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Norwegian Cruise Line vs. Royal Caribbean: Your Head-to-Head Guide
Norwegian Cruise Line vs. Royal Caribbean International (Photo: Norwegian Cruise Line/Royal Caribbean International)

Norwegian Cruise Line vs. Royal Caribbean: Your Head-to-Head Guide

Norwegian Cruise Line vs. Royal Caribbean: Your Head-to-Head Guide
Norwegian Cruise Line vs. Royal Caribbean International (Photo: Norwegian Cruise Line/Royal Caribbean International)
Marilyn Borth
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Sifting through the numerous differences between cruise lines is no small feat, often making the cruise-selection process a difficult one.

That's why we've compiled this in-depth breakdown of two of the most popular cruise lines -- Norwegian Cruise Line vs. Royal Caribbean. Check out our detailed comparison below to find the ideal cruise for your and your family's next getaway.

Norwegian Cruise Line vs. Royal Caribbean: In a Nutshell

Norwegian Cruise Line

Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) is renowned for being a laid-back cruise line that's been based on the concept of freestyle cruising. Freestyle cruising is essentially doing what you want, when you want, including no set dining times, nor fixed expectations around dress codes. This line also offers more for-fee dining options than most other cruise lines.

Royal Caribbean International

Royal Caribbean is a family-friendly cruise line that aims to "wow" passengers with high-tech entertainment and activities. Royal Caribbean cruise ships have numerous enthralling activities onboard including Tony Award-winning shows, casinos, arcades and skydiving simulators. Royal offers a vast array of both free and for-fee dining choices.

Norwegian Cruise Line vs. Royal Caribbean: Fleet Size, Age and Passenger Capacity

Norwegian Prima on its maiden voyage (Photo/Colleen McDaniel)

Norwegian Cruise Line Fleet

The Norwegian Cruise Line fleet has 17 ships (and will soon be 19 when two Prima-class ships join in October 2022 and 2027). The fleet is divided into eight classes, all of which have been built or refurbished since 2015.

The largest Norwegian ship currently is the Norwegian Escape, which can hold 4,266 guests and a crew of 1,733. The second largest Norwegian ship is Norwegian Epic, making it a close second with its passenger capacity of 4,100 and crew capacity of 1,724.

The smallest ships from Norwegian are Norwegian Sky and Norwegian Spirit. Norwegian Sky can hold 2,004 passengers and 899 crew members. Norwegian Spirit has a guest capacity of 2,018 and crew capacity of 912. Norwegian Spirit was launched in 1998, which also makes it the oldest Norwegian cruise ship.

Royal Caribbean Fleet

Wonder of the Seas in Labadee on March 6, 2022 (Photo: Aaron Saunders)

Royal Caribbean International has 26 ships that are divided into six classes. Five of these ships were built before 2000 and four more ships are on order to join the fleet.

The largest ship in the Royal Caribbean fleet (and the world as of January 2022) is Wonder of the Seas, which holds 5,734 passengers and 2,300 crew members. Symphony of the Seas is the runner-up as the second-largest ship in the fleet, which has a massive passenger capacity of 5,518 and space for 2,200 crew members.

The smallest Royal Caribbean ship is Rhapsody of the Seas with a passenger capacity of 2,416 and crew member capacity of 765. The second smallest Royal Caribbean ship is Grandeur of the Seas, being able to hold 2,440 guests and 760 crew.

Grandeur of the Seas was the first of the Royal fleet as it was constructed in 1996, making it the oldest Royal Caribbean ship.

Norwegian Cruise Line vs. Royal Caribbean: Fares

While both Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Cruise Line ticket prices are within similar ranges, there are some differences between the way each line approaches cruise fares.

Norwegian Cruise Line Fares

  • NCL tickets are generally a bit higher than industry averages, but the line has a reputation for charging guests extra for various services and products while onboard.
  • Norwegian cruise tickets include less than half of the available restaurants on their ships.
  • Most NCL entertainment is fortunately included in their fares. Exceptions include lunch and dinner theaters, and alcohol-included small-stage shows, all of which are only available on select ships. Expect fees for things like go-karting and laser tag as well, on ships where these activities are offered.

Royal Caribbean Fares

  • While Royal Caribbean cruise ticket prices are traditionally similar to Norwegian's, the prices on their newest ships are significantly higher than those for their other ships. Royal generally doesn't offer last-minute cruise discounts except on cruises of four nights or less.
  • Royal Caribbean tickets include about half of the onboard restaurants and all entertainment is included, except lunch and dinner theater shows.
  • Empress of the Seas has the unique offer of a free Bloody Mary or mimosa at brunch on sea days.

Norwegian Cruise Line vs. Royal Caribbean: Demographics

Both Norwegian Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean cater to families and couples, though NCL does a better job of catering to solo travelers, thanks to its unique Studio staterooms designed for one.

Norwegian Cruise Line Demographics

Cruise Critic Pub Crawl on Norwegian Bliss (Photo: Cruise Critic)

While aboard nearly any Norwegian cruise ship, you'll mostly see families, couples and singles that range in age from their 30s to 60s.

There is a larger number of solo cruisers on NCL ships that offer the award-winning Studio cabins, which have been specifically designed for one person. Norwegian ships with studio cabins include Norwegian Epic, Norwegian Bliss, Norwegian Breakaway, Norwegian Getaway, Norwegian Escape, Norwegian Encore, Norwegian Prima and Pride of America.

Royal Caribbean Demographics

Belly Flop Contest on Adventure of the Seas (Photo: Cruise Critic)

Royal Caribbean cruise ships attract a similar crowd as Norwegian: families, couples and singles in their 30s to 60s.

The most common age range aboard Royal Caribbean ships is low 40s. However, the typical age range is slightly lower on shorter cruises and a bit higher on cruises of 10 nights or more.

Norwegian Cruise Line vs. Royal Caribbean: Itineraries and Destinations

Both Norwegian Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean offer plenty of U.S. homeport cruising, along with international itineraries departing from the U.K., Europe and more.

Norwegian Cruise Line Itineraries and Destinations

Norwegian Breakaway at Great Stirrup Cay (Photo: Cruise Critic)

NCL has 14 homeports on the North American mainland where ships depart seasonally to year-round. They offer several itineraries, including the Caribbean, Bermuda, Bahamas, Mexico and Alaska.

  • They also have seasonal Mediterranean and Northern Europe itineraries.
  • NCL is the only major cruise line to offer all-Hawaiian-islands cruises departing roundtrip from Honolulu.
  • NCL offers other exciting and more far-flung cruises which include stops in South America, as well as Asia, Australia, Africa, along with extended multi-week Extraordinary Journeys sailings.

Royal Caribbean Itineraries and Destinations

Perfect Day at CocoCay (Photo: Aaron Saunders)

Royal Caribbean sails out of 16 homeports on the North American mainland seasonally to year-round. Royal Caribbean itinerary options include the Caribbean, Bermuda, Bahamas, Mexico, Alaska and Hawaii.

  • Regular cruises in Europe, including Baltic, Northern Europe and Mediterranean cruises, out of several ports.
  • Royal Caribbean itinerary choices also include Australia, Asia, Latin America and South Pacific sailings.
  • The only major North American brand offering roundtrip cruises from Israel.

Norwegian Cruise Line vs. Royal Caribbean: Cabins

NCL and Royal Caribbean cabins come in various configurations and choices to suit every budget and preference.

Norwegian Cruise Line Cabins

The Haven Courtyard Penthouse Suite on Norwegian Bliss (Photo: Cruise Critic)

NCL cabin categories come in an impressive range, even on the smaller ships. The sizes are typical of industry standards, though balconies on the Breakaway and Breakaway Plus Classes are notably small (226 square feet).

  • Seven ships have spa cabins, which feature spa-like decor and free access to the onboard saunas and steam rooms. Eight ships (Norwegian Encore, Norwegian Escape, Norwegian Epic, Norwegian Bliss, Norwegian Breakaway, Norwegian Getaway, Norwegian Prima and Pride of America) offer Studio cabins.
  • Twelve ships have the top-deck Haven suite complex with exclusive access to a private courtyard and pool; of these ships, eight also have a private lounge and dining room for Haven passengers.
  • Three-bedroom Garden Villas that sleep up to eight people and have shared access to a private outdoor terrace with a hot tub are available on six ships.Norwegian Prima’s eight-guest equivalent is called The Haven Premier Owner’s Suite with Large Balcony.
  • There are numerous suite privileges onboard Norwegian, including priority embarkation, debarkation and tender boarding; butler and concierge service; an exclusive breakfast breakfast and lunch; cocktail party with ship’s officers; daily canapes; and sparkling wine, bottled water and fruit gifted on embarkation day.
  • Family cabins come in a variety of configurations, including suites, oceanview staterooms, balconies and inside cabins without windows.

Royal Caribbean Cabins

The Ultimate Family Suite on Symphony of the Seas (Photo: Cruise Critic)

Royal has numerous cabin categories available. Depending on the ship, these accommodations can include inside cabins with picture windows overlooking the Royal Promenade, balconies with front-row views of the AquaTheater (on Oasis-class ships), rooms sized for just one person and massive duplex suites.

  • Eleven ships offer Virtual Balcony inside cabins (not all insides will have the virtual balconies), with giant TV screens that give the impression of floor-to-ceiling windows.
  • Six ships offer a handful of studio cabins sized for one person. Balcony, oceanview and inside studios are available on many Royal Caribbean ships.
  • Comprehensive, tiered suite privileges aboard include free internet, priority boarding and disembarking, reserved theater seating, suite lounge access and more, such as specialty dining and the service of a dedicated Royal Genie (in Star Class accommodations).
  • Offers some of the largest suites in the mainstream cruise category, including duplex options that cover two stories on the line's largest ships.
  • Family rooms on Royal Caribbeans are plentiful, including those with connecting doors, oversized cabins with full baths, and even the two-floored Ultimate Family Suite (found on Wonder of the Seas, Symphony of the Seas and Spectrum of the Seas) that also contains a kids' play area.

Norwegian Cruise Line vs. Royal Caribbean: Dining Options

Both Norwegian Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean offer a multitude of dining options, especially on their newest ships. Not all dining venues are free, however, and many require reservations in advance.

Both cruise lines charge a small service fee for room service outside continental breakfast and automatically add gratuity.

Norwegian Cruise Line Dining

Texas Smokehouse Q on Norwegian Bliss (Photo: Cruise Critic)

Thanks to “freestyle” dining, you can eat at any onboard restaurant at any time during open hours. However, reservations may be required and fill up fast for the most popular restaurants.

  • All ships have a free pub/restaurant or diner that is open 24 hours a day, as well as complimentary buffets and main dining rooms for breakfasts, lunches and dinners.
  • All NCL ships have four or more extra-fee specialty restaurants including a steakhouse, Italian, French, Mexican, Japanese and Brazilian.
  • Six ships (Norwegian Bliss, Norwegian Encore, Norwegian Breakaway, Norwegian Getaway, Norwegian Joy and Norwegian Escape) feature The Waterfront, an outdoor area offering alfresco seating for several restaurants and bars (on Norwegian Prima, this area is called Ocean Boulevard).
  • Norwegian Encore and Norwegian Prima offer guests Onda partnered with Scarpetta, a premier fine-dining Italian venue.
  • NCL provides one "optional formal" night on weeklong sailings.

Royal Caribbean Dining

Jamie's Italian on Anthem of the Seas (Photo: Cruise Critic)

Traditional fixed seating times or flexible “My Time” dining options are available onboard Royal Caribbean for main dining rooms as are reservations for specialty dining. The larger the ship, the more restaurants and overall dining options there will be at your disposal.

  • Offers guests both fixed and flexible My Time dining options. Royal Caribbean My Time dining is a package that allows guests to eat in the Main Dining Room at their leisure instead of adhering to strict hours.
  • Royal offers a large choice of specialty restaurants but only a handful are included in the cruise fare, including Windjammer Cafe, Sorrento's Pizza and the Cafe Promenade, beside the standard buffet and main dining room offerings.
  • Jamie Oliver, a celebrity chef, has partnered with Royal and brought Jamie's Italian to seven of their ships (Anthem of the Seas, Harmony of the Seas, Mariner of the Seas, Navigator of the Seas, Ovation of the Seas, Symphony of the Seas, Quantum of the Seas and Spectrum of the Seas).
  • Michael Swartz also helped create the menu for 150 Central Park on the Oasis-class ships. Newer ships have further pushed the boundaries of dining, ranging from the traditional comfort food of The Mason Jar to the avant-garde cuisine of Wonderland.
  • Royal has at least one formal night per sailing that suggests passengers to dress up for dinner (or eat in the buffet where casual attire is always acceptable).

Norwegian Cruise Line vs. Royal Caribbean: Pool Deck Fun

Pool deck attractions aboard Norwegian Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean are plentiful, particularly aboard their newest and largest ships.

Norwegian Cruise Line Pool Deck Fun

The Aqua Park on Norwegian Breakaway (Photo: Cruise Critic)

Some Norwegian ships have slightly crowded pool decks (Breakaway Class, Norwegian Epic), but they make up for the congestion with a wide variety of bonus water features.

  • Norwegian ships have at least one large pool or two smaller pools along with four to six outdoor hot tubs onboard all ships. Several ships provide child-specific pools or water parks.
  • Several ships have pool and water slide combos, with eight having slide-centric Aqua Parks (Norwegian Prima has more dry slides than waterslides, however).
  • There are even some poolside activities, but pool decks are primarily for lounging and taking a relaxing dip.

Royal Caribbean Pool Deck Fun

FlowRider on Freedom of the Seas

Royal Caribbean has some of the most elaborate pool decks in the cruising industry, but didn’t embrace the full waterpark concept until more recently. Now, the line’s newest ships offer more bells and whistles than a shoreside resort.

  • On every ship in the Royal fleet, there are at least two pools while some have three or four.
  • There are a total of 19 FlowRider surf simulators across the fleet (as of September 2022). Fifteen ships have the kids' H2O Zone or Splashaway Bay.
  • Royal will be adding water slides to many ships over the course of several years; as of September 2022, 11 ships have the line’s signature collection of The Perfect Storm waterways.
  • Poolside fun might include pool volleyball or sexiest man and belly flop competitions.
  • Adults-only Solarium offers a quiet sun deck alternative, often with additional shade.

Norwegian Cruise Line vs. Royal Caribbean: Sports Deck Fun

Those who want to remain active will find plenty of diversions aboard both Norwegian Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean.

Norwegian Cruise Line Sports Deck Fun

Go-Kart Racetrack on Norwegian Bliss (Photo: Cruise Critic)

Norwegian was the first to really elevate its sports decks, placing full-scale go-kart raceways in addition to ropes courses and laser tag arenas in outdoor spaces. Plus, with every new ship, the line expands its inclusions (some of which cost extra).

  • Most ships have a traditional sports court, and either mini-golf or golf driving nets.
  • Five ships have rock-climbing walls, two of which also have a ropes course. Norwegian Escape specifically has a large ropes course but no rock climbing wall.
  • Four ships (Norwegian Encore, Norwegian Joy, Norwegian Bliss and Norwegian Prima) have a two-level Go-Kart track as well as a Laser Tag arena.
  • Norwegian Prima introduced a trio of dry slides stretching from the top of the ship nearly all the way down in addition to its singular water slide.

Royal Caribbean Sports Deck Fun

Sky Pad on Mariner of the Seas (Photo: Cruise Critic)

Royal Caribbean is well known for its FlowRider surf simulators, but the line has gone on to extend its long list of activities. Royal now showcases its RipCord by iFLY skydiving simulators as well as North Star crane pods, many of which are free.

  • Every ship has a basketball court and rock-climbing wall, while most also have mini-golf courses.
  • Quantum-class ships offer indoor skydiving.
  • Oasis-class ships have zip lines and four of the five Oasis-class ships (Oasis, Harmony, Symphony and Wonder) have a pair of 10-deck dry slides known collectively as the Ultimate Abyss.
  • Three ships have a trampoline-based virtual reality bungee cord attraction called Sky Pad.

Norwegian Cruise Line vs. Royal Caribbean: Indoor Fun

Inside both Norwegian Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean cruise ships is a multitude of enriching activities to pass the time.

Norwegian Cruise Line Indoor Fun

Car Simulator in The Galaxy Pavilion (Photo: Norwegian Cruise Line)

Indoor fun on a Norwegian cruise begins with trivia, bingo, dance classes and both beer and wine tastings and further extends to:

  • Typical daily schedules that include trivia, bingo, dance classes, the interactive "Deal or No Deal" show, and beer and wine tastings.
  • Three ships (Norwegian Joy, Norwegian Encore and Norwegian Prima) feature Galaxy Pavilion, an extra-fee virtual reality playground that is as popular with adults as it is with kids and teenagers.
  • Select ships offer full-size or miniature bowling onboard.
  • Some ships offer complimentary sessions in a circus-themed escape room-style experience called Escape the Big Top where participants must work together to solve puzzles and escape in a specified time frame. Four ships (Norwegian Escape, Norwegian Breakaway, Norwegian Getaway and Norwegian Epic) have dedicated escape rooms.

Royal Caribbean Indoor Fun

Royal Promenade on Freedom of the Seas (Photo: Cruise Critic)

The abundance of indoor activities on Royal Caribbean can satisfy any guest and any taste. Just some of Royal's indoor activities include:

  • Day schedules with itinerary items such as trivia, bingo, napkin-folding demonstrations, dance classes, scrapbooking sessions and jewelry-making classes.
  • On Oasis-, Quantum-, Voyager- and Freedom-class ships, the Royal Promenade or Esplanade is one of the best places to grab a bite to eat or beer to drink, people-watch or indulge in a little retail therapy.
  • Indoor ice skating rinks are available on 13 ships.
  • Quantum-class ships feature the SeaPlex, an indoor activity center with bumper cars, roller skating, trapeze classes and an arcade.
  • Newer and refurbished ships offer genuine escape room experiences.

Norwegian Cruise Line vs. Royal Caribbean: Nightlife

Norwegian Cruise Line Nightlife

White Hot Party on Norwegian Sky (Photo: Cruise Critic)

NCL is one of the brands to expand from only musical revues to also remounted stage shows direct from Broadway. Its entertainment offerings, which are subject to change, include the following and more:

  • Norwegian has full-scale Broadway shows and more: Norwegian Breakaway (“Burn the Floor," "Velvet" and "Six"), Norwegian Getaway ("Million Dollar Quartet"), Norwegian Epic ("Priscilla Queen of the Desert"), Norwegian Escape ("The Choir of Man"), Norwegian Bliss ("Jersey Boys"), Norwegian Joy (“Footloose"), Norwegian Encore ("Kinky Boots”) and Norwegian Prima (“Summer: The Donna Summer Musical”).
  • Newer ships feature almost nightly comedy performances in a multi-purpose comedy/nightclub setting.
  • All ships offer musical revue-style song-and-dance shows several times per sailing, as well as live music throughout. Norwegian Epic, Norwegian Bliss, Norwegian Joy and Norwegian Encore offer a Beatles cover band in The Cavern Club.
  • Norwegian Breakaway and Norwegian Getaway feature an extra-fee circus-style dinner theater show, while Norwegian Escape has a Supper Club dinner show.
  • All ships have at least eight bars and lounges.

Royal Caribbean Nightlife

Two70 on Anthem of the Seas

Royal Caribbean upped its entertainment ante by introducing Broadway and London West End productions into the mix on its newer ships. Its entertainment offerings, subject to change, include the following and more:

  • Broadway or London West End productions on several ships: Anthem of the Seas ("We Will Rock You"), Oasis of the Seas ("Cats"), Liberty of the Seas ("Saturday Night Fever"), Allure of the Seas ("Mamma Mia"), Symphony of the Seas ("Hairspray") and Independence of the Seas and Harmony of the Seas (both have "Grease")
  • Evening entertainment includes musical revue-style song-and-dance shows and live music throughout, as well as occasional performances by comedians and magicians on all ships.
  • Select ships in the line's Vision and Radiance classes offer evening aerial shows in the atrium.
  • Oasis-class ships feature gravity-defying diving and acrobatic performances in the outdoor AquaTheater.
  • Quantum, Anthem and Ovation ships feature Two70, a three-deck-high lounge and performance space featuring stunning acts that combine digital visuals with music, dancing and acrobatics.
  • Schooner Bar is the spot for post-dinner piano sing-alongs, while Bolero's offers guests Latin beats, making it an ideal place for salsa dancing and sipping mojitos.
  • Studio B provides breathtaking kaleidoscopic ice skating performances, some of which feature drone light shows. Studio B can be found on Voyager, Navigator, Mariner, Adventure and Explorer.

Norwegian Cruise Line vs. Royal Caribbean: Family Focus

Both Norwegian Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean are geared towards family-friendly fun and have various dedicated kid's programs and activities. However, the most elaborate facilities are always found aboard the line's largest and newest ships.

Norwegian Cruise Line Family Focus

Guppies Playroom on Norwegian Dawn (Photo: Cruise Critic)

  • Programming for kids is divided into four groups: Guppies (6 months to under 3 years),Seals (5 to 9 years), Dolphins (10 to 12 years) and Entourage (13 to 17 years). Note that during the low season, Dolphins are for 6 to 12-year-olds.
  • The Guppies program offers programming for both parents and their babies and toddlers. Guppies' activities and open play are available fleet-wide.
  • Extra-fee evening and port day group baby-sitting are available for kids ages 5 to 12.
  • Family-friendly accommodations include 2-Bedroom Family Suites, plus Family Mini-Suites, Balconies, Oceanviews and Inside cabins.

Royal Caribbean Family Focus

Royal Babies and Tots Nursery on Allure of the Seas (Photo: Cruise Critic)

  • The Adventure Ocean program is divided into several groups for Royal Babies and Tots (6 months to just under 3 years), Aquanauts (ages 3 to 5), Explorers (6 to 8) and Voyagers (9 to 12). There are also two groups in the Teen Program: one for ages 12 to 14 and another for ages 15 to 17.
  • Parents can have most of dinner to themselves via My Family Time Dining, wherein kids ages 3 to 11 are served their meals first and then picked up by kids club staff, leaving parents on their own to finish their dinner.
  • Royal Babies and Royal Tots services charge a fee for daytime and nighttime sessions.
  • Families can pre-order diapers, wipes, cream and baby food through the Babies 2 Go program.

Updated October 07, 2022

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