The first decision you need to make when searching for the best cruise ships is, obviously, where you want to go. That alone may make other decisions for you. Some cities, in Europe, Asia and South America, are on river-cruise lines; other cities require open-sea sailing. And of course some cities are not part of either watery network. Simple as that.
As Dorthy pointed out, river-cruise ships are much, much smaller than those oceangoing and island-hopping behemoths we often associate with cruising. Rivers are not the ocean folks, and the boats have to be much more modest in size.
Several years ago, I cruised with family, hopping off at spots all along the Dalmatian Coast, on the Adriatic, from Athens to Split aboard Grand Circle Cruise Line’s M/V Athena, which held only 50 passengers. The newly redecorated yacht was great for those placid waters and frequent port stops (including a stop in Albania!)
Our most recent outing, though, was on the 212-passenger M/V Star Legend, part of the Windstar Cruises fleet. We sailed out of Lisbon through open seas to the Portuguese island of Madeira, then the Spanish Canary Islands, then French-and-Arabic-speaking Agadir, Morocco, and back to Lisbon. If switching languages was a challenge, the Atlantic Ocean was even more so—let’s just say the dining room was not full for the first couple of nights.
When it comes to choosing the best cruise ships, a small ship is great in terms of service and easy mixing with people, but in open waters it’s possible that the 500 or 600 passenger Seabourn yacht we saw at dock in Lisbon—quite a bit larger—may have had a smoother ride. I’m no sailor, so that’s just a guess; but if you worry about seasickness, you might ask for some guidance.
The bottom line when searching for the best cruise ships: Small is good, but not always.
Some ships feature real beds in ample staterooms. Others have smaller cabins with upholstered benches that convert to beds at night—not very comfortable beds, at that (not-so-deep mattresses atop wood slabs; if you like a supremely firm mattress, you’ll love this setup).
If the mere possibility of discomfort gives you pause, take a good look at the glossy pictures for each ship you’re considering. Yes, look over the dining room and the fitness areas, but pay close attention to the cabin and suite pictures.
Many cruise lines list the square footage of their different levels of accommodation. It’s worth learning what 277 square feet looks and feels like. If you can’t tell, and if all the flowery promotional language doesn’t clue you in, call the cruise line’s customer service folks. They should know and should be honest with you.
For the record, cabins on the all-suite M/V Star Legend and Star Pride, two ships with Windstar
Cruises, are a very comfortable 300 square feet, room for a separate curtained-off “living room” and separate “bedroom,” with what several lines call “hotel-style beds” (I think that’s code for “comfortable.”) The basic-level Veranda Suite on Seabourn’s all-suite ships is 300 square feet as well; more-expensive suites range from 450 to 989 square feet, larger than the average Manhattan apartment. Different ships on Viking River Cruises’ trips are special to different rivers; the Elbe River Veranda Suites are 250 square feet, still enough for a separate sitting area. And premium accommodations on most lines will be even larger (and, of course, more expensive).
It’s useful to note that cruise lines defining themselves as “luxury” lines have ships configured to have only exterior cabins, all looking out on the water, some with balconies. Some larger lines, such as Holland America, have much larger ships that also feature less-expensive “interior” cabins, some of which can be between 151 and 233 square feet. (On Holland America
, that means you can do a 12-day Caribbean cruise visiting Havana and Cienfuegos in Cuba, and other spots, for as little as $1,399 per person. Depending on your online shopping habits, it could cost more to stay home.)
There’s also a matter of style: The Viking river and more recent ocean ships promote their “serene Scandinavian spaces,” whereas the cabins in Uniworld’s ships would satisfy any latter-day Marie Antoinettes who may be lurking out there.
The food on many ships vying for your custom is worth noting. Windstar features recipes from James Beard Award-winning chefs. Seabourn has partnered with chef Thomas Keller, he of the famous (and sensational) French Laundry in Napa Valley and Per Se in New York.
But there is a consideration beyond the food (believe it or not). Some ships offer restaurant-like facilities; your party of four will be seated at a table for four, two people at a table for two. Other cruise lines, such as Seabourn and Grand Circle, offer open seating: You can join others at large tables, getting to know your fellow passengers in a relaxed setting. If sitting with strangers horrifies you, choose ships like the Windstar fleet, where the maitre d’ will seat your group (and if that feels too boring after a few evenings, arrange during the day to dine with other passengers so you can pronounce yourselves as a party of six or eight or whatever).
On many ships some eateries are more equal than others. There may be a special restaurant that has people vying for a place; cruises routinely limit passengers to one evening in the special restaurant per cruise. Do some homework when searching for the best cruise ships to see whether you can reserve before you even board ship.
Most cruise lines, as far as I’m aware, offer information about the various ports the cruise will be stopping at. But there are very different levels of engagement with the countries and cities visited. Viking, Tauck and Grand Circle pride themselves on extensive programs aboard ship to share the cultures to be visited—cooking lessons, fun language lessons, performances by cultural troupes. The Grand Circle Foundation even includes a visit to one of the schools or other institutions it supports during each cruise, encouraging passengers to bring educational materials to donate. There’s even a dinner-with-a-family event on most itineraries for which the passengers fan out and dine in small groups at various family homes (in rural Russia an elderly couple in a small dacha on a working farm offered a group of 12 of us an afternoon tea).
Shore excursions, as you can gather from above, can be quite elaborate and involving. No one forces anyone to do anything, of course, but if you just want to sun yourself and relax, you may want to choose a cruise line with a different approach to travel. Trips sponsored by organizations such as the Smithsonian Institution or a university tend to charge a premium, but they also have full programs of lectures and discussions led by experts in their field. At the other end of the spectrum, I’ve come to think of the Windstar cruises as “information-lite”: There’s a “port talk” the evening before each stop and an optional bus excursion with a local guide, but no dedicated tour directors ginning up excitement while on board.
But even information-lite works if you let it. John and Katie, fellow passengers on the Lisbon cruise, just rented a motor scooter each time we docked and went on their way, in their own way.
If you are interested in cruises, there is definitely something for everyone. Just do your research and don’t be afraid to ask questions.