A Guide to the Best Cruises
By Jim Ferri
With scores of cruise lines and hundreds of ships, choosing a cruising experience can be daunting, even without diving into the world of theme cruises or choosing a cruise for a family reunion. To make it less so, we’ve compiled a catalogue of the best cruise lines and ships that cater to the American and Canadian markets.
The rankings below are based upon information provided by actual cruisers and experts in the industry, as found in reports by U.S. News & World Report, Travel + Leisure, Condé Nast Traveler, Cruise Critic, and The Avid Cruiser.
These were not lightweight studies. U.S. News, for example, based its study on expert evaluations of cruise ship quality, a ship’s reputation among travelers, and health assessments conducted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Travel + Leisure and Condé Nast each surveyed thousands of their subscribers for in-depth personal observations.
Our list is segmented by ocean cruises and river cruises, with additional segments on U.S. river cruises and cruises to Alaska and elsewhere. All cruise lines are presented in alphabetical order.
Lastly, be sure to read What’s New in Cruises for 2020.
Azamara Club Cruises
#4 in U.S. News ranking of Best Cruise Lines for Couples
Azamara Club Cruises garners high praise from cruisers and critics for its upscale cabins and trips to far-flung destinations. The line’s two ships – Azamara Journey and Azamara Quest – sail to more than 200 ports across 68 countries with popular stops in the U.S., South America, Europe, the Caribbean and Asia.
Carnival Cruise Line
#3 U.S. News ranking of Best Cruise Lines for Families
Carnival Cruise Lines stays true to its lively reputation with its festive atmosphere and versatile entertainment options. Carnival’s 25 ships depart from many cities in the U.S., including Miami, Los Angeles, Baltimore, Seattle and New York. With such a large fleet, Carnival offers cruisers their pick of destinations across Mexico, Alaska, Hawaii, Europe and the Caribbean, among other locations.
#2 U.S. News ranking of Best Cruise Lines for the Money
#3 U.S. News ranking of Best Cruise Lines in the Caribbean
Celebrity Cruises earns high marks from cruisers and experts alike thanks to its upscale design and innovative cuisine. While you can sail on a smaller ship like Celebrity Xpedition, which transports only 100 passengers, you can also cruise on a larger ship like Celebrity Silhouette, which can accommodate 2,886 passengers.
Regardless of the ship you select, you can expect a high level of customer service, with each ship carrying approximately one crewmember for every two passengers. Celebrity Cruises’ ships ply waters all around the globe, with 2018 sailings making stops in Asia, Europe and the Caribbean, among other popular destinations.
Costa Cruise Lines
#7 U.S. News ranking of Best Cruise Lines for the Money
Based in Italy, Costa Cruises distinguishes itself from other European cruise lines with its Mediterranean-inspired design and festive atmosphere. Costa’s ships depart from a variety of European ports, as well as U.S.-based ports like Fort Lauderdale, Florida, to bring passengers to destinations in the Caribbean, Asia, Europe, South America and Africa. Itineraries last anywhere from two to 106 nights.
#2 Small Ships category – Conde Nast Readers’ Choice Awards 2017
#1 Medium Ships category – Conde Nast Readers’ Choice Awards 2017
#3 U.S. News ranking of Best Cruise Lines for Couples
#1 U.S. News ranking of Best Luxury Cruise Lines
Crystal Cruises’ two ships – Crystal Serenity and Crystal Symphony – are lauded by critics and reviewers for their elegant design and sparse crowds. Crystal also separates itself from other luxury liners with its low passenger-to-crew ratio, which allows for more personalized service. Crystal’s ships sail across the globe, with popular 2018 itineraries covering Southeast Asia, the Panama Canal, Europe, Australia, Africa and more. Journey lengths are different as well — voyages can last anywhere from seven to 114 days.
#2 Large Ships category – Conde Nast Readers’ Choice Awards 2017
Cunard ‘s three ships receive well-rounded praise for their stylish accommodations and elegant facilities like upscale dining rooms and opulent ballrooms.
Keeping with its legacy as a traditional, Old World ocean liner, the Southampton-based Cunard is one of the only luxury cruise lines to offer secluded dining areas for select passengers, meaning guests staying in standard staterooms dine in a different restaurant than passengers staying in suites. Cunard offers one-way, round-trip and transatlantic sailings with popular 2018 itineraries major cities across the United States, Canada, Europe, the Caribbean, the Middle East and Australia and the Pacific Islands.
Disney Cruise Line
#1 Large Ships category – Conde Nast Readers’ Choice Awards 2017
#1 U.S. News rankings of Best Cruise Lines for Families
#1 U.S. News rankings of Best Cruise Lines in the Caribbean
Disney Cruise Line’s four ships receive kudos from families and critics alike for their kid-friendly atmosphere, whimsical amenities and spacious staterooms.
The theme of Disney cruises theme is understated enough that sentimental adults looking to reconnect with their childhood fantasies will enjoy sailing just as much as the kids: Each ship boasts secluded adults-only pools, restaurants and lounges.
Although Disney’s ships vary in size, on each vessel you’ll find approximately one crewmember for every three passengers. Disney Cruise Line’s itineraries include sailings to various destinations in Alaska, Europe, the Caribbean and Canada.
Holland America Line
#6 U.S. News ranking of Best Cruise Lines for the Money
Holland America Line caters to affluent adults with midsize ships that carry between 835 and 2,650 guests. Each ship provides high-quality service with two or three crew members for every passenger. In 2018, Holland America Line’s ships will travel to destinations around Australia, Mexico, the Caribbean, Canada, Southeast Asia, Europe, South America, Antarctica and more.
Onboard you can pass the time with enrichment programs, such as digital photography, cooking demonstrations and mixology workshops, or work up a sweat in spin or Pilates classes before unwinding at the spa.
#6 U.S. News ranking of Best Cruise Lines for Families
Although MSC’s ships differ in size, the whole fleet receives praise from previous passengers for its sophisticated ambiance and the value of its itineraries – the cruise fare covers ship activities and most meals (with the exception of specialty restaurants).
Swiss-based MSC Cruises sets itself apart from other cruise lines with its refined onboard experiences and eclectic selection of facilities, including adults-only pools, Balinese spas and 4-D cinemas.
The line’s 13 ships cater to a variety of nationalities sailing from destinations like the Mediterranean, the Caribbean, South America and northern Europe with voyages lasting between one and 28 nights. MSC’s ships carry anywhere from 1,984 to 4,488 passengers at full capacity, with approximately one crew member for every three passengers.
Norwegian Cruise Line
#3 U.S. News rankings of Best Cruise Lines for the Money
Norwegian Cruise Line is known for its fun, laid-back ambiance and inventive “freestyle cruising” concept, which promotes no enforced dress codes, no fixed dining times and comes with a plethora of onboard entertainment and family-friendly activities.
Norwegian’s 14-ship fleet sails all over the world, with itineraries in Alaska, Hawaii, the Caribbean, Europe, Asia, South America and many more. During the voyage, adults stay entertained with live shows such as the Tony Award-nominated Rock of Ages musical or sketch comedy from The Second City comedy troupe (available on four ships). There are also onboard water parks and programs for kids.
Norwegian’s dining options are notably varied. The cruise line’s “freestyle dining” program allows you to chow down in globally inspired eateries like French bistros and Japanese teppanyaki restaurants, and sit down at traditional cruise buffets and formal dining rooms without fixed dining times or assigned seating.
#5 U.S. News rankings of Best Cruise Lines for Couples
Oceania Cruises’ six midsize cruise ships have a low 1-to-2 crew-to-passenger ratios, gourmet cuisine and comprehensive itineraries. Oceania sails around the world in Europe, Alaska, the Mediterranean, the Caribbean, South America and the South Pacific, among other places.
Its shore experiences are just as varied as its sailings: passengers can sign up for activities ranging from glacier sea kayaking in Juneau, Alaska, to tapas tastings in Barcelona, Spain. Should you wish to extend your time on shore, you can sign up for a pre- or post-cruise land tour with Oceania, which includes lodging, dining and transportation costs.
Wine and martini tastings and educational presentations are offered on the line’s smaller Regatta, Nautica, Sirena and Insignia ships, which carry up to 684 guests, and cooking demonstrations and art classes take place aboard the larger Marina and Riviera ships (which can carry up to 1,250 guests).
Paul Gauguin Cruises
French Polynesia has long been the ultimate get-away-from-it-all vacation for romantics and adventure-seekers. Enter Paul Gauguin Cruises, whose flagship of the same name was purpose-built for the region. This luxury vessel provides a comfortable, all-inclusive cruise experience, where the ship, appropriately, serves as a background to the beautiful scenery.
Service is among the best we’ve experienced on any ship, reports Cruise Critic. Dining options are excellent, with fresh-caught seafood and over-the-top French cuisine, as well as Polynesian standards. Wines, cocktails, and spirits are included in the cruise fare.
Paul Gauguin is meticulously maintained, though it doesn’t have the bells and whistles of newer ships. Still, those searching for a vacation that combines some lazy days with more active outdoor pursuits will be hard-pressed to find a better fit.
Pearl Seas Cruises
Pearl Seas Cruises’ 210-passengers Pearl Mist is for North American cruisers looking for small-ship experiences relatively close to home. The line’s all-balcony, one-ship fleet splits its time between the Great Lakes, Canadian Maritimes, Caribbean and Panama Canal. Cruises are usually port-intensive with a stop every day.
Onboard, reports Cruise Critic, passengers find five-star service, gourmet dining that is flexible enough to accommodate all special needs, and daily presentations by destination experts.
Cabins are spacious; the smallest room is 275 square feet, while the largest is 580 square feet (including balconies). All but one room on the ship have private balconies, and cabins on the upper two decks have floor-to-ceiling glass balcony doors so you can sit on your bed and watch the scenery glide by.
#3 Large Ships category – Conde Nast Readers’ Choice Awards 2017
#5 U.S. News rankings of Best Cruise Lines for the Money 2018
Princess Cruises’ claim to fame may be its starring role in the 1977 hit TV series “The Love Boat.” But since its Hollywood debut, the cruise line has continued making waves with enriching onboard activities and versatile itineraries. Princess’ 17-ship fleet traverses the globe, with popular sailings covering Hawaii, Alaska, Mexico, Europe, and the Caribbean, among other locations. Princess Cruises’ fleet features both midsize ships and larger ships, so you can select your ship according to your style and size preferences.
Whatever ship you choose, you can count on a refined atmosphere and personalized service, with approximately one crewmember per two or three passengers. Cruises last between three and 111 days and feature everything from music lessons and stage shows to “Movies Under the Stars” poolside screenings.
Regent Seven Seas Cruises
#2 Small Ships category – Conde Nast Readers’ Choice Awards 2017
#3 U.S. News ranking of Best Cruise Lines in the Mediterranean
Regent Seven Seas Cruises receives high marks from experts and travelers alike for its all-inclusive approach and commitment to luxury service. All four of Regent’s ships offer all-suite accommodations, and with one crewmember for every one to two passengers, the line prides itself on its friendly, attentive staff.
How long you’re on board a Regent ship can vary greatly, with 2018 voyages ranging from seven to 147 nights. Regent’s popular 2018 itineraries include stops in hundreds of ports in destinations like Africa, Alaska, the Caribbean, Europe and more.
Guests can explore new places with complimentary shore excursions that vary by itinerary and cover everything from walking tours and wine tastings in Dubrovnik, Croatia, to snorkeling in Fiji. There’s also plenty to do without leaving the ship, including nightly onboard entertainment, a Canyon Ranch SpaClub and a putting green near the pool deck.
Royal Caribbean International
#1 U.S. News rankings of Best Cruise Lines for the Money
#2 U.S. News rankings of Best Cruise Lines for Families
#2 U.S. News rankings of Best Cruise Lines in the Caribbean
Despite its name, Royal Caribbean International offers voyages to 256 destinations across 64 countries on six continents. While you can certainly sail to the Caribbean and Mexico, you can also board a ship to Alaska, navigate the waterways of Europe or ride the waves down under to Australia and New Zealand.
And depending on which itinerary you choose, you can taste local fare, tag along on a sightseeing tour or enjoy a nature hike – all of which are offered as shore excursions. Royal Caribbean ships depart from ports all over the United States, as well as from numerous international ports. Itineraries range from three-night trips to 23-night journeys.
The company’s fleet is just as varied as its list of destinations. Smaller ships like the Empress of the Seas (which can accommodate nearly 2,300 guests) sail alongside floating mini-metropolises like the Oasis of the Seas, which can carry more than 6,000 cruisers. Plus, each ship carries approximately one crewmember per every three passengers.
#1 Small Ships category – Conde Nast Readers’ Choice Awards 2017
#1 U.S. News ranking of Best Cruise Lines for Couples
#2 U.S. News ranking of Best Cruise Lines in the Mediterranean
#2 U.S. News ranking of Best Luxury Cruise Line
Seabourn prides itself on offering the crème de la crème of cruise experiences. Its fleet of five ships offers cruisers a bevy of luxurious amenities.
Travelers can expect multiple dining options, many of which feature menus crafted by Michelin-starred chef Thomas Keller, stimulating onboard activities, and a variety of excursions that you can experience before, during and after your cruise.
Seabourn sails to popular cruising destinations such as Alaska, the Caribbean and the Mediterranean, as well as to more far-flung destinations in Australia, Asia and Antarctica. No matter which itinerary you choose, you’ll be treated to ocean views galore, whether it’s from the comfort of your suite (all cabins feature sea views), while working up a sweat in the fitness center or indulging in a treatment at the salon. Ships also offer casinos, pools, duty-free shopping boutiques, a nine-hole putting course and live music venues.
#5 in Best Cruise Lines in the Mediterranean
Silversea Cruises has built a reputation for exclusivity and exemplary service with staples like spacious suites, diverse onboard activities and gourmet cuisine. The line’s nine small luxury ships – carrying between 100 and 596 guests – foster an intimate experience, with nearly one crew member for every passenger.
These small-scale vessels can sail to remote ports in more than 900 destinations across the globe, enabling you to choose unique excursions like going on an elephant safari in India or go stargazing in the isles of the Scottish Highlands.
Plus, with Silversea’s flexible dining schedule (which allows you to eat whenever and with whomever) and upscale options, including Le Champagne (offered on Silversea Spirit, Whisper, Wind and Shadow) or La Dame (offered on Silversea Muse and Silversea Cloud Expedition), both Relais & Châteaux-affiliated restaurants, you can to cater meals to your preferences.
Viking Ocean Cruises
#3 Small Ships category –Conde Nast Readers’ Choice Awards 2017
#2 U.S. News ranking of Best Cruise Lines for Couples
#3 U.S. News ranking of Best Luxury Cruise Line
#1 U.S. News ranking of Best Cruise Lines in the Mediterranean
Known for its river cruise fleet, Viking Cruises ventured into the ocean cruising market in 2015, and it’s already earned acclaim for its inclusive luxury ships and engaging, destination-focused itineraries.
Viking Ocean Cruises appeal to active and intellectual adults who are interested in learning about the history and culture of the destinations they visit. The cruise line’s five identical 930-passenger ships include attractive perks, such as ship-wide complimentary Wi-Fi and accommodations that all have verandas.
The smaller size of Viking’s ships allows for access to more exclusive ports throughout Europe, Asia, Australia, the Caribbean and South America. Cruise itineraries range from eight to 64 days, while the line’s World Cruise options can last up to 141 days.
#3 Small Ships category – Conde Nast Readers’ Choice Awards 2017
Windstar Cruises is one of a handful of cruise lines operating a fleet of small ships that offer the amenities of a premium cruise experience but with one utterly distinctive difference: Windstar’s ships have sails.
Aside from sails, says The Avid Cruiser, Windstar’s hallmarks have remained consistent throughout its quarter-century history and through four different corporate owners: It’s a line that sails in beautiful, exotic locations; it provides great service and excellent dining; and its onboard vibe is completely casual and unregimented — no dress code, no loud onboard activities, no stress.
Wind Star and Wind Spirit are the line’s two smallest vessels, with passenger capacities of just 148 guests apiece. Wind Surf, built in 1990, is larger and can carry 330 guests.
River Cruises – Europe, Asia, South America
#5 Condé Nast Readers’ Choice Awards 2017
AmaWaterways cruises the waters of Europe, Africa, Vietnam, and Cambodia, and a handful of ships just launched in 2016 and 2017. The 156-passenger AmaKristina, says Condé Nast Traveler, cruises the Rhine region and offers local delicacies in its restaurants, including at The Chef’s Table, where food is prepared right before you.
The company offers a variety of special interest tours, like knotting a bretzel in Wertheim, along with a complimentary fleet of bikes for touring ports, too. If you want a different kind of holiday, the AmaKristina also explores the Black Forest and Alsace regions as part of a Christmas cruise, ending in Amsterdam amid its seasonal festivities.
#4 Travel + Leisure ranking of the Top River Cruise Lines
Aqua Expeditions introduces passengers to the remote region of Peru’s Amazon River and Southeast Asia. Committed to sustainable tourism, says Cruise Critic, the company has vowed to leave as small a footprint as possible.
Its two ships feature suites that could be found on much larger sea-going vessels. Staterooms average 250 to 320 square feet and include ample storage, sitting areas and ensuite baths with rain head showers. The boats are fully air-conditioned, but only the Aqua Mekong offers internet access.
Aqua Expeditions attracts well-heeled, seasoned travelers looking for unique experiences. Most are retirees. Oddly, for a cruise company that emphasizes luxury and adventure, the line is relatively welcoming to families (the minimum age to sail is 7).
Avalon is primarily aimed at English-speaking markets in North America, Australia and the United Kingdom, says Cruise Critic. Amenities include hotel-style twin beds that can be combined to form queens. Ships have English-speaking crews and continental cuisine that appeals to the North American palate.
The Avalon fleet doesn’t aim for lavish entertainment. The European ships have congenial bars and lounges with piano music after dinner, as well as some local entertainment from musicians.
Avalon does a standout job with its onboard enrichment, focusing on the region through which each ship travels. Expert tour directors – for example, a naturalist (on Galapagos departures) – deliver educational commentary as you pass through interesting landscapes. Local entertainment is also a feature on cruises as part of the cruise line’s Local Favorites program.
Crystal River Cruises
#1 Travel + Leisure ranking of the Top River Cruise Lines
In 2016, Crystal Cruises, a company better known for its two large ocean ships, took to the rivers for the first time with the beautifully designed Crystal Mozart: a 154-passenger vessel that makes regular round-trip sailings from Vienna along the Danube.
Even after less than a year in the river cruise business, says Travel + Leisure, Crystal River Cruises rocketed to the top of our World’s Best list. The cabins, which are done in sleek blue and silver tones with splashes of green and start at 219 square feet, are some of the most luxurious in Europe. “The itineraries on the Mozart are educational, enchanting, and exciting,” said one reader. “Food was six-star for every meal — kudos to the chef”.
Grand Circle Cruise Lines
#2 Condé Nast Readers’ Choice Awards 2017
Grand Circle’s ships explore ports like the medieval Czech town of Cesky Krumlov and Speyer, Germany, where passengers are treated to a home-hosted kaffeeklatsch with local families.
The cruise line’s river ships also hold between 46 and 162 passengers, meaning smaller crowds at meals and excursions. Best of all for solo travelers, says Condé Nast Traveler, Grand Circle offers single cabins and doesn’t charge the dreaded single supplement, so you’re welcome to cruise alone and not pay a premium for it.
Tauck River Cruises
#5 Travel + Leisure ranking of the Top River Cruise Lines
#4 Condé Nast Readers’ Choice Awards 2017
Tauck’s nine ships specialize in navigating the rivers of Northern Europe, with itineraries that highlight the castles of Germany’s Rhine River and explore Paris and Monet’s gardens at Giverny on a Seine cruise.
Special departures throughout the year welcome multigenerational family groups, says Condé Nast Traveler, including young children, a unique offering among river cruise lines.
Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection
#2 Travel + Leisure ranking of the Top River Cruise Lines
#3 Condé Nast Readers’ Choice Awards 2017
Uniworld’s 21 ships cruise around the globe in Europe, Russia, China, India, Vietnam, and Cambodia, says Condé Traveler. The “Village Day” program offers passengers on European and Russian sailings the opportunity to visit local homes, farms, and artisans, and every excursion is rated by ability level.
Fine details make the difference on Uniworld’s ships: The 154-passenger S.S. Antoinette features a 10-foot Strauss Baccarat chandelier filled with sapphires that once hung in New York’s Tavern on the Green.
Viking River Cruises
#3 Travel + Leisure ranking of the Top River Cruise Lines
#1 Condé Nast Readers’ Choice Awards 2017
Viking Cruises has expanded feverishly in recent years, says Condé Nast Traveler, with 64 river ships and four ocean ships in its fleet; 48 of those are considered “longships” designed with Scandinavian–style influences just for Viking.
The company’s riverboats explore familiar waters like the Danube, Rhône and Rhine in Europe, as well as faraway itineraries on the Volga in Russia and the Irrawaddy River in Myanmar. Viking River Cruises also includes complimentary Wi-Fi and select shore excursions in its prices, and its “Culture Curriculum” offers experiential learning through events like regional wine tastings and menus that rotate seasonally.
River Cruises – U.S.
American Cruise Lines
One of the best parts about a trip on American Cruise Lines America is being steeped in the history, lore, and music of the Mississippi—both on and off the ship. The ships sails on the Mississippi River.
Expect jazz and blues musicians from the various ports to come on board for an after-dinner performance. Passengers will also get the chance to listen to the resident river historian regale passengers with entertaining lectures on everything from Mark Twain to the Civil War.
Staterooms are spacious, especially for a river cruise ship. Single rooms are 203 square feet, while standard double cabins start at 290 square feet. And the food is decidedly Southern: think Cajun and Creole dishes like chicken and andouille gumbo, Dixie lager braised chicken, and bourbon pecan pie. T+L ranks it best for older cruisers looking for a stress-free way to see the Southeast,
The company’s Queen of the Mississippi sails the Cumberland River, the Mississippi River, and the Ohio River. The lines’ Queen of the West sails The Columbia River and the Snake River in the Pacific Northwest.
Cruises to Alaska…
Cruises to Alaska are very popular and many of the major cruise lines offer them.
According to Cruise Critic, the following seven-night cruises are the best Alaska Cruises in 2018: Silversea’s Silver Shadow ($4200), Norwegian Cruise Line’s Norwegian Pearl ($799), Celebrity’s Solstice ($859), and Royal Caribbean’s Radiance of the Seas ($623).
UnCruise Adventures cruises are all about the adventures you have when you’re off the cruise…thus the moniker “’un’-cruise.” It offers 7 to 21-night small ship adventure cruises that highlight wilderness, wildlife, and off-the-beaten path explorations.
UnCruise Adventures’ vessel sails through Alaska, British Columbia, on the Columbia and Snake River in the U.S. Northwest; Costa Rica; the Galapagos; Hawaii; Mexico; and Panam. And it may be just right for you.