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Overall Experience and Accommodations

Professional travel writers, magazine editors, and travelers are the best sources for cruise reviews. Based on the abundant feedback we found, several cruise lines and ships stand out for the all-around quality of the cruise experience.

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Cruise reviews also indicate that travelers care most about accommodations, food, and entertainment, in addition to the general sense of pleasure and well-being that the best budget cruises provide.

Overall Experience.

The best indication of a good cruise is the feeling you carry with you once you get home, and whether you'd recommend the experience to a friend. Cruise line ratings at Cruise Critic consistently rank Carnival Cruise Lines above average for overall experience; indeed, it was named the editors' pick for best budget-friendly cruising in 2012. Thousands of cruise reviews posted by travelers on the site agree, hailing the variety of activities, family options, and the quality and cleanliness of Carnival ships. The Carnival Dream (starting at $60), listed here as a good cheap cruise, sails to the Caribbean from its two home ports in New Orleans and Port Canaveral, Fla. (near Orlando). Travelers on the Dream ship consistently comment on the wide array of entertainment options for all members of the family and are impressed by the size of this boat in comparison to others in the fleet, although the enormity is mentioned as both a positive and negative.

Norwegian Cruise Line has won repeated Porthole Cruise Magazine Readers' Choice Awards for best short-duration cruises, such as those offered on the new Norwegian Breakaway (starting at $70), one of our top picks. This particular ship sails out of New York City to Bermuda, the Caribbean, and Florida, and cruise reviews report that the short voyages are filled with hours of partying or relaxing (your choice), friendly passengers, and good service. Our other best pick, Royal Caribbean's Freedom of the Seas (starting at $57), earns similarly enthusiastic endorsements from travelers. Reviews posted on Orbitz highly rank the vessel's seven-night Caribbean cruises for ship quality and overall experience. The passenger reviewers range in age from 20-something to 65-plus, suggesting that this cruise appeals to a wide audience.

Celebrity Cruises' Eclipse (starting at $60) is highly regarded for its luxury atmosphere. Passengers who have posted reviews on Cruise Critic rave about the crew's attention to detail and the outstanding cuisine available on-board. The editors at Cruise Critic note that even though Celebrity is a mass-market cruise line, it still feels luxurious and warm.

Cruise reviews for MSC ships (starting at $60) tend toward the ho-hum. Expert travel sites such as Fodor's point out that this Italian line has a distinctly European feel, with announcements made in multiple languages and entertainment and activity options that may not thrill American passengers. Travelers' assessments posted on the rating site Cruise Reviews are divided, even when discussing their experience on the same ship, and less than enthusiastic overall. Passengers generally talk up the value price and cleanliness of the ships, but many complain about lackluster food, boring entertainment, mandatory service charges, high-priced drinks, and personnel who don't always speak English or accommodate requests.

We also checked out Voyages of Discovery because it tacks in a different direction. This line operates two relatively small ships that sail worldwide, many for weeks at a time, and feature speakers with deep knowledge about the cruising region. Cruise reviews written by passengers are all over the map. Older/retired travelers tend to give it higher marks, as do those who say they like intimate cruises in order to make new friends. But reviewers also say these no-frills ships aren't for everyone. They report the decor is plain, the food is average, and the entertainment is disappointing. Still, some travelers commenting on Cruise Critic are willing to make sacrifices for the affordable and leisurely trips to destinations such as the South Pacific, the Baltics, and Northern Europe, and to hear related educational lectures along the way.

Cruise Accommodations.

Most cruises offer four basic cabin styles: inside (no window), outside (with window), balcony, and suite. The choice of cruise accommodations isn't so simple, however. Some cruise lines divide those four room styles into as many as 20 price categories based on location, size, and amenities, so consider your personal priorities when choosing your cruise accommodation. If you don't plan to spend much time in your cabin, book the cheapest cabin you can find. But if you think of your stateroom as a retreat, you might want to pay for more square footage and amenities. Rooms on older ships can be as small as 100 square feet, particularly for inside cabins. Also note that cruise lines often include the veranda in the overall square footage. A Sky Suite on the Continental Deck of the Celebrity Eclipse (starting at $60), for example, averages about 300 square feet, 79 of which are veranda space.

When possible, look at an online map of the ship's deck plans before deciding which cruise accommodation you want. Consider what is below, above, and next to each cabin. You may not want to be directly under the noisy pool deck or disco hall, for instance. Passengers roosting in cabins on the lowest decks will hear the hum of the ship's propellers -- a plus or minus, depending on your taste for background noise. If you get seasick easily, you'll want to avoid the highest-level rooms, which sway the most. The experts at Cruise Critic suggest that the optimal cruise accommodations are cabins that have staterooms above and below, like a traditional hotel.

Cruise cabins or staterooms rarely compare to hotel rooms, though, because of their below-average size, basic bathrooms, and, in some cases, lack of exterior windows. Still, some accommodations stand out for all-around quality. Cruise line ratings show high marks for Carnival Dream cabins based on their relative spaciousness, pleasant decor, and beds that open into larger sizes. Reviewers rank Voyages of Discovery above average for cabin size and storage space, a plus because these cruises tend to be much longer than most. Travelers have given Norwegian Cruise Line high ratings for the quality of the staterooms, noting that they're clean and relatively spacious. And despite low marks in categories such as food, MSC Opera performs well in reviews on Cruise Critic for the cleanliness and size of its cabins.

by Emily Lugg (Google+ Profile)

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