Which Cruise Line is the Best?

Which cruise line is the best? We weigh in on which cruise lines shine in various categories from dining to entertainment to price and more.

Which Cruise Line is the Best?

I often get the question, “Which cruise line is the absolute best?” and I have to immediately follow it with, “For who?”. With so many cruise lines available to book, it might seem like we’re simply comparing anchors to anchors, but almost every cruise line at sea excels in different aspects of the cruise experience.

For example, the best cruise for a young couple and their kids will not be the same as the best sailing for a couple’s retreat or a vacation for retirees with a penchant for adventure travel.


Take a look at your travel group, your destination, and your personal preferences. If your palate doesn’t extend beyond chicken parm, maybe don’t worry about finding a ship with an established culinary program. Likewise, nightlife might not matter much to you if you’re an early bird always on the first available excursion.

We’ve chosen some key cruising superlatives and weighed in on which cruise lines shine in each category. While it’s not a comprehensive list, it should point you in the right direction when choosing the best cruise line — for you and only you.

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Which Cruise Line is the Best?

Best Cruise Line for Budget Travelers

Our pick: MSC Cruises

Runner-up: Carnival Cruise Line

Honorable Mention: Margaritaville at Sea

Carnival has long been associated with wallet-friendly pricing, and it still is one of the best value cruise lines out there. However, MSC Cruises has blazed onto the scene with consistently cheap deals that make it hard to resist booking that budget cruise vacation. Five of the European cruise line’s mega ships now depart from the U.S., and weeklong Caribbean vacations are on average $100 per person, per night or less. Consider too the fleet is relatively young, with four of the five stateside ships debuting within the past six years — or less.

MSC has ships deployed worldwide, from its home in the Med to South America, Dubai and the Red Sea. This allows for competitive pricing, like a six-night Western Mediterranean sailing over Christmas from $62 per person, per night.

Which cruise line is the best?

Among the cheapest cruise lines, we’d be remiss not to mention Margaritaville at Sea (formerly Bahamas Paradise), which runs short sailings to and from West Palm Beach. The one-ship company is currently one of the absolute lowest fares out there, with feel-good two-night sprints to Grand Bahama Island for less than $200 (total for two people).

Best Cruise Line for Luxury Travelers

Our pick: Silversea Cruises

Runner-up: Seabourn Cruise Line

Butlers, suites and caviar, oh my! When credit card statements are less of a concern, turn to ultra-luxury cruise lines Silversea and Seabourn, which both offer stellar itineraries, fine dining and intuitive service in plush and swanky surrounds. Both cruise lines offer an all-inclusive product, which touches on everything from premium wines and spirits to laundry and included gratuities. Book either line if you don’t want to have to lift a finger during the entirety of your voyage.

While both cruise lines offer a wide range of itineraries and even expedition-style offerings, Silversea has such a substantial footprint, including a ship dedicated to the Galapagos, that it edges out the competition. Special events on world cruises are an unmatched effort of once-in-a-lifetime experiences and the Silversea fleet is about double the size of Seabourn’s seven ships.

Best Cruise Line for Adventurous Travelers

Our pick: Lindblad-National Geographic

Runner-up: Hurtigruten Expeditions

Crave more than the standard-issue walking tour? Expedition cruise lines answer the call of the wild with journeys that bring you into the heart of nature. Staffed with experts and naturalists, these companies bring guests up close to wildlife with hikes, Zodiac cruises, and kayaking.

Lindblad not only offers the far-flung and lesser-traveled destinations associated with expedition — like the Arctic or the Amazon — but even more offbeat voyages that extend into Scotland, Japan and the Pacific Northwest. In addition to experienced expedition staff, Lindblad also features a National Geographic photography expert onboard and its newest ships are sleek and engineered for ice.

There are so many standout cruise lines infusing adventure into their offerings, so we also must shoutout Norway-based cruise line Hurtigruten, which is expanding rapidly into North America. Hurtigruten is constantly pushing the boundaries of introducing new ports and sustainable practices; in 2023 it will sail a cruise through West Africa. It also features Arctic excursions under the midnight sun or northern lights.

Best Cruise Line for Families

Our pick: Disney Cruise Line

Runner-up: Carnival Cruise Line

In one of the toughest and most competitive cruise categories of them all, “family” cruise lines abound. Royal Caribbean, Norwegian and MSC also offer an absolutely mind-boggling amount to do with your kin, plus very solid kids clubs and partnerships like LEGO (MSC). However, the two cruise lines that always seem to have family at the very forefront are Disney and Carnival.

It’s hard to argue with a name like Disney when it comes to creating family vacation magic. From its thoughtfully outfitted cruise rooms to first-run films, state-of-the-art live productions of Disney favorites like “Frozen” and themed dining, the diversions never end. Its world-class kids clubs range from babies to teens and incorporate touches of Star Wars and Marvel in the mix, which is enough to make the adults jealous. Luckily, an adults-only array of bars and lounges cater to caretakers once the kids are in bed.

Carnival holds its own with its Seuss at Sea partnership, dedicated Family Harbor cabins and crowd-pleasing entertainment including “Hasbro, the Game Show.”

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Best Cruise Line for Adults

Our pick: Viking Cruises

Runner-up: Virgin Voyages

Sometimes you just need a break from tiny humans, and you don’t want to be judged for it. While many cruise lines feature adults-only spaces such as lounges or sun decks, very few limit their passenger base to the over-18 crowd. Luckily, if that’s just what you’re looking for, there are options.

Look to the Vs for adult-only sailings, offered by both Viking and Virgin. Viking offers a comfortable, Scandinavian aesthetic onboard with high-quality cuisine (its buffet is one of the best at sea) and a chic thermal suite that is open to all. High marks also go to service and enrichment onboard a Viking cruise, which lacks a casino, though its guests don’t seem to mind.

If you are looking to get away from your beloved children and let looser, Virgin invites a fun-for-all atmosphere with tons of (included) restaurants, fitness classes, and edgy entertainment options. Plus, a private beach club on Bimini in the Bahamas is a port day experience clearly designed by Branson himself.

Best Cruise Line for Couples

Our pick: Celebrity Cruises

Runner-up: Princess Cruises

Thoughtful, contemporary décor sets the tone for what feels like an upscale resort onboard any of Celebrity’s ships. It’s this atmosphere, with engaging art, flying martini flights, and alfresco terraces where couples can canoodle. Spend the day in the stunning spa or thermal suite; eat your way through the ship or soak up the sun hand in hand. Celebrity offers both relaxing retreats and engaging performances to keep lovers occupied, especially on its ultra-modern Edge Class.

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Couples of all ages can find some romance on the original Love Boats, which Princess continues to proudly advertise. Booked in a balcony room? Splurge on a full, course-by-course breakfast before beginning the day with your sweetheart. Later, be sure to attend the wine and chocolate pairing or surprise them with one of Princess’ many romance packages for an extra flourish of amor.

Best Cruise Line for Solo Travelers

Our pick: Norwegian Cruise Line

Runner-up: Virgin Voyages

Cruising alone is by no means lonely. Travelers taking to the seas solo can appreciate the considerate amenities of cruise lines who organize meetups or even dedicated lounges for singles. Norwegian Cruise Line made a statement about solo cruisers with the introduction of its studio cabin complex, featuring moderately priced rooms for one that also have access to a lounge where solo cruisers can meet up with others traveling independently. Studios can now be found across at least eight of Norwegian’s ships.

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Another cruise line now supporting the solo cruiser is Virgin, which has waived the pesky solo supplements, or additional fee for being just one to a room. Though relatively new to the industry, Virgin is courting solo travelers with a whopping 46 single cabins onboard each ship, with six lucky guests snagging forward-facing ocean views. Virgin’s inclusive and welcoming atmosphere breaks the ice a bit better than most cruise lines when it comes to making new sailing friends.

Best Cruise Line for Entertainment

Our pick: Royal Caribbean

Runner-up: Norwegian Cruise Line

There are many times you’re likely to say “wow” on a Royal Caribbean ship, whether it’s at professional ice-skating flips, aquatic high-diving twists, or a roaming piano player who might fit those keys inside an elevator. Remember, this is all while you’re at sea! The variety and caliber of Royal Caribbean’s onboard talent is vast, but there is plenty more to do other than the shows, parades, and live music. You can also book an escape room, play laser tag, climb a rock wall, try surfing or fly down the top-deck waterslides, just to name a few.

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Norwegian is hot on the tail of Royal Caribbean when it comes to on-deck attractions, from an impressive waterpark and ropes course to its scenic speedway go-kart track. However, when it comes to the stage, Norwegian has an absolute knack for landing Broadway- and West End-worthy talent…straight from the theaters of Broadway and the West End. These productions, ranging from “Jersey Boys” to “Beetlejuice,” bring all the pizzazz of the world’s best stages to cruise ship audiences — entirely free of charge.

Best Cruise Line for Enrichment

Our pick: Cunard Line

Runner-up: Holland America Line

If the thought of learning something on vacation attracts rather than repels you, consider these cruise lines for their guest lectures, their library collections and onboard facilities like Cunard’s Queen Mary 2 planetarium or Holland America’s Explorations Central (EXC) zones.

Cunard is a historic cruise company, with a legacy of onboard enrichment that stretched back for decades. Theme cruises — referred to by Cunard as “event voyages” — delve into topics more deeply, including insight from actual veterans as far back as WWII on their “Greatest Generation” sailings; the musical talents of a national symphony orchestra; or festivals at sea from food and wine to literature. Ballroom dancing classes, language lessons, and the dedicated Cunard Insights enrichment program all round out the academic offerings and are available on just about every sailing.

Through 2024, Holland America Line plans to update its shelves with modern libraries as well as trending enrichment like free pickleball instruction. A partnership with BBC Earth results in a spectacular live orchestral performance set to footage of nature called “Earth in Concert.”

Best Cruise Line for Foodies

Our pick: Oceania Cruises

Runner-up: Silversea Cruises

Be sure to stretch your stomach before boarding an Oceania cruise, where the culinary arts have long been a focus and remain a top priority across the fleet. Dishes are continually being refined in every dining venue, including the Grand Dining Room, with recent additions like poke bowls in Waves Grill or an expanded Sunday Brunch as part of the line’s OceaniaNEXT improvements. Jacques Pepin is the cruise line’s longtime executive culinary director, and his onboard venues are a testament to French gastronomic excellence.

Beyond meals, Oceania guests can take part in culinary-themed excursions or book a cooking class at the Culinary Center. Mixology is included in this high-standard F&B mix, with the latest techniques — including zero-proof cocktails — incorporated into onboard bar menus.

Silversea is a luxury cruise line with a cornucopia of quality dining options, but its S.A.L.T. (Sea and Land Taste) program takes the epicurean experience and turns it up to 11. Stretching from onboard kitchens, dining rooms and a themed bar to immersive shore tours, S.A.L.T. is a finely tuned culinary program that draws most of its inspiration from your itinerary and local products and customs. The full experience is currently available on select ships, including Silver Moon, Silver Dawn and Silver Nova.

Best Cruise Line for Nightlife

Our pick: Virgin Voyages

Runner-up: Carnival Cruise Line

No sleep till debarkation! Everyone has their own cruise style, and nothing is wrong with active days and relaxing evenings. However, for some, being able to dance past dawn and hit the town (er, decks) is all part of being on holiday. If that’s the plan, we recommend Virgin Voyages, who excel at tripping the light fantastic for their guests.

A Scarlet themed night with festival-style pop-up acts complement a nightly roster of stage performances including sexy takes on classic scripts, cabaret-style shows, a thumping nightclub and plenty of cool bars to hop from. It’s a ship that stays up, even if you are winding down, with a 24/7 diner and pizza shop and leisurely brunch options for the Morning After.

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Carnival has long been known as a fleet of party ships, and while that reputation has faded over the years with more family offerings and longer sailings, the Fun Ships still know how to boogie down. Carnival makes it easy for anyone to have a good time with an incredible drink from Alchemy Bar or a home-brewed beer from the Key West-inspired RedFrog Pub, complete with live music.

Piano bars, sports bars and pool bars all have different vibes and promise to keep the good times rolling for as long as you can roll. Adult-only comedy shows and other after-hours entertainment add to the many reasons you should make every effort to enjoy Carnival’s nightlife.

Best Cruise Line for the Caribbean

Our pick: Royal Caribbean

Runner-up: Windstar Cruises

With cruising and the Caribbean going hand in hand, it’s hard to pick just one cruise line who excels there. But with “Caribbean” in the name, it’s hard to argue with Royal Caribbean and its fleet of almost 30 ships, including the world’s largest. Offering various ship classes, sizes and price points, Royal overwhelms with its Caribbean options. Sail short, weekend cruises from Port Canaveral or 11-night Southern Caribbean voyages from Cape Liberty, NJ.

Pair idyllic Caribbean ports like St. Maarten with Bermuda, or opt for a Bahamas cruise, which includes private island Perfect Day at CocoCay. Plus, homeports include Baltimore, New Orleans, Galveston and Jersey in addition to the various ports of Florida.

Taking a totally different tack, Windstar’s yachts and sailing ships offer an intimate way to visit the Caribbean. Unlike the bustling touristic areas where mega-ships dock, Windstar’s small vessels can anchor in tucked-away harbors on lesser-visited islands. It’s a completely different and revelatory way to see the many islands of the Caribbean beyond the marquee ports.

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Best Cruise Line for Alaska

Our pick: Princess Cruises, Holland America (tie)

Runner-up: UnCruise Adventures

The Great State of Alaska — it’s another cruise destination frequented by many but mastered by the following lines. For a comprehensive, ocean cruising experience through the Last Frontier, you can’t go wrong with either Princess or Holland America.

Both cruise lines offer incredible lodges and land programs (with the Alaska Railroad) for extended Alaska cruise tours; both dedicate a multitude of ships to the region each season, with varying itineraries; and both offer cohesive onboard programming that highlights the cuisine, culture, and incredible wildlife of Alaska. If you’re looking for a difference, Holland America ventures up into the Yukon. For families, we recommend the North to Alaska programming from Princess.

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If choosing between those two Alaska cruise heavyweights isn’t enough, we introduce a third option, and that is a small-ship expedition sailing that is a world apart from mainstream cruising. UnCruise is partially based in Juneau, with authentic ties to the state. Extensions in Juneau or to Denali are possible, but it’s all about the unique sailing and exploration opportunities onboard, which include dates typically outside the average cruise season.

Active pursuits like hiking and kayaking are all included, plus all meals and gear. Want to truly get away from it all? UnCruise does not offer onboard Wi-Fi, allowing you and your loved ones to truly be present in this magnificent destination.

Best Cruise Line for the Mediterranean

Our pick: Azamara Cruises

Runner-up: Viking Cruises

Rounding out the top cruise destinations, the Med is on the bucket list of nearly every traveler — and for good reason. Encompassing some of the world’s most popular vacation plans, you’ll find Italy, Greece, France, Spain and other European delights throughout the Mediterranean, drenched in stunning scenery and even better food and wine.

Serving this all up on a silver platter is Azamara, who is our pick for their immersive, country-intensive itinerary options. Rather than simply offering a sampler of one piece of the Med, home in on one country, spending 10 or 11 days in Italy or island-hopping Greece. The line’s AzAmazing evenings in port along with their signature all-white deck party add flair to any itinerary.

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Another wonderful pick for the Med is Viking, whose ultra-comfortable ships ply a wide range of sailings here, from Istanbul to Athens and Barcelona to Venice, as well as Rome to Lisbon or a voyage with extended time in Malta, Morocco and Spain. Onboard, gorgeous outdoor spaces like the Aquavit Terrace and infinity pool are the perfect place to watch the sunset with a spritz. Italian dining doesn’t get much better than Manfredi’s.      

Best Cruise Line for Hawaii

Our pick: UnCruise Adventures

Runner-up: Norwegian Cruise Line

Perhaps a controversial pick, but if you’re looking for the ultimate Hawaiian experience on a cruise ship, consider expedition company UnCruise. Once again, we are nominating them for their intimate, onboard experience and the innate flexibility to sail where the weather and the waves are just right for a dip off the watersports platform.

Flagged in the U.S, UnCruise is one of the very few cruise lines approved to sail solely within Hawaii, embarking guests in Molokai and leaving them in Kona. Special experiences include night snorkeling with Pacific rays and plenty of time interacting with locals at events like a pa’ina feast and jam session.

Another option suited to larger groups and families is Norwegian’s Pride of America, the only other cruise ship approved to sail the Hawaiian Islands without a long stretch of sea days. Sail round trip on a weeklong cruise right from Waikiki in Honolulu, which makes pre- or post-cruise stays on the Big Island a breeze. Visit three other islands including Maui, Hawaii and Kauai, with pre-arranged land extensions as an option through Norwegian.

Best Cruise Line Private Island

Our pick: Perfect Day at CocoCay (Royal Caribbean, Celebrity)

Runner-up: Castaway Cay (Disney)

Honorable Mention: Ocean Cay MSC Marine Reserve (MSC Cruises)

A land-based extension of some cruise lines is their carefully crafted private island experiences. Many of these islands are located in the Bahamas (including every mention here). The difference of where you might call depends on which cruise line or company you are sailing (for example, Celebrity is owned by the same parent company as Royal Caribbean and will join Royal’s calls at Perfect Day).

What we love most about the appropriately named Perfect Day at CocoCay is that it has been finely tuned to provide the ideal vacation day for nearly every passenger on any budget. Spend nothing more than time by the turquoise shores on a beach lounger or splurge on the impressive Thrill waterpark.

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The island is aptly divided into “thrills” and “chills” directing guests to a poolside oasis or a 135-foot drop from Daredevil’s Peak. As with nearly any cruise line private island your onboard drink and Wi-Fi packages extend to shore.

Another immaculately crafted island experience comes from none other than Disney and its Castaway Cay with its always-family friendly attention to detail. Enjoy gentle swimming coves, bike rentals, plenty of grub and maybe even an appearance from your favorite characters — in their swim trunks.

High marks go to relatively new private island Ocean Cay, which has focused a lot on rehabilitation of the island and its surrounding coral and marine life. Fun in the sun is still the focus, with great swimming spots, bars with a view and even fish-shaped ice cream cones. A differentiator? By night, stick around for a traditional Junkanoo parade followed by a laser lights show and dance party.


Which cruise line is the best in your opinion? Do you stay loyal to one brand or sail with multiple cruise lines? Drop us an anchor below to share your favorite cruise lines.

Brittany has covered cruising professionally for more than a decade. She embarked on a world cruise as a college student aboard Semester at Sea, and never stopped sailing. Formerly a Cruise Critic editor, Brittany now writes about ships and their many destinations for various industry and consumer outlets. She is a lifelong resident of the Jersey Shore.
Brittany Chrusciel, Contributor
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