Meals, accommodations, entertainment, 24/7 service—cruise ships have to do it all. To find the cruise lines that exceed expectations, Money ranked the 23 most popular cruise lines based on cost, year-over-year price changes, cleanliness, and customer satisfaction ratings for dining, public rooms, cabins, entertainment, service, and overall value. (Read all of Money's Best in Travel 2017.)
BEST MEGA-SHIP OCEAN CRUISE LINES
Ships that can carry 2,200 passengers or more
Platinum: Celebrity Cruises
This Miami-based line earns raves from customers. More than 80% of passengers told Cruise Critic they “loved” their onboard experience, far above the 70% average. Perhaps it’s the focus on food and wine, with menus crafted by a Michelin-starred chef and the chance for gourmets to try their hand at Top Chef–inspired kitchen challenges. For those who want more time to experience the local culture, nearly half of the line’s global itineraries include overnight stays. In 2016, Celebrity offered more overnights in the Caribbean than any other cruise line. And the value proposition is clear: The average per-person cost in 2016 was $169 per day, vs. $214 for the mega-ships Money surveyed, according to CruiseCompete.
Gold: Princess Cruises
A few years ago, Princess partnered with Discovery Communications on custom-designed land excursions, as well as action-packed adventures at sea, like shark-cage diving in Hawaii. Such opportunities made it a standout on Travel + Leisure’s 2016 World’s Best survey, in which passengers rated Princess one of the top mega cruise lines for value. Daily rates averaged $166 per person last year, according to CruiseCompete. The original Love Boat continues to appeal to couples, who can enjoy romantic extras like dinner on a private balcony and chocolate spa treatments in the Lotus Spa.
BEST LARGE-SHIP OCEAN CRUISE LINES
Ships that can carry 600 to 2,199 passengers
Platinum: Viking Ocean Cruises
Viking defines its ocean cruises by what passengers won’t find: “casinos, kids, umbrella drinks,” the company touts. What you will find aboard these ships is a truly all-inclusive experience. Perks that many other lines charge extra for, like beer and wine with meals, day trips onshore, and Wi-Fi access, are included in the price. For such inclusivity you’ll pay $350 per person per day on average, CruiseCompete found. The line’s airy Scandinavian aesthetic and features like a cantilevered infinity pool earned Viking top honors among large ocean cruises in Travel + Leisure’s World’s Best survey.
Gold: Azamara Club Cruises
If you’re after a taste of local culture in the ports you visit, Azamara delivers. The line comes out on top for shore excursions, according to Cruise Critic, with off-the-beaten-path options like truffle making in Tallinn, or participating in a water prayer ceremony on Bangkok’s Chao Phraya River. The average cost per person of $333 a day is down 16% year over year, greater than the 11% drop for the category overall. Plus, on select voyages singles pay just 125% of the double occupancy fare; premiums on other lines can run as high as 175% or even double.
BEST RIVER CRUISE LINES
Ships that generally carry 200 or fewer passengers
Platinum: Viking River Cruises
With the largest fleet of ships operating in the river-cruise business, Viking easily offers the greatest choice of waterways, ports, and cruising dates to Europe and farther-flung routes like the Nile, the Mekong, and the Yangtze. You still get all those same free perks as you do on its ocean cruises, one reason Viking received the highest customer satisfaction rating from Cruiseline.com among the lines Money analyzed. And it did so while offering the lowest average cost per person—$384—and the largest year-over-year price drop, down 4%.
Gold: Avalon Waterways
Avalon aims to make the most of the scenery that river cruisers prize. Each of its 200-square-foot suites (30% larger than average) have wall-to-wall floor-to-ceiling windows that slide open, turning your stateroom into an amazing balcony. Beds are oriented to face the windows, so you can take in the view while reclining. The pampering continues with L’Occitane bath products in the shower and free wine, sourced from the region you’re visiting, with dinner. Of course, the locations where you sail are also quite nice: Europe, the Peruvian Amazon, the Galápagos Islands, China, Vietnam, and Cambodia. And the average cost is on par with that of our No. 1 pick.
Additional reporting by Athena Cao.
This post has been updated. Viking notified Money after the article was published to say that it will not launch Mississippi River cruises in 2018.