Best Cruise Ships

| 07.03.12

The best ships for solo cruising, romance, travel, relaxation, entertainment, food, pampering, bargains and families.

A list of the best cruise ships available for different kinds of people

There is a perfect cruise ship for everyone, no matter what their personality, budget, relationship status or demographics -- whether they are solo cruisers, a young couple, empty nesters, or senior citizens planning a family vacation for the entire brood.

As a cruise industry expert and columnist, I have selected a few ships below that I consider to be best for different kinds of people - based on the onboard ambience, cuisine, entertainment, and of course, price.

In making these "best ship" selections, I evaluate the ships' attributes and average prices to come up with a combined "cruise value" equation. However, sometimes the most expensive cruise lines are simply the best in a given category - so I will tell you when that is the case and try to suggest a more affordable option.

Solo Cruisers

Despite the implications of shows like "The Love Boat," single people are simply not a target market for most cruise lines. They only sell cruises on a "per person, double occupancy" basis, meaning two people sharing a stateroom and each paying the full cruise fare. Normally, a solo cruiser has to pay a "singles supplement" equal to the cost of the empty bed in the room. The singles supplement is usually set as "200% the regular cruise fare," which is a little confusing, but just understand that represents your total fare, not a supplement to your regular fare.

One ship, Norwegian Epic (Norwegian Cruise Line/NCL), has a large number (128) of studio staterooms designed for solo cruisers. They are not as cheap as one of the beds in a room for two, but they cost less than the typical singles supplement. They all share a public "living room," giving solo cruisers a way to meet aboard the ship for meals, shows, etc.

One of the bigger cruise ships at sea, Norwegian Epic has great entertainment like comedy and live music clubs, dance parties, and top shows like Blue Man Group.

Norwegian is currently building two new ships; the first, to come in April 2013, will be called Norwegian Breakaway, based in New York City. These new ships will also have singles' studio staterooms - and great entertainment.

For ships with no single staterooms, you can look for a roommates to share a cabin. One option is to use the "seeking cruise companion" forum at CruiseMates. Another is to join a singles group cruise offered by companies that specialize in these. Just Google "singles cruises."

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Romantic Cruises

The most romantic cruises are low-key and private, with a lot of free time for relaxing together with quiet dinners, spa treatments, hot tubs, and staterooms with nice TVs for watching romantic movies.

I recommend the "premium" cruise ships like those in Celebrity's newer Solstice class. These ships are beautifully decorated; they have several restaurants for romantic dining, and staterooms have big beds with big screen TVs for romantic movies.

The spas services are top-notch. One pleasant and affordable option is the thermal suite -- a cozy place with steam baths, heated chairs, hot tubs and saunas where you pay one price as a couple for the entire cruise and you can stop in whenever you want.

Other romantic cruise lines include Windstar, Azamara and Oceania Cruises - all with comfortable staterooms, great food and beautiful surroundings, but these lines also feature plenty of ports for more adventurous travelers.


People who want to see the world often unthinkingly rule out cruise ships for their trips. But there are many amazing places best reached by ship; the Caribbean, Galapagos and Greek Isles come to mind. You can eat and sleep comfortably each night and wake up refreshed for a different destination every day.

The best cruises for travelers visit a different port of call daily -- except when a port demands more than one day (like Venice, Italy, or St. Petersburg, Russia). Oceania Cruises is my top pick, especially its new ships, Marina and Riviera. Azamara Cruises also features port-a-day itineraries, generally in Europe in the summer and the Caribbean or South America in the winter.

River cruises on the Nile (Egypt), the Danube or Rhine (Europe) or the Seine (France) are also wonderful ways to see charming and historic places. One big benefit of river cruises is that most shore excursions are included in the cruise price.

Regent Seven Seas Cruises is a top luxury cruise line - but pricey. Still, it is excellent for travelers because it also includes most tours in the cruise fare, as well as pre-cruise hotels, gratuities, and all beverages like wine with dinner. This line's ships go to very exotic destinations, and with shore excursions included, you are likely to see more than you planned.

For people who love nature, an expedition cruise in Alaska on Innersea Discoveries Cruises offers encounters with magnificent glaciers and beautiful and exotic sea creatures.

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For pure relaxation, nothing beats a plush cruise ship with posh staterooms, quiet and languid surroundings, and few activities. For the more budget-minded, I recommend the older ships of premium cruise lines like Princess and Holland America. These ships, built in the 1990s, are relatively small and uncrowded, and feature simple diversions like movies in a theater with free popcorn, libraries with DVD rentals, and comfortable but utile staterooms.

For a more upscale and relaxing experience, try a longer cruise with many days at sea on a luxury line like Seabourn. The days at sea beyond the horizon are like escaping to another planet. Time passes slowly when the highlights include reading a good book, eating meals and taking naps.

For the most authentic sea escape, try the sailing ships of Royal Clipper cruises. These wind-powered clipper ships (yes, they also have engines) are so quiet that all you hear is the creak of the timbers punctuated by an occasional snap of the sails when the wind changes direction. The gentle rocking of the boat is the world's best natural soporific, and you will be napping daily before you know it.

Best Cruise Entertainment

The best cruise ship entertainment is on the newest and biggest ships. You cannot go by cruise line only -- you have to select specific ships, as below.

NCL's Norwegian Epic has shows like Blue Man Group, Second City Comedy, Howl at the Moon dueling pianos, a blues bar, and a "cirque dinner show with tightrope walking and juggling." I highly recommend it for couples in their 30s through 50s and families with younger kids.

Disney Dream or Disney Fantasy. The newer Disney ships offer amazing stage shows, first run Disney movies in state-of-the-art 3-D, special activities for kids and adults of all ages, plenty of fun games, and even mealtime diversions like "Animator's Palate," where you become an animator with a working cartoon character over the course of your meal. Highly recommended for families.

Royal Caribbean's Oasis of the Seas or Allure of the Seas. These two -- the biggest ships in the world -- are recommended for extended families including seniors and kids of all ages. The entertainment starts with real Broadway book versions of Hairspray (Oasis) or Chicago, the Musical (Allure). There are also "Ice Capades"-style shows with world-class skating acrobats, and an outdoor "AquaTheater" with water shows created by the people who worked with Cirque Du Soleil and other award winning aqua-productions. These ships also have an affiliation with DreamWorks Animation to show first-run 3-D films like Shrek, How to Train Your Dragon, Kung Fu Panda, etc.

For adult "enrichment" programs -- including lectures; classes in music, language and computers; vast libraries; movie theaters and more, the two best lines are Crystal and Cunard Line, especially the transatlantic voyage on the latter's Queen Mary 2.

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Best Cruise Food

The best cruise cuisine I have tried is on the brand new ships of Oceania Cruises, Marina and Riviera. Technically, these ships are not considered to be in the luxury category, simply because they do not include alcohol or gratuities in the cruise fare. But the cuisine, under the guidance of iconic chef Jacques Pepin, is perfection. There are six restaurants to choose from, and none carry a cover charge. You can also take cooking classes sponsored by Bon App�tit Magazine and have your own kitchen workstation.

In the luxury category, my vote for best food goes to Crystal. This line serves traditional menu items with top-quality ingredients -- filet mignon, lobster, veal, sea bass, etc. Do not miss the specialty restaurant Nobu, named for chef Nobu Matsuhisa, who gained fame by melding traditional sushi with the raw seafood dishes of South America like ceviche.

Best Cruise Pampering

The best cruise pampering, where you want for nothing, comes on Crystal Cruises. On Crystal ships, if you even appear bored your butler will offer to bring you a caviar snack (with full accoutrement) or possibly draw you a bath in your stateroom's Jacuzzi-style tub. Silversea is also in this category as the only cruise line that supplies a butler with every cruise. Both are all-inclusive -- and top-dollar -- luxury cruise lines.

The best spa services are on Celebrity Cruises, where you can book an Aqua Spa suite for your entire cruise with access to the thermal suite, fresh flowers and fruit around the clock, spa services like couples' massages and mud baths, and your own spa-inspired restaurant for a week of healthy eating. They even offer acupuncture.

Best Cruise Bargains

The best bargains are relative, depending on your budget. If you want a top-notch luxury cruise experience at a cheaper price, book a "repositioning" cruise on Regent, Seabourn or Crystal. The lines use these cruises to relocate their ships from South America to Europe, for example, so they often have long itineraries with plenty of restful days at sea.

"Bang for your buck" cruises are on Holland America. This classy cruise line with smaller ships often has cabins on sale at prices competitive with mass-market lines like Carnival. But these are very comfortable and elegant ships with high quality service, short lines, and plenty of room by the pool.

The least expensive cruises of all will be found on the older ships of Norwegian Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean and Carnival - but these are not the same fun ships with top quality entertainment we described above. They are smaller ships with decent food and good entertainment, but nothing that will blow your socks off. Still, when you can get a seven-day balcony cruise for less than $80 per person, per day, then who is complaining?

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Best Family Cruises

The best family cruises are on Disney, if the idea is to keep the kids so busy and happy they won't bother you for anything the entire cruise. There are so many kids' supervised activities on Disney ships that your offspring might forget you are on board.

A close second would be the mega-ships of Royal Caribbean -- Oasis and Allure of the Seas. We described the entertainment above, but they also have sports activities for teens like Flo-rider surfing, miniature golf, zip-lining, rock climbing, water slides, and pools. There are lots of kids' activities with DreamWorks characters, a huge casino for mom and dad, nightclubs with live dance music, about 20 different restaurants with a variety of culinary styles, "parades" in the main indoor atrium, special event parties, and lots more.

Best for Young Adults

If you are in your 20s or 30s, married or single, and you just want a fun getaway with great food, good fun, beer and music, we recommend the newer ships of Carnival. They are almost always a great value, and the food is far better than you might expect. The entertainment may not include "name" shows, but it is top quality, fast-paced and lively. There is a reason why Carnival's fleet is known as the "Fun Ships" -- there is always something surprising happening, and the crew gets involved with the fun. These are not ships where the help steps back to let you make a fool out of yourself; these crew members will be right there making fools of themselves with you.

That's it - the best cruise recommendations we have for all cruisers. I hope you found something in here that appeals to you.

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