Choosing Your Ship

Cruise Lines by Type

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Mainstream Ocean Cruise Lines Premium Ocean Cruise Lines Luxury Ocean Cruise Lines River Cruise Lines Specialty Cruise Lines

Photo credit: Windstar Cruises

Just as cruise ships differ by size, the types of cruise lines themselves can also vary greatly in style. Each cruise line has a unique personality that will appeal to different lifestyles. Selecting the right one to match your personal preferences can mean the difference between struggling with unmet expectations and enjoying the vacation of a lifetime. Some of the differences are subtle, but today's cruise lines largely fall into three basic categories: mainstream, premium, and luxury. There are also a couple of secondary categories to consider, including river/barge and specialty cruise lines.

Mainstream Ocean Cruise Lines

These are the contemporary cruise lines with massive ships that offer something—and more often, many things—for just about everyone, from multiple pools to high-energy shows to bingo. Mainstream cruise lines account for the mass appeal of cruise vacations, and attract the most passengers. Ships tend to be the biggest at sea, carrying the highest number of cruisers. Ideal for families, these cruise lines offer some of the most extensive programs for children and teens.

Tip: Mainstream cruise lines are ideal for anyone young or old who is looking for a fun and exhilarating vacation.

Need to Know

  • Most mainstream ships are large and full-featured.
  • Multiple pool and recreation areas help spread out passengers.
  • Lines at buffets and popular venues are common.
  • Food (even in sit-down restaurants) is mass-produced, except at some extra-charge venues.
  • Facilities for kids are extensive, and families common, especially during school holidays.
  • These lines can be budget-friendly, but expect a lot of extra charges.
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Premium Ocean Cruise Lines

Ships in premium fleets have a lot in common with those in mainstream lines. They're just a little more: there's a more refined atmosphere, more gracious surroundings, and more attentive service. Ships tend to be newer midsize to large vessels that carry fewer passengers than mainstream ships and have a more spacious feel. Even the onboard decor may be a bit more glamorous and subtle than on a mainstream line.

Tip: Families will feel welcome on a premium line, but passengers tend to be a bit older, especially on longer itineraries.

Need to Know

  • More space may be set aside for adults-only or quiet areas than on mainstream ships.
  • Cabins are a bit more plush than those on mainstream ships but may not be much larger.
  • Food quality is a higher even in included dining rooms than on mainstream vessels.
  • There are still some extra-charge options, and drinks are not usually included.
  • More lines offer cruises longer than seven days.
  • Most ships offer inside cabins for those on lower budgets.
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Luxury Ocean Cruise Lines

The most deluxe lines tout vessels that range from megayachts (for only a hundred or so privileged guests) to midsize ships, which are considered large for this category. You can expect to be welcomed as a valued guest and treated to all the courtesies and comforts you would expect at any five-star resort. Space is often so abundant that you might wonder where all the other passengers are hiding. Top international chefs are tapped for their culinary expertise in designing menus to please the palate.

Tip: Your spacious stateroom is more likely a suite; bath toiletries will be designer; and an all-inclusive experience reigns.

Need to Know

  • Lower-category cabins are larger and more comfortable than on cheaper ships.
  • Drinks are almost always included in fares, and extra charges are uncommon.
  • Luxury lines have the lowest passenger-to-crew ratios, so service is more personal.
  • Fewer cabins in the same-size ship means more room for passengers.
  • Longer sailings are common.
  • Passengers tend to be older; younger kids are not always welcome.
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River Cruise Lines

The possibilities for river cruising, with its enjoyable slow-rhythm pace of exploration, have grown exponentially over the last decade. An even smaller segment of the market also provides intimate barge cruises on canals and smaller waterways. River-cruise lines attract a mature clientele that's largely couple-oriented; it's rare to find families on board (the boats don't offer much in the way of entertainment or space for kids and teens). Travelers on river-cruise lines typically enjoy exploring at a relaxed pace, and appreciate that even guided excursions are provided for and neatly bundled into the rates.

Tip: Riverboats usually carry fewer than 200 passengers, while barges carry just 6 to 20 guests.

Need to Know

  • Most riverboats come equipped with little more than a main dining room, lounge, and sundeck.
  • Itineraries are port-intensive, and excursions are often included in the rates.
  • Onboard activities and entertainment are not a main focus, so don't expect much more than a piano player and occasional local entertainer.
  • Mealtimes are set, and wine, beer, and soft drinks are generally included with meals.
  • Staterooms are typically smaller and more basic in their appointments than those found on board oceangoing vessels; few can accommodate a third passenger.
  • River cruisers are generally very stable, and most passengers do not feel motion.
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Specialty Cruise Lines

Specialty cruise lines fall outside of the major cruise categories to encompass more unique and adventurous cruising options, like tall ship sailings or expedition cruises. Tall ships deliver on the sea-lover's fantasy of billowing white sails and setting off into the sunset. Expedition ships might be outfitted with icebreaking hulls, or special sonar equipment to look out for whales, and often require tendering by Zodiac boats in far-flung locales; they always carry a wide range of specialists to run programs suited to the expedition: photographers, wildlife biologists, anthropologists, and others. Specialty cruise ships are small by design, and rarely accommodate more than 200 like-minded guests. These types of sailings attract independent and adventurous types, especially nature enthusiasts and photography buffs. With their small ship size, these cruises are perfect for those looking to meet new friends. During school holidays, you'll likely to find families on board, too.

Tip: TIP: Choose a specialty cruise line if you are looking for an experience, or want to visit an exotic locale, more than for the cruise itself.

Need to Know

  • The level of onboard comforts can vary widely.
  • Expedition cruises are usually staffed with specialists.
  • Smaller ships might be real sailboats.
  • Dining is an informal affair, with fixed seating times.
  • Cabins are typically basic in their furnishings and amenities.
  • Just because ships are small and basic doesn't mean rates are low.
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