Planning your first cruise can feel like an overwhelming undertaking. There are indeed so many choices, from “party boats” in the Caribbean and luxury yachts in the Mediterranean to river cruises in Asia and expedition ships in Antarctica. You need to put some careful thought into just what kind of traveler you are (Foodie? Adventurer? Night owl?) and which type of cruise vacation you really want, while also factoring in such practicalities as budget, the departure port and the length of the trip.
So how do you figure out if a cruise line’s personality is compatible with your needs? You could ask a travel agent — or simply read through our handy shortlist of the very best cruise lines for first-timers.
1. Carnival Cruise Line
Best for: Value hunters
Why: Carnival is the line for “everycruiser,” appealing to a broad spectrum of vacationers who share one common trait: They all want a super-fun escape without going bankrupt. The combination of Carnival’s sizable fleet (25 ships), emphasis on popular destinations (Caribbean, Bahamas and Mexico) and dedication to accessible three- to seven-night itineraries translates to low prices and frequent deals. Cruises typically start around a reasonable $80 per person, per night, and can be nabbed for lower still with promotional fares. Carnival keeps its cabins simple, with plenty of standard insides and outsides, and does not go overboard with fee-extra venues onboard (access to specialty dining venues like Guy’s Burger Joint, Serenity adults-only retreats and Punchliner Comedy Club shows, for instance, are all free of charge). For the best budget rates, avoid holiday periods (especially school vacations).
Runner-up: With 14 ships, including 4,100-passenger Norwegian Epic and 4,200-passenger Norwegian Escape, Norwegian Cruise Line has space to fill. There are regularly last-minute deals, some as low as $50 or $75 per person, per night. The ships also offer numerous free activities — including fabulous Broadway shows and live music and comedy — and a variety of complimentary dining venues. Plus, the line regularly runs promotions that allow passengers to include one or more free perks with their sailing, like beverage packages or specialty dining credits. And Norwegian Sky — sailing to the Bahamas, as well as Cuba (as of June 2017) — is the sole ship in the mainstream cruise market to offer free unlimited premium beverages with the upfront cruise fare.
2. Regent Seven Seas Cruises
Best for: Luxury seekers
Why: Regent Seven Seas is arguably the most inclusive of the biggest luxury brands. Its fares include all-suite accommodations (98 percent come with balconies), meals in main and specialty dining venues, pre- and post-cruise tours and hotel stays, gratuities, shore excursions and beverages from liquor to sodas (in your suite, at dinner or in the ships’ public areas). The ships are on the larger size for luxury, carrying 490 to 750 passengers each — small enough to create a social onboard atmosphere without the crowds of a big ship, but large enough to offer spacious cabins (the smallest is 301 square feet) and enough dining and entertainment venues to prevent boredom. Luxury touches abound, whether it be a butler in your penthouse suite or exclusive premium bath amenities designed by the L’Occitane line. The 750-passenger Seven Seas Explorer has over-the-top suites and the highest staff-to-passenger ratios in the industry. Wherever in the world you choose to sail, you will be truly pampered.
Runner-up: Seabourn is all about the finer things in life without getting stuck in the past. The cruise line, known for its superb service and gourmet cuisine, sold off its three oldest vessels back in 2013/2014 to focus on its newer trio of 458-passenger ships, along with 600-passenger new-builds Seabourn Encore (2016) and Seabourn Ovation (2017). All of the ships feature vast spas, spacious cabins (starting at 295 square feet) and gorgeous suites, menus and signature restaurants designed by chef Thomas Keller, and a mostly inclusive pricing policy covering drinks, dining, entertainment and gratuities. Look for signature touches such as a “Pure Pampering” bath drawn by your cabin steward, complete with strewn flower petals and aromatherapy scents.
3. Royal Caribbean International
Best for: Families with tweens or teens
Why: Older kids need distractions and special attention; Royal Caribbean gives them both. Depending on the ship, the line taps into teens’ and tweens’ bottomless well of energy with rock climbing walls, ziplines, ice and inline skating, surf and skydiving simulators, water slides and basketball and volleyball courts. For its youth programs, Royal Caribbean wisely splits up tweens and teens into their appropriate age groups. It also treats the underage crowd like mini-adults with such sophisticated amenities as spa treatments designed especially for the primping generation and their adolescent needs; DJ lessons; teens-only casino nights; backstage tours of the ship; and no-elders-allowed lounges where they can dance, drink mocktails and socialize with their new pals until past their parents’ bedtimes. The packed schedule, overseen by an attentive crew, lets parents enjoy their own downtime without worrying about their charges growing bored and antsy.
Runner-up: Norwegian Cruise Line appeals to teens with its exclusive spaces (clubs and lounges for teenagers), sophisticated parties and theme nights (black-light Glow Party and a dress-up, dinner-and-a-show evening), and pop culture and retro-hip activities (bowling, Nintendo Wii U, “American Idol”-style shows). Plus, late-night dining venues and top-deck activities like water slides, rock climbing walls and ropes courses will keep the hardest-to-please cruisers busy and happy.
4. Disney Cruise Line
Best for: Families with small children
Why: Disney really gets what parents and small children need on vacation, from entertainment and dining to childcare. The line is rare in the industry for attending to the needs of babies and toddlers; it provides nurseries for little sailors up to 3 years old and has a water-play area available to the diapered set. The cruise line also fills its ships with its signature characters, such as Mickey, Goofy, Cinderella and her princess pals, who engage youngsters at planned events and spontaneous encounters. Its expansive play areas are themed after popular Disney, Pixar, Star Wars and Marvel movies, with plenty of high-tech games and interactive (and often educational) programming. Cabins and dining establishments are tailored for families, taking into account the practical (split bathrooms with tub/shower combos) and the whimsical (restaurants with fairytale decor).
Runner-up: Carnival has teamed up with Dr. Seuss for its kids programming. Look for the Seuss-a-Palooza parade and Story Time, featuring character appearances (The Cat in the Hat, Sam I Am), and a “Green Eggs and Ham” character breakfast. The Camp Ocean facility is one of few to both accept 2-year-olds and employ counselors who will change diapers. It also has options for childcare and parent-kid playtime for babies and toddlers too young for Camp Ocean. Loads of casual dining options, water-play areas and mini-golf, and large standard cabins (as well as family-focused options on some ships) just add to the line’s appeal for parents.
5. Silversea Cruises
Best for: Mature cruisers
Why: Upscale Silversea attracts a dedicated following of mature travelers (in fact, it’s a rarity to find a child onboard). Its all-inclusive pricing model allows for a luxury experience without lots of unexpected expense, with Silversea inclusions like room service, wine and spirits, gratuities and transportation into town from port all bundled into the upfront fares. The line’s nine small ships — accommodating just 100 to 596 guests — are well-suited to guests seeking easy camaraderie, as well as for those with limited mobility. Plus, Silversea’s itineraries propose access to more off-the-beaten-track worldwide ports (they sail to 800-plus locales across all seven continents) that hold special appeal for seasoned travelers looking for new horizons to explore.
Runner-up: Holland America, an elegant midsize line, has traditionally drawn a more mature crowd by emphasizing the classic cruising experience over partying and pushing the adrenaline limits. It offers quieter pleasures, such as the Culinary Arts Center and a partnership with America’s Test Kitchen that focuses on cooking demos and hands-on workshops; self-guided art tours of the onboard art collections; and Explorations Central, which aims to highlight local culture and history onboard via special talks, port guides and cultural demonstrations. The athletic pursuits, such as a tai chi, yoga and tennis, don’t require a 21-year-old’s physique. Even innovative additions to the entertainment lineup keep the company’s loyal cruisers in mind. HAL has a fabulous B.B. King’s Blues Club and dinner events featuring menus by epicurean stars like noted chef Elizabeth Falkner and Michelin three-star chef Jonnie Boer.
6. Holland America Line
Best for: Singles
Why: Holland America Line caters to solo travelers via its Single Partners Program, which includes hosted parties for onboard singles (early on in the cruise), followed up by special singles-themed cocktail parties and games that give solo cruisers plenty of time to connect. The line will also group singles together for dining (on request), and on sailings of 40 days or longer, even provides special gentlemen hosts to accompany single women to dinner or on the dance floor. HAL facilitates a roommate matching service with fellow solo travelers of the same sex; if the line can’t find a suitable partner for participants, it will still guarantee them a double occupancy fare. Alternatively, two Holland America ships offer dedicated single cabins: Koningsdam has 12, and Prinsendam has three.
Runner-up: Norwegian reached out to solo cruisers when it introduced the Studio concept on Norwegian Epic. These cabins, specifically designed for solo travelers, come with hip minimalist furnishings and no dastardly single supplement. Cruisers who book this category of cabin also receive exclusive access to a gathering place with a bar, snacks and space for socializing. The line now has various versions of these cabins and their affiliated lounges on Norwegian Breakaway, Norwegian Getaway, Norwegian Escape and Pride of America.
7. Oceania Cruises
Best for: Foodies
Why: The fact that Oceania has famous French chef Jacques Pepin as its executive culinary director speaks volumes about its dedication to fine onboard dining. The main dining rooms offer high-quality fare in an open-seating plan, and even the buffets and poolside grill fare refuse to disappoint. Lobsters come sourced from the line’s own Maine lobster farm, and its beef is dry-aged for 28 days in Oceania’s aging facility. Specialty venues are all fee-free (minus special wine-pairing menus), and range from the Asian-style Red Ginger to Italian Toscana and French bistro Jacques. And if eating mouth-watering cuisine isn’t enough, you can learn to prepare it yourself with classes in the Culinary Center. Look out, too, for the line’s expanded portfolio of Culinary Discovery Tours, dedicated foodie-friendly shore excursions on offer in ports like Casablanca, Rio and Venice.
Runner-up: Seabourn earns high points on the foodie front for its culinary partnership with lauded chef Thomas Keller, behind famed Michelin-starred eateries Per Se, Bouchon and The French Laundry. The American chef brings his unique brand of French-American fare, infused with regional flavors, to the line via a range of dishes showcased in the main restaurant, as well as through his 2016-debuted signature restaurant, The Grill by Thomas Keller. This fleetwide eatery, a classic American chophouse-inspired venue (designed by Adam D. Tihany), comes complete with savory surf-and-turf dishes and tableside preparation of passenger favorites like Caesar salad and ice cream sundaes. Plus, upscale Seabourn includes a selection of fine wines and premium drinks in its upfront rates, while its specialty dining venues carry no surcharge.
8. Norwegian Cruise Line
Best for: Entertainment enthusiasts
Why: All Norwegian ships offer musical revues, comedy and improv shows, live music and guest performers, but the line really shines with its newest ships: Norwegian Escape, Norwegian Epic, Norwegian Breakaway and Norwegian Getaway. The line takes its inspiration from land-based hits, and cruisers can experience Broadway musicals like “Rock of Ages,” “After Midnight” or “Million Dollar Quartet”; sizzling dance shows like “Burn the Floor”; comedy by Second City improv or Levity Comedy; and music by dueling pianists and blues bands. The line even turns meals into theater with dinner show Cirque Dreams. Throw in plenty of bars, discos, bowling and Wii, and you will never be bored onboard.
Runner-up: Royal Caribbean is also on the cutting edge of onboard spectaculars. The line features Broadway shows (“Grease,” “Mamma Mia!”), but takes performances out of the theater with ice-skating shows in onboard rinks, high-diving acrobatic shows at the pool-based AquaTheater and aerial shows in ship atriums. Anthem of the Seas features the high-tech entertainment venue Two70, which pairs floor-to-ceiling windows of digital screens and six large “roboscreens” with live dancers, singers, aerialists and musicians. It also hosts a cast of cover bands and Dreamworks characters for family-focused fun.
9. Cunard Line
Best for: Enrichment seekers
Why: Cunard and its trio of Queens ooze culture like an Oxford don. The cruise line introduced the Cunard Insights enrichment program in 2007, inviting onboard such luminaries as a NASA astronaut, a polar explorer and British wit John Cleese. In 2016, the Insights program partnered with The New York Times to present a speaker series highlighting experts on journalism, climate change, politics, national security, sports and more. Passengers can also indulge in cultural pursuits with ballroom dancing, West End-style theater (in a box seat, no less), a planetarium (on Queen Mary 2 only) and string quartets that bid the sun adieu. Audience participation is encouraged; you can learn the art of acting with Royal Academy of Dramatic Art members and wax poetic in onboard book clubs. Starting in 2018, passengers will have the opportunity to trace their family tree, too, under the tutelage of experts from Ancestry.com.
Runner-up: Onboard enrichment is a pillar of the high-end Crystal Cruises brand, with complimentary enrichment-minded programming featured heavily aboard every sailing. Via the Creative Learning Institute, passengers get a chance to take language lessons (in partnership with Berlitz), sign up for wine-tastings (helmed by trained sommeliers), participate in wellness lectures (put on by experts and doctors from the Cleveland Clinic) or enroll in art instruction (with courses in painting, sculpture or crafts). Through the Crystal Visions program, luminaries from the world of screen and stage, comedy, sports, politics, science and more are brought onboard to present guest lectures and seminars. Plus, cruisers can sign up for techie instruction via Crystal’s Computer University@Sea program, or opt to sail on special themed voyages, focused on topics like music, golf, photography, food and wine, and fitness.
10. Lindblad Expeditions
Best for: Adventurers
Why: Lindblad seeks out exotic itineraries in the Arctic, Antarctica, Galapagos, Amazon and other less-mainstream cruise destinations. On its polar voyages, passengers sail aboard an ice-class vessel that easily slips through frozen passageways populated with polar bears in the Arctic or penguins in Antarctica. Its Torres del Paine-to-Cape Horn itinerary delivers myriad land-and-sea encounters in Patagonia’s vast wilderness. On all voyages, passengers can expect to share in the expertise of a team of naturalists, including National Geographic photographers (or Lindblad-National Geographic certified photo instructors) and undersea specialists, providing a steady stream of eco-insights and information. For closer views, the cruise line equips its ships with Zodiacs, sea kayaks and underwater cameras. Shore excursions trade bus tours for educational and active diversions, such as naturalist-led glacier hikes and deep-water snorkeling. The company also advances sustainable practices and supports many conservation programs in the fragile destinations it visits.
Runner-up: UnCruise Adventures combines off-the-beaten-track ecotourism with small-ship cruising in Alaska, as well as the Sea of Cortez, Galapagos, Coastal Washington and British Columbia, Hawaii, Costa Rica and Panama, and the Columbia and Snake rivers. Its expedition vessels are small enough to wiggle into secret harbors and through narrow waterways, and cruisers are invited to immerse themselves in their natural surroundings with such land-and-sea excursions as whale-watching, snorkeling, stand-up paddleboarding, hiking, kayaking and polar bear plunges.
11. Paul Gauguin Cruises
Best for: Romantics
Why: Paul Gauguin Cruises offers a singular experience in the ultimate honeymoon/anniversary/special-occasion destinations of French Polynesia and the greater South Pacific. Its namesake ship doesn’t skimp on romance: All cabins boast ocean views, and a majority has queen-sized beds and private balconies. Couples can feel the ooh-la-la over a Polynesian-accented French meal at the fine-dining restaurant L’Etoile, or during a private sunset dinner served on their stateroom balcony. The spa caters to twosomes with couples’ treatments — try the 40-minute aroma steam bath for two or a massage on a private islet off the coast of Taha’a. Plus, the line offers a complimentary package for honeymooners (with thoughtful touches like in-room Champagne and a special Polynesian blessing ceremony), as well as a selection of wedding and vow renewal ceremony packages.
Runner-up: Romance fills the sails of Windstar Cruises, a trio of multi-masted yachts plus a trio of luxury cruise ships. These intimate vessels, carrying between 148 and 312 passengers, float through such dreamy destinations as the Greek Isles, Costa Rica and the Panama Canal, the Windward Islands, the South Pacific and the Far East, and seek out interesting small harbors and coves where other lines don’t go. If you want the romance of stargazing under billowing sails, choose one of the original ships (Wind Surf, Star and Spirit); for more spacious accommodations and private verandas, opt for newer acquisitions (Star Pride, Breeze and Legend). By day, doze on a padded lounger by the pool; by night, choose Candles Grill for an alfresco dinner date (though all dining venues are superb). All ships have water sports platforms for floating, kayaking, sailing, water skiing, windsurfing and diving in aquamarine waters worldwide.
12. Viking River Cruises
Best for: River cruisers
Why: Viking River Cruises, celebrating 20 years in 2017, is a seasoned player that caters to first-time cruisers looking to get their feet wet in the world of river cruising. Known for its expansive portfolio of immersive, destination-centric itineraries — including iconic European offerings like the Romantic Danube, Rhine Getaway and Grand European Tour — the line has a river sailing to suit all tastes, with more than 60 vessels plying the inland waterways of Europe, Russia, Asia and Egypt. Viking’s fleet is mainly composed of its signature 190-passenger Viking Longship vessels, and passengers can expect modern Scandinavian design elements onboard with plenty of panoramic windows, oversized suites and the indoor/outdoor Aquavit Terrace, set at each ship’s bow. Plus, with largely inclusive pricing (rates include a shore excursion in every port and beer and wine with meals), first-time cruisers needn’t fret about racking up lots of incidentals, a common caveat encountered on mainstream oceangoing cruises.
Runner-up: The dozen sleek “Suite Ships” of Avalon Waterways — accommodating just 120 to 160 passengers — are another great choice for first-time river cruisers, with their cabins’ innovative floor-to-ceiling windows that slide open, converting rooms into veritable open-air balconies in a snap (perfect for taking in those passing landscapes). With a roster of itineraries aimed at cultural immersion in Europe (sail quintessential voyages on the Danube and Rhine) and Southeast Asia (explore the exotic Irrawaddy or Mekong rivers), the line caters to first-timers further with sampler three-night Danube River voyages, perfect for those not quite ready to fully commit to the more standard weeklong offerings.