Cruising is one of my favorite kinds of family vacations. Whether I’m looking for sun-drenched beaches in the Caribbean, scenic views in Alaska, or city-hopping around the Mediterranean, cruises are a fun and hassle-free way to sample a variety destinations all around the world. Once I decide where I want to go on a cruise vacation, my next step is to pick a cruise line.
I’ve sailed with most of the major cruise lines for families that depart from the United States and around the globe, and each one has its pros and cons. If you’re thinking about taking a cruise at some point in the next year or so, now’s the time to book for the best prices and availability. But before you do, make sure you’re choosing a cruise line that fits your personality and vacation style.
Table of Contents:
- Disney Cruise Line
- Carnival Cruises
- Royal Caribbean
- Norwegian Cruise Line
- Virgin Voyages
- Princess Cruises
How to Choose a Cruise Line: Pros and Cons of Each One
Here are my recommendations based on my personal cruise experiences with some of the world’s most popular cruise lines.
How we chose these cruise lines: Read our methodology for selecting family cruise vacations.
1. Disney Cruise Line
Disney Cruise Line (DCL) pioneered the concept of family-friendly cruises. Its sailings give everyone a chance to see beloved Disney characters, watch fun Broadway-caliber shows, and have dedicated spaces and activities for kids and adults.
Pros of Disney Cruise Line
Stateroom design: One of my favorite things about Disney Cruise Line is the stateroom design. Fleet-wide, most of the staterooms have DCL’s signature split bathroom, where one bathroom has a toilet and sink and the other has a tub shower and a sink. Additionally, there’s lots of storage space, a privacy curtain to divide the room into two spaces, and luggage can easily roll under the bed. In some staterooms, there’s additional space for sleeping five people with a pull-down Murphy bed, which is great for larger families.
CARIBBEAN DREAM: These 6 Cruise Lines Offer the Best Caribbean Cruises for Families
Rotational dining: Disney is known for its rotational dining concept, where families will move through three distinct dining rooms at dinner throughout their cruise (and the dining room waitstaff moves with you). Each ship has different dining rooms, but a fan-favorite continues to be Animator’s Palate, which is available on the Disney Dream, Disney Fantasy, Disney Wonder, and Disney Magic. One of my favorite dining rooms is Worlds of Marvel on the Disney Wish (and coming to the Disney Treasure in 2024).
Dedicated spaces for kids and adults: Disney cruises cater to children with dedicated kids spaces, activities, and entertainment, but adults can have just as much fun. On all of Disney’s cruise ships, there are spaces that are exclusive for adults, too, like pools, lounges, bars, and restaurants. No matter your family’s makeup, everyone will have a space they enjoy.
Cons of Disney Cruise Line
Price: One of the biggest cons to a Disney Cruise vacation is the price compared to other family-friendly cruise lines. Disney does offer discounts on cruises throughout the year, but they’re not available to every type of guest or sailing date.
No drink packages: Another con for some people is that Disney Cruise Line does not offer drink packages, so you’ll be paying for each cocktail, specialty drink, beer, wine, or specialty coffee individually. These charges can add up quickly if you aren’t careful, so be sure to put a spending limit on drinks and check your stateroom folio often to be sure you’re staying within your budget.
2. Carnival Cruises
Sailing with Carnival Cruises always feels like a fun party. The cruise line is known for its big ships that are filled with big personalities. I always tell people that Carnival is a great starter cruise line to see if you like cruising, or if you want a cruise where the party never stops.
Pros of Carnival Cruise Line
Price: One of the biggest pros for Carnival Cruise Line is the affordability factor. Carnival is constantly running deals on cruises, so it’s easy to find a discounted sailing. The price for its smaller, older ships is usually cheaper than the bigger, newer ships, but depending on where you want to go and what season, the cost could vary greatly between cruises. To get the best deal, I recommend calling Carnival to book directly because the booking agent can play with discounts and sometimes combine them to give you a better deal than what you can get by booking online.
NO HIDDEN FEES: 7 Best All-Inclusive Cruise Lines in the World
Celebrity chef-backed restaurants: Carnival is noteworthy for its celebrity chef-backed restaurants. Kids and adults love the burgers and BBQ that come straight from Guy Fieri’s Flavortown kitchens, and everyone can get a taste of the Big Easy from celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse on Carnival Mardi Gras, Carnival Celebration, and Carnival Jubilee. And don’t forget about everything fried chicken at Big Chicken from Shaquille O’Neal.
Easy loyalty program: Every cruise line has a loyalty program. Carnival’s is called the VIFP Club, and it’s one of the easiest loyalty programs to understand and move up in. After just one cruise you’re enrolled and get members-only offers, and the perks go up from there, including priority check-in and boarding on embarkation day, $25 to use in the casino, and cabin upgrades.
Cons of Carnival Cruise Line
Older ships feel very dated: Even though Carnival’s newest ships are bright and shiny, its older ships feel very dated. While the brand does put the older ships, like the Carnival Elation from Jacksonville, Florida, through dry dock repairs and upgrades, those upgrades are mostly for cleaning and maintenance and not to make the ships feel newer.
Food and service can be hit-or-miss: Even though the celebrity chef-backed dining is very good, the rest of the food offerings on Carnival’s ships can be hit-or-miss, even in specialty dining restaurants that cost extra on some cruises. On a recent sailing, I dined in Chibang, which is a mash-up of Mexican and Chinese; the food was just okay and I felt rushed through the entire meal. I was hustled in and out the door for dinner in about 30 minutes. The main dining room can also have a lot of variation where some meal services are perfectly paced and others are rushed or exceptionally slow.
3. Royal Caribbean
Families looking for another option for a fun cruise that’s not Disney will love Royal Caribbean. In fact, this is my pick for the best cruise for multigenerational travel.
Pros of Royal Caribbean
Beautiful private island: One of Royal Caribbean’s most exciting offerings is its private island destination, Perfect Day at CocoCay. The island is home to family beaches, a spacious pool with a swim-up bar, a massive water park, and more. It’s also going to debut a new adults-only area, Hideaway Beach, in early 2024. If you choose to order a drink package it’s valid on the island, and lunch is served at a beachside BBQ so you don’t have to go back to the ship for a meal.
TEEN-FRIENDLY CRUISES: 5 Cruise Lines That Know How to Keep Teens (and Their Families) Happy
Variety of homeports: Royal Caribbean has one of the largest number of home ports around the world. Some of the most exciting home ports outside of the United States include Rome, Italy; Athens, Greece; Dubai, UAE; Buenos Aires, Argentina; Sydney, Australia; Singapore, Singapore; and Shanghai, China. From North America, there are 14 different home ports, including Miami, Florida; Galveston, Texas; New Orleans, Louisiana; and Seward, Alaska.
Over-the-top amenities on each ship: Royal Caribbean has some of the most over-the-top cruise amenities among the lines I’ve sailed with. Many of these amenities and activities are included in the overall cruise fare, which is even better. Kids and adults can enjoy things like water slides and splash pads, a surf simulator, rock climbing walls, zip lines, ice skating, observation pods, bumper cars, laser tag, and more.
Cons of Royal Caribbean
Ships can feel crowded: Royal Caribbean ships are some of the biggest in the world, meaning that the larger ships can feel crowded. On Wonder of the Seas, there are 2,876 staterooms that can accommodate up to 7,084 guests; and on Icon of the Seas, the, 2,805 staterooms can accommodate up to 7,600 people. Even though guests are split between more than a dozen decks, it can still get overcrowded at the pool, the buffet, or in theaters for showtime.
4. Norwegian Cruise Line
Norwegian Cruise Line is ideal for families vacationing with teens or adults looking for a getaway of their own. The newest Norwegian ships are stunning with high-caliber entertainment and fun around every corner.
Pros of Norwegian Cruise Line
Included dining options are great: Norwegian Cruise Line’s included dining options are stellar. After sailing on Norwegian Prima last year, I was blown away at the quality of the main dining room food for breakfast and dinner. At breakfast, I had one of the best iterations of steak and eggs I’ve ever had. I also love Indulge Food Hall, where breakfast, lunch, and dinner are served and you can pick from a variety of made-to-order dishes ranging in cuisine style from Indian and Mexican to ramen and salads.
BRING THE LITTLE ONES: 10 Toddler-Friendly Vacations That Are Just as Much Fun for Parents
Glamorous staterooms: The staterooms on Norwegian are simple and refined, with plenty of storage, comfortable beds, and a decent-sized bathroom. I like that Norwegian also offers solo accommodations for those traveling alone. The solo staterooms are priced exclusively for solo travelers, and those guests also have access to the private Studio Lounge.
Fantastic onboard entertainment: Norwegian pulls out all the stops for onboard entertainment. While sailing on Prima, I was able to see a Broadway-caliber show detailing the life of Donna Summer, head into a lounge with live rock-and-roll music every night, enjoy live bands around the ship, and even take in a few comedy shows. There’s no end to the amount of entertainment onboard, and it often goes into the wee hours of the night.
Cons of Norwegian Cruise Line
Added activities add up quickly: Unlike other cruise lines where most activities are included, Norwegian’s best activities are an added cost per person, which adds up quickly. Things like go-kart racing, an afternoon in the virtual reality Galaxy Pavilion, and mini-golf are all additional costs once you get onto the ship.
Boring private island: Norwegian’s private island, Great Stirrup Cay, is one of the most boring private islands I’ve been to on a cruise. While the beach is pretty, there are not a lot of included activities, and getting to the island is a challenge since you have to take a tender boat to and from the ship. However, there are some fun excursions you can book on the island, like swimming with pigs, taking a guided kayaking tour, or renting water sports equipment.
5. Virgin Voyages
Virgin Voyages is an adults-only cruise line that caters to the party lifestyle and makes sure everyone always has a good time.
Pros of Virgin Voyages
Vast entertainment options: No matter which Virgin ship you end up sailing on, there’s going to be a huge variety of entertainment. When I sailed with Virgin, I loved the live music around the ship and the pop-up entertainment that sometimes just happens in the main atrium area. At night, there are a few places to see shows, including drag and acrobatic performances.
Richard’s Rooftop: Those staying in a suite are welcome to enjoy Richard’s Rooftop, which is a dedicated area on an open deck for suite guests. This area has a hot tub, plenty of cushy loungers, a dedicated bar and bar team, and great views of the ocean passing by. Every day there’s also a Champagne happy hour, where bartenders will continuously walk around filling up your cup until you tell them to stop.
Cons of Virgin Voyages
Scarlet Night can be hard to get into: One of the hardest things for me to become involved with was Scarlet Night. This is the premier party of Virgin Voyages where every guest dresses in red and is encouraged to explore the ship for pop-up entertainment before heading to the pool deck for an all-night party.
The overall story of Scarlet Night is hard to follow if you don’t get to the right places at the right times on the ship, and I found that the staff didn’t really care to help people who looked lost and did not know what to do during “free exploration” time. I’ve heard that some of the pinch points of Scarlet Night have been worked out since my sailing, so I would say just go with the flow of the night and try to make friends with other guests to venture around the ship together.
Cabins aren’t maximized for storage: The biggest con for Virgin Voyages is that the standard cabins feel more like an IKEA showroom than a luxury escape on a brand-new ship. The cabins lack enough storage for longer sailings, and the beds are not tall enough to roll suitcases underneath.
6. Princess Cruises
Princess Cruises mainly caters to older adults looking for a more chill vacation with elevated service.
Pros of Princess
The Sanctuary: One of the best things about Princess Cruises is the Sanctuary, which is an adults-only deck space that you can pay to use for a day or for the entire cruise. The Sanctuary comes with a dedicated team that learns your preferences quickly, from where you like to sit to when you enjoy lunch (which can be brought to you). Besides having a serene oasis, the Sanctuary means you’ll always have a comfortable lounge chair to enjoy. When I was on Caribbean Princess over the summer, I was always greeted with a smile when I walked up the Sanctuary and spent most of the day enjoying the breeze and sunshine.
NO PASSPORT NEEDED: Everything You Need to Know about River Cruises in the U.S.
Onboard staff is fantastic: Princess crew members are among the most dedicated to guest service I’ve seen. Everyone knows your name by day two of the cruise, knows your preferences for things, and can even give you tips about what you may enjoy around the ship or at some ports of call.
Cons of Princess
Entertainment feels dated: I wanted to like the entertainment, but most of it felt very dated, especially the shows in the main theater. The musical performances were mostly songs from my grandparent’s era, and the acting was just okay. I did enjoy the nightly 18+ entertainment that was hosted by the entertainment staff, but overall the entertainment offerings were weak relative to other cruise lines.
More from FamilyVacationist:
- 10 Tropical Destinations You Can Visit without a U.S. Passport
- 50 Family Vacation Ideas for the Best Trip Ever
- Why a Holland America Heritage Cruise Is Perfect for a Multigenerational Family Vacation
At FamilyVacationist, we’re parents and travel experts who use our real-world, real-person travel expertise to help you make great decisions about travel. Here’s why that matters.