Mega Activities or Laidback Luxury: Which Cruise Line is Best for You?

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One of the best cruise lines is Norwegian which offers mega ships like the Joy
Photo credit: Cathy Bennett Kopf

The struggle is real. With more than 50 cruise lines offering a mind-boggling array of experiences, choosing the cruise line best for you can be overwhelming. Your choice depends on budget, itineraries and the type of sailing experience you want, from intimate luxury cruise ships to massive cruise ships with thrilling attractions,

With dozens of cruise options out there, it can be hard to choose the best cruise line right for you. They all offer accommodations, dining, activities and amenities. Some more than others. The majority of cruise ships in the USA depart from Florida. But there are many options when it comes to cruise ports.

For my family’s first cruise 30 years ago, we chose Disney Cruise Line. We enjoyed the cleanliness, service, kids’ clubs and amenities so much we stuck with Disney for years as our three kids grew up. We also sail regularly on Carnival Cruise Lines, Royal Caribbean and Princess Cruises.

“There truly is a cruise for every taste, and so it’s incredibly important to do your due diligence to ensure you’re booking the right cruise for you and your travel companions,” says Colleen McDaniel, Editor-in-Chief of Cruise Critic.

Which Cruise Line is Best for You?

Whether you’re a solo traveler or planning a family or couple’s getaway, here are the things you’ll want to consider to determine which cruise line would work best for your vacation.

Ship Size

Do you want a bustling onboard experience?

Larger cruise ships like Carnival Cruise Line, Norwegian Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean tend to work well for first time cruisers and families. These family-friendly ships are like floating cities with tons of restaurants, shops and entertainment venues. Family fun at sea includes water slides, surf simulators, rock climbing walls and kids clubs.

If you’re planning a multigenerational trip or traveling with a larger family group, mainstream lines can also be great because they are loaded with cabin options, says McDaniel.

For example, there would be everything from VIP options for a quiet escape from the hustle and bustle for the grandparents to smaller interior cabins for families that need quiet naptimes. And there are plenty of family-friendly and adult-only areas to enjoy time together and some alone time.

Consider smaller ships if you prefer traveling with fewer fellow passengers. These ships have less onboard entertainment but a more immersive experience in the ports you visit.

The Extras

Cruise ships are a way to be able to see lots of different places without having to unpack and re-pack at every stop along the way. So the ship’s itinerary is important.

Shore excursions also can be important. If you’re an adventurous traveler, you can book your own to just hail a cab at the end of the pier and take off to explore. If you like a more cautious option, the ship will offer a variety of tours you can book, secure in the knowledge that you will be back onboard well before the ship sets sail that night.

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Eating is a big part of cruising. Are you good with the many offerings on the daily buffets? Or do you want specialty dining options?

The Stateroom

Perhaps the most important factor is the stateroom you select. Some people don’t mind windowless interior staterooms, while others won’t settle for space without a balcony. Sitting on my private balcony watching a sunset is one of my favorite things.

McDaniel recommends reading reviews on sites like Cruise Critic from fellow travelers. “Oftentimes you’ll be able to get a better understanding of what the ship is like through the first-hand feedback from cruisers like you,” she says.

As you’re planning your cruise, make sure you know the cruise ship’s policies for everything from embarkation rules to tipping to Covid protocols. Being prepared will help ensure a smooth sailing experience.

Royal Caribbean Wonder of the Seas
Royal Caribbean Wonder of the Seas. Photo credit: Heidi Gollub

1. Royal Caribbean International

This popular cruise line has more than 25 ships, including the world’s largest cruise ship, loaded with family fun and cutting-edge technology. Royal Caribbean’s staterooms range from interior to luxury family suites with slides.

Long known for its innovative onboard activities, RC attractions include North Star, a jewel-shaped glass capsule attached to a mechanical arm that rises more than 300 feet in the air for spectacular ocean views. More at-sea family fun includes surf simulators, waterslides, recreational spaces, mini golf, bumper cars and climbing walls. Plus, the award-winning Adventure Ocean youth program keeps kids busy and happy onboard.

Passengers will find a wide range of dining options, lounges and bars. Several years ago RC debuted robotic bartenders that can mix a great drink.

Royal Caribbean Highlights:

  • Adventure Ocean youth programs for kids and teens
  • Cribs and supplies available for babies.
  • Wide selection of staterooms
  • Room service
  • Onboard entertainment like surf simulators, and tall slides.
  • World-class musical productions

2. Carnival Cruise Line

Carnival Cruise Line claims it’s a fun ship and it is! With three- to seven-night itineraries, Carnival knows how to get a party started. We began sailing on Carnival when our kids were babies – about 27 years ago. Growing up, they enjoyed the lively activities and entertainment, multiple pools and specialty international cuisine.

Camp Ocean features marine-themed activities and parties for kids ages 2-11. There’s also a teen lounge. Dr. Seuss-themed programming features a parade, story-time and a “Green Eggs and Ham” character breakfast.

Depending on the ship, family attractions include SkyRide, a dual track suspended bicycling attraction and Sky Zone, an indoor trampoline park, along with waterslides and mini golf.

With Carnival’s large fleet (more than 25 ships) and popular destinations (Caribbean, Bahamas and Mexico), the cruise line offers many good deals.

Carnival Cruise Line Highlights:

  • Marine-themed Camp Ocean kids’ clubs
  • Dr. Seuss-themed Green Eggs and Ham character breakfast.
  • Fun onboard attractions like SkyRide and Sky Zone
  • Variety of dining options
  • Has frequent good deals to Mexico, Caribbean and the Bahamas
The main pool on the Norwegian Encore.
The main pool on the Norwegian Encore. Photo courtesy of Norwegian Cruise Line

3. Norwegian Cruise Line

Several SheBuysTravel writers who have sailed on Norwegian Cruise Line rave about the ships and their amenities. For example, the Norwegian’s Breakaway Plus-class ships, which include Norwegian Encore, Norwegian Bliss, Norwegian Escape, and Norwegian Joy, have well-designed staterooms, about 25 dining options and entertainment for all ages.

Those looking for luxury should book a stateroom in The Haven. This enclave of private suites and staterooms has its own private concierge and butler service as well as a separate pool, private sundeck, restaurant and lounge.

Norwegian entertains kids in Splash Academy (ages 3-12) and Entourage (ages 13-17). Some ships offer a fee-based drop-off nursery.

According to Cruise Critic, Norwegian often has space to fill, which translates to last minute deals. Guests will also find many free activities as well as Broadway shows and live music and comedy and a variety of complimentary dining venues.

Norwegian Cruise Line Highlights:

  • Youth programs Splash Academy and Entourage. Some ships offer a fee-based drop-off nursery
  • About 25 dining options
  • Entertainment for all ages
  • The Haven luxury suites

4. MSC Cruises

MSC Cruises is rated among the best cruise ships for families. Similar in size to Royal Caribbean and Norwegian, the cruise line has lots of family-friendly games and activities. One SheBuysTravel contributor says her family’s goal was to reconnect as a family and experience different cultures on their seven-day Caribbean cruise.

For its Caribbean and Bahamas sailings, the cruise line typically sails from Miami. In addition, MSC has itineraries to Canada, New England, Europe, Asia, Bermuda and the Mediterranean.

Teen and kids clubs, waterslides, various dining options and family excursions make MSC a good choice for families.

MSC Cruises Highlights:

  • Baby Clubs along with family activities
  • MSC Baby Care Service
  • Aqua park
  • Waterslides
  • Family excursions
  • World-wide itineraries

5. Princess Cruises

Princess Cruises operates a fleet of 15 modern ships that sail to more than 330 worldwide destinations, including Alaska, Caribbean, Panama Canal, Mexico, Europe, South America, Australia/New Zealand, South Pacific/Antarctica, Hawaii, Tahiti/French Polynesia, Asia, Africa, India and Canada/New England.

One of my family’s favorite cruises was to Alaska with Princess Cruises. Our spacious cabin with a private balcony was perfect for wildlife and glacier viewing. A ship highlight was the onboard naturalist who pointed out wildlife and shared fascinating stories.

In fact, Princess Cruises’ Discovery at Sea program distinguishes it from other cruise lines. Discovery, Animal Planet and the Science Channel partner with Princess Cruises to provide fun educational opportunities. Join activities like the Deadliest Catch crab bucket challenge. Make shark tooth necklaces during Shark Week at Sea or take an Animal Planet shore excursion

The cruise line also offers kids’ clubs, good dining options and excellent shore excursions. In addition, the Princess Medallion Class vacation features a quarter-sized wearable device that enables touch-free boarding, personalized services and finding each other onboard.

Princess Cruises Highlights:

  • Princess offers three kids clubs: The Treehouse for ages 3 – 7, the Lodge for ages 8 – 12 and the Beach House Teen Lounge for ages 13 – 17.
  • Group babysitting in the centers for kids ages 3-11 for $5 per child per hour
  • Great naturalist programs on Alaska cruises
  • Strong wifi
Mickey and Minnie in front of the Disney Wish, one of the best cruises for kids
Disney Cruise Line offers the best cruise for kids. Shown here, the new ship Disney Wish. Photo credit: Disney Cruise Line

6. Disney Cruise Line

U.S. News ranks Disney Cruise Line as the top cruise line for kids. Disney’s newest ship, Disney Wish, debuted in 2022. On all Disney ships, the magic begins with its signature Sail-A-Wave Party. Disney characters like Mickey, Minnie, Goofy and Pluto mingle with guests throughout the cruise.

Disney caters to families with nurseries for tots and children’s programs. The ship’s expansive play areas are themed after popular Disney, Pixar, Star Wars and Marvel movies. In addition, enjoy Broadway-style musicals and fireworks at sea.

Disney cruise ships also offer adults-only dining areas, quiet pool areas and nightlife options. No matter your age, a cruise highlight is a getaway to Disney’s private island, Castaway Cay, in the Bahamas.

Dining is a treat and includes pirate-themed dinners. And since your dining servers travel with you to each restaurant, they get to know your preferences.

Spacious staterooms have a split bath (with tub/shower combos) enabling more people to get ready at the same time. The cruise ships’ expansive play areas are themed after popular Disney, Pixar, Star Wars and Marvel movies,

Disney Cruise Line Highlights:

  • Sail-A-Wave Party
  • Nurseries for tots, and youth programs
  • Onboard Disney character visits
  • Spend a day on Disney’s private island, Castaway Cay in the Bahamas
Holland America cruise ship
Holland America’s Konigsdam allows for customizing a cruise. Photo credit: Silvana Clark

7. Holland America Line

A mid-sized cruise line, Holland America typically attracts a more mature crowd but welcomes kids. It also caters to solo travelers with its Single Partners Program.

SheBuysTravel contributor Silvana Clark, who has sailed on several cruise lines, says Holland America is her family’s favorite. “We picked them for our first cruise because they said ‘well-traveled children are welcome.’”

Holland America activities include an art center, cooking demonstrations and hands-on workshops. Club HAL is the youth program for youth ages 3-17 years old with full-time supervision. In addition, Club HAL staff is trained to work with special needs children,

Holland America Line Highlights:

  • Club HAL supervised youth program for ages 3 – 17.
  • Cribs, high chairs and booster seats available if arranged well in advance
Celebrity Cruises’ newest luxury ship, Beyond, offers more outdoor spaces to enjoy the ocean air. Photo credit: Celebrity Cruises
Celebrity Cruises’ newest luxury ship, Beyond, offers more outdoor spaces to enjoy the ocean air. Photo credit: Celebrity Cruises

8. Celebrity Cruises

Celebrity Cruises is the luxury brand of the Royal Caribbean line. One SheBuysTravel contributor who has sailed about a dozen times with her family said she was very impressed with the new ship, Celebrity Edge. This luxury cruise exceeded her expectations with smart features in the spacious staterooms and opulent public spaces.

For an extra dose of luxury, stay in the Retreat Suites where you’ll have a private restaurant, Personal Retreat Host and much more.

If you’re traveling with kids, rest assured they’ll have fun too. Kids ages 3-12 stay busy with treasure hunts, themed parties and sports in Camp At Sea. There’s also a Teen Club where it’s easy to make friends over video game competitions, parties and culinary classes.

Celebrity Cruises Highlights

  • Camp at Sea youth program for ages 3 – 12
  • Teen Club with video game competitions, parties and culinary classes
  • Family-friendly excursions
  • Family luxury at the upscale Retreat, with a Personal Retreat Host (think butler)

Sailing on Small Ships

On a luxury ship, river ship or expedition ship you’ll be able to visit smaller, more off-the-beaten path destinations and enjoy a more intimate environment onboard. These are geared more toward adults, but some cruise lines allow kids.

”These are great experiences for all ages, but they work best for kids who are really comfortable in a mostly adult environment,” says McDaniel of Cruise Critic.

Note that, unlike the bigger ships, small ships may not have wifi service readily available.

Regent Seven Seas pool deck
Cruising Europe in style includes lounging on the top deck pool of the Regent Seven Seas Cruise. Photo credit: Diana Rowe

9. Regent Seven Seas Cruises

Regent Seven Seas Cruises is a luxury cruise line that offers a true all-inclusive package. Enjoy coach round trip airfare, airport transfers, unlimited excursions, signature dining and unlimited beverages including wine and premium spirits. In addition, wifi and gratuities are included.

For a luxury line, the ships, like the Grandeur, are on the larger size and carry about 490-750 passengers. Still, that’s small enough to foster a social environment. The ships feature spacious cabins and a good assortment of entertainment and dining options.

A SheBuysTravel contributor who cruised with Regent Seven Seas in Europe said she was delighted with the personal service and intimate sailing experience. The wine sommeliers at all the restaurants took the time to get to know her wine preferences and suggested new varietals to sample.

The luxury cruise line welcomes kids ages 5-17 to Club Mariner Youth Program on select voyages. Children ages 5-17 can participate in a range of specialized activities, from mini-putt tournaments to dance parties to movie nights. Each program is designed and supervised by friendly and professional youth counselors.

Regent Seven Seas Highlights

  • Luxurious personal service
  • Spacious cabins
  • Many dining options
  • All-inclusive price includes airfare, drinks, wifi and tips
Silversea Cruise cabin interior
The upscale Silversea Cruises is geared toward mature adults, but welcomes kids. Photo credit: Silversea Cruises

10. Silversea Cruises

Owned by Royal Caribbean International, Silversea Cruises operates small, ultra-luxury cruises and expeditions to more than 900 destinations on all seven continents. It’s also ranked high for its Antarctica expeditions.

Room service, wine and spirits, gratuities and transportation are bundled in the upfront fares. The ships accommodate just 100 to 596 guests.

Silversea Cruises allows children between the ages of six months to 18 years to sail onboard, as long as they are accompanied by an adult over the age of 21. But the upscale cruise line mostly attracts a more mature traveler.

Silversea Cruises Highlights:

  • Silversea Cruises has seasonal programming for kids and teens
  • Room service, wine and spirits, gratuities and transportation are bundled in the fare, so you know the cost before you sail.
  • The ships accommodate just 100 to 596 guests.
Spotting wildlife in Alaska is a fun activity for teens and grandparents on an Uncruise in Alaska. Photo credit: Jamie Bartosch

11. Uncruise Adventures

UnCruise Adventures’ small ships sail into pristine little nooks around Alaska, letting you experience nature and wildlife without crowds. Unlike on some small ships, families are welcome on UnCruise. Just know that the ships carry fewer than 100 passengers.

For her cruise, SheBuysTravel contributor Jamie Bartosch traveled with her 80-year-old mom. They enjoyed UnCruise’s intimate setting, ability to choose daily activities, stunning scenery and top-notch service.

And while it’s a more laid-back experience than is found on large ships, there’s a lot to see and do. From kayaking to bushwacking and wildlife viewing there are plenty of thrilling activities for all ages.

Uncruise Highlights:

  • Disconnect from electronic devices
  • Quality family time together
  • Thrilling outdoor activities
Windstar Cruises in water
Windstar Cruises is a casual upscale cruise line. Photo credit: Windstar Cruises

12. Windstar Cruises

Windstar Cruises offers sailing on the high seas aboard multi-masted yachts or luxury cruise ships. The intimate vessels, accommodating 148 to 312 passengers, travel to the Greek Isles, Costa Rica and the Panama Canal, the Windward Islands, the South Pacific and the Far East.

All the ships have water sports platforms for diving in the ocean and various sports such as kayaking. While kids ages 8 and older are allowed to sail on Windstar, there are restrictions. Guests under 21 years of age must be accompanied by a parent, guardian or chaperone who is at least 25 years old.

“Windstar is considered a more casual upscale versus true luxury, so that could be a nice onboard vibe for older kids,” says Daniel, of Cruise Critic.

So a tween or teen who enjoys hanging out with his or her parents in an upscale setting will most likely do well. Those who prefer games, activities and hanging out with peers may not enjoy the intimate Windstar experience.

Windstar Cruises Highlights:

  • Exciting shore excursions like zip-lining
  • Windstar’s water sports equipment (kayaks, paddle-boards and snorkeling gear)
  • Live music
Deck view on Viking cruise ship of the Danube
Watch the view pass by from a deck lounger onboard a Viking river cruise. Photo credit: Cathy Bennett Kopf

13. Viking River Cruises

Viking River Cruises are just for adults ages 18 and older. And they’re primarily designed for ages 50 and older. With fewer passengers and no kids, it’s a completely different cruise experience.

Spacious rooms, delicious meals and top-notch service make Viking Cruises an enjoyable experience for adults.

Viking ships sail several different itineraries, so excursions will change. However, each port of call features several shore excursions that are included in the cruise price. In addition, Viking cruises offers special shore excursions and tours at added costs. These may include wine tours and tastings, day-long trips that include a gourmet lunch and concerts.

Viking River Cruises Highlights:

  • Relaxing adult time
  • Leisurely river cruise
  • Plenty of time in ports
Native Angeleno and seasoned travel journalist Mimi Slawoff writes for numerous print and digital publications. She is also the author of Oldest Los Angeles (Reedy Press, 2022). A lifelong world traveler, Mimi is an award-winning journalist who writes about outdoor adventures, cruises, Europe and cultural activities. Mimi has three grown kids and lives with her husband and their dog, Maya, in Los Angeles.
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