Cruise ship cabins don't always have the best reputation. We've heard the complaints: They're too small, the bathrooms are too cramped, there's not enough storage space, etc. Passengers who don't come nicely in groups of two gripe that they're forced to pay double to book a cabin for one or that squeezing three or four in a standard stateroom is like fitting a basketball team inside a phone booth.
But with a boatload of ships debuting over the past few years, cruise lines have made vast improvements, not only in onboard amenities but in cabin configurations, as well. The majority of cabins remain the standard variety, but new ships are sporting some innovative new designs, including solo and family cabins, elaborate and spacious suites, and some clever updates of the inside, outside and balcony cabins we all know and love (or hate).
Whether you're looking for a new cabin type that will best suit your traveling needs, or you're simply curious as to what novelties have emerged from the brains of shipbuilders and designers, read on to find the latest trends in cruise-ship cabin design.
Old School: Most cruise ships only have cabins that sleep two or more, forcing solo travelers to pay as much as double the cruise fare of passengers who share cabins.
New and Nifty: Norwegian and P&O are turning things around with the addition of solo cabins on their newest ships. Azura is the first P&O ship to sport single staterooms -- 18 to be exact. Solo cabins come in inside and outside categories, each measuring 130 square feet, and feature oversized single beds, desks/vanities and en-suite bathrooms with showers.
On Norwegian Epic, solo travelers will find 128 Studio cabins, each measuring a tiny 100 square feet; 90 of these connect together, though you must be 21 or older to book these staterooms-for-one. The Studios are all inside cabins, each with a round window facing the interior corridor and a full-size bed taking up most of the space. However, these small cabins come with a huge perk -- access to the Studio Lounge, an exclusive social space with a bar, large TV's, comfy seating and concierge service. It's another version of Norwegian's ship-within-a-ship concept (see below), but you don't have to pay the highest fares for access.
Old School: Cruise lines like to squeeze the most cabins into the space available onboard. Standard staterooms line the hallways like ducks in a row, while suites occupy odd spaces like the "corners" of each deck or run the length of two or three lower-tier cabins.
New and Nifty: To change things up, some lines are building up instead of out. Cunard certainly knows how to pamper its highest-paying Queens Grill passengers, and among its posh accommodations on Queen Mary 2, the line decided to break new ground with two-floor duplex suites. The 2,249-square-foot Balmoral and Sandringham suites feature large living and dining room areas, expansive balconies and marble bathrooms (with showers) on the lower floors; upstairs, the lavish master bedrooms are each accompanied by a bathroom with a whirlpool bath and ocean views. The Holyrood, Windsor, Buckingham, Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth suites are only slightly smaller duplexes with similar lavish amenities, ranging from 1,194 to 1,566 square feet.
Loft apartments are also tres chic, so when Royal Caribbean's innovative Oasis and Allure of the Seas were designed, two-floor loft suite cabins were added into the cabin category mix. Loft suites come in three flavors: Royal, Sky and Crown. The king of the bunch -- the 1,524-square-foot Royal Loft Suite -- can sleep six. Downstairs, you'll find a living and dining room and a wraparound balcony with outdoor dining area and whirlpool; upstairs holds the master bedroom and an enormous bathroom. The smaller Crown and Sky Loft Suites also feature extra-large balconies, roomy bathrooms, upstairs bedrooms and downstairs living spaces. Bringing the whole gang? The Royal Loft Suite connects to the adjacent Crown Loft Suite to create an enormous living space that can sleep 10.
Old School: In the past, luxury-seekers could spend all their time in the spa only by booking multiple treatments, signing up for fitness classes or purchasing cruise-long passes to the thermal suites or thalassotherapy pools.
New and Nifty: Costa Cruises was the first line to conceive of the concept of cruise ship as destination spa when it introduced the Samsara spa cabins and suites on Costa Concordia. Spa cabins are now found on Costa Fascinosa, Costa Favolosa, Costa neoRomantica, Costa Serena, Costa Pacifica, Costa Deliziosa and Costa Luminosa. These staterooms are clustered around the spa and include private elevator access, Zen-like decor, cushy bedding, Samsara bath products, mini-bars stocked with healthy drinks and tea kettles with a choice of herbal teas. Additional perks include an invitation to a spa tea ceremony, a choice of two treatments, a choice of two fitness or meditation lessons, two tanning sessions, unlimited use of the thalassotherapy pool and a reserved table in the Samsara Restaurant.
Other lines quickly followed suit with their own versions of spa cabins. Celebrity's Solstice-class ships feature the AquaClass staterooms and suites. In addition to massaging showerheads a healthy-dining room service menu and upgraded bedding, residents get their own specialty restaurant, Blu; free use of the AquaSpa Relaxation Room and Persian Garden thermal suite; and access to a "spa concierge," who can book treatments and provide product information. The line is adding AquaSpa cabins to older ships during refurbishments.
Windstar is taking a slightly different approach to this concept. Instead of having dedicated spa cabins, it offers suite passengers on Wind Surf the opportunity to upgrade their cabins to spa suites for an additional charge ($600 per suite on a seven-night cruise). Ten suites maximum per cruise will be able to receive upgraded spa robes, a pillow menu, O SPA London bath amenities and in-suite tea service. Spa-themed perks include a welcome cocktail party in the WindSpa, an invitation to "Spa Under the Stars" to sample alfresco spa treatments, a spa concierge, complimentary spa and salon treatments, and unlimited fitness classes.
Other ships that have jumped on the spa cabin bandwagon include Carnival Splendor, Dream, Magic and Breeze; Norwegian Epic; and Holland America's Eurodam, Nieuw Amsterdam, Statendam, Maasdam, Ryndam, Veendam and Rotterdam.
Old School: Onboard suites can be anything from simple two-room spaces, still smaller than typical hotel rooms, to fancy affairs with Jacuzzis, pianos, wet bars, kitchens and private dining rooms (both indoors and out). Most are fairly cookie-cutter, simply larger versions of standard cabins.
New and Nifty: With cruise-ship suites becoming more lavish, each new ship seems to take the luxe factor up a notch. At the top of the over-the-top list are the Owner's Suites on Oceania's Marina and Riviera and the Wintergarden Suite on Seabourn's Odyssey-class ships. Oceania's knock-your-socks-off suites are more than 2,000 square feet and furnished by Ralph Lauren Home with touches like faux zebra rugs, enormous suede couches, wood paneling, velvet carpeting, pianos and bars. An entire wall in each is made of glass for expansive sea views. Each bedroom is done in cashmere and features a chandelier, while the bathroom has a tub you can practically do laps in. If that's not enough, a second whirlpool on the balcony comes with a flat-screen TV for the dedicated TV-watcher.
Seabourn's Wintergarden Suites are named for the glass-walled solarium found inside each suite. This area features a soaking tub, day-bed and seating. Add a few more plants, and you'd think you were bathing in a rain forest. The rest of the 914-square-foot cabin is equally luxurious, including a 183-square-foot verandah, a six-person dining table, wet bar, guest bath and master bedroom with whirlpool tub. They're just steps away from Seabourn Square, a bustling hub featuring a coffee shop, Internet cafe, library, comfy chairs and concierge desks.
Innovative Insides -- Say Goodbye to Claustrophobia
Old School: Tiny, windowless inside cabins have long been a claustrophobe's worst nightmare. They may be cheap, but you sure don't want to spend a lot of time in these low-end staterooms -- unless you like living in a cave and not knowing whether it's night or day.
New and Nifty: We've already mentioned Norwegian's new take on inside cabins with its Studios, but two other lines are also working to make inside cabins more livable. In Disney Dream's and Fantasy's inside cabins, Disney Cruise Line has introduced "virtual portholes" -- video screens that play actual footage of the seascape outside (filmed with four high-definition cameras positioned on the exterior). The live view is enhanced with Disney friends, including "Finding Nemo" characters and Mickey Mouse himself. Rough seas? Simply turn the sea views off.
Royal Caribbean takes a different approach. With the line's Promenade cabins on Voyager-, Freedom- and Oasis-class ships, and Central Park and Boardwalk cabins on Oasis and Allure of the Seas, inside cabin residents can look out on the action taking place inside the ships. Residents have prime viewing spots for Royal Promenade parades or people-watching on Oasis and Allure's Boardwalks. Some Central Park and Boardwalk inside cabins come with balconies -- but don't expect privacy on these interior-facing verandahs.
Ship-in-a-Ship -- Exclusive Access for Cruising's Elite
Old School: On most ships, the highest-paying passengers may get access to a small concierge suite, but they have to fight for deck chairs on the pool deck, queue up at the bar and search for available treadmills at the fitness center -- just like the rest of the rabble.
New and Nifty: Norwegian and MSC Cruises have brought back classed cruising with such expansive, exclusive play areas for certain passengers that the experience is almost like being on an entirely different ship.
Although Cunard has always clung to classed cruising with exclusive dining venues for its Queens and Princess Grill cruisers, Norwegian took the idea one step further when it introduced the Haven (formerly the Courtyard), a private courtyard with pools, hot tubs and sun decks surrounded by the line's most luxe accommodations, the Courtyard Villas. The Haven can be found in various forms on Norwegian Jewel, Epic, Gem, Pearl, Jade and -- coming in April 2013 -- Breakaway. The complexes on Epic and Breakaway take it up a notch with an exclusive restaurant and bar.
MSC Cruises has created a similar effect on MSC Fantasia, Splendida and Divina with the Yacht Club. On each ship, people in these special cabins have access to a private club with complimentary open bar, a private pool area, grill, private lounge with meal service and 24-hour butler service. Yacht Club cruisers also get to eat in cordoned-off special sections of the main dining room, to maintain that exclusive vibe. On Disney Dream and Fantasy, Concierge-level passengers have access to a concierge lounge with food and drink, TV and Internet, as well as an exclusive sun deck with water misters, cushioned lounge chairs and a bar.
Family Cabins -- More Room for Memories
Trendsetters: Royal Caribbean, Disney, Carnival, Norwegian, Princess
Old School: Cruising families are usually forced to squeeze into one cabin, employing a mixture of pullout sofa beds or bunks that pull down from the ceiling. Or, you can book the kids in an adjoining cabin or stateroom across the hall. Go for maximum togetherness, and you find yourself with no elbow room (and nowhere to hang out in-cabin once the kids are asleep).
New and Nifty: Cruise lines have begun to realize that families want to stay in the same cabin, but need enough room to do so.
Royal Caribbean offers an array of family-oriented cabins, ranging from outside family cabins to the Presidential Family Suite. Outside cabins can sleep six, with a combination of Pullman beds, sleep sofas and -- on some ships -- additional bunk beds in separate rooms within each cabin. Oasis and Allure of the Seas have balcony versions.
For even more space, the Royal Family Suite accommodates eight people in two bedrooms (plus Pullman beds and sofa beds), with multiple bathrooms, living areas, fridges and concierge service. The Presidential Family Suite (found only on Freedom- and Oasis-class ships) can sleep a whopping 14 family members with two master bedrooms and two additional bedrooms. These luxurious digs include a spacious living area, complete with dining table, and a private balcony with hot tub, dining table and padded teak loungers.
Disney has always offered family-friendly cabins with its family balcony cabins that sleep four or five people. Parents will enjoy the privacy curtain that separates the main sleeping area from the sitting room/kids' sleeping area, so when the children are tucked in, it doesn't have to be lights out for the grownups, too. Another innovative feature is Disney's split bathroom design. One half has a toilet and sink, and the other has a sink and shower/tub combination.
Other lines making life onboard better for families include Norwegian, whose Norwegian Epic features hundreds of family balcony cabins on Decks 13 and 14, clustered around the expanded children's facility. Cabins are standard but come with additional pull-down beds and pullout couches, and many connect to accommodate larger family groups.
Carnival Dream, Magic and Breeze include deluxe oceanview cabins that each feature two bathrooms (one with a shower, one with a kid-sized tub) and extra berths (some can sleep five) -- perfect for bigger families. And Princess' 500- to 600-square-foot Family Suites, which can accommodate six to eight passengers, are found on all nine Grand-class ships. The suites are each essentially two self-contained cabins connecting through a large living room with an expanded balcony, and at least one bathroom typically features a tub.
Design Modifications -- Standard Cabins That Stand Out
Trendsetters: Norwegian, Carnival, Holland America
Old School: Standard cabins have been pretty, well, standard -- and once you've seen one, you pretty much know what to expect everywhere else. Typically, you'll find a boxy space with a bed, desk/vanity, closet and bathroom, and some sort of sitting area if you're lucky.
New and Nifty: Cruise lines are thinking outside the prefabricated cabin box with their new ship designs. On Norwegian Epic, standard cabins sport a "New Wave" design, with curved walls and lines and more open living space. Bathrooms have also been tweaked, though somewhat contentiously. The shower stalls and toilet areas are split into separate areas behind the main bathroom doors, and the sinks and vanities are out in the open in the actual staterooms. The controversy is the smoked-glass doors that allow those on the outside to see the shadows of those within.
Holland America has created the first cabin with a back door. Called lanai cabins, they can be found only on Veendam and Rotterdam. These cabins have windows and a second door that face the wraparound Promenade Deck, so passengers can step from their cabins directly into this outdoor public area. Each cabin comes with two teak chairs outside the back door -- though watch out for passengers from other decks who are tempted to use your lounges when you're not home.
And Carnival introduced a new type of balcony cabin on Carnival Dream, Magic and Breeze. These "cove balconies" are located within the hull on Deck 2 and feature verandahs close to the waterline. Watertight doors keep out sea spray, and lifeboats directly above block the view so your shipmates can't see down into your private verandah. While they're great for extra privacy, they're not so hot for sunbathing.
Old School: Riverboats have had the reputation of Spartan accommodations lacking space, balconies and modern niceties. Previously, the lines used the ships' size limitations (they have to squeeze through locks and fit under bridges) as an excuse.
New and Nifty: The lines have gotten creative to offer more spacious, luxurious and innovative digs onboard. Viking Emerald and Prestige each have a pair of 840-square-foot presidential suites with separate sitting and sleeping areas, two flat-screen televisions, panoramic windows and private wraparound balconies. Standard accommodations boast 269 square feet of living space, and all have private balconies. The line's current and forthcoming Long Ships also rock lavish suites with 445-square-foot Explorer Suites that offer multiple rooms and wraparound balconies, in addition to French balconies in the bedrooms.
Uniworld's S.S. Antoinette sports fancy top-deck suites with alcoves that can be converted from glassed-in conservatories to open-air balconies by pushing a switch. And Avalon's Panorama, Vista, Visionary and Avalon Artistry II and Expression (both slated to launch in 2013) feature suites with wall-to-wall panoramic windows, which open by some seven feet to transform the cabins into an open-air balconies.