Norwegian vs. Royal Caribbean: Smackdown!

royal caribbean ncl norwegian best cruise
Which fast-paced line is best for you? - Photo by Norwegian Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean International

We take a look at two behemoths of the cruising industry, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Cruise Line, and compare them in a Cruiseline.com Smackdown!

Highlights

Norwegian Cruise Highlights:

Norwegian is known for their lack of traditional scheduled dining times, and were the pioneers in coining the term "Freestyle" dining. Their ships offer a more sophisticated atmosphere without sacrificing family-friendly amenities, truly offering something for every cruiser. Those with extra money to spend will find an upscale home in The Haven, an exclusive ‘ship within a ship’ space filled with spacious suites and its own private amenities including a pool, restaurant, lounge, and more. Solo travelers who are weary of the single supplement fee will appreciate Norwegian’s studio cabins.

  • Norwegian is known for their high-quality entertainment, both in their resident Broadway-style shows as well as with guest entertainers who perform magic, comedy, acrobatics and more.
  • To fully experience all of the cutting-edge amenities that are offered on a Norwegian ship, such as go-karting or the adults-only Vibe Beach Club sundeck, you’ll have to pay extra on top of your cruise fare. The vast majority of cruise lines are not all-inclusive, but vacationers may find that they have to swipe their cruise card even more while on a Norwegian sailing. 
  • A vast array of dining options are available on most of Norwegian’s ships, ranging from Brazilian and French to Italian, Mexican, and more. Foodies that are willing to pay extra for a specialty dining experience will be especially satisfied with the variety. A money saving tip: purchase a dining package to save some cash on these specialty dining experiences.

Royal Caribbean Highlights:

The top cruise line for adrenaline junkies and adventure seekers alike, Royal Caribbean’s approach to cruising could be described as “go big or go home.” While some of the older ships in their fleet are smaller (if you can call a ship with 3,000 passengers “small”), most of their new vessels easily hold upwards of 5,000 passengers on every sailing, and four of the top five largest ships in the world fly the Royal Caribbean flag.

  • New Royal Caribbean ships come with so many onboard activities, entertainment, and dining options, you literally may not be able to experience all of it during a 7-night sailing.
  • Royal Caribbean continues to uphold its reputation as the leader of onboard entertainment, with nearly all of its ships boasting its signature rock climbing wall and surf simulators. The newer ships come with even more onboard adventures like zip lines, sky-diving simulators, and enormous water slides. You might get overwhelmed by the amount of offerings on Royal’s ships, but you will never, ever be bored.
  • Royal’s Oasis-class ships continue to be among the top-rated ships on Cruiseline.com, and their newest ship, Symphony of the Seas, has absolutely dominated our Members’ Choice awards for the past two years.
  • Royal Caribbean is a great option for outgoing and adventurous families, couples, and singles, but unless you're sailing one of their smaller, older ships, it's not the best line for travelers looking for a low-key getaway.

 

Prices

Norwegian Cruise Prices:

On average, Norwegian’s prices are comparable with Royal’s. As with most cruise lines, older ships and less popular itineraries may be priced lower per night than newer ships and highly sought-after itineraries. 

  • For older ships and less popular routes, Norwegian can be slightly cheaper than Royal but again, very similar overall. 
  • Inside cabins on short sailings to the Bahamas are consistently available for less than $60/night, per person.
  • If you want to try out a new ship or exotic itinerary without breaking the bank, look for a one-way or repositioning cruise, or a voyage at the beginning or end of a season for that region such as Alaska in May or September. The shoulder season sailings are less popular, and are priced at lower rates accordingly. 

Royal Caribbean Prices:

While it’s possible to find good deals on Royal Caribbean sailings, it’s less common for their newer ships and the best prices will almost always be on the smaller, older ones. For newer ships, their price point is a bit higher than Norwegian’s.

  • Royal’s older ships sail short Caribbean and Bahamas itineraries, but these ships don’t have the new, cutting-edge amenities Royal has become known for over the past decade.
  • It’s possible to find good deals for their top ships like Oasis and Allure of the Seas, (think inside cabins from about $70/night per person and balcony cabins from $100/night), but sailing during high-demand times of year will generally cost more.

 

Our Pick: Norwegian — In comparison of base fares, you’ll find cheaper sailings on Norwegian’s older ships than on Royal Caribbean’s similar sailings, and more often see the larger, newer ships priced under $90 per night which rarely occurs on Royal’s largest ships.

 

Itineraries

Norwegian Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean itineraries are very comparable when it comes to the regions they sail; they both operate in just about all the same destinations. They also both have a large number of extended 12+ night sailings, but Royal tends to top out at itinerary lengths of about 18 nights, while Norwegian has a handful that are 20 nights or longer. 

 

Our Pick: Draw — you probably won’t find an itinerary on Norwegian that Royal doesn’t sail, and vice versa. And while Norwegian has some longer itineraries, there’s so few that it isn’t enough for us to recommend them over Royal Caribbean (unless you plan on taking a cruise three weeks or longer). 

 

Cabins

Norwegian Cruise Cabins:

Across their fleets, Norwegian and Royal Caribbean offer similar standard cabins in both size and amenities. Bathrooms are standard sized and laid out nicely, and on newer ships, the line has moved away from shower curtains in favor of curved glass doors which makes taking a shower easier since you aren’t getting tangled in a shower curtain. 

  • Several Norwegian ships include spa cabins, which offer complimentary access to the spa’s thermal suite and zen-inspired decor exclusive to these cabins. 
  • Norwegian is known for their studio cabins, which allow solo travelers to have a room designed especially for them, without paying the dreaded single supplement fee.

What really sets Norwegian apart is their ‘ship within a ship’ area (mentioned previously), called The Haven. 

  • Suites in The Haven are the definition of luxury, and come in a variety of spacious sizes and layouts. Their largest offerings include a three-bedroom villas with separate living and dining areas and massive outdoor balconies.
  • Bathrooms are especially well thought-out, lacking a boxy ‘one-size-fits-all’ feeling that you’ll find in standard cabins. Marble surfaces, double vanities, and even separate bathtubs can be found in The Haven suite bathrooms. 

Royal Caribbean Cabins:

Along with Norwegian, Royal’s cabins are fairly standard, and you’ll find that newer ships may  offer a little additional space. One thing that Royal tends to have trouble with are narrow showers in the bathrooms, so be sure to research this for any particular ship if you’re thinking about sailing Royal Caribbean. 

  • A unique feature that Royal Caribbean offers for some interior rooms is a virtual balcony — a balcony-sized screen that displays the view off that side of the ship in real-time. It’s a neat concept and may help interior cabins feel less isolated. 
  • Another element that sets Royal apart is the sheer variety of suites that are offered on their newer vessels. For example, Oasis and Quantum class ships offer some suites with two-story, glass-walled loft suites complete with a separate living room. 
  • Other unique staterooms that are a bit more budget-friendly include spa cabins similar to Norwegian’s, which are new to Royal Caribbean. These cabins come with upgraded toiletries, discounted spa treatments, daily coffee and tea, and more. But pointedly missing is complimentary access to the thermal suite, which is a big miss in our opinion. 
 

Our Pick: Norwegian — While Royal has an astounding variety of cabins to choose from, we can’t ignore the luxury that’s offered in The Haven on Norwegian, or the fact that their spa cabins include access to the thermal suite (while Royal Caribbean’s do not).

 

Dining

Norwegian Cruise Dining:

Norwegian pioneered the “freestyle dining” concept, meaning that you won’t find a set time dinner seating anywhere on the ship. 

  • Freestyle dining proves flexibility for those who don’t want to be constrained by a schedule each night, however it does have its own set of cons. The first is that during the busiest dining hour, you may have a bit of a wait before you will be seated (just like at a landside restaurant). The second is that you will likely have a different team of servers each night, so they will never get to know you and your dietary needs and preferences.
  • It’s worth noting that if you would like to have a dinner schedule without waiting, you can make dinner reservations in advance with Norwegian. You can also ask to be seated in a specific server’s section at the time you make the reservation, but it won’t be guaranteed. 
  • As far as other dining options, Norwegian impresses with variety across the fleet — even with their smaller and older ships. The drawback is the fact that the majority are specialty restaurants, meaning you’ll have to pay extra to enjoy them. But if that isn’t a concern, there’s a menu onboard to suit everyone’s fancy. Specialty restaurants include La Cucina with Italian fare, Moderno Churrascaria — the line’s take on a Brazilian steakhouse, hibachi-style dining at Teppanyaki, and Q Texas Smokehouse, a barbecue venue on newer vessels complete with live music. 
  • Those looking for other included dining options besides the main dining rooms will enjoy the ship’s buffet, as well as O’Sheehan’s/The Local (similar venues; one or the other can be found on every ship except Pride of America), a casual sit-down restaurant that’s generally in the atrium and open 24/7. 
  • The sit-down restaurant dress code is smart casual, and Norwegian does have their own take on optional formal nights, aptly called “Dress-Up or Not Night.”

Royal Caribbean Dining:

The newest Royal Caribbean ships have so many specialty restaurants, you won’t be able to eat at all of them on a 7-night sailing. This might be disappointing for cruisers who like to experience everything a ship has to offer, but the upside is that there’s a great selection to choose from.

  • Just like Norwegian, Royal Caribbean offers My Time Dining, where passengers who are signed up for it are not constrained by set dinner times and can eat when they want. However, the line also does offer traditional set time dining with multiple seatings to choose from, which will appeal to those who want a more traditional experience with the same servers each night.
  • Top specialty choices include rustic Italian fare from celebrity Chef Jamie Oliver at Jamie’s Italian, traditional American steakhouse favorites at Chops Grille, Japanese cuisine at Izumi, whimsical fare at the Alice-inspired Wonderland restaurant, modern Mexican dishes at Sabor (with guacamole prepared tableside!), and ice cream and candy at Sugar Beach. These all showcase Royal’s culinary boldness and desire to take onboard dining to the next level.
  • For those looking for something quick and simple, several Royal Caribbean ships have pizzerias, doughnut shops, and hot dog stands; and most also include Johnny Rockets diners complete with milkshakes and a ketchup smiley face. 
  • There is generally one formal night per cruise where passengers are asked to dress up for dinner. As always, those who want to stay casual can enjoy the evening meal in the buffet. 
 

Our Pick: Royal Caribbean — While both lines have a great array of dining options to choose from, Royal Caribbean has a lot more variety, offers set times for those who want them, and has a better selection of complimentary venues. 

 

Activities

Norwegian Cruise Activities:

On newer ships, Norwegian Cruise Line has been stepping up their game as far as unique onboard activities go with the debut of the go-kart track on Norwegian Bliss, Joy, and Encore, as well as the permanent laser tag arenas on the same vessels. 

  • Many Norwegian ships offer the heart-pounding ‘walk-the-plank’ experience, ropes courses, mini golf, and rock walls, and vessels built since 2013 also include some form of a water park. 
  • Those that don’t want to give up on their exercise routines will find a basketball court (which can be converted to play other sports) on most of their ships as well as a fitness center with treadmills, ellipticals, stationary bikes, weight equipment, and more. Fitness classes are also available. 
  • Passengers who wish to enjoy a slower pace to their cruise day are likely to be spotted at the casino, any one of the numerous lounges and bars with live music and group activities, various hot tubs around the ship, or the spa — complete with treatments, massages, and the relaxing thermal suite. Depending on the ship, the thermal suite might even include a panoramic view of the ocean. 

Royal Caribbean Activities:

In the cruising world, Royal Caribbean is known as the pioneer of onboard innovation with their purpose-built entertainment venues, first-at-sea activities, and their Oasis class ships, which smashed the world record for the largest cruise ships ever built. They also set a new bar for activities and experiences on land with their completely overhauled private island in the Bahamas, Perfect Day at CocoCay. Back onboard, the daily Cruise Compass outlines a plethora of activities for all age groups and adventure seeking levels.

  • Most ships have the standard climbing walls, mini golf, and FlowRider surfing simulators, but some go as far as to include ziplining, bumper cars, and even a RipCord skydiving simulator in partnership with iFLY. 
  • All Royal Caribbean ships have at least two water slides, and the line can now claim the title of tallest slide at sea (not a waterslide) thanks to the 10-story Ultimate Abyss on Oasis, Allure, Harmony, and Symphony of the Seas
  • The Quantum class ships come with a SeaPlex, the largest indoor active space at sea that includes a circus school, full-size regulation basketball court, roller skating, bumper cars, and a DJ booth.
  • Those that want to keep their physical fitness in tip-top shape will enjoy the sports courts, jogging tracks, and the fitness center complete with all the equipment they would expect from a land-based gym. Fitness classes such as spinning, sculpting, yoga, and more are also offered onboard. 
  • Travelers who want to kick back and relax will find just what they’re looking for at the Vitality Spa or the (adults-only) Solarium, a large, tropical-themed space with lounge chairs, hot tubs, and a full bar covered by a large glass canopy.
 

Our Pick: Royal Caribbean, hands down — Not only are most of their ships absolutely loaded with activities to keep the whole family busy, but many are things that passengers may have never tried before. And unlike Norwegian, most popular activities are free and included in the cruise fare.

 

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Entertainment

Norwegian Cruise Entertainment: 

Norwegian Cruise Line is known for their high-quality entertainment offered in a variety of venues throughout their ships.  

  • Many ships feature Broadway shows, such as “After Midnight,” “Rock of Ages,” and “Burn the Floor.” Norwegian also boasts dinner shows, such as ‘Cirque Dreams’. 
  • The line also excels in their selection of guest performers that will only spend a short time at sea, or travel around to different ships. This gives Norwegian’s ships great variety, as you never know who will be performing even if you’ve recently sailed the same ship. Acrobats, magicians, singers, comedians, contortionists, and more are some of the variety acts you’ll find on a Norwegian cruise.
  • If theater shows aren’t your thing — or you’re looking for other entertainment around the ship — you’ll find sing-alongs in the piano bar, singing and instrumentals in various lounges and bars throughout their ships, as well as high-energy music and dancing during parties on the lido deck or in the atrium. 

Royal Caribbean Entertainment:

Just like with their onboard activities, Royal specializes in adding flashy, high-tech flares to their live performances. 

  • The Two70 entertainment venue, found on Quantum class ships, is a multimedia concert experience made awe-inspiring with video projection and moving screens controlled by robotic arms. 
  • Royal’s top stage shows are the same caliber as Norwegian’s, delivering Broadway-quality performances to musical-loving passengers. The show varies by ship, but the most popular include staples like “Mamma Mia”, “Hairspray” and “Grease.”
  • Many of the line’s ships offer parades and movies, along with their unique ice-skating and water/diving shows. Entertainment found in other venues around the ship include piano sing-alongs at the Schooner Bar or Karaoke at the On Air Club.
  • The outdoor AquaTheater on the Oasis class ships is a truly unique venue in cruising, offering high diving and aquatic dancing shows. Some cabins even have a direct view of this theater so you can watch from your balcony.
 

Our Pick: Draw — At this point, it’s hard to choose between the immense quality and variety of entertainment that Norwegian offers and the unique, one-of-a-kind shows that you’ll find on Royal Caribbean. We’re sure that no matter which line you sail, you’ll be pleased with the quality and selection onboard. 

 

Kids & Families

Kids & Family Amenities on Norwegian:

Like other mainstream cruise lines, Norwegian has a youth program across the fleet called Splash Academy. 

  • Kids ages 3-12 are divided up into three different clubs based on their age, and will enjoy activities such as arts and crafts, treasure hunts, circus school, sports, team-building challenges, video games, and theme nights. 
  • Kids also have the opportunity to participate in activities with their parents and other members of the family during special family events like game shows, sports challenges, pizza making, and more. 
  • Teens have their own space onboard, called Entourage. The space is a hangout for teens to kick back, play video games, attend themed parties, try their hand at crafts, and participate in other organized activities. There are also activities hosted by teen counselors around other parts of the ship including circus school, improv classes, and sports tournaments.
  • Babies aged 6 months to 3 years are called Guppies on Norwegian, and have their own space which consists of a quiet room for sleeping and a playspace that tots can enjoy with their parents. 
  • Norwegian offers Late Night Fun Zone hours to parents who want to spend a night out aboard the ship. Starting at 10:30 pm, kids can be dropped off at Splash Academy for a small fee to be supervised with games and activities throughout the late hours of the night. Reservations should be made in advance, but aren’t always required. 
  • Families with kids and teens will also appreciate Norwegian’s variety of activities, which (depending on the ship) can include laser tag, mini golf, a ropes course, an onboard water park, and go-karting. 

Kids & Family Amenities on Royal Caribbean:

Alongside their popular youth clubs, Royal Caribbean’s selection of thrilling onboard activities make them one of the best cruise lines in the world for older kids and teens. 

  • The Adventure Ocean kids clubs on Oasis ships have designated areas for toddlers, kids, tweens, and teens, which includes their own theater, video arcade, a DJ academy, and arts and crafts workshops.
  • Adventure Ocean offers Late Night Party Zone hours, which start at 10 pm. Parents can enjoy a special family dinner with their kids before leaving them in the care of the youth counselors so they can enjoy a night out on the ship. An hourly rate does apply. 
  • The Royal Tots and Royal Babies programs are a lifesaver to parents of babies and toddlers — drop off your little ones during the day or evening for an hourly fee.
  • Many of Royal’s signature amenities are perfect for families with children, such as FlowRider surfing simulators, rock climbing walls, ice skating rinks, and water parks. 
 

Our Pick: Royal Caribbean — Both lines have highly-rated youth programs and an array of amenities around the ship that appeal to kids and their families, but Royal Caribbean edges Norwegian out with the sheer variety of activities that are available. When you factor in that more of Royal’s family-friendly amenities are included in the cruise fare, that makes them an even better vacation value. These lines are very similar in terms of kids-only offerings, but it’s the amenities for the whole family that sets Royal Caribbean apart.

 

Overall

 

Our Pick: Royal Caribbean just slightly edges out Norwegian as the better cruise line overall. Norwegian stands out as the best choice where cabins and the ever-important pricing is concerned, however Royal Caribbean got our vote for onboard activities, dining, and kids’ programs. However in most categories, both lines deliver an equally modern and action packed cruising experience, and families will surely make wonderful lasting memories on ships from either brand. 

 

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Join the discussion

Which line do you sail on?

5 Comments

Posted by SIRCRUISALOT

I CRUISED BOTH COMPANIES, I FOUND THAT NCL IS MORE ATTENTIVE TORWARDS THE INDIVIDUAL AS WITH RCCL, THEY WILL SPEAK TO THE CROWD. EG: NCL, HOW ARE YOU TODAY......... RCCL, HOW'S EVERYBODY DOING. ON NCL THE WAITSTAFF USED TO PUT ON A DANCE SHOW. I DON'T KNOW IF IT STILL CONTINUES BUT I ENJOYED ITAS DID MY MOM, GRAND MOTHER AND OUR MANY GUESTS. RCCL ONLY HAS THE ITALIAN SING-A-LONG..PLEASE I LOVE CRUISING AND WILL CRUISE UNTIL I CAN'T CRUISE ANYMORE. THIS IS JUST A LITTLE SOMETHING I NOTICED ABOUT THE DIFFERENCES IN THE NCL/RCCL COMPARISONS.

Posted by Ddancers

For Years NCL lead in entertainment but once RCCL came out with the larger ships their entertainment equaled NCL. We’ve been on over 50 cruises and enjoy both lines. For us RCCL was our preference when we were younger. Now that we’re senior we give NCL the edge we feel especially with there perks of drink and dining packages it’s hard to beat the value. Also, feel their drink menu and bar service is number one. When we were younger and did a lots of dancing RCCL was always our first choice for their dance floors even though the prices were a bit higher. Truly hard to go wrong with either.

Posted by coloradotracy

I have traveled on both and prefer RCCL over NCL. I have older children and the kids activities were great but the activities for adults were amazing. As a more adventurous adult, the NCL cruise activities were too slow paced and the more fun activities never had people attending them to use. The RCCL line always brought people out to take care of us and using the climbing walls and various pools and water slides on the ships. I love cruising and will continue to cruise. The RCCL ships were more modern than the NCL cruise ships. RCCL just felt fresher and newer where the NCL ship felt outdated and stuffy. Also the excursions on the NCL line were a bit more for older couples and there was not much offerings for those of us in the younger or more adventurous adult crowd. Overall, even with the higher price, I pick RCCL.

Posted by jrhales77

I have sailed both RCCL and NCL. I prefer NCL when it is just my wife and I traveling. We really enjoy the access to the Thermal Suites that comes with the Spa Cabins. We find NCL to be very relaxing, but with excursions, activities, dining, and entertainment that we enjoy as more "mature" travelers. However, when we are traveling with the kids and grandkids I have to give it to RCCL. RCCL does have kicked up activities and their programs for children are the best we've seen.

Posted by CruisenextKing

NCL is my cruise line. All the others are OK. But I prefer NCL.

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