Your room on a cruise ship is called a cabin (or stateroom) and is akin to a hotel room, but typically much smaller. Choosing a cruise ship cabin can be fun and challenging at the same time, and not just a little bit frustrating on occasion. Cabins fall into different types or "categories," and some cruise lines will present as many as 20 or more categories per ship. Before you get overwhelmed, it's helpful to remember that there are essentially only four types of cabins on any cruise vessel:
- Inside: the smallest-sized room, with no window to the outside
- Outside: a room with a window or porthole (a round window) with a view to the outside, often similarly sized to an inside cabin or a bit larger; also known as oceanview
- Balcony: a room featuring a verandah that allows you to step outside without going up to a public deck
- Suite: a larger cabin, often with separate living and sleeping areas, and a wide variety of extra amenities and perks
It's the permutations (size, view, location, amenities and price, for example) of the four basic cabin types that can make choosing difficult. In addition to knowing your cabin options, you need to know yourself: Do you tend to get seasick? Do you prefer to nest peaceably on your balcony rather than hanging with the crowd around the pool area? Conversely, is your idea of a stateroom simply a place to flop into bed at 1 a.m. -- no fancy notions necessary? Are there certain amenities you are willing to splurge on, or can you simply not justify paying for unnecessary perks? The answers will help guide you toward selecting the best stateroom for your money.
If you're feeling overwhelmed by choice, we'll help you get started with this guide to choosing the best cruise cabins for you and your travel party.
Note: Staterooms designed for physically challenged guests can fall into any of the above categories and will not be separated out.
The "real estate" that your stateroom occupies, no matter the type, can make you seasick or keep you up all night with noise -- or it can lull you like a baby and provide exquisite views of your surroundings. That's why doing your homework is important. Here are some factors to consider when picking your cabin's location on the ship.
If you tend to get seasick, cabin location is really important. It's a question of engineering, really. The lower and more central you are in a ship, the less roll and sway you will feel. Even if you choose a balconied stateroom, choose the lowest level and the most midship one you can find. The higher decks and cabins at the very front (forward) or back (aft) of the ship will rock and roll the most.
Some cruise travelers prefer their cabins to be near to (or far away from) specific areas of the ship. Sun-worshippers might prefer an upper-deck location close to the pools and sun decks, while partiers might want easy access to midship entertainment hubs. Travelers with mobility concerns may prefer a stateroom close to a bank of elevators.
For some reason, most cruise lines assign their nicest and most expensive cabins to the highest decks, usually just below the pool deck (most likely because if you have a window or balcony, you have a more sweeping vista). Still, it's the pool deck that often causes the most noise problems, so if you don't want to hear scraping chairs at the crack of dawn or yee-hawing pool parties until the wee hours, go down a level. In fact, when it comes to noise, the best bet is to select a cabin that is both above and below other cabins. Other pitfalls include service areas adjacent to or above your stateroom; show lounges or bars adjacent to, above or below your stateroom; and self-service launderettes across from your cabin. Other cabins that can be problematic are those that are situated low and at the back (because of their proximity to engine noise, vibration and anchor) or low and forward (because of bow thrusters).
In this age of mega-ships, cabins now come in all shapes and sizes. In addition to the typical boxy inside and outside cabins, you can find expansive suites, duplexes and lofts. Balconies also range in size from small affairs barely able to squeeze in two chairs and a drinks table to huge wraparound decks with outdoor dining tables and hot tubs.
On many ships, basic inside and outside cabins are usually the same size, the difference being that one has a porthole or picture window to let in natural light. Balcony cabins can also be the same size as standard insides and outsides, with the addition of the outdoor space on the verandah; sometimes the interior space is larger. A basic cabin, regardless of category, is referred to as a "standard" unless there is something about it that makes it different (such as physical layout, being handicapped accessible or a designated family cabin). With minisuites on up, you get bigger and bigger indoor and outdoor spaces.
For many travelers, the decision on what size cabin to get is directly related to price. Who wouldn't go for the huge suite if price were no obstacle? Yet it can be tricky to decide whether a balcony is worth the upgrade from a standard outside, or which suite to choose. Here are a few size-related considerations to take into account.
Do you need a balcony? Cruise travelers who spend all their time in the public areas -- sun decks, lounges, restaurants -- or on shore may be perfectly happy with standard-size cabins and no private outdoor space. Those who love to avoid the crowds and lounge quietly on their own verandahs or have private room-service meals outdoors will surely want balconies. Don't forget to take your itinerary into account; on a chilly-weather cruise, you might not be spending too much time outside, so depending on how much space and light you need, a balcony might not be worth the splurge.
Pay attention to the unique cabin setups on your ship, as they're not all created equal. Disney's four cruise ships, for example, have large standard staterooms designed to accommodate families. Even inside cabins may have a sleeping section that can be curtained off from the living area along with a split bath system. (One bathroom has the shower/tub and sink, another a toilet and sink.) Carnival is also known for having larger-than-average standard cabins, while Silversea, Regent Seven Seas Cruises and Seabourn ships feature all-suite accommodations. Norwegian Epic cabins sport the "new wave" design, with curvy walls and separate rooms for showers and toilets; sinks are located in the main cabins. As mentioned earlier, cabins at the very front and back of a ship often have different layouts than the cookie-cutter cabins that run the length of the ship.
Since cruising has become a popular family vacation, more new ships have built "family accommodations" into the actual design. These are often suites, each with a separate room for the kids -- sometimes a small alcove with bunk beds, sometimes an entire adjoining cabin. Families and groups can also take advantage of regular staterooms with third or fourth berths found in pullout sofas or pull-down bunk beds (called Pullmans). If you're going to squeeze your whole troupe into one cabin, make sure the space is big enough to accommodate the lot of you ... and all your belongings.
Very few ships actually have cabins dedicated to solo travelers. These will have sleeping space for one and can be quite small. The studio cabins on select Norwegian ships are the most famous example of this: The 100-square-foot staterooms each contain a full-size bed, nifty lighting effects and a large round window that looks out into the corridor. If you're a solo traveler, you'll want to price out the cost of a solo cabin (usually somewhat higher than the double-occupancy rate of a similarly sized stateroom) compared to the cost of paying the single supplement (an extra fee tacked on if there aren't two people in a cabin; the price can come out to as much as double the regular rate) for a standard cabin. And book early, as solo cabins sell out quickly.
When it comes to choosing suite accommodations, it's best to figure out how much space you really need, what amenities are important to you and what you can afford to spend. Suites on most ships are often the first category to sell out, partly because there are fewer of them, and partly because they often offer extremely good value. For this reason, it's important to decide early what kind of suite you'd like.
Suites come in all shapes and sizes. For example, among the most over-the-top are Norwegian Cruise Line's 5,000-plus-square-foot, three-bedroom Garden Villa suites on its Jewel-class ships. These each feature a private terrace with a hot tub, spacious living and dining areas, and butler service, plus access to an exclusive-access deck area. Other suites may come with dining areas, wet bars, deluxe bathrooms, walk-in closets, multiple levels and even pianos. On the other end, a mini-suite (found on nearly all ships) is often just a bigger version of a standard balcony cabin, sometimes with more delineation between the living and sleeping areas.
All cabins come with basic amenities, such as the services of a cabin steward to clean your room and turn down the beds, soap and shampoo in the bathroom, individual climate control, etc. But certain categories of stateroom come with added perks. Suites come with a variety of extras and privileges, everything from priority boarding to in-cabin bar setups. Spa cabins will offer spa-related perks, such as yoga mats in the cabin or a fancy showerhead; concierge-level cabins will give you access to a concierge and niceties like afternoon canapes; and even solo cabins might offer extras, such as the use of an exclusive lounge. How do you want to be pampered on your vacation? Here are some extras you may want to sign up (and pay a premium) for.
A concierge can take care of all those annoying practical matters you need to tend to on a cruise: making dinner and spa reservations, booking shore excursions, making requests of the front desk. Their services are included in the price of many suites, and on some ships the concierge has a desk in an exclusive concierge lounge where suite guests and high-level past passengers can snack, drink and relax in private. Concierge-level cabins may also come with in-cabins amenities including welcome drinks, fruit baskets or afternoon canapes.
Having a personal butler can be a wonderfully pampering experience, and some cruise lines include the butler service as part of your fare when you select a suite or "concierge level" cabin. Look carefully at the difference in the cruise fare, and decide if it's really worth it. Beyond that, look at the services that are offered; some cruise line butlers really do provide extra value. For instance, some can bring you room service from hard-to-get-into alternative restaurants, refill your mini-bar to personal specifications, and serve in-cabin meals course-by-course. Butlers can also unpack and repack your bags, draw rose-petal baths and assist you in preparing in-suite cocktail parties.
Costa started the spa cabin trend, but many mainstream lines quickly followed suit. The concept is simple: Spa aficionados pay more for cabins decked out in Asian-inspired Zen decor that come with extra amenities, ranging from fancy showerheads and specialty bath products to fluffy bathrobes, yoga mats and healthier room service menus. Spa cabin residents are granted free access to spa restaurants (such as Celebrity's Blu or Costa's Ristorante Samsara), complimentary passes to spa pools and sauna/steam room areas, and may get free, discounted or priority spa treatments and fitness classes. And you don't always have to book a huge suite; on Holland America, several inside cabins have been designated as spa cabins with all the associated perks.
Some lines offer gated-access suite complexes where some of the most expensive accommodations are arranged around exclusive deck areas, including private pools, whirlpools, fitness centers, sun decks, restaurants and lounges; MSC Cruises' Yacht Club and Norwegian's Haven are two examples. Norwegian's studio cabins -- although tiny inside affairs -- also gain you access to a special lounge reserved just for solo travelers.
Do you have to have a whirlpool bathtub or a walk-in closet? Will you be entertaining and thus in need of a dining table that can seat six or eight? Do you want benefits like priority dinner reservations and being first in line to get on or off the ship? Do you want to be pampered with extra-plush linens and bathrobes, fancy bath products and in-suite coffee and booze? You can find those amenities and more in most of the upper-level suites.
If what you see from your cabin is important to you, you might want to think about how cabin location impacts your scenic vistas. Consider both the direction in which your room faces, as well as how the ship's structure might get in the way of your view out to sea.
Forward- and Aft-Facing Balconies
Aft balconied cabins (the ones at very back of the ship) can be the most prized standard balconied cabins afloat. Why? Because they can make you feel as though you are at the end of the world, offering 180-degree views over the stern's wake. (Read about the multitude of aft-lovers.) And the balconies are almost always at least 50 percent bigger than standard balconies located along the sides of the ship. They do have a downside, though; they are at the very back of the ship and far away from a lot of activities. Plus, they are almost always "stepped out," allowing passengers in cabins above yours and those looking over the rail from the pool and other public decks to see down into your balcony.
Some standard rooms and many suites are located at the aft "corners" of a ship, with balconies that curve around the sides. Take one of those, and you can see where you're going and where you've been at the same time! Front-facing balconied cabins are almost always suites.
Some older ships have cabins with windows looking out onto the open-air walking track (called the promenade) that encircles the ship. These promenade cabins offer the advantage of easy access to fresh air without paying for a balcony. Holland America's Statendam-class ships, for example, have some outside cabins like this, but the line has transformed many of these originally outside cabins into "lanai" cabins with back doors that lead directly from the cabin onto the promenade. The two biggest drawbacks of promenade-deck staterooms are that they tend to be dark because of the wide overhang above the deck, and anyone can see into them when the lights are on. Don't forget to close those drapes!
Some supposedly "oceanview" staterooms actually have obstructed, or blocked, views due to the ship's structural design. These include balconied cabins under the pool deck overhang, which limits visibility; cabins above or adjacent to the lifeboats; and forward balconied cabins located close to the bridge wing. But there is an upside to a blocked vista -- they can be a good deal. If the amount of view you get relative to the amount of money you spend is important to you, look for "secret porthole" insides or "obstructed view" outsides. The secret porthole cabins are those sold as inside cabins that actually have windows with blocked views and the partially or fully obstructed cabins are sold as outsides but often at the price of an inside.
Windowed and balconied cabins don't always look out to sea. For example, some Royal Caribbean ships have inside-view cabins, with windows looking out onto interior public areas. Oasis-class Royal Caribbean ships, for instance, have inward-facing cabins with views of Central Park (the ship's garden area with live greenery) and the Boardwalk (an amusement park-themed stretch of ship with a carousel and food stands). These are typically sold at a price that falls somewhere between the insides and outsides. Virtual views are the latest trend for inside cabins that wouldn't otherwise have a window. Disney and Royal Caribbean have created "magical portholes" and "virtual balconies" by using ship-mounted cameras to play real-time images of the sea and port onto high-definition display screens, meant to simulate real cabin windows and add views and light to interior staterooms.
If scenery is important to you, take a good look at your cruise itinerary before selecting your cabin, specifically if you are choosing an outside or balcony. On a roundtrip Caribbean cruise or a transatlantic crossing, for example, the side of the ship you are on doesn't really matter. If, on the other hand, you are doing a one-way sailing (such as a southbound Alaska cruise or a trip from Barcelona to Rome), you might want to consider choosing a cabin on the side of the ship that faces the land. Sometimes the views can be breathtaking, and you won't get those views from the cabins that face out to the open sea.
Inside cabins with no views at all are typically the smallest, cheapest cabins onboard. They are great options for budget-minded travelers who don't intend to spend a lot of time in their stateroom, or who want to sleep all day in absolute pitch dark. They are less ideal for cruisers prone to seasickness, those who need natural light and groups who require a lot of in-cabin space. Not everyone will be happy in an inside cabin; it's worth upgrading if the lack of light will put a damper on your vacation.
Only you know your vacation budget, but figuring out the best way to spend it can be tricky. Here's our primer on the most important things to know about cruise pricing as related to choosing a cabin. For more tricks of the trade on getting that cruise steal, find out how to save money on your next cruise.
Cruise fares fluctuate like airfares; they can change daily. Generally speaking, you'll find the lowest fares by booking early (eight months or more prior to sailing) or booking late (two to six weeks before departure). Often, fares drop just after final payment is due (about two months before sailing). But waiting for a higher-category cabin to come down in price to fit into your travel budget is risky; if the cabin category is selling well, fares will just go up.
When trying to determine how much cabin you can afford, don't forget to factor in the cost of the rest of your trip. If you have to spend a lot on airfare, pre-cruise hotels and activities in port, you might not be able to afford the fanciest suite; if you're using frequent-flyer miles or don't need to book a hotel, you'll have more money for cruise fare; the money you save on airfare can be used to spring for a nice stateroom. Or, look for value-added perks from cruise-line and travel-agent promotions. Offers for complimentary onboard cash, prepaid tips or included airfare can free up some money to pay for other vacation expenses.
While you can't count on the "upgrade fairy" to pay you a visit after you've booked that low-tier cabin, you can look out for upgrade deals before you book. One common cruise-line promotion is to offer outside cabins for the price of insides, or balconies for the price of outsides. Just be wary of any offer promising a two-category upgrade (or similar); the fine print usually indicates that the line will give you a "better" (whatever that means according to the line) cabin within the same category (inside to better inside, etc.). You will then be stuck with whichever cabin they give you -- whether you agree it's better or not.
A "guarantee" cabin selection is one in which you pay a low rate for the cabin type (inside, outside, etc.) you are willing to take, but you allow the cruise line to select the actual cabin for you. If you luck out, you could get assigned to a higher-category cabin (e.g., book an outside guarantee and end up in a balcony cabin). On the flip side, you might get the worst cabin in the category you chose -- the one that's slightly smaller or has a blocked view or is in a noisy corner of the ship. Letting the cruise line choose your cabin is risky, so be sure you'll be happy no matter which cabin you get assigned.
For more cabin-selection tips and to ask questions of other cruisers, visit the Cruise Critic message boards.
--Updated by Erica Silverstein, Senior Editor