Why would one ship from a cruise line get a 4 score – while another, similar in almost any way, received a 3 or even a 5?
Rating a ship is far more difficult than spending a week onboard and writing a review. Here are a couple of guidelines, though that may help you understand the criteria that we use when we tally together all the scores (from cabins to service and from cuisine to family-friendly).
Consistently, quality of cuisine and service, which are crucial cornerstones to a cruise experience, carry much weight. Choices in dining are also more important than ever. Do travelers have the option to choose traditional seating or more flexible dining? Are there options beyond main dining venues? Public rooms and overall ambience are also quite important.
We're finding, increasingly, that cruise travelers are more and more interested in enrichment programs and spa and fitness options, so we look at these categories closely. Entertainment is important too though today's trend is more focused on smaller, more intimate options (with an exception being major theatrical and music performances in large theater venues).
On ships that market themselves as being family-friendly, the quality of kids' programs, facilities, on-shore offerings and dining options, is very important in determining the ultimate rating. On ships that don't court families and thus don't provide much in the way of programs and facilities, that score has a lot less impact.
The following breakdown of our ribbon ratings program will shed a little more light on the evaluation process (and our comparison of hotels to categories may also be helpful). But it's important to note that, bottom line, one of the challenges of reviewing a ship is that the writer's experience reflects a snapshot of a week spent at sea. As cruise ships frequently change the officers who lead ships – such as hotel director, head chef, cruise director –- most operate on four to six month work contracts -- it's very possible that the shipboard experience can change too. Which is why it's also important to include our member reviews, often quite up-to-the-moment, in your research efforts.
Five Ribbons Plus
Expect: A luxury cruise experience with top-notch food, service and amenities. Cabins should be larger than average for luxury ships and be equipped with today's important contemporary amenities (DVD players, separate seating areas, elaborate bathrooms and extra-big closets). Most, if not all, cabins should have private balconies.
Main restaurant venues are open seating. Alternative restaurants offer very distinctive experiences and do not charge a fee for entrance. Spa and fitness facilities, not to mention an elegant ambience in public rooms, theaters and lounges, are comparable to those in the world's finer small hotels. Itineraries incorporate both high-profile destinations and exotic, offbeat ones.
Ultimately, what distinguishes a five-plus from a five is impeccable service -- whether it's the dining room waiter, cabin attendant or cruise staff.
But note that: Typically, ships that merit a five-plus score lack elaborate children's facilities. And there are exceptions -- some ships don't necessarily match every category. SeaDream, for instance, offers a yacht-style experience so lacks some bells and whistles (most cabins, for instance, don't have private balconies) but the ships' designs, exceptional cuisine, and over-the-top yet unobtrusive service, push them to the top.
It's the at-sea version Of: An elegant top-notch establishment, large or small, such as the Peninsula, Mandarin Oriental, Hotel Bel-Air, Banyan Tree Resorts.
Expect: Very high levels of all the important elements of luxury cruising -- gourmet cuisine, terrific service, attractive onboard ambience -- along with a full range of facilities, from expansive spas to theaters and beyond. Standard cabins are well-equipped though not necessarily much larger than industry average for luxury; more expansive, higher category accommodations are lavish.
Butler service is available to those residing in higher level accommodations; concierges are on call for all. Restaurants may be open seating, or passengers may be assigned dining times and tablemates. Some ships may have an excellent (if not way-out innovative) children's program though most won't. Voyages typically -- though not always -- cling to tried-and-true ports of call with a smattering of off-the-grid stops.
But note that: A ship from a big-ship line may sometimes -- rarely but it happens -- perform so exceptionally that it finds itself with a five ribbon rating; excellent service, fantastic kids' facilities, and very good dining could propel them above the mass. But we'll point out that a big ship is still a big ship, and waiting in line and being part of a crowd is still a factor. Another note: Some ships -- most notably Cunard's Queen Mary 2 and Norwegian Cruise Line's Jewel-class series -- are offering luxury options within a big ship environment. In that case, and in future reviews, Cruise Critic will evaluate these options separately from the main ship.
It's the at-sea version of: An elegant, full-service hotel that targets a range of audiences, from couples on holiday to family vacations, such as Ritz-Carlton, InterContinental Hotels, Park Hyatt, Four Seasons.
Four Ribbons (and Four Plus)
Expect: A wide range of facilities, including excellent spa and fitness areas and innovative kids' programs. These vessels tend to be recently introduced (from 1998 forward) and feature contemporary amenities and design. Ambience is stylish.
Cabins, a good proportion of which come with verandahs, are of industry average for standards (fairly compact) but offer all the necessities, from hair dryers to decent storage and from mini-fridges to Internet connectivity. Bathrooms in standards are serviceable but not fancy, often lacking in features like whirlpool baths. These ships will have larger, more lavish suites as well.
Service levels can vary from exceptional to not terribly personal. Restaurants may adhere to "freestyle" or "personal choice" options, or feature a set-seating arrangement at dinner time -- or a blend of both. Most will have on-land-style restaurants, though there's likely a per-person service fee.
But note that: These ships primarily sail to well-known ports of call and offer little exposure to less trafficked places in the world.
It's the at-sea version Of: Resorts and full service hotels that cater to a variety of tastes and styles, such as Westin, Thistle Hotels, Hyatt or Conrad.
Three Ribbons (and Three Plus)
Expect: Many similarities to four-ribbon-rated ships -- except these ships are generally older. This means fewer balconies in standard categories, the possibility of smaller cabins, and less options for dining and lounging. Service can be inconsistent. Expect smaller gyms, spa facilities and kids' areas than on newer ships though these will be adequate if less than innovative. These ships typically sail "same place, same day, different week" itineraries to better-established ports of call though may change reasons on a seasonal basis.
But note that: These ships, most of which are smaller than the industry norm these days, can often make up in cozy ambience and generally offer a more personal experience onboard -- as long as you're not concerned about missing out on some of the contemporary bells and whistles.
It's the at-sea version of: Full service, moderately priced hotel chains like Millennium Hotels, Sheraton, Radisson, and Jury's.
Two Ribbons (and Two Plus)
Expect: Few bells and whistles; these ships will have the major requirements -- outdoor pool, exercise room, a variety of lounges -- but they may lack upgraded and/or refreshed staterooms and facilities. There will be few (if any) balconies. Cabins are available in varying sizes from minuscule to large. Cuisine is generally inconsistent (could be good, could be poor). So is service. These ships may, however, have interesting itineraries -- and offer the industry's best value.
But note that: Typically, because of their more exotic itineraries and lengthier voyages, they'll appeal to seniors with more disposable time than income; few will have kids' facilities or programs.
It's the at-sea version of: Hotels that offer a clean, basic place to stay -- where the destination (or in the case of cruising where ports of call are more important than ship amenities) and a low price are the primary draws -- such as Ramada Inn, La Quinta, Premier Inn, Travelodge, and Best Western.
One Ribbon (and One Plus)
Expect: Services are non-existent (no enrichment programs or shore excursion department), ship is in poor condition, cuisine and service are not emphasized.
But note that: Cruise Critic features no ships with quality levels this low.
It's the at-sea version of: By-the-highway establishments that have long been mediocre.