Planning your first cruise can feel like an overwhelming undertaking. There are indeed so many choices, from "party boats" in the Caribbean and luxury yachts in the Mediterranean to river cruises in Asia and expedition ships in Antarctica. You need to put some careful thought into just what kind of traveler you are, and which type of cruise vacation you really want, while also factoring in such practicalities as budget, the departure port and the length of the trip.
Carnival is the line for "every cruiser," appealing to a broad spectrum of vacationers who share one common trait: They all want a super-fun escape without going bankrupt. Cruises typically start around a reasonable $80 per person, per night, and can be nabbed for lower still with promotional fares. Carnival keeps its cabins simple, with plenty of standard insides and outsides, and does not go overboard with fee-extra venues onboard (access to specialty dining venues like Guy's Burger Joint, Serenity adults-only retreats and Punchline Comedy Club shows, for instance, are all free of charge). For the best budget rates, avoid holiday periods.
Regent Seven Seas is arguably the most inclusive of the biggest luxury brands. Its fares include all-suite accommodations (98 percent come with balconies), meals in main and specialty dining venues, pre- and post-cruise tours and hotel stays, gratuities, shore excursions and beverages from liquor to sodas (in your suite, at dinner or in the ships' public areas). The ships are on the larger size for luxury, carrying 490 to 750 passengers each -- small enough to create a social onboard atmosphere without the crowds of a big ship, but large enough to offer spacious cabins and enough dining and entertainment venues to prevent boredom. Luxury touches abound, whether it be a butler in your penthouse suite or exclusive premium bath amenities designed by the L'Occitane line. The 750-passenger Seven Seas Explorer has over-the-top suites and the highest staff-to-passenger ratios in the industry. Wherever in the world you choose to sail, you will be truly pampered.
Older kids need distractions and special attention; Royal Caribbean gives them both. Depending on the ship, the line taps into teens' and tweens' bottomless well of energy with rock climbing walls, ziplines, ice and inline skating, surf and skydiving simulators, water slides and basketball and volleyball courts. For its youth programs, Royal Caribbean wisely splits up tweens and teens into their appropriate age groups. It also treats the underage crowd like mini-adults with such sophisticated amenities as spa treatments designed especially for the primping generation and their adolescent needs; DJ lessons; teens-only casino nights; backstage tours of the ship; and no-elders-allowed lounges where they can dance, drink mock tails and socialize with their new pals until past their parents' bedtimes. The packed schedule, overseen by an attentive crew, lets parents enjoy their own downtime without worrying about their charges growing bored and antsy.
Disney really gets what parents and small children need on vacation, from entertainment and dining to childcare. The line is rare in the industry for attending to the needs of babies and toddlers; it provides nurseries for little sailors up to 3 years old and has a water-play area available to the diapered set. The cruise line also fills its ships with its signature characters, such as Mickey, Goofy, Cinderella and her princess pals, who engage youngsters at planned events and spontaneous encounters. Its expansive play areas are themed after popular Disney, Pixar, Star Wars and Marvel movies, with plenty of high-tech games and interactive (and often educational) programming. Cabins and dining establishments are tailored for families with small children.
Upscale Silversea attracts a dedicated following of mature travelers. Its all-inclusive pricing model allows for a luxury experience without lots of unexpected expense, with Silversea inclusions like room service, wine and spirits, gratuities and transportation into town from port all bundled into the upfront fares. The line's nine small ships -- accommodating just 100 to 596 guests -- are well-suited to guests seeking easy camaraderie, as well as for those with limited mobility. Plus, Silversea's itineraries propose access to more off-the-beaten-track worldwide ports (they sail to 800-plus locales across all seven continents) that hold special appeal for seasoned travelers looking for new horizons to explore.
Holland America Line caters to solo travelers via its Single Partners Program, which includes hosted parties for onboard singles (early on in the cruise), followed up by special singles-themed cocktail parties and games that give solo cruisers plenty of time to connect. The line will also group singles together for dining (on request), and on sailings of 40 days or longer, even provides special gentlemen hosts to accompany single women to dinner or on the dance floor.
The fact that Oceania has famous French chef Jacques Pepin as its executive culinary director speaks volumes about its dedication to fine onboard dining. The main dining rooms offer high-quality fare in an open-seating plan, and even the buffets and poolside grill fare refuse to disappoint. Lobsters come sourced from the line's own Maine lobster farm, and its beef is dry-aged for 28 days in Oceania's aging facility. Specialty venues are all fee-free (minus special wine-pairing menus), and range from the Asian-style Red Ginger to Italian Toscana and French bistro Jacques. And if eating mouth-watering cuisine isn't enough, you can learn to prepare it yourself with classes in the Culinary Center.
All Norwegian ships offer musical revues, comedy shows, live music and guest performers, but the line really shines with its newest ships: Norwegian Escape, Norwegian Epic, Norwegian Breakaway and Norwegian Getaway. The line takes its inspiration from land-based hits, and cruisers can experience Broadway musicals like "Rock of Ages," "After Midnight" or "Million Dollar Quartet"; sizzling dance shows like "Burn the Floor"; comedy by Second City improv or Levity Comedy; and music by dueling pianists and blues bands. The line even turns meals into theater with dinner show Cirque Dreams. Throw in plenty of bars, discos, bowling and Wii, and you will never be bored onboard.
Cunard and its trio of Queens Ooze culture like an Oxford don. The cruise line introduced the Cunard Insights enrichment program in 2007, inviting onboard such luminaries as a NASA astronaut, a polar explorer and British wit John Cleese. In 2016, the Insights program partnered with The New York Times to present a speaker series highlighting experts on journalism, climate change, politics, national security, sports and more. Passengers can also indulge in cultural pursuits with ballroom dancing, West End-style theater (in a box seat, no less), a planetarium (on Queen Mary 2 only) and string quartets that bid the sun adieu. Audience participation is encouraged; you can learn the art of acting with Royal Academy of Dramatic Art members and wax poetic in onboard book clubs. Starting in 2018, passengers will have the opportunity to trace their family tree, too, under the tutelage of experts from Ancestry.com.
Lindblad seeks out exotic itineraries in the Arctic, Antarctica, Galapagos, Amazon and other less-mainstream cruise destinations. On its polar voyages, passengers sail aboard an ice-class vessel that easily slips through frozen passageways populated with polar bears in the Arctic or penguins in Antarctica. Its Torres Del Paine-to-Cape Horn itinerary delivers myriad land-and-sea encounters in Patagonia's vast wilderness. On all voyages, passengers can expect to share in the expertise of a team of naturalists, including National Geographic photographers and undersea specialists, providing a steady stream of eco-insights and information. For closer views, the cruise line equips its ships with Zodiacs, sea kayaks and underwater cameras. Shore excursions trade bus tours for educational and active diversions, such as naturalist-led glacier hikes and deep-water snorkeling. The company also advances sustainable practices and supports many conservation programs in the fragile destinations it visits.
Paul Gauguin Cruises offers a singular experience in the ultimate honeymoon/anniversary/special-occasion destinations of French Polynesia and the greater South Pacific. Its namesake ship doesn't skimp on romance: All cabins boast ocean views, and a majority have queen-sized beds and private balconies. The line offers a complimentary package for honeymooners (with thoughtful touches like in-room Champagne and a special Polynesian blessing ceremony), as well as a selection of wedding and vow renewal ceremony packages.
Viking River Cruises is a seasoned player that caters to first-time cruisers looking to get their feet wet in the world of river cruising. Known for its expansive portfolio of immersive, destination-centric itineraries -- including iconic European offerings like the Romantic Danube, Rhine Getaway and Grand European Tour -- the line has a river sailing to suit all tastes, with more than 60 vessels plying the inland waterways of Europe, Russia, Asia and Egypt. Viking's fleet is mainly composed of its signature 190-passenger Viking Long ship vessels, and passengers can expect modern Scandinavian design elements onboard with plenty of panoramic windows, oversized suites and the indoor/outdoor Aquavit Terrace, set at each ship's bow