Carnival Cruise Lines
Number of ships: 22 Ship capacity: 1,450 to 2,970 passengers Price range: Inexpensive
The audience: This is a mainstream line of megaships that caters to a broad group, from retirees to booze cruisers to young families—just about anyone looking for a casual ship in a lower price range.
Strengths: Folks who love the energy of a big, loud, family-filled ship will love it here. Impressive kids' clubs cater to the many children, and the food—formerly a weak point—has markedly improved in recent years, partly thanks to three-star Michelin chef Georges Blanc, who advises on menus. Depending on your point of view, the atmosphere is either fun and unpretentious or downright silly, like the competitions to see who has the hairiest chest and who can stuff the most ping-pong balls down their bikinis.
Weaknesses: Those who equate mainstream cruises with cattle calls will find their fears confirmed. Picture breakfast and lunch buffets, loud announcements on the PA system, lines for the dining room, and long waits to embark and disembark.
Insider tip: Soft drinks aren't included, so if your kids (or spouse) drink a lot of soda, spring for the $40 all-you-can-drink "Fountain Fun" card. (Sadly there's no booze equivalent.)
Itineraries: Mostly Caribbean, with cruises of varying lengths. A typical seven-day trip leaves from Miami and passes through Grand Cayman, Honduras, Belize, and Mexico's Costa Maya (from $649 per person, based on double occupancy).
Carnival Cruise Line
Celebrity Cruise Line
Number of ships: 8 Ship capacity: 1,808 to 2,046 passengers, plus two 98-passenger ships (Azamara Cruises ) Price range: Moderate
The audience: The passenger roster depends on the destination. On longer itineraries and visits to farther-flung locales such as the Panama Canal or the Baltics, the ships are filled with retirees who have extra time. On Caribbean cruises, the median age tends to drop and passengers are more likely to tote strollers or new wedding rings.
Strengths: Long considered the plushest of the midpriced cruises, Celebrity is more attentive to service than you might expect on big ships. The design is also elegant: Exterior glass elevators look out over the sea, and specialty restaurants have wood paneling and artifacts from famed ocean liners.
Weaknesses: Three new vessels will have almost 3,000 passengers, a big step up from the 2,000 or so they carry now. Sure, there'll still be butlers assigned to all suites, but the question is, will you be able to track one down when you need help tying your bow tie for formal night? How hard will it be to get a spa treatment during peak times? Time will tell.
Insider tip: If you're a Celebrity fan but would like a more intimate experience, try its small, 98-passenger vessel, the Celebrity Xpedition, which tours the Galápagos Islands. Unlike many expedition ships, it has amenities such as Jacuzzi tubs and a formal dining room—and booze is gratis.
Itineraries: The bread and butter of the eight current ships are the Caribbean and Alaska, but Celebrity also offers other worldwide sailings, such as a 13-night cruise around South America. It departs from Buenos Aires, and ports in Puerto Madryn, Argentina; Punta Arenas, Chile; and Valparaiso, Chile (from $1,300 per person).
Number of ships: 9 Ship capacity: 70 and 138 passengers Price range: Expensive
The audience: One of the better-rated "expedition"-style lines, Cruise West primarily sails nature-focused trips to Alaska in the summer and Mexico's Baja Peninsula in the winter and spring. Guests tend to be empty nesters and baby boomers, with a sprinkling of younger couples or groups of single friends.
Strengths: Since the focus is on nature and animal viewing, experts give lectures on the environment and will also take groups out on small boats to explore the coastline—an experience you won't get on a larger ship. There are also popular fishing excursions for salmon, but no worries, the fish are not endangered.
Weaknesses: Each ship has just one dining room, and guests eat around the same time. So if you enjoy the company of your fellow passengers, dinner is a time to share stories about the day. If you don't click with the group, though, you're out of luck. Also missing are amenities such as gyms and spas.
Insider tip: While the line frequently visits Alaska's Inside Passage, guest lecturers' expertise varies widely, from nature photography to the native heritage of the area to oceanography. To get the most out of your time, choose the sailing whose theme best matches your interests.
Itineraries: Besides Baja and Alaska (where a nine-day cruise in from Ketchikan to Juneau runs $4,449 per person and up), Cruise West sails to the Panama Canal and the Fiji islands.
Number of ships: 3 Ship capacity: 940 and 1,100 passengers Price range: Expensive
The audience: Of all the luxury lines, Crystal is probably the most youthful. Baby-boomer guests often travel with nannies in tow, and the bars and lounges don't empty out until after midnight—a rarity on the blue-haired and blue-blooded lines that all but shut down after dinner.
Strengths: This is a foodie's paradise. The Crystal Serenity has a sushi restaurant that serves up dishes created by Nobu Matsuhisa, and even has off-menu Japanese comfort food like pork katsu. Many cruise lines have poolside ice cream bars, but only Crystal makes its own frozen yogurt—and service is personal enough that the fro-yo guy will remember your name (and favorite flavor) from a previous sailing.
Weaknesses: Cabins are smaller and less decadent than on other high-end lines. Also, the Symphony carries 940 passengers, and the Serenity almost 1,100, so competition can be fierce for the best spa appointments and coveted tables for two at dinner.
Insider tip: All Crystal ships are wireless and cell-phone friendly, even when far out to sea. So if you have to bring work…
Itineraries: The line's two vessels tend to move about the globe—there are few ports you can't visit on a Crystal ship if you're flexible about dates. A standout itinerary is the 12-day sailing from Athens into the Black Sea and on to Ukraine, Romania, and Russia, ending in Istanbul (from $8,800 per person).
Number of ships: 2 Ship capacity: 1,791 to 2,592 passengers Price range: Expensive
The audience: The line's specialty—now as ever—is the transatlantic crossing, so the demographics skew older. Expect plenty of retirees and other genteel types looking forward to the peace and quiet of six days at sea with no ports and no distractions other than accomplished speakers and the many books they've packed. Probably a handful of Titanic fans, too.
Strengths: The Queen Mary 2, the world's largest ocean liner, has taken over the torch from the venerable Queen Elizabeth 2, which retires in fall of 2008. The Queen Victoria will set sail in 2008. The new vessels still, however, adhere to the class (or should we call it caste?) system of each cabin category getting its own dining room—four in all, with the dining experience becoming more intimate as you move up the ranks. Regardless, the food is excellent throughout. The guest lecture series is another standout: It draws actors such as John Cleese and Carrie Fisher, and literary lions like New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik. Lastly, the Canyon Ranch SpaClub is gorgeous and staffed by therapists who have been trained at the original outpost in Tucson. It's arguably the best spa on the seas.
Weaknesses: The line is now owned by the parent company of Carnival, so don't be surprised that the old days of "stump the chef" ordering at the Queen's Grill (the top-level dining room) have been reined in. That said, the new ships have some pretty nifty amenities, including restaurants helmed by Todd English (try the braised short ribs over polenta), a planetarium, and a fully stocked library.
Insider tip: After all those days at sea, there's often a big rush to get off at disembarkation. If you can handle your own luggage, obtain "self-help" baggage tags before arriving. The stalwart folks who carry their own bags are also the first group allowed off.
Itineraries: Besides the six-day transatlantic crossing between New York and Southampton (from $1,399 per person), the QM2 sails to Northern Europe, the Caribbean, and makes a fall foliage trip along America's northeast coast. The Queen Victoria will have its maiden voyage in Northern Europe and then embark on a world cruise in 2009.
Disney Cruise Line
Number of ships: 2 Ship capacity: 2,700 passengers Price range: Moderate
The audience: Of course the majority of passengers are traveling with at least one young child, and probably more. (Yep, those are the squeals of "tag" you hear on the pool deck.) But the line has done a terrific job of setting aside adults-only areas on both ships—at the pool, at dinnertime—and Castaway Cay, the private isle in the Bahamas, has a grown-ups' beach, too.
Strengths: Cabins come with second bathrooms—a real plus for families trying to get several sets of teeth brushed at bedtime—and lots of space to pull out the sleeper sofa. The subliminal Mickey-head decor is in fact subtle, so you have to look closely to find the mouse-ear patterns in the rug and curtains.
Weaknesses: The pervasive commercialism can be overwhelming, from the Disney programming on the TV to the Disney toys in the gift shops to the cartoon-themed live shows. You may not be able to find Mickey, but Mickey will find you.
Insider tip: Don't kill yourself packing for every family eventuality. The ships contain all sorts of lifesavers, from cribs to prepared-to-order baby food to diapers. There's also evening babysitting service for kids three and under—meaning parents can have a night to themselves.
Itineraries: Focused on the Caribbean and the Meditteranean. A four-day Bahamas cruise might depart from Port Canaveral, Florida, and stop in Nassau and at Castaway Cay, the line's private island ($499 per person, plus $329 for each child under 12).
Disney Cruise Line
Holland America Line
Number of ships: 13 Ship capacity: 790 to 1,900 passengers Price range: Moderate
The audience: The line offers a broad range of itineraries, and it likewise attracts a broad range of passengers. As with Princess and Celebrity, where you're headed often determines who you're traveling with. Northern Europe voyages actually draw some of the oldest crowds, despite visits to hip cities like Copenhagen.
Strengths: Where Norwegian has updated cruising for the modern traveler, HAL appeals to traditionalists. The line has preserved assigned seatings, as well as formal afternoon tea and a "gentleman host" program for older, single women who prefer having an escort for dinner and dancing. The ocean-liner decor reflects this old-world bent. Still, you'll find nice modern touches such as Internet cafés, 24-hour complimentary room service, and cooking programs with such noted chefs as chocolatier Jacques Torres. The line just announced a flexible seating program that’ll allow passengers to dine between 5:15 pm and 9 pm, rather than only at an assigned time. It's a step in a more modern direction.
Weaknesses: If you aren't a traditionalist, you may find it to be utterly stodgy (the line has been around since 1873, after all). Ships have far fewer restaurants than competitors, so cuisine choices are somewhat limited. And the live Broadway-esque shows are dodgy—think bad high school productions, complete with sequin-trimmed costumes.
Insider tip: Passengers can now check-in online and print out a boarding pass—skipping the main (and slow) line to get onboard.
Itineraries: The Caribbean and Alaska are specialties, but Holland America also sails around the entire coast of Africa, around South America, and in Europe. Its 17-day Panama Canal cruise goes from Los Angeles to New York via the Mexican coast, Costa Rica, Aruba, and the Bahamas (from $2,400 per person).
Holland America Cruise Line
Norwegian Cruise Line
Number of ships: 13 Ship capacity: 1,078 to 2,394 passengers Price range: Moderate
The audience: This line attracts a varied bunch of couples and families with its rock-bottom deals, especially in the Caribbean. After all, it's hard to resist a one-week Caribbean cruise for less than $500.
Strengths: NCL has done a lot to change the way cruises operate today. Its "freestyle" cruising concept—which did away with dress codes and assigned tables—was radical in 2000. Other lines have followed, but none offer as many restaurant choices, everything from a Hawaiian restaurant to sushi bars, teppanyaki grills, and tapas bars (quality varies, however). The entertainment is equally creative: NCL consistently one-ups the competition when it comes to stage shows, including comedy acts by Chicago's Second City troupe and Bollywood-inspired productions complete with contortionists and fire-eaters.
Weaknesses: The fleet is large, and ships vary from new and impressive to old and, well, old. (Guess which ones you get for the cheap, short sailings?)
Insider tip: The top-of-the-line villa suites on the new Pride of Hawaii have a private courtyard, pool, and Jacuzzi tub in a gardenlike atmosphere that feels truly exclusive. If you have expensive taste, but a limited budget—or want large-ship amenities—these are worth a look.
Itineraries: After 9/11, Norwegian launched a Homeland Cruising concept, moving its ships to U.S. ports such as New York, Boston, Baltimore, and Los Angeles. These are still popular, as are Alaska, Caribbean, and Hawaii sailings, such as a seven-day round-trip cruise from Honolulu (from $679 per passenger; villa suites from $1,749 per person).
Norwegian Cruise Line
Number of ships: 17 Ship capacity: 670 to 3,100 passengers Price range: Moderate
The audience: The original line of the Love Boat wants to be everything to everyone—and it often succeeds, catering to young families and fun-loving couples in the Med, and offering the more mellow crowd lengthier sailings out of Florida and to the Panama Canal.
Strengths: The food. Passengers rave over the specialty Italian restaurant, Sabatini's, where meals start with antipasti, continue with regional specialties such as seafood cioppino, and finish with excellent tiramisù. It's also hard to resist the boisterous atmosphere at Bayou Café, the Cajun restaurant that serves up jambalaya, gumbo, and even alligator, washed down with plenty of Planter's Punch. Activities are often well executed: Duffers spend hours at the golf simulators.
Weaknesses: Like Celebrity, Princess is building bigger ships than it was previously known for—all the older ships accommodate fewer than 2,000 passengers, while the new vessels can fit as many as 3,100. Some longtime Princess guests are concerned that the line will not be able to maintain the quality of service associated with the smaller vessels.
Insider tip: There's a single chef's table—inside the galley itself—aboard the brand-new Emerald Princess, where the chef serves a special multicourse meal. There's no prebooking, so sign up for the limited seatings as soon as you board. Princess plans to roll out this service throughout the fleet.
Itineraries: With 17 ships, Princess Cruises goes around the world. It's especially strong in Alaska, where guests can extend their stay and catch Princess's train to its private lodge in the Denali wilderness. A seven-day "Voyage of the Glaciers" cruise from Vancouver to Anchorage runs from $800 per person.
Regent Seven Seas Cruises
Number of ships: 5 Ship capacity: 198 to 700 passengers Price range: Expensive
The audience: Regent's luxury ships skew toward baby boomers, including empty nesters and recent retirees.
Strengths: Massive cabins, with an average of 500 square feet. On the newer ships, each cabin has a suite-style configuration, with a balcony and a marble bath; many have separate showers and tubs. Other pluses: Alcoholic drinks are gratis, including a prestocked in-room bar, and there's a partnership with the Cordon Bleu culinary school to staff restaurants and conduct cooking demos.
Weaknesses: This is a flaw borne out of a strength: So many guests choose to sun on their spacious balconies rather than at the pool deck that the public spaces often feel empty, even if the ship is full.
Insider tip: If you're shopping for sailings around French Polynesia, forgo slightly cheaper deals for Regent's Paul Gauguin, a 330-passenger ship that sails year-round in the region. Popular with honeymooners and couples celebrating anniversaries, it is the rare vessel that was expressly designed for the area in which it sails (halls are decorated with Polynesian carvings and artifacts), and the menu has local delicacies, such as poisson cru followed by a Tahitian vanilla soufflé.
Itineraries: Typical is a ten-day cruise from Dubai to Mumbai, India, with stops in Bahrain and Abu Dhabi (from $4,595 per person). The seven-night cruise in French Polynesia aboard the Paul Gauguin departs from Tahiti, and stops in Bora Bora and Moorea (from $2,295 per person).
Regent Seven Seas Cruises
Royal Caribbean International
Number of ships: 21 Ship capacity: 1,600 to 3,630 passengers Price range: Moderate
The audience: Royal Caribbean sells itself as the active choice for all who fear boredom. You'll see lots of dads with video cameras shooting their kids riding waves on the surfing simulator. The interior of the behemoth ship looks like a shopping mall, cluttered with boutiques and cafés.
Strengths: The activities. With ice-skating rinks, rock-climbing walls, ocean-science programs for the kids, and those supercool wave pools, there really is a lot more action than on your typical cruise. These are the largest ships on the sea, accommodating up to 3,630 passengers.
Weaknesses: Imagine people…everywhere. In line for the elevators, in line for breakfast, in line for dinner. Not a good choice for those who use words like "exclusive" or "solitary" to describe their vacations.
Insider Tips: If you're worried about an expanding waistline on the cruise—a common enough cruise affliction—you'll be pleased to learn that Royal Caribbean has some of the largest fitness centers on the seas, meaning you won't have to fight for equipment. It was also the first major cruise line to ban trans fats.
Itineraries: Caribbean and Alaska voyages are the most popular. An eight-day Southern Caribbean cruise makes stops in Puerto Rico, Barbados, St. Lucia, Antigua, and St. Martin (from $600 per person).
Number of ships: 3 Ship capacity: 208 passengersPrice range: Expensive
The audience: Remember this—when the price goes up, so does the average age of the passenger. Seabourn's three 208-passenger ships feel like a country-club-at-sea, with lots of furs and diamonds in evidence.
Strengths: Its ships are older than those of its luxury competitors, so Seabourn has worked hard to up the amenity ante. All cabins are suites, outfitted with heavy drapes and the latest tech toys (flat-screen TVs, DVD players, Bose stereos), and large picture windows. Dinner feels like a special occasion: Charlie Palmer crafted the continental menus, and the list of included wines is impressive (the reserve list even more so). The line also hosts several formal nights, with postdinner dancing on the deck.
Weaknesses: Since the ships are older (two new ones are due in 2009 and 2010), the layouts don't reflect more recent innovations in cruising: Spas are small, there are no alternate fine-dining restaurants, and only half the suites have balconies.
Insider tip: The small ships have an inherent bonus: They can anchor in places where the massive cruise ships can't. For instance, on Southeast Asian voyages, Seabourn's ships can travel up rivers to cities like Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City rather than anchoring far offshore.
Itineraries: A one-way 14-day "Asian Capitals and Vietnam" tour starts in Singapore and terminates in Hong Kong (from $10,395 per person).
Seabourn Cruise Line
SeaDream Yacht Club
Number of ships: 2 Ship capacity: 110 passengers Price range: Expensive
The audience: These 110-passenger ships bill themselves as cruise ships for people who hate cruising. Passengers include empty-nesters and younger couples who scored in the hedge fund market—and who appreciate the lack of formal nights and dress codes and the chance for overnight calls in nightlife-focused ports such as St. Tropez.
Strengths: A more intimate atmosphere than on more formal luxury lines, with Champagne-and-caviar brunches and late-night excursions to beach bars like Foxy's in the British Virgin Islands. The pool deck has a casual—even sexy—vibe, with Balinese daybeds instead of plastic lounge chairs. The ships also have loaner iPods and laptops.
Weaknesses: Both ships were purchased from Seabourn and feel a tad dated. The lack of en-suite balconies and alternate specialty restaurants is unusual for a ship at this price level.
Insider tip: Trying to decide between SeaDream and Seabourn? The difference may be one of attitude: Both are high quality, but SeaDream is more casual, with a greater emphasis on water sports and evenings playing in the ports. Seabourn's social set is a bit more proper, with special attention given to formal nights and dressing up in your evening best.
Itineraries: A typical seven-day voyage departs from San Juan and stops in Vieques and the U.S. and British Virgin Islands (from $5,900 per person).
SeaDream Yacht Club
Number of ships: 4 Ship capacity: 296 to 382 passengers Price range: Expensive
The audience: The vibe on Silversea, a luxury line, is genteel, and the passengers themselves are sophisticated (read: older), wealthy, and well-traveled.
Strengths: Space, space, space. With ships more than 500 feet long and 70 feet high and a mere 300-or-so fellow passengers onboard, you may feel like you have the whole place to yourself—from the quiet pool deck to the peaceful spa. Only afternoon tea seems to draw a critical mass. Otherwise everyone is in their cabins, which have plenty of room to spread out. Since alcohol is included, the well-chosen house wines flow during mealtimes.
Weaknesses: After dinner, everyone retires to their room, so the public areas can feel like a ghost town—but at least you know your complimentary Bellinis and scotch-and-sodas will arrive quickly in the lounge.
Insider tip: If you want to have other guests over to your cabin for a predinner drink, ask your butler to have hors d'oeuvres, Champagne, liquor, and mixers sent to your room. In fact, they'll even stay and serve.
Itineraries: The line has voyages in traditional areas such as the Med, but really specializes in exotic destinations, including the Middle East and South America. The 14-day "Amazon Wonders" cruise embarks from Barbados and stops in St. Lucia, Bequia, and Grenada before heading to the inland Brazilian city of Manaus via the Amazon River (from $6,780 per person).
Number of ships: 3 Ship capacity: 148 to 312 passengers Price range: Expensive
The audience: Windstar's four-masted ships—which use both motor and wind power to get around—offer a blend of traditional cruising and sailing and attract folks who love the romance of sailboats but don't want to deal with the cramped quarters and instability of smaller vessels.
Strengths: A casual, active vibe: The back of the ship has a platform that lowers to let passengers dive, water-ski, kayak, and wind-sail easily. The staterooms have been updated to include amenities such as Bose sound docks and flat-screen TVs.
Weaknesses: The sailboat theme extends to some of the cabins, which can be undersized, with porthole-style windows that limit natural light.
Insider tip: Because these ships are smaller, they can visit ports that can't accommodate larger vessels, such as Jost Van Dyke in the BVI and Capri.
Itineraries: The ships spend time in the Caribbean, North America, and Europe, with a special focus on the Greek islands. A seven-day cruise of the Aegean Sea embarks from Athens and stops in Mykonos, Santorini, Rhodes, and Istanbul (from $3400 per person).