Matador’s Guide to Cruising the World
Cruise ships are the most comfortable and indulgent way to see the world, far ahead of riding the train or flying. On the water, cruising is all about doing as little as possible, and when you’re on land, it’s nothing but carefree exploration. Cruising has came back in full force in recent years, and today, the experience is better than ever with cruises for every taste, lifestyle, budget, and level of adventurousness. Whether you’re a veteran cruiser or you’re thinking of booking your first sailing, these guides, routes, and tips will help you take the voyage of a lifetime.
To the Poles and Beyond
Even seasoned adventure travelers who balk at the idea of organized tours or cruises can’t get to Antarctica on their own. Aruba? Sure, book a direct flight, browse the hotel options, and wing it. Antarctica is different. There are no airports on the Antarctic mainland, and no roads, hotels, or restaurants. Unless you’re a glaciologist qualified for a research expedition, the only way for the average traveler in the Western Hemisphere to get there is via cruise ship from the southern tip of South America.
Antarctica ships are far from the stereotypical pleasure ships that come complete with waterslides, climbing walls, and hundreds of little kids darting around the deck. These ships — usually categorized as “expedition ships” — typically accommodate between 100 and 200 passengers, and are built specifically for navigating rough seas and icy Antarctic waters. Several cruise lines offer voyages to Antarctica, each with a range of trip types, focuses, and lengths. One of the leading companies is Aurora Expeditions, which currently has two ships in its fleet: the Greg Mortimer and Sylvia Earle. With Aurora, there’s a focus on education with onboard lectures on topics ranging from the White Continent’s geological composition to the history of Antarctic exploration. A Citizen Science Program allows passengers to collect data during shore landings and participate in collaborative research projects. And that’s just the start.
An Alaska Cruise Complete With Animal Watching, Quality Food, and Music
The deck of a cruise ship is an amazing spot to see wildlife when you’re traveling to Alaska. On Holland America Line’s Alaska cruises, wildlife spotting sessions are led almost daily by a resident naturalist who will point out what you should be looking for at each location. You’ll spot hundreds of sea otters, humpback whales, seals, eagles, dolphins, and orcas from the top deck. Beyond the wildlife, there’s the spectacular scenery, especially that of Glacier Bay National Park. This national park is only accessible by boat or plane, and cruise ships get incredibly close to all the best areas of this magnificent place, including Lamplugh Glacier, Johns Hopkins Glacier, and, the king of them all, Grand Pacific Glacier.
What It’s Like To Take an Intimate All-Inclusive Cruise Around Iceland
Taking a road trip around Iceland has become a bit of a cliché: You pick up a vehicle in Keflavik right after landing and hit the Ring Road, staying in camp grounds along the way and cooking meals with the outrageously expensive groceries purchased at the local Bónus. But is it really a vacation? And is it really the best way to see Iceland? A cruise around the island is another experience altogether. There are freshly baked chocolate croissants and cocktails instead of sliced white bread and yogurt. Visiting the small towns on the coast doesn’t take an exhausting drive. Whales, dolphins, and puffins are visible from the deck. A cruise circumnavigating Iceland with the all-inclusive Atlas Ocean Voyages can deliver all of that, and much, much more.
When To Go Cruising in 2024
Antarctic (late November through mid-February): Antarctica’s peak season is in the heart of the Northern Hemisphere’s winter (summer in the Southern Hemisphere), to allow for ships to actually navigate the Antarctic coast without worrying about ice. Cruise lines like Lindblad Expeditions, Aurora Expeditions, Quark Expeditions, Silversea Cruises, and Atlas Ocean Voyages all offer cruises to Antarctica of varying lengths — many of them departing from Chile and Argentina.
Arctic (May-November): Planning an Arctic cruise is the polar opposite of planning an Antarctic cruise. Ships visit during the Northern Hemisphere’s summer season to avoid ice and the most frigid temperatures. This is also when wildlife spotting is at its peak, from walruses and puffins to belugas, arctic foxes, and polar bears. If you’re lucky, you might even catch a glimpse of the northern lights. Several cruise lines, including Hurtigruten Cruises, Ponant, and Viking visit the Arctic regularly each season.
Alaska (May-September): It makes sense that the best months to visit the typically chilly state of Alaska are during the summer, when you can stand on the deck of a cruise ship without needing six layers of clothing. You’ll also have more daylight to enjoy the state’s glaciers and stunning natural beauty. Numerous cruise lines, such as Holland America Line, Celebrity Cruises, and Princess Cruises, travel to Alaska regularly every year.
Solar eclipse (April 8): A solar eclipse is a spectacular sight even if you’re just watching it from your backyard, but it’s far more dramatic to see it from a cruise ship. There are several cruises running in 2024 specifically designed to give you an epic solar eclipse viewing experience.
Caribbean (December-May): Nothing ruins a cruise more than rain. Except wind. And seasickness. While you can’t always predict the unpredictable, sailing the Caribbean in winter and spring gives you the best shot of avoiding hurricanes and inclement weather. Many cruise lines, like Royal Caribbean Cruises, Carnival Cruise Line, Virgin Voyages, Norwegian Cruise Line, and more sail to the Caribbean.
Galapagos (December-February): You can technically cruise to the Galapagos Islands any time of year, but it’s recommended to go between December and May. These months are the region’s warmest of the year, and the ocean is the ideal temperature and clarity for diving and snorkeling. Cruise lines like Lindblad Expedition Cruises, Celebrity cruises, and Avalon Waterways offer voyages to the Galapagos.
Northern Lights cruises (September): While the winter months are best for seeing the northern lights thanks to longer nights, cruising the Arctic during the winter isn’t exactly desirable (or, in some cases, even possible due to the ice and weather). Havila Voyages offers Northern Lights Promise sailings from October 30 to May 1, and Aurora Expeditions has a 19-day Northern Lights Explorer voyage from September 8 to September 26, 2024.
Not Your Average Cruise
Havila Voyages sails four identical ships along the coast of Norway: the Polaris, Pollux, Capella, and Castor. A full journey on the Coastal Route spans 12 days and 34 ports, traveling from Bergen to Kirkenes and back. The route covers nearly the entire length of Norway’s coast, from southwest to northeast, reaching as far as 250 miles above the Arctic Circle. It’s there, above the Arctic Circle, where the northern lights are the most frequent and vivid.
Havila Voyages knows this. It knows that the aurora borealis is a big incentive for travelers to choose Norway as a cruising destination and wants to help deliver on the promise of a celestial spectacle. That’s why the company has a northern-lights guarantee: If you fail to see the northern lights during peak aurora season, Havila Voyages will invite you to join a repeat cruise for free.
Only round-trip cruisers are eligible for the northern lights guarantee, but with Havila Voyages, the length of your journey is entirely up to you. You can book a round-trip cruise from Bergen to Kirkenes and back, or a one-way cruise traveling either north or south. You can sail for three nights, or just from just one port to the next, treating the ship like a scenic, cozy local ferry. On these ships, expect an experience far different from the average cruise trip.
A Windjammer Cruise Along the Coast of Maine Is the Most New England Experience
Maine is home to the country’s largest collection of historical sailing vessels, which make up the Maine Windjammer Association fleet. The nine vessels in the fleet of traditionally rigged sailboats offer overnight guests the opportunity to see Maine from an unforgettable perspective. All vessels in the fleet are independently owned and operated and many are National Historic Landmarks, with some hailing from the late 1800s, while others were built more recently. These smaller vessels allow guests to explore more of harbors, and harnessing wind power means it’s a more sustainable method of transport than large ships or even driving.
Island Hop Around Polynesia on a Luxury Cargo Ship
Even people who are self-professed “anti-cruisers” may want to consider setting sail on the Aranui, a small ship that sails from the island of Tahiti to the remote and mostly undeveloped Marquesas Islands. Over the 12-day cruise, the Aranui visits several islands with adventure activities included for guests, like visits of remote archaeological sites and island tours led by locals. There are also lots of options for hiking, visiting remote beaches, or going scuba diving near Hiva Oa (the one-home of artist Paul Gaugin). The dual-purpose passenger/freighter ship is small and communal with lots of socializing between guests and staff. On board, you can hang out with locals and learn to play a ukulele or weave fronds, or spend your time in the large lounges with floor-to-ceiling windows. While the rooms can be luxe, there are also bunk rooms and family suites for travelers who want to go to the Marquesas on a budget.
Cross the Atlantic on a Historic Four-Masted Ship
Sea Cloud Cruises has a fleet of three luxury four-masted windjammers that take between 60 and 136 guests across the Atlantic every year in November. The ships sail from the Canary Islands or Cape Verde to the Caribbean on a trip that is nothing short of spectacular. During the rest of the year, the boats cruise along the Atlantic coast of Europe, around Costa Rica and Central America, in the Mediterranean, and many more destinations. Of the three windjammers operated by Sea Cloud Cruises, Sea Cloud is the most storied. Dating back to 1931, the ship has had many lives, including that of a weather station during World War II. That said, you get to have a real sailing experience on any of the ships in the fleet, and if you wish to do so while on board, you can learn sailing theory, take knot-tying lessons, and join in the crew on deck when setting sail.
Luxury on the Sea
When Regent Seven Seas Cruises unveiled the Explorer in 2015, it made headlines for being the most expensive cruise ship ever built, costing an estimated $450 million. That title was usurped by the cruise line’s $600-plus million Seven Seas Splendor in 2020, which only solidified Regent’s reputation as the world’s most luxurious cruise line. These investments show in the cruising experience. The Seven Seas Explorer is so lavish that it can render your destination of choice secondary to your time on the water. There are 373 staterooms, all of which are classed as suites and come with private balconies. Suites range from 307 to 4,443 square feet, with balconies spanning 55 to 994 square feet. At the top end is the two-bedroom, two-balcony Regent Suite, which comes with butler service, $150,000 Savior N°1 mattresses and $150,000 Mollissima duvets, a $250,000 Steinway grand piano, and an in-suite spa with unlimited complimentary spa services, among other amenities — for a whopping $10,000 per night.
This Cruise Is the Most Luxurious Way to Travel the Mediterranean
It’s possible to travel around the Mediterranean on a budget using low-cost airlines, cheap hostels, and dodgy looking ferries. It’s not a bad way to travel. You can visit Nice’s markets, pretended to be rich in Monaco, and sunbathe in Corfu all without spending much. But with Oceania Cruises, you can do all of it in the lap of luxury. Oceania’s Nautica is a small, deluxe ship that serves as one of the most opulent ways to see the Mediterranean. Oceania caters to a specific clientele — mostly wealthy couples with no children in tow — and it operates only small or mid-sized ships where the focus is comfort, luxury, and personalized experience. While large ships tend to offer more amenities, Oceania’s philosophy is that with fewer passengers, the crew is able to provide a more curated and pampered experience.
The MSC Yacht Club Can Make Even the Most Hesitant Traveler a Cruise Ship Fan
Cruising is not a one-size-fits-all operation. To accommodate those looking for something extra, MSC has a ship-within-a-ship experience on the MSC Seashore called the MSC Yacht Club. Onboard, the Club (now available on more than half the company’s fleet) spreads over three levels and is accessible only by Club members and staff with a wristband. It feels like a luxury boutique hotel within a ship. Yacht Club Members get many perks, including priority check-in and check-out, as well as priority ushered departure and return on excursions. Each cabin has its own butler and personal concierge. MSC Yacht Club members also benefit from an included extensive drinks package and unlimited access to the Thermal Suite.
The Biggest Trends in Cruising Right Now
Ships are getting bigger: The cruise line with the biggest ships is Royal Caribbean, and its Icon of the Seas will be the largest cruise ship in the world when it launches in 2024. The 20-deck behemoth will hold an astounding 7,600 passengers and will weigh over 250,000 tons. Not far behind is MSC Cruise Lines, which debuted the MSC World Europa this year as the largest ship outside of the Royal Caribbean fleet. Its twin, the World America, will hit the Caribbean in 2025.
Small expedition ships are also opening up: Just as the giants are gaining steam, so are the little guys. Smaller ships that can navigate more ports and go to more off-the-beaten-path destinations are getting a lot of attention from people who typically might steer away from cruising altogether. Following this trend, a bevy of small ship cruise lines have popped in the past few years, including Sea Cloud Cruises, Havila Voyages, and Atlas Ocean Voyages.
Excursions are getting more active: The days of herding passengers from the ship to a popular tourist attraction may be a thing of the past. Or, at least, they’re waning in popularity after the pandemic. Cruise passengers, even older ones, are seeking shore excursions that keep them active.
WiFi at sea is getting better: While some might argue the point of a vacation is to disconnect, increased WiFi speeds and better connectivity have become a priority on cruise ships.
Ships stay longer in ports: There’s something inherently frustrating about pulling into a port at 8 AM, hustling off the ship to enjoy the city, but always having in the back of your mind that you have to return to the ship by 4 PM. Passengers have long lamented these brief port calls, and cruise lines have heard them.
Rollin’ on a River
The American Queen, a picture-perfect 1995 recreation of a Mississippi River paddlewheel steamboat, is a luxurious time capsule that takes slow travel to the extreme. Onboard, the passengers enjoy great food, free drinks, river lectures, music, excursions, and tranquil scenery.
The American Queen is undeniably the largest and fanciest steamboat ever built. Modeled after two luxurious steamboats from the 19th century (the Grand Republic for the elegant exterior, and the J.M. White for the opulent decorations and furnishings inside), the American Queen is very grand. Yet, despite the Tiffany lamps, grand pianos, and dress code in the main dining room, the crew and the passengers are relaxed and appreciative of the beauty of the vessel rather than stiff-necked and uncomfortable about the lavish displays. On this ship, no luxury is spared for an experience just as luxe as those on the open ocean.
Cycle, Paddle, and Hike Through Europe on an Active River Cruise
Sometimes getting off the boat for an adventure is as memorable as the boat itself. That’s the case with AmaWaterways, which cruises on Europe’s rivers and draws in passengers who have a proclivity for staying active. Local guides take small groups of passengers ashore to cycle, paddle, and hike to the ship’s next pickup spot along the river, giving guests a chance to see UNESCO World Heritage Sites and the countryside up close. Though river cruises have long had a reputation for being relatively sedentary, that’s changing as river cruise lines increasingly attempt to convince travelers who like to keep moving to join them on board.
A Nile Cruise Is the Most Comfortable Way to See Egypt’s Beautiful Temples
Egypt is a geographically large country, and its major tourist sites are far apart. Separated by an overnight train or a 12-hour-plus bus ride, there’s Cairo and Alexandria in Lower Egypt (the northern half the country, bounded by the Mediterranean), and then Luxor, Aswan, and Abu Simbel in Upper Egypt. This is where cruising comes in handy. There are two ways to sail the Nile: By luxury cruise boat or felucca. The former option is the fastest and most comfortable mode of transport, while traveling by felucca beckons adventurers, daring solo travelers, and outdoors types.
A River Cruise Through Provence, France, Has All of the Sights With None of the Rush
If you’ve long been curious to explore France’s storied southeastern region — from the lavender-filled fields of Provence to the hilly wine country near Lyon — consider doing so by boat. A Rhône river cruise gives you time to shop at bustling farmers markets, marvel at medieval palaces, and meander through vineyards while getting you to your next location by night. Rather than fretting about early check-outs, train schedules in French, or car travel down small winding roads, you can sleep in and wake up to find your boat docked right alongside the next cobblestoned town.
The Best Cruise Line Drink Packages for Every Budget
Carnival Cruises: There are two options for drinks packages available on Carnival Cruises: Bottomless Bubbles (soft drinks and juices only, $6.95 per child and $9.50 per adult, per day) and Cheers! (as the name implies, this one offers wine, beer, and cocktails in addition to soft drinks, juices, teas, and coffee, starting at $59.95 per day).
Celebrity Cruises: There are two alcohol packages on Celebrity Cruises: Classic (covers drinks up to $10 for $89 per day) and Premium (covers drinks up to $17 for $109 per day), along with three non-alcoholic options.
Holland America Line: This cruise line’s Signature Beverage Package ($54.95 per day) includes drinks priced individually at $15 or lower, such as alcohol (wine, beer, spirits, and cocktails) and non-alcoholic beverages (sodas and specialty coffees).
Norwegian Cruise Line: Five drinks packages are offered by Norwegian Cruise Line, two of which are non-alcoholic (Unlimited Soda Package, at $9.95 per day; and Unlimited Starbucks Package, at $12.95 per day). For something stronger, there’s the Premium Beverage Package (covers up to $15 drinks for coffee, wine, beer, spirits, fountain sodas, coffee, and teas for $109 per day) and the Premium Plus Beverage Package ($138 per day). The differences between the two come down to lower-end and higher-end wine and spirits.
Virgin Voyages: Richard Branson’s cruise line offers its Essential Drinks on Us for free on every sailing. This includes filtered still and sparkling waters, non-pressed juices, sodas, teas, and coffees. There isn’t a drinks package per se like other cruise lines with daily fees, but you can drop $300 on a pre-paid tab which gets you an extra $50.
Breaking Out of Family-Friendly Cruising
Many cruises are a family-friendly affair. That’s no the case with Virgin’s adults-only cruise limited to people who are 18 or older. The theme is clear with puns, innuendos, and quirky amenities. R-rated themes are everywhere, including at the ice cream place called “Lick Me Till Ice Cream”. There’s even a special “Let’s Get It On” mood lighting option in the cabins, designed for amorous couples. Adults-only cruising is a far cry from lines of kids edging to be next on the slide, and the cruise, as well as other themed cruises like it, broadens the perception of what a cruise can be.
The Best Queer Cruises Where You Can Truly Be Yourself
Atlantis Events threw its first shindig in 1991 and only attracted 300 attendees. Today, Atlantis hosts over 20,000 guests annually on multiple cruise ships around the world. These themed cruises offer a chance to explore the open water with the queer community.
The 13 Best Lgbtq-Friendly Cruise Lines
If you prefer to spend your vacations exploring rugged coastlines and picturesque towns on board a trendy cruise line, you’re not alone. According to the Florida-Caribbean Cruise Association, around 25 million people take to the seas on a cruise ship each year — with a fairly large portion of those people being from the LGBTQ+ community. Whether you’re looking for the cruise line offering the longest list of amenities or you’d rather pick a cruise line that ventures to interesting and diverse locales, we’ve uncovered the best LGBTQ-friendly cruise lines.
Alex Bresler, Suzie Dundas, Eben Diskin, Katie Scott-Aiton, Matt Meltzer, Lisa Luken, Sara Kuta, Michael Arnold, Elizabeth Hey, Kristine Hansen, John Garry, and Ashley Moore.
Debbie Gonzalez Canada
Danny Ickes from Cruise Planners