Just like cars, houses and universities, the cruise deal you choose for your vacation is as much a reflection of your lifestyle and expectations as it is of your budget. Thirty years ago, cruising was more or less a one-size-fits-all proposition, but now, it's a $30 billion-a-year industry within the travel deal industry, with various lines jockeying to command its particular niche.
Experienced cruisers know that the line you choose can define the quality of your holiday. So which one should you pick? Here are 10 considerations a vacationer might have, paired with the line that answers them best.
"I want to feel like I'm in Titanic."
Sinking aside, the grand liner experience is one worth cherishing, and it lives on in just one brand: Cunard Line, which has been sailing since the 1830s. In the summer, it makes regular five-day runs between New York City and England aboard the Queen Mary 2, which was designed and constructed just for the task. Its other two ships usually sail farther afield than the North Atlantic, going as far as Australia, but all three strive to offer elevated, dignified diversions including lectures by university professors, the largest libraries at sea, and always a smattering of black-tie-only evenings. All of that means it tends to attract an older, educated, more experienced crowd that can appreciate the trappings that Cunard's long lineage provides.
"I want to see Europe."
Most of the major lines (including Princess, and Disney) and Royal Caribbean with deals like this 10-night 2-for-1) make summer forays into Europe, but my advice is to stick with ships that are on the smaller side. Why? Europe's medieval back streets were not meant to handle the simultaneous disgorgement of thousands of American tourists, so smaller ships will yield more copacetic day trips. Smaller ships can also venture to smaller ports, which Europe has plenty of. While seeing the great coastal cities of Europe in six-hour shifts aboard a traveling hotel will never be ideal, Costa Cruises has generally modest-sized ships and it has been a player in the region for decades. It's also mainstream enough to please Americans who are used to a few bells and whistles on their vessels, but not so rarefied that it's daunting. For a similar, sensibly-sized experience in Asia, there's Star Cruises.
"I wanna party!"
Belly up to the casino bar on a Carnival ship, my friend. Most of the vessels in the Carnival fleet, while jammed with opportunities to drink and eat yourself into a stupor, are fairly indistinguishable from each other thanks to being dominated by long-time designer Joe Farcus. Count on twinkly signage, neon tubing, lots of brass and faux pink marble, piles of crowd pleasing grub in restaurants with unchallenging names such as Grand Buffet, Chic, and Taste of Nations. Each ship comes equipped with a signature water slide (its ships being family-targeted, kids are well served with arcades and activities), and the cabins are a notch more spacious than those of most of its competitors, but it's still not a line that bears snobs comfortably. Because of its mass-market predictability, Carnival is the Burger King of the seas, but there's no judgment in that: Sometimes you just want a Whopper.
"I'm a foodie."
Because there are so many mouths to feed on board, anyone with true luxury dining expertise is unlikely to be floored by what they eat on the high seas. In fact, nearly all the lines have taken to opening smaller "upcharge" restaurants (some curated by well-known chefs) where, for an extra fee, they'll feed you the good stuff, which is a tacit admission that the standard fare is less than exciting. "It's pretty good for a cruise" is as close as you may come to high praise. But Holland America aims to repair that reputation somewhat. Its Culinary Arts Center program, which is tied to Food & Wine magazine, slots high-tech teaching kitchens into its ships, where passengers can learn hands-on cooking skills and delve into the local cuisine of the ports they visit. Oceania Cruises' new ship, the Marina, has a Culinary Center with a similar experience, itself linked to Bon Appétit.
"I don't want to cruise."
Seabourn Cruise Line is an ultra-luxury line that separates itself from the hoi polo. Its well-heeled passengers expect yacht-like accommodations, and they get them. There's Bose sound systems, complimentary champagne, attentive service and very small numbers — three of its ships carry just 208 passengers as opposed to the 6,000-plus on Royal Caribbean's fully loaded Oasis of the Seas. There are unlikely to be any unruly children or Housewives of New Jersey in your face. Two lines with a similar profile, but with slightly less tony standards, are Azamara Club Cruises and Oceania Cruises, which attract upscale cruisers with fine wine lists, a large menu of fitness options and pool decks where you won't be harassed by staff forcing you to get up and limbo. Azamara, too, puts emphasis on off-ship exploration, including, in some cases, overnight stays on escorted mini-tours on land.
"I don't want to fly far to cruise."
People around Florida's East Coast and New York City have their pick of itineraries, but Carnival is the most conscientious about porting ships throughout the United States so that more passengers can drive to their vacations. That has recently included such home ports as Baltimore, Charleston, New Orleans, Los Angeles and Mobile. Norwegian does a good job of spreading the love, too, and Holland America leaves from Boston in the summer. Larger cities are more likely to host for long stretches of time, but smaller cities such as Norfolk are occasionally served by Carnival. In 2012, Disney adds Seattle, Galveston, and Los Angeles to its home port roster.
"I'm traveling solo."
The Norwegian Epic became the hero of the unwed in 2010 when it introduced a special category of single cabins for solo travelers. Far from making them feel like they're banished to steerage, these cabins are sleekly designed and have their own lounge area. The single cabins all lack exterior windows, but they do liberate soloists from having to pay twice the regular price for the right to take a cabin all to themselves. Norwegian is considered a solid mass-appeal line: plenty to do, plenty of families and grown passengers alike, plenty of newly built ships and reasonably priced. Consider it Macy's to Carnival's KMart.
"I have kids under 12."
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Disney Cruise Line is the top choice, and the reason doesn't have as much do with the brand's characters as you might think. The line's three (four as of January 2012) ships represent the industry's technological pinnacle for diversions for kids, including a 765-foot-long on-deck water slide on the Disney Dream, talking paintings in the corridors (also on the Dream), and current Disney blockbusters in the cinema — even in 3-D. Service is thoughtful, too: Instead of being served by a nameless series of waiters from other countries, your family's server follows you as you rotate through the ship's restaurants, fostering a real understanding of other cultures. And, as you might imagine, a brand that focuses on youngsters is also rich in cutting-edge kids' clubs and babysitting capabilities, freeing parents to lounge in their own, kid-free zones.
"My teen-agers get bored quickly."
For active kids, there's Royal Caribbean Cruise Line. The line has worked hard to set itself apart as a high-adrenaline product. In fact, its TV ads rarely speak the word "cruise." Instead, it outfits ships with rock climbing walls, ziplines, mini-golf and sheet wave surfing. Most of its vessels even have indoor ice skating rinks and deck-side Johnny Rocket's outlets. As the proprietor of the world's two largest cruise ships, the Oasis of the Seas and the Allure of the Seas, RCCL has plenty of space in which to pile amenity upon amenity, from pools to comedy clubs to pared-down licensed versions of Broadway musicals. If you have a pulse, you'll find it impossible to get bored. The downside, of course, is that when the ship pulls into port, elbowing your way out of the floating city with your fellow passengers can be demoralizing.
"I'm not going with kids, but I want to be busy."
Princess Cruises seems right for those who aren't in the mood to be overwhelmed by gimmicks, but want to retain a little of the mall-inspired extravagance that prevails in today's ships. Modern, lively, and romantic but not trashy or overly dumbed-down, Princess fits the bill for those who want to have a good time without breaking the bank or getting a hangover.