Not everyone thinks "best inside cabin" is an oxymoron. Inside cabins are a great choice for cruisers who spend most of their time out and about on the ship and in port, and want to save money on a cabin they only sleep in. While some insides are hardly more than dark closets with a bed and bath, others are downright spacious or have cool decor and nifty technological features. They just don't have views of the ocean (though Royal Caribbean's high-tech, "virtual balcony" inside cabins can now provide a pretty close substitute). And if you time it right, you can snag an inside cabin for well under $75 a night.
These days, not all inside cabins are the bottom-of-the-barrel inventory. Creative cabin designs -- such as insides that sleep as few as one or as many as six, staterooms with virtual views or interior-facing windows, and Zen-like boudoirs with spa perks -- may not be the cheapest options, but they're usually more affordable than similar cabins with actual ocean views or balconies. And don't forget about oddball cabins -- like the one-of-a-kind, 281-square-foot accessible cabin 4479 on Norwegian Spirit -- that aren't going to be listed separately from the standard cabins in the same category, but can net you more space. To find these, you'll want to pore over cruise line deck plans (as well as Cruise Critic's cabin reviews and message boards). And book early for these inside oddities, as other savvy stateroom hunters are eager to snap up these great finds.
For a general overview of the highlights and lowlights of inside cabin categories across mainstream mega-ship cruise lines, here are our picks for the nine best inside cabins -- and three you may very well want to avoid.
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1. Best Standard Inside Cabin
Winner: Carnival Cruise Lines' Standard Insides, 185 square feet
What You Get: Carnival, that everyman cruise line, does not feel that those who pay less for inside cabins should suffer in tiny digs. While other lines average about 140 square feet of cabin to those booking the lowest category of inside cabin, Carnival starts off with a whopping 185 square feet. (A close runner-up, size-wise, is Celebrity Cruises' Solstice class, with insides starting at 183 square feet.)
Just like their suite-living shipmates, passengers in Carnival's standard insides get bathrobes for on-ship use, flat-screen TVs, and very comfy beds and bedding. Carnival's newest ship, Carnival Breeze, adds some nifty storage options, such as bureau shelves that fold down or up for custom space.
2. Best "Deluxe" Inside Cabin
Winner: Holland America's Large Interior staterooms, 200 square feet
What You Get: Cramped and claustrophobic are two words not typically associated with HAL's Large Interior staterooms. Eurodam, Nieuw Amsterdam, Noordam, Oosterdam, Westerdam and Zuiderdam each offer more than two dozen of these cabins; all other ships (excluding Prinsendam) feature just a handful. Plus, there will be 18 of these cabins on the upcoming Koningsdam (debuting in April 2016). These spacious digs tout tasteful design schemes and some feature roomy L-shaped layouts. HAL also offers gratis robes and a complimentary shoeshine service to all passengers, a nice touch for a line that keeps one foot in the classic cruising camp. One key reminder: There is some cabin category overlap -- i.e. Standard Interiors and Large Interiors might be labeled in the same category. Consult your deck plan or ask your travel agent to be sure.
3. Best Inside Cabin With a View
Winner: Royal Caribbean's Promenade Cabins, 194 square feet
What You Get: Royal Caribbean invented the concept of the cabin with an interior-facing window. The promenade cabins on Oasis of the Seas and Allure of the Seas look out onto the Royal Promenade, an enclosed shopping street lined with stores, restaurants and watering holes. Whether you love an inside cabin with a view or hate the lack of privacy (your across-the-way neighbors and promenade wanderers can see in when the shades are up), you will find the biggest of the promenade cabins on the Oasis-class duo. (Smaller versions are also found on the line's five Voyager-class ships and three Freedom-class ships; the latter offer the notorious "Ben & Jerry's Sweet," with a view partially obstructed by the ice cream shop's fake cow.)
4. Best Inside Cabin with a Virtual View
Winner: Royal Caribbean's Virtual Balcony cabins, from 101 square feet
What You Get: These industry-first Virtual Balcony inside cabins come equipped with 82-inch LED, HD, floor-to-ceiling screens that stream real-time views and sounds of the sea and ports -- everything but the ocean breeze -- right into passengers' rooms. Every single interior stateroom (nearly 400 of them) aboard the line's newest ships (Quantum of the Seas and Anthem of the Seas) feature the virtual balconies -- including the single-occupancy Studio (measuring 101 square feet), Standard Interior (166 square feet) and Large Interior staterooms (measuring 178 to 187 square feet). Navigator of the Seas was also refurbished to offer 81 interior Virtual Balcony staterooms, measuring 150 square feet apiece.
5. Best Solo Inside Cabins
Winner: Norwegian Cruise Line's Studio staterooms, 100 square feet
What You Get: Norwegian's pint-size Studios, found on Norwegian Breakaway, Getaway, Epic and Pride of America (and soon Norwegian Escape, debuting in October 2015), make a big impression for numerous reasons. They're dedicated as solo cabins (and priced for solo travelers as well, with no single supplement fee), a concept that Norwegian pioneered in the mainstream cruise industry that is largely based around couples and families. The staterooms feature funky, multi-color lighting effects and a round window that looks onto the corridor, and contain a full-size bed and lots of storage you can hog all to yourself.
But even better is that residency in these cabins gives exclusive access to the Studio Lounge, a hip hangout where cruise travelers can watch TV, hang out with a coffee or beer, and socialize with other solos.
6. Best Accessible Inside Cabin
Winner: Celebrity Cruises' Accessible Insides, 245 square feet
What You Get: Six roomy inside cabins on the line's five Solstice-class ships -- Celebrity Solstice, Celebrity Eclipse, Celebrity Equinox, Celebrity Silhouette and Celebrity Reflection -- feature cabin doors that automatically open with a card swipe, roll-in showers, grab bars and ramped bathroom thresholds. The accessible cabins also showcase the modern Scandinavian design that punctuates the Solstice-class quintet, which are considered among the loveliest mega-ships afloat. (Celebrity's other five ships also feature accessible insides, but they're slightly smaller and don't have the automatic doors.) Beyond the accommodations, Celebrity typically gets high marks from disabled cruisers. Wheelchair users appreciate pool and whirlpool lifts, as well as lowered casino tables and Guest Relations/Shore Excursions desks.
7. Best Standard Family Insides
Winner: Disney Cruise Line's Standard Insides, 164 square feet (larger Deluxe Family Inside units measure 200 square feet)
What You Get: Always in a category of its own, Disney just does things differently than the other lines. Its Standard Inside staterooms are very family-friendly without being special family cabins. On all four ships, they offer the line's famous bath-and-a-half, featuring a room with a shower/tub and sink, and another with a toilet and sink -- great for avoiding fuss at bed and bath time. (Deluxe Inside staterooms offer all the same amenities, with a bit more space.)
A convertible sofa and a pull-down upper berth house the extra guests (kids or friends) and a curtain divides the room in half so Mom and Dad can stay up reading or chatting with the lights on while the wee ones snore away, visions of talking mice dancing in their heads. While Disney Magic and Wonder have the bigger cabins (184 square feet for Standard, 214 square feet for Deluxe), Fantasy and Dream get the nod for their fantastic touches: raised beds for easier luggage storage, iPod docking stations and "magical portholes" -- faux windows that show a real-time video of the view outside the ship, enhanced with animation of Disney characters swimming or flying by.
8. Best Special Inside Family Cabin
Winner: Royal Caribbean's Family Interior Staterooms, 324 square feet
What You Get: You can squeeze a family of four in a regular inside cabin, but it isn't pretty. If you've got a family of five or six, you could book two cabins -- or nab one of Royal Caribbean's special Family Interior cabins instead. The biggest we found are on Freedom of the Seas, Liberty of the Seas and Independence of the Seas; they sleep up to six on two twin beds that convert into a queen, a pullout sofa for two and a double Pullman bed. (Oasis-class family insides have a separate bunk room for the kiddos, but are significantly smaller at 260 square feet.)
The cabins feature plenty of storage space, but only have one bathroom. Mom and Dad, consider leaving the bathroom squabbles to the young'uns and shower at the spa…
9. Best Inside "Spa" Cabin
Winner: Costa Cruises' Samsara Spa Cabins, from 149 square feet
What You Get: Costa Cruises pioneered the "spa" cabin: specially designed accommodations clustered around a ship's wellness area. The spa staterooms are available on the eight Costa ships equipped with a Samsara Spa, and include inside configurations (as well as outsides and suites) with bamboo-effect doors and restful decor. Expect orchids in vases, aromatic diffusers and calming colors combined with more sumptuous bedding than the standard cabins, as well as eco-cotton bathrobes, herbal teas (with a kettle and teacups), a bathroom scale and Elemis goodies in the bathroom.
Beyond the accommodation, we love the perks: The spa cabin package includes unlimited access to the spa complex with its thalassotherapy bath, aromatherapy-focused Tridosha Sanctuary (with Turkish bath), meditation and R & R haven Temple of Peace, and the Japanese Tea Room. (Guests who book a Samsara spa cabin on Costa Diadema also gain access to the ship's Solarium.) Spa cabin passengers get exclusive access to the Samsara spa restaurant, but dining there does incur a fee; spa treatments also cost extra.
And Three to Avoid
Cabin: Standard Inside Cabins on Majesty of the Seas, 114 square feet
What You Get: Feel the squeeze in the smallest standard cabins offered by Royal Caribbean (and among the very smallest industry-wide). At 114 square feet, these insides are glorified closets -- but Royal Caribbean manages to stuff a lot into these cabins, including a vanity table with extendable working service and a private bathroom. With Pullman beds forming bunks, you could even sleep four in these tiny digs -- just don't all stand up at once.
Hit or Miss
Cabin: Carnival's Category 1A Cabins
What You Get: Carnival says its 1A cabins measure 185 square feet, but Cruise Critic members with measuring tapes beg to differ. Booking a 1A is a bit of a crapshoot: Some have pull-down bunk beds, while others have a bunk and pullout sofa. Some, surprisingly, have porthole windows, meaning they're technically outsides. Many of the 1A's are odd-shaped, squeezed-into-corners cabins that come lumped into one cheap category, so their layouts vary by ship and even by cabin number. For the lowdown on the quirky cabin category, check the "Your 1A Stateroom Guide (Everything 1A)" thread.
Cabin: Norwegian's Family Insides, 128 square feet
What You Get: While the snug solo Studio cabins aboard Norwegian Epic (and other Norwegian ships) get high points for their design and perks, many Cruise Critic members have warned that the same ship's Family Inside Staterooms on decks 13 and 14 (at 128 square feet) aren't nearly as boast-worthy. Complaints vary but largely hone in on the cabins' small size, awkward layout (including poor TV positioning) and in-cabin noise from the bathroom. Another reviewer griped that despite being billed as family-friendly, the cabin wasn't large enough to fit in a cot for a baby on a recent sailing; the general overall consensus was that this "family-friendly" cabin wasn't truly suitable, space-wise, for more than two passengers. Read more member firsthand reports over at "Family Inside (I1): Norwegian Epic Cabin Reviews."