This week's commentary by TravelPage.com's European Cruise Editor, Malcolm Oliver helps you determine what type of accomodation on today's cruise ships is best for you.
The other day a friend of mine, who is a cruise virgin, asked me "what is the best type of cabin" to book. My knee-jerk reply would have been "a top grade cabin, such as a Penthouse or Owner's Suite". However, since I knew my friend might be traveling on a limited budget my answer needed a little more consideration.
Firstly let's get the terminology right. Very few cruise lines actually call them ‘cabins' they are known as ‘staterooms'. The average stateroom is smaller than the average hotel room and certainly smaller than Paris Hilton's prison cell. However there are some big staterooms on offer, but as you probably suspect, he bigger the stateroom, the bigger the fare. The fare is also dependent on the type of stateroom (more about that in a minute) and on which deck it is located - the higher the deck, the more they cost in general.
Basically there are ‘inside' staterooms (without a window) and there are ‘Oceanview' staterooms. But it does not end there. A big modern cruise ship such as RCI's ‘Independence of the Seas' has 23 grades of staterooms and graduated prices to match. There are staterooms with portholes; there are staterooms with picture-windows and staterooms with private Balconies, each progressively costing more. Then there are also suites which come in various sizes. These are larger staterooms normally with a separate seating area. Some even have a separate living room and bedroom. They often have larger balconies. There may also be other variations such as modest inside cabins with a window which overlooks an atrium and opulent ‘Duplex Suites' such as onboard the Queen Mary 2 which have two floors, a piano and a butler.
The good news is that the days of ships having tiny cabins that are barely large enough to swing the proverbial cat are long gone. Not only is swinging a cat now illegal, steerage accommodation is no longer available. Even the cheapest staterooms (inside cabins) on a modern cruise ship have adequate space and all modern conveniences such as air-conditioning, an LCD TV, a private bathroom and a shower. However I do concede that the shower may not have enough room for you to pick up the dropped soap, unless you are a size ‘0'. It is also not unusual to find that the shower-curtain will stick to your back like Superman's cape while you are showering. I also concede that most modern cruise ship toilets normally bark like dogs when flushed and make your ears pop. I often wonder what would happen if every passenger flushed their toilet simultaneously – maybe the ship be transported into a parallel universe. It's worth a try.
Depending on what cruise you line you select, you may even find a little bit of stateroom snobbery onboard (i.e "Hello what grade are you in then?"). It is great fun to watch passengers ‘rubber-neck' as they walk down the ships corridors and find a cabin door open. You can here them chant "Oh that's a big one" or "Look it's not as big as ours". Never the less, on the vast majority of cruise ships, the onboard experience is the same whatever stateroom grade that you book. I accept that there may be a few perks associated with the top grade suites such as priority boarding, enhanced room service etc. but essentially you share the same dining rooms, public rooms and entertainment as every other guest.
Cunard are an exception to this rule because your chosen grade of stateroom is inked to four different dining rooms of increasing quality. The ‘Queens Grill' passengers, which is the top grade of dining and accommodation, also get a private bar and lounge (QE2 and QM2) and even some private deck space on board the QM2.
Even the mass-market line NCL has their Garden and Courtyard Villa's which share a private courtyard for the use of those guests only. Buy the way, did you know that Hebridean Cruises two small ships do not have ‘cabins' with numbers (they call them cabins); each has its own name. How exclusive it that? This probably explains why Her Majesty the Queen chose the ‘Hebridean' Princess for her summer holiday afloat in the summer of 2006.
So if we disregard the exceptions to the rule such as Cunard, it can be argued that the cheapest stateroom will do. There are certainly those cruise passengers that claim that a big stateroom is pointless as you don't actually spend much time in it, only to sleep, shower and change.
However, as you might expect, there is an alternative position to this view. Would you book a hotel room without a window? What's the point of being on a ship if you can't actually see the sea passing your stateroom? Cruising is about luxury and it is a vacation after all, why not treat yourself to a balcony cabin or even a suite?
So what's my personal view of which type of stateroom is best? I am normally looking for good value and a little bit of luxury too. I find inside staterooms to be too dark. I don't necessarily miss the sea view, I can get that on deck, but I do miss the natural daylight. They are also often the smallest staterooms on a ship. Conversely, balcony staterooms are very nice, but I find that I rarely actually use the balcony. Bigger suites are often out of my price range.
On some ships the price differential between stateroom grades can be minimal, so for only a few hundred dollars extra you can upgrade from window to a balcony stateroom. However, on other ships, such as P&O and Cunard for example, the price differential to upgrade can be very high. Personally I do not think balconies are worth paying a small fortune for. Therefore I am normally perfectly content with a humble porthole or picture window cabin.
Having said that, staterooms with portholes are often on lower decks of the ship, sometimes just above the water line. On older ships theses staterooms can suffer from engine noise and vibration. I was once in a porthole cabin in a Gale Force 10 storm crossing the north Atlantic. The waves lashed the porthole so frequently that it felt like I was on the inside a front-loading washing machine. Sometimes in a storm, the staff may even seal the port hole with a heavy metal shutter turning your cabin into a no-seaview. Therefore picture windows, which are always on higher decks, have the edge in my opinion.
So in conclusion, the best type of cabin is the one that suits your needs and your pocket. Not only do we now all have a wide range of cruise lines and cruise ships to choose from we also have a very wide range of accommodations all of which is more comfortable and luxurious than ever before. Enjoy.