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There are distinguishing characteristics that define each of the major cruise lines. Here's how to tell them apart.
While cruise ships come in all sizes, colors and flags, there’s one overriding factor that determines the flavor of a cruise experience, and that’s the cruise line itself.
Each of the major cruise companies dedicates the equivalent of a smaller nation’s GNP to position its products as the best in the business. As Ford is distinct from Volkswagen, and Hyatt appeals to a different clientele than Holiday Inn, so are the cruise lines—only more so. But in scouring the brochures and websites, it often feels like every ship is just right for us. That kind of one-size-fits-all approach is a bit overwhelming when trying to winnow the options for the ideal vacation.
Not every cruise line is a perfect fit, but there’s a perfect cruise line for every cruiser. We’ll tackle the boutique and luxury lines in a future overview.
Royal Caribbean International
62,300 beds on 22 ships
Who’s it for: All audiences, including families
Since 1999, Royal Caribbean has pushed the frontiers of sheer size more than any other cruise line. The jaw-droppers are Allure of the Seas and Oasis of the Seas—sister ships that carry more than 5400 passengers and dwarf every other cruise ship on the planet. These and several other ships in the fleet have vast internal shopping atriums, big stage shows, ice rinks, rock climbing walls and boxing rings. But Royal Caribbean has a small collection of mid-size ships and itineraries that canvas the four corners of the globe. The wealth of activities makes most Royal Caribbean ships a good pick for multi-generational journeys. But there are a number of amenities you won’t receive, such as bathrobes in cabins, a chocolate at turndown, self-service laundries, etc. (although Royal Caribbean doesn’t pitch its cruises as budget, inexpensive sailings appear on a regular basis). Most of the ships offer a broad range of dining options, though buffets can be middling at best. Royal Caribbean is also heavy into branding—from Starbucks to Johnny Rockets, and from Shrek to Barbie, the ambience aboard Royal Caribbean's ships will feel familiar. The mood is easy-going, and dress codes aren’t strictly enforced.
Carnival Cruise Lines
61,600 beds on 24 ships
Who’s it for: A party-hearty crowd, vacationers seeking budget-minded or shorter cruises
With a relaxed atmosphere and informal dress code, Carnival puts “fun” upfront, and a loyal crowd of regulars line up for free-flowing water slides, karaoke shows and edgy comedians. Buffet offerings tend to be mediocre, though steakhouses—at a surcharge—are solid. Rooms aren’t flashy but they get the job done, while ship décor is loud—think vivid neon. Although there are sister ships within the line, no two ships are alike and the amenities vary from one to the next. Following the debut of Carnival Breeze in 2012, there’ll be a four-year drought till the next new ship, so Carnival is trumpeting a $500 million upgrade program called Fun Ship 2.0. The overhaul will renovate more than a dozen older ships, adding features that started to arrive on Carnival Magic such as RedFrog Pub and Guy’s Burger Joint. The biggest makeover will be to Carnival Destiny—a $155 million, two-month facelift that will reintroduce the ship as Carnival Sunshine. A majority of the fleet sails shorter cruises (less than seven days) and sticks to one homeport year-round, making Carnival a good starting point for those seeking quick Caribbean getaways; inexpensive itineraries are usually abundant. Cruises to more exotic ports—the Mediterranean, Alaska—are available, though less common, while Carnival Spirit is now stationed in Australia year-round.
36,900 beds on 16 ships
Who’s it for: Couples, families, globe trotters
Princess defined its brand with The Love Boat, the TV series (1977-1986) that introduced cruising to the masses—it was set on a (now-defunct) Princess ship. In recent years the company has broadened its image to incorporate a number of family-friendly elements (especially on the newer and larger ships); Movies Under the Stars are presented poolside with blankets and popcorn and the Sanctuary invites passengers—for a surcharge—to a plush top-deck retreat. If ever there were a cruise line designed to be all things to all people, it’s Princess. But the company also offers a more diverse array of itinerary options than most of the major lines, with a big presence in Alaska each summer. While the bulk of the fleet is comprised of big ships carrying more than 2,000 passengers, there are a few mid-size vessels. A pair of smaller ships carry just 680 passengers: Ocean Princess and Pacific Princess circle the globe, calling on many of the world’s more exotic ports. We find that dining can be uneven, though buffet spreads usually offer good options. Two formal nights are typical on seven-day cruises, and a majority of passengers put on the dog.
Norwegian Cruise Line
26,600 beds on 11 ships
Who’s it for: Younger and wallet-conscious travelers seeking a minimum of regimentation
Perhaps more than any other line, Norwegian has relaxed some of the hidebound traditions of the industry in favor of what the company terms Freestyle Cruising, a more relaxed experience in many ways. Instead of two set seating times for the main dining room, come when you want; Formal Night is merely a suggestion, so wear what you want. These innovations have impacted the industry overall, although other lines have eased up on traditions to somewhat lesser degrees. Not everyone prefers this more casual approach—at prime time, you may be handed a pager as you wait for a table; a couple in suit and gown might get seated next to someone in T-shirt and shorts. Norwegian’s design innovations reached their apex with the 2010 arrival of Norwegian Epic, the third largest cruise ship at sea (in terms of passenger capacity). Restaurant options are extensive, with most of the venues requiring a surcharge, but we find the actual quality of dining to not be a strong suit for Norwegian. Entertainment, however, is above average. The line also offers smaller cabins for singles on some of its newest ships, a rarity in the industry. Beyond the usual Caribbean, Alaskan, Bermudan and Mediterranean routes, Norwegian is the only line to offer seven-day Hawaii cruises, year-round (others only offer longer itineraries out of California). Last-minute bargains are common, and watch for booking incentives.
24,200 beds on 11 ships
Who’s it for: Couples, boomers seeking an upscale ambiance at a moderate price
Celebrity Cruises is perhaps the most design-forward of the major lines, especially the five ships that arrived starting with Celebrity Solstice in 2008. Tasteful color palates and clean architectural lines dominate, while unusual features have been introduced such as the Hot Glass Show and the Lawn Club, a half-acre of real turf across the top deck. These latest ships have been so well received that Celebrity recently “Solsticized” four of its older ships, an expensive overhaul that delivered mixed results. Dining gets a big push on Celebrity, but the meals don’t always justify the steep add-ons (generally $30-$40); the buffet restaurants are noteworthy for their extensive spreads and variety of fresh vegetables. While the dress code isn't strictly enforced, a majority of guests dress up on formal night, and elegantly most other evenings. Cabins have interactive TVs but are otherwise fairly standard; AquaClass cabins are also available with a few upgrades. In addition to Caribbean, Alaskan and a broad range of European itineraries, the line is the only one of the majors to have an expedition-style ship, Celebrity Xpedition, a 90-passenger vessel that trolls the Galapagos Islands year-round.
Holland America Line
23,500 beds on 15 ships
Who’s it for: Traditional, older cruisers, aspiring foodies, world travelers
With a lineage dating to 1873, Holland America is probably the most traditional of the major lines. The fleet is comfortably mid-sized—only the two newest ships, Eurodam and Nieuw Amsterdam, edge over the 2,000-passenger mark (barely). Dutch heritage is kept alive through afternoon tea and the crew is mostly Indonesian (Holland's former colony); noteworthy art graces the common areas. Although on average the fleet is older than the other major lines, during the last decade Holland America invested in an extensive revamp of the ships that added a quality steakhouse, a terrific coffee shop and library, and new lounges. The ships cater to an older crowd—stage entertainment seems geared to the spawn of Lawrence Welk. But there are plenty of touches that make Holland America an appealing alternative to the bigger lines: In-room DVD players with an extensive free library, fresh squeezed orange juice at the buffet, cooking classes in a show kitchen, and bathtubs in most cabins. And we’ve found the main dining room serves food that is somewhat better, more adventurous than the mass-market lines. Holland America travels to a greater variety of unusual ports of call than the majors, with frequent Panama Canal, Australia/New Zealand and South America sailings, and an extensive program in Alaska each summer. A dress code is not strictly enforced, but the vast majority of guests doll up on formal night, usually two per seven-day cruise.
Disney Cruise Line
8500 beds on 4 ships
Who’s it for: Families, Disney geeks
Having grown its fleet to four ships in 2011-12 with the arrival of Disney Dream and Disney Fantasy, the Orlando-based cruise company has emerged as a solid competitor for the family market. At the very least, the debut of the Disney Magic and Disney Wonder in 1998-99 prodded the major cruise lines to upgrade their children’s programs. But Disney probably does it best, especially when catering to pre-teens, and the novel split-bathroom concept in most cabins is something the other lines haven’t quite matched. There’s a fine movie theatre on each ship and stage shows are slickly professional (if family oriented). One drawback is that, when sailing with a full compliment of families, common areas can be quite crowded and noisy. The surprise is that there are areas dedicated for adults only, including the tasty Palo’s and—on Dream and Fantasy—elegant Remy’s restaurants (dining is better than we anticipated). A dress code is strictly enforced at these venues, but otherwise cruise attire ranges from theme park casual on up. Disney’s itineraries are heavily Caribbean, mostly operating out of Port Canaveral (an hour’s drive from Disney World)—the company’s Castaway Cay in the Bahamas is a popular stop. But Alaska has been an annual visit since 2011 and, with four ships now, previously intermittent European voyages may be more regular going forward. Disney charges a steep premium for its cruises; unless money’s no object the family-friendly ships of Royal Caribbean, Carnival and Norwegian should not be overlooked.