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New to Cruising? Let’s talk details.

Disney's fleet of cruise ships.

New to Cruising? Let’s talk details.

In my first article, I looked at where to cruise, when to cruise, and the cost of cruising. Today, I’ll help you choose the cruise line, ship, and cabin that’s best for you.

There are more than 50 ocean cruise lines and more than 400 cruise ships – which come in all shapes and sizes. Holland America’s Volendam, for example, carries 1,432 passengers, while Royal Caribbean’s new Icon of the Seas can carry up to 7,600 passengers.

Other options, which I won’t discuss in this article, are:

  • “Expedition ships” which are smaller, carry fewer than 250 passengers, are able to go into smaller channels and bays, travel to less visited destinations, and are often outfitted with Zodiaks and other smaller watercraft.
  • Cruises on riverboats that ply larger rivers in the US and around the world. These ships may be traditional paddlewheels, which can carry up to about 500 passengers, or longships, which generally carry fewer than 200 passengers.

Many of the cruise lines are owned by the six largest cruise companies: Carnival, Royal Caribbean, MSC, Norwegian, Disney and Viking. You can see a list of which companies own which cruise lines here.

MSC World Europa's split supersctructure offers a 340-foot-long outdoor World Promenade.
MSC World Europa’s split supersctructure offers a 340-foot-long outdoor World Promenade.

Cruise lines have very different personalities. Some are floating amusement parks, some are party boats, others are understated upscale hotels, while still other offer merely “dinner and a show.”

Regardless of which line you choose, be aware of these dynamics:

  1. Shorter cruises generally attract a younger crowd, while longer cruises attract older people who have the time and money for the longer cruises.
  • You’ll find more families – and more kids – on cruises during the summer and on holidays.

Loyalty Programs

Most cruise lines offer loyalty programs, similar to airline or hotels loyalty programs. Benefits may include member-only lounges, early boarding, discounts on spas and other onboard services, free specialty restaurants meals or even free cruises.

Unlike airlines and hotel programs, however, you don’t have to start over each year. Instead, once you reach a certain level, you get to keep that level forever.

Another major difference is that with a few exceptions, cruise line loyalty programs are limited to one specific cruise line brand, which is very different from hotel programs. If you’re a Marriott Bonvoy Gold Elite member, for example, you can enjoy your benefits at any of Marriott’s 30+ brands, whether you’re staying at a Courtyard, Sheraton, or Westin hotel. Similarly, you can earn and redeem your points at any Marriott brand hotel. In contrast, if you’re a Princess Elite member, your benefits are limited to just Princess, and you can’t get recognized, nor earn or redeem points at Holland America, Carnival, or P&O. 

Some cruise lines will “match” loyalty levels earned on a competing cruise line. MSC, for example, will make you an instant Diamond member if you hold Elite status on Princess.

Cruise Ship Classes

Cruise lines generally have several classes of cruise ships, which is analogous to airlines flying different types of aircraft. United, for example, might fly 737, 757 and 777 aircraft, while the Princess fleet includes Royal, Grand, Coral and the new Sphere class ships. Ships within a particular class are generally the same size and have similar internal and exterior design features.

Ship classes are important for two reasons:

  • You might want to sail on Royal Caribbean because you’re heard about their new mega-resort ships. These are their Oasis-class ships and you’d probably be disappointed if you ended up on a Vision-class ship which is one-third the size and which lacks many of the activities and amenities found on the Oasis-class ships.
  • On the other hand, you might love the Discovery Princess but find it’s not sailing to your preferred destination. The good news is that the Enchanted Princess, Sky Princess, Majestic Princess, Regal Princess, and Royal Princess are in the same class and are virtually identical, and you’ll feel right at home on any of them.

Ship Sizes and Amenities

As noted earlier, ships range in capacity from hundreds of passengers to over seven thousand passengers on some of the new ships. While your first thought may be, “That’s WAY too many people,” I was pleasantly surprised that these large ships don’t feel crowded. The industry’s metric is “passenger space ratio” (which you can find here) and you’ll find that large ships often have more space per passenger than smaller ships.

Larger ships also tend to have more amenities than smaller ships. Almost all ships have dining rooms and buffets, bars, entertainment, casinos, shopping, and pools and hot tubs. As the size of the ships increases, the cruise lines tend to add more dining options, entertainment venues, bars, shops, pools, and hot tubs, as well as spas and gyms.

Some cruise ships take it up a notch by adding roller coasters, merry go rounds, ice skating rinks, go karts, water parks, bumper cars, laser tag, skydiving simulators and more.

Ship Age

Holland America’s Volendam, as well as being one of the smallest cruise ships, is also one of the oldest as she entered service in 1998. In contrast, the Celebrity Ascent and Royal Caribbean’s Icon of the Seas just entered service in late 2023.

Older ships tend to be smaller than newer ships but paradoxically often have larger cabins. Before choosing an older ship, read online reviews to determine what shape she’s in and when she was last refurbished. The Volendam, for example, has been meticulously maintained with frequent upgrades.

Length of Cruises

Cruises range from a one-day cruise from Seattle to Vancouver on Holland America, to a 274-night journey around the world on Royal Caribbean that visits all seven continents, 65 countries and over 150 ports of call. (Two-week cruises are my first choice.)

Start / End Ports

Post-COVID, and given the challenges of flying these days, more and more people are opting to drive to their cruises rather than fly. In response, cruise lines have homeported more and more of their cruise ships at US ports.

Florida dominates the cruise market and includes the three busiest US ports – with 24 terminals and over 10 million annual passengers – in Port Canaveral, Miami, and Port Everglades. You also have the choice of more than a dozen other ports along the West Coast, Gulf Coast and East Coast, as well as countless international ports.

Cruise Line Brands and Ships

Here’s a brief description of some of the most popular cruise lines. Note that cruises lines are frequently adding, upgrading, and retiring ships, so this info is likely to change as well. Passenger capacities mentioned are for double occupancy and can be significantly higher when cabins are occupied by three or four people.

  • Carnival Cruise Line – Carnival is the largest cruise lines in terms of passengers carried, and the self-described “fun ship” line provides fun and memorable vacations at a great value. Carnival attracts families and younger and middle-aged passengers. Each ship has a variety of amenities and activities ranging from water parks to roller coasters, along with many different dining options. Except for the newest ships, most Carnival ships have a similar ambience.

    Carnival has 25 ships in eight classes which entered service between 1998 to 2023 and which carry between 2,100 and 5,300 passengers.
  • Celebrity Cruises – Slightly more upscale than Carnival, Celebrity attracts millennials, middle-aged people, and seniors. Celebrity is known for big stylish ships rather than theme park attractions. Their fares include drinks, wi-fi and gratuities, and they’re a very good value among mainstream cruise lines.

    Celebrity has 12 ships in three classes which entered service between 2000 to 2010 and which carry between 2,100 and 3,260 passengers. Celebrity also operates three expedition ships.
  • Cunard Line – Cunard is much more formal than the other cruise lines and tends to appeal to an older crowd. Cunard offers guest lecturers, afternoon tea, ballroom dancing and has a strict nightly dress code. The ships attract mainly UK and US guests, particularly on their transatlantic sailings.

    Cunard has three ships in two classes which entered service between 2004 to 2023 and which carry between 2,100 and 2,70 passengers. The fleets of Cunard and Holland America, both owned by Carnival Corporation, include similar Vista-class ships.
  • Disney Cruise Lines – Disney consistently receives excellent reviews, and if you love all things Disney, this is the cruise line for you! The passengers are mostly couples with young kids, although you can easily find adults-only areas. Disney’s cruise fares are generally more expensive than other mainstream cruise lines.

    Disney has eleven ships in three classes which entered service between 1998 to 2022 and which carry between 2,700 and 4,000 passengers.
  • Holland America Line – My current favorite line. When I first sailed on Holland America over 10 years ago, they reminded me – seriously – of floating nursing homes. The ships and passengers were both old and tired. Holland America reinvented itself several years ago by launching a new class of ships and renovating their older ones, and greatly improving their food and service. Their ships’ décor tends to be understated rather than over the top, and the onboard “enrichment” activities such as lectures, entertainment, and officer Q&A are the best at sea and easily the most intellectually stimulating of any mainstream line. Holland America and Princess, both owned by Carnival Corporation, dominate the Alaskan cruise market through ownership of hotels and fleets of buses and railroad cars.

    Holland America has six ships in three classes which entered service between 1999 to 2021 and which carry between 1,400 and 2,650 passengers.
  • MSC Cruises – MSC is a major Swiss-based global container shipping company that added a cruise operation in 1989 and is now expanding heavily into the US market and is constructing North America’s largest passenger terminal in Miami. MSC operates big, resort-like vessels that appeal to a broad audience, and their passengers include couples, families, and seniors – a large number of which are European. Like Royal Caribbean, MSC operates a split-superstructure ship, the MSC World Europa. Split-superstructure ships are so big that they can feature central atriums that run almost the entire length of the ship. MSC currently gets mixed reviews from passengers and critics.

    MSC has 22 ships in three classes which entered service between 2001 to 2023 and which carry between 2,100 and 6,750 passengers.
  • Norwegian Cruise Line – Norwegian’s newest and largest ships are floating Vegas-style resorts that feature waterslides, ropes courses and even go-kart racetracks, along with Broadway shows such as “Beetlejuice.” In contrast, their older and smaller ships are mostly dinner-and-a show. Norwegian attracts a wide range of passengers including first-time younger cruisers, couples, groups of friends, and seniors.

Norwegian has 18 ships in eight classes which entered service between 1999 to 2023 and which carry between 1,930 and 4,270 passengers.

  • Princess Cruises – My second favorite cruise line, and the one on which I’ve sailed the most. Princess is popular with middle-aged couples, retirees, and multi-generational families. Unlike many cruise lines, almost all of Princess’ ships have the same basic layout, understated décor, specialty restaurants, and other amenities. If you’ve sailed on one Princess ship, you’ll feel right at home on almost any other Princess ship. However, fair warning that Princess’ quality of service varies from ship to ship.

Princess operates 15 ships in three classes which entered service between 1998 and 2022, and which carry between 1,970 and 3,660 passengers.

  • Regent Seven Seas Cruises – Regent Seven Seas Cruises is a very upscale line that offers some of the most inclusive fares in the cruise business, high levels of service, and some of the most over-the-top suites at sea. Regent’s fares start at about $1,000 per person per day and top out at more than $6,000 per person per day.

    Regent has seven ships that entered service between 1999 and 2023 and which can carry between 500 and 750 passengers.
  • Royal Caribbean International – Similar to Norwegian, Royal Caribbean’s ships range from smaller and older dinner-and-a show ships, up to their Oasis-class which comprise the world’s seven largest cruise ships. These ships include merry go rounds, open air parks, Broadway shows, ice shows and Cirque-style shows. While these ships do carry thousands of passengers, they also have lots of space, so they seldom seem crowded. Royal Caribbean has a heavy presence in the Caribbean and attracts a wide range of passengers – including lots of families.

Royal Caribbean has 26 ships in six classes which entered service between 1999 and 2023, and which can carry between 1,990 and 5,610 passengers. Icon of the Seas, their newest ship, has a capacity of nearly 10,000 people: 7,600 passengers at full occupancy plus 2,350 crew members.

  • Viking – Viking, best known for its 76 river vessels, entered the ocean cruise market in 2015. Viking has a fleet of nine ships, each of which is identical in size, capacity, and design. Their ships offer impeccably appointed Scandinavian interiors and unique port-intensive itineraries. Like Regent Cruises, their fares are mostly all-inclusive. Passengers are generally older, and children under 18 aren’t allowed. Viking is consistently rated one of the world’s best cruise lines.

Viking has nine ships in a single class which entered service between 2015 and 2023. Each carry 930 passengers.

  • Virgin – This is a relatively new cruise line, backed by Richard Branson’s Virgin Group, and has a much younger, cooler vibe. The ships are adults only; fares are mostly all-inclusive; and the four identical ships offer tattoo shops, karaoke and more.

Virgin has three ships in a single class that entered service between 2020 and 2023. Each carry 2,700 passengers.

CABINS

Studio cabins aboard Norwegian Viva are designed for solo travelers.
Studio cabins aboard Norwegian Viva are designed for solo travelers.

Cabins, like ships, come in all shapes and sizes – and prices. And unlike reserving a room in most hotels, you can choose the specific cabin you want. You can choose a cabin with balconies or windows or none at all, you can be located in the front, middle, or back of ship, and you can be on a higher or lower deck. Cabins range in size from less than 100 square feet for a solo cabin on the Norwegian Epic to 4,443 square feet for the two-bedroom Regent Suite on the Regent’s Seven Seas Splendor.

Regardless of which cabin you choose, and if you take away only one bit of advice for this article, it’s this: Carefully review the deck plan for the cabin you select, as well as the deck plans for the decks above and below yours.

Whatever you do, make sure your cabin is not below, above, or adjacent to a disco, basketball court, food prep, anchors, or anything likely to make loud noise at inconvenient times. Best to be surrounded on all sides by other passenger cabins and as far from noise sources as possible.

Cabin Types

Your choice of cabin (solo, inside, balcony, etc.) will be influenced by the number of people in your party, your budget, how much time you expect to spend in your cabin, how much time you expect to spend on the balcony or looking out the window, and if you expect to have people visit you in your cabin.

On most ships, the standard cabin is designed for two people and includes two single beds that can be combined by your room steward to create a double bed. Some cabins also have sofa beds or one or two pullman bunks mounted on the walls allowing you to have four people in one cabin. (All sharing the same bathroom.)  Some cruise lines offer “third/fourth guests sail free” promotions when three or four people occupy the same cabin.

The bad news for solo travelers is that the price for these standard cabins is based on double occupancy, and a person traveling alone will be generally charged a single supplement of 50% to 100%.

At a minimum, cabins include two nightstands, a closet, shelves or drawers, a TV, and a small bathroom generally with a shower. Larger cabins may have a desk, couch, table, more storage and possibly a bathtub/shower. The amount of storage space varies from cabin to cabin and ship to ship and is generally less than you’ll want. The good news is that you can easily store your suitcases under the beds.

Few cabins have as many electrical outlets as you’ll want, although newer ships often offer several USB charging ports. The electrical outlets are often a combination of US and European outlets, so adapters and converters will allow you to plug more devices in. Be aware that most cruise lines don’t allow power strips in your cabin and will confiscate them.

Most ships offer wi-fi in your cabin at extra cost. More on that in a later article.

Interior Cabins

Interior cabins have no windows or balconies and tend to be the smallest cabins on the ship. However, they’re also the least expensive and can easily be half the price of a balcony cabin. People who choose interiors often say they can take two cruises in an interior cabin for the cost of one cruise in a balcony cabin.

Interior cabins are also best for people who like to sleep in complete darkness, as the curtains in cabins with windows or balconies – like hotel rooms – often let light leak in. Interior cabins are ideal if you plan to be in the cabin only to sleep and shower.

The good news is that interior cabins are generally offered on all decks and in forward, center, or aft locations, so you can choose your cabin location based on its proximity to your favorite amenities, or to avoid ship movement. Interiors cabins range in size from 140 square feet to about 175 square feet. The size of an interior cabin varies from ship to ship and sometimes even with a specific ship, and they range from roomy to claustrophobic. As always, check the deck plan to determine your cabin’s square footage before you commit.

Some ships now offer interior cabins with virtual windows or virtual balconies (at extra cost) where a large flat-screen TV replicates the view from the side of the ship. I stayed in one of these and wasn’t impressed…

Balcony cabins

Balcony cabins are located on the sides and back of the ship, and occasionally the front of the ship, and on middle and higher decks.

Balcony cabins are usually much larger than interior cabins and average 175 to 225 square feet. The balconies are the width of your cabin and are about five feet deep, so that’s another 40 or 50 square feet of space.

Balcony cabins usually include a desk, couch, table, and more storage space. Floor to ceiling sliding glass doors provide access to the balconies, which usually include a table and two chairs. Dividers between the balconies offer privacy from your neighbors.

While I book balcony cabins for about half of my cruises, I have mixed feelings about their value. I appreciate the larger cabin size, but I find that I seldom use the actual balconies.

  • When the ship is underway, all you’ll see from your balcony is open water. And it’s usually too windy at sea to have the sliding door open or to sit on the balcony.
  • When you’re in port, you have a 50/50 chance that your cabin will look directly into the cruise terminal.
  • When the ship stops for viewing opportunities, perhaps to view a glacier, the captain will position the ship so that one side of the ship faces the glacier. The captain then rotates the ship so that the other side of the ship faces the glacier. I find it more interesting to be on the public decks where I can move from side to side as the ship moves.

The exception is “scenic cruising” days where the ship is visiting places such as Alaska’s Interior Passage, the Panama Canal, the Norwegian or New Zealand Fjords, or the Chilean Archipelago. The ship is generally traveling at a slower speed – which means it’s less windy on your balcony – and there’s generally scenery on both sides of the ship.

Some ships offer less expensive “obstructed” balcony cabins – which usually means a lifeboat – just a few feet from your balcony which is blocking some or all of your view. Buyer beware. (On one cruise, my window was obstructed by a lifeboat as well as a platform used by workers to service the lifeboat. They worked odd hours, so I ended up having to keep my curtains closed for most of the cruise.)

Oceanview Cabins

These cabins are similar to balcony cabins but have windows or portholes (neither of which open) instead of balconies. These cabins are less expensive than balcony cabins, tend to be on lower decks, and generally don’t have very good views. Like balcony cabins, ships sometimes offer “obstructed” versions of Oceanview cabins.

SOLO Cabins

These cabins are a fairly recent addition to cruise ships. Most are interior cabins, although a few ships now offer solo balcony cabins.

Solo cabin passengers potentially save money as they no longer have to pay the single supplement fee. And, they often have access to a special lounge available only to Solo cabin passengers.

The downside to solo cabins is that they can be quite small – sometimes smaller than 100 square feet. And the solo price is seldom as low as the price per person for two people in a double-occupancy cabin. For example, two people traveling together in an inside cabin might pay $1,110 each or a total of $2,200 for the cruise, while one traveler in a solo cabin might pay $1,650. When traveling alone, I have always opted to pay a bit more to stay in a traditional double cabin rather than stay in a tiny solo cabin.

Mini-Suite

This is a pretty vague category and is often just a larger balcony cabin with extra amenities. Varies from ship to ship.

Suites

These are still larger cabins that generally provide still more amenities along with access to a separate restaurant, lounge, pool, or sun deck. Larger suites may actually have one or more bedrooms that are separate from the bathroom and living room.

If you need something still larger, the Regent Suite on the Regent’s Seven Seas Splendor might be just what you’re looking for. The 4,443 square foot suite includes a living room, dining room, in-suite spa, two bedrooms and two-and-a-half “Marble & Stone Detailed” bathrooms. And a grand piano. You can learn more about the suite here.

Ship-within-a-Ship

Similar to the hotel-with-a-hotel concept, cruise lines have created separate boutique accommodations which offer upgraded staterooms, much higher levels of personal service, private dining, and sometimes private deck areas, pools, and spas.

Location

If you’re concerned about motion sickness, be aware the forward cabins are subject to the most motion. Aft cabins have less motion, while center cabins tend to have the least. Similarly, cabins on higher decks tend to have more motion than on the lower decks.

Another consideration is what you want to be close to. While cabins in the center of the ship are promoted as centrally located and close to most of the ship’s amenities, it depends on the ship. On most Princess ships, for example, I prefer an aft cabin as it is closest to the buffet, the main dining room, and the Horizon Terrace. On some Norwegian ships, however, aft cabins are far away from most amenities. As always, check the deck plan to be sure.

You also want to consider the distance to the elevator. If you’re too close, you may hear either the elevators or people talking as they enter or leave the elevators. If you’re too far away, you’ll have a long walk from your cabin along a narrow passageway often filled with housekeeping carts and people inevitably moving more slowly than you.

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CRUISE LINE BRANDS

There are more than 50 ocean cruise lines and over 500 cruise ships. Many of the cruise lines are owned by the six largest cruise companies: Carnival, Royal Caribbean, MSC, Norwegian, Disney and Viking.

  1. Carnival Corporation – 5.8 million passengers per year

Carnival Cruise Line

Costa Cruises

Princess Cruises

AIDA Cruises

Holland America Line

P&O Cruises

P&O Cruises Australia

Cunard Line

Seabourn Cruise Line

  • Royal Caribbean Group – 3.3 million passengers per year

Royal Caribbean International

Celebrity Cruises

Silversea Cruises

Azamara Cruises

  • MSC (Mediterranean Shipping Company) – 1.4 million passengers per year
  • Norwegian Cruise Line – 1.3 million passengers per year

Norwegian Cruise Line

Oceania Cruises

Regent Seven Seas Cruises

  • Disney Cruise Line – 312,200 passengers per year
  • Viking Cruises – 143,000 passengers per year

Viking River Cruises

Viking Ocean Cruises

Viking Expeditions

In my next article, I’ll talk about how to book your cruise, as well as onboard experiences, including arrivals and departures, service, dining, entertainment and more!

Dave Archer is a retired business executive who has traveled internationally for business and pleasure for over 40 years and has visited nearly 100 countries in Asia-Pacific, Europe, South America, Australia, and Middle East/Africa. Dave is also an avid cruiser with nearly 50 cruises under his lifejacket, uh, belt.

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