If you like to spend your precious leisure hours in a world that is big, brash, and innovative, these are the best of times to vacation at sea.
The cruise business is on a roll. Each year, as many as a dozen new ships slip into the seas, carting hundreds of thousands of vacationers around Europe, the Caribbean, and into the Pacific to Hawaii and Alaska. Each new big ship flaunts inventive diversions - gardens and glassblowing exhibitions, waterslides and zip lines, fancy restaurants and casual buffets with such choices as burritos, tandoori ovens, and Mongolian woks.
The good news is that while cruise ships look similar on the outside, they can be worlds apart on the inside. The result is an array of vacation choices among the most popular mass-marketed brands operated by Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Norwegian, Disney, Holland America, Princess, and Celebrity.
And the best news is that if you are practical and careful with your vacation budget, you can cruise on these ships for about the same price you paid for a cruise 10 years ago. Not many vacation choices can say that.
Which brings us back to big.
The price of efficiency is size. All of the most popular cruise lines have chosen to go big with their newest ships - from Royal Caribbean's gigantic Oasis of the Seas to the Carnival Dream, Holland America's Eurodam, Celebrity's Solstice series, the Norwegian Epic (debuting in June), and the Princess fleet that has been popping huge new vessels into the ocean at a furious pace since 1998.
Cruise companies keep trotting out bigger ships because of the economies of scale; they hold more passengers to divvy up the basic costs of added activities. On today's big ships, you will be sharing your vacation home with at least 2,100 of your closest friends on the Eurodam, or as many as a small town - 6,000 or more - on Oasis of the Seas.
One saving grace, should you want some exclusivity and are willing to double or triple your vacation costs, is the choice of special cabins with additional services and amenities: butlers, a concierge, private dining rooms and sunning areas. Norwegian Cruise Line first marketed the idea of a ship within a ship. Other lines offer suite and concierge levels and specially equipped cabins built around a spa. On some ships, you could cruise for a week without mixing with regular passengers except in the restaurants. Plus, there's always room service.
Here's a look at the style and activities on some of the new biggies:
If you have cruised on Carnival, you know the basics of the new Dream. Dining-room waiters sing and dance with passengers, who gather on deck for all sorts of contests, including the weekly Men's Hairy Chest competition. You may get tired of hearing the word fun aboard Carnival ships. But fun is the agenda. You'll find action around the pools, on the dance floors, in the bars, and in the new comedy club, which is packed for every show.
The Dream is less flashy than Carnival's neon-lit older ships - designer Joe Farkas said he didn't really have a theme for the Dream. The ship offers bigger and better waterslides, a laser show, an impressive lanai that wraps around Deck 5, cove balcony cabins only three decks above the water, a snazzy Serenity sunning area for adults only (at no extra charge), and a lunch buffet with the most choices at sea.
The Dream began cruising seven-nights into the Caribbean in December, out of Port Canaveral, Fla. It holds 3,646 passengers at two to a cabin, but up to 4,631 with a shipload of kids. Next comes the Dream's sister, Carnival Magic, next year.
Oasis of the Seas
Royal Caribbean's grand behemoth is unlike any other ship, though its sister, Allure of the Seas, is scheduled to debut in December. I suspect that most cruisers, no matter what cruise line they prefer, will want to sail on this ship at least once.
Critics have called it a floating Mall of America, but Oasis of the Seas is far more than a mall. It's the first cruise ship you may decide to stay aboard during its entire seven-night voyage into the Caribbean from Fort Lauderdale. How else will you try all of the restaurants (25 places to eat including a 10-course tasting menu by chef Keriann Von Raesfeld), drink at every watering hole (37, including a bar that rises and falls two decks in about the time it takes to drink half a beer), hook up to the zip line, fall off a water board on the FlowRider, climb a rock wall, ice skate, watch an ice-skating show, listen to the bands, attend performances in both a dazzling indoor theater and an outdoor AquaTheater with a diving platform 72 feet high, ride a handsome handcrafted carousel with 200 lightbulbs, dawdle at the cupcake cupboard ($2.50 each), and walk the mall? And there's more.
Its 2,700 passenger cabins house 6,296 beds. With crew, this ship can sail with more than 8,400 people aboard.
Celebrity Solstice and Equinox
Celebrity stakes its reputation on style and food. The ships sport a sophisticated, contemporary design, fine-art collections, and a group of specialty restaurants that have drawn raves from critics and passengers.
Restaurants charge about $50 per night, on average, per couple, though passengers can eat well at no extra charge in the main dining room.
Celebrity is considered a "premium" cruise line, a step above the large first wave of mainstream cruise ships - Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Norwegian, Costa, Disney, and MSC - and a step below the luxury ships operated by Silversea, Regent Seven Seas, Seabourn, and Sea Dream. Celebrity's premium competitors are Holland America, Princess, Oceania, and Celebrity's own Azamara.
"Some ships have six items on their menu in the main dining room; we have 12," says Jacques Van Staden, Celebrity's vice president of culinary operations. "There is no land-based operation in the world that does what we do. We have 31 new menu items every day for 14 days. And everything is from scratch every day."
Celebrity Solstice and Equinox, cruising out of South Florida this winter, carry 2,850 passengers at two to a cabin. The next ship, Eclipse, is scheduled to arrive in Europe next month.
Coming this summer, the Epic will be nearly double the size of NCL's other ships, with a capacity of 4,200 passengers. The Epic is designed for innovation, with cabin walls that curve; studio cabins for single travelers, arranged around a crash-pad living room; no main dining room, but 20 places to eat; entertainment from the Blue Man Group and Legends in Concert; a rappelling wall; and an Ice Bar, where you will drink from ice and be surrounded by ice, even in the Caribbean.
The downside of big ships is crowds, which you will find occasionally at elevators, and nearly always at the entrances to shows and to main dining rooms at standard seating times.
To avoid crowds, the savvy cruiser plans ahead. Arrive at dining rooms five to eight minutes after the seating hour, and scout out deck chairs in nooks and crannies and on decks other than the ones around the pools.
Thanks to computers, you can book your shore excursions at home on the cruise line Web site. On gigantic ships such as Oasis of the Seas, it's best to book ahead your visits to the spa and to the smaller specialty restaurants.
Cruise lines have done a good job of getting people on and off the new big ships, usually in no more time than the same drill on older ships. I recommend arriving at the embarkation hour that ships open for check-in and leaving the ship at the latest hour allowed. I prefer to wait while sitting with a coffee and a book.
Aboard ship, expect the biggest crowds on sea days - when ships are not in port - around the pool and in the buffet restaurants that are typically top deck aft. That's a good day to eat lunch in a main dining room. If you choose the buffet restaurant, do not be shy about asking to share a table with an inside window or outside sea view. You may make a new friend.
How should you choose your behemoth?
As cruise lines build bigger ships, some - Carnival, Holland America, Princess, Disney, and Celebrity - stay close to their traditional style, while others - Royal Caribbean and Norwegian - are setting new courses. On Oasis of the Seas, innovation was a big piece of the design, adding activities such as the first zip line at sea. The Norwegian Epic promises to take cruisers where they have never been.
You may want to consult a travel agent before booking a cruise. Travel agents who specialize in cruises offer prices just as good as those on any Web site. They will tell you, for instance, that you can save money by booking an older ship, and they can steer you to a cruise line, a ship, and a cabin that will provide the experience you are looking for.
Tell the agent what you like to do, such as eat a lot or eat well, go to the mall, hibernate, or play games and socialize.
Do you gamble? Look for adventure? Do you want to attend lectures or a Hairy Chest contest? Will you enjoy mixing with foreigners and hearing unfamiliar tongues, or would you prefer other Americans and hearing only dialects of English?
Each of those may take you in a different direction.
Or, you could roll the dice. For best price, start with Carnival, Royal Caribbean, or Norwegian. Have a good time - almost all cruisers do - then switch lines for the next trip, and switch again for the third. Then move up a notch in price.
Try them all. That should take a while, and by then, a whole new fleet will be ready for boarding.
David G. Molyneaux is editor of TheTravelMavens.com.
Cruise Lines and Their Big Ships
Oasis of the Seas
Solstice and Equinox
Norwegian Cruise Line
Magic and Wonder
Ruby Princess www.princess.com