World's Best Ocean Cruise Lines 2015
With more than 70 percent of the world covered in water, it’s hardly a surprise that the cruise industry is the fastest-growing travel sector: according to Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) a record 23 million passengers are expected to set sail this year, to nearly 1,000 ports around the world. Even firmly avowed “noncruisers” are donning their proverbial water wings and boarding cruise liners to venture across the seven seas.
Related: Great All-Inclusive Cruises
But with more than 60 cruise lines sailing the world’s waterways, it can be difficult to decide which ship is the right fit for you. That’s why we ask T+L readers to consider the staterooms, restaurants, itineraries, ports of call, service, value, activities, and onboard nightlife when ranking their favorite cruise lines.
Related: Best Caribbean Cruises
Whether they’re Mega-Ship Ocean liners, transporting more than 2,200 passengers, Large Ships (still holding 600 to 2,199), or more modest Small-Ship Ocean cruises (carrying less than 600 passengers) all the best dazzle readers with on-board entertainment, chic accommodations that rival even some of the best landlocked hotels, and exotic, hard-to-reach ports of call.
Related: T+L’s Best Cruises Guide
Updated interiors and outrageous amenities up the ante in the perpetual arms race between cruise lines to prove who has the biggest, broadest, most impressive ship on the high seas. And the effort pays off. Here, our readers sound off on the world’s best cruise lines. Ahoy!
No. 5 Mega-Ship Ocean Cruise Line: Royal Caribbean International
This attention-grabbing line made waves with the debut of their Quantum-class smartships. Travelers aboard the world’s most technologically advanced ship, Quantum of the Seas, are enjoying such advancements as Wi-Fi that rivals your coffee shop connection, WOW bands that give you access to your cabins and double as on-board credit cards, robot bartenders, and the North Star: a glass pod that extends on a robotic arm more than 300-feet above the ship for 360-degree views of sea. If that’s not enough wow-factor, check out the first-ever cruise ship zipline, circus school, skydiving simulator, bumper cars, roller-skating rink, and food truck. Of course, cruising is still what these ships do best. While the line is known, rather obviously, for its Caribbean itineraries, the new ship is currently on an extraordinary 53-night Global Odyssey from New York to Shanghai.
No. 4 Mega-Ship Ocean Cruise Line: Cunard
Could there be a better way for Cunard to celebrate its 175th birthday than with its 20 consecutive World’s Best ranking? This month, the line will recreate its original Transatlantic crossing from Liverpool to New York, and dole out $175 in onboard credits on 175 voyages across the ocean. The three legendary vessels (the regally-named Queen Mary 2, Queen Victoria, and Queen Elizabeth) exude Old World elegance with glittering chandeliers and inlaid-wood ballroom floors. The Kew Gardens-inspired conservatories perpetuate the proudly displayed British pedigree of the line. Those aboard the Queen Mary 2 (which can carry more than 2,600 passengers) can search the clear skies for constellations from the unique on-ship planetarium.
No. 3 Mega-Ship Ocean Cruise Line: Celebrity Cruises
Imaginative onboard features have made each one of the line’s 10 ships fast-favorites among selective travelers. The newest, Celebrity Silhouette, pleases guests with the Lawn Club—a half-acre of grass on the ship’s top deck—where guests can cook their own meals, enjoy live music, play bocce and croquet, or seek a little shade in a personal cabana. Smart and spacious cabins allow guests to adjust bed settings, like elevation and massage functions, from personal iPhones and iPads (which can also be used for self-guided tours of onboard art collections). On the Celebrity Reflection, suites come with European-style butler service and all-glass, cantilevered Hansgrohe showers with 360-degree ocean views.
No. 2 Mega-Ship Ocean Cruise Line: Princess Cruises
True to its name, Princess consistently offers sophisticated cruises fit for nautical royalty. The line is best known for its signature experiences, such as Movies Under the Stars, where travelers can watch first-run movies under the Caribbean, Baltic, or Mediterranean skies while munching on complimentary popcorn and cookies. As part of their unique Scholarship@Sea program, travelers can choose from as many as 40 classes per voyage, ranging for ceramics to Zumba and ship navigation. Aboard the year-old Regal Princess, the 60-foot-long, glass-bottomed Sea Walk showcases views of the white-capped waters 128-feet below; head there at dusk for epic sunsets. In 2017, Princess will debut a new ship devoted to Chinese travelers and based in Shanghai.
No. 1 Mega-Ship Ocean Cruise Line: Disney Cruises
Everyone knows when a Disney Cruise ship is leaving port: the signature When You Wish Upon a Star horn is easily discerned from the other solid honks. No line caters to family quite like the masters of magic, and their fleet of four, decked out with signature gold curls across the bow, has both kid- and adult-friendly amenities. On the Disney Fantasy, for example, travelers can participate in a full-ship, interactive Muppets mystery game, or ride the Imagineers-designed AquaDuck (the world’s first shipboard water coaster), which spans four decks and juts out over the open seas. But even grownups will love the line’s Art Nouveau interiors, kid-free spaces (rainforest steam rooms, sundecks, and late-night clubs). For that matter, is anyone ever too old to enjoy spending time with Mickey?
No. 10 Large-Ship Ocean Cruise Line: Norwegian Cruise Line
Breaking with the rigid, formal onboard cruising experience, Norwegian is best known (and loved) for innovating “Freestyle cruising.” Forgoing assigned dining times in favor of more casual specialty restaurants and doing away with stuffy dress codes has made Norwegian popular with young travelers and non-cruisers alike. When the new Norwegian Escape launches this fall, the fleet will grow to 14. This buzzy mega ship will host 4,248 passengers and offer exciting features such as Iron Chef Jose Garces’ first at-sea restaurant (Spanish fine dining and tapas, of course) a Snow Room, kept at a chilly 21 to 32 degrees Fahrenheit with actual falling snow, a Pubbelly outpost, and the largest ropes course at sea: three stories high with 99 different obstacles.
No. 9 Large-Ship Ocean Cruise Line: Royal Caribbean International
Even Royal Caribbean’s most modestly-sized ships (still hosting more than 2,000 passengers) have such onboard diversions as rock-climbing walls, bungee jumping trampolines, mini-golf courses, and outdoor, poolside movie screenings. From bow-to-stern, guests have access to Wi-Fi, flatscreen televisions in the staterooms and, in some cases, in-room iPods to boot. Adults have long appreciated the kids-free Solarium, with its stunning ocean views and retractable roof.
No. 8 Large-Ship Ocean Cruise Line: Celebrity Cruises
A recent refresh has upgraded the line’s large-size Millennium-class ships with Mega-size Solstice class features, such as verandas in the suites. Escape the crowds at the free-of-charge thalassotherapy pool in the Solarium, or elbow up to the Martini Bar for a cosmo or a vodka tasting. Other additions from the upgrade include new casual creperies and AquaClass staterooms, devoted to wellness with aromatherapy sound options, jetted body wash showers, pillow menus, and access to the spa’s Persian Garden steam room.
No 7. Large-Ship Ocean Cruise Line: Holland America Line
Sixteen decidedly Dutch ships, such as the Oosterdam, and the latest, the Nieuw Amsterdam are elegantly designed with Art Deco influences and maritime drawings. The line has come a long way from its days as a commercial freight line and transporter of immigrants to the New World. Chic cabanas on the pool deck now impress modern guests with spray misters and preloaded iPods, while suites have wraparound decks for those unmatched sea views. Towering over the Nieuw Amsterdam and the Eurodam is Tamarind restaurant, where travelers can try rijsttafel, a Dutch-colonial take on an Indonesian feast.
No. 6 Large-Ship Ocean Cruise Line: Princess Cruises
While most of the Princess ships are enormous mega liners, cruisers can still opt for the smaller ships, carrying approximately 675 guests. This sector of the line is clearly adult-oriented, and entices travelers with more intimate spaces and activities. Most staterooms offer breezy balconies and itineraries feature unique destinations such as Alaska and British Colombia. This year marks Princess’ 50th Anniversary, which is being celebrated on every sailing with special menus that take diners on a journey through the decades (duck terrine from the sixties, ossobuco agnolotti from the eighties and nineties) and disco deck parties honoring the ship’s starring role in the 70’s hit, The Love Boat.
No. 5 Large-Ship Ocean Cruise Line: Cunard
Cunard straddles the Mega and Large-Ship categories, thanks to its slightly smaller ships, the Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth. Petite by the Queen Mary 2’s standards, these ocean liners still hold more than 2,000 passengers, and harken to the Golden Age of ocean travel. Indulge your inner Brit with afternoon tea in the Garden Lounge or by dropping the poppets with certified English nannies. Cunard’s ships are easily distinguished by their traditional red and black livery, and butlers on-hand to assist with bow ties during formal night. Cunard does indeed keep with the times, however. We doubt that its first 19th century passengers opted for poolside yoga or acupuncture facials during their Transatlantic crossings.
No. 4 Large-Ship Ocean Cruise Line: Oceania Cruises
“Best food I’ve ever had the pleasure of eating on a cruise,” said one reader, while another raved that their experience with Oceania “spoiled [them] for all other cruise lines.” Food and onboard restaurants get top billing in this year’s survey, thanks in large part to an ongoing partnership with world famous French chef, Jacques Pepin. Visit his eponymous restaurant aboard the Marina and Riviera to enjoy his distinctly Parisian dishes, such as pumpkin soup a l’Anglaise served in a pumpkin shell. On some sailings, travelers head out on guided market and wine tours in foodie-favorite destinations like Barcelona and return for cooking classes or wine-pairing degustation dinners in the evenings.
No. 3 Large-Ship Ocean Cruise Line: Azamara Club Cruises
Overnight port stays and late-night departures have allowed Azamara Club Cruises to distinguish itself by offering excursions virtually unmatched in depth. Exotic destinations are a hallmark of the twin ships, Azamara Journey and Azamaray Quest, each holding 686 guests and offering Veranda rooms with floor-to-ceiling sliding glass doors. Guests are encouraged to participate in the aptly-named AzAmazing Evening, a cultural event arranged for every sailing which might be a VIP evening at the Mikhailovsky Theater in St. Petersburg, or a night at the Oceanographic Museum of Monaco. Larry Pimentel, the line’s CEO, says the value is between $350 and $500 per passenger.
No. 2 Large-Ship Ocean Cruise Line: Regent Seven Seas Cruises
The only oceangoing line to offer a genuine all-inclusive experience (round-trip airfare, liquor, gratuities, and even some excursions such as Masai Mara safaris are all available at no additional cost) is favored by travelers who want value, without forgoing any luxury. Enjoy award-winning Canyon Ranch Spa services featuring Dead Sea salts, seaweed, and biodynamic honey, or gourmet cuisine at reservations-required restaurants (fois gras terrine, oysters Rockefeller). All-suite ships have Wi-Fi, balconies in every room, and opulent details such as marbled baths and walk-in closets. The line’s fifth ship, a cool $450 million project, will begin sailing the Mediterranean next summer with the most spacious suite at sea (3,875-square feet) boasting a black marble bar, custom Steinway piano, and a personal spa (an industry first) for those aforementioned Canyon Ranch treatments.
No. 1 Large-Ship Ocean Cruise Line: Crystal Cruises
What does it take to be No. 1 for twenty years in a row? Exemplary service doesn’t hurt (there’s almost a 1:1 crew-to-guest ratio), but it’s their lineup of enrichment programs, unmatched in breadth, that has always impressed guests. Berlitz language lessons, an industry first, digital filmmaking classes, and Yamaha keyboard lessons are highlights. With only two ships in its fleet, Crystal is able to pour its resources into providing the best possible experience to its visitors. After a $17 million refresh, the Crystal Serenity brought hypoallergenic staterooms (outfitted with air purifiers and allergy-friendly bedding) to the seas, as well as a 35-foot-high living wall in the shape of a world map, that requires a team of florists and provides fresh herbs for the chefs. A long-awaited new ship is on the horizon, though no date has been announced.
No. 5 Small-Ship Ocean Cruise Line: Silversea
Customized itineraries score big with T+L readers. Ultraluxury ships (private verandas, exclusive Silversea cigars, and 100 percent goose down pillows) sail to over 800 destinations on all seven continents. Opt for a traditional point-to-point itinerary or select your ideal embarkation and disembarkation points. Once onboard, you’ll enjoy classical music concerts, welcome champagne, and a supper club for evening dancing. For romantic voyages, head to the marble-and-mosaic hammams. Adventurous cruisers, on the other hand, should consider the incredible 7-day expedition to the Galápagos, exclusively on the Silversea Galápagos.
No. 4 Small-Ship Ocean Cruise Line: Regent Seven Seas Cruises
On the all-inclusive line’s one small-ship ocean liner, the Seven Seas Navigator, all guests enjoy suites with ocean views (be sure to request one with a private balcony) and fine European linens. Room service is also included, but you’ll definitely want to leave your cabin for the ship’s gourmet restaurants and culinary arts kitchen. On Sundays, indulge on champagne and caviar brunch at Compass Rose. Afterwards, participate in a yoga or aerobatics class at the ship’s fitness facility.
No. 3 Small-Ship Ocean Cruise Line: Windstar Cruises
Billowing sails are the signature of this yachtlike cruise line, which traverses creative cruise routes around the Caribbean, Costa Rica, the Greek Isles, and the Mediterranean. Forget the uptight New England country club vibe the word “yacht” calls to mind: here, passengers unwind in a friendly, no-jacket required atmosphere. Recent acquisitions (the power yacht Star Pride and, new this year, the mirror-image Star Breeze and Star Legend) have vertical gardens and L’Occitate amenities in the marble-clad bathrooms with deep soaking tubs. Just in case you haven’t gotten your fill of water. This summer, the two new ships can be found in ports like Monaco and Portofino, where guests will be invited to join in on complimentary private events such as a cocktail reception at Monaco’s Grand Casino or a wine tasting at a family-run vineyard.
No. 2 Small-Ship Ocean Cruise Line: Paul Gauguin Cruises
Two upscale ships— the 322-passenger Paul Gauguin and the even more private 90-passenger Tere Moana—offer highly personalized service. Cultivate romance on a trip to the South Pacific, with stops at the Society Islands and Tahiti. The ships troupe of local Tahitian entertainers, Gaugines, can perform a Polynesian love blessing ceremony, and onboard spa treatments feature regional ingredients, like Hei Poa red flowers. Head down to the ship’s watersports marina allows you to kayak, paddleboard, on get SCUBA certified while at port.
No. 1 Small-Ship Ocean Cruise Line: Seabourn
One of the major benefits of opting for a small-ship cruise is the ability to reach destinations large liners simply cannot access. An alliance with UNESCO allows Seabourn to take passengers on exclusive tours of World Heritage sites such as the temple complex of Borobudur on Java or Herculaneum in Italy. More recently, the cruise line partnered with Napa’s star chef, Thomas Keller, to bring new, upscale dishes to the ships’ restaurants. Next spring, a dedicated Keller restaurant will debut on the Quest. Also on the horizon? A large 600-guest ship with Tihany-interiors, to set sail in 2016.