Cruising is a 50/50 proposition. Half of the enjoyment is experienced onboard—the ship’s ambiance, amenities, service, and size all factor in—and the other half depends on the destination and itinerary you choose. The key is to pick the right combination. You may already know whether you prefer small, medium, or mega ships (and even have a favorite cruise line), so to help you decide on the right destination, here are seven questions. How you answer can help you pinpoint the ocean or river itinerary that offers the experiences you most enjoy.
1. What kind of destination do you prefer?
Aboard a ship, you’ll enjoy access to some of the world’s greatest places, from iconic cities and legendary islands to remote wilderness:
Fascinating Cities: Cruising lets you sample a variety of great cities in a single vacation. In Europe, opt for Western Mediterranean calling on Barcelona, Rome/Civitavecchia, Marseilles, Nice, Monte Carlo, and Livorno/Florence; the Eastern Mediterranean and Adriatic visiting Rome, Venice, Naples, Athens, and Dubrovnik; or the Baltic, calling on Stockholm, Copenhagen, Helsinki, St. Petersburg, and Tallinn. Longer “Grand European” sailings visit up to several dozen cities over a period of three weeks to two months. River cruising in Europe is also a terrific way to city hop. Top itineraries include The Danube (visiting Vienna, Budapest, and Bratislava), the Rhine (visiting Amsterdam, Cologne, Strasbourg, and Basel) and the Elbe (visiting Berlin, Dresden, and Prague).
City-centric Asian itineraries include Japan sailings calling on Yokohama/Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, and Kobe; East Asia sailings, which visit Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Singapore; and Southeast Asia sailings that call on Ho Chi Minh City, Bangkok, and Siem Reap. You can cruise a wider swath of Asia on an ocean sailing or book a more intimate river itinerary on the Mekong.
Closer to home, Pacific Coast itineraries offer wine-tasting and fine dining in Vancouver, Victoria, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, while New England & Canada sailings in summer and fall visit New York, Newport, Boston, Bar Harbor, Halifax, Quebec City, and Montreal.
Sunny Islands: Prefer sunshine and balmy sea breezes? Itineraries in the Caribbean, Bahamas, Hawaii, and South Pacific offer plenty of both, visiting 5-6 islands during a one-week sailing. Certain Mediterranean sailings are island-centric, too, calling on spots that include Mallorca, Ibiza, Sardinia, Corsica, Malta, and Sicily, while the top ports on Greek Islands cruises are Santorini, Mykonos, Crete, and Rhodes.
Remote Wilderness: If you’re eager to explore more far-flung locales, a good entry option—especially in terms of affordability—is Alaska’s Inside Passage, where even some of the largest ships from the major cruise lines sail from late May to mid-September. The next level of remote adventure is expedition cruising in the Galapagos Islands, where the number of ships that can visit and their size is strictly controlled, and then the South Pacific, where a crossing from South America to French Polynesia (or vice versa) calls on isolated outposts such as Easter Island (Rapa Nui) and Pitcairn Island. For the ultimate in bucket-list adventure, check into expedition cruises that sail through the dramatic landscapes of Antarctica and the Arctic. And check out these epic islands for more itinerary ideas.
A Little of Everything: Australia & New Zealand sailings call on cities such as Sydney, Melbourne, and Auckland as well as scenic ports offering land-based adventure on Tasmania and New Zealand’s South Island. South America sailings visit major cities such as Lima, Buenos Aires, and Rio de Janeiro along with the remote wilderness of Patagonia and the Amazon.
2. What kind of port experiences do you want?
Want to enrich your knowledge of ancient cultures, enjoy your favorite cuisines in situ, or appreciate nature? Research your cruise itineraries by interest.
History & Culture: For cultural and historic experiences (churches, museums, palaces), consider the Baltic, where Scandinavian design meets Russian Imperial architecture. A Mediterranean itinerary that visits Italy, Greece, Turkey, Spain, Portugal, or Morocco will also offer history-rich sites as will an ocean itinerary that calls on Middle East ports such as Aqaba, Jordan (for Petra) and Alexandria, Egypt. Or consider a Nile River cruise with a pre- or post-cruise visit to Cairo.
Beaches & Watersports: It’s hard to beat the Caribbean and the Bahamas for enjoying sand, sea, and sun since there’s daily access to the beach on most cruises. Eastern Caribbean sailings on larger ships call on major ports such as San Juan, Charlotte Amalie, and Philipsburg, while smaller ships also sail the British Virgin Islands, visiting ports such as Virgin Gorda and Tortola. On a Western Caribbean sailing, you’ll mix visits to Jamaica and Grand Cayman with calls on Cozumel and Riviera Maya in Mexico. Southern Caribbean cruises visit islands such as Barbados, St. Lucia, and Aruba. Beach-lovers can also island-hop on a Hawaii itinerary from Honolulu that visits Maui, Kauai, and the Island of Hawaii. Read about the best months to visit beach destinations on a cruise here.
Shopping & Dining: A Western Mediterranean cruise is practically guaranteed to deliver both style and sustenance—the combination of artisanal handicrafts and fresh local cuisine in Spain, Italy, and France is so irresistible that many cruisers sail the Med time and again. Europe’s rivers also offer easy access to charming shopping districts along with a smorgasbord of culinary treats and tastings for wine lovers, especially on the Douro in Portugal, the Rhone or Garonne in France, and the Rhine in Germany. Southeast Asia itineraries appeal to foodies with a taste for curries, noodles, and satay, as well as to cruisers who enjoy shopping for silks in Thailand, lacquer in Vietnam, and jewelry and handicrafts in Bali.
Adventure & Wildlife Viewing: Cruising lets you see nature’s most fascinating species—whales and grizzlies in Alaska, blue-footed boobies and giant tortoises in the Galapagos, pink river dolphins and piranha in the Amazon, penguins and seals in Antarctica, polar bears and puffins in the Arctic, elephants and giraffes in Africa, Komodo dragons and orangutans in Southeast Asia, and kangaroos and koalas in Australia—and after a day of hiking or four-wheel adventuring relax onboard at night as you enjoy world-class cuisine. Read our 7 Reasons Not to Put Off Taking a Bucket List Cruise.
3. Do you prefer larger cities or smaller, lesser-known ports?
Any ship—from 150 passengers to 5,000—can dock in Barcelona or San Juan, but to call on some tiny gems, such as Portofino in Italy or Iles des Saintes in Guadeloupe, you’ll need to book a small or medium-sized ship. Take a look at itineraries offered by small-ship cruise lines such as Windstar, Seabourn, Silversea, SeaDream, and Star Clippers and medium-sized ships operated by Regent, Crystal, Viking, Oceania, and Azamara. And get inspired by itineraries that visit these 20 secret ports.
4. Do you want to visit a new port every day or have a few sea days for relaxation?
Most ocean itineraries include at least one sea day during a seven-night cruise, and a few even have two, but others go full throttle with port calls every day. It really depends on the location—week-long Hawaii cruises from Honolulu as well as certain Mediterranean and French Polynesia itineraries tend to visit ports every day—so if you want to have time to actually enjoy the ship, look for an itinerary with a sea day built it. On longer cruises, you’ll typically get at least one sea day per week and even two or three sea days in a row, depending on the region.
5. How many hours do you prefer to have in port?
If there’s one area where cruising often falls short, it’s time in port. Traditionally, you’ll get about eight hours to visit, but some cruise lines such as Azamara, Regent, Oceania, and Windstar now incorporate late departures (typically 10 p.m. or 11 p.m.) and even overnights in key cities. So before booking a cruise, make sure there’s enough port time to satisfy what you want to do while there.
6. Do you prefer to begin and end your cruise in the same port?
If you do—for ease of booking flights or to not have to fly at all—look for an itinerary that sails roundtrip. Certain ports offer these itineraries more often than others. For example, you can cruise to Bermuda roundtrip from New York; to the Caribbean roundtrip from from Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Tampa, New Orleans, and Galveston; to the Mexican Riviera from Los Angeles, Long Beach, and San Diego; to Alaska from Seattle and Vancouver; to the Greek Islands from Athens/Piraeus; to the Western Mediterranean from Rome/Civittavechia and Barcelona; to the British Isles from Southampton; to the Norwegian fjords from Bergen; and around Japan from Yokohama/Tokyo. Most river cruises—with the exception of itineraries on the Seine, Garonne, Douro and Po rivers—embark in one city and disembark in another.
7. How long is just long enough?
That 23-day river cruise from Amsterdam to Bucharest might seem dreamy and a world cruise lasting 110 days or more could be on your bucket list, but if you’re relatively new to cruising it’s a good idea to know what life aboard an ocean or river ship is all about—to test the waters so to speak—before booking an extended voyage. Some people would love to live aboard a cruise ship (and quite a few do), while others have a limit as to how long is just long enough. A seven-night itinerary is a great starting point. Then push it to 10-14 days. If at the end of two weeks you don’t want your cruise to end, you’re ready for a grand voyage. There are hundreds of great destinations to discover and, fortunately, you can visit many of them on an ocean or river voyage.