Think all cruise ships are the same? They're not.
As this week's travel special shows, there's a line (and a ship) to suit all ages, budgets and tastes. That said, choosing the right one for you can be tricky, so here's a quick guide to get started.
My top tip here is not the line, but the time. Winter sees super value on Med cruises from MSC (for obvious reasons - you're unlikely to be in the pool). It's also a good time to try three- or four-night taster cruises. Other affordable lines include P&O, Cruise & Maritime and Fred. Olsen.
Regent Seven Seas is as opulent as its prices suggest. Celebrity specialises in "modern luxury", with onboard retreats, high-end spas, restaurants and art setting its ships apart - it also has several direct sailings from Dublin this year. Smaller, 'ultra-luxury' ships are offered by Silversea, Seabourn, Ponant and Azamara, attracting an active, older crowd.
Four Disney ships combine old-school elegance and studio pixie dust, though they're largely based in the Caribbean. Norwegian is a strong option for families with teens, and Royal Caribbean offers a huge choice of ships, with facilities ranging from water parks to bumper cars, rock climbing, shows and arcades. Similar to Carnival, it divides teen clubs by age.
Silversea and Saga are top-end lines here; Cunard specialises in classic and transatlantic cruising, while Fred. Olsen is popular with older Brits on a budget. Another option is river cruising - small, boutique-style ships docking at the heart of European cities. Prices are all-inclusive (though never cheap), with Uniworld and AmaWaterways two lines to consider.
For expeditions to Antarctica or the Galápagos, check Intrepid and G Adventures. Ships are small and basic, but itineraries active. Silversea does luxury Antarctica trips too.
Carnival and Costa are classic night-owl lines, with international punters, lots of fun events and late clubs. Some Norwegian ships have open-air clubs, and music fans can board once-off festival cruises like Cayamo (Feb 10-17), with artists including Emmylou Harris and Josh Ritter, or the Rock Legends Cruise ( Feb 14-18) starring Roger Daltry and Canned Heat. No, really.
P.S. How to book
Cruise bookings can be complicated. Call an expert with the likes of John Galligan Travel (jgt.ie), Tour America (touramerica.ie), Sunway (sunway.ie), Trailfinders (trailfinders.ie) or Cruise Escapes (cruisescapes.ie) to make sure you choose the right cruise for you.
"Ooh, I love the Edenists," says the young man watching a nymph-like goddess sing Pink Floyd's Great Gig in the Sky as an aerialist coils into a crescent moon suspended from the ceiling and a contortionist with a snake tattoo bends his leg behind his head.