Dozens of cruise lines now exist, including many older, well-established lines like Cunard and Holland America, and some newer ones such as Silversea and Seabourn. Given the variety offered by the different companies, cruisers now have more choice than ever. However, on the cruises I have taken, I always become acquainted with cruisers who have either cruised the same ship we're aboard a number of times, or have cruised with the same line repeatedly. Why? Because brand loyalty is not just a phenomenon created by good advertising (though this is partly the reason); brand loyalty results from cruisers finding the right line for them, the line that gives them the best possible environment for an enjoyable and comfortable vacation at a price they can afford.
I have discovered that a good way to understand cruise lines is to think of them in terms of automobile brands, which nearly everyone is familiar with. The kind of car you drive defines you in many ways; it predicts with some degree of accuracy what kind of experience you are comfortable with, what kind of amenities you demand, how much you can afford, and how you mentally envision yourself. And while you don't always vacation according to your means, nor try to replicate your home environment on a cruise, the analogies created by describing cruise lines in terms of automobiles can provide cruisers with a fast introduction to the various lines in a language that most can understand. So herewith follows The Motorist's Guide to Cruising.
Carnival Cruise Lines is the GMC of the industry: a mass market product designed for middle class America, but with a bit of flash and a big, fast engine. It's spacious and shiny and fun (in fact, their marketing sound bite says "The Fun Ships"). The most common image among people who have never cruised Carnival is that it's mostly for young singles, partiers, those who love night life -- in other words, a Camaro with both the throttle and the top down. In the broad spectrum that Carnival supports, young singles will have a good time, but the line really is suitable for a wide cross section of cruisers -- young and old, singles and couples, children, grandparents, and grandchildren. (Carnival carries about 90,000 children annually.) In automobile terms, Carnival Cruise Lines is really a Chevy Lumina, fully loaded, sporty but solid, with the biggest engine, and a flashy paint job, in this year's model. It might even have a car seat in the back.
Celebrity Cruises is definitely the Saab 9000 Turbo of the industry: a classic, elegant cruise experience with all the modern conveniences and the level of entertainment that a larger ship (50,000 - 70,000 tons) affords. From its cuisine, which has been developed by the well-known French chef, Michel Roux, to its luxurious and refined surroundings, Celebrity creates a sophisticated ambiance for the upper middle class cruiser with an income of $50,000+ and an average age of 40 and above.
Costa Cruises: Think Alfa Romeo, a distinctly Italian, somewhat exotic vehicle with flair. Costa's trademark marketing theme is "Cruising Italian Style." Costa emphasizes personalized service and decent cuisine in a traditional setting, and suits cruisers in the 30 - 60 age range who are comfortable in an international, chic environment. If you cannot imagine yourself driving a sporty, exotic import, don't even think about Costa.
Crystal Cruise Lines: You're 45 or older, and you've got an upscale lifestyle that includes most of the finer things in life. You've got a substantial income or are enjoying a comfortable retirement. You're sophisticated and well traveled, and you always go first class, demanding the best wherever you go. You do enjoy nightlife and good shows, so you're most comfortable in a larger, but still luxurious ship, and a tony environment suits you just fine. Naturally, you drive a beamer. That's right: when it comes to cruising, you're a BMW.
Cunard Cruise Lines: Cunard is one of the few cruise lines that keeps a number of different cars in its garage. It has the upscale superliner experience with the Royal Viking Sun and the Queen Elizabeth 2; the classic, elegant cruise experience in the Vistafjord; and plies the water with two luxury yacht-like vessels (Sea Goddess I and II) that include the finest in personalized attention on a small ship. All of these, of course, have a British flavor, as Cunard is the Range Rover of cruise lines.
Disney Cruise Lines: Well, here's one that doesn't really require an analogy. Disney Cruises is much like a Disney theme park experience (and in fact a Disney Cruise usually includes a Disney theme park stay of 3 or 4 days). Geared to the family, to family values, and to the kid in all of us, a Disney ship has no casinos aboard, offers tons of activities for children, and provides a wholesome, fun environment for families and others. The Disney Cruise Line, also known as the Dodge Grand Caravan of the industry, with a bright paint job and lots of room for kids. And one more thing: there's also room for the Goofy in the driver's seat, Dad.
Holland America Line: One of the grand old matrons of the seas -- carrying passengers since 1871 -- Holland America Line provides a traditional cruise ship ambiance with a fleet of modern, impeccably-maintained ships. Your fellow passengers will be upscale, mature (50's to 70's) travelers who expect a high level of service and are looking for a restful vacation in relaxing surroundings at higher but still reasonable prices -- in other words, solid value. Don't expect to "trip the light fantastic" in the evenings. Do expect courteous fellow passengers and a refined environment. HAL's Indonesian service staff maintain a high level of service at all times. Holland America Line is the Lincoln Continental of the high seas.
Norwegian Cruise Line: the cruise line geared for broad appeal in the center of the mainstream cruise market. Passengers will have incomes of $40,000+, and are often looking for a theme experience: country and western, jazz, basketball with NBA stars, and the like. While NCL is rightly well-known for its entertainment, its dining room service has an uneven reputation. The line has year-round children's programs, lots of daily activities, and high-quality evening entertainment. NCL is the Ford Tempo of cruising.
Princess Cruises: Just because it's identified as the "Love Boat" doesn't mean that Princess is the Herbie the Love Bug of cruising. (You've got to be a certain age to catch both of those references.) Princess aims to create casual elegance for its 50+ year old passengers with annual incomes of $45,000 and above. It is quite diverse, given its 11 ships, ranging from mid-size ships to megaliners, and is therefore difficult to categorize. Princess does focus to some degree on entertainment (it even has a company-owned production division). It has Italian dining staff, which results in a fairly consistent dining experience throughout the line. Princess isn't flashy, and avoids the glitz and sizzle of some of the other lines, preferring an understated though sophisticated atmosphere for the moderately affluent traveler. Sounds like an Accura Legend to me.
Royal Caribbean International: This line offers solid value for the middle and upper-middle class segment of the cruise line market. Modestly upscale, with a well-maintained, contemporary look, the average RCI ship carries passengers ranging in age from the mid-30s to the mid-50s, with incomes of $45,000+. It has a well-developed children's program, and a number of activities suitable for all ages. Don't go looking for the small ship experience here, as RCI has invested heavily in new megaliners, selling off some of their older, smaller stock in the process. They take justifiable pride in their service staff, and typically offer high-quality evening entertainment in fairly spacious public rooms. Their newer ships also devote more space to passenger cabins, though the older ships may seem a bit pinched. With its solid value and consistent, somewhat conservative cruise environment, if Royal Caribbean were a car, it would be an Oldsmobile Aurora.
Silversea Cruise Line: A larger, only slightly less luxurious version of Seabourn. All of the suites are outside, and 75% have teakwood balconies. Dinner is served on Limoges china. The atmosphere is upscale and sophisticated, and your fellow travelers are cultured, well-traveled, and affluent. What do you drive? -- why, a Mercedes Benz, of course.
Obviously, I haven't included all of the lines in such a brief introduction to the industry. In the USA alone there are dozens more companies marketing cruises, and scores of other cruise lines around the world, including traditional lines sailing primarily from other countries, river barge lines, and freighters that accept limited numbers of cruise passengers. But if you're like most Americans, you're probably not going to book many of these, for the same reason that you purchase your cars here.
I hope this brief overview enables you to identify a line that suits your needs and lifestyle, and encourages you to take a "test drive" soon. Happy motoring.
Brent Betit is a freelance writer who lives in Vermont with his wife and two young children who provided the inspiration for both of Brent's articles on Cruising with and without kids.
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