Differences Between Major Cruise Lines – Which Is Best for You?

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There are dozens of cruise lines based all over the world, and more than 25 million passengers set sail every year on a wide variety of itineraries to hundreds of different ports of call. But just as different ports all have their own unique histories and cultures, cruise lines also have distinct personalities. By understanding the differences between major cruise lines, you can choose the line that best suits your travel preferences, personal style, and vacation dreams for the perfect oceangoing getaway.

Carnival Cruise Line – The Fun Ships

The world’s largest cruise line with more than 25 ships in the fleet and more vessels under construction, Carnival Cruise Line has branded itself as “The Fun Ships” and the name is well-deserved. This cruise line is favored by the younger, rowdier, more energetic crowd, and it’s not uncommon to find bachelor and bachelorette parties onboard, as well as large family reunions and group cruises.

Carnival Dream Cruise Ship in Port
Photo: Copyright Cruise Hive

Drink specials abound and karaoke bars are often packed, and the atmosphere is electric with trivia contests, dance parties, hairy chest contests, mixology lessons, and more. There are plenty of activities for children and teens, and larger ships have more extensive water parks, sports courts, and other fast-paced features.

Related: A Simple Guide on Carnival Ships by Size

Carnival Cruise Line sails all over the world to the most popular ports of call, with longer voyages focusing on slightly more in-depth visits. This broad scope of cruising gives every type of passenger an itinerary they can enjoy onboard a Carnival ship.

Royal Caribbean International – Fun Family Adventures

With its huge, innovative ships and large, ever-expanding fleet, Royal Caribbean International is a cruise line with an active vibe that can appeal to the whole family.

Docked Royal Caribbean Cruise Ships
Photo Credit: Cruise Hive

There are more than 25 ships in the Royal Caribbean fleet, and the line prides itself on new and unusual features such as ice rinks, robotic bartenders, skydiving chambers, surfing simulators, zip lines, escape rooms, climbing walls, and more right on board. The largest ships even have distinct neighborhoods that bring unique themes, outstanding architecture, and personalized character to each part of the ship.

Worth Reading: Easy Guide on Royal Caribbean Ships by Age

Royal Caribbean International sails worldwide, offering a wide scope of itineraries and voyages of varying lengths. There are plenty of options for younger cruisers as well as seasoned passengers, and each ship offers vast entertainment options for everyone to enjoy.

MSC Cruises – Curious Cruising

MSC Cruises is home to more than 15 vessels that sail worldwide with two themes in mind, elegance and discovery. This line prides itself on the diversity of its experiences and caters to an equally wide range of passengers.

MSC Virtuosa
Image Via: MSC Cruises

Onboard MSC ships, passengers will find plenty of activities, from stunning Cirque du Soleil entertainment to ziplines, 4D cinemas, bowling alleys, and other innovative options that can suit all ages, but with fewer bawdy activities and more focus on engaging experiences.

MSC Cruises sails worldwide and offers some unusual itineraries, including voyages that visit Dubai, Asia, South America, southern Africa, and other exotic ports of call. This line is a great option for more adventurous travelers with a reasonable budget.

Norwegian Cruise Line – Freestyle Cruising

Norwegian Cruise Line offers the ultimate in flexibility at sea with its freestyle cruising approach, giving passengers more freedom to choose among different dining options, activities, and excursions than some traditional cruise lines.

Norwegian Bliss in Seattle
Photo By: NCL

Norwegian offers a range of inclusive packages for travelers to pick the best deal that suits their interests, but some passengers may also find the extra surcharges and a-la-carte approach confusing. Still, the diversity on board appeals to many types of cruisers, and Norwegian Cruise Line’s more than 15 ships are often crowded and may be home to a variety of groups and gatherings.

Also Read: 30 Norwegian Cruise Line Tips and Tricks

This line sails worldwide with itineraries of different lengths, and the hull artwork of its ships makes each one distinctive and attractive for a memorable cruise vacation.

Princess Cruises – Elegance at Sea

Passengers get the royal treatment when they sail on any of the more than 15 ships that make up the Princess Cruises fleet. These ships are somewhat upgraded from broader cruise lines, and offer more haute cuisine options and some of the traditional trappings of the golden age of cruising, such as more reserved dress codes.

Sky Princess Cruise Ship
Photo: Princess Cruises

Princess Cruises also prides itself for its enrichment programs, and offers an array of lectures, presentations, and talks about ports of call and topics of interest on all its ships, often tied to its extensive Discovery program. While passengers tend to be slightly older overall on Princess Cruises, there are still plenty of attractive and innovative options to appeal to younger cruisers.

Princess Cruises sails all over the world, offering diverse itineraries and often visiting ports of call that may be difficult to find on other cruise lines, while still visiting the most popular cruise travel hotspots.

Costa Cruises – Italian Vibes Worldwide

For a true European feel with all the delicious cuisine, rich history, and luxurious culture of Italy, cruisers can’t go wrong with Costa Cruises. This line sails more than a dozen ships throughout the Mediterranean and on different itineraries worldwide, bringing its understated elegance far past its Italian origins.

Costa Smeralda Sea Trials
Photos: Costa Cruises

While Costa Cruises generally hosts fewer young cruisers and caters more to an adult audience, there are still children’s programs and a variety of activities suitable for all ages onboard, as well as more unique experiences such as small onboard dairies featuring luxurious cheeses.

Adventurous passengers will especially enjoy the tailored shore tours and multinational focus of Costa Cruises, and this is an ideal line for anyone interested in a rich, multifaceted cruise vacation.

Celebrity Cruises – A-List Luxury

With more than 12 ships in its fleet, Celebrity Cruises has plenty of options to offer passengers interested in a trendy, modern cruise experience with upscale options.

Celebrity Apex Cruise Ship
Photo Credit: Celebrity Cruises

This cruise line offers more haute cuisine and elite choices, such as wine tastings, wellness classes, glassblowing classes, and luxury experiences through its exclusive Lawn Club. Along the way, passengers will enjoy a variety of worldwide itineraries, including exotic and highly coveted destinations such as the Galapagos, Asia, Bermuda, and the Philippines.

Related: 40 Celebrity Cruise Tips and Tricks

Celebrity Cruises is less budget-friendly than many other lines, but the price is well worthwhile for the luxurious touches this cruise line provides and any passenger will feel like a star throughout their vacation.

Holland America Line – Traditional Modern Cruising

Foodies and music lovers alike will appreciate the classic vibes of Holland America Line, where the traditional cruising diversions of elegant repasts and superior live music are still highlighted on every voyage.

Docked Holland America Ships
Photo Credit: JL IMAGES / Shutterstock.com

Fewer activities are offered onboard so as not to overshadow the pleasures of socializing and the immersive itineraries Holland America Line offers in far-flung worldwide destinations such as Asia, Tahiti, New Zealand, and the Panama Canal. This line is especially known for its impressive Alaskan voyages, and offers a range of pre- and post-cruise adventures so passengers can get both land and sea experiences.

Passengers on Holland America Line are generally older and more seasoned cruisers who enjoy the wine tastings, on deck yoga, cooking demonstrations, and similar activities onboard, though there are limited youth programs available as well.

Disney Cruise Line – Magical Sailings

For true family magic, there’s no equal to Disney Cruise Line – as long as passengers are a fan of the Disney brand, which will be found everywhere onboard, admittedly in often elegant and understated ways rather than brash or heavy-handed accents. The four ships of Disney Cruise Line offer no casinos, but have extensive programming for children of all ages and many different attractions to appeal to everyone’s inner child.

Disney Cruise Ship
Photo Credit: Russell Otway

The attention to detail is unmatched, and Disney fans will find themselves immersed in all the magic of Disney’s worlds through the character appearances, themed shows, exquisite restaurants, and other extensive Disney dreams onboard.

Because Disney Cruise Line is popular with families, the ships are often more crowded as extra berths in cabins are filled (rather than standard double occupancy). Yet there is much to distract passengers onboard, and even adults will enjoy the nostalgia of classic Disney in every detail.

Look Beyond Individual Lines

While it’s clear that every major cruise line has differences that set it apart from other lines, it is also important to recognize that individual ships can be just as distinct. Once you’ve decided which cruise line appeals to you most, take the time to learn about the different ships and what they offer passengers.

Newer ships may have more innovative features, for example, but are also likely to be more expensive and more fully booked in advance. Older ships may be smaller and could be missing some of the most coveted features, but they still have personalized ambiance and the exceptional service that makes each line distinctive.

Large ships have more features, but small ships have a more intimate appeal. Older ships may have been recently renovated to offer more options, while the newest ships may have spectacular features that aren’t yet well known.

Understanding how major cruise lines are different from one another can help you start to plan a cruise vacation that will meet your needs and preferences. Whether you’re a first-time cruiser looking for a perfect cruise line match or an experienced cruiser looking to try a new line, there’s sure to be one that can offer you a great getaway – bon voyage!

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