Updated May 10, 2014: Ship numbers, capacities and other details have been revised.
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 will be a perfect fit for you, but there’s a perfect cruise line for every cruiser. In order of overall capacity, here’s our take on the seven major cruise lines catering to the North American market. If you’re comfortable moving the price point upwards, check out our overview of the boutique and luxury lines here.
Carnival Cruise Lines
62,360 passengers (double occupancy) 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. Cabins aren’t flashy but they get the job done; many are slightly larger than industry standard (a boon for families). Buffet offerings tend to be mediocre, though steakhouses—at a surcharge—are very good. Ship décor has traditionally been loud—think vivid neon—but, starting with Carnival Breeze in 2012, the design scheme has been toned down. Otherwise, no two ships are exactly alike and the amenities vary substantially from one vessel to the next. A $500 million upgrade program called Fun Ship 2.0 started in 2012, conceived to upgrade 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 was to Carnival Destiny—a $155 million, 10-week facelift that reintroduced the ship as Carnival Sunshine. Additional expenditures have been made to improve operating redundancies and fire detection and prevention following the Carnival Triumph debacle in February 2013.
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. The line has also focused on the “drive” market—a majority of Americans live within a day’s drive of a Carnival port. Cruises to more exotic locales—the Mediterranean, Alaska—are available, though less common, while Carnival Spirit is now stationed in Australia year-round. On the horizon: Following a four-year drought for new-builds, Carnival Vista is under construction for a winter 2016 debut; carrying 4000 passengers, Vista will be the largest in the fleet. Also, starting in 2014 Carnival is revamping its dining room service and menus, adding a Dr. Seuss-themed family program, and introducing a Live Concerts series that, for an additional fee, will bring name entertainers onto select cruises for one-off performances.
Royal Caribbean International
60,119 passengers on 21 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 Oasis of the Seas and Allure of the Seas—sister ships that carry 5400 passengers and dwarf every other cruise ship on the planet. These and several other vessels in the fleet have vast internal shopping atriums, big stage shows, ice rinks, rock climbing walls and boxing rings. But Royal Caribbean also has a collection of ships in the 2000-passenger range, and itineraries that canvas the four corners of the globe. The wealth of activities makes most Royal Caribbean’s cruises a good pick for multi-generational journeys. But some amenities aren’t standard, 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).
The ships offer a broad range of dining options, though buffets can be middling. Though main dining room and buffet options are included in the cruise fare, most other restaurants carry add-on fees, ranging from a few dollars to $95. 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. On the horizon: Royal Caribbean is on a building spree. The 4180-passenger Quantum of the Seas, a next-generation design, arrives in November 2014 and features new gee-whiz diversions (bumper cars, sky diving simulator) while moving away from the internal atrium concept; sister ships arrive spring 2015 and mid-2016. Additionally, in 2016 and 2018 a pair of new Oasis-class ships join the fleet.
43,828 passengers on 18 ships
Who’s it for: Couples, families, globe trotters
Originally founded in 1965, Princess defined its brand with The Love Boat, the TV series (1977-86) that introduced cruising to the masses—it was set on a (now-defunct) ship. Now owned by Carnival Corp., Princess has broadened its image to incorporate a number of family-friendly elements, especially on its 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, typified by 3560-passenger Royal Princess and Regal Princess, which arrived in 2013-14. But the company also offers a more diverse array of itinerary options than most of the major lines, including the largest cruise 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. On the horizon: A sister for Royal and Regal has been ordered for 2017 delivery.
Norwegian Cruise Line
34,320 passengers on 13 ships
Who’s it for: Younger and wallet-conscious travelers seeking a minimum of regimentation
With its fast-growing fleet of big, brassy ships—none smaller than 2000 passengers—perhaps no other line has relaxed some of the hidebound traditions of the industry as much as Norwegian Cruise Line. The company sells it as Freestyle Cruising, and it is a more relaxed cruise 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, leading other lines to ease up on traditions to varying 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.
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, and waterparks keep the kids enthralled. The line also offers smaller cabins for singles on some of its newest ships, a rarity in the industry. Ship designs reached their apex with the 2013-14 arrivals of Norwegian Breakaway and Norwegian Getaway, 4028-passenger vessels that came with (respectively) New York and Miami themes. Beyond the usual Caribbean, Alaskan, and Bermudan routes, Norwegian has a strong presence in Europe year-round, and it’s the only line to offer seven-day Hawaii cruises, aboard the U.S.-flagged Pride of America (others only offer longer itineraries out of California). Last-minute bargains are common, and watch for booking incentives. On the horizon: The “Breakaway-plus” class arrives with Norwegian Escape, carrying 4200 passengers and launching in October 2015; three additional ships in this class are on order.
25,050 passengers on 11 ships
Who’s it for: Couples, boomers seeking an upscale ambiance at a moderate price
A subsidiary of Royal Caribbean, Celebrity Cruises is the most design-forward of the major lines, especially the five ships that arrived starting with Celebrity Solstice in 2008. Tasteful color palates, modern art and clean architectural lines dominate, while unusual features have been introduced such as the Hot Glass Show and the Lawn Club, up to a half-acre of real turf across the top deck. These latest ships have been so well received that Celebrity “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-$45); 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 doll 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, Celebrity is the only one of the major lines to have an expedition-style ship, a 96-passenger vessel that trolls the Galapagos Islands year-round. On the horizon: Following the debut of Celebrity Reflection in 2012 no new vessels are on order. The line’s smallest and oldest ship, Celebrity Century, will leave the fleet in April 2015.
Holland America Line
23,455 passengers 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). Now part of Carnival Corp., the line’s Dutch heritage is kept alive through afternoon tea and the crew is mostly Indonesian (Holland’s former colony); noteworthy art graces the common areas. On average, the fleet is older than the other major lines, though during the last decade Holland America invested in an extensive revamp of the ships that added a quality steakhouse, an inviting coffee shop/lounge and library, and new bar concepts.
Holland America caters 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. On the horizon: A new ship is on the drawing boards for a February 2016 launch; carrying 2660 passengers, it will be 25 percent larger than Nieuw Amsterdam. Meanwhile, two of the line’s older (and smaller) ships will leave the fleet in November 2015, when Statendam and Ryndham are transferred to P&O Australia.
Disney Cruise Line
8500 passengers 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).
A 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 overall is better than average). A dress code is 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 premium for its cruises; unless money’s no object the family-friendly ships of Royal Caribbean, Carnival and Norwegian should not be overlooked. On the horizon: No new ships are on order. Following an extensive makeover of Disney Magic in late 2013, watch for a similar re-do of Disney Wonder to be announced.