Thinking about booking your first cruise? The sheer range of choices can be daunting. There are more than two dozen lines marketing to North Americans — no two alike.
The list of brands includes everything from giant companies such as Royal Caribbean and Carnival Cruise Line, which are household names, to lesser-known small operators such as Windstar Cruises.
Some of the brands — Royal Caribbean, MSC Cruises and Norwegian Cruise Line, in particular — operate massive vessels that are like giant floating resorts with deck-top water parks and other over-the-top amusements. Others specialize in intimate, boutique hotel-style ships.
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Some lines, such as Carnival, are aimed at a budget crowd. Others operate vessels that are as luxurious as any upscale resort found on land. A few small luxury players such as Regent Seven Seas Cruises have ships with lavish suites that’ll cost you as much as $11,000 a day.
Where to begin? Below, you’ll find our quick guide to some of the most popular brands. As you’ll see, it’s not meant to be an in-depth review of the lines. It’s just a short overview — enough to give you a sense of which particular cruise operator might best appeal to you.
Once you’ve narrowed down the choices to a few brands that you think best fit your style, do a deeper dive into them and their specific ships, their itineraries and home ports and their comparable costs (either on your own or with the help of a cruise-savvy travel agent). Note that TPG has many guides to individual lines, which you can find by clicking on our cruise line hub pages linked in each segment below.
With just four ships, each holding fewer than 700 passengers, Azamara is one of the smallest players in the cruise business. But it has a loyal following of travelers who appreciate the upscale ambience of its vessels, the inclusive amenities it offers (including gratuities and alcoholic drinks) and its destination focus.
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The line prides itself on offering longer stays in ports, including multi-day visits. Its ships have an intimate, boutique-hotel feel. Pricing is higher than at the big, mass-market lines but not quite as high as you’ll find at luxury lines.
Carnival Cruise Line
The self-described “fun ship” line is the king of short, affordable, fun-focused cruises from U.S. ports to the Caribbean, the Bahamas, Mexico and beyond.
The choice of roughly one in five cruisers, Carnival Cruise Line’s ships are notoriously lively, flashy and packed with fun features such as water parks with multiple waterslides. Just don’t expect anything too fancy.
Designed to be a cut above mainstream options such as Carnival while remaining relatively affordable, this Miami-based “premium” line is known for some of the most stylish big ships at sea.
Expect high-end design, cutting-edge art and trendy restaurants. In short, Celebrity aims for sophisticates, not the party crowd (although it’s not a luxury product).
Celebrity’s three newest ships, Celebrity Edge, Celebrity Apex and Celebrity Beyond, feature “infinite veranda” cabins that are open to the sea in a way we haven’t seen with other ocean ships. They boast a glass wall that opens from the top to create a balcony-like effect.
This much-beloved luxury line recently restarted operations under new owners after shutting down for 18 months. For years, it was considered the ultimate luxury cruise operator, and our take after sailing on Crystal Serenity this year is that the line is even better than before. Initially, Crystal will return to operations with just two ships. But it recently announced plans to expand rapidly with four more ships over the next six years.
A storied line with roots that go back to the 1800s, this three-ship brand is perhaps best known for its 2,695-passenger flagship, Queen Mary 2. The ship lives up to its billing as a true ocean liner with semiregular, transatlantic service between Southampton, England, and New York.
Cunard fans love the line’s relatively formal vibe (including nightly dress codes) and other nods to ocean liner tradition, including evenings with ballroom dancing. A fourth Cunard ship called Queen Anne is set to debut in 2024.
Disney Cruise Line
Meet-and-greets with Disney characters, Disney-themed shows and the most extensive kiddie fun zones on the high seas are just a few of the family-friendly allures of a Disney cruise. If you’re a Disney fan, nothing quite compares.
If Disney isn’t your thing, well, this probably isn’t the line for you. The biggest downside of the brand? As with Disney’s parks on land, it doesn’t come cheap.
Tradition long has been a touchstone for this storied line, which dates to 1873 and is known for carefully crafted, globe-circling itineraries on midsize ships.
However, Holland America has been shaking things up in recent years with lively new venues such as B.B. King’s Blues Club. Couples and retirees are the market for this line. Families with kids might want to look elsewhere.
A giant of cruising in Europe, Switzerland-based MSC Cruises is making a big play for North Americans with newer, bigger ships sailing year-round from Florida to the Caribbean and Bahamas. It also offers sailings from New York City.
Like Royal Caribbean and Norwegian, MSC Cruises operates big, resort-like vessels that appeal to a broad audience. Among the highlight of its cruises in North America are stops at its new private island in the Bahamas, the Ocean Cay MSC Marine Reserve.
Norwegian Cruise Line
Multistory waterslides, ropes courses and even go-kart race tracks are among the gee-whiz attractions atop Norwegian Cruise Line‘s giant, resort-like ships. The vessels also are packed with eateries, bars, casinos and showrooms.
The brand is known for its entertainment, including big Broadway shows such as “Beetlejuice.” If you’re looking for a Las Vegas-style resort at sea, this is your line.
Oceania has carved out a niche with relatively small, upscale ships that offer a significant upgrade from mass-market vessels but aren’t quite as fancy (or pricey) as luxury offerings.
Its seven ships feature a relaxed, country club-like ambience and inspired dining that appeal to a mostly older crowd.
Itinerary-wise, Oceania is known for destination-intensive voyages that typically are 10 nights or more in length, with some globe-circling trips as long as 180 days.
This France-based line is a specialist in expedition cruising, a type of cruising that involves traveling to remote, hard-to-reach places on small, hardy vessels that carry their own landing craft.
Operating a fast-growing fleet of tough but upscale expedition ships (none carrying more than 264 passengers), Ponant is known for voyages to places like Antarctica and the Arctic.
If you’re looking for waterslides and laser tag, this is not the cruise line for you.
Popular with middle-aged couples, retirees and multigenerational families, the “Love Boat” line’s ships aren’t as flashy (or big) as those of Royal Caribbean and Norwegian, and that’s just the way its customers like it.
Princess Cruises‘ customers also like its wide range of itineraries, including voyages in Asia and Australia, as well as closer-to-home places like the Caribbean. It’s long been one of the dominant lines in the Alaska cruise market.
Regent Seven Seas Cruises
This Miami-based luxury line operates some of the most opulent vessels at sea, including two (soon-to-be-three) recently built Explorer-class ships billed as the most expensive luxury vessels ever built on a cost-per-berth basis.
Regent Seven Seas Cruises is particularly known for some of the most over-the-top suites at sea (including some bigger than the average American home), some of the most inclusive fares in the cruise business and high levels of service. The only catch: You’ll pay a pretty penny for it. Rooms on Regent ships start at around $1,000 per person per day and can cost as much as $5,500 per person per day.
For megaresort fans, there’s nothing quite like a Royal Caribbean vessel.
The line’s biggest ships are more than 20% bigger than almost any others afloat (only MSC Cruises has ships that come close in size) and feature every type of amusement imaginable, from rock climbing walls and surfing pools to Broadway shows and ice skating rinks.
Families, in particular, will love this line. Royal Caribbean sails everywhere in the world, but its heaviest presence is in the Caribbean and Europe.
Another leader in luxury cruising, this seven-ship brand offers all-suite vessels, top-notch service and elegant cuisine that includes dishes created by star chef Thomas Keller.
As with other luxury lines, Seabourn offers a wide range of itineraries around the globe. It also recently jumped into more adventurous, expedition-style cruising with two new 264-passenger vessels designed to operate in polar regions such as Antarctica and the Arctic.
Exquisite service, refined dining and well-appointed accommodations are hallmarks of this Monaco-based luxury line with 12 vessels. Silversea Cruises is also known for its industry-leading array of off-the-beaten-path itineraries.
Its growing fleet of small expedition ships will take you everywhere from the Arctic to Papua New Guinea in style.
The Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection
Fans of upscale hotel chain Ritz-Carlton will feel at home on one of this line’s yacht-like vessels. Or, at least, that’s the idea.
The cruising arm of Ritz-Carlton has been in operation for less than a year, and the jury still is out on where it ranks in the pantheon of luxury cruise brands. The line notably struggled to get off the ground after years of construction delays for its first and only ship.
Dubbed Evrima, the 298-passenger vessel has been designed to appeal to Ritz-Carlton regulars with an elegant, residential look.
This fast-growing line has dominated the world of river cruising for North Americans for years, and in the last few years, it’s become a significant player in upscale ocean cruising as well. Viking‘s 80 river ships operate on just about every major river in the world, and its 10 ocean ships (up from just one in 2015) can be found in a growing number of destinations, too.
Viking is known for impeccably designed vessels with modern Scandinavian interiors and offering unusual, port-intensive itineraries. They also operate with a mostly all-inclusive format, as Viking long has subscribed to a “no nickel-and-diming” philosophy. Just don’t bother booking the family. Kids under 18 aren’t allowed on Viking.
Related: The ultimate guide to Viking cruises
This relatively new cruise line, backed by Richard Branson’s Virgin Group, is reinventing mainstream cruising with a hipper, more inclusive, younger vibe (though not too young; its ships are adults-only). Think tattoo shops, drag queen shows and no upcharges for tips or eateries.
Virgin Voyages‘ first three ships (Scarlet Lady, Valiant Lady and Resilient Lady) have suites by acclaimed designer Tom Dixon. Destinations include the Dominican Republic, Mexico and a private beach club in the Bahamas, as well as parts of Europe and Australia.
If the idea of sailing on a big ship makes you cringe, small-ship specialist Windstar could be the answer.
Its six vessels carry just 148 to 342 passengers — fewer than fit on a single big-ship lifeboat — and are wonderfully intimate.
Romantic types will love Windstar’s three vessels with sails — a relative rarity. Foodies can choose one of the James Beard-themed cruises, which include market tours and cooking demonstrations with a James Beard Award-winning chef.
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