Next, you should identify a cruise line or two that not only sails where and when you want to go, but fits your budget and your cruise "personality" preferences. A few criteria to consider are:
- Category: Cruises are divided into three categories: mainstream, premium, and luxury. Mainstream cruises are typically less expensive, but cabins, food, and service are not as lavish as premium or luxury cruises. Luxury cruises are the most expensive, but are ideal if you want pampering, gourmet cuisine, and individual attention. Don't forget that the cost of a cruise can influence what types of people choose the sailing. For example, young families lean toward mainstream cruises, while older, more established couples tend to seek out the luxury they can afford.
- Size: Megaships offer additional onboard amenities such as movie theaters, rock-climbing walls, spas, casinos, and nonstop activities. However, you'll have a larger passenger-to-crew member ratio and often find the food choices are not as gourmet. More intimate ships allow you to get to know all the passengers and crew members, but if you need a constant variety of activities, you might get restless during days at sea. Also, a few lines employ smaller, partially sail-powered ships, rather than the typical liners. Try Windstar Cruises or Star Clippers if you want this different type of cruise experience.
- Personality: Each cruise line has its own personality. Some, such as Holland America, are known for catering to the over-65 set, while others, like Carnival, are known as party ships. If you have children, you'll likely want a ship that is kid-friendly and offers special activities through an onboard kids or teen center. Some ships are more formal and you'll have to dress up for dinner, while others have a more casual atmosphere. Past cruisers or travel agents can be invaluable for giving you the lowdown on a ship's personality.
You can read about 16 major lines in SmarterTravel.com's cruise profiles. Two other good websites to help you pick a cruise are CruiseMates.com and CruiseCritic.com. Both offer ship reviews as well as destination-related content. A good travel agent who is familiar with cruising or has been on several cruises can also give you a good idea of which lines will suit your needs.
(Editor's Note: SmarterTravel.com is published by Smarter Travel Media LLC, a member of the TripAdvisor Media Network, which also owns Cruise Critic.)