Choosing Cruising: Norwegian vs. Royal Caribbean

Feb 25, 2012 by

In October, I sailed to Bermuda on Norwegian Cruise Line.  It was a very last minute trip, and to be honest, I didn’t even consider which cruise line–or ship–I was on.  I got a great deal and was able to visit a beautiful island.  It was a fantastic trip.

This month, I experienced my first Caribbean cruise, this time on the aptly-named Royal Caribbean.  When booking this trip, I had a choice of two sailings–one on Royal Caribbean and one on Norwegian.  The Norwegian had a more exotic itinerary, but it was significantly more expensive.  Because Royal Caribbean is supposed to be a more luxurious line–and mainly because I’d already done Norwegian, and I hate to repeat things–I booked the Royal Caribbean cruise.

I also planned to write about the difference between the two lines.  After all, what is the point of traveling if not to write about it?

And so, I bring to you my personal opinion on the difference between the two lines.  Which will I sail on again?  You be the judge.

Stateroom

My 'room' on the NCL Gem, as viewed from the doorway.

I had an inside cabin on both the Norwegian Gem (NCL Gem) and Royal Caribbean’s Voyager of the Seas (Voyager).  However, on the VoS, my inside cabin was really a ‘promenade stateroom’, meaning that it had a window looking out over the royal promenade, the center entertainment area on the ship.  While the window did make the room feel less claustrophobic, it also created a bit of a noise issue later in the evenings.  While all of the royal promenade activities ended by 11 p.m., there were times where I would have liked to be sleeping by, say, 9:30.

Far and away, the Voyager’s room was much larger.  There was a whole little sitting area, where my inside cabin on the Gem had only a stool and a corner table.  It was almost hotel-room-like in its size (ok, well a New York City hotel room).  The stateroom on the Gem was definitely a cabin.  I could not picture having more than one person in it at a time.  I’d even kill my husband if I had to spend time with him in that small of a space.

My room on the RCI Voyager of the Seas, complete with towel bat.

However, the NCL Gem had two things going for it that VoS did not.  Number one, the shower was far superior on the Gem.  It was a full sized shower, and not once during the entire cruise did I feel like I was showering on a ship.  I could even shave my legs.  I cannot say the same thing for VoS.  That was like showering in a phone booth.  Strike that–a leaky phone booth.  And number two, my stateroom on the Gem was absolutely silent.  Imagine my surprise when, on the fourth day of the cruise, I saw someone walk out of the stateroom next to mine.  I had been imagining that they were empty, that’s how quiet it was.  In my room on Voyager, I could hear every single thing going on around me.  I don’t typically need absolute silence to fall asleep, but let me tell you–this was loud.

Ship Layout

I’m not going to beat around the bush with this one–the Gem wins this category, hands down.  On the Gem, you feel like you are on a ship.  There are windows everywhere, a forward facing lounge that’s actually forward facing (not facing the pool deck, as on Voyager), a giant wall of windows in the main dining room, and an outdoor seating area on the aft portion of the buffet area.  All of the beauty of this ship lives on the outside–which, thankfully, you can actually see thanks to the copious amounts of windows.

The Royal Promenade on the Voyager. Can you say 'no natural light'?

On Voyager of the Seas, you feel like you are in a mall.  There’s no convenient outdoor seating area (unless you want to sit at some of the few tables off the pool deck), the royal promenade is completely enclosed, and I don’t even think that the main nightclub area has a single window.  The only forward facing lounge area–the Viking Lounge, divided into several little areas, overlooks the pool deck, not the sea.  There are windows in the main dining room, but they are mere portholes.  All of the beauty of this ship lives on the inside.

The Solo Factor

I felt that Norwegian was a much better fit for me, as a solo traveler.  While Royal Caribbean does offer ‘My Time Dining’, all that really means is that you are welcome to make a reservation–in advance–for a seat in a portion of the main dining room.  On Norwegian, Freestyle Dining is a bit more…let’s say ‘free’.  You simply walk up to the podium at any given time and ask for a table for however many may be in your party.  In this manner, if you meet someone–or a group of people–as a solo traveler, it is super easy for them to invite you for dinner.  Not so on Royal Caribbean.  And while I did meet many very nice people at my various My Time Dining tables, I sincerely preferred the set up on Norwegian.  I feel that it made me have a more enjoyable–and much more social–trip.

Bars and Lounges

One of the most noticeable differences between the two lines was the set up of the public spaces.  On the Gem, the bars and lounges mainly seemed kind of generic.  Sure, the sign said ‘champagne bar’, but it really was just a counter right next to the similar ‘martini bar’ and right down from the ‘brew pub’.  On Voyager, the bars and lounges were actual bars and lounges.  There was a piano bar, a pub with ‘outside’ seating in the promenade (which, of course, isn’t actually outside) and a number of other places where one could pull up a seat and grab a drink.  Seriously, there were more bars on Voyager than I’ve ever seen in that small of a space, and this includes Vegas.

However, the one thing that Voyager was missing was the Spinnaker Lounge, which is the forward-facing nightclub I keep talking about on the Gem.  I suppose Cleopatra’s Needle–a mid ship, windowless club–on Voyager was the answer to this public space.  But I did not find it as spacious or as lovely as Spinnaker.

Dining

Enjoying breakfast from the buffet on the Gem--in the outside seating area all the way aft.

The food in the main dining room was better on Royal Caribbean.  This can’t be argued.  In fact, the food in the main dining room on Voyager was better than the food in the specialty restaurants on the Gem.  However, the buffet on Voyager was a bit lacking.  I found the selection was limited–and repetitive.  This goes for breakfast as well as lunch.  Additionally, while I had no problem finding a table at the buffet on the Gem, every single trip to the buffet on Voyager was an exercise in patience (and, often, annoyance–when patience failed).

However, it should be noted that the food was not amazing on either ship.  I don’t know why some people think that cruise food is great–perhaps they’ve just never had actual good food?  The same goes for Disney World (sorry Disney, I still love you!)  While there are some great dishes and some restaurants that are more exciting than others, you’re still eating banquet food.  Really good banquet food, but banquet food just the same.  Perhaps I’m a food snob, but you simply cannot cook for hundreds–or thousands–of people at one time and turn out the kind of meal I’d expect at one of my favorite restaurants, all of which are small enough to cook to order.

Entertainment

The production shows on Voyager were definitely more impressive than the production shows on Gem.  However, I only made it to a few on each sailing, as I’m typically pretty beat by the end of the day.  However, I still feel that NCL wins on the entertainment ticket for one very good reason–Second City.  The improv shows were almost worth the price of the cruise alone.  I attended every single Second City performance, and was never disappointed.

Voyager, on the other hand, features a very unique experience–and ice show.  Yes, that’s right–I said ice show.  On a cruise ship.  I’ve never seen an actual ice skating show before, and I have to admit that it was pretty neat.  And, as an added bonus, it gave me something to do one afternoon on a rather cloudy, windy sea day.

Service

The room steward on the Gem learned my name on day one.  He greeted me every time I saw him in the hallway, which was more than once per day.  I felt like I was being taken care of.

I did not meet anyone that serviced my room on Voyager.  However, my room was kept clean.  So there’s that.

Overall Experience

Dusk in Jamaica from the deck of the Voyager

In case you can’t tell, I much preferred sailing on the Norwegian Gem.  I had more fun, I felt more comfortable, and I generally enjoyed the ship much, much more.  If I had to give one category above the most weight, I’d go with the ‘ship layout’ category.  I just did not like how enclosed I felt on Voyager.  There were some sea days when I didn’t even know if it was rainy or sunny for two hours after waking up.  When I’m at sea, I don’t want to have to ask about–or actively seek out–the weather.  I want to be constantly aware of the fact that we’re sailing across and ocean, gulf, or sea.  This simply was not possible on the giant floating mall that is Voyager of the Seas.

My feelings about Voyager came as a bit of a shock to me, as Royal Caribbean is supposed to be the superior line.  But I really think this kind of thing is subjective.  I’m sure there are people out there who have sailed with both lines and would never consider returning to Norwegian.  Personally, if I’m never on another Royal Caribbean ship, that’s fine with me.  I’d definitely consider returning to Norwegian, solo or with my mother, husband, or any friend that may want to join me.

 

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6 Comments

  1. Chuck

    I’ve only sailed Princess – from what I understand, an entirely different class of ship and clientele. You should try that one next ;)

  2. Laura

    A nicely balanced comparison. I’ve never sailed RC (will this October) but I love NCL and FreeStyle cruising. And the Gem is my favorite ship – far and away the friendliest crew on any ship I’ve ever been on.

  3. Toni

    Very good article- would make a nice submission for some travel magazines. We did an Alaskan cruise with Holland America many, many years ago. Really enjoyed the ship, too. Like you said, I liked knowing that I was on a ship rather than just a floating hotel or mall. Our dining room has wrap-around windows so you had veiws out 3 sides of the room. IT was great for whale and dolphin watching during dinner. And the service was marvelous. I’d love to go on a cruise again, but hubby doesn’t want to- claims he gets sea sick- but I don’t remember that.

  4. Becky

    Good to hear that you liked NCL better! We are sailing them for the first time in September, on the Star. Though I think we’ll like the food no matter what – we’re those people that love both cruise food and Disney food ;) Perhaps it’s because we don’t go out to eat at nice restaurants very often – we save our budget for traveling instead!

  5. Sorry, but this is not a balanced review. You can’t compare driving in a Sedan to a Schoolbus. Nor is it a fair comparison for the age difference of the two ships.

    The Voyager has a far greater passenger capacity, but nearly the same size crew.

    Sounds to me like you just didn’t like the “Voyager Class” ship, but prefer something smaller, which is quite common among cruisers. The “Vision Class” for RCI is similar to the “Jewel Class” that you cruised on with Norwegian.

    When comparing cruise lines, you really can’t have only gone on one of each of their ships and consider it a good comparison.

    • Tracy Antonioli

      You’re right–this isn’t a fair and balanced review. I called it ‘my personal opinion’ in the fourth (mini) paragraph.

      Additionally, you are right that the class of ships is different. I’d love to check out a different class ship on Royal Caribbean and see how that compares to a similarly classed ship on NCL (or any other line). In fact, I’d jump at that chance. And I’m sure I will some day.

      Finally, I did try to sort of take the whole disparity between ships into account by also reviewing things that are common across the board–like service, ‘the solo factor’, dining, and entertainment. Most of those things are not effected by the size of the ship (ok, well maybe entertainment is in a sense).

      I think it just comes down to the fact that different cruise lines appeal to different demographics. I’m clearly the fun, solo traveler. So NCL appeals to me for a variety of reasons. I recently had the privilege of spending two days on board the (ENORMOUS) NCL Breakaway. And I loved it; I’d sail a seven-day itinerary on her–to anywhere. And I’m far more of a destination person than a ship person. So that says a lot. But then I’ve never been on any of Royal’s Oasis class ships. I may well love those. And I may hate the NCL Epic, as I’ve heard that feels a bit enclosed. Until I’ve sailed them all (which would be great, but sadly may never happen) I will never know for sure.

      I’d also like to try an ‘un-cruise’. Now that’s a small ship!

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