How to pick the best cruise cabin

Cruise ship cabins get a bad rap for being tiny, cramped spaces with little to no natural light. On my first cruise in 1994, my family of four tripped over each other in a tiny Royal Caribbean inside stateroom, and more recently, a friend and I essentially slept on mattresses on the floor in our windowless easyCruise cabin.

Generally speaking, though, unlivable onboard accommodations are the exception rather than the rule. The newest ships sport luxurious suites (some bigger than my apartment!), and even the lowest-category cabins have received upgraded mattresses and bedding. In order to compete with hotels and resorts, the cruise lines are pulling out all the stops to make their cabins attractive places to stay.

Best overall cabins

Norwegian and Regent Seven Seas Cruises take top honors for best overall deluxe cabins, while Carnival and Holland America win for best standard cabins. "NCL's assortment of garden, courtyard, and family suites on their newest ships show the most original designs and decor," says Paul Motter, editor of CruiseMates. "These suites are bigger and better equipped than most luxury ship suites." Many of these suites have separate living and dining areas and access to private courtyards with pools and hot tubs. Regent Seven Seas gets high praise for the Mariner and Voyager with their all-suite, all-outside cabins.

On the affordable side, Carnival wins for consistency across its standard cabins. "Carnival's standard cabins are larger than average and well-equipped," says Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor of Cruise Critic. Even the lowest-category inside cabins are more spacious than the same room on competing lines. Motter praises Holland America cabins for "averaging 25% larger than those of other premium cruise lines, [like] Princess and Celebrity." He also cites the fleetwide "Signature of Excellence" upgrades for making all cabins more comfortable.

Best inside cabin

Some people think inside cabins are never good, but experts agree that some are better than others. Favorites include Carnival, Disney Cruise Line, and Royal Caribbean. Carnival wins again for its spaciousness, and Disney stands out for its friendliness to families. The Deluxe Inside Stateroom can sleep four with a convertible sofa and pull-down Murphy-style bed and makes bedtime ablutions easier with a split bath.

The inside Promenade staterooms on Royal Caribbean's Voyager- and Freedom-class ships also receive high marks. These cabins have windows that look out on the Royal Promenade, which Brown acknowledges "is a clever way to deal with [an inside cabin]." For the most space, go for the Promenade Family Stateroom, which can sleep six in its 300-square-foot accommodations.

Best balconies

No room with a private balcony can be all that bad, but certain balcony cabins definitely wow guests more than others. For an affordable option, choose a back-of-the-ship balcony cabin on Holland America or Carnival. Without needing to upgrade to a suite, you'll get an extra-long balcony with views over the stern of the ship.

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