When it comes to cruises, there’s no such thing as one size fits all. Cruises vary by ship, by theme, by itinerary, and even by type of passenger. To find the cruise that fits your style, it helps to ask yourself a few basic questions.
First, do you like the idea of a big ship with many passengers and a wealth of entertainment options? Or are you seeking a quieter experience with fewer people and more individualized attention? Do you want all-inclusive pricing or are you on a budget? Do you need kid-friendly activities the whole family can enjoy? Or are you seeking a romantic couples’ getaway?
Once you’ve determined the kind of cruise experience you want, consider the types of cruises available. Here are a few options to consider:
Today’s large cruise ships are like small floating cities. Passengers have numerous restaurants to choose from, and are entertained with movie theaters, nightclubs, gambling, children’s activities, shows, spas, coffee shops, multiple pools, and much more.
The Royal Caribbean Symphony of the Seas is the world’s largest cruise ship. With 18 decks, the Symphony can carry 6,680 passengers and 2,200 crew. Passengers can go zip-lining, rock climbing, or surfing on the FlowRider—all while onboard.
If you have children, most mainstream cruises offer age-appropriate children’s clubs. Many even offer infant care. Kids clubs provide a wide variety of fun activities under the watchful eye of trained staff, while offering mom and dad some time to relax on their own.
The atmosphere aboard large ships like the Symphony is busy and buzzing. Most mainstream cruises charge extra for excursions, alcohol, and experiences outside of the basic inclusions. Prices run from budget-friendly to moderate.
Small Ship Cruises
If crowds aren’t your thing, consider cruising by small ship. These cruise ships usually carry no more than 300 passengers, which means a quieter atmosphere and more personal attention.
Due to their smaller size, these ships can venture into remote locations that bigger ships can’t reach, making them perfect for exploring places like Antarctica, Alaska, the South Pacific, or the Galapagos Islands.
Some small ship cruises focus on luxury, while other emphasize exploration, with naturalists and other experts onboard. Many offer adventures like kayaking, diving, or whale watching. Popular favorite small ship cruises include Windstar Cruises, UnCruise Adventures, and family-run cruise companies like Alaska Sea Adventures.
River cruises are one of the most relaxing ways to explore a destination. You simply unpack once and then explore a different region each day. Since most river cruises are all-inclusive, your excursions, meals, and even alcohol are included.
These long, narrow vessels can cruise down rivers and through locks, allowing you to see destinations like central Europe up close. It’s quite an experience to sit on the top deck and watch medieval castles, lush vineyards, small villages, and world-class cities roll by.
Many river cruise lines include a variety of excursions at each port. AmaWaterways, a popular river cruise line, is a good example. They provide a variety of excursions—each rated by activity level—at every port, from guided city tours to culinary tours to bicycle adventures.
The pace on river cruises is slower, and most passengers feel no motion from the ship’s movement. Most riverboats carry fewer than 200 passengers, providing individualized attention and allowing you to get to know other passengers. Mealtimes are set and offer an unhurried, luxury dining experience.
Windjammers are tall wooden sailing ships that were once used for transporting cargo. Today, many of these historic vessels have been restored to offer passenger cruises. The Maine Windjammer Association, for example, is a group of eight beautifully restored windjammers that offer 3- to 7-day cruises along the Maine coast. There is often no set itinerary, as the captain follows the wind, so every day is a different adventure.
In Maine, windjammer cruises stop to explore some of the 4,600 islands off the coast or visit towns like Boothbay Harbor or Acadia National Park. Cabins and common rooms on board are small, but the meals are tasty and hearty. Passengers and crew get to know each other, and there is often a nice comradery on board.
Have a special interest or hobby? Many cruise lines offer themed cruises for those with a special interest. The Maine Windjammers listed above, for example, offer yoga and wellness cruises, lighthouse cruises, wine-tasting, and photography cruises, just to name a few.
Small expedition cruises also cater to a wide variety of interests, include wildlife, astronomy, photography, and even Viking history.
On larger cruise ships, health improvement themes are popular, including yoga, holistic health, and marathon cruises, where you cover the equivalent of 26.2 miles walking or running on deck or during shore excursions. Other themed cruises cater to crafters who knit, quilt, paint, or needlepoint. Bridge players and poker champions have cruises for them as well.
And if you’re a music lover, there are many options for you, from multi-day music festivals at sea to genre-specific cruises that bring celebrity bands on board. Do your research, and you’re sure to find a cruise that is right for you.
Janna Graber has covered travel in more than 45 countries. She is the editor of three travel anthologies, including “A Pink Suitcase: 22 Tales of Women’s Travel,” and is the managing editor of Go World Travel Magazine.