The only guide you need to picking your perfect cruise category
Choosing a cruise line can be hard enough when you realise just how many brands exist, but selecting the best for your personality is easier when you understand the different lifestyle categories, how they are described and which company fits in each.
The widely recognised buckets, in ascending level of overall quality and often cost, are standard, premium, upscale and luxury. Let's take a closer look at each below.
These days, standard does not necessarily mean basic or generic as every line in the category has upped the bar substantially over the decades of modern cruising. It merely means they are mainstream - generally the most affordable, offering something for nearly everyone to enjoy - and feature some of the largest ships in the world.
Activities and entertainment are usually the areas where these lines most excel with a range of accommodation and dining options. Plenty is complimentary onboard, but a la carte specialty choices also abound. Included brands are Carnival Cruise Line, MSC Cruises, Norwegian Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean International.
Traditionally, the premium category was a means of offering luxurious cruising elements at a fraction of the cost, albeit still more expensive than the standard lines. Celebrity Cruises and Holland America Line paved the way with a focus on fine dining paired with great service. Princess Cruises was once squarely in the category but faltered briefly before recently regaining its status, in my opinion.
Entertainment wise, these lines had presented less lavish shows in the past but are starting to put on more elaborate productions now. The Disney Cruise Line, which is often considered standard but really belongs here for its price point and premium family-friendly offerings, is, of course, the leader on stage. Meanwhile, Cunard Line tends to slide around the categories a bit with its several clearly defined accommodation and service levels but averages out here.
The upscale, or upmarket, category is a relatively new one as lines emerged above the premium tier but just shy of outright luxury levels. Azamara Club Cruises and Oceania Cruises were first to arrive, and Viking Ocean Cruises is now raising the standards even more. These upscale brands offer service and dining that rivals luxury lines on intimate ships dedicated to shoreside destinations over elaborate onboard attractions.
These companies do also usually cost more than premium lines as they are effectively luxury light brands. On newer ships, accommodations are particularly plush, but if they fall short in any one area, it's entertainment. Shows tend to be underwhelming compared to those on standard and premium lines.
Luxury is the creme de la creme and is often described as ultra-luxury now to further differentiate from the lines below. Brands here include Crystal Cruises, Regent Seven Seas Cruises, Seabourn and Silversea Cruises. Ships offer the greatest passenger space ratio, meaning more room onboard per passenger, and provide the utmost in dedicated personal service, dining and accommodations.
Entertainment is also generally given more consideration than on most upscale brands, particularly on Crystal. In the cruising world, if you're willing to give up a long list of activities, you won't find a better, more all-inclusive experience than on a luxury line.