Whether you're a joiner who loves a themed shindig, a sucker for a family promenade parade, a fan of high-class ballroom dancing or a college student who enjoys a raging kegger, there's a line to fit your cruise party style.
If you're searching for a raucous atmosphere with lots of drinking and dancing into the wee hours of the morning, you'll do best on short sailings (two to four days) out of Florida or southern California. Choose a time when primary schools are in session for a more adult rather than family-focused vibe on board. College spring break weeks are often the ultimate party cruises.
If you're looking for a different kind of party — perhaps something more refined or family-friendly — which cruise line you choose is likely more important than the length of the voyage or the departure port.
Here's my list of the best party cruise lines, whether you want to drop it low or raise the roof.
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Margaritaville at Sea: Best for budget bashes
If you're short on time, cash or both, Margaritaville at Sea — which operates just one ship, Margaritaville at Sea Paradise — is the ideal party cruise ship line. Each sailing is just two nights, and the ship runs back and forth between the Port of Palm Beach in Florida and Freeport in the Bahamas.
Because most passengers seek out the ship for a quick getaway where they can let loose during a couple of days off from work, they're often in the mood to party. (After all, it's 5 o'clock somewhere.)
You'll find pool deck dance parties, Jimmy Buffett-themed nightly shows and several bars and lounges on board. The main lounge, Euphoria, is where you can get your boogie on after hours.
To be clear, the ship is more than 30 years old, so you won't be in the lap of luxury on one of these sailings. However, the pricing is great for cruisers on tight budgets. Fares start from $299 for two people for an ocean-view cabin — just $75 per person, per night (not including taxes or port fees). You'd be hard-pressed to find land-based accommodations for that little, and Margaritaville's fares also include meals and entertainment. The best prices are offered midweek.
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Want to make the festivities last a bit longer? You can tack on a two-night pre- or post-cruise stay at Margaritaville in Orlando, or book a stay of two, four or six nights at a resort in Freeport before cruising back to Florida.
Virgin Voyages: Best for trendy parties
Ain't no party like a Richard Branson cruise ship party, and there are plenty of them on Virgin Voyages' ships. When the business mogul signed his name to the cruise line, it was a given that the vessels would be fresh, trendy and ready to rock.
A mix of rockstar chic and drag queen glam, a cruise with Virgin feels like one long fever dream, albeit a pleasant one. All ships are for adults only.
Passengers can expect risqué entertainment, including lounge singer-style performances; late-night parties, notably Scarlet Night, where everyone is encouraged to dress in red for a giant poolside rave; and wacky events like scavenger hunts and secret below-deck tours that take you for tipples in the crew bar after the sun sets.
What's most refreshing about Virgin's take on cruising is its "come as you are" attitude. On a recent sailing, I saw crew — men and women — dressed as merpeople, passengers who decided to wear tutus to dinner (and they weren't even a little bit out of place doing so), and singers and dancers of all shapes, sizes and ethnicities.
Virgin Voyages' ships will give you music festival vibes at sea — but with much better accommodations and fellow guests who have actually showered. (Body glitter, glow-in-the-dark clothing and fairy wings are all encouraged.)
Carnival Cruise Line: Best party drinks
If you prefer to enjoy parties with an adult beverage in hand, a Carnival cruise is worth your consideration. Its mixed drinks are some of the tastiest and most creative in the industry, including specialty concoctions that change color or which are topped with poppable smoke bubbles.
My favorites? Try the Cucumber Sunrise (vodka, lime juice, watermelon syrup, orange juice and muddled cucumber) at the Alchemy bar on nearly any Carnival ship or the Crystal Ball (tequila, Green Chartreuse, agave nectar and lime) at the Fortune Teller bar on Mardi Gras.
One downside is that the drinks can be pricey. If you plan to consume a lot of alcohol, you might want to consider one of the line's beverage packages, which run from $60-65 per person, per day. At that rate, you'd have to drink roughly six cocktails per day to make it worth the cost, and if you purchase the package, anyone else in your cabin who's 21 or older will have to do the same.
Like Margaritaville at Sea, the line offers affordable sailings, but it has a larger fleet of ships from which to choose — some of the best party cruise ships afloat. Also like Margaritaville at Sea, its shorter sailings tend to draw a more party-hardy crowd, so keep that in mind as you determine the level of shenanigans you prefer when you're having a good time.
MSC Cruises: Best for late-night parties
Are you someone who likes to party all night and sleep in the next day? MSC Cruises is a great cruise line for doing just that, especially if you're sailing on one of its Europe-based ships. (On a recent U.S.-based sailing, the club was dead before midnight, but the casino and its bar were open until well after I went to bed.)
Every vessel has a host of bars and lounges, but you'll want to make your way to the onboard nightclub, where DJs play music until well after 2 a.m., as long as there's a crowd.
Themed parties include white parties, where all passengers are encouraged to wear white, and snow parties, where the crew blasts fake snow (read: foam) onto the pool deck as passengers dance.
If you also want to party ashore, look for Caribbean itineraries that offer overnights at the line's private island, Ocean Cay Marine Reserve. After the sun sets, the body of the island's lighthouse illuminates with LED lights to create a spectacular show accompanied by a shoreside beach party.
Don't worry if you feel tired or hung over the next day. In true Italian fashion — it's a Mediterranean line, after all — the coffee is superb. Every bar has a fancy machine that can make whatever your caffeine-starved heart desires: espresso, Americano, cappuccino, latte, mocha and more. Note that specialty coffee costs extra if you don't have a beverage package.
Royal Caribbean: Best for family-friendly parties
Royal Caribbean is one of the most family-friendly cruise lines sailing the seas. Although the line's ships offer plenty of adult activities on board — late-night clubbing, adults-only hot tubbing and 18+ scavenger hunts — they also schedule plenty of parties for kids and families to enjoy together.
For example, every ship that's debuted since 1999 features an indoor promenade, lined with shops and restaurants, that serves as the venue for special performances. For years, Royal Caribbean's promenade parades included characters from "Shrek" and "Madagascar" as part of the line's former partnership with DreamWorks.
Now, the promenade shows feature members of the onboard entertainment staff performing well-known hits, such as the Beatles' "Yellow Submarine," while dressed in costumes. Pirate ships and other props make the experience a fantastic one for all age groups but definitely for children.
Royal Caribbean also scores off the charts in terms of kids club offerings. In addition to a battery of supervised daily activities, the staff also organizes nighttime events, including dance parties, where kids can get their groove on with new friends while enjoying mocktails.
If that isn't enough, the line hosts several theme nights, which encourage passengers to dress up. Held on sailings of four nights or longer, these gatherings, which are appropriate for all ages, might be themed as masquerade, country western, toga or decade-specific ('50s, '60s, '70s, '80s) parties.
Cunard Line: Best for high-class hootenannies
If animated characters, twerking and loud, pulsating music aren't your thing, you might prefer a sailing on one of Cunard's classic, nautically styled vessels.
On Queen Mary 2, for example, you can partake in ballroom dance classes, where you'll learn to cut a rug with the best of them.
At night, take your newfound (or, perhaps, well-worn) skills back to the ballroom, where a live band plays as cruisers dance classic styles like waltz, foxtrot and swing — often in their most swanky attire. Cunard is one of the few remaining cruise lines that still has formal nights.
On a recent sailing, people nearly three times my age were up dancing until well after 2 a.m. (Seriously, a 103-year-old WWII veteran showed me up on the dance floor several nights in a row.)
During the day, when you're not honing your fancy footwork, the ballroom is used for another more sedentary type of party: afternoon tea. You won't want to miss the pastries and finger sandwiches served by white-gloved waiters. The scones and clotted cream are a party for your tastebuds.
Whether your idea of a party includes loud, late-night debauchery with plenty of drinks or a more laid-back gathering where passengers sip tea in a formal ballroom, there's a cruise that will allow you to cut loose in whichever way you prefer. Your preferences are, ultimately, what determine the best party cruise line for you.
Choose shorter, less expensive sailings for a more raucous experience; select a longer, pricier voyage if you're looking for understated celebrations. Either way, you're sure to have a great time.
Planning a cruise? Start with these stories:
- The 5 most desirable cabin locations on any cruise ship
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- Which cruise brand is best for you? A guide to the most popular lines
- 21 tips and tricks that will make your first cruise go smoothly
- 15 ways that cruising newbies waste money on their first cruise
- The 15 best cruise ships for people who never want to grow up
- Cruise packing list: The ultimate guide to what to pack for a cruise
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.