So many cruise lines, so many ships, so many ports…and this year, so many deals! How is the first-time cruiser supposed to choose? It’s a question worth pondering, and doing some research, because you’ll have a much better experience if you take the time to match your needs and expectations with the right cruise for you. Each line, indeed, each ship, has its own personality and attracts a certain type of cruiser. There’s a lot to look at, so TakeOffeh.com is presenting this Guide to Cruising in three parts: Contemporary/Mainstream, Premium and Luxury & Specialty Cruising.
Part 1: Mainstream Cruising
Mainstream or ‘mass market’ cruising is the starting point for many first-time cruisers. Within mainstream cruising there’s a huge range of choice, but some generalizations can be made.
Contemporary/mainstream cruise lines tend to feature larger ships, carrying literally thousands of passengers and crew. The numbers help keep fares low, but there’s a vast diversity of accommodation choices depending on your budget, from compact inside cabins to roomy suites with balconies. The big ships tend to head to the busiest and most popular ports – in some cases because they’re the only ones that can handle these floating resorts. In recent years, mainstream cruise lines have increased their geographic spread, and now offer cruising opportunities in Europe, Asia, Mexico and the South Pacific, as well as traditional hotspots like the Caribbean and Mexico.
While fares may be low, there’s nothing ‘cheap’ about the mainstream cruise experience. Today’s ships offer a bewildering array of choice in dining, entertainment, sports and spa facilities. Some ships put the focus on families, with extensive children’s and teen programs and lots of planned activities for the whole family. Others offer more of a party scene, mostly geared to 3-, 4- and 5-night jaunts.
On a mainstream cruise you can expect all meals and most onboard activities to be included in the cruise fare. You’ll pay extra for drinks, shore excursions, tipping and some specialty dining. Some ships charge for coffee, snacks and other beverages outside of meal times. For the most part, mainstream cruises provide an active, high-energy environment with high-quality cuisine and excellent service. Aficionados consider mainstream cruising to offer the best value of any travel product.
Mass Market Cruise Lines: A Breakdown
Carnival Cruise Lines
They call Carnival’s vessels the “Fun Ships” for a reason: they offer a lively, active environment and the crew works hard at getting people involved and ensuring everyone’s having a good time. Some highlights:
- Itineraries focus mostly on the Caribbean and Mexico, but Carnival travels to Europe and Alaska too.
- With 22 ships to choose from, Carnival offers both value and choice.
- Despite the flashy, Vegas-style ambience, Carnival is very popular with families, and the line offers excellent kids’ programs and facilities.
Disney Cruise Line
A pioneer of family-style cruising, the line that Mickey built offers family-sized staterooms and is notable for the absence of adult-oriented facilities like casinos. Fares tend to be higher than other mainstream lines, but Disney fans see the value. Features include:
- An extensive kids’ program catering to four distinct age groups, plus a nursery for infants to age 3 and a private club for teens.
- The line currently features just two ships with two more on the way. Disney offers seven-night Caribbean and 3-4-night Bahamas itineraries, with Europe to come in 2010.
- Elegant ships are styled after traditional ocean liners.
- Rotating dining room schedule – passengers move between three themed dining rooms and wait staff move with them.
- Well-designed and separate children’s and adult facilities.
- Elaborate stage shows and first-run Disney films.
Royal Caribbean International
RCI is the mega-ship leader, a position that will be cemented in December with the launch of Oasis of the Seas, the world’s largest ship to date, which will carry an incredible 5,500 passengers and a couple of thousand crew.
Royal Caribbean offers an active, adventurous holiday with a wide range of sporting facilities. Their ships hold strong appeal for younger adults and families, especially those with teenagers.
- RCI’s ‘Freedom-class’ ships are a paradise for active, sports-minded people – they feature unlikely amenities like ice skating rinks, rock climbing walls, surfing simulators and mini-golf courses.
- Entertainment features Vegas-style shows, and some ships feature a spectacular ice skating show.
- Itineraries focus on the Caribbean and Mexico, but Royal Caribbean also offers Bermuda, Alaska, Europe, and a few more exotic itineraries.
- The world’s largest cruise ship: Oasis of the Seas will feature will feature 7 themed “neighbourhoods” and a selection of two -storey loft style suites.
Norwegian Cruise Line
Mainstream cruising was once far more regimented than today, especially at mealtime, when guests were assigned times, tables and seating companions and had to follow strict dress codes. When Norwegian pioneered the “Freestyle Cruising” concept – dine when, where and with whom you want — other lines were quick to follow. Here are some NCL highlights:
- Up to 13 different dining options on each ship, including French, Asian, Italian and steakhouse.
- Wide range of accommodations, including very high-end: a private deck featuring villas and Owner’s Suites, including a 5,000 sq-ft Garden Villa with baby grand piano, 3 bedrooms and Jacuzzi.
- Well-suited to multi-generational groups with family-friendly accommodations and casual onboard atmosphere.
- Close-to-home cruising: NCL sails from ports including Vancouver, Boston, Charleston, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Miami, Seattle, New York, and Honolulu.
- Only line to offer year-round Hawaii itineraries.
Yes, a Princess ship was the setting for the late-70s TV show The Love Boat, which helped bring the cruise vacation into the mainstream. Much has changed since then at Princess, and the line now straddles the boundary of mainstream and premium cruising. Here’s what you can expect on a Princess ship today:
- Newer ships: half have been launched since 2000
- Anytime Dining Program (on most ships) means you can dine when and with whom you wish at a good selection of alternative restaurants.
- ScholarShip@Sea program: enrichment courses offered on topics including photography, cooking and ceramics.
- Movies Under the Stars – films shown on giant screen near main pool.
- Wide choice of itineraries: Princess sails to all seven continents and offers many longer, more exotic itineraries than other mainstream lines
- Slightly more formal atmosphere than most mainstream lines
MSC’s stylish ships have a decidedly European ambience — Italian specifically — but they now cater to a broad international audience. The experience is much different than Carnival or Royal Caribbean and a real pleasure for those with a more European mindset.
- Itineraries focus on the Mediterranean, with Northern Europe and the Caribbean other choices.
- “Understated elegance & European sophistication” is how the line describes its design and décor.
- Italian food is a specialty, with seven-course evening meals in the main restaurant. Espresso bars are a staple of MSC ships.
- Kids 17 and under always sail free and there are extensive programs for the young.
- MSC has won several awards for its environmental initiatives.
Next Week: Premium Cruising
Photo Captions: Carnival.com, disneycruise.disney.go.com, www.royalcaribbean.com, ncl.eu, princess.com, msccruises.com