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.
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.
For a truly decadent balcony, you'll need to splurge on a truly decadent suite. Silversea's Owner's Suites get rave reviews from Linda Coffman, the Cruise Diva. "The Owner's Suites are simply gorgeous," she says. "With such an enormous balcony, you can have a cocktail party out there." Motter casts his vote for the Penthouse Suites on Celebrity's Millennium-class ships. The veranda is nearly as big as the interior part of the stateroom.
Again, you can't go wrong when booking a suite. But on today's cruise ships, a mini-suite is a far cry from an over-the-top, bigger-than-a-New-York-apartment suite. For luxury lines, Cunard's Queen Mary 2 and Silversea lead the pack, and for mainstream lines, Norwegian boasts suites that can compete with the most expensive lines.
Silversea's Owner's and Grand Suites have multiple bedrooms, walk-in closets, whirlpool tubs, and private balconies. The suite Brown stayed in on the Silver Whisper had a full dining table, a marble bathroom, and was bigger than the house she lived in at the time.
Coffman describes the penthouse suites on the QM2 as "unbelievable" and "very posh"—especially the duplexes with circular staircases in them. Brown adored her Queen Anne Suite because even if it wasn't a duplex, it was right at the front of the ship and had its own butler. Guests in these luxury suites have privileged access to the Queen's Grill restaurant.
To experience luxurious accommodations on a mass-market line, book one of Norwegian's Garden Villa Suites. The 4,390-square-foot suite includes a living room with baby grand piano, dining room, three separate bedrooms with private balconies (the master balcony has a hot tub), and access to a private courtyard area with pool, hot tub, and sundeck.
The experts I spoke with unanimously claimed that Oceania has the best beds at sea. The line's Tranquility Beds feature Euro Top mattresses, plush duvets, goose-down pillows, and Egyptian cotton linens. According to Coffman, Oceania was at the forefront of the cruise-line trend toward upgraded bedding. She says the beds "are so comfortable that they're absolutely heaven."
Carnival is the runner-up in this category with its Carnival Comfort Bed.
In their rush to upgrade their beds, many cruise lines have overlooked their bathrooms. According to Brown, these prefabricated units tend to be made of molded plastic and have horrible lighting. Guests typically have to look to the more luxurious cabins in order to find the nicest lavatories.
Crystal excels where many other cruise lines have failed. The bathrooms in its suites have separate tubs and showers and fancy bath products. Motter mentions a particular Penthouse suite whose bathroom included a treadmill, Jacuzzi tub, and bidet. Luxury line runners-up include SeaDream's multi-head massage showers and Regent's marble bathrooms with double vanities.
For those of us booking standard cabins, we don't have to be resigned to restroom purgatory. Norwegian's newest ships get brownie points for their three-sectioned bathrooms with the sink area in the middle and separate toilet and shower sections on either side. Disney, as mentioned earlier, also gets notice for its split bathrooms, which make it easier for several family members to get ready for dinner or bed at the same time.
Best closets and storage space
All cruise lines need to be savvy about storage space, especially in the smaller cabins. But a few go above and beyond to make accessing your formalwear, beachwear, and resort casual attire a breeze. Kudos go to Regent Seven Seas and Silversea for their walk-in closets. The large storage spaces include drawers, shelves, and places for shoes, as well as a hanging section. For his and hers dressing areas, Motter likes the Windstar suites that are essentially two staterooms with part of the dividing wall taken down.
In the mainstream category, Princess takes home the prize for its faux walk-in closets. On its newest ships, the cruise line created a kind of anteroom, featuring a full closet and the door to the bathroom. "It makes the room feel grander [to have a walk-in closet] and makes the hallway seem not so narrow," says Brown. Plus, you don't run into the trouble of not being able to exit the bathroom when your travelmate leaves the closet doors open.
Your cabin is your vacation home and private onboard sanctuary. If you want your stay to be superlative, consider booking one of the cabins mentioned above. A little luxury can go a long way toward making your travels wonderful.
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