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How to choose a cruise that's perfect for you

With so many ships and destinations, how can you find a cruise that will be your dream vacation? 

Everyone’s idea of a dream cruise is not the same, but there is a cruise ship that will satisfy nearly everyone. Just like you, ships have personalities. So, as you search for your dream cruise, consider these questions: Are you looking for romance? Do you prefer to laze on a beach or by a pool? Or do you want to explore the world? Are you bringing the kids? Do you prefer traveling with crowds, quiet times with a good book and sea views, or do you want both?

Before you book, ask yourself these questions:

1. What kind of cruise experience do you want?

Do you want to do it all?

Looking for a lively poolside scene, an exciting casino, a lavish spa, lots of entertainment, and a multi-generational atmosphere (including some quieter, adult hideout spots)? Consider a megaship.

Operated by such brands as Carnival Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean International (RCI), Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL), Princess Cruises, and Disney Cruise Line, these ships carry 1,900 to 3,600 passengers. They are loaded with resort features, including a wide choice of eateries, bars, and types of accommodations; lots of people (occasionally, you’ll have to wait in lines); and activities to keep everyone from adults to tots entertained day and night.

Do you want the latest, greatest thrills?

The newer and larger super-megaships of Carnival, RCI and NCL add a mind-boggling array of Instagram-worthy amusements, such as waterparks, laser tag, robot bartenders, thrill slides, racetracks, and zip lines. How big are they? RCI’s Symphony of the Seas, the largest cruise ship in the world, carries up to 6,680 passengers. You’ll find fellow cruisers of all ages attracted by the “wow” factor.

Do you want to go back to school?

Mid-size ships, operated by lines such as Oceania Cruises, Viking Ocean Cruises, and Azamara Club Cruises, forgo loud, energetic amusements in favor of good food and wine, learning opportunities, and sophisticated entertainment. With 680 to 1,250 passengers onboard, these ships provide a comfortable way to get to exciting destinations at a slower pace. You’ll have time to listen to a lecture on, say, maritime history, and to socialize with your fellow passengers—most of whom will be age 55 and up.

Do you want interesting destinations?

Small ships, most with fewer than 200 passengers, are casual, social, and adult-oriented. They focus attention on what’s happening off-ship—whether coming face-to-face with sea lions or exploring history and culture.

Among the vessels offering this type of experience are expedition-style ships operated by brands such as Silversea and Ponant, yacht-like ships such as those of Windstar Cruises, and soft adventure-focused ships such as those of Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic. River ships fall into this category, too, providing a comfortable way to explore inland waterways.

Do you want luxury? 

You enjoy the finer things in life, such as gourmet food, fine wine, and crisp linens, and you’re willing to pay for them. Luxury lines such as Seabourn, Silversea, Crystal Cruises, and Regent Seven Seas Cruises cater to a sophisticated, adult crowd, pampering the 290 to 1,000 passengers onboard with such niceties as butler service and free-flowing Champagne. The low-key environment can be social if you want it to be or private if that’s what you prefer.

2. Where do you want to go?

Among the top decisions to make is where you’d like to cruise. Almost anywhere there is seawater or a long stretch of river, cruises can get you there.

Many first-time cruisers start with the Caribbean. The largest ships concentrate on such popular ports as St. Thomas, St. Maarten, and Cozumel, Mexico. Smaller ships seek out less visited and quieter ports, such as St. Barts, the British Virgin Islands, and the Grenadines. On the West Coast, sun-seekers sail from Southern California to the “Mexican Riviera”—including Puerto Vallarta and Cabo San Lucas

Off both the East and West coasts, first-timers can try their sea legs on short cruises—three- and four-night round-trip cruises from the Los Angeles area to Ensenada, Mexico, for example, or two- to five-night cruises from Florida ports to the Bahamas.

In North America, nature-seeking passengers are drawn to calving glaciers and wildlife on summertime cruises in Alaska. Canada and New England cruises highlight North American history.

South America itineraries might include Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires, Santiago or Lima, and even some that take you through the Straits of Magellan.
In Europe, popular itineraries take you between Barcelona in Spain and Rome, around the Greek Isles, to Scandinavia and St. Petersburg, Russia, and along the coast of Norway.

You can also sail to and around the Hawaiian Islands, in and around Asia, and in the South Pacific to Australia and New Zealand.

Exotic itineraries explore almost every other sea-accessible part of the world, sometimes with a shortcut through the Panama Canal or Suez Canal.

Expedition cruises get you to such remote, bucket-list destinations as Antarctica and the Galapagos Islands.

Cunard’s Queen Mary 2 operates regularly scheduled crossings between New York and Southampton, England, much of the year.

3. How much do you want to spend?

With all these choices of ships and destinations, consider turning to a travel agent, who can help you tackle the nuances of booking a cruise, from choosing a cabin to understanding fluctuating cruise pricing. Don’t be shy about asking if the agent has taken a cruise or if he or she has firsthand experience with the cruise line you are considering. If they have, they will know the environment.

Keep a budget for your cruise in mind, but be flexible because your budget will influence the type of cruise you choose. For example, if you’re looking for quiet, sophisticated sailing, what type of bargain is a party ship? You can spend $499 for a basic cabin or thousands for a fancy suite on the same big Caribbean-bound ship. Or you can take those thousands and book a stateroom on a more luxurious ship that takes you farther afield and adds such perks as free drinks.

When comparing fares, make sure to ask what’s included. Most fares cover accommodations, food, and entertainment, but not drinks or gratuities. Your agent can advise on splurge-worthy extras, such as shore excursions, drinks packages, and specialty dining.

Also ask for assistance in booking airfare. Consider arriving in your departure port a day early. You don’t want to begin your dream cruise vacation by missing the boat.

Fran Golden is an award-winning cruise writer for leading publications in the U.S. and internationally, and author of several books about cruising including Frommer's guides to cruising in Alaska and on river ships.

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