Defining the differences: Mainstream (contemporary) and premium cruise lines
Choosing which cruise line to sail on can be a challenge. On the surface it may seem like a ship is a ship is a ship, and your natural inclination might be to choose one based on price/affordability.
On first glance, it may seem there's not much difference between cruise lines. All offer cabins and suites for accommodation; all include meals and room service; all feature shows and entertainment, etc.
But there are significant differences in the way these products are delivered. The various cruise lines have different strengths and weaknesses in various departments and services.
The cruise lines are broken down into four basic categories: budget, mass market, premium, and luxury. In this article we'll concentrate on pointing out the strengths, weaknesses, and differences of the mass market and premium lines.
Mass Market Lines
The major cruise lines - Carnival, Norwegian and Royal Caribbean - would all be considered "mass market" lines. The term is not used in a derogatory manner because all three lines offer excellent products, providing good value for your vacation dollars.
-Norwegian Cruise Line-
For some time Norwegian was considered a budget line, but in the last several years, with the advent of "FreeStyle Cruising" and new ships built specifically for that purpose, NCL has stepped into the competition for the mass market. In addition, NCL America has built the first new ships to sail under the U.S. flag, dramatically expanding the Hawaii cruise market.
Norwegian Cruise Line's area of the strength is the "Freestyle Cruising" concept. Its ships now feature up to 10 different restaurants, with no set dining times or assigned tables. Guests are free to dine when they want, with whom they whom they want, and in any of the restaurants.
In sync with this dining freedom, Norwegian also has made traditional formal nights, along with their dress codes, a thing of the past. Guests are free to dress formally on designated formal nights if they choose, but it is entirely optional.
For those who consider traditional assigned dining times and designated dress codes an infringement on their vacation time, Norwegian Cruise Lines deserves consideration when you choose where to spend your cruise dollars.
Carnival and Royal Caribbean both offer a more traditional cruise experience. They feature assigned dining times and suggested dress codes each evening.
-Carnival Cruise Lines-
Carnival's strength is its banner "Fun Ship" theme. A decade or so go, ago the "Fun Ship" theme was interpreted by many to mean "party ships," and Carnival was perhaps best known for a "frat party" atmosphere and "spring break" shenanigans.
Today the reality of the "Fun Ships" is quite different (though this negative image can be difficult for Carnival to shake; people who haven't sailed Carnival since the 80s can still be found spreading the word about its dated reputation). The Carnival of today has strictly enforced age restrictions, forbidding anyone under 21 from cruising without a parent or guardian (unless they are married).
Today's Carnival ships are still abuzz with planned activities day and night, and a highly energetic staff to lead them. "Sexy legs" contests poolside during the day and pub crawls in the evenings are still alive and well, creating an active energy and ambience around the ships.
But beyond this, Carnival has grown into one of the top family-oriented cruise choices available, featuring enormous children's facilities and well-planned children's programs overseen by large staffs.
Even the dining rooms place as much emphasis on fun, entertainment and high energy as on the food service. Waiters sing and dance nightly, and sections in the dining room are divided into team cheering sections.
Food quality has improved dramatically on Carnival ships in the past decade. While there will always be hit-and-miss items according to one's taste, overall Carnival's food can compete with any of the mass market lines.
Another Carnival strength is that it offers some of the largest standard cabins in the cruise industry. Its cabins are not the most luxurious in furnishings and interior design, but they are certainly comfortable and utilitarian.
Those who enjoy casual yet friendly service and a high energy atmosphere will no doubt consider Carnival Cruise Line the best spot to spend their cruise vacation dollars.
Royal Caribbean may be building some of the most dramatic and aesthetically pleasing interiors of any of the cruise lines.
RCI's target market has changed significantly in the past five years, with the advent of rock climbing walls, indoor ice skating rinks (with ice shows) , rollerblading areas, and most recently surf riding machines on its ships. RCI also can claim the largest ship in the world, the Freedom of the Seas.
Today RCI could probably be considered the number one cruise line of choice for families, with all the shipboard activities and amenities directly targeted to this segment of the cruise population.
Its ships are so large, and offer so much variety, that the term "family" is not limited to the traditional mom, dad and two children. These ships often attract multigenerational families setting out on vacation together.
And RCI succeeds very well, with enough choices in planned activities and amenities to supply the type of vacation that will most likely please each of the generations.
Food quality throughout the RCI fleet has recently gained a reputation of varying quite a bit from ship to ship. While they've paid significant attention to building larger and more beautiful ships, it may be time for them to now direct more attention to this area.
Premium Cruise Lines
In industry jargon, Celebrity, Holland America, and Princess are considered premium lines. Their products are a bit more upscale than those of the mass market lines - though with some shopping, you might find cruises on these lines that cost less than some of those of the mass market lines.
Celebrity's present marketing campaign uses two catch phrases - A Taste of Luxury, and We Treat You Like a Celebrity.
Celebrity ships do indeed deliver a taste of luxury. The atmosphere is slightly more elegant and refined that you'd find on the mass market lines. Celebrity attempts to deliver a more polished European style service, with staff members well trained and well dressed.
The onboard experience is very traditional, with two set times for dinner and passengers assigned to specific tables. There are also suggested dress codes each evening, and one is much more likely to see the dining room maitre d' ask guests to change their clothes if they are dressed inappropriately than on any of the other cruise lines mentioned in this article.
Celebrity is well known for it's contract with culinary consultant Michel Roux, who oversees the food, menu creation, and even restaurant designs throughout the fleet. All the ships in the fleet have very elegant dining rooms, with refined furnishings and tableware.
As for food quality and taste, on Celebrity one can generally expect to reasonably pleased at most meals and quite impressed at others.
The service generally matches the surroundings in quality and refinement. Guests will most always be addressed as "sir" or "madam" rather than by name. However, our recent experiences have shown the service staff to be taking a more friendly tone than we've seen in the past.
Guests returning from shore visits in warm weather ports are welcomed back onboard with chilled towels, and on sea days in warm weather areas, it's not unusual to have staff come by the pool serving iced sorbets.
Celebrity also offers several categories of cabins and suites which include upgraded amenity packages. The "Concierge Class" cabins offer pillow menus, upgraded bathrobes, and snacks delivered to the cabin prior to dinner. Sky Suites, Royal Suites and Penthouse Suites offer full butler service. However, until one gets to the Sky Suite category or above, the cabins on Celebrity ships are not that spacious, though they are well designed and very functional.
You generally won't find a lively late night crowd on Celebrity ships, but that can vary from sailing to sailing.
If you're looking for a reasonably refined cruise experience you'll most likely be quite pleased that you chose to spend your cruise vacation dollars with Celebrity. A caveat - you should remember you are purchasing a premium cruise, not a luxury cruise. It's easy to let your expectations aim higher than what you're paying for.
For many years Holland America's strength has been its Filipino and Indonesian crew. They are very well trained, and as though by magic, by day two of a cruise chances are they will call you by name - but always Mr. or Mrs.
Holland America also offers traditional assigned dining times and tables, but with four dining times rather than two. It also suggests designated attire for formal nights in the dining room.
Holland America had a reputation for quite some time of drawing an older crowd. Generally this still holds true, though certainly on Caribbean sailings the average age of passengers is probably only slightly higher than other cruise lines. Certainly on the more exotic itineraries that Holland America sails one can expect an older crowd.
Activities and menus on Holland America ships are geared toward the crowd they attract.
You won't find midnight adult comedy shows, but you will find enrichment lectures, very well attended trivia contests, and often a crowded dance floor in the ship's lounges.
Over the years, the one complaint often repeated about food on Holland America is that it is bland, and my own experience doesn't refute that. However, the quality of the product is quite high, and one can expect very attentive service.
Passengers won't find better beds and bedding on any ship than in their cabins on a Holland America cruise. The standard cabins are not huge, but as one moves up in category some of the slightly higher balcony categories are quite luxurious and spacious, even before getting to the full suites.
If you're looking for a cruise experience without wild poolside games, but with a somewhat quiet night life (although you might look forward to exhibiting your ballroom dancing style on a busy dance floor), you're likely to be pleased that you chose to spend your cruise vacation dollars with Holland America.
Princess Cruise Lines' growing attraction seems to be its "Personal Choice - Anytime Dining." Both the entertainment and dining arrangements on Princess are designed around the "Personal Choice" program.
As for dining, "Personal Choice" allows guests to chose between traditional assigned dining times and seating (in one dining room) or "Anytime Dining" (in two dining rooms), where guest may dine when they want, and with whom they want, any time during restaurant hours.
One area of concern: It seems the "traditional dining" times fill up very quickly, and guests often get assigned to "Anytime Dining" even though that's not their "personal choice."
Unlike Norwegian's Freestyle, Princess does have suggested dress codes each evening, and guests are expected to dress appropriately for designated formal nights.
Princess also features a 24-hour Horizon Court (buffet restaurant) for those who want to dine in a casual setting, or for late night snacks, coffee etc.
Princess' evening entertainment is often spread between several show rooms of varying sizes, and because of the "Personal Choice" program, shows may be scheduled to repeat at different times, or even on different days. This is to assure that guests who dine at non-traditional times do not miss the more popular shows.
Standard cabins on Princess are a bit on the stingy side in size. In fact you have to go as high as a mini-suite before you get a sofa or love seat in the sitting area on the line's popular Grand Class ships.
Unlike Holland America, the service staff on Princess is an international mix. You can expect fairly attentive service in most cases, though somewhat less polished than on Celebrity. Food quality is generally very good, and Princess is normally offers excellent variety and quality at the Horizon Court buffets.
Dining room food is generally up to par for a premium cruise line.
One feature unique to Princess is the use of fresh water (rather than salt water) in the ship's swimming pools. Some cruisers find this to be very important.
Those of you who like the flexibility of the "Personal Choice" program as described above will most certainly be pleased you chose to pass your cruise vacation dollars to Princess.
All of the cruise lines discussed above have repeat cruisers' award programs, and each offers various perks to keep us coming back; some perks have some value, other times its just a free cocktail party.
While it can sometimes be difficult to bypass the perks offered to keep you returning to a specific cruise line, I urge everyone to take a look at the descriptions above and decide if another cruise line might be a better fit for you.
You'll be a much happier passenger if you chose a line with strengths that match what you're looking for in a cruise vacation, than if you choose one that's not quite right.