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The Best Cruises of 2014

The cruise industry has taken a publicity hit in recent years following some high-profile accidents and ship malfunctions. The subsequent media frenzy has left a lot of travelers wondering whether taking a cruise is a smart idea.
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The cruise industry has taken a publicity hit in recent years following some high-profile accidents and ship malfunctions. The subsequent media frenzy has left a lot of travelers wondering whether taking a cruise is a smart idea.

The truth is that now may be the best time to consider a cruise vacation. While airfares and hotel prices are higher than they have been in recent years, cruise prices are lower on average. And the launch of brand-new megaships and new investments in ship safety and amenities make cruising a compelling alternative to a hotel-based vacation.

Why would you consider a cruise for your next vacation? First, it's easy. If you don't like to sweat the details, taking a cruise eliminates the need for you to find a hotel, restaurants and activities -- or to pay for them all separately. Second, you get variety. A typical seven-day cruise may stop in five or six different destinations. And third, many cruises are at bargain prices right now. After all, those ships are setting sail with or without passengers, and cruise companies are doing whatever they can to fill cabins, including offering deeply discounted rates.

If you still have reservations about booking a cruise, you are not alone. Choosing the right cruise line, ship and itinerary can be a daunting task. That's where U.S. News & World Report's Best Cruises rankings come in. U.S. News ranked 15 major cruise lines based on how their cruises were regarded by travel experts, how they were rated by cruise travelers (using data collected in collaboration with and how they fared in health and safety evaluations by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The U.S. News team compiled this data for every ship within the 15 cruise lines and determined the best cruise lines in a number of different categories.

Top 3 Luxury Cruise Lines

Cruisers who opt to sail with a luxury line expect one-of-a-kind itineraries, personalized service, plush accommodations and a wealth of onboard entertainment. Two small lines, Silversea Cruises and Regent Seven Seas Cruises, earned high marks from travelers for their intimate atmospheres, excellent cuisine and onboard enrichment programs. Another small cruise line, Crystal Cruises, received the highest overall rating of any evaluated cruise line due in large part to having received the highest ratings among experts and among travelers. The line's two ships earn praise for offering quality customer service and distinct voyages around the world. Some of Crystal's onboard restaurants offer cuisine crafted by famed chef Nobu Matsuhisa, many of its staterooms are built with private verandas, and onboard amenities include spas and putting greens.

Top 3 Cruise Lines for the Money

Many cruise lines are slashing prices in an effort to up ship occupancy, but don't let low rates distract you from ensuring you select a quality company. Those looking to book a family cruise will be happy to know that Disney Cruise Line offers a great value and a bounty of kid-friendly amenities. Meanwhile, travelers looking for the personalized service provided by a smaller vessel will find a bargain by cruising with Celebrity. But neither Disney nor Celebrity could top the value of a Royal Caribbean cruise. As one of the largest cruise lines navigating the seven seas, Royal Caribbean boasts 22 ships, including Quantum of the Seas which will debut in November 2014. The company's large fleet allows it to carry thousands of passengers per voyage, which permits lower rates. Royal Caribbean's traveler approval rating of 4 out of 5 proves that it doesn't sacrifice a quality experience for affordability: Royal Caribbean's fares cover lodging, dining and onboard activities ranging from youth-focused exploits like swimming and ice skating to enrichment programs like language classes and cooking demonstrations.

Top 3 Cruise Lines for Families

The Best Cruise Lines for Families ranking shares the same top three as the Best Cruise Lines for the Money, but in a different order. Celebrity Cruises and Royal Caribbean are highly rated by families with both younger kids and teenagers, even while catering to a diverse set of travelers (including many couples, singles and groups). The No. 1 ranked cruise line for families is Disney, which has the highest ratings among travelers with kids of all ages, according to data. The majority of Disney cruisers are (no surprise) families with kids. While on board, children can mingle with their favorite Disney characters and make new friends while participating in Disney's educational kids clubs. And children and parents can have fun together at theme parties and nightly performances.

Top 3 Cruise Lines for Romance

For many, a cruise offers the chance to celebrate a romantic occasion while exploring exotic new locations with that special someone. Crystal Cruises, the No. 1-ranked cruise line for romance, specializes in this. Let the cruise line know if you're celebrating a milestone like a birthday, an anniversary or a honeymoon and ship staff can take care of the details for you. Crystal Celebrations packages provide a variety of extras to enhance the experience, with treats ranging from Champagne to live music to spa vouchers. Even if you're not cruising for any particular reason, complimentary in-room wine is an excellent addition to an evening spent on your private balcony, and gourmet cuisine can make dinner on board feel like date night. These romantic amenities make Crystal the highest rated cruise line among couples. Also landing among the top three, Cunard offers all-inclusive packages designed specifically for weddings or for renewing vows at sea, while Azamara's two ships offer an exclusive, intimate atmosphere highly rated by couples.

Top 3 Cruise Lines in the Caribbean

If you're planning a cruise, odds are you're heading to the Caribbean. Every one of the 15 lines evaluated for the Best Cruises rankings offers trips to these islands. Royal Caribbean alone is offering more than 1,000 itineraries to the Caribbean between 2014 and 2015. Silversea, a much smaller cruise line, offers fewer itineraries in the region but it scored well enough among experts and travelers to join Royal Caribbean as one of the top three cruise lines in the Caribbean. But the No. 1 spot went to Disney Cruise Line. Although it has fewer Caribbean itineraries than Carnival, Norwegian and Royal Caribbean, Disney's four whimsical ships receive outstanding reviews from travelers. Disney drops anchor in Barbados, Jamaica, the Cayman Islands and St. Barts, where passengers can explore rainforests, hike volcanoes and peruse local markets. And of course, Disney has its own private Caribbean island. Castaway Cay in the Bahamas is reserved solely for Disney passengers -- the island boasts numerous play areas, luxury accommodations, shopping areas and both family-friendly and adults-only beaches.

-- Miriam B. Weiner