Helping Cruisers Make Decisions


Cruise buyers need honest advice - where can they find it?

There was once a time when most cruises were surprisingly similar and the best way to learn about cruising was just to take one. But today cruise lines have created unique experiences and no two cruises are alike. Let’s take a look at traditional-style cruising, and then examine how it has changed.


A decade ago cruises mostly left from US ports, had a few days at sea punctuated along the way by ports of call where you had different tour options of various levels of activity. The shipboard experience was largely predictable; you boarded the ship the first day, waited in the lido buffet for your stateroom to be ready, had a lifeboat drill, cleaned up for dinner and then went to the "Welcome Aboard Show."


The next day was a day at sea where the morning activities were trivia games, spa demonstrations, and registration for kid's programs, etc. You might spend the afternoon considering different shore tours and then book them before the Captain's Welcome Aboard party where you got a free drink and took a picture with the captain.


It was the first formal night and there were two dinner seatings; early (6:00) and late (8:00 pm). You met your tablemates for the first time that night and you greeted the same guests, waiter, Maitre D' and busboy each night of the cruise after that. After dinner was the first main theater production show of the cruise. It showed twice, once at 6:30 for those dining at 8:00, and at 8:30 for those dining at 6:00.


I could easily describe each day of a typical seven-day cruise. They were surprisingly predictable, but also reliably satisfying. Many, many people came to love these cruise traditions, fully understanding they originated during the great days of ocean liners before the age of air travel.


But Cruising Has Changed


But things have changed radically in the cruise industry - even in the last five years. The differences between the "mainstream" cruise lines alone; Norwegian Cruise Line, Carnival and Royal Caribbean, make each of these cruise lines very different experiences. And then all of other cruise lines in the world make for additional cruise options.


So, how do you know which cruise line is for you?


You need to start looking at the differences between cruise lines and decide which aspects of each of the different cruise lines are most important to you personally. For that matter, maybe you should try a more premium cruise line like Princess, Holland America or Celebrity instead.


One of the aspects of cruising that has changed the most is the onboard experience. A relatively new catch phrase in cruising is “the ship as the destination.”  Disney Cruise Line had much to do with creating an experience that enveloped the guest in a carefully-designed onboard environment, but the onboard experience for all of the mainstream cruise lines has been transformed to one where the shipboard activities during the cruise are equal to, if not secondary to, the ports of call and shore tours.


Norwegian Cruise Line also moved the needle by innovating “Free-style Cruising” where one can select from a multitude of dining options each night of the cruise, many of them offering special cuisine at an added price – a concept that initially caused some controversy, but that is now standard on the majority of cruise ships. Free-style also brought relaxed dress codes where formal nights became optional rather than mandatory. Restaurants started offering anytime dining and open seating – no more pre-assigned table mates or wait staff. Soon, all of the cruise lines adopted the standards innovated by Norwegian’s “Free-style” cruising. Norwegian also innovated onboard entertainment, competing with Disney, by offering adult-focused artists from Hollywood and Las Vegas.


Royal Caribbean started building bigger ships – and now sail the biggest in the world on average by far, including the two indisputably largest cruise ships in the world; Oasis of the Seas and Allure of the Seas. These ships offer so much more than a traditional cruise; they have sports features like rock-climbing, zip lining, Flo-riding (simulated surfing) and ice skating. Adding a huge “Royal Promenade” indoor atrium to their mega-ships with parades, nightclubs, 24-hour pizza, ice cream parlors, cupcakes and even Starbucks Coffee made the ship a fun environment. They brought licensed, full-book Broadway shows to their showrooms and an alliance with DreamWorks Animation brought movies like Shrek and their characters to the kids on board.


Carnival Cruise Line, which has always been known as “The Fun Ships,” has recently introduced a whole new initiative called “FunShip 2.0” which includes new family games, comedy clubs and a different style of dining and entertainment presentations in neighborhood settings where many people may go an entire cruise without ever setting foot in the main dining room.


Is Traditional Cruising Gone Forever?


Cruising has definitely changed and the old style of “mandatory formal night” cruising is gone forever – but there are many luxury cruise lines like Crystal, Seabourn, Silversea and Regent where one can enjoy a very refined style of cruising, but not necessarily a rigid one. They offer gourmet cuisine in a refined atmosphere, but also with plenty of flexibility in your onboard and tour activities.


There are also cruise lines that specialize in travel over tradition; Windstar, Oceania and Azamara, with longer itineraries where the ship is in port every day, including some ports where the ship remains for several nights giving the guest a real opportunity to see a special region.


Finally, people who want to experience all of the fine traditions they may have seen in a movie like “Titanic” (without the tragic ending) can still try a trans-Atlantic cruise on Cunard’s Queen Mary 2, the last and largest true ocean liner in existence. A seven-day cruise from Southampton that culminates with a majestic entrance past the Statue of Liberty into New York Harbor harkens the history that makes ocean travel a life-changing experience.


But where do you find this information? Furthermore, how do you know where to find the best bargains on these investments in a lifetime experience? You must read online cruise guides, including ship descriptions and cruise reviews at Also, you must find a good travel agent with real world knowledge and experience in the cruise industry. These people are worth their weight in gold, but will not cost you an extra penny. They act as your advocate in booking a cruise, but their commission comes from the sellers of the travel, not you (the consumer).


Paul Motter is the editor of online cruise guide, and a regular contributor to the travel section.

Follow him on Twitter at or read his articles at