CRUISE LINE GUIDE
I have been cruising for many years, and observing the evolution of cruise lines and cruise ships with interest. This background knowledge served me well when I began compiling the summaries you will find below. I have also relied heavily on the valued opinions of family and friends, who are experienced cruise passengers, about ship lines they have sailed with, and various other sources.
I have not attempted to summarize every cruise line in the world, but rather I have tried to create a simple survey, suitable for the Internet, of the most popular cruise lines serving the North American trade. Of primary interest is which ship lines offer what level of cruise experience.
For those who are interested, I can recommend a comprehensive ship-by-ship Guide. That is the World Ocean & Cruise Liner Society's annual survey "Cruise Ship Classification Guide," published in their magazine Ocean & Cruise News. You can follow the link on my Travel Page to the WOCLS web site. Where applicable, I have included WOCLS awards and cruise value ratings (i.e.: "Ship of the Year," "Best Overall Value" in category, and "Best Cruise Value" among all categories) in my comments about some of the cruise lines.
Before booking a cruise it is wise to determine the category of cruise that you will enjoy most, based on your lifestyle and expectations. Then choose the cruise line within that category that best fits your specific needs. See my article Selecting A Cruise for more information about how to use the information presented in this Guide.
For this Guide, I have used a "star" rating system to delineate the categories. One star would indicate a very basic product (there are none on this list), three stars represent the center of the market, and five stars indicate the most deluxe. A plus (+) indicates that a cruise line is at the top of their particular category. I have put the "plus" lines at the top of each category. I have alphabetized the cruise lines within each category, so the order in which they are listed has no significance. See my Cruise Line Star Ratings for a concise list of the cruise lines rated here.
Please note that I have used the industry standard "gross registered tons" to describe the size of passenger ships. GRT is a somewhat arcane measure of a merchant ship's internal cargo and passenger carrying volume, not her weight as you might suppose. The bridge, engine rooms, and certain other spaces are excluded from the measurement. Basically, one hundred cubic feet of enclosed space equals one gross ton. The theory is (or at least used to be) that it takes, on average, one hundred cubic feet of space to carry one ton of cargo. A merchant ship's GRT cannot be compared to the tonnage of a warship, which is the ship's weight. In the one case I managed to work out mathematically, the actual weight (displacement) of the cruise ship was about 60% of its gross tonnage.
Below are the Cruise Line Summaries. You will find brief descriptions of each of the categories (five-star, four-star, etc.), followed by capsule reports on each of the cruise lines in that category. I will periodically update this survey so that the information stays reasonably current.
Cruise Line Summaries
The deluxe five-star cruise lines offer the most polished and sophisticated product in the industry. Exceptional service, elegant and refined ambiance, extra attention to passenger comfort and satisfaction, larger food budgets, a very high level of ship's maintenance, and more inclusive pricing are some of the hallmarks of the five-star cruise lines. Some five-star lines have eliminated tipping, or have a "tipping not required" policy. Single seating dining and/or alternative onboard restaurants that are open throughout the evening (at no extra charge) are popular features of many five-star ships.
Passengers generally tend to be older, more experienced travelers who desire a less structured environment, and are more interested in "life enrichment" than a high onboard activity level. Indeed, some of the very expensive small ships in this classification offer almost no planned activities at all. The larger five-star ships usually offer production shows, movies, live music, and other activities typical of similar size ships, but oriented toward a mature clientele. If you have had a really great time on three-star ships, and become addicted to the activity level on these ships, a five-star cruise may not be for you.
Five-star lines generally offer a greater diversity of itineraries, since many of their typical customers have already been to the mass-market destinations. Five-star ships usually have a very high percentage of repeat passengers on board, and generally receive the highest marks in customer satisfaction. The majority of the ships that have been voted "Ship of the Year," an honor bestowed annually since 1982 to a single ship by the members of the WOCLS, have been five-star ships.
The enormous expansion of the cruise industry in recent years, and consequent low fares, has put pressure on all the major cruise operators to raise additional revenues. Unfortunately, onboard "revenue generation" has become a fact of life on most cruise lines, with "art auctions," "gold chain by the inch" sales, increased adult beverage prices, and a generally more commercial atmosphere. This has sometimes been accompanied by a reduction in onboard sevices. Most of the five-star cruise lines have been affected, and their passengers are no longer immune from crass commercialism at sea.
The "five-star-plus" cruise lines represent the ultra-deluxe segment of the cruise business, and most are primarily small ship operators. These also tend to be the most expensive cruises, noticeably more expensive than the regular five-star cruises.
+Crystal Cruises - Crystal Cruises, owned by the Japanese shipping conglomerate NYK, is at present perhaps the most highly rated of all the "big ship" cruise lines, and received the Best Overall Value award in the ultra-deluxe large ship class from the WOCLS. The line has a very high repeat passenger rate, and many cruises sell out early. The members of the WOCLS voted the Crystal Harmony "Ship of the Year" in 1997, and Crystal Symphony ship of the year in 2001. In addition, Crystal Cruises was the winner of the WOCLS "Best Cruise Value" award in their class for 2001.
The Crystal ships were built in Japan by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. The Harmony and Symphony are 48,621 gross registered tons, and carry 960 passengers. These sisterships are roomy, and the public areas are very tastefully decorated. The staterooms are among the nicest and best appointed at sea. Many of them have outside balconies. Stateroom comfort is one of Crystal's biggest selling points. Crystal ships retain early and late sitting dining in the main dining room (unusual for five-star-plus ships and a definite minus), but also offer two alternative restaurants at no charge; reservations are required for the latter. On selected evenings, dining is also offered on deck around the Trident Grill.
Crystal's newest ship is the approximately 68,000 ton Crystal Serenity with a capacity of 1,080 passengers. She boasts five evening dining choices with the addition of a sushi bar and casual dining on Lido deck to complement the Crystal dining room and the Italian and Asian specialty restaurants found on the other two ships. For daytime meals passengers will be able to select from several new venues including the Bistro, a coffee and wine bar, and an ice cream bar. Serenity entered service in 2003.
Service everywhere on all Crystal ships is outstanding. All the features and amenities typical of cruise ships their size are available on these ships. The Crystal ships are more formal than most cruise ships today, something I find rather appealing in this casual age.
+Peter Deilmann Cruises - See below under Specialty Cruises.
+Radisson Seven Seas Cruises - Radisson strives to be the very best. Radisson ships are known for their excellent and varied itineraries. Radisson Seven Seas Cruises received the "Best Cruise Value" in the ultra-deluxe small ship class from WOCLS in 2000 and 2001, although most of their ships are really not small ships (under 10,000 gross registered tons and 250 passengers by my standard).
The value is a combination of competitive pricing and many amenities included at no extra charge. There is complementary in stateroom bar set-up, no tipping, and wines are complementary in the single sitting dining rooms. Service is reported to be exacting and excellent. Luxury mated with a casual ambiance is the hallmark of the Radisson ships. They all offer extensive on-board lecture and enrichment programs. The ships themselves vary widely in size and type, carrying between 180 and 700 passengers.
Certainly the most unusual ship is the Radisson Diamond. She is a 20,000 GRT, diesel powered, twin-screw catamaran (!) that carries 354 passengers. All staterooms are outside, and 70% have balconies. She is 423 feet long and, due to her twin hulls, 105 feet wide. She is "speed challenged," capable of only 12.5 knots, but very stable.
Song of Flower is the smallest of the Radisson ships. She is registered at 8,282 gross tons, and carries 180 passengers. she has an established reputation as an ultra-deluxe small ship.
The newer Mariner is also unusual. This new large ship carries 700 passengers in an all-suite, all-balcony stateroom format. She features more space per passenger than any other ship in the world. She has four distinct dining rooms, all single sitting with no assigned tables.
+Seabourn Cruise Line - Seabourn is part of the Carnival "World's Leading Cruise Lines" conglomerate. Like all of the World's Leading Cruise Lines operations, it is very well run.
On Seabourne ships the cabins are large and elegant, with plenty of storage space. In addition to the single sitting dining room, there is also an alternative Veranda Cafe, open for all meals.
Seabourn promotes itself as an ultra-deluxe line. All Seabourn ships feature single sitting dining, excellent food, and first class service, including 24-hour room service. No tipping is permitted on Seabourn ships. Seabourn ships cruise all over the world.
The Seabourn ships are typical of the small ship experience, and feature unusual itineraries, the onboard availability of watersports equipment, but little in the way of organized activities. They are solidly ultra-deluxe, five-star-plus small ships.
+Silversea Cruises - These are medium size ships; the size that most cruise ships used to be before the ship lines discovered the economic advantages of scale. Now they are included in the "small ship" category by many authorities. Silversea is owned by the same Vlasov group that founded the highly regarded Sitmar Cruises (sold to Princess years ago). Make no mistake; this is one of the most ultra-deluxe operations afloat. Silversea is aimed directly at the high end of the market once dominated by Cunard/NAC and Royal Viking.
Cloud and Wind are 16,800 tons. Whisper and Wind are larger at 25,000 tons (about the size of the classic Caronia). Passenger density is low, however, at 296 double occupancy for the first pair, and 388 for the second pair. All ships feature very roomy staterooms; most are suites, many with balconies. The public rooms are beautifully designed and decorated. There is a single, open, sitting for dinner, and the food is top-notch, as is the service. Dinner wines are complementary. The alternative Terrace Cafe offers a casual environment for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. 24-hour room service can provide anything available on board.
Silversea includes virtually everything in the price of the cruise, a policy that used to be common on ultra-deluxe ships, but has faded in recent years. Keep this in mind when comparing prices, which may appear high at first glance.
Holland America Line - The oldest ship line in the world, and one of the best, Holland America is currently the leader in the five-star category. HAL ships cruise around the world. Holland America Line was acquired by Carnival Corporation quite a few years ago, and is part of Carnival's "World's Leading Cruise Lines" empire.
The fleet's co-flagship Amsterdam is notable for (among other things) her relatively high speed. She can cruise at 24 knots, and I have been onboard (during a trans-Atlantic cruise) when she has done so. The new "Vista Project" ships, with their gas turbine supplementary power, will probably be even faster.
The four new "Vista Project" class ships are 85,000 ton ships with two outside sea view elevators, a three-deck show lounge, a special cabaret lounge, a 24-hour Windstar Cafe, e-mail and internet data ports in all staterooms, and two enclosed promenade decks. Propulsion is accomplished by a combination of diesel-electric and gas turbine (called CODAG in military terms). The gas turbine can be used to increase power for high speed sprints.
Carnival capital has permitted the expansion of Holland America to the point that today the HAL fleet is among the most modern in the world. All are large ships with modern amenities and tasteful European decor, accented by antiques and original fine art. Despite their size, HAL ships are very well organized and never seem crowded.
HAL's Lido buffet remains the best in the industry, especially for breakfast. Holland America invented the concept of serving casual breakfast and lunch meals on the Lido deck; virtually every other ship line has since copied the idea. On Holland America ships, the Lido buffet is open for dinner as well, and your entree is cooked to order and brought to your table. The dinner service hours on Lido deck are limited, however.
Two sittings in the main dining room remain standard on all ships except Prinsendam, which (true to her Royal Viking heritage) remains a single seating ship. The HAL flagships Rotterdam and Amsterdam also offer an excellent alternative Italian restaurant at no extra charge; reservations for which are required. Holland America ships have a "no tipping required" policy, a pleasant change from the 15% gratuity automatically added to your bill by many other ship lines. So if you choose to tip for exceptional service, it is truly appreciated.
Not so appreciated is the extra "revenue generation" that is now taking place on Holland America ships. Almost all ship lines offer low "cruise only" prices in an attempt of fill their ever more numerous, ever larger new ships. The unfortunate result of this is the necessity to make-up the lost profit somewhere else. Inflated prices for everything sold onboard (including cocktails and photographs) is the rule on HAL. Complementary drinks are few and far between, and passengers are barraged daily by advertising and announcements pushing bingo, art auctions, and constant "sales" of merchandise in the ship's shops. It is irritating and unseemly to be harassed in this manner on a five-star ship.
Holland America has probably received more awards and recognition than any other cruise line in recent years. Individual HAL ships have been voted "Ship of the Year" seven times by the members of the WOCLS, the latest being the Amsterdam in February of 2002. HAL has has won their category and been rated as the "Best Cruise Value" among all cruise lines in all categories by the WOCLS every year from 1991 to 2001. They are rated among the "World's Best Cruise Lines" by Conde' Nast Traveler magazine readers. HAL was voted "Best Cruise Line" in the 2000 annual TravelPage.com online cruise survey. They are regarded as having the "Best Onboard Service" by Onboard Services Magazine. And the members of the WOCLS rate every ship in the HAL fleet among the Top 20 best cruise ships in the world.
Princess Cruises - Princess Cruises is the "Love Boat." P&O, the British ship line that owns Princess Cruises, has been acquired by Carnival Corp. and is now one of the "World's Leading Cruise Lines" group.
Onboard "revenue generation" has reared its ugly head on Princess ships in recent years, accompanied by reductions in some of the little "extras" previously bestowed on Princess passengers. Passengers new to the line, of course, may not notice the difference, but some of us "old-timers" do. In fairness, the new Princess mega-ships offer many features simply unavailable on the old Princess ships we used to familiarly call the "SP," "IP," and "PP."
Princess ships tend to be modern and large, yet carry fewer passengers than most other ships of their size; they never seem crowded. Inside, the ships' decor is contemporary, attractive, and restrained. Princess has followed Holland America's lead by incorporating original fine art in the decor of their ships. Staterooms are large, with all the modern amenities expected by the experienced traveler.
Princess has instituted what they call "Grand Class Cruising." Princess ships offer meals 24 hours a day on Lido deck. Breakfast and lunch are in the traditional buffet style, but in the evening the Lido buffet is converted into an excellent alternative bistro restaurant. The Bistro operates from 7:00 PM into the wee hours of the morning at no extra charge, and with no reservation required. You order from a menu and are served at your table, just as at any fine restaurant. The flexibility this affords the passenger is such an improvement over the assigned seating in the main dining room that, on one recent Princess cruise, I ate dinner in the main dining room exactly once. Princess has finally surpassed HAL in Lido deck dining, at least in the evening.
Princess has also instituted what they call "Personal Choice Dining" in the main dining room. Personal Choice Dining retains the traditional two dinner sittings (6:15 PM and 8:15 PM) for those that prefer them, but adds a new "no reservations" flexible seating option. The main dining room will be open from approximately 5:30 PM to midnight (presumably on a space available basis) for those who choose the new flexible seating option. The live entertainment is usually quite good on Princess ships, and the flexible dining arrangements insure that you can attend the evening activities that most appeal to you.
Princess ships cruise worldwide, with emphasis on Alaska, the Mexican Riviera, the Caribbean, Hawaii/South Pacific, Australia/New Zealand, Europe, and South America.
Princess has received many awards over the years. Some recent notable successes include being the top vote getter in Porthole Magazine's 2001 Reader's Choice Awards. They won the WOCLS "Best Cruise Value" award for the five-star class in 2001. Princess was selected by the readers of Recommend Magazine as the Best Cruise Line in 2000, and they received the Porthole Magazine Readers Choice Platinum Award for "Best Moderately Priced Line" in 1999 and 2000. An online Compuserve survey chose Princess as the "Best Premium Cruise Line" in 1999. In 1998 Princess received the U.S. Coast Guard's William M. Benkert Award for excellence in marine environmental protection.
Windstar Cruises - Windstar Cruises is one of Carnival's "World's Leading Cruise Lines." They were previously owned by Holland America, and were acquired by Carnival when that Corporation bought HAL. Like other HAL ships, the officers are European, and the hotel and service staff are Filipino and Indonesian.
These small ships offer the exclusivity of a small ship cruise with the informality of a sailing vessel, at a cost well below that of most upscale small ship cruise lines. Like their parent, HAL, they have a "no tipping required" policy. The onboard experience, as their advertising slogan says, is "180 degrees from ordinary." Windstar ships can usually be found cruising among the beautiful islands of the Pacific, Caribbean, and Mediterranean.
Windstar Cruises was rated the "Best Cruise Value" for small ships in its category in 2000 and 2001 by the WOCLS. They have a very high percentage of repeat passengers.
The Windstar ships are powered by automatic, computer controlled sails, as well as powerful diesel auxiliary motors. They look like small cruise ships with masts and modern jib-headed sails, not traditional square-rigged "clipper" ships.
There is a complete array of watersports gear on board, but few planned activities. These small ships have no special facilities for children, who would find little to occupy their attention on a Windstar ship. All cabins (except one) are identical, small but luxurious, equipped with a TV, VCR, and CD player for entertainment. Public rooms include a lounge, piano bar, library, gym, dining room, and a small casino; all are compact, as you might imagine for ships that only carry about 150 passengers. There is a small pool and a hot tub on deck.
Dining is single sitting, and there are no assigned tables. There is also the Veranda cafe for casual meals during the day. Room service will see to your nourishment needs in your cabin should you prefer. There are no formal nights. The food is excellent and the service onboard is outstanding. The bridge is usually open to passengers.
The Superior four-star cruise lines offer most of the amenities of the five-star lines at somewhat less cost. This is particularly true on the four-star-plus ships. Smaller staterooms, a slight reduction in amenities, and perhaps a little less personalized service (not necessarily less effort to serve) is often compensated for by an increase in things such as shipboard activities, theme cruises, more contemporary and/or more lavish stage shows, and increased nightlife. Unfortunately, onboard "revenue generation" has hit most of the four-star lines hard, even worse than the five-star lines, and it has usually been accompanied by some reduction in (previously complementary) services.
The four-star ship lines often attract a more diverse and somewhat younger clientele than the five-star ship lines, but this also depends on the itinerary (mass market destinations tend to attract younger passengers). On the other hand, they tend to place more emphasis on service and the overall quality of the cruise than the three-star ship lines. Four-star ships also have larger food budgets, and higher quality and more diverse food offerings, than three-star ships. In this area, although they are not quite up to the standards of the five-star ships, most travelers will not notice the difference. Almost as many four-star ships have been voted "Ship of the Year" by WOCLS members as have five-star ships, but no ship rated below four-stars has ever been so honored.
The cruise lines in this category have a large number of repeat passengers, and a high degree of customer satisfaction. People who choose a four-star cruise wisely are unlikely to be disappointed.
+Celebrity Cruises - Celebrity was formed to compete with Princess and Holland America in the upscale cruise market, and has been quite successful. Royal Caribbean International owns Celebrity. As you would expect from an RCI subsidiary, the ships are very well run and beautifully maintained. Celebrity cruises are very competitively priced, which sometimes makes it difficult for them to deliver a true five-star cruise experience. One result is that sometimes pretension is substituted for excellence; another is the attempt at considerable onboard "revenue generation."
All the ships are large, relatively new, and well appointed. In many ways they resemble resorts more than traditional ships. (The same can be said about Royal Caribbean's new ships.) Standard staterooms feature modern amenities and adequate storage space. The ships' spas are reported to be among the best. The onboard entertainment is another highlight.
The food and general dining experience is very good on Celebrity ships. The main dining room on all ships has two sittings. There is also an alternative bistro for dinner; reservations are normally required.
Celebrity ships primarily cruise the mass-market areas, but can also be found in the Mediterranean and Baltic Seas. Celebrity advertising is directed at the middle-aged passenger, and attracts a more diverse age group than most five-star ship lines.
+Cunard Line - This British ship line was founded in 1840 by Samuel Cunard, a Canadian, and remains one of the most prestigious lines in the world. Cunard is the only ship line that still offers regularly scheduled transatlantic crossings.
Cunard merged with the equally prestigious White Star Line in 1934, and purchased Norwegian American Cruises in 1983 (bringing the famous five-star-plus Sagafjord and Vistafjord into the Cunard fleet). Cunard's last major acquisition, and perhaps an unwise one, was the gutted remnants of the ultra-deluxe Royal Viking Line in the 1990's. Shortly afterward Cunard fell on hard times and was itself acquired by the Carnival group, becoming one of the "World's Leading Cruise Lines."
The clasic liner QE-II carries 1,877 passengers in 4 different classes, based on accommodation and restaurant grade. She offers single seating dining in all but her least expensive Mauretania dining room. The ship's public rooms are open to all classes. She can cruise at 28.5 knots, and has a 32-knot top speed. This makes her the fastest passenger ship in the world. She was requisitioned as a troop transport during the Falklands War, just as her namesake was in WW II, and served her country in that capacity from May 12 to August 14, 1982. Afterwards she underwent a complete refit, as she has many times in her long career, both before and since.
She has been joined in trans-Atlantic service by the elegant Queen Mary II, the largest ship in the world when she joined the Cunard fleet.
Costa Cruise Line - Costa Cruise Line is one of the Carnival Corporation's "World's Leading Cruise Lines" group. Costa is Europe's #1 cruise line, and "Cruising Italian Style" is the motto of the line. Their Italian origin is the focus of the style and ambiance of the ships, and of the food served in the two sitting main dining rooms. Not all Costa ships are actively sold in the North American market, although this may change as the line continues to grow. Most Costa ships are sold primarily in the European market.
These large ships cruise in the Caribbean and in Europe, depending on the season. The public rooms can be both charming and spectacular, and there is something for everyone. The ships offer all the usual shipboard entertainment, from major production shows to movies, to intimate club acts. Standard staterooms are on the small side, but very well designed and appointed. There are two main dining rooms, which serve two dinner sittings. For casual meals, there are buffet areas, a pizzeria, and an ice cream bar. There are plenty of "Italian style" activities on board, and the overall focus is on an enjoyable cruise.
Royal Olympic Cruises - Royal Olympic is a Greek ship line, with Greek officers and crew. The Olympic Voyager and Olympic Explorer are notable as high-speed ships. They measure 24,500 Gross Tons, carry 800 passengers in 400 staterooms, have 16 public rooms, and are designed to cruise at 27 knots. The intent is to allow them to reach more distant ports within the time frame of the typical cruise. Naturally, they have modern amenities.The food, once excellent in both the Lido Cafe and main dining room on Royal Olympic ships, has reportedly slipped in recent years. The ships are reported to be comfortable, offers good enrichment programs, and sails excellent itineraries (although they have been known to change unpredictably). All ships have two sittings in their main dining rooms.
Excellent itineraries and a laid-back atmosphere are the main focus of standard length Royal Olympic Cruises. They attract passengers who are primarily concerned with the itinerary, and who appreciate a traditional style of cruise. Royal Olympic is one of the leaders in Mediterranean cruising.
The standard three-star ship lines are the norm of the cruise industry. Most lines in this category provide a good product and a good value. The cost of a three-star cruise is generally less than that of a four-star cruise. The general emphasis is on delivering a good cruise rather than absolute perfection afloat. Three-star ships are generally more crowded, and offer fewer frills, than four-star ships. The pace of the cruise is generally faster, particularly on cruises of less than 7 days. Food budgets are typically lower than on four-star ships, and there may be less variety, but the food is good. Dining in alternative restaurants, when available, is usually not included in the price of the cruise ticket. Extra charges are often levied for services that are complimentary on four and five-star cruises. There is often a lot of extra "revenue generation." The environment is more structured, and there is less personalized service. This does not mean that the crews do not try hard to do everything within their means to satisfy their passengers--they do.
These ship lines are for most people, but not for everyone. If you expect a lot of personal service, or have become accustomed to being pampered on five-star ships, a three-star cruise may not fulfill all your expectations. Three-star cruises are popular with young families and younger people in general. The average passenger age is usually somewhere in the 30's or 40's, but all ages will be found onboard.
Most itineraries will be in the high volume areas, particularly the Caribbean. The outstanding success in the category, Carnival Cruise Line, carries more passengers per year than any other ship line. They also have the most modern fleet, and their ships have a consistent style. Norwegian Cruise Line, Carnival's biggest 3-star rival, has also been modernizing their fleet in recent years, and is continuously upgrading their operation. Some of the other lines in the three-star category operate a mix of old and new ships. In fact, the age, size, and style of the ships in the three-star category vary widely between lines, as well as within some of the lines. The three-star cruise lines, in general, receive favorable comments from their passengers.
+Disney Cruise Line - Disney Cruise Line offers both short and standard 7 day cruises. DCL won the WOCLS "Best Cruise Value" award in 2001 in the short cruise category.
Disney's popular cruise/tour packages include a visit to Disney World in Florida. Special theme cruises are offered during the year. Naturally, there are extensive children's' programs on board, reportedly superior to all others, and the ships are very family friendly.
The ships are large, modern, and have twin funnels. They are styled to vaguely resemble classic ocean liners. The staterooms are large and they are equipped with all the usual modern amenities. There are many public rooms of various sorts, offering a wide range of facilities. Activities for all ages offer passengers the opportunity to be as busy as they want to be while onboard.
Dining on the Disney ships is unusual. There are three main dining rooms, each with their own galley and decor, and each serving a different cuisine. There is also a smaller, more intimate, adult only Italian restaurant by reservation only. And there is a buffet, pizzeria, hot dog stand, and ice cream shop.
Shipboard entertainment is good, and varied; there is something to appeal to everyone. The main show lounge is huge, and specializes in Broadway style productions. The movie theater seats 270, and shows new Disney Studio releases as well as the usual variety of movies.
+Orient Line - Orient Line cruises are strongly destination oriented. All cruises include pre-and-post-cruise hotel stays in major cities around the world. The Orient Line ships cruise to Northern Europe, Southern Europe (the Med.), Southeast Asia, Australia and New Zealand, South America, Africa, India, and the Antarctic. They won the WOCLS "Best Cruise Value" award in the four-star-plus category in 2000 and 2001.
The Orient Line ships have two sittings in their main dining rooms. Orient Line specializes in cruise-tours, and they offer some of the most interesting itineraries available. Orient Line's prices are quite reasonable. They tend to attract older and more experienced passengers who are more interested in the destination than the onboard experience.
+Royal Caribbean International - This Norwegian shipline is one of the major surviving cruise lines. Royal Caribbean International also owns Celebrity Cruises. Royal Caribbean is known for impeccably maintained ships and a very consistent product, which receives high customer satisfaction ratings. Although Royal Caribbean ships now cruise in other parts of the world, including Europe and Alaska, RCI remains a leader in Caribbean cruises.
My first cruise was on an RCI ship, the since departed Sun Viking, which had just won the first "Ship of the Year" award from the WOCLS. That cruise experience was so overwhelming that I never looked back, and I have never quit cruising.
Today's RCI ships are all large and of recent vintage. They are designed to bring a "resort experience" to sea.
Staterooms on all Royal Caribbean ships tend to be very nice, but smaller than on many of their competitors' ships. The trademark "Viking Crown Lounge," right aft and the highest passenger area on all ships, is a great observation lounge for cocktails. The shipboard entertainment is usually excellent, in the Las Vegas style, and there are many onboard activities. Passenger ages and experience are apt to vary widely, as Royal Caribbean manages to appeal to a lot of people, but everything seems to work smoothly. Service is very good, and considerable effort is made to accommodate individual passenger requests.
The main dining room serves two sittings on all RCI ships. There is also an alternative cafe or restaurant. The food is reportedly not as good as it was in the old days, when RCI ships carried 700 passengers instead of thousands, but it is still better than average.
Individual RCI ships have been voted "Ship of the Year" seven times by the WOCLS (all, unfortunately, the previous generation of medium size ships that are no longer in service). More recently, RCI was voted "Best Cruise Line" in the 1999 TravelPage.com annual online cruise survey.
Carnival Cruise Line - Carnival operates the largest fleet in the industry, and all of the ships are relatively new. They unashamedly cater to the mass market.
They certainly must be doing something right, as they are the most popular cruise line in the world, and the leader in the three-star category. Carnival Cruise Line was rated the "Best Cruise Value" in their category by the WOCLS in 2000 and 2001.
Carnival Corp. also owns several other ship lines, including Holland America, Windstar, Seabourn, Costa, Princess, and Cunard. Together with Carnival Cruise, these constitute the "World's Leading Cruise Lines," sharing repeater's privileges and benefits.
All of the Carnival ships have a glitzy Las Vegas style decor, much favored by their predominately young clientele, but all are individually different. The list of services and facilities on these ships is far too long to recite here. Suffice to say that if it is offered at sea, Carnival ships probably offer it. These large ships carry a lot of passengers. Public spaces vary in size, decor, and intimacy, so there is something for almost everyone. Quiet, club-like spaces seem to be in shortest supply.
The food served onboard gets positive comments from passengers; it is not especially fancy, but it is good. As a response to Norwegian Cruise Line's "Freestyle Cruising" concept, Carnival has introduced "Total Choice Dining" on all of their ships. This somewhat complicated scheme allows passengers to opt for either the main dining rooms or the alternative, casual, Seaview Bistro each evening. No reservations are required for the latter. In the main dining rooms, passengers are assigned to one of four seating times (6:00 PM, 6:45 PM, 8:00 PM, and 8:45 PM). Gratuities in all dining areas are automatically added to guests' shipboard accounts. (How can anything for which you are automatically charged be called a "gratuity"?)
The entertainment on Carnival ships is usually quite good, the lighting and sound excellent. Standard staterooms are average in size with adequate storage areas, but rather sparsely furnished, and finished with easily cleaned surfaces (doubtless in deference to the high customer volume). Carnival ships offer cruises as short as 2 days, and the longest is 8 days. Needless to say, the pace on short 2, 3, and 4 day cruises is relatively frantic. There simply is not enough time to fully enjoy the ship on such a short cruise.
Carnival's version of "Lido" dining offers good food but a reduced selection compared to four and five star cruise lines. The decor tends toward the seaborne version of a fast food restaurant. I considered the Lido dining area the weakest element during my cruise on the Ecstasy.
Carnival ships operate in the mass-market areas, principally the Caribbean, and Alaska, but also on the Atlantic seaboard, the West Coast, and Hawaii. Prices are low, value is high, and the activity is non-stop.
Norwegian Cruise Line - Norwegian Cruise Line is one of the world's major cruise lines, and is owned by Star Cruise Line, an Asian company.
"Freestyle Cruising" is NCL's most important innovation. The main dining rooms on NCL ships no longer serve two sittings at assigned tables. Instead, the dining rooms are open for most of the evening, and passengers are allowed to dine at any time during those hours, just like at an ordinary restaurant. Passengers can thus participate in whatever onboard activities they wish, and schedule meals as they wish. This is a fine idea, which is already beginning to catch on at other cruise lines. So far the execution is not perfect; passengers report that service in the dining room is slower and generally less personal than under the old system of assigned dining times and tables. There is an alternative restaurant featuring good food and service, at extra cost.
All of NCL's newer ships are well appointed. Staterooms on most NCL ships tend to be rather small, but the ships offer all the usual services and a plethora of public rooms. The line has a good reputation for excellent entertainment and diverse onboard activities. The staff is friendly and tries hard to please. NCL has an agreement with Mandara Spa to operate all ship's spas in the relaxed style of the best resort spas (NCL has always emphasized sports on their ships).
Another good feature of NCL is that they minimize onboard "revenue generation," a pleasant change from other mass-market operations. You won't be continuously badgered to spend money, as happens on far too many ships today.
NCL also has a good reputation for shoreside operations, which include embarkation and disembarkation, an often overlooked area. The clientele tends toward the young and active. NCL is the main competition for Carnival in this category, and they continue to improve under new management. NCL received the WOCLS award for "Best Cruise Value" in the three-star category in 2001.
The economy two-star cruise lines operate elderly ships without the modern features of the newer three-star ships. The staterooms can be very small, with minimum storage space. They are generally more crowded and unable to offer a high degree of personalized service. The food tends to be relatively plain and have less variety than on three-star ships, and the service may be willing but less than perfect. There are often a great variety of passenger ages and backgrounds. These lines offer a traditional product generally similar to that of the three-star cruise lines, and can be a good value, particularly for the person who does not expect a lot of special attention. They will probably not meet the expectations of someone who has become accustomed to the amenities and service on four and five-star lines.
Olsen Cruise Lines - Olsen Cruise Lines, a European ship operator, has purchased the Crown Dynasty from bankpupt Crown Cruise Line, and will operate the ship on cruises from the UK. I include her here as the ship is well known in the North American market.
The 20,000 ton Crown Dynasty was built in 1993, and carries 820 passengers, a rather large number for her size. Food and service are reported to be very good in the past. I have seen her rated as high as four-star by some authorities.
World Explorer Cruises - What World Explorer Cruises brings to the cruise table is an emphasis on the destinations their ship visits, especially the unique natural and cultural features of her ports of call. Universe Explorer maintains what is alleged to be the biggest library onboard any cruise ship, and this is backed-up by well informed lecturers and local authorities onboard for every cruise.
Specialty Cruise Lines
These cruise lines offer a product that is outside of my normal classification system. Most operate vessels that are not ocean going cruise ships. These lines' vessels principally operate on protected waters, inland waterways, and rivers, and often offer specialized itineraries. In general, these lines operate ships that do not attempt to compete with mainline cruise ships in the areas of stateroom size and comfort, onboard entertainment, food and dining options. Instead, these ships offer unique features that traditional cruise ships do not. The passenger mix tends toward the elderly and the adventurous, people who are seeking something different from the typical cruise.
American West Steamboat Company - Operates the sternwheeler steamboat Queen of the West on the Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest. She is reported to be comfortable and well appointed, featuring good food and good service. Like most riverboats, she attracts a lot of senior citizens. I have never sailed on her, but she is quite a sight as she paddles up the river.
Clipper Cruise Line - Clipper specializes in adventure cruises. Clipper has consistently been rated as one of the best cruise lines in the world by the readers of Conde' Nast Traveler magazine.
The young American crews are their biggest asset, and get favorable comments from the generally older clientele that sail on these ships. Staterooms are tidy but small. The emphasis on all Clipper cruises is on the itinerary and a sense of exploration.
The four-star Clipper Adventurer is 330 feet long and carries 122 passengers. She has an A-1 class ice-strengthened hull, and was completely re-built in 1997/98. She flies the Danish flag, and was designed for "soft expedition" cruising to remote destinations. Her cruising speed is 13 knots. All staterooms are outside, with portholes or windows; they are small but well designed. Her crew is international, with European officers and American hotel management. Her nautical decor features a lot of brass and varnished wood. The ambiance onboard is casual, with few onboard activities. There is no casino or bingo, but there are excellent onboard lectures. Public rooms are limited to the main lounge, Clipper bar and lounge, a small gymnasium, the library and card room, a beauty salon/gift shop, and the dining room. The Navigation Bridge is open to passengers at all times. Meals are advertised as "excellence through simplicity," and the food is reported to be really good. Dining is single sitting. She carries several Zodiac inflatable boats to allow access to otherwise inaccessible areas. The highlights of her annual schedule are her cruises to Antarctica during the short summer season there, but she also cruises around the Atlantic to South America, Canada, Greenland, Northern Europe, Western Europe, and the Western Mediterranean. Most cruises run two to three weeks. Her fares seem rather steep at first glance, but include round-trip airfare from Miami, Florida.
The Clipper Odyssey is Clipper's other blue water ship. This modern looking 340' long small cruise ship was built in Japan in 1989; she is registered in the Bahamas. She carries 128 passengers at a cruising speed of 14 knots. Her 186 square foot cabins each boast a sitting area complete with sofa, a head with a tub and shower, individually controlled air conditioning, mini-bar/refrigerator, safe, television, and music system. Her public rooms include two lounges, a small library, and a single sitting dining room. Outside there are two observation decks, a small swimming pool, Jacuzzi, and a jogging track. She carries a complement of Zodiac landing craft to allow access to unimproved areas. There are lecturers on board for all cruises, and the bridge is open to guests. She cruises year-round in the Pacific, mostly on 14 to 20 day itineraries. Her fares also are on the high side, but include round trip airfare from Los Angeles, and hotel stays on some itineraries.
Cruise West - An American owned, American flag, cruise line. Operates diverse types of ships, primarily in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest, but also to the California wine country, the Sea of Cortez, the South Pacific, Asia, and the Russian Far East. Most are fairly typical small coastal vessels of the modern "adventure" type that are reportedly rather Spartan, the emphasis being on the itinerary, but the food and service are good. Cruise West was rated "Best Cruise Value" in the specialty cruises category in 2000 and 2001 by the WOCLS.
Peter Deilmann Cruises - Primarily operates a fleet of nine modern vessels on the major rivers of Europe. The Mozart is the largest, and said to be the finest, of all European riverboats. Mozart, Dresden, and the new Katharina are rated as five-star European riverboats by authorities in that field. The others are said to rate four-stars. I have heard good reports about these highly rated European river cruises, and I look forward to taking one some day. Peter Deilmann's fleet of riverboats is said to be the most comfortable way to see the countries they cruise through, and the prices, while not cheap, are fair.
Then there is the new, five-star-plus, ocean going cruise ship Deutschland, which entered service in 1998. She is primarily marketed in Northern Europe. This is a German owned and operated ship, but the entire crew also speaks fluent English. She is registered at 22,400 GRT, and carries 513 passengers. She boasts a "grand hotel" ambiance. All public rooms are elegantly furnished. The main evening entertainment takes place in the Emperor's Theater. Other particularly noteworthy public areas are the Lili Marleen bar and lounge, and the Lido Terrace observation lounge and library. There is no ship's casino, evidently such a facility was not deemed appropriate. The main dining room has two sittings, with assigned seating. There is also the alternative, by reservation only and very upscale, Four Seasons restaurant, and the more casual Lido Gourmet and Grill, both at no extra charge. Everywhere the decor is beautiful, the food is top notch, and the service is outstanding. Her staterooms are average in size, but very luxurious and perfect in every detail. A TV, radio, telephone, mini-bar, refrigerator, and safe are provided in every stateroom. The passengers on the Deutschland tend to be wealthy and well bred (but not snobbish or pretentious--truly classy people never are), and you will get good use out of your formal wear. The cruises are not very structured; you are expected to know how to enjoy yourself without a lot of direction. Deutschland competes in the European cruise market (where she is known as one of the world's finest ships), and the company would like to attract more North American customers. Her cruise fares are not cheap, but they are commensurate with the value received. She favors Europe, but cruises worldwide.
Star Clipper Cruises - Operates modern "clipper" type sailing ships for a true sailing cruise experience. All ships offer a variety of watersports equipment. Staterooms are small but comfortable. They have an "open door" policy, allowing passengers on the bridge. They also offer classes in sail handling. Passenger ages vary, but most are already sailors. WOCLS reports that they are getting favorable comments from passengers on these vessels.
The Royal Clipper is the largest square-rigged sailing ship in the world. She is registered at 5,000 tons, and carries 54,000 square feet of sails on five masts. Features include three swimming pools, a water sports platform, a three-deck atrium, and 21,000 square feet of deck space.