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Which cruise line is best?

A lot of people wonder what the "best" cruise line is. We believe the real question is: Which cruise line is the best for you?

The answer really depends on what matters to you, and it's not the same for all people.

So, we've organized our recommendations based on some of the things people have told us matters most: nightlife, big ships, fun for the kids, top-notch service, casual atmosphere, fine dining, flexible dining, and tradition.

Nightlife and a fun, social experience

  • Carnival's reputation as "the fun ships" is well deserved. No other line can rival Carnival's energizing, fun atmosphere for people of all ages. Each ship has a range of venues open late into the night, from Top 40 dance clubs to live music of all kinds. The staff have a knack for creating a warm, welcoming environment where people feel comfortable and enjoy themselves. Prices are typically reasonable, but for some people the experience can be more boisterous than they like.
  • Princess may not have quite the social reputation of Carnival, but their larger ships are a good option for those who want nightlife and dancing with a slightly higher level of "polish" in terms of service and ship décor (at a higher price, of course).

Big ships with all the "bells and whistles"

Virtually all ships today have multiple swimming pools, at least two restaurants (one traditional, one casual), tennis / basketball courts, well-equipped fitness centers, and luxurious day spas. That said, the following lines have ships with exceptional facilities:

  • Royal Caribbean (RCI) currently has the largest ships afloat, the newest of which have surf simulators, indoor shopping arcades, water parks, ice skating rinks, a boxing ring, and mini-golf. All ships have rock-climbing walls. That said, ships of this size can feel overwhelming or impersonal, and it is important for families to bring walkie-talkies or arrange regular meeting places.
  • NCL ships may not be the largest, but they have the widest selection of restaurants; some with as many as ten venues, ranging from teppanyaki and sushi to Tex-Mex and French haute cuisine. Bowling alleys, water slides and rock-climbing walls are also popular.
  • Princess has ships of all sizes, but their largest carry over 3,000 guests and feature outdoor movies on a large screen on the pool deck, as well as a spectacular nightclub suspended three stories above the back end of the ship.

Family fun

During the summer, almost any major cruise line will have good family facilities onboard. However the cruise lines that kids like the most are:

  • Disney: With kids' favorite characters aboard and extensive facilities, Disney is a perennial favorite for families. However, they have only two ships and prices are very high relative to other family-friendly lines.
  • Carnival: Consistently rates well with kids of all ages. Camp Carnival is the longest-running kids' program. Most ships have separate kids' facilities, and select ships have a dedicated "Club 02" area for teens. All ships have water slides and multiple swimming pools.
  • RCI: The larger ships' water parks, ice skating rinks and rock climbing walls particularly appeal to teens.

Refined service

In general, service on a cruise ship is very good, much better than on comparably-priced land vacation. Even the least expensive cruise lines will make your bed twice a day and have attentive waiters. That said, some lines stand out:

  • Luxury lines must and do provide a luxurious level of service, and are priced accordingly. Those on Seabourn's small ships or in Cunard's upper categories will find a particularly refined and personal level of service.
  • Holland America Line provides exceptional service within its premium price category. The line has a long tradition of attentive and gracious service, thanks in part to dedicated training facilities for the line's Indonesian and Filipino crewmembers. Guests are frequently amazed that crewmembers remember their names, and are considerate of the little things - like remembering what you like to drink with your dinner, and smiling when they greet you.

Casual atmosphere

The following cruise lines have no formal nights, and generally foster a casual atmosphere aboard:

  • NCL emphasizes its "freestyle cruising" atmosphere with no dress codes whatsoever
  • Carnival has recently replaced formal nights with "cruise elegant" evenings
  • Oceania offers a casual experience on its high-end ships and asks only that guests dress "country club casual" in the evenings, though jeans are not permitted in the dining room
  • Windstar promises "pampering without pretense" aboard its small, 100 and 200-guest luxury sailing yachts.

Fine dining

In general, all cruise ships have good food (and plenty of it). The following are noteworthy because they have food that would appeal even to snobbish foodies who turn up their noses at any chain restaurant.

  • Any luxury line -- Seabourn, Cunard, Silversea, Crystal - knows that it must spend handsomely on fine food. If you are paying over $500 per person, per day, you can feel confident that the dining experience will be a very good one.
  • Azamara: Within its upper-premium price category, Azamara does an admirable job delivering delicious food from expensive ingredients
  • Celebrity has long paid special attention to dining onboard. The line delivers very good food and dining within the premium price category. Particularly noteworthy is the spa menu available on larger ships.
  • Holland America Line has dramatically improved its onboard dining in recent years, and now delivers very good food and dining. Particularly noteworthy is the wild salmon available every night on Alaska itineraries.
  • NCL is notable for its large range of dining options, but the line has recently radically improved the quality of preparation and ingredients. Today, the food is very good, especially considering the line's mass-market price category.

Flexible schedules

Nowadays, virtually all cruise lines allow you to have dinner when and with whom you wish; they set aside a dining room (or one level of a dining room) for dining by reservation. However, the following lines offer exclusively flexible dining:

  • NCL has no set dining. Each night, guests make reservations for the restaurant and time they would like to dine. With up to ten restaurants to choose from, the ships use touch-screens throughout the public areas to show guests which restaurants are filling up, and what times are available.

Tradition

  • Cunard most closely aligns itself with British nautical tradition. Daily high tea, strictly-enforced formal attire, and classically-decorated ships reinforce this position.
  • Holland America Line prides itself on over 135 years of service. Though not as formal as Cunard, the line's heritage is displayed in the ships' décor (including hulls painted a traditional blue), Dutch high tea and menus that incorporate Indonesian colonial flair.

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