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I think there is a bit of confusion by those who have never taken a cruise (and only slightly less so by those whose cruise experience was either a Caribbean on or a Greek ferry).

When ocean liners used to be the primary way to move from continent to continent, it was important to build them to withstand rough weather. They were built lavish so that the passengers could enjoy themselves during the long, boring journeys.

Today's cruise ships are floating resorts. They transport their passengers in circles designed to sate their desires to see new places, while giving lip service to the luxury of the past.

What I generally do, when considering a cruise, is to decide where I would like to go (at least the general area) and the season I'd like to travel there. Then I research which ships are running that route (with the exception of sub-Saharan Africa, during an acceptable time of year there is generally no shortage of cruise lines represented on most routes. I then look at the "getting there and away" logistics of the two end points and omit those which are too awkward or expensive. I can then look for a ship that meats my criteria:

There is significant differentiation between cruise lines. Frequently (but not always) this is a function related to the size of the ships. The smaller the ship, the more must be charged per guest to make a profit. In order to remain desirable, this means that the smaller ships tend to offer higher end amenities, more lavish food and offer better service. Because of their cost, their demographics is understandably very different from lines which cost a fraction as much. They have the advantage, because of their size to be able to enter smaller harbors and dock more frequently than their bloated brethren (who are forced to "tender" using the lifeboats to ferry their passengers ashore - with the lines that 3,000 passengers can cause). That said, the larger ships have the room for more exotic and varied activities and large enough theatres (and the necessary budget allocation) to provide more lavish entertainment.

Some cruise lines consciously offer cruises with differentiated levels of activities, food and service - for example, any cruise labeled "Grand Voyage" or "World Cruise" by Holland America will add at least one whole star to norm (which is still pretty high).

"Repositioning" cruises, crossing the Atlantic or from the Pacific to the Atlantic or from North to South America are generally bargain priced on most lines (but generally have more days at sea).

Because of the variety of durations of cruises, the easiest way to compare is on the basis of dollars/day/passenger. Most cruises are available at a discount. The discounts and perks are much better either more than a year in advance or within a few weeks of sailing (when rooms are sometimes sold for very little).

The larger, more centrally located the cabin, the more the cost. A window costs more than an inside and one with a veranda costs more than one with a window. A penthouse suite is the most expensive.

The following are VERY (as there are so many variables) approximate prices for outside veranda cabins by line (also, these are my personal opinions and may differ from others):

High luxury lines (these run $500-$1,000 per person/night, but occasionally can be as cheap as $350 a night):
Seadream Yacht Club
Regent Seven Seas
Silver Seas

Luxury Lines (these run $350-$500 a night)
Azumara Club
Some cruises on Holland America's Prinsendam and Amsterdam

High End Value Luxury ($200-$350)
Holland America Line (frequently older middle class to upper middle class crowd)
Celebrity (larger ships than HAL. Crowd a bit younger)
Princess (Slightly lower than the two above. Tends to nickel and dime)

Royal Caribbean (smaller rooms, marginally lower than above)
Cunard (these are some of the last ocean liners and are multi-class. Upper classes cost much more than "tourist" and add amenities which may push those passengers up a category)

Acceptable class (These may cost as little as $120 a person a night and at 10% of the cost of the top end lines obviously are a very different product. That said, they touch on all the salient features of a cruise and for those who don't have a comparison are fine. They are inexpensive enough to be attractive for those taking a large family)
Carnival Cruise Lines (who interestingly also owns many of the above lines)
Norwegian Cruise Lines

There are many other cruise lines (some small, some exotic - as in having sails or specializing in river cruises, some foreign oriented - such as Costa and P&O, some unacceptable and some just forgotten) that I haven't mentioned, but the above will at least give an idea of the breadth of the cruise lines most Americans are likely to run into.

Some of the more interesting common cruise routes:

The South American route between Valparaiso (Santiago) Chile and Buenos Aires (or reverse)

The Baltic to the Nordic capitals and St. Petersburg

The Eastern Mediterranean and Black Sea

Australia/New Zealand/South Pacific

I find many other popular cruise routes to be disappointing (as, for example, the major European cities are far from the closest Mediterranean ports and 3-5 hours is not enough time to see any of them.

Most cruise supplied excursions are overpriced and frequently a taxi shared between two couples for the day can work out better. Generally we stay a few of days at the beginning/end of cruises in foreign places, but book the hotels ourselves as it generally costs 1/2 what the cruise lines charge.

Just some idle thoughts,
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