Ready to go on your first cruise? Not sure which line is best for you? If you’re overwhelmed by your choices, that’s normal. After all, there are roughly a dozen cruise lines and hundreds of ships that sail from the U.S., giving you a ton of options.
To help you out, we’ve offered our choices for the top cruise lines for first-time passengers. But since not every first-timer is the same, we’ve broken each choice down by category to better fit what you might be looking for in a vacation.
But first, to help you make your choice we also have some ideas about what makes an ideal cruise for someone who has never sailed before.
What Makes a Cruise Line Good for First-Time Passengers?
Before we get too far, what makes a cruise ideal for people on their trip? There are a few characteristics that we suggest focusing on that make a lot of sense for those who have never cruised before.
Short Itineraries: Cruises range in length anywhere from just two nights all the way to around-the-world trips that take literally months. But if you’ve never sailed before, then keeping the trip short — say, between 3-5 days — is ideal. This gives you an opportunity to cruise and get a feel for life on the ship. If it turns out that cruising isn’t for you, then you know you’re only there a few days. More likely, if you find that you love this style of vacation, it will leaving you wanting more, in which case you can just book another.
Wide Variety of Amenities: The days of a ship just having a pool and the fresh ocean air are long gone. These days cruise ships are resorts at sea, with restaurants, spas, waterslides, and tons more. But there is still a difference between the cruise lines and ships with the most options and older ships with far fewer.
In this case, we suggest ships from lines known for having a lot to offer. Not only does that mean broad appeal no matter what sort of activities you like, but it also shows you just what’s possible on a cruise ship.
A Cruise Line That Matches Your Style: We will be blunt in that no matter which line you sail, the vast majority of your experience will be similar. So it is not as if you take a cruise on one line and it’s completely different from a cruise on another. But there are some differences.
Some lines are designed to appeal to families. Others are made to appeal to adult passengers. Even others for those looking for luxury or lots to do onboard. Finding a trip that most closely matches what you’re looking for will give you the best first impression of cruising.
Best for First-Timers on a Budget: Carnival
When it comes to cruising, there is arguably no name more famous than Carnival. A pioneer in the field, today it is still a leader with ships sailing from all over the country to the Caribbean and Bahamas.
Carnival is also a great option if you’re on a budget. First, the ships feature lots to do onboard meaning there is a lot of variety whether you want to relax in the spa, enjoy comedy shows and evening entertainment, play in the pools or on the waterslide, or just get some peace and quiet in the adults-only Serenity area.
But Carnival is also known for having affordable fares, in some cases starting for as little as $200 per person for an interior cabin. On top of that, the cruise line has two other advantages. It offers a large number of cruises in the 3-5 day range. For first-timers, that means there are plenty of choices to hop on a ship to get a taste of cruising without having to be gone an entire week.
Carnival has also strategically placed ships around the country. Literally hundreds of millions of passengers live within driving distance of ports with Carnival ships, meaning that you don’t have to book expensive flights to take a cruise.
Best for First-Timers With Families: Royal Caribbean
Sailing with kids? Just about any cruise line can cater to families with children. However, Royal Caribbean stands above the others in our opinion.
First, with a large fleet, the cruise line sails from ports around the country, putting ships within a drive of most people. As well, it also offers up a number of short getaways, especially when sailing from Florida.
Royal Caribbean, however, stands apart from pushing the envelope of what’s possible on — and off — the cruise ship. Their ships are consistently larger than what’s found on other lines. More space means more things to do, especially for kids and teens. The cruise line features everything from the Flowrider wave simulator to rock climbing to waterslides, bumper cars, zip lines, laser tag, escape rooms, arcades, and more. Not every ship has every amenity, but when it comes to things to do, no one else offers as much.
Then there is what’s off the ship, specifically the cruise line’s private island CocoCay. Royal Caribbean transformed the once sleepy island into a full-fledged destination with a full waterpark, massive pool, multiple beaches, and tons to do. Not every cruise visits the island, but anything cruising from the East Coast likely will. And there’s little doubt that families with kids will love it.
Best for First-Time Young Adults: Virgin Voyages
Are you in between 18-40 years old and taking your first cruise? It’s likely you’re looking for something a little different than a trip with lots of waterslides and families.
In that case, Virgin Voyages is likely your best bet. Virgin is an adults-only cruise line. Being adults-only, the cruise line can offer a different experience than what you’ll find on family-focused lines. That includes everything from shows with cabaret-style performances, yoga classes, hammocks on the balcony, and some killer parties that you just won’t find a match for on mainstream lines.
It’s simply geared more toward having an adult experience, the same way an adults-only resort is different than a trip to Disney World.
But it’s also different in other ways. For one, things like gratuities and all food are included in the fare; no buffet is on the ship. Wi-fi is also included. Those headaches that can cause a typical cruise to feel like you have to pay up to get the full experience just aren’t there on Virgin.
Maybe you’re the sort of person that has been turned off by stereotypical cruise. If so, Virgin Voyages might be just the thing for your first trip.
Best for First-Time Adults 40+: Celebrity/Princess
Virgin Voyages is ideal for adults, but it may not match everyone’s style. After all, the sort of vacation you want as a couple at 50 years old is likely a little different than what you want at 30 years old. You likely want something a little quieter and more luxurious.
In that case, we think a line like Celebrity or Princess can hit the mark.
These two lines are more focused on luxury than mass-market lines. And while families are welcome, they definitely target a more mature cruise passenger. Celebrity and Princess certainly aren’t the same. They each have some benefits that we think equal them out for first-timers who are a little older.
For Princess, the cruise line generally offers more affordable trips. For instance, a 7-day cruise from Galveston in 2024 can be had starting at $349 per person.
Celebrity, on the other hand, wins out with having more short options for passengers to the Caribbean. They offer a number of three and four-night cruises (albeit on older ships) from Florida, giving you a chance to sail without dedicating a ton of your vacation time.
That said, both will offer a lot of relaxation and a style that’s more in line with what mature passengers want.
Put simply, these lines aren’t for everyone. If you are traveling with kids, it’s likely you’ll want a different line. But for those wanting a higher-end experience for their first cruise, it could be exactly what you want.
More on Buying a Cruise:
- 10 Rules to Getting the Best Deal on a Cruise
- The Best Time to Book a Cruise (Save Money, Better Cabins)
- The Best Cruise Lines For Adults & Couples