What Cruise Line is Right for You?

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Not only are there different destinations for cruises but each cruise line tailors its activities to suit a broad range of lifestyles. Here are a few considerations you should keep in mind while sifting through brochures.

For Families -- Cruise ships with trained youth counselors and the most extensive facilities for children and teens, as well as a full roster of activities for parents and grandparents, include Carnival Cruise Lines, Disney Cruise Line, Holland America Line, Royal Caribbean, and Norwegian Cruise Line.

For Sports Fans -- Royal Caribbean can't be beat for on board sports; each ship has a rock-climbing wall and sports courts, while some have miniature golf courses, roller-blading tracks, and ice-skating rinks.

For Water-Sports Enthusiasts -- Snorkelers and divers rate Norwegian Cruise Line and Princess Cruises highly for their organized tours and diving instruction programs. Small ships with retractable marinas offer the opportunity to sail, windsurf, and water ski from the comfort of your ship.

For Romantics -- Smaller ships with intimate lounges, such as SeaDream Yacht Club, Windstar Cruises, and Royal Clippers are the favorites of many couples. But don't overlook the cruise line that introduced us to the Love Boat -- while Princess Cruises' vessels are large, their signature feature is an abundance of private balconies.

For Foodies -- The importance of cruise food can't be overlooked and the hottest dining experience at sea is found on ships with specialty restaurants. Some feature regional cuisines, such as the highly rated Italian and Asian restaurants on Crystal Cruise Line ships. Others, like the fleets of Princess Cruises and Holland American Line, have upscale steak houses that serve the highest quality cuts of beef available. For a nominal fee, the meals are an exceptional value and the wine lists feature some of the world's finest vintages.

Cruise Ship Categories

Finding a cruise line that matches your personality is as important as finding the right ship. Some cruise lines cater to families, others to couples, active singles, and even food and wine aficionados. Selecting the right one 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 fall into three basic categories: Mainstream, Premium, and Luxury.

Mainstream Lines

*Ships tend to be the big, bigger, and biggest at sea, carrying the highest number of passengers per available space.

*Ship decor runs the gamut, from glitz and glitter to nautical kitsch.

*Staterooms range from inside cabins for three and four to a variety of outside cabin configurations with or without balconies.

*Schedules include enough activities to keep even the most hyperactive passenger content. Expect to find deck sports, team trivia and scavenger hunt contests, Bingo, golf, and more.

*Entertainment tends to be high-energy, Las Vegas--style production shows; you can always find a variety of lounges.

*Dining is generally traditional, with two assigned seatings in the main restaurant for dinner. However, several mainstream cruise lines are experimenting with variations of open-seating dining and alternative restaurant options.

*Service is friendly but not necessarily polished.

The major cruise lines in this category are, among others, Carnival Cruise Lines, Disney Cruise Line, and Royal Caribbean International.

Premium Lines

*Ships tend to be newer mid-size to large vessels that carry fewer passengers than mainstream ships and have a more spacious feel.

*Decor is usually more glamorous and subtle, with toned-down colors and extensive original art.

*Staterooms range from inside cabins for three or four to outside cabins with or without balconies to suites with numerous amenities, including butlers on some lines.

*In addition to traditional cruise activities, on-board lectures are common.

*Production shows are somewhat more sophisticated.

*Most ships offer two traditional assigned seatings for dinner. High marks are afforded the quality cuisine and presentation. Many ships have upscale bistros or specialty restaurants, which usually require reservations and command an additional charge.

*Attentive service is polished and unobtrusive.

The major cruise lines in this category are, among others, Celebrity Cruises, Holland America Line, Mediterranean Shipping Cruises, Oceania Cruises, and Princess Cruise Line.

Luxury Lines

*Ships range from megayachts for only a hundred or so privileged guests to mid-size vessels, which are considered large for this category. Space is so abundant that you might wonder where the other passengers are hiding.

*Tasteful and elegant surroundings often include such touches as authentic antiques and priceless art collections.

*Spacious staterooms are frequently all suites. On the newest ships, all cabins feature an ocean view or balcony, not to mention a high-tech entertainment center with CD players and TVs with VCRs or DVDs. Expect designer bath toiletries, fine linens, and fresh-cut flowers.

*Enrichment programs with celebrity and scholarly guest speakers and culinary classes taught by famous chefs augment traditional shipboard activities. Libraries are well-stocked with books, music, and movies to borrow.

*Evening entertainment varies by ship size, from cabaret to stylish production shows to none at all. Luxury-minded passengers tend to entertain themselves.

*Health clubs and spas are fully equipped and staffed with professionals who bring new meaning to indulgence. After jogging or a serious workout, guests can wind down with a swim or savor a relaxing soak in generous hot tubs.

*Open seating is the norm, and guests dine where and with whom they please during dinner hours. Top international chefs are tapped for their culinary expertise in designing menus to please the palate. Complimentary wines accompany meals on most high-end lines.

*At this level, the service staffs anticipate their guests' desires, and it's rare that a special request goes unfulfilled.

*You will not find the help groveling for gratuities. If they're not already included in the fare, tips are oh-so-discreetly suggested.

The major cruise lines in this category are, among others, Crystal Cruises, Cunard Line, Radisson Seven Seas Cruises, Seabourn Cruise Line, and Silversea Cruises.

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