Wii tournaments round out the line's active offerings.

Best to consider for Budget-Conscious Cruisers --------------------------

Carnival: The Fun Ship line has always been king of the budget cruise offerings. A variety of short itineraries, frequent promotions and plenty of close-to-home sailings allow you to get a vacation at sea for less. Plus, the line is committed to making onboard amenities accessible to all, and many of its new entertainment and dining options are included in the fare (unlike on other lines, where every new feature seems to come with an extra fee).

Norwegian: Some of the lowest cruise fares we've ever seen have been on shoulder-season, weeklong Norwegian cruises. Eagle-eyed deal spotters with flexible schedules can save a buck or two sailing with this line. In addition to the offseason, look at short sailings and repositioning cruises for the best value. Just be sure to stick to free, rather than for-fee, dining options once onboard, or you might be tempted to blow your savings.

MSC Cruises: Pay attention, North Americans. MSC Cruises is making an effort to reach out to the U.S. market, positioning Divina in Miami and tweaking its European product for Yankee vacationers. To lure new-to-MSC cruisers aboard, the line is constantly offering promotions and low fares (including inside cabins starting at $40 to $60 per person, per night).

Best to consider for a Splurge --------------------------

Regent Seven Seas Cruises: This luxury line might be the most inclusive line out there. Its fares are astronomical, but they include pre-cruise hotel stays, nearly all shore excursions, gratuities, onboard alcohol and soft drinks, fine dining in main and specialty restaurants, attentive service and accommodations in suites (either with windows or balconies). If you want to splurge, you cannot go wrong with Regent.

Seabourn: Seabourn is pairing down its fleet to just its three most modern ships, which are 450-passenger havens of luxury. Indulge yourself at the two-level, 11,400-square-foot spa (complete with a spa pool and private spa villas); relax in a suite tricked out with marble bathrooms, high-end sound systems and upscale bedding; enjoy complimentary drinks and course-by-course in-cabin dining; and generally let the attentive staff cater to your every whim.

Norwegian Cruise Line's Haven: If you want an exclusive experience on a large, mainstream ship, splurge on a suite in Norwegian's Haven. Depending on which ship you pick, the Haven will feature a communal area only for top suite residents with a private pool, sun deck, fitness center, restaurant and/or lounge. You can choose from an array of spacious suites, all with butler and concierge service, but still enjoy Norwegian's big-ship amenities -- multiple dining venues, a plethora of watering holes and plenty of top-notch entertainment.

Best to consider for Foodies --------------------------

Celebrity: Celebrity is all over the specialty dining scene, devoting tons of square footage on its ships to a variety of onboard restaurants. Choices range from upscale French-continental cuisine to a creperie with sweet and savory options and a whimsical venue specializing in out-of-the-box international comfort food. Add in an Italian steakhouse and a grill-your-own-meat/bake-your-own-pizza eatery, delectable gelato and an alfresco soup and sandwich venue, and you might forget to stop at the cruise ship staple main dining room or buffet.

Oceania: You can't go wrong when Jacques Pepin is overseeing your onboard restaurants. All of Oceania's ships have superb cuisine in both main and specialty venues, but its newest and biggest ships have a wide array of dining venues. Go for fee-free Asian, Italian, steak and continental cuisine, or for a splurge, pony up for an exclusive dining event that pairs seven courses with an equal number of fine wines.

Crystal: Crystal doesn't go overboard with restaurants, but what it does, it does well. It partners with celebrity chef Nobu Matsuhisa to offer a sushi bar and pan-Asian cuisine in its Silk Road restaurant and with Piero Selvaggio, proprietor of Valentino's in Santa Monica and Las Vegas Prego, to serve up Northern Italian in its other specialty venue, Prego. But the regular dining options also shine, and poolside buffets and afternoon tea are always special treats.

Best to consider for Enrichment --------------------------

Crystal: Crystal made onboard enrichment a priority before other lines decided "edu-tainment" was cool. Its Creative Learning Institute offers computer skills training, language classes, golf instruction and art workshops, as well as cooking demos and music lessons. Guest lecturers are always on hand to speak about region-specific topics, as well as popular interests such as political science, current affairs, food and wine, astronomy, and art and antiques. Theme sailings bring in big names to speak or perform.

Cunard: With sea day-filled ocean crossings and other sailings, Cunard is experienced in finding top-notch enrichment programs to fill passengers' days. Its Cunard Insights speaker series and Cunard Book Club literary discussions are offered on all three ships, while flagship Queen Mary 2 offers even more programs. Embrace your inner thespian with Royal Academy of Dramatic Art acting workshops, gaze skyward with members of the Royal Astronomical Society, and get intellectual about your musical entertainment with Juilliard Jazz groups.

Oceania: Oceania is the up-and-comer in this category; its options aren't diverse, but what it does, it does well. Its newest ships, Marina and Riviera, each feature a Bon Appetit Culinary Center with ovens and two-person cooking stations. Hands-on cooking classes, demos and lectures on culinary topics all take place in the high-end center, while onshore, Culinary Discovery Tours take foodies on visits to artisan cheese-makers, chocolatiers, vineyards or fish markets. Budding artists can find their happy place in the Artist Loft, where artists-in-residence give instruction in watercolors, needlepoint, and arts and crafts.

Best to consider for Night Owls --------------------------

Norwegian: Norwegian ships have an array of watering holes, from the bordello-meets-bowling-themed Bliss Ultra Lounge to Epic's chilly Svedka Ice Bar and specialty venues focusing on beer, whiskey, cocktails or champagne. Norwegian's signature White Hot Party is the hottest dance party aboard, where cruisers come dressed in white and the entertainment staff, bedecked with angel wings, keep the fun going with line dances and the like. We've also heard some mighty impressive karaoke on these ships.

Carnival: It's no shock that the Fun Ships are ideal for night owls. Its piano bar just might be the happeningest in cruising (true night owls know the songs get raunchier after midnight), and karaoke is offered nightly. You're never far from a bar or dance club, and the casino is often in the heart of the action. Late-night 18+ comedy has always been a staple event -- more so now that George Lopez is helping to select performers for the line's Punchliner Comedy Clubs.

Celebrity: If high-end drinking is your thing, a Celebrity ship is the place to be at night. You can listen to jazz while sipping craft beers at Michael's Club, treat yourself to your own wine tasting from the enomatic dispensers at Cellar Masters or order creative cocktails at the Molecular Bar. Or let your hair down at the Martini Bar, where juggling bartenders pour colorful concoctions, and watch the moon rise at the outdoor aft Sunset Bar. There's always someplace to dance, whether it be a designated disco or another space co-opted for a party, and the casino is nearly always open to take away your hard-earned cash.

Best to consider for Entertainment --------------------------

Disney: Disney knows the entertainment biz better than anyone, and that shows in its cruise line offerings as well. Its onboard stage shows mix original productions with live versions of hit movies like Aladdin and Toy Story, but all feature catchy tunes, creative props and costumes, and favorite Disney characters. Its best known event is its once-a-cruise pirate-themed deck party, which combines an interactive musical show with dance parties and at-sea fireworks.

Royal Caribbean: This line loves to the push the boundaries of onboard entertainment options. It's the only line to offer ice-skating shows and water-based acrobatic shows. Plus, it was the first to bring Broadway to the high seas with condensed versions of "Chicago," "Hairspray" and "Saturday Night Fever." It utilizes every square inch of space onboard to keep the fun going, with toe-tapping parades along its indoor Promenade shopping and dining district and aerial performances in the atriums of its Vision-class ships.

Norwegian: Norwegian is RCI's competitor when it comes to innovative entertainment options. The line likes to partner with land-based brands, bringing Blue Man Group and Chicago's Second City comedy troupe aboard its ships. Its newest ships offer the unique Cirque Dreams and Dinner Show (part acrobatic show, part alternative dining venue), jazz and blues clubs, celebrity musician impersonators, dueling pianists and comedians.

Best to consider for Exploring Onshore --------------------------

Azamara: Azamara's catch phrase is "destination immersion," and its fleet of two small ships achieves this in several ways. Itineraries include less-touristed ports and cruise regions, and often feature late-night stays and overnights in port. Plus, nearly every cruise includes an "AzAmazing Evening," a complimentary shoreside event that presents the local culture in an intimate or exclusive setting. When possible, Azamara also tries to schedule its cruises around major destination events, such as Carnaval in Rio or the Grand Prix in Monaco.

Princess: With its variety of ship sizes, from 680 to 3,600 passengers and everything in between, Princess goes everywhere. Its "Exotics" brochure reads like your bucket list: Asia, Africa, Australia and New Zealand, the South Pacific and South America. Plus, it usually offers at least one world cruise every year.

Celebrity: One of Celebrity's goals is to offer sailings to every continent, including Antarctica, with more overnight calls and more small-group excursions. (Clearly, it's following in sister Azamara's footsteps.) In 2014, it will introduce a Destination Concierge on every ship; these port experts will assist passengers in making the most of their time ashore, even going as far as creating individual excursions tailormade to your touring desires.

Best to consider for Water Lovers --------------------------

Windstar: Water lovers have two reasons to love Windstar. First, the line's masted sailing yachts have plenty of open deck space under billowing sails, giving that sea-wind-in-your-hair feel. Second, the ships offer complimentary water sports from a built-in onboard marina. You can borrow kayaks, windsurf boards, small sailboats, and inflatable boats and mats. Passengers have access to free snorkel equipment, and water-skiing is offered by the ship's staff.

Paul Gauguin: Paul Gauguin's namesake ship sails in the South Pacific, an ideal place for savoring water-based activities and scenic island views from the sea. The ship has a retractable aft marina used for complimentary water sports, such as kayaking, windsurfing and water-skiing. The ship also lends out snorkel equipment, but it can't be used from the onboard marina, and offers a scuba program with both recreational dives and certification classes. Water lovers will also enjoy beach days on a little island in Bora Bora and Motu Mahana, a tiny island off Taha'a complete with a floating bar offshore.

Seabourn: Another big name luxury line with a water sports platform is Seabourn. Its Deck 2 marina is stocked with all the toys: banana boats, kayaks, pedal boats, waterskis, windsurf boards and the "doughnut," an inner tube in which you sit while being pulled along by a speedboat. If you're excited about taking advantage of this option, choose your itinerary wisely -- cooler weather sailings and busy ports are not conducive to marina use.

Best to consider for Solo Travelers --------------------------

Norwegian: Norwegian's much acclaimed Studio cabins proved to the world that solo travelers aren't always overlooked. On Norwegian Epic, 128 solo cabins measure 100 square feet each and have a corridor-facing window, mood lighting and access to a shared social space with large-screen TVs, coffee-making facilities and a bartender. Norwegian Getaway has 59 studio cabins, with access to a two-deck lounge, complete with a 50-inch TV and a self-service wine bar, as well as a tea and coffee machine. Pride of America features just four studios, with a tiny communal living area.

Crystal: A popular choice for solo travelers, Crystal entices lone travelers with its wide range of onboard activities, singles get-togethers, gentleman hosts and low solo supplements. Many single cruisers choose the line's set-seating option to meet new friends over dinner, while its Table for 8 program matches solo travelers for group meals at the specialty dining venues. The onboard atmosphere is communal and social, so no passenger needs to feel lonely.

Theme Cruise: Theme cruises aren’t limited to any particular cruise line. The greatest advantage for a solo traveler aboard a theme cruise is the knowledge that there will be many people aboard who share their passion for the theme of the cruise. In our experience, its very comforting for a solo traveler to be with a group they have something in common with.

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