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How Do I Choose the Best Cruise Line?

You’ve decided you want to go on a cruise. Great. Then you start researching. You ultimately assemble a word soup that doesn’t give you a whole lot of information: Carnival, Celebrity, Royal Caribbean, Norwegian (NCL), Princess, Holland America, MSC.

You pick one whose name resonates with you. Now you’ve got another decision to make. Do you choose the 6,000 passenger ship or the 2,000 passenger ship? You find that the only way to answer that is to know where you want to travel. But you’re not sure. How do you decide?

Trying to pick the perfect destination coupled with the right sized ship on the cruise line that has what you want is like trying to solve an FBI cold case. But don’t fret. We’ve got you covered.

At this point, it’s a good time to say that this is the reason you should use a cruise travel agent. Sure, you could book it yourself on one of those booking engine websites. I wrote an article about this very thing. In that article, I point out that when I called the booking engine website and asked what the difference was between the ships under consideration, the answer I was given was: “Google it”.

A cruise travel agent knows the differences between the cruise lines. They’re also familiar with the differences between ships in the fleet of the same cruise line. The purpose of this article is to shed light on these differences so you can make an informed decision for your vacation.

Aren’t All Cruise Lines the Same?

A person who is new to cruising might think that all cruise lines are the same. And there’s a measure of truth to that. All have multiple dining options onboard. All have great hospitality. Each will take you to exotic destinations and keep you entertained until you get there.

But there are differences. Think of automobiles. All have the same basic components: engine, transmission, exhaust, brakes, etc. However, there will be differences. You can get a Chevy Camaro, a Ford Mustang or a Dodge Challenger. Each has a powerful engine. Yet, each car company takes a different approach to styling and power delivery.

That’s very similar to what the cruise lines do. Each has different styling and delivers their experience in different ways. Since we gave you a list of the popular cruise lines that sail out of the United States, we’ll go through each one to help you understand what their philosophy is on sailing.

Carnival Cruise Line

Carnival Cruise Line’s current tag line is “Choose Fun”. They make it pretty obvious what they’re about. While most cruise lines in this article are family-friendly, Carnival Cruise Line makes it a point to promote it. Here’s what they say on their website:

“We invite our guests to come as they are, and we make everyone feel right at home with comfy staterooms, attentive service, casual and elegant dining, plus a variety of bars and gathering places indoors and out.”

This ‘come as you are’ invitation is what draws many new cruisers to the line. The world of  Dr. Seuss At Sea is also a big hit with kids.

Celebrity Cruise Line

If Carnival Cruise Line invites their guests to come as they are, then Celebrity is the exact opposite. 

Celebrity Cruise Line is unabashedly focused on luxury. From the staterooms to the dining rooms, Celebrity Cruise Line prides itself on outstanding service. Here’s what Celebrity says about their service:

“On a Celebrity vacation, you’re not just sailing with our ships—you’re sailing with our service…. From your stateroom attendant to our attentive pool butlers, we’re always there with a smile and a helping hand. Our outstanding customer service and onboard services are intuitive, so you can enjoy your vacation to its fullest.”

Holland America

While Holland America sails to all the popular destinations like the Caribbean and Mexico, Holland America prides itself on taking you to exotic locations you probably won’t sail to on the other cruise lines.

While Carnival caters to a younger crowd and those with children, Holland America skews to a more mature audience. The kids are likely grown. In fact, Holland America passengers likely have grandchildren.

As such, they pride themselves in delivering an elegant experience everything on the ship, from the dining experience to the entertainment.

Holland America has a video explaining why they and their passengers sail. The link is here, but this is what they say about it:

“For nearly 145 years, we’ve been introducing guests to new places and new cultures, and we’ve witnessed firsthand the transformative power of travel. We’ve seen how it opens minds, builds connections and fosters an appreciation of the shared humanity that unites us the world over. We invite you to join us for an unforgettable experience. Because travel is more than an itinerary, it has the power to change us and our world, journey by journey. This is why we sail.”

MSC Cruise Line

MSC Cruise Line is an interesting addition. As a company, MSC has been around for generations. MSC has been in the shipping business since 1970. By 1988, the company jumped into the cruising business. In 2003, MSC dedicated $5.5 billion in an effort to become the world’s most modern cruise fleet.

That’s the backdrop for MSC. So what should you expect on an MSC cruise?

Galleria Meraviglia on the MSC Meraviglia
MSC Meraviglia, Galleria Meraviglia

For one, you’ll definitely see where they spent the money. From stairs in the atrium filled with Swarovski crystal (yes, you read that correctly) to the LED display in the ceiling of their Galleria <insert ship name> (e.g. Galleria Meraviglia, Galleria Bellisima, etc) which is the promenade on MSC ships, MSC is stepping up its game to cater to American travelers.

What is the cruising experience like on an MSC cruise? Imagine a cruise line that caters to everyone like Carnival with the luxury features of Celebrity? That’s pretty much what to expect on an MSC cruise.

For example, the family-friendly appeal is exemplified with their “Kid’s Sail Free” program (check with your cruise agent for details). As for luxury,  we’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.

Unlike all the other cruise lines in this article, MSC is the only one that isn’t American centric. What do I mean? MSC is an Italian cruise company whereas all the others on this list are American. As such, it’s not uncommon to have passengers from other countries. 

A Unique Difference

This is a real draw for some but will be a turnoff for others. That’s because every announcement that is made must be understood by everyone. On all the other cruise lines you might hear the same announcement in 3 languages, usually English, Spanish and French since those are the primary languages spoken in North America.

Seaside Bar on the MSC Seaside
MSC Seaside, Seaside Bar

On an MSC cruise, that announcement is going to last a little longer. It takes a while to make announcements in English, French, Italian, German, Brazillian Portuguese, and Mandarin. On top of that, because MSC is catering to passengers of varying backgrounds, it is reflected in the variety of foods prepared. 

Therefore, if you like trying new dishes from around the world, MSC is going to give you a unique experience that you will love. If you’re the type that wants to stick with foods prepared the way you’ve been accustomed to eating them, you might want to consider one of the other cruise lines.

I’ve spent a lot of time discussing MSC. That’s because they’re unfamiliar even to experienced travelers. But there is one other thing that must be considered for you to have a clearer picture about MSC cruise line.

All the other cruise lines on this list follow the same format: book your class of cabin and receive whatever perks come with booking that class. MSC doesn’t work that way.

They have what they call “experiences”. It’s kind of confusing so I’ll try to make it as simple as I possibly can. It doesn’t matter what type of cabin you book – from interior stateroom to suite. Your “experience” is determined by the experience you select. When you read their description of their experiences, that might not be readily apparent. 

For example, the website says those who choose the “Fantastica Experience” prefer suite, balcony, and oceanview cabins. That doesn’t mean you’ll *get* a suite, balcony or oceanview. It means that people who like the Fantasica Experience will book one of those rooms.

Yeah, your mind is probably swimming right now. But MSC is a great cruise line once you understand how they operate. Once again, this is why using a cruise travel agent can smooth out your travel experience. 

Here’s how MSC cruise line describes their sailing experience: 

MSC Cruises is the first company to offer truly customized experiences, designed to accommodate your every need. Choose one of our many options from the great value of the “Bella” Experience to the “Fantastica” Experience delivering the flexibility and freedom to adapt to your needs and do not forget the “Aurea” Experience with its dedicated spa package. With an MSC cruise, there’s something for everyone.”

Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL)

If I had to place Norwegian Cruise Line in a position relative to Celebrity Cruise Line and Carnival Cruise Line, I would put it right between the two. NCL’s claim to fame is “Freestyle Dining”. If you’re new to cruising, that won’t mean anything to you. This one requires a history lesson. 

Traditionally, dining – particularly at dinner – has assigned seating. That means you’re scheduled to come to dinner at the same time every day of your cruise. You have an assigned dining room, usually at the same table. You will be eating every day with other passengers that you probably only met at your first evening meal.

Other cruise lines have attempted to replicate NCL’s “Freestyle Dining”, but none do it quite as well as Norwegian.

With Freestyle Dining, there are absolutely no assigned dining rooms. And the only requirement regarding seating time is that you arrive sometime after the dining room opens for dinner and before closing. Sit by yourself if you’re traveling solo or dine with your traveling companions. 

So if traditional dining doesn’t appeal to you, you’ve easily narrowed down your choice of cruise line. Here’s what NCL has to say about its dining option.

“We were the first to eliminate set dining times and provide guests with the freedom to cruise on their schedule. Guests are welcomed aboard with a wide variety of complementary and specialty dining options.”

Princess Cruises

If you want to see the world, you should definitely book a cruise on Princess Cruises. They travel to 380 destinations on 7 continents. And considering that there are only 7 continents on the planet, they literally cruise everywhere.

Princess has a familiar yet unique take on cruising. On their website, they make it clear that they invite new cruisers to join them in their voyages around the world. Yet, at the same time, you’ll go to destinations that even many experienced cruisers have never visited.

Much like Carnival, Princess wants to take the whole family on vacation. The selling point on a Princess cruise? The excursions.

Now, every single cruise line from ocean to river cruises have shore excursions. But only Princess has shore excursions recommended by Discovery Channel and Animal Planet

Princess also has something I have never heard of before. If you have, leave a comment in the comment section below. But they offer private vehicles as an option with your shore excursion. As they put it:

“Vehicles are available with drivers, with or without guides, on a half or full-day basis. Whether by car, van or minibus, this ‘on your own’ solution is perfect for passengers who wish to tour privately or want the flexibility of designing their own itinerary once onboard.”

There are my thoughts on Princess Cruises. Why don’t I let them speak for themselves:

“Only on  Princess can you enjoy evenings spent watching Movies Under the Stars, with complimentary blankets and popcorn. Meet friends for a small bite, wine by the glass and enjoy street performer-style entertainment in the Piazza. Or spend a few hours of tranquility in The Sanctuary – a retreat just for adults.”

Royal Caribbean Cruise Line

Royal Caribbean likes building ships. Really, really big ships. As of this writing, Royal Caribbean has the distinction of sailing the largest cruise ship at sea. All that real estate allows them to fit 6,680 passengers, a 92-foot drop waterslide, an ice skating rink, a rock-climbing wall, and a zip line. 

And that, my friend, is why you book a cruise on Royal Caribbean. If you want an active vacation along with the usual pleasures of a cruise, one of the larger Royal Caribbean ships is what you should be looking at. Or to use Royal Caribbean terminology, you’re looking for “Adventure Bound Cruises”.

Even on their private island, they built Thrill Waterpark advertising with the tagline: “Daredevils Wanted”. 

This is how Royal Caribbean Cruise Line describes their experience:

“Royal Caribbean International is known for driving innovation at sea and has continuously redefined cruise vacationing since its launch in 1969. Each successive class of ships is an architectural marvel and pushes the envelope of what is possible on a cruise ship. Onboard, the global cruise line has debuted countless industry “firsts” – such as rock climbing, ice skating and surfing at sea – to capture the imagination of families and adventurous vacationers alike.”

Cruise Travel Agents Do More Than Book Cruises

Hopefully, you’ve seen the variety that exists in cruising; that’s it’s not just about boarding a ship, eating a lot and getting off in an island paradise. Each cruise line has a personality. And depending on how you’re feeling, each one of these lines might satisfy your cruising need at different times.

What I’m sure you’ve also discovered is that there is a lot of data to process. This article compares using a real travel agent vs calling a booking website company. I highly recommend you read it. The part I suggest focusing on is the interaction between myself and the phone rep.

A travel agent will be able to provide the information you need about ships you’re considering. It’s a personalized service that gets you the data you need without having to do all the legwork yourself. The booking website I called wouldn’t send me anything on the ships I was considering. Your travel agent would love to get your email and send it to you.

And the best part? Using a travel agent doesn’t cost you a penny! That means there’s no extra fee for using a travel agent. That includes services like helping you get an expedited passport, reviewing your travel documents to make sure you aren’t hit with surprises on cruise day and more.

So if you’re ready to see what all the excitement around cruising is about, give J’s Dream Travel a call at 877-235-8061 or send us an email at DreamTeam@JsDreamTravel.com. The Dream Team will give you personalized service to ensure that the trip you book fits you like a glove.

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