Are you thinking about going on your first cruise and not sure where to start? Unless you're invited by a close friend or family member to join them on a cruise, picking the best cruise line is often the most daunting part of planning a cruise vacation.
If you're feeling overwhelmed, you're not alone. I'm approached by travelers like yourself who are suffering from the "too many choices" syndrome, and they're stuck. To give you a helping hand, I've created a simple cheat sheet outlining what all the major cruise lines do best.
Just like you can expect when working with me as your travel advisor, I'll be honest and as unbiased as possible to help make sure you find the best cruise line for your first cruise vacation.
Which is the best cruise line for me?
Is Carnival Cruise Line best for me?
Carnival is known as the Fun Ship with its trademarked funnel. As a value cruise line, the company is dedicated to the American market and has a "drivable" port strategy with ships strategically placed along the US Coast Line.
Carnival is the only cruise line with a Fun Guarantee that gives you the option to get a full refund and flights home if you do not have a great time within the first 24 hours of your cruise. On the ships, you'll find a wide array of activities for kids of all ages with dedicated kids clubs, teen spaces, family spaces, and nightclubs for adults to party until dawn.
Because Carnival calls more ports in the US home than any other cruise line, you most likely can drive to a Carnival ship instead of flying to the more popular home ports. This can significantly reduce the overall cost of the cruise for larger families.
Carnival cruises are priced affordably to get you on the ship.
Because Carnival is priced affordably, there are many add-ons once you are on the ship (and even pre-sail purchases) that cause your total trip cost to quickly add up. These include onboard gifts, spa services, drink packages, excursions, photo passes, IMAX movies, upcharge dining, and more. In many cases, a realistic budget is to plan on spending at least double what you paid to get on the ship.
Carnival is a party ship, especially on shorter cruises. Expect to see lots of overdrinking on these shorter sailings. If you're a family traveler, look at one of the longer 7-night cruises to minimize the partying.
The Cheers! Package has daily limits. Carnival is the only cruise line limiting the number of drinks you can get with their drink package.
Is Celebrity Cruises best for me?
Celebrity Cruises is a premium cruise line with ships that sail worldwide. Celebrity has been positioning itself as the leader of affordable luxury cruising for the last several years, with their EDGE class ships being the pinnacle of that evolution.
Celebrity cruises reflect a premium price, but as you would expect, when you pay more, you get more. On every Celebrity cruise, tips, basic WIFI, and a drink package that includes drinks up to $9 are Always Included. You also have the option to Elevate your package to include a shore excursion credit or Indulge to get a shore excursion credit, onboard credit, upgraded WIFI, and the premium drink package.
Celebrity Cruises is a strong partner for the LGBTQ community, providing support year-round instead of just during Pride Month. Many LGBTQ groups find Celebrity the best option for their annual group cruise because of the Always Included WIFI, Tips, and Drinks, plus the ships are designed to be elegant and comfortable.
Celebrity has home ports around the globe, giving cruises a consistent experience while seeing more of the world.
The Always Included WIFI, Tips, and Drinks mean all the basics for a great cruise are covered with limited spending on the ship required. Beyond the basics, you'll want to plan for excursions, any upcharge dining, spa services, and onboard shopping.
All guests in suites have access to The Retreat, including a suite-only restaurant, sundeck, and other amenities.
Celebrity is primarily adult, but children are allowed.
Because the ship is geared mainly for adults, the kid spaces are not as well laid out as other options that cater to families.
Most cruises are at least 7 nights or longer. Celebrity introduced shorter Caribbean cruises in 2021; however, they are not as prevenient as other cruise lines.
Is Disney Cruise Line best for me?
Disney Cruise Line has a cult following from Disney lovers young and old. Disney started their own cruise line in the '90s and has created a product that allows for every type of cruiser. Sailing on a Disney ship is one of the best ways to get fully immersed in Disney on vacation without feeling like you're getting overloaded.
Disney characters, Broadway-caliber shows, first-run movies, and Disney Magic can be felt throughout the ship. But for those looking to escape children, the Adult-Only parts of the ship are tastefully decorated with only hints of Disney for those looking for it.
Disney has created unique experiences that you will only find on their ships, with many cruise firsts introduced by the brand. For example, Rotational Dining is a unique way to experience different restaurants while keeping the same servers; you'll form a great relationship as they learn your family's preferences. I'm still friends with some servers I've had over the years.
Disney Touches of Magic.
Disney does age-appropriate spaces the best, from fully immersive children's clubs for each age group to adult-only spaces.
Children's clubs have programmed by trained professionals, many of the counselors have undergrad degrees in education.
There are a LOT of kids. If you're someone looking to escape children, Disney is not for you.
Disney prices are high. The company prices as a premium cruise line, and you're still responsible for all the extras (drinks, WIFI, tips, spa, etc.).
Disney doesn't have traditional drink packages. You'll be paying out of pocket for every drink you want.
Is Holland America best for me?
Holland America is a cruise line that focuses on adult cruising, bringing immersive experiences to its cruisers for over 140 years. Holland uses mid-sized ships, which provide a more intimate experience and cruise to places larger ships cannot go.
On the ship, you'll experience world-class dining, entertainment, and luxurious accommodations. With over 500 itineraries going to 100 countries, Holland is well equipped to take you to see the world. You can dive deeper into the local culture with Holland's Exploring Central program because why else do we travel but experience life in a new way.
Holland has a long tradition of providing a luxury experience for over 100 years.
Sailing to nearly every country that has oceanfront property, Holland really does see it all.
Holland is typically cruised by Baby Boomers and older Gen X. Others are welcomed with open arms but often feel out of place.
The entertainment ends early in the evening. If you're looking to party until late at night, Holland is not for you.
Is MSC best for me?
MSC originally started cruising in the Mediterranean and moved into the US market, sailing out of Florida to the Caribbean. MSC is putting a lot of effort into creating new ships that appeal to US travelers and will have one of the youngest fleets for an established cruise line.
Because of its heritage, MSC has the most international passenger list. Many cruisers will travel from Europe to Florida to take an MSC cruise because they know the experience of the product from past trips. Americans traveling on MSC should know that the experience will feel different than typically expected, not in a wrong way, just different.
Pricing is very competitive because MSC is entering a new market. If you're looking for an affordable option, we can get you onto an MSC ship for less than what other cruise lines charge. But be sure to read the cons….
MSC has a lot of different food options that reflect the diverse cultures onboard.
The ships are new and well-appointed for comfort.
MSC's pricing structure is the most complicated out of all the cruise lines. When booking your cabin, you first need to select an experience, these range from the bare minimum to the "ship-within-a-ship" Yacht Club. Each cabin can choose which level of service they want, so you may not have the same services as your neighbor one door over.
Americans may feel out of place. If you're a regular international traveler, this won't be a con for you, but the cultures onboard will be a bit of a shock for those that rarely leave the US.
Is Norwegian Cruise Line best for me?
Norwegian Cruise Line (or NCL) is often seen as a step up from Carnival for those looking to have an upgraded experience without spending much more.
NCL cruises to destinations most popular for US travelers, providing a consistent experience across its ships. The company is also the only cruise line to offer a Hawaii cruise without traveling to an international port of call.
Onboard you'll find plenty of entertainment for children and adults. On NCL's newest ships, an emphasis is placed on activities with go-cart tracks for adventure seekers to race around the top decks.
NCL has a running promotion that allows you to pick up to four perks with your cabin. The standard options are a drink package, WIFI minutes, specialty dining, and shore excursion credits. Watch out for additional promotions that allow the 3rd and 4th guests to sail free in the cabin, which is excellent for young families.
A great range of ship options from small to large. You'll never be bored (unless you want to be) on an NCL cruise.
The included perks make the cruise a good value, and you don't feel like you're being nickeled and dimed once you're on the ship.
Gratuities are charged on the free drink and specialty dining packages. If you're pricing a cruise out on your own, make sure you go all the way through the last page before you book to see the final price, as they aren't included until the end.
NCL has one of the most expensive drink packages out of all the cruise lines. If you do not take it as a perk, it's cost-prohibitive once you add the auto-gratuities.
Is Princess Cruises best for me?
Princess Cruises is a premium cruise line that offers a wide variety of itineraries, an upgraded onboard experience, and some of the best cultural immersions you'll find for a family cruise option.
Princess was the first to enter the Alaskan cruise market and has built a vast network of experiences that you'll only find on a Princess cruise. The company has partnered with locals to enhance the onboard experience, so education continues back on the ship.
Princess Cruises has introduced the Medallion class on all their ships. Medallion class introduces a wearable medallion that serves as your room key, and the Princess mobile app gives you easy access to making reservations on the fly and other great features. Princess has also updated their WIFI to bring land-like speeds to the ships, allowing you to stay as connected to the real world as you'd like.
Princess Cruises are affordable and include your WIFI, Tips, and Drinks with the Princess Plus program.
Cultural immersion can be felt in everything that Princess does on the itineraries.
The target demographic for Princess has been lowering over the last two decades; families feel just as comfortable as older generations.
The activities for children are education-based, making missing school easier since they're still getting some educational benefits while on vacation.
Princess offers World Cruises!
Pricing can be deceiving when you first look at options as Princess will show the lowest fare and not the option that includes the WIFI, Drinks, and Tips.
Longer cruises tend to swing to an older demographic (though this is true of all cruise lines since young adults and kids have more obligations at home that prevent them from taking long cruises).
Is Royal Caribbean Cruise Line best for me?
Royal Caribbean is a family cruise line that puts a lot of effort into creating fun ships for everyone. Royal Caribbean has the most significant ships at sea, larger than entire cities in parts of the country. These mega-ships have been broken down into neighborhoods to keep things easy to navigate, each with a unique focus.
Royal Caribbean sails to ports worldwide and offers a consistent experience that American cruisers are very loyal to. The cruise line is very welcoming of the LGBTQ community, and many of the staff on the ship are family. Royal openly supports their LGBTQ staff and guests throughout the entire year.
Because of the wide range of activities, Royal Caribbean is an excellent option for multi-generational family trips and reunions. The cruise line is affordable for most budgets, with various ways to customize the vacation.
So much to do that you'll need more than one cruise to do it all.
Itineraries that go to the best ports in the world
Perfect for families of all ages and multi-generational family reunions.
Large ships can't go to smaller ports of call
Expect to spend more than just the cost of the cruise as drinks, WIFI, and tips are not included
Is Virgin Voyages best for me?
Virgin Voyages is an ADULT-ONLY cruise that is more boutique hotel than a classic cruise line. Virgin Voyages was set to launch its first ship at the beginning of 2020 but delayed until October 2021.
Virgin Voyages set out to change the way people cruise and has designed ships that are a unique combination of playfulness, sass, and chic. Every cabin includes a $600 value of basic beverages, WIFI, tips, unlimited food with no cover charges anywhere, and group fitness classes. Shortly after Virgin Voyages announced what's included on their sailings, the other premium cruise lines started including more as well (changing business for good!)
Virgin Voyages will start out with four Lady Ships, with the Scarlet Lady being the first to launch. The Scarlet Lady will homeport out of a brand-new terminal built by Virgin in Miami and do 4- and 5-night short sailings.
Two other ships will launch in 2022, and the fourth is expected to launch in 2023. The Valiant and Resilient Ladies will spend their summers in the Mediterranean and the Greek Isles, and their winters will be in the Caribbean.
The Virgin Group has always supported the LGBTQ community, and Virgin Voyages is no different. We have drag brunch to look forward to and other activities which are designed with us in mind.
No complex drink packages; everything is al la carte. Virgin Voyages has a standing Bar Tab offer to pre-fund your drinks, pre-pay $300, and you get $350 to spend on drinks (both on the ship and their private Bimini Beach Club)
Cabins have been built with function and style in mind
Solo Inside AND Seaview Cabins allow you to cruise on your own without the 200% single supplement charge
Every balcony (sea terrace in Virgin lingo) comes with a hammock for sea day napping
Shore Things (excursions) are specially created by Virgin and are more unique than options other cruise lines typically have
Virgin Voyages offers Chic Luxury, which may not be for everyone.
Each of the four initial ships is identical, so there won't be unique quirks for each ship.
No unlimited drink packages, just the standard Bar Tab offer.
As you can see, each cruise line has its own unique traits that make choosing the right one difficult. I hope this has been useful and will inspire you to pick the option that is best for your travel personality.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the choices and don’t want to spend hours researching which route to take, schedule a consultation with me and I’ll take care of all the details for you. We’ll chat about what’s most important for your vacation and I’ll give you the best options and will take care of all the hassle of making the vacation a reality.
Rainbow Getaways proudly help travelers of the LGBTQ community (and our allies) research, plan, and book incredible vacations where you feel confident and comfortable enjoying and exploring your destination. We plan each vacation to meet your specific needs, so you'll have an experience just as unique as yours.
If you haven't already, be sure to request your free copy of The Ultimate LGBTQ Guide to the Caribbean at the bottom of the page.