The above photo shows the Seabourn Odyssey (450 passengers) adjacent to the Royal Caribbean Jewel of the Seas (2700 passengers). Royal Caribbean has much larger ships in its fleet.
We don’t take two or three cruises a year like some people we’ve met, but we’ve been on three cruises in the last 10 years and have picked up enough experience to make some recommendations. You might have seen some of the disappointing cruise ship photos, and you may have read Don Saltzman’s snarky review of a luxury cruise.
Put all that hyperbole aside. Cruises can be relaxing and invigorating and a lot of fun. It depends on you and what sort of things you enjoy. And how much you want to spend. We have limited ourselves to 7-day cruises because longer ones seem to us to be too much of a good thing.
Our experiences were a cruise around scenic Alaska on the Celebrity Millennium about 10 years ago, and a cruise on Seabourn to the Caribbean and another in the Mediterranean on Seabourn a year later. Both of them happened to be in the same ship, the Seabourn Odyssey, although all the staterooms had been upgraded during a winter drydock.
The nice thing about cruises is that you don’t have to pack and unpack everyday: your hotel comes along to every port, and your dinner or lunch is waiting when you come back from your excursions. The only disadvantage is that the ship usually is again underway by 6:00 pm, which precludes dinner in town. The only exception was at Monte Carlo, where they stayed in port until 11 pm in case you wanted to visit the casino. Recognizing, as Penn and Teller put it, that casinos are for people with poor math skills, we didn’t avail ourselves of the gambling.
Deciding on a cruise
You first need to decide on your budget. We created a spreadsheet of information for 11 of the most popular cruise lines from mass market to luxury. Here is a small copy:
You can look at the entire table full size here. The table identifies cruises from about $2000 to well over $10,000 for a week for two people. This price may or may not include airfare, and you can sometimes get a good deal booking the airfare through your cruise line. We chose our cruises with rooms having a balcony (veranda). You can get ocean view staterooms a bit cheaper and windowless interior cabins quite a bit cheaper, but they can get a bit claustrophobic without a view. Prices were recorded in mid to late January of 2020, and probably change all the time. Photos were taken from cruise ship web sites or in a few cases from CruiseCritic.com.
To approximate total costs, we assumed you would take four shore excursions (for 2), would order the drinks package and go to a specialty restaurant twice. We also added in the tips and WiFi charges if not included. This gives you comparable costs across a spectrum of ships. If the cruise line couldn’t or wouldn’t provide a cost, we added in one from a comparable carrier.
You also have to decide on whether this is an adult vacation, or whether you want to bring children. This can get a lot more expensive in a hurry. While Disney excels in cruises that entertain children, they are by far the most expensive cruise line, costing more than actual luxury cruises. We’ll deal with Disney separately below.
We strongly suggest that you work with a travel agent. They know a lot more than you do about cruises and you usually end up with more shipboard credits and good advice that way. One agent told us about a nearly secret whirlpool she used on deck 6 every day. And we used it too!
Ships vary considerably in size with small ones like Seabourn, Regent, Crystal and Oceana being sort of boutique cruises. But the large preponderance of cruise ships are floating towns of 2000 to nearly 3000, and MSC being floating cities of 4500 to over 6000. Obviously, you are likely to get more attention in the smaller ships, but the really important number is the passenger to crew ratio. Note that for pricey Seabourn, that number is only 1.3, but for the larger, mass market ships, that ratio is 3.0 or more. That is what you are paying for: more personal service, which includes better food and more wait staff as well as more helpful cabin attendants and the like. You generally find that the cabins are more luxurious as well.
Here is a sorted table of the ships by staff ratio. Note that while the most expensive cruises have the lowest staff ratios, there are some bargains to be had. Crystal looks like a good bargain, although note that it has larger ships.
You should decide your objective for a cruise. Most people treat cruises as times to relax and get away from the pressures of daily life. On most cruises there are stops at ports most days, and you can stroll through the towns or take guided tours. In Alaska, the towns are quite small, but if you want to see the usual Eagles and Bears and Whales (Oh my!) you definitely should book shore excursions. If you do, you will definitely get to see eagles and the mega-charismatic fauna!
Note from the table, that there is a wide variation in charges for what are probably the same Alaska tours, since there aren’t very many tour providers in these small towns. The typical charges for tours ran from $80-$125 on both Celebrity and Seabourn, but note that some other lines like Carnival and Princess mark these tours up by nearly a factor of two, to $225 to $249. Regent, Crystal and Silversea bundle them in their price.
In Saltzman’s screed referenced above, he complains about “nothing to do.” This is odd, but even the smaller ships have pools and exercise facilities. Some of the bigger ones have climbing walls and running tracks around the perimeter. But the reasons this is so odd is that cruises take you to destinations almost every day and there is plenty to do in exploring the town or island of the day. Trudging along cobblestone paths and hills of old European cities can take a lot out of you, and we usually felt we had most of our exercise by the time we returned to the ship. We usually found a whirlpool to rejuvenate in after our late lunches.
On Caribbean and Mediterranean cruises you probably should be a little more selective in choosing tours. In many cases, like Menorca and Toulon, a walk through town is all you probably need, and we found that your could probably skip the tour of Nevis, since you can walk to Hamilton’s birthplace from the pier. (The only remaining building is the stable, and they don’t permit pictures because the exhibit is so cheesy.)
Evenings on most cruise ships include various kinds of after-dinner entertainment. Our ship traveled with singers, dancers, a 6-piece band and soloists. Larger ships have more elaborate “Broadway style” productions. These shows consist of hard working young singers and dancers doing their best with what seemed to be pretty bland material and we think these must be aimed at some other demographic.
Meals on cruises tend to be creative and well prepared in the main dining rooms, with more informal food choices at other buffet-like venues around the ship. And you can get a pretty good dinner delivered to your stateroom if you don’t feel like eating in a large restaurant. Only a few ships charge for room service.
Despite Celebrity’s TV saturation of their surreal Dream Song (Jefferson Airplane) commercial with the improbable redhead in the clashing green gown, Celebrity is a good cruise line. It was originally owned by the Greek Chandris Group, but was sold to Royal Caribbean in 1997. The “X” on their ships looked to me to be a reference to the Unix X-Windows system, but it actually is the letter Chi for Chandris.
The ship we were on had 2800 passengers, but It never seemed crowded. The main dining room is a two level affair and there are two seatings at maybe 6:30 and 8:30. They have since added walk-in seating as well since then. You are assigned to a table for the cruise, in our case we shared the table with 3 other couples and found them friendly and congenial. You also have the option of dining in their specialty restaurant for an additional fee for about $50 a head. Since we had purchased a drinks package for the cruise the wine may have been included.
The dinner menus were varied and well prepared, but the breakfast and lunch were served buffet style from several smaller stations were you could get typical hot and cold breakfasts and lunches. The breakfasts were at best adequate, and while you could have a waited breakfast, it was the same food.
Celebrity excelled at baggage handling at a level we haven’t experienced elsewhere. We flew to Anchorage and stayed overnight at a hotel, leaving most of our tagged luggage outside our room for pickup. They took it directly to the ship and it was in our stateroom when we arrived, after taking a bus from Anchorage to Seward, where we boarded our ship. Even better, since we never really left the US, they took our tagged luggage from outside our room directly to our flight home from Vancouver. We never had to touch it. And while Vancouver is indeed outside the US, we were on a bus that delivered us directly to the transit area, so we never officially entered Canada. This was really well done!
Celebrity has briefly advertised a Kids Sail Free program. Their drinks package at $59 a day seems excessive, but their current advertising suggests that they are offering drinks as part of the standard fare.
Seabourn sails on small ships having 450 to about 600 passengers, with very low passenger to crew ratios and excellent service. The level of attention you get is very high and many of the crew will soon know you by name. And on our second cruise the social director remembered us from the year before! Seabourn cruises are all inclusive except for the excursions: tips, liquor and all meals are included. Even the specialty restaurant, The Grille by Thomas Keller is available at no charge.
The rooms are a bit larger at 302 square feet and the cabins are quite a bit fancier. Since liquor is included in the fare price, they ask what you want them to stock your minibar with and keep it stocked all during the cruise.
One of the most relaxing things about Seabourn is sitting poolside, either in the shade or sun and finding a waiter at your elbow offering you a drink from his tray. They will also bring you any kind of drink you want, if that one doesn’t quite meet your taste requirements.
On our Seabourn cruises there was usually one singer doing pop standards with the band who was pretty good, but performance purporting to be “classical” were more like Lloyd-Webber and other popperetta rather than actual classical singing.
On our second cruise, they had cut some corners: the service in the informal restaurant suffered, and they were only offering two kinds of wine with dinner, where the year before they had four or five bottles to choose from. However, it remained an elegant experience we’d happily repeat.
There is a nominal charge for WiFi, but they provide enough shipboard credits to cover it. We never ran out.
Seabourn also features spas and treatments using the name of noted alternative medicine quack Dr Andrew Weil. Some of the excursions are labeled as “Mindful,” but fortunately none of the tour guides knew anything about this hokum. Weil’s treatment regimen includes yoga, Chinese herbal malarkey, and acupuncture, otherwise known as a pre-scientific theatrical placebo.
Carnival is distinctly a mass-market cruise line with ships holding around 3000 passengers. The staterooms are much less fancy (early Holiday Inn) and they keep their low per room prices by charging you separately for tips, specialty restaurants and WiFi. Their liquor package is so high at $52 per person per day that you could never drink enough to cover it, and getting drinks individually is probably the only solution. They also have the highest passenger to staff ratio of any of the cruise lines we looked at 3.13. This is the kind of ship where they have Lip Sync Battles and Water Slides. Their excursion prices are roughly double those of Celebrity and most other cruise lines. They have several kids clubs on board.
Princess Cruise Lines
Princess Cruises is a slightly more upscale cruise line also owned by Carnival. Drinks, WiFi and tipping are folded into the base price. However, their excursion prices are even higher than Carnival’s. The room décor is significantly better than Carnival’s. Specialty restaurants have charges of $25-$29 per person, and they offer children’s programs for ages 3-7, 8-12, and teens. They also offer some 4-person staterooms featuring models so attractive you can’t tell which is the mom and which the daughter. Princess Cruise Lines and Carnival have both paid whopping fines for dumping oil and plastic waste.
Regent Seven Seas
Regent Seven Seas is a high end all-inclusive cruise line, where drinks, tips, WiFi, all restaurants and all excursions are included in the price. With only 700 passengers and a passenger /staff ratio of 1.5, you can be sure to get excellent service and attention to your needs. With five specialty restaurants in addition the main dining room and the Pool Grill, you are sure to find something interesting every night. They are so sure that they are standouts in the luxury cruise market, they even publish a comparison chart.
While their list prices seem high, they actually turn out to be two for the price of one fares, which makes them an excellent value. They also offer bundled air fare. While this is clearly a ship for adults, they do offer discounted children’s fares and a Club Mariner Youth Program.
Royal Caribbean takes the cruise experience and turns it into a theme park. On the smaller Enchantment of the Seas with 2730 passengers, they have scuba, climbing walls and a bungee trampoline and an old arcade. On their larger ships, they also have dodge cars, laser tag, vertical sky diving into a large plastic tube, and a surf simulator (??). And on some Caribbean cruises, you may stop at their private CocoCay island (Bahamas) amusement park.
Their main Windjammer restaurant is open for all meals and the Chops Grill (at extra cost) is open for dinner, and lunch on sea days.
But Royal Caribbean doesn’t stop there. Their larger ships have over 6000 passengers, as you can see from this extensive table. Their latest Quantum Ultra (or maybe Death Star) class ships can carry 6680 passengers and 2200 crew, giving them an unimpressive staff ratio of 3.03. These are touted as the world’s largest cruise ships. These large ships have up to ten restaurants to choose from.
And as usual drinks, tips specialty restaurants and WiFi are all at extra cost. If you want to sit and quietly sip your drink around the pools, these are not the best ships for you, and if you really like to vacation in close quarters with a lot of people, you could skip the boat and just spend a few days in New York.
Oceana is a top of the line small ship experience, with a staff ratio of 1.77. The fare is all inclusive including drinks, dining, tips, WiFi, excursions and airfare. Some of these are part of a bundle called OLife Choices which is a per-cabin program which includes drinks, air fare, 4 excursions and WiFi. The Culinary Experiences include te Grand Dining Room, Toscana, Polo Grill, Jacques, Red Ginger, Tuscan Steak, the Terrace Café and the Wave Grill, as well as coffee and tea shops and culinary classes. Oceana does not mention any youth programs. This looks like a fine choice, but Oceana cruise reviews are less than stellar, implying that their food and service have slipped.
Crystal Cruises is a luxury cruise line running ships with just under 1000 passengers, and with a staff ratio of 1.5. Tips, drinks and WiFi are included. The restaurants include the Waterside main dining room, The Marketplace (by day) and Churrascaria (a Brazilian steakhouse) by night, Uma Uma, a sushi bar by chef Nobu Matsuhisa, Prego, the inevitable Italian restaurant, Silk Kitchen Asian cuisine, and The Bistro and Trident Grill for informal meals. There is also an ice cream bar. Entertainment includes Broadway inspired shows, and movies. They also offer enrichment lectures featuring “thought leaders” and book readings by favorite authors. There are exercise facilities, a lap pool, yoga, Pilates, and some sort of hokum inspired by Feng Shui at the Crystal Life Spa. Most recent reviews of Crystal Cruises have been a bit mixed, criticizing the food and some of the excursions. Crystal tells us they will not be cruising to Alaska again until 2022.
Silversea is an all inclusive luxury cruise line with under 600 passengers. They make their actual prices difficult to discover, as they want you to given them your name and address first. This link shows some of their current deals. Without going through “Request a Quote” it is hard to know what the prices will actually be. Fine dining abounds on Silversea, with a main dining room, The Grill, Indochine, La Dame, Seishin, La Terrazza, and Kaisecki. There is an air and hotel program, that offers free economy or business class for an addition $699 each way, per person. Online reviews of Silversea are mixed, but difficult to summarize. In general, this is likely to be a fine experience.
MSC is a European line that has made significant inroads in the US. Their ships are about 4500 passengers, but with a staff ratio of 2.93. However, MSC has announced plans for the Meraviglia Grandiosa, which will carry 6334 passengers, continuing the trend to megaships. MSC also has announced their private island, MSC Ocean Cay, off the Bahamas. Ships will stop their for a day of food and dancing going on into the night, where there will be a light show featuring the local lighthouse. The idea of visiting an actual living island instead does not occur to them, we suppose.
MSC cruises claim to have twelve distinct venues, including HOLA Tapas, Butcher’s Cut, Kaito Teppenyaki, Ocean Cay (seafood), and Marketplace Buffet. MSC also currently offers All-In Plus, with free drinks, free WiFi and $100 shipboard credit, for $419 per person for 7-day cruises.
Criticisms of MSC include rating it one of the “worst lines” by EscapeHere for lackluster food, outdated rooms and few English speaking staff. CruiseCritic is a bit more evenhanded with 2400 Excellents, 1800 Very Goods, 1375 Average, 1261 Poor, and 1107 Terrible ratings.
We waited until last to discuss the Dumbo in the Living Room: Disney Cruises. A quick glance at the cost table above reveals that it is easily the most expensive cruise line we’ve discussed, even though with a staff ratio of 2.33 it provides less attention and from the looks of their stateroom photos, it is far from luxurious: rather more like a budget motel.
The rooms have a separate toilet and shower, but no closets. The only storage is that small dresser in the picture. There is also some room to store your suitcases under the bed.
The reason for the high cost is of course, children. Disney cruises are not only about entertaining children, they also are housing and feeding them. So, while your typical veranda stateroom looks like it is for two adults, the couch unfolds to a bed, and there is a pull-down bunk bed as well. So, the base room charge is really for four passengers, two adults and two smaller people. So, while Disney claims that adults could sail without children and eat and drink in the adult areas, this is not very cost effective.
Much of the child appeal of Disney cruises is the encounters with costumed Disney characters, the “clubs” for various age groups (and not unlike that on several other lines) and the Broadway-style shows. Some ships actually present (probably shortened) versions of Tangled and Frozen, but it appears that some of the time these are pastiche shows along the lines of “Frozen Lion King Aladdin II.” (OK, I made that title up.)
Dining on Disney cruises schedules you to rotate among three different restaurants, with your table mates and servers coming with you to maintain continuity. There are also several more informal choices, including pizza and burgers. While the food is included, ice cream at their soda shop is not. Every Disney ship has at least one adult restaurant as well, the Italian Palo being the most common. Some ships also have a French-style restaurant called Remy, named after the rat in the cartoon Ratatoille, who wants to become a chef. Personally, I don’t find the idea of rats in the kitchen particularly appealing. In the cartoon, Remy opens his restaurant when an established chef invests in it. (However, no one mentions that this will be a short investment, since rats’ life span is only about 18 months.)
You can see a complete run of menus from a Disney cruise here. Note that the menus and the food names are drenched in Disney promotions and Disney kitsch.
The problem with these adults-only restaurants, of course, is that you still have to get your children fed. Apparently, if your kids are old enough, they can eat at their usual table and then the servers will escort them to the kids’ clubs. Of course, if they are that old, they probably would prefer a cruise without the costumed characters milling about.
Disney has a bizarre tipping policy. Tips are not included in the price, and while bartenders add 18% to the drink charge, Disney suggests that on a 7-day cruise, you tip your server $31.50, your assistant server $24.50, your head server $7 and your stateroom attendant $31.50. You can arrange to have this charged to your bill if you like. It amounts to about $189 for two that should probably be bundled into the cost of the cruise.
Disney does not have an overall drinks package, but their liquor prices are so cheap ($5-$8) that you can easily charge them to your account. However, premium drinks (like Scotches) can run up quite a bill. And unlike most cruise lines, they don’t mind you bringing on your own booze. They do have a beer mug package. Buy a souvenir mug and you can get it filled with beer whenever you ask. Stay classy, Disney. On the other end, they have a wine package, which means you can buy 3, 4 ,5 or 7 bottles of wine ahead of time. It’s kind of an odd idea, but apparently cost effective.
Overall, Disney cruises are not for us, as our children are grown, but even when your kids are young, you might do better to take them on a less aggressively Disneyfied cruise and take them to a theme park instead. To be fair, some adults like this sort of thing, and you might be one of them, but you can spend a lot less for a more luxurious experience on some of the other cruise lines. Other critics have been less impressed.