BY JASON LEPPERT
Photo courtesy of the Puerto Vallarta Tourism Board
For cruising veterans, it may seem obvious how to choose the best cruise line for your vacation, but for newbies, it’s the crucial first step and begins by asking the right questions.
To start, ask: What is my budget and what is my traveling personality?
There are four main categories of cruise line quality increasing in cost in order of standard ones, premium ones, upscale ones and luxury ones, and in each category, there are a number of different lifestyles to be expected onboard each individual line.
The guidelines below are merely a loose primer, that for the sake of this exercise excludes boutique and adventure lines, and researching those brands in your budget more extensively will point you to the one best suited to your tastes.
Mainstream cruise brands like Carnival Cruise Line, Norwegian Cruise Line, MSC Cruises, Princess Cruises and Royal Caribbean International fit into the standard quality category, and while many are similar, they do each have their own personalities that may or may not match your own. Carnival, Norwegian and Royal Caribbean are fun casual options with MSC Cruises and Princess Cruises being a bit more refined.
Celebrity Cruises, Cunard Line, Holland America Line and arguably Disney Cruise Line make up the premium category of cruise brands for offering a step up in overall quality of service, dining and more. Of course, Disney is going to be more family-friendly whereas Cunard will be far more formal and traditional. Meanwhile, Celebrity and Holland America are both known for great cuisine.
For an upscale experience, the likes of Azamara Club Cruises, Oceania Cruises and Viking Ocean Cruises near luxury quality for a lower price and are thus known for offering a fantastic value. Viking is raising the bar for this category overall while Oceania is the leader in fine dining and Azamara excels in entertainment.
Then luxury brands like Crystal Cruises, Regent Seven Seas Cruises, Seabourn Cruise Line and Silversea Cruises lead the pack as the best of the best. All-inclusive is the name of the game onboard these, which are altogether very similar, with Regent perhaps being the most inclusive of the bunch.
Another question to ask: where do you want to go?
Not all cruise lines go to every desired port of call, or at least not with regular frequency. Upscale and luxury lines have smaller fleets and spread their ships around internationally, and standard and premium lines usually follow seasonal deployments in regions such as Alaska, Canada/New England and Europe while often having a year-round presence in the Caribbean. Plus, it’s good to remember that specific destinations affect fares as well. For example, Alaska commands a premium price that can tip the scales of perceived cruise line value.
One last question to ask is: Who will you be traveling with?
An elderly couple that might ordinarily sail on a luxury line might be better off on Norwegian Cruise Line when with their children and grandchildren. That way they can stay in the line’s luxurious Haven ship-within-a-ship complex while the younger generations are happily tended to in less-expensive stateroom categories.