Contemplating a cruise? With a growing number of vessels sailing the ocean every year -- each with an impressive lineup of itineraries, onboard amenities and lodging options -- finding the best cruise for you is no easy feat. After all, not all cruises are created equal.
Comparing cruise lines, ships, amenities and itineraries presents a challenge. Search the Internet and you'll find hundreds of informative guest reviews, picturesque images and enticing all-inclusive rates. Yet even after you've spent hours scanning the Web, you still may not be sure which voyage is right for you.
To help take some of the guesswork out of choosing a cruise, U.S. News Travel ranked 15 major cruise lines using a methodology that accounts for the things that matter most to cruisers: approval among travelers, expert evaluations of ships and results from in-depth health assessments. Using this approach, we identified the top-performing cruise lines in a number of categories, including region, price range and traveler type.
The U.S. News Best Cruises rankings provide an excellent jumping-off point for planning the perfect cruise. But before you make your final decision, there are still a few basic questions you'll need to answer.
[See: The Best Cruises of 2014]
Where do you want to go?
Ultimately, where you want to sail is the most important question. But where you plan to go can also help determine the length of your itinerary. Do you have a penchant for exploring unfamiliar ports in exotic parts of the world? If you're seeking sophisticated shoreside experiences, you'll want to splurge on an itinerary that affords plenty of time for sightseeing. Longer sailings tend to offer additional time on shore and optional extended stays on land, yielding greater opportunities for exploration and cultural immersion. Or, if you prefer to spend less time in transit, consider a shorter trip to Mexico, the Caribbean or Alaska. Cruising closer to home won't require as much travel time between hoisting anchor and reaching your itinerary's points of interest. Once you've decided which area of the world you'd like to see, you should also narrow down which specific ports appeal to you -- that way, you can focus on the cruise lines that dock in those destinations.
How much are you willing to spend?
While cruise lines lure travelers with all-inclusive fares that cover lodging, meals and entertainment, some itineraries are more costly than others. Since they can offer more trips and carry more passengers, larger lines can afford to offer much lower prices than smaller luxury companies. Cruises on smaller ships may come attached to steeper rates but if you're willing to splurge, you'll be rewarded with upscale amenities, attentive service and exclusive onboard and onshore experiences. (To find a vessel that tenders extravagant amenities and luxurious lodging options, consult our list of the Best Luxury Cruise Lines.) On the other hand, floating resorts like those operated by Royal Caribbean, which claimed the No. 1 spot on our ranking of the Best Cruise Lines for the Money, can afford to offer extensive, imaginative facilities geared to all types of passengers while maintaining competitive rates.
Who are you cruising with?
Everyone seeks something different in a cruise vacation; before making any decisions, you'll need to consider your travel companions as different lines cater to varied ages and interests. Planning to cruise with your kids or a multigenerational group? Narrow down your search to fleets that offer a wide range of family-friendly activities as well as adult-oriented amenities. Cruise lines like Disney and Royal Caribbean, which nabbed the top two spots on our list of the Best Cruise Lines for Families, aim to satisfy the younger set with imaginative kids' programs, movie screenings and character greetings. But these lines also target an older crowd with mature dining venues and quiet pool areas. If you're seeking a ship that inspires romance -- with a charming setting, sparse crowds and spacious cabins -- consider luxury lines like Crystal and Cunard, which promise exclusive experiences and exemplary service. And if you're looking to travel on your own or with friends, you'll want to find a ship that offers opportunities to mingle, be it at the bar or through onboard enrichment programs. Adult-oriented cruise lines like Azamara and Silversea offer language classes and photography workshops in addition to more relaxing pursuits, like food and wine tastings.
How big are you willing to go?
Bigger vessels within large-ship cruise lines typically come outfitted with offerings for nearly every traveler type. Sail with Royal Caribbean or Carnival and you'll have a wealth of cabin varieties, onboard activities, nightly entertainment options and dining venues to choose from. But if you're not a fan of huge crowds, long lines, boisterous deck parties or noisy children, consider a smaller luxury line that allows for more personalized service and a refined ambiance. Consider steering away from smaller vessels if you're traveling with kids, who may start to come down with cabin fever after a few days. However, if you're craving a more sophisticated atmosphere, smaller ships yield fewer crowds that make it easier for cruise staff to pay closer attention to detail and provide a more tailored experience.
How do you want to spend your time?
When comparing cruise lines and ships, it's important to research which companies offer the onboard amenities and shore excursions you want. Are you looking for youth-oriented programs to keep your tots and teens occupied? Then peruse our roundup of the Best Cruise Lines for Families to find out which cruise lines target the younger crowd. Do you want to spend your days at sea attending yoga classes, wine tastings and spa sessions? Our list of the Best Luxury Cruise Lines will direct you toward the more upscale and refined cruise companies. Or if your goal is to partake in as many invigorating excursions as possible, be sure to find a cruise line that offers a long, diverse list of shoreside activities (such as Regent Seven Seas, which includes the cost of shore excursions in its rates).
While cross-comparing cruises, don't be too quick to dismiss a specific company based on its reputation. Cruise lines will often surprise you: Couples may not think they'll find romance on a Disney ship given its family-friendly nature, yet onboard spas and upscale restaurants may provide that amorous (albeit whimsical) atmosphere you're looking for. And while Celebrity Cruises may come across as mature and high-brow, family-friendly amenities abound, making it a suitable choice for travelers with kids in tow.
-- Liz Weiss