Booking a cruise is complicated: Once you decide where you want to go, you have to decide what ship to take and then which cabin to choose. The process can be excruciating for the uninitiated – cruise lines often look very similar to one another in brochures, as do some routes, and some larger ships can have more than 30 cabin categories. But, for cruise newbies considering their first sailing, the first question on their minds is always the same: “Which cruise line is the best?”

The answer, of course, is not so simple. Like hotel chains, cruise lines each have their own strengths and weaknesses, their own “personalities.” Some lines in the same price point sailing similar routes may cater to wildly different demographics.

The result: The answer is different for everyone. Start with your budget, since that will help narrow down the field. And don’t think that the list prices for sailings should represent your total budget: Except for some luxury options, those list prices usually don’t include airfare, taxes and fees, shore excursions, and some meals and entertainment, or drinks.

Within your budget, evaluate each line on its own merits. It’s important to review the food and entertainment choices onboard carefully, as well as professional reviews and even user-generated photos, in order to determine which line is right for you. You may be astounded at the myriad of options even within a fairly narrow price range.

For example, if you are empty nesters that are used to diving deep in your pockets for luxury vacations, expect a degree of elegance and sophistication, and are willing to pay a higher price for good food and service, then (depending on your budget) Oceania Cruises or Crystal Cruises might be the right choice for you.

If you’re traveling with young kids, and making sure they are catered to and entertained is the biggest priority, then Disney Cruise Line, Norwegian Cruise Line, or Royal Caribbean might be best for you.

And if you’re retirees on a tighter budget who value, well, value above all else, Costa, MSC, and Carnival may be the ones to consider.

The good news is that, no matter what your preferences and priorities are, chances are there’s a cruise line that serves them. You just have to figure out which one is right for your needs.

And, interestingly enough, those needs may change from sailing to sailing. When you travel with just your spouse, you may be willing to splurge on a higher price cruise then when you’re traveling with extended family that includes members with a range of
budgets.

(Tip: Norwegian Cruise Line, with its range of choices from decadent Haven area suites to singles-friendly studio staterooms, serves groups well.)

Better still, sometimes cruise lines evolve. Carnival Cruises, for example, took a lot of heat for the lower quality of its buffets and dining room services for years, but in the last few has surged ahead of the pack with major improvements to dining on its newer ships.

In addition, as you grow older – and your budget changes – you may find yourself upgrading or downgrading accordingly.

While cruising is a simple trip to book in some ways – make one choice, and you have selected your destination, transportation, accommodations, and food – the answer to “Which line is best?” remains complicated, and the options require consideration before you can determine which line is right for you.