Picking Your First Cruise Ship

| 08-10.12

A guide to helping first-time cruisers differentiate and select their first cruise line and cruise ship.

How to select your first cruise ship

This is where first-time cruisers probably want the most advice, and rightfully so. Do your homework, but also realize that at some point you have to make a decision and pick one line. Just remember that you will definitely learn more during your first cruise than you could ever learn during a lifetime of reading about cruise ships.

The idea is to find the right ship for your personal lifestyle. It is extremely important to realize that unlike trains or planes cruise ships are far more than a means of transportation. Those kinds of ships are called ferries. Cruise ships provide a shipboard experience that will be as exciting, and in many cases depending on where you go, far more exciting than the places you visit during the cruise.

In general, almost any cruise line has better food and service than you will find in an average restaurant or hotel. In addition, you get entertainment that on many cruise ships includes Broadway-caliber entertainers, first run movies, cabaret, rock or blues music, comedy and more. You also get free 24-hour room service and more than a maid, you get a room steward who cleans and makes up your stateroom twice each day - cleaning each morning and a turndown service every night.

Each cruise comes with food available 24-hours and entertainment included in the cruise fare. While you are onboard most cruise ships you will have to pay extra for any alcohol or soda beverages as well as gratuities to certain crewmembers who serve you personally. The cost of drinks is similar to a hotel, while gratuities average about $10 per passenger per day in total. All onboard costs are settled on the last day of the cruise and can be charged to a prearranged credit card account similar to the method of hotels.

But these are the minimum offerings that cruise lines have in common. And the style in which each cruise line presents these amenities defines the distinct personality of that cruise line which is what you want to study carefully before they book your first cruise. Some people eventually find a favorite cruise line and stay with them cruise after cruise, building up loyalty rewards similar to frequent flyer miles. Some people cruise on different lines all the time, depending on what mood strikes them for their next cruise.

Cruise ships come in all shapes and sizes, from tiny "expedition vessels" that only carry 30 to 50 passengers to "mega-ships" that can carry well over 5000 passengers plus close to 2000 crewmembers at the same time.

So - how do you know which one is right for you? We will look at this question very closely and I urge you not to jump to any conclusions or pre-conceived notions based on what you may have heard about certain cruise lines. Also - watch out for negative reader-contributed cruise reviews you read online. In many cases these people had one or two things go wrong but decided to list every little negative thing they could think to say in order to "make their case."

There are several different factors to consider for any given cruise ship; size, cost, age and amenities. The cruise line itself is the first consideration, but keep in mind that within each cruise line there can be a vast variety of vessels, smaller ones that are 20 years old, and brand new ones with all of the biggest and best features.

Size: Today's cruise ships vary in size between 30,000-tons to 220,000-tons. I realize "size" is a vague concept to non-experienced cruisers. We use gross tonnage to represent ship size because it is actually a measure of the interior volume of a ship - not how much it actually weighs. A 100,000 ton cruise ship could be about 900 feet long, 14 decks tall and 90 feet wide. It will carry about 3000 passengers more or less depending on the cruise line.

This is a rough way of defining size:

  1. Under 20,000-tons = smallest
  2. 20,000 to 49,000 tons = small
  3. 50,000 to 75,000 tons = medium small
  4. 75,000 to 100,000 tons = average
  5. 101,000 to 120,000 tons - medium large
  6. 121,000 to 149,000 tons - large
  7. 150,000 tons + = "mega-ship"
  8. 220,000 tons = world's largest ships

To be clear, the (1) smallest ships include river boats and older "yacht-like" luxury vessels. (2) Represents some of the newer luxury vessels introduced in the last few years. (3) Includes some of the older (1990s) ships of the more popular fleets such as Disney, Holland America and Princess and (4) Represents some of the newer ships (early 2000s) of those same fleets. (5) Includes most of the newer ships from Carnival and Princess. (6) Includes some of the newest ships from Carnival as well as some of the ships currently on order for NCL and Princess to arrive in 2013. It also includes the newer ships from Celebrity, although the different is that while a Carnival ship may carry over 4000 guests a Celebrity ship of this size only has 2850 berths for more space per passenger. (7) Includes only the largest ships from NCL and Royal Caribbean and (8) only has two ships, Oasis, and Allure of the Seas.

This brings up an important point; size alone is not as much a factor as space per passenger. This is called the "passenger-space ratio." The "PSR" is a somewhat good indicator of "luxury" but one should not get carried away because it is an inherently faulty measurement due to its over-simplicity. It is based dividing the gross tonnage by the number of berths, but it does not exclude crew and technical areas of the ship, nor does it count extra people in staterooms (which can be anywhere from none to thousands).

One of the biggest factors that come along with size is the variety of activities aboard. Simply put, larger ships have a greater variety of onboard activities including;

  • Sports: tennis, miniature golf, basketball, a fitness center and spa facilities for massage, facials and haircuts. Some larger ships even offer acupuncture and wet and dry saunas.
  • Showtime Entertainment: on larger ships entertainment is generally much more sophisticated and impressive than on smaller ships, with Broadway caliber shows and well-known comedians and other performers from stage and screen.
  • Dining Options: Larger ships also provide a much larger variety of dining options although that does not necessarily mean better food. For example, one of the larger ships in the cruise fleet, Norwegian Epic, has 21 restaurants onboard but only a handful of them would qualify as gourmet dining. On the other hand, some of the most expensive ships in the "luxury" category will be smaller and will only have two or three dining options onboard, but each of them will offer what is considered among the finest cuisine at sea. Children's Facilities: larger ships usually offer special programs for kids of all ages separated into distinct groups.
  • Casino: larger ships will offer more casino games and a greater variety of slot machines.
  • Night Spots: larger ships will generally offer a number of nighttime entertainment venues including disco style dancing, live entertainment such as rock or blues bars, comedy clubs, karaoke and sing-along piano bars.
  • Movie Theaters: the new trend on larger cruise ships these days is you have not only movie theaters, but the latest state-of-the-art 3-D technology. Some ships have even taken this a step further to include theaters with seat motion, air blowers, ankle ticklers and back pokers for the fully immersive theater experience.
  • Waterslides: many of the largest ships have waterslides for the kids such as the new Disney ships which have water rafting rides 765 feet long. Carnival and Norwegian Cruise Lines ships also have waterslides.

Obviously, the widest variety of activities available comes on the largest cruise ships. This makes them destinations unto themselves even though they generally visit the same ports of call as smaller cruise ships. So, while itineraries of any given cruise are always one of the first considerations for first-time cruiser it is also commonly heard by first-time cruisers that they didn't realize how much they would enjoy the ship itself.

Re-engineering older ships is a recent trend by cruise lines. The idea is to take some of the newer features that have proven most popular on new ships and add them to older ships during remodeling. This has been done to all of the older Carnival ships and many of the newer ones. Royal Caribbean, Celebrity and Holland America are also in the process of upgrading their older ships.

It is important to note that larger ships offer a much smoother ride in the ocean while a very small ship of 10,000-tons will rock with every motion of the ocean it encounters. A very large mega-ship of over 100,000-tons will glide through the water with a much slower and less noticeable rocking motion you may go an entire cruise and not feel any movement at all.

In general, more expensive provide more space per passenger first of all. Luxury cruise ships tend to be smaller, however, it is only logical that smaller cruise ships cannot provide the variety of activities found on larger, more mainstream cruise lines. And so size is often a matter of personal preference related to how much a person wants to get involved with the activities offered onboard. It is assumed that luxury cruisers prefer a more "yacht like" experience, meaning there are fewer distractions and more of a focus on quiet time with a closer connection to the sea. In fact, small luxury cruise ships generally offer a very quiet environment, the opposite of the larger "ship as the destination" experience.

Understanding Categories. There are generally four categories of cruise ships in the industry starting with the least expensive known as "contemporary" or what I refer to as mainstream, followed by premium, upscale and luxury. There used to be a "budget" category of cruise lines, mostly sailing refurbished older ships from the ocean liner era. These have all but disappeared as competitive pricing made them unprofitable and it became too costly to comply with newer safety requirements.

Contemporary. This category includes Carnival Cruise Lines, Royal Caribbean Line and Norwegian Cruise Line. These lines generally offer the cheapest cruises available although one can often find more "premium" cruise lines selling cruises for about the same prices, depending on the ships. Of course, these are the largest cruise ships in the business with Royal Caribbean being the leader in the size category. Oasis of the Seas and Allure of the Seas are the two largest cruise ships in the world by far at 220,000 tons apiece.

It seems a little bit counterintuitive that these largest and most active ships with the most activities are operated for the most cost conscious consumers by the mainstream cruise lines, but there is frankly much more to do on the larger ships for those who enjoy the sort of activities they offer.

Contemporary ships fall into the "ship as the destination" category unlike smaller, more expensive cruise ships that excel at destination-oriented cruising with the focus on the ports of call. If your goal in taking a cruise is to see the world then a small ship is much more convenient. You will be able to get on and off the ship very quickly and have smaller and more exclusive tours available.

Premium. The next step up from contemporary brings "premium cruise lines" where we find Holland America, Celebrity Cruises, Princess Cruise Line, Cunard line and Disney. There are differences between all of these cruise lines; for example, Holland America offers smaller ships with fewer passengers while Princess cruise ships are larger and carry more passengers. Celebrity Cruises has newer cruise ships of larger size but fewer passengers per ship for more space onboard.

Obviously, Disney Cruise Line is in the category of its own offering family oriented cruises with extensive activities for kids six months to 18 years old. Disney also has adult-only areas but the focus is on technology and family entertainment, even in the dining rooms.

Cunard line is also practically a category unto itself with three ships including the Queen Mary II, the world's largest ocean liner ever built. Queen Mary II offers a very distinct and classic ocean voyage much like the famous upper-class scenes from the movie Titanic. All Cunard ships offer two separate classes where the top category is considered a luxury cruise experience while the lower category is more in keeping with premium cruises.

Upscale. The next step up encompasses a wide variety of ships in the "upscale" category. The upscale cruise lines include Azamara, Oceania, and Windstar. These are smaller cruise lines offering smaller ships that are very destination oriented. Almost all of these will be found in the Mediterranean every summer offering port intensive cruises with a new destination every day. The focus here is on fine dining and very comfortable nighttime accommodations to get you ready to see a new destination the next day. Two notable exceptions in this category are the new ships from Oceania; Marina and Riviera. These two ships are larger than average for this category and each offers an excellent dining experience at least on par if not better than most of the luxury cruise lines. Marina and Riviera are two of my favorite ships.

Luxury. The most well-known luxury cruise lines are Seabourn, Regent Seven Seas, Silversea and Crystal Cruises. There are a few other independent luxury cruise operators that are niche oriented; SeaDream, Travel Dynamics International and the Paul Gauguin.

Luxury cruise lines offer a "yacht like" onboard experience meaning a focus on quiet activities, very few announcements and more personalized service options such as butler's who will bring the same cuisine as served in the dining room to your stateroom. Most of the luxury cruise lines are affiliated with award winning chefs and purveyors of fresh ingredients to prepare their recipes. Most of the luxury cruise lines now include alcohol and gratuities in the cost of the cruise. Of course, the price of the cruise goes up proportionately. Luxury cruisers are mostly wealthy individuals who are smart enough to understand the price of a luxury cruise is not a value proposition, however they are willing to pay extra for the convenience of the inclusive service provided. Notably, within the luxury cruise sector, Regent Seven Seas stands out as a cruise line that also includes regular shore excursions and pre-cruise hotel stays before each cruise included in the price of the cruise.

River Cruises. One last category, although they are not technically ships, river cruises are conducted very similarly to regular cruises. The food and entertainment is included in the fare, and most tours are also included. Many include wine with dinner. River cruises are extremely popular in Europe with literally hundreds of boats available from Portugal to Russia. Popular lines include Viking River, AmaWaterways, UniWorld and Avalon. In the U.S. the Great American Steamboat Company just reintroduced Mississippi River cruising in 2012.

To sum up; the main differentiators of these categories include the quality of the food, what is included in the cruise fare, the onboard entertainment and sports facilities, the comfort and convenience of the staterooms and the level of service provided by the onboard staff. There are dozens of different cruise lines and many have several categories of ships. It can take a long time to fully understand the vast variety of offerings within the cruise industry but a great deal can be learned just by taking your first cruise. By the end you should know what is most important to you and you can adjust to a smaller or larger ship and pay more or less for the food and service depending on your personal tastes. At some point most cruisers have just a few cruise lines that they prefer and many cruise with the same cruise line all the time.

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