Best Large-Ship Cruise Lines
Every year, T+L asks readers to rank their favorite cruise lines based on staterooms, food, activities, service, and value. Delivering on these characteristics is especially challenging for large-ship lines, which have capacities of more than 600 passengers, and can be as large as the No. 9-ranked Royal Caribbean’s Oasis and the Allure of the Seas, each of which can carry up to 5,400 passengers.
Related: Great All-Inclusive Cruises
But what a large ship can deliver is a seemingly endless variety of amenities and curated programs. And it’s these features that are luring passengers: according to a recent Cruise Lines International Association report, the number of travelers that have been opting for a cruise trip has grown at an average rate of 7.6 percent annually over the past 10 years.
More travelers don’t mean higher prices this year, thanks to the launch of new-build ships: 15 total in 2011. “More luxury ships—along with the state of the economy—have driven down pricing to unprecedented levels,” says Monty Mathisen of Cruise Industry News. As a result, he suggests travelers should be on the lookout for steep discounts, two-for-ones, and added value in the form of free airfare, shore excursions, and onboard spending credits.
Further discounting is likely in the wake of the January 2012 Costa Concordia incident off the coast of Tuscany. While it has rattled the nerves of some potential cruisers, the industry’s overall record for safety remains strong. And there are concrete precautions you can take such as buying travel insurance (from a non-cruise owned company), checking Coast Guard vessel inspection reports, and reviewing the evacuation plans posted on the back of their cabin doors and the safety videos that run in most cabins.
Selecting the right cruise line and itinerary to fit your own interests and comfort level has never been easier. No. 7-ranked Celebrity Cruises’s Silhouette, for example, has a multimillion-dollar modern art collection, while foodies will gravitate to the Oceania Marina, operated by No. 3 cruise line Oceania, for Jacques Pépin’s first Lyonnaise-inspired namesake restaurant.
To lure even more new travelers to the seas, cruise lines are updating ship interiors and adding extra panache on new builds. Who does it best? According to T+L readers, the No. 1-ranked Crystal Cruises, which earns top marks for its exemplary service. On the cruise line’s Serenity and Symphony ships, travelers are escorted to chic staterooms with Egyptian-cotton linens; some have mosaic-tiled bathrooms.
Read on for the inside scoop on what’s new and notable for the best large-ship cruise lines.
No. 1 Crystal Cruises
The World’s Best Large Cruise Line winner for 16 years running, Crystal Cruises continues to get top marks for its exemplary service (there’s almost a 1:1 crew-to-guest ratio), onboard enrichment programs (Yamaha keyboard classes, Berlitz language lessons), and world-class cuisine (case in point: Nobu’s Silk Road restaurant and sushi bar).
What’s New: The recently renovated Serenity—one of two ships in the fleet—now features 535 velvet-accented suites furnished with tufted leather headboards and romantic lighting.
Number of Ships: 2.
Destinations: Crystal sails 59 itineraries, calling at 183 ports in New England, Canada, Europe, Asia, the Caribbean, and South America.
No. 2 Regent Seven Seas Cruises
Regent offers an all-inclusive experience geared toward sophisticated travelers who are looking for luxury and value. Standout features on Regent’s all-suite ships include the Canyon Ranch Spa Clubs (for wellness treatments with Dead Sea salts and biodynamic honey) and Signatures, a Le Cordon Bleu-operated restaurant for French classics like foie gras terrine and Camembert quiche.
What’s New: As of this year, Concierge-Level suites will include exclusive amenities and services, from in-room iPads to priority restaurant and shore-excursion reservations.
Number of Ships: 3.
Destinations: Regent’s ships navigate both hemispheres: Australia, the Caribbean, Bermuda, and Central and South America in the winter; Northern Europe and Alaska in the spring and summer; Canada and New England in the fall; and the Mediterranean year-round.
No. 3 Oceania Cruises
Oceania’s food and restaurant programs get top billing by T+L readers. On some sailings, travelers head out on guided market and wine tours in Barcelona and Athens, then return to the ship for cooking classes with guest chefs and dinner at the traditional Italian restaurant Toscana (there’s an outpost on all four ships), where travelers choose from a menu of artisanal olive oils—served in Versace china—for dipping fresh-baked bread.
What’s New: Oceania’s new all-inclusive beverage package makes cruising with the luxury liner an even greater value.
Number of Ships: 4.
Destinations: Oceania has a robust roster of European itineraries (72 sailings aboard four ships—including a new Greenland route and 12 maiden calls). The line also travels to Canada and New England, China and Southeast Asia, India and Africa, Australia and New Zealand, the Caribbean, South and Central America, and through the Panama Canal.
No. 4 Disney Cruise Lines
On Disney’s four decked-out ships—which include the new 4,000-passenger Dream—you’ll find both kid- and adult-friendly amenities. To please the under-16 crowd, on the Dream there’s a 765-foot water slide and Broadway-style theater; a nightlife district (five bars and clubs on Deck 4) and a two-deck spa with a rainforest steam room are for adults only.
What’s New: Don’t miss the full-ship mystery game aboard the Disney Fantasy, which debuts in March: travelers will search the ship with hidden clues and be greeted by the Muppets.
Number of Ships: 4.
Destinations: Disney tours the Western Hemisphere. It’s most frequently in the Caribbean and Bahamas but also heads to Alaska, Hawaii, and Canada and New England.
No. 5 Cunard
Cunard’s three legendary liners exude the Old World elegance reminiscent of cruising’s Golden Age. Several nods to tradition are on display on the Queen Mary 2, Queen Victoria, and Queen Elizabeth: Art Deco chandeliers, inlaid-wood ballroom floors, outdoor courts for croquet and paddle tennis, and supper clubs hosted in Kew Gardens-inspired conservatories.
What’s New: In December, the Queen Mary 2 emerged from an update with new stateroom furniture and bedding; upgraded equipment in the Canyon Ranch spa; and a brand-new look for the Golden Lion Pub.
Number of Ships: 3.
Destinations: Cunard is the only line that offers regularly scheduled transatlantic crossings. Additional routes include many in Europe (the British Isles, the Baltic, Scandinavia, the Mediterranean), as well as the Caribbean, the Panama Canal, and a popular around-the-world cruise.
No. 6 Azamara Club Cruises
Azamara focuses its trips around in-depth excursions, thanks to overnight port stays and late-night departures. Those who choose to remain on board will have extra time to spend in the drawing room (filled with a library of Assouline tomes) and in the three main restaurants, all serviced by an 8,000-bottle wine cellar.
What’s New: Azamara’s new custom signature bath and body line—a fruity-floral blend of tangerine, iris, and amber—created by master perfumer Olivier Decoster.
Number of Ships: 2.
Destinations: Many of Azamara’s itineraries head to Eastern and Western Europe—including Scandinavia, the Greek Isles, and the French and Italian Rivieras. In colder months, the fleet sails to Asia, South America, and the Caribbean.
No. 7 Celebrity Cruises
A continuous stream of new-build ships is a hallmark of Celebrity Cruises (five new ships in five years), but it’s the imaginative onboard features that make the cruise line such a crowd-pleaser. Aboard the new Celebrity Silhouette, there are interactive cooking classes at the Lawn Club Grill and self-guided iPad tours of onboard art collections, while the line's "Solsticizing" upgrades ensure that the older ships rise to the standard of the newest.
What’s New: Thanks to the high-tech Reverie Dream Sleep System on next year’s Celebrity Reflection, guests will be able to adjust bed settings (elevation, massage functions) from personal iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touches.
Number of Ships: 10.
Destinations: The majority of Celebrity’s sailings tour the Caribbean, but the line has been expanding its offerings, particularly in Asia and Europe. Celebrity also has three ships that operate out of Alaska, four that sail to Hawaii, Panama, and South America, and three that ply the waters down under.
No. 8 Holland America Line
Once a transporter of immigrants to the New World and a commercial freight line, Holland America has a long tradition of European cruising and maintains 15 elegant ships (Art Deco pieces; maritime drawings) with suites that open onto wraparound decks. A growing culinary program includes Le Cirque Nights—an onboard re-creation of the legendary New York restaurant, complete with the signature orange china and the tender côte de boeuf.
What’s New: This year, Holland America is returning down under with 10- to 34-day itineraries that will visit the remote Ribbon Reef and the deserts of the Far North.
Number of Ships: 15.
Destinations: Holland America was one of the first lines to sail to Alaska and still maintains a significant presence there. Europe and the Caribbean are the line’s other top-selling destinations, but the Panama Canal and Australia are not far behind.
No. 9 Royal Caribbean International
Royal Caribbean’s fleet ranges in size and style, but it’s probably best known for these most recent builds: the Oasis and the Allure of the Seas, two massive (and nearly identical) vessels weighing 225,282 tons and carrying up to 5,400 passengers. Besides the sheer size, the ships boast plenty of other wow factors, from the sprawling tree-lined “Central Park” and bi-level Loft suites to the 82-foot-high zipline and 450-slot casino.
What’s New: Starting in February, the 1,830-passenger Splendour of the Seas will feature iPads in all staterooms—it’s the first large ship in the industry to do so.
Number of Ships: 22.
Destinations: As its name suggests, the line is reputed for its Caribbean itineraries, though its reach extends far beyond the region, to 72 countries on six continents: North America, Northern Europe, Italy and Turkey, Spain and Portugal, Dubai, South America, and Asia and the Pacific.
No. 10 Princess Cruises
Besides a role in The Love Boat, Princess is also famous for its signature experiences, among them: Movies under the Stars (complete with popcorn, cookies, and blankets), Scholarship@Sea (courses in ship navigation, ceramics, and art history), and Sanctuary (an adults-only area with private cabanas and health-oriented menus). Fittingly for the former star of the ’70s series, Princess was also the first to launch weddings at sea.
What’s New: The Royal Princess, set to debut in 2013, will feature an overwater Seawalk, a glass-bottom walkway that stretches 28 feet over the ocean.
Number of Ships: 16.
Destinations: Just about everywhere: from Hawaii, Tahiti, and South Pacific (where it dedicates eight ships) to Asia, India, and Africa (running 28 voyages annually). Princess has an extensive European lineup and seasonal Caribbean sailings. A notable trump card: Princess’s program in Alaska, where it operates its own wilderness lodges and railcars.
No. 11 Norwegian Cruise Line
Since innovating “Freestyle cruising” (a break from a more formal onboard experience), Norwegian Cruise Line hasn’t stopped pushing the envelope: the 2010 Norwegian Epic introduced solo traveler cabins and the first ice bar at sea. NCL has also been a leader in the home porting trend, offering sailings that depart from New York, Boston, New Orleans, and Seattle.
What’s New: Haven, the ship-within-a-ship complex on Norwegian Breakaway, will launch in April 2013 with around-the-clock butler service, poolside valets, and sumptuous suites with wraparound balconies.
Number of Ships: 11.
Destinations: Year-round, more than half of NCL’s fleet sails to the Caribbean and Bermuda from various domestic ports. The rest of the ships are deployed in Europe, Canada and New England, Alaska, and Hawaii.
No. 12 Carnival Cruise Lines
Carnival Cruise Lines is true to its name: the “Fun Ships” are outfitted with tons of amenities and onboard programs that are boredom-averse, among them, spiral waterslides, karaoke bars, and deck parties. What’s more, the line is in the process of rolling out a fleetwide $500 million “Fun Ship 2.0” initiative that will include burger joints by TV personality Guy Fieri and DJ Irie’s “Spin’iversity.”
What’s New: Look out for George Lopez’s touch on the fleet’s comedy clubs—he’s been appointed the line’s official “Curator of Comedy.”
Number of Ships: 23.
Destinations: 19 of Carnival’s 23 ships operate in the Caribbean on a year-round or seasonal basis; the line also ventures into Alaska, Canada, New England, Hawaii, and Europe.
No. 13 MSC Cruises
MSC’s mostly-European crowd isn’t looking for the giant ziplines and skating rinks typical of American cruise ships. Instead, the fleet offers refined service and well-curated itineraries in both popular and less-visited destinations, such as the Baltic region. The MSC Yacht Club, the line’s private club, has wood-paneled suites with Nintendo Wii consoles, a Dorlean pillow menu, and in-cabin laptops.
What’s New: Modeled after its sister ships the MSC Splendida and the MSC Fantasia, the MSC Divina, scheduled for a May 2012 launch, will have an infinity pool, walkways with glass balustrades, and an elaborate entertainment complex that includes a cabaret and a 4-D cinema.
Number of Ships: 11.
Destinations: Mainly the Mediterranean, but also the Caribbean, Bahamas, Central and South America, South Africa, Abu Dhabi and the Emirates, the United Kingdom, Northern Europe and the Baltic, and Transatlantic.
No. 14 Costa Cruises
While the January 2012 incident involving the Costa Concordia is still under investigation, the company remains committed to passenger safety. Crew members hold Basic Safety Training certificates, and staffers perform a ship evacuation simulation every two weeks. Although changes may be underfoot for the company, the Genoa-based line—known for its Italian flair, from the onboard bocce games and tarantella dancing to pasta tastings—has stated that it will still operate more than 600 scheduled departures this year.
What’s New: Nearly a thousand architects, engineers, and skilled workers have helped to refurbish the 789-cabin Costa neoRomantica, which will debut in February 2012.
Number of Ships: 15.
Destinations: Costa focuses primarily on Europe—particularly the Eastern and Western Mediterranean, as well as the Baltic and Norwegian fjords. But it also has a growing presence in China, Singapore, Hong Kong, and in the Middle East (Dubai, UAE), as well as seasonal sailings to South America. On one particularly grand voyage, Costa calls at Australia, New Zealand, India, Madagascar, and the Maldives.