Just a cursory glance at our website will tell you that we love cruises. We’ve taken forty of them since 1996. In fact, we got married on a cruise 26 years ago! Due to a logistical snafu, our wedding cake was in fact a Royal Caribbean anchor cake – true story! And I wouldn’t have it any other way. Looking back, it was somehow prescient. Choosing a cruise can definitely be overwhelming. If you’re new to cruising – or not sold on them, read on! I was skeptical at first, thinking they were for old people (back when I was young lol) who just played shuffleboard all day.

And at the time, I assumed you picked a cruise based solely on the itinerary; I literally thought all the ships were the same! But Mark taught me that sometimes you choose a cruise based on the ship itself. They are (mostly) different and some of the newest ones are cutting-edge with incredible design.

🛳️ Why Do We Love Cruises?

Basically, a cruise is like a floating all-inclusive resort hotel with great food, plus a gym, spa, salon, entertainment, fun activities, shopping and attentive service where you unpack once but visit many different places. To me, this is magic!

Choosing a Cruise

Which cruise you choose depends on what you want to get out of it. Factors to consider include itinerary, ship size, activity level, whether or not you are traveling with kids or extended family, your budget, the amount of time you have, ships you want to experience and things like that.

NCL Epic 2015 - choosing a cruise
NCL Epic 2015

Our Favorite Cruise Lines

Sure, we have our favorite lines and this has changed and evolved over time. We travel and cruise differently than we did when we had a young child, for example. New lines like Virgin Cruises have appeared on the scene, and we have recently discovered the greatness of Azamara.

  • Azamara – Our current favorite for two reasons: the small ship size makes it easy to get around (and for it to get into smaller ports), and fellow passengers are the friendliest we’ve ever encountered. It’s truly a community onboard. Azamara was previously owned by Royal Caribbean but is now independent.
  • Celebrity – We done seven cruises on Celebrity (including three on the Eclipse) and we’ve found it to be very high quality and a great experience. Where were we when Covid started? On the Eclipse! (Long story.) We particularly like the Edge-class ships. Celebrity is owned by Royal Caribbean but is more of a luxury line.
  • Royal Caribbean – We’ve done eight on Royal (including our wedding cruise in 1997) and currently have another two booked. They are more budget-friendly than Celebrity, but you’ll want to be sure you are okay with the big ship experience. They handle crowds well, but there are a LOT of people potentially on these cruises, especially if you sail their newer ships. This also means your experience can drastically vary depending upon the ship booked with Royal. They do have amazing energy and offer some incredible activities, such as a rock climbing wall, a zip line, ice skating, iFly indoor skydiving, FlowRider surfing; and they are essentially floating water parks with all those crazy slides.
  • Oceania – We’ve only taken one Oceania cruise (2023) but we were so impressed that we booked two future cruises. They are going to be more expensive per night but we’ve managed to find a deal on occasion. One way we did that was by looking for prices on their European website. It turns out sometimes it’s cheaper!
  • Viking – The undisputed champion of river cruises also rates extremely high in ocean cruises. We’ve done three and appreciate the sleek Scandinavian design of their ships. However, they are quite pricey for you what you get and we’ve had a mixed experience overall (maybe we were too picky for the price paid).
  • Virgin – A newcomer to the cruise space, Virgin offers adults-only cruising while introducing new concepts such as no main dining room, instead offering a choice of six restaurants, all included in the price. We did our first in 2023 – a short 4-day cruise out of Miami – but have a longer repositioning cruise booked later this year (Singapore to Sydney), plus another in 2024, so we are looking forward to comparing them all. The dining choices and quality are among our favorites.
  • Norwegian (NCL) – We’ve done four cruises on NCL and enjoyed them. They are one of the bigger lines. Just also be aware that your experience will vary by the ship/class of ship you book. Read reviews and understand you’ll be joined by thousands of your closest friends and potentially a lot of kids (if that matters) when school is out.
  • Princess – We have done four on Princess, including several out of the port of LA, which was super convenient when we lived in Orange County.
  • Windstar – A luxury line of small ships carrying under 310 passengers, Windstar sets itself apart with its distinctive sailing yachts, but has recently introduced more classic cruise ships acquired from Seabourn.
  • Crystal – We took a cruise on luxury line Crystal back in 2014 and found it to be a lovely experience. It was sad to see them go in 2022 but we are glad to see that they are back! Recently acquired by Abercrombie & Kent, a luxury tour operator, they are back in the picture.

Some cruise lines we’ve NOT done include Carnival, MSC, Seabourn, and Holland America. This is for no particular reason other than it just hasn’t happened yet.

RCCL Anthem of the Seas 2015 - choosing a cruise
RCCL Anthem of the Seas 2015

Pros and Cons of Ocean Cruises

Here’s a list of the great things we love about cruises, as well as a list of drawbacks worth considering.

Pros

  • You unpack only once.
  • You can see multiple places in one cruise. It’s a fabulous way to see lots of countries.
  • Almost everything is included. A cruise is comparable to an all-inclusive resort.
  • Great food and we don’t have to plan meals
  • Fun entertainment and activities – something for everyone – great for wedding parties!

Cons

  • Short time in port – this can be frustrating but think of it as a sampler to see where you want to go back to.
  • Internet can be unreliable. Fortunately this is getting much better as ships are migrating to StarLink.
  • Ocean cruises are limited to bigger ports (some using tenders instead of a pier).
  • Sea days – love them or hate them? Try a few before committing to a lot.
  • Some ship movement occasionally – there are ways to mitigate this.

Dining Options

There are exceptions, but in general, cruise ships have a main dining room where you can eat during dinner hours (either at a specific seating time or “anytime dining”), plus several Specialty Restaurants available by reservation at an additional cost. In addition, there is a more casual buffet available for those who prefer a faster dining option with greater choice.

Cruise Attire and Formal Nights

Back in the day, cruises had a few evenings designated as “formal.” People would be expected to dress to the nines, and they even rented tuxedos on board. (And after our wedding in port at St. Thomas, I made poor Mark wear his tux to dinner that night, just so I could wear my wedding dress!) Happily (for Mark especially), formal nights on cruises are largely a thing of the past. In general, dress is pretty casual during the day and “resort casual” in the evenings. Most cruise lines forbid you from wearing jeans, shorts, or other super-casual attire in the dining rooms at night (although it’s permitted at the buffet).

Posing for a ship portrait aboard the RCCL
Nordic Empress, way back in 1997. So young…

What About the Movement of the Ship?

If you are prone to motion sickness, please do not let that deter you from going on a cruise. Modern cruise ships have stabilizers that limit the movement of the ship. Most of the cruises we’ve been on have had little to no movement. It can depend somewhat on the itinerary, the weather, and your location on the ship (the middle, lower part of the ship is best), but taking meclizine before and during a cruise can ease your worry and alleviate motion-related problems.

Cruises for Kids

By far, the gold standard of cruises for kids and families is Disney Cruise Line. Even for people without families it is fun and very highly rated. Royal Caribbean and Carvival are also terrific for younger passengers. Most of the largest lines cater to kids over the age of 2, offering Kid’s Clubs by age range. Loaded with activities including arts and crafts, games, even dressing up as pirates and taking over the main dining room during dinner, these clubs are fun places for kids to hang out while you enjoy your cruise. Older kids often have an arcade or a disco to occupy their time.

Repositioning Cruises (Cruise as Transportation)

An often overlooked form of travel for those of us pursuing the Digital Roamad lifestyle is the use of cruise ships, particularly repositioning cruises.

Many people might not realize there are ways to get from the U.S. to Europe, Asia, and even the South Pacific and Australia/New Zealand – onboard a cruise ship as your transfer. Find out more about repositioning cruises here.

Expedition Cruises

An expedition cruise is a special category of cruise designed to focus on the exploration of a specific remote area such as Antarctica, the Arctic, Greenland, or the Galápagos Islands. Smaller and more intimate than most ocean ships, an expedition ship can typically access smaller places and offload passengers into Zodiac boats for further exploration. The cruise includes lectures by guides with expertise on the region, which vastly enhances your knowledge of a place. Some of the most popular expedition cruise lines include Lindblad (affiliated with National Geographic), Hurtigruten, Silversea, Viking and Ponant.

In 2017, we did an exploration cruise of the Galápagos Islands with Silversea, onboard the Silver Galápagos, and it still goes down as one of our all-time favorite trips.

Choosing a cruise - Silversea Silver Galápagos expedition ship waits off the coast of Seymour Island in the Galápagos
Silversea Silver Galápagos expedition ship waits off the coast of Seymour Island in the Galápagos

River Cruises

River cruises differ from ocean cruises in that they use a much smaller ship designed to ply the waters of a river. Some things we love about river cruises (compared to ocean cruises):

  • You can get into much smaller towns.
  • Excursions are typically included.
  • You often can walk off right into town or even bike to next stop.
  • There is little to no ship motion.
  • The smaller ship is very easy to get around.
  • It has a more intimate vibe.

Cons of river cruises would be:

  • Smaller ship means less activities.
  • Large groups can take over the ship.
  • The itinerary covers less ground than an ocean cruise.
  • There is a small (or no) gym or spa.

We’ve done four river cruises on the following lines and loved them all:

  • Tauck – We took the MS Swiss Sapphire up the Danube, from Budapest to Munich. This was themed with The Sound of Music and we even had a descendent of the Von Trapp family onboard with us.
  • UniWorld – We took the River Empress down the Rhine from Amsterdam to Basel.
  • AMA Waterways – We took the AmaCerto down the Danube, from Budapest to Romania.
  • Avalon – We took the Expression up the Rhine, from Frankfurt to Amsterdam.

The obvious omission here is Viking River Cruises, which rules this space. We just haven’t gotten to them yet (but we do enjoy their ocean cruises!) Our next river cruise will likely be in Portugal on the Douro River, so maybe we’ll check them out.

Avalon Expression - Choosing a Cruise
Avalon Expression in RĂĽdesheim, Germany in 2022

Shore Excursions

When your cruise visits a port, you will likely want to explore and you have several options. The most popular is to take a shore excursion, or in many ports you can walk off and explore on your own. If you decide to book a shore excursion, you can pre-book one through the ship or you can book one directly with a local tour company. Often they are the same tour. There are advantages and disadvantages to booking through the ship; see our post on shore excursions to learn more.

Resources for Searching for a Cruise

CruisePlum

When searching for your next cruise, CruisePlum is a great place to start. It has hot and last-minute deals, solo supplement deals, price drops, and a great search engine.

Cruise Critic

Cruise Critic is another essential resource for cruise information. A part of TripAdvisor, it includes reviews of all the cruise lines, specific ships, stateroom configurations, ports of call, shore excursions, even specific sailings. We use it all the time to do research before booking, and we’ve even used it to coordinate group tours with other people sailing on our cruise.

Cruise Deals

There are several ways to find cruise deals and bonuses. Check out our post on cruise deals to find out what we do to get the best pricing, as well as bonuses like onboard credits (OBC) and discounts on amenities like internet, specialty dining, shore excursions and more.

Summary: Choosing a Cruise

Which cruise you choose depends on what you want to get out of it. Factors to consider include itinerary, ship size, activity level, whether or not you are traveling with kids, your budget, countries you wish to explore, the amount of time you have and ships you might want to try.