The Step-by-Step Guide to Picking a Cruise Ship Cabin
One of the reasons we love cruising is the almost endless choices, from entertainment to restaurants to leisure activities. But when it comes to booking a cabin, the choices can sometimes feel overwhelming. Even the largest resorts have a clearly organized hierarchy of rooms and suites, but a single cruise ship can have more than 30 different cabin categories.
Most cruise lines’ websites include floor plans and square footage of the various cabin categories, and deck plans for their ships. Generally, there are four basic types of cabins: inside (119-220 square feet), outside (122-220 square feet), balcony (138-198 square feet, plus a 35- to 55-square-foot balcony), and suites, which are usually larger — some as big as 5,000 square feet.
The four main cabin types: (clockwise from top left) inside, ocean view, suite, and balcony. - Photo by Cruiseline.com
Beyond these basic types, cabin subcategories are a bewildering thicket of floor plans and descriptions. Cabins are sold double occupancy, which means — unless you’re booking one of the rare “single” cabins — prices are per person with the assumption that two people will be staying in the room. (Staying in a double cabin by yourself will incur a single supplement, which can be costly.)
So when you’re trying to select your cabin, how do you choose? Begin by asking yourself the following questions to narrow down your options and hone in on the one that’s right for you:
For a quick overview, check out our video on choosing the best cruise ship cabin.
1. How much time will I spend in the room?
Balcony cabins are slightly larger than ocean views. - Photo by MSC Cruises
Determine what you want to get out of your cruise. Your cabin stays the same no matter how many ports of call you visit, so it’s important to be comfortable. Part of your decision should be based on the square footage and how much room you need to be content. City dwellers who are used to small apartments are less likely to feel claustrophobic in a small cabin than those used to much more space.
Also, consider how you’ll actually use your cabin: If you’re bringing a stack of novels and plan to hole up in your stateroom in the afternoon and every evening after dinner, space matters more than if you plan on spending all your time by the pool during the day and out dancing at night.
2. Is saving money the priority?
Norwegian's studio cabins are budget-friendly, especially for solo travellers. - Photo by Norwegian Cruise Line
Inside cabins have no views and are therefore cheaper than outside cabins, which have portholes, windows, or balconies. There are times when saving money with an inside cabin makes sense. “They can be good for quick vacations — two- or three-day sailings when you won’t be in your cabin much,” says Dave Change, a vice president at Carnival Cruise Line.
If you’re never in your cabin, then natural light and views might not be so important. “And families often book them, with the parents in the outside cabin and their kids in the cabin across the hall,” Change says. There are also inside spa staterooms that include amenities and features that a guest wouldn’t have access to in a lower-deck, ocean view cabin.
And while these remain the least expensive choice for good reason, some lines have also gotten creative with their designs. Case in point: Some Disney Cruise Line cabins have family-friendly portholes with cartoons superimposed on live feeds of what’s outside, and Royal Caribbean International has installed 80-inch, floor-to-ceiling flat-panel screens that show real-time footage in some of their inside rooms on Navigator of the Seas. In addition, Royal Caribbean’s interior Central Park View and Boardwalk View staterooms overlook central open-air promenades running through the core of the ship. They are so popular that the line is planning to add them to other Voyager-class ships as well.
3. Do I need a full view?
Just because there's a window in your room doesn't mean it will be easy to look out of it. - Photo by Princess Cruises
As you move up the price list, you’ll see that some outside cabins have obstructed or partially obstructed views. A fully obstructed view may mean that the cabin faces machinery or a lifeboat. For example, Carnival has obstructed-view balconies where the lifeboat is at the level of your balcony railing. A partial view could also mean that part of a lifeboat is in your line of vision, and sometimes the obstruction can only be seen when looking down from the balcony.
“The terminology and actual obstruction varies by ship or cruise line,” says Debbie Devine, owner of Cruise Planners. “But these staterooms generally offer a great value if a guest is willing to compromise. Some guests would prefer to save money by having a less desirable view but still have fresh air and sunlight.”
4. Do I need outdoor space?
Baloncies are the perfect way to relax in the fresh air without dealing with the crowds. - Photo by Norwegian Cruise Line
It’s no surprise that balconies always come at a premium, since they have a veranda you can step out onto, and cruisers use this for everything from drinking morning coffee to watching the sunset.
The degree of privacy on balconies varies widely from ship to ship, so if that’s important to you, do your research before you choose your location. Often, past passengers comment about privacy issues in their reviews. Luckily, we have a new feature even allows you to see reviews by people who have stayed in specific cabin numbers. If you get stuck you can always pick up the phone and call your cruise line.
Aft-facing balconies are popular for their dramatic views of the sea over the stern of the ship and for their larger size, but be aware that those verandas often have privacy concerns. The balconies are stepped out, one jutting out below the one above, so your balcony is in full view of all the other aft-facing balconies above it. Some of them are also in view of the public decks or restaurants. (Our advice: Keep your robe on in these spaces.)
5. Does anyone in my party smoke?
Carnival allows smoking on their balconies. - Photo by Carnival Cruise Line
On ships where you’re allowed to smoke on the balcony, smokers find the obstructed view option appealing, too, as it’s the least expensive way to get private outdoor space. It’s important to note that Carnival and Norwegian Cruise Line allow passengers to smoke on their balconies, while Royal Caribbean and Disney do not.
6. What part of the ship will I visit the most?
These cabins have easy access to the pool, but don't book them if you're a light sleeper. - Photo by Cruiseline.com
It’s important to ask yourself what facilities you’ll use most often: Will you be using the kids club? Do you expect to spend sea days by the pool? Do you plan on going out every night? Agent Linda Allen of Cruises by Linda advises looking at the plan for not only the deck your cabin is on, but also to estimate the distance from your cabin to the places you’ll spend your time, as well as to the elevator.
7. Do any cabin categories offer additional amenities?
A cabin category on a luxury line like Crystal will come with more amenities than a similar category on a mainstream line. - Photo by Crystal Cruises
There are also some “hidden gems,” as Carnival’s Change calls them, on various ships, pointing to the 6N category on Carnival Dream, Carnival Magic, and Carnival Breeze. They are like most ocean view rooms except for one bonus: a second bathroom. One bathroom has a sink and a toilet, and the other has a sink and tub-shower combo. For a family traveling together, the fact that two people can get ready before dinner at the same time can be a valuable perk.
In addition, Carnival’s Spirit-class ships have obstructed inside staterooms that are actually obstructed ocean view rooms with French doors that open. “The price point on those is generally very good, and the midship location is nice as well,” says Cruise Planners’ Devine. “Carnival and Royal Caribbean ships also have some staterooms with unusually large balconies that I always look for.”
8. How mobile are those in my party?
Booking a cabin near the elevators means more noise but less walking. - Photo by Cruiseline.com
For some passengers, cutting down the time spent walking to and from your cabin is a necessity. Parents with strollers, some older travelers, and people with disabilities will find proximity to the elevators key in avoiding long walks down nearly interminable hallways and the obstacle course of service carts.
“Senior passengers or anyone with limited mobility may want to check ship plans online to determine how far their cabin is from the elevators,” confirms Change.
9. Is there a way to save money once I choose?
An ocean view cabin on Celebrity. - Photo by Celebrity Cruises
A guaranteed stateroom is the least expensive way to book a cabin on a sailing. It means you’re promised a room in a category, but you yield control over which stateroom you’re assigned. Guests are sometimes upgraded to a higher category altogether — say, from an inside to an ocean view — but you also risk getting a less-than-optimum location.
10. Does it matter what side of the ship I’m on?
Book a cabin on the wrong side of the ship, and you wont have much to look at from your balcony. - Photo by Holland America Line
On some routes, such as Alaska and Mediterranean cruises, the view is a larger part of the experience: You may want to spend a whole morning, for example, watching whales breach and blow, or admiring the scenery as you pull into Venice.
Just be warned that although there’s no premium, you may need to book early: On a northbound Alaska cruise, for example, cabins on the port and starboard sides are the same price, but the starboard side can sell out 15 to 18 months before the less desirable side.
11. Do I get seasick easily?
Some of Royal Caribbean's inside cabins have been equipped with "virtual balconies." - Photo by Royal Caribbean
If someone in your group is prone to seasickness, look for a midship cabin. If a ship hits rough seas, these cabins tend to experience the least motion. Also, if you’re booking an inside cabin, consider one with a virtual porthole or balcony. “It has been said that because the view is in sync with the ship’s movement, you won’t feel sick,” says Cruise Planners’ Devine.
12. How sensitive are we to noise?
These cabins on deck 9 may look secluded, but they're directly under the Lido Marketplace on deck 10. - Photo by Cruiseline.com
You should also look at the decks above and below the cabin you’re considering to determine what noise issues may impact your stateroom. Every ship has certain areas to avoid. You may not choose, for example, to be below the pool — sleeping through the power washing and daily deck-chair stacking can be a challenge — or above a show lounge or nightclub, particularly if you’re traveling with children who go to sleep early or any light sleepers.
13. If getting more than one cabin, how close do I want them?
You can fit a whole family in one room, but it's going to be tight. - Photo by Cruiseline.com
The age of your traveling companions and the size of your group will affect what type of cabins you want and where they’re located. For a group of old friends traveling together, several cabins near each other may be sufficient, but if you’re cruising with older kids, you’re probably considering connecting cabins, which are generally less expensive than a suite.
However, sometimes two connecting obstructed view staterooms might be the same price as one suite. The major advantages of two interconnecting rooms over a typical junior suite are the additional bathroom and television. Holland America Line has a variety of interconnecting room options, while Norwegian Cruise Line’s selection is more limited; families on Princess Cruises will largely have to choose a suite instead.
For some families, cabins across the hall from each other may be a better option — giving older kids a sense of their own space, while still being close to their parents.
When price or availability prevents large groups from booking on the same deck, try to book all cabins as close as possible vertically. “If they need to be on different decks, I try to keep them around the same staircase or elevator. It can be very hard to connect with people if they are on opposite ends of the ship,” says Devine.
14. Is the concierge level right for me?
Haven suites on Norwegian ships come with access to a private courtyard. - Photo by Norwegian Cruise Line
Increasingly, mainstream cruise lines are offering concierge areas, which sometimes function as a ship within a ship. Special services might include a dedicated lounge, priority boarding and reservations at restaurants, additional help booking shore excursions, or even a pillow menu; some lines also provide a special continental breakfast and cocktail hour — like you might find in a hotel’s concierge lounge — or even a dedicated restaurant.
15. Am I willing to splurge on a suite?
A suite on Silver Spirit. - Photo by Silversea
Suites are larger than staterooms, sometimes — but not always — with a separate sleeping area, and come with additional amenities, such as an in-cabin whirlpool tub or access to private areas.
Spa suites, too, are increasingly common, generally with Asian-influenced décor that has a sleeker, more contemporary look. These suites often include discounts on spa services or special access to the spa area. Cruises by Linda’s Allen often steers couples that are on sailings popular with families to spa suites, where the additional privacy is appreciated.
And then there are the top-tier suites, which can take a mass-market ship and up the price — and the experience — toward the luxury level. Norwegian’s Haven suites, for example, have their own separate pool and lounge. So how much is this upgrade? Prices vary greatly depending on inventory, so if this is a splurge you’re considering, compare a variety of dates before booking.
16. How to choose an agent that can help you pick a cabin:
Another route to finding the right cabin is to turn this task over to a cruise travel specialist who can guide you through the options. A good specialist’s role will go beyond simply deciphering the various cabin configurations and categories. Choose an agency that specializes in your line, and they can share their knowledge of the pluses and minuses of various cabin categories.
Many cruise lines have a travel agent locator on their websites. You can also look to see if they’ve taken part in a reputable training program, such as Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), and have accreditation.
Experienced cruise travel agents know about new ships being launched and tour them before they start booking cruises on them. The agents get a preview of new cabins and staterooms, as well as new gadgets, amenities, and services.
A specialist will also monitor promotions, watch for opportunities for upgrade offers and price reductions, and suggest the best time to travel. “I can combine past guest benefits with current promotions to give clients the biggest bang for their buck,” says Debbie Devine, owner of Cruise Planners. “And we often have group rates, special perks, or other special promotions made available to us.”
There are additional benefits, too: Linda Allen of Cruises by Linda describes her role as being as much a social worker as a travel agent. She gets clients to consider, for example, whether they could sleep through the night with their kids in a room with a balcony and how many bathrooms their family needs.
This article includes reporting by John Newton.