Updated January 8, 2020
New cruise ships always seem to get the spotlight, touting outrageous onboard additions that strive for the consumer "wow" factor. But what about their tried-and-true fleetmates -- a mix of vessels that have long since paid their dues and the hot new ships from a few years back? Sure, newer ships are often larger and more packed with diversions for every age and taste, but they can also be expensive and crowded, and as with anything new, there are sometimes bugs to be worked out. Older ships might show wear and tear, but cruise lines have been investing millions to keep their fleets outfitted with modern amenities and popular attractions.
To help you decide whether new is better or old is the way to go, we've compiled a list of elements to consider before making a choice, addressing key points like amenities and price. Check out the contrasts below.
As a rule, newer vessels are larger. It makes sense: As more bells and whistles are added, more space is needed to contain them. Although ship sizes vary widely across fleets, a number of vessels have launched in the last decade that can carry what amounts to the population of a small city. Harmony of the Seas, the largest ship afloat, comprises 18 decks and has room for 5,400 passengers. For purposes of comparison, Majesty of the Seas, the oldest ship in the Royal Caribbean fleet, has 12 decks and holds 2,350 passengers -- less than half the capacity of Oasis-class ships like Harmony. Other lines have followed suit: Carnival's 15-deck Carnival Vista carries nearly 4,000 passengers, and those in Norwegian's 20-deck Breakaway-Plus Class accommodate 4,200 cruisers. You can easily get lost, though you are less likely to be alone.
Old stalwarts, which are smaller in size and lighter on fanfare, offer more relaxing and intimate experiences. Sure, they still have plenty of glitz, but passengers don't have to feel like they're missing as many marquee activities if they choose to curl up in a lounge with a good book or veg out by the pool for half a day. Old ships are also more likely to have quieter spaces like libraries and card rooms. Smaller ships suit travelers who don't like large crowds, have trouble traversing the long decks of the biggest ships and don't want to think about which of the five different sun deck areas they should utilize. But watch out -- some cruise lines have refurbished their older ships to add more cabins, both cutting back on available public areas and squeezing more people into the space that's left.
As ships' public areas become more glitzy and glamorous, so do their cabins. The suites on new ships possess lots of wow factor, from cantilevered, glassed-in showers to Ralph Lauren decor and multiple levels of living space. One trend we've seen with newer ships is an increase in the number of balcony accommodations, but although they've increased in number, many have also decreased in size. Take, for example, the balconies on Royal Princess and Regal Princess. Balconies on these twin ships average 41 square feet -- smaller than those found on the line's older ships.
Beyond standard verandas, cabins that specifically cater to certain groups are all the rage. From solo cabins (Norwegian Epic, Breakaway, Getaway, Escape and Bliss; Royal Caribbean Quantum, Anthem and Harmony of the Seas; Holland America Koningsdam; MSC Meraviglia and Seaside) and two-deck suites (Royal Caribbean's Oasis- and Quantum-class ships, MSC's Meraviglia) to inside staterooms with virtual scenery (Disney Dream and Fantasy, Quantum, Anthem and Harmony of the Seas), specialty cabins have stolen the spotlight. New ships also tend to have more connecting cabins and family cabins and suites, perfect for larger travel parties.
Older ships are generally the way to go if balcony space is important to you. However, you'll have to book early. While balconies might be bigger, veranda cabins make up a smaller percentage of stateroom inventory on older ships. (Some older ships have had balcony cabins added during dry dock.) The plethora of cabin categories on newer ships might also make your head spin, so if you just want to keep it simple, consider an older ship. Carpeting and soft furnishings like curtains and bedding are upgraded frequently during refurbs; despite that, keep in mind that older ships might show signs of wear -- scuffs, dings, outdated bathrooms -- that newer vessels don't.
For active types or adults traveling with children, newer ships offer far more in the way of outdoor fun. Norwegian's and Carnival's newest vessels have ropes courses that are enough to make anyone dizzy -- no fear of heights required. Meanwhile, Royal Caribbean's Oasis and Allure of the Seas have ziplines and surf simulators, and Quantum, Anthem and Ovation of the Seas bring skydiving to the high seas for the first time by way of an outdoor simulator. In terms of water-based fun, Carnival offers the WaterWorks aquapark on its Dream- and Vista-class vessels. The open-deck expanse is a haven for anyone who enjoys water slides, featuring the Twister, a 303-foot-long corkscrew tube; the Drainpipe, a 104-foot tube that empties into a giant funnel; and two side-by-side racing slides. Vista also boasts the Kaleid-O-Slide, which incorporates flashing lights among the twists and turns. Not to be outdone, MSC's newest North America-based ship, MSC Seaside, boasts a large top-deck water park, featuring five water slides: two high-speed racing slides with clear loops that extend over one side of the ship; Aquatube, an innertube slide; a flume slide for families; and an interactive Slideboarding tube, which combines video games, lights and music with a 367-foot water slide.
While most older ships offer mild outdoor pursuits like mini-golf, shuffleboard, Ping-Pong and possibly basketball, they're much more low-key than newer ships. With swimming pools as their focus, they offer ideal spots for passengers to laze the days away in the sun, drinks in hand. That said, several lines have chosen to add some of the more popular upper-deck offerings to their older ships. Princess, for example, has added Movies Under the Stars movie screens to most pool decks in its fleet after a successful debut on Caribbean Princess in 2004. Carnival took its popular new Guy's Burger Joint and BlueIguana Cantina eateries and added them to the pool decks on most ships during its massive Fun Ship 2.0 upgrades. The line has also added water slides to all ships in its fleet. For their parts, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian have installed rock climbing walls on many of their vessels.
Newer ships have lots of space to dedicate to dining. Sure, all vessels offer main dining rooms, but concepts like Carnival's American Table (a comfort-food menu in a casual, tablecloth-free dining room setting) are putting a twist on traditional dinner options. Many specialty venues have been added on newer ships, as well, and you'll have no trouble finding everything from Italian and Asian to French and seafood, most with cover charges but some without. Some ships, like Norwegian Breakaway and Norwegian Getaway, have even added dinner theater options, which include dinner and a show for a fee. If you've got a sweet tooth, watch out for gelato bars and specialty cake shops enticing you to snack between meals.
Older, smaller ships tend to have more limited alternative dining options. But that's a plus for passengers who prefer to avoid the nickel-and-diming associated with for-fee eateries, or those who prefer a smaller number of venues from which to choose. While some older vessels have gotten new dining additions, most remain pleasantly bare bones.
Activities & Entertainment
Fun pursuits abound on newer ships, and they include some pretty incredible pastimes like parades, character breakfasts, roller skating, puzzle break rooms and even bumper cars. Toss in some top-notch entertainment that rivals what you'd find on Broadway, and you're in for an impressive cruise. AquaTheater, aboard Royal Caribbean's Oasis, Allure and Harmony of the Seas, features high-dive performances set against the backdrop of the ship's wake. Additionally, the line has added Broadway shows on its newest ships: Harmony and Independence of the Seas ("Grease"), Allure of the Seas ("Mamma Mia!"), Oasis of the Seas ("CATS") and Liberty of the Seas ("Saturday Night Fever"). Norwegian has gone the same route, featuring "After Midnight" on Norwegian Escape, "Priscilla Queen of the Desert" on Norwegian Epic and "Rock of Ages" on Norwegian Breakaway. Other enticing options include added-fee dinner theater aboard Norwegian Getaway, Breakaway and Epic. One downside to these events is that, for many of them (even if they're free), tickets are required and can run out quickly.
Entertainment aboard older ships is a bit more standard: Broadway revues, magicians, comedians and the like. However, several lines have brought their most recent offerings to older vessels. Most notably, Carnival added the Punchliner Comedy Club to most of its ships, in addition to "Hasbro, the Game Show," where participants play giant versions of classic board games -- like SORRY! and Connect 4 -- onstage. The line also debuted its Carnival Live series of for-fee concerts aboard Carnival Fantasy and a handful of other ships in the fleet. Princess has also livened up its entertainment across its family of vessels by adding The Voice of the Ocean. Based on popular TV show "The Voice," the competition pits willing passengers against one another in a sing-off after auditions and coaching by members of the onboard entertainment staff. Additionally, Norwegian has rolled out its popular O'Sheehan's pub, which offers free grub (and for-fee arcade games where space allows) on a couple of its older vessels.
Itineraries and Pricing
Because many passengers are willing pay a premium for the privilege of sailing on a newer ship, fresh-from-the-shipyard vessels are often based in the biggest markets. (Think Caribbean and Mediterranean.) The cruise lines have to fill all those thousands of berths, so you typically won't find new ships on niche itineraries. In addition, huge ships like Royal Caribbean's Oasis-class vessels are too big to dock at certain ports or sail through tight channels, so they are also constrained by their size. The combination of popular ports and a ship full of the latest innovations means cruise lines will ask top-dollar for cabins -- and passengers will pay it. The best cabins on these ships will also sell out more quickly than their fleetmates'. While you won't find a lot of itinerary variety, it might not matter; many passengers would rather spend the time onboard taking in all the new attractions.
Cruise lines have huge fleets these days -- Carnival has nearly 30 ships sailing -- so the majority of their voyages are on older ships. These vessels sail every type of itinerary imaginable, from weekend cruises to multi-month round-the-world cruises. If you want to sail the islands of Hawaii or French Polynesia, ogle the scenery in Alaska or the Norwegian fjords, or head somewhere exotic like Asia or Australia, you'll likely need an older ship. Typically, the very oldest ships in the fleet will be employed on shorter cruises from drive-to ports. These ships lend themselves perfectly to the cause, as they generally lack the extensive number of amenities that keep passengers busy during longer sailings on newer vessels. Pricing for older ships is often itinerary dependent. Fares for an older ship sailing a well-traveled route will be lower than for a newer ship on a similar itinerary. On the flip side, exotic destinations or popular, short-season itineraries can pull in higher cabin fares regardless of a ship's age.