Our essential guide to cruises, from where to go to what to pack

From voyaging through some of Europe's most picturesque waterways to sailing between sunkissed islands in faraway places, there's so much choice when it comes to cruises that it can at times be overwhelming.

What's certain is that cruises are a great way to explore a destination, allowing you to easily and comfortably travel from one location to the next without having to deal with the hassle of airports. Have you always wanted to take a cruise but are unsure of where to start? Or are you a cruise veteran who's looking for their next adventure and needing some inspiration? We're here to help!

What are the different types of cruise?

When you think of cruises you might imagine enormous cruise liners with casinos and entertainment venues carrying thousands of passengers. While these extravagant ocean voyages are an ever-popular choice, they're not the only way to explore the world by boat.

River cruises

If what you want from a cruise is to explore culture-rich cities, you might instead consider a river cruise. From the Rhône to the Douro, Europe has some of the world's most beautiful rivers that are best experienced on a small ship, where you can sail from little towns to historic cities through peaceful stretches of countryside.

Take this cruise through Bordeaux, for example. You'll visit beautiful locations including Saint-Émilion, Libourne, Blaye, Médoc, and Cadillac - starting and finishing the adventure in the World Heritage Site of Bordeaux.

Or if you're looking to travel a little further afield, this Mekong River cruise takes in the best of Vietnam and Cambodia - with 13 excursions included. With pre and post- cruise hotel stays included as part of the tour, you'll have ample time to explore Ho Chi Minh City, Siem Reap and Hanoi.

Smaller ships take you on routes not possible by large ocean liners. We have a fantastic boutique cruise sailing around Venice's lagoons and islands. You'll be joined by Michelin-starred chef Angela Hartnett, as you see the city's most-loved sights, as well as hidden gems.

Expedition cruises

If your interests lie more with discovering the natural world then you might want to consider an expedition cruise. These are probably as far removed from the stereotype of sunbathing on the deck of a gargantuan ocean liner as you can get.

These cruises tend to be on much smaller ships, and the focus is on exploring the beautiful wild landscapes that our world has to offer. You'll travel with an expert expedition team who will help you make the most of your trip, teaching you about the landscapes you're exploring and making sure you're safe on shore excursions.

Expedition cruises can take you all over the world, but there are plenty of untamed landscapes to explore right here in the UK too. Choose to cruise Scotland's Highlands & Islands, maybe even in the company of an expert - like this cruise with weather presenter and proud Scotswoman, Carol Kirkwood.

Alternatively, you can spend time exploring the Scottish Hebrides specifically, including a shore excursion on St Kilda, a dramatically beautiful uninhabited archipelago home to one of Europe's most important seabird colonies.

Ocean cruises

Finally we have ocean cruises. Usually when people think of ocean cruises they imagine gigantic liners holding thousands of guests. Although this type of vessel won't be for everyone, these larger cruises do offer plenty of benefits. Firstly, ocean liners will be far bigger than expedition ships or river boats. Although you won't get such an intimate atmosphere on board, the pay off is a huge range of facilities, from dining options, to entertainment venues to wellness facilities.

If you're put off by the idea of a large liner, but are still keen to take an ocean cruise and explore faraway places, don't worry - there are still opportunities for more intimate ocean cruises.

Join our cruise around Central America next year to sail between heavenly white-sand beaches on Star Clipper, a traditional tall ship with 36,000 feet of billowing sails. There will be a maximum of only 166 guests, so life on board is blissfully relaxed, much like travelling on a private yacht.

Where can you go on a cruise?

So how do you go about choosing a destination for a cruise? As we've seen, cruises can take you all over the world. Luxurious ocean cruises often take guests to sunny destinations with excellent beaches. River cruises will take us through elegant cities packed with culture and the beautiful rural landscapes in between. And expedition cruises will take you to hard-to-reach parts of the world, often to uninhabited destinations like Antarctica, or remote islands in the UK.

Some of the destinations you can visit on our upcoming cruises include Scandinavia over the Easter weekend, Norway and the Arctic Circle in search of the Northern Lights, the Netherlands' waterways in the height of spring, when the colourful blooms are at their best, or Scotland, with its lochs, glens, and towering mountains.

Ultimately, where you choose to go will depend on the type of holiday you want. Luckily, we have a large range of cruises available to cover almost all bases, from expeditions in icy climates to luxurious Caribbean sailings with plenty of beach time.

What should I pack for my cruise?

Once you've decided on the type of cruise you want to go on and where you'll be exploring, you'll need to start thinking about what to pack. Obviously, this will vary enormously depending on your destination.

For a cruise around the sunny islands of the Caribbean, you'll need to remember your sunblock, hat, swimwear, and anything else you might usually take on a beachy holiday. If you're planning to join shore excursions that involve a bit of walking, make sure you bring some comfy walking shoes along with your flip flops. Make sure you familiarise yourself with the itinerary, as well as all the potential activities you'd like to get involved with, and pack accordingly.

For an expedition cruise to icier climes, like Antarctica, your packing list will look very different. Despite the cold weather, you should also pack sunblock for this trip, as UV exposure can be quite high, and you'll be spending a lot of time outdoors. It's recommended to bring a camera and a memory card with a large capacity, as you'll be sure to see a lot of things worth photographing.

It's also worth packing extra batteries for your camera and other electronic devices if you're planning an icy adventure, as the cold conditions can shorten battery life. Finally, although you won't be taking a dip in the ocean on this cruise, bring your swimwear anyway - you'll likely want to make use of the ship's heated pools, on-deck hot tub, and panoramic sauna.

Although most of our cruises don't have any dress codes and lean more towards casual, you might want to pack a cocktail dress or smart suit and tie in case you decide to explore bars and restaurants on land.

Can you go on a cruise as a single traveller?

The short answer is: yes! While cruises remain popular with couples and even family groups, they can be great for solo travellers too. Solo cruising is getting more and more popular, and there are several reasons why a cruise makes sense if you're looking to explore the world as a solo traveller.

You'll be travelling in a safe and convenient way, with organised excursions and routes all planned out for you. This means you won't have to navigate transport while abroad alone, which takes away much of the stress of organisation for independent travellers. This can be particularly helpful in a country where you might not speak the local language, and where you might want to explore various parts stress-free.

Take our cruise of Japan during cherry blossom season. The stress of having to navigate a new country alone is taken away, as you explore hi-tech modern cities and ancient monuments with expert guides and with a group of travellers with similar interests.

Of course, another big advantage to choosing a cruise for a solo holiday is the chance to make new friends.

Many of our cruises have celebrity guests and exciting excursions, like our cruise of the Venetian Lagoon with Rick Stein. There'll be a live cooking demonstration from Rick and a market tour, giving you the chance to bond with fellow guests who share an interest in good food and wine.

Most of our cruises will take place on board smaller, boutique ships, rather than gigantic ocean liners. Life on board is blissfully relaxed, much like travelling on a private yacht and there are plenty of beautifully-appointed communal spaces where guests spend a lot of time, like the stylish restaurant and piano bar. This gives you the chance to really get to know your fellow guests, and perhaps even come away with lifelong friends.