How much will it cost?
As with any holiday, cost is a key factor in cruising and your budget will determine the size, location, accommodation and the style of your cruise.
But, with so many offers about, there's never been a better time to cruise. Research shows that not only are cruises much more affordable than they were in the past, they also offer better value for money than land-based holidays because all food and entertainment is included in the price.
How long is a cruise?
The standard length of a cruise is seven days but it can vary from a 2 days cruise to an around-the-world cruise of 175 days. For a first time cruise, a shorter duration is recommended.
Which ship to choose?
Select your ship based on your personality and own requirements - there is a size and style to suit every taste, including sailing ships.
See below for some guidelines
Low to medium-priced; huge and (sometimes) a bit brash, these modern megaliners carry upwards of 3,000 passengers and treat them to a plethora of facilities including multiple bars, lounges and restaurants, gigantic gymnasia and health spas and huge centres for children offering good-quality supervised entertainment geared to specific age ranges.
Who runs them?
Carnival Cruise Lines, Royal Caribbean International, Star Cruises, Costa Cruises, Disney Cruise Line, and Norwegian Cruise Line. Mediterranean Shipping Cruises offers smaller Contemporary ships with a Continental ambience.
Seven-day, back-to-back series cruises around the Caribbean or Mediterranean. Ballpark brochure price per adult (nine-day flycruise) 1,000 (though there are lots of offers well below this).
Families, "party animal" young cruisers who like lots of facilities and are not fazed by acres of corridors, long queues to disembark in ports of call or gather food from buffets, and (all too often) frequent Tannoy announcements.
The premium sector includes medium-to-large cruise ships and even some megaships - the criterion being that they carry fewer passengers and are therefore less crowded than Contemporary vessels of a similar size.*
The standard of onboard dining will be superior to that of Contemporary ships and the Premium sector offers a much wider variety of cruise types since it includes sailing ships and medium-sized "cultural cruise" vessels offering more offbeat itineraries.
Swan Hellenic's medium-sized vessel Minerva II, Transocean Tours Marco Polo are all rated Premium, as are Fred Olsen Cruise Lines ships (which offer a variety of longer itineraries) and the sailing ships of Windstar Cruises and Star Clippers. Voyages of Discovery's newest ship, the Discovery, has also moved it info the Premium sector.
These vary from 7-day series cruises to longer sailings, including world cruises. As a general rule, cruises on Premium ships are priced roughly ten per cent higher than Contemporary vessels but the current free-for-all on prices makes it impossible to establish firm levels.
Travellers who like a touch of class with their cruise and who - though their cash doesn't stretch to the Luxury sector - hate to feel part of a herd. Travellers who want a more unusual experience - be it the destination, inspiring onboard lectures, the chance to experience a sailing ship or a mix of all three. The larger Premium liners are a good choice for upmarket families.
Cheap and cheerful. As a rule, this sector comprises smaller, older ships with slightly old fashioned food and entertainment, fairly basic gyms and health spas and small, limited facilities for children.
A notable exception is Ocean Village which, though budget-priced, is a stylish modern ship remodelled by owner P&O Cruises. Island Cruises - a joint venture between Royal Caribbean and First Choice - aims at a younger clientele and has adapted the Island Breeze to feature alternative restaurants.
On the plus side, older budget ships are more cosy and intimate than mega-sized Contemporary vessels and some are converted former liners, which means they have a high proportion of spacious cabins.
Who runs them?
Older travellers who enjoy a traditional cruise ship rather than a floating resort; families on a budget who can be wooed away from the bucket-and-spade landstay holiday with imaginative cruise-and-stay holidays and the convenience of varied UK airport departure points. Mediterranean Shipping Cruises' older Budget ships MSC Monterey, MSC Rhapsody and MSC Melody (which attract a large contingent of Italian passengers) are ideal for people who like the idea of travelling with fellow Europeans.
Elegance afloat, with spacious suites, haute cuisine food served in chic open-seating restaurants, excellent service - and decent wines, onboard gratuities and even some shore excursions usually included in the price.
Who runs them?
Silversea Cruises, Seabourn Cruise Line, Hebridean Island Cruises and Regent Seven Seas operate small-to-medium size luxury ships; Crystal Cruises is a luxury large-ship operator, while SeaDream Yacht Club operates the smallest (and therefore most exclusive) 100-passenger vessels. While all the luxury lines offers excellent cuisine, Regent Seven Seas and Crystal have the largest selection of alternative restaurants.
These ships span the globe and itineraries range from seven nights to three month world cruises. On average, clients could expect to pay upwards of 2,500 a head for a week on board but - as in every cruise sector at the moment - offers abound.
Upmarket cruisers who insist on travelling in style; travellers who can afford top accommodation on a Contemporary or Premium ship, but will stretch the budget a little, for that really special vacation.
* The main criterion for whether a ship is rated Contemporary or Premium is the Passenger Space Ratio (PSR), which indicates a ships spaciousness in relation to the number of people it carries for its size. To work out the PSR, divide the ship's tonnage by its passenger capacity - and be aware that some cruise lines have ships in different categories.