Picking the best large-ship cruise lines

The Queen Mary 2 makes its way through Geiranger Fjord in Norway.

Is the most magical place on earth a cruise ship? The Disney Dream surely gets close. With a 765-foot water slide, a two-deck spa and a French restaurant inspired by the film “Ratatouille,” it’s no wonder Disney ranked as one of the world’s best large-ship cruise lines.

Slideshow: See the ratings and the reasons

Every year, Travel + Leisure asks readers to rank their favorite cruise lines based on staterooms, food, activities, service and value. Delivering on these characteristics is especially challenging for large-ship lines, which have capacities of more than 600 passengers, and can be as large as the No. 9-ranked Royal Caribbean’s Oasis and the Allure of the Seas, each of which can carry up to 5,400 passengers.

But what a large ship can deliver is a seemingly endless variety of amenities and curated programs. And it’s these features that are luring passengers: According to a recent Cruise Lines International Association report, the number of travelers that have been opting for a cruise trip has grown at an average rate of 7.6 percent annually over the past 10 years.

More travelers don’t mean higher prices this year, thanks to the launch of new-build ships: 15 total in 2011. “More luxury ships — along with the state of the economy — have driven down pricing to unprecedented levels,” says Monty Mathisen of Cruise Industry News. As a result, he suggests travelers should be on the lookout for steep discounts, two-for-ones and added value in the form of free airfare, shore excursions and onboard spending credits.

Further discounting is likely in the wake of the January 2012 Costa Concordia incident off the coast of Tuscany. While it has rattled the nerves of some potential cruisers, the industry’s overall record for safety remains strong. And there are concrete precautions you can take such as buying travel insurance (from a non-cruise owned company), checking Coast Guard vessel inspection reports and reviewing the evacuation plans posted on the back of their cabin doors and the safety videos that run in most cabins.

Selecting the right cruise line and itinerary to fit your own interests and comfort level has never been easier. No. 7-ranked Celebrity Cruises’s Silhouette, for example, has a multimillion-dollar modern art collection, while foodies will gravitate to the Oceania Marina, operated by No. 3 cruise line Oceania, for Jacques Pépin’s first Lyonnaise-inspired namesake restaurant.

To lure even more new travelers to the seas, cruise lines are updating ship interiors and adding extra panache on new builds. Who does it best? According to Travel + Leisure readers, the No. 1-ranked Crystal Cruises, which earns top marks for its exemplary service. On the cruise line’s Serenity and Symphony ships, travelers are escorted to chic staterooms with Egyptian-cotton linens; some have mosaic-tiled bathrooms.

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