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Enchantment and Freedom of the Seas at Perfect Day (Photo: Aaron Saunders)

Old Cruise Ships vs. New Cruise Ships: Pros and Cons

Enchantment and Freedom of the Seas at Perfect Day (Photo: Aaron Saunders)
Peter Knego

Nov 23, 2022

Read time
11 min read

The world’s cruise fleet is diverse and brimming with new cruise ships and old cruise ships that can accommodate just about every floating lifestyle. Many guests crave the newest and biggest hardware with all sorts of fancy bells and whistles that would be the envy of any land-based resort, while others might prefer slightly older cruise ships for their (usually) more intimate size, vintage charm and connection with the sea.

As cruise ships get bigger and fancier (and, yes, more crowded), valid cases can be made for cruising on both old cruise ships and new cruise ships.

Where should you stand in the battle between old cruise ships vs. new cruise ships? We’ve come up with a helpful list to enable cruisers weigh the pros and cons of each.

Old Cruise Ships vs. New Cruise Ships: Size

Popular cruise ships docked in Nassau, a favorite stop among cruisers. (Photo: Cruise Critic)

New Cruise Ships

In recent years, the average size of a cruise ship has increased exponentially. In 2000, the typical new ship was in the 70,000-ton range with a capacity for 2,000 guests. Today, most new cruise ships that cater to the mainstream market (versus expedition or luxury), are basically double that size.

With their increased size, newer ships offer their owners economy of scale by being able to sell more berths while streamlining operational costs -- and that keeps cruise fares low. The increase in size allows extra space for attractions like water parks, rollercoasters, zip lines and wave riding machines.

Another benefit of bigger, newer ships is that as technology improves, cruise ships have become increasingly efficient, with some incorporating more environmentally friendly fueling options like cleaner-burning Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG), fuel cells and solar power augmentation. Additionally, newer ships tend to have greener features like refillable water stations and the use of sustainable materials.

Icon of the Seas (Rendering: Royal Caribbean)

Consider this: Royal Caribbean's Icon of the Seas, which will have 20 passenger decks and carry 5,600 double occupancy guests (with up to 7,600 if all berths are filled) when it is completed in 2024, will dwarf the line's smallest ship, the 1996-built, 11 deck, 2,446 guest Enchantment of the Seas, which could comfortably sail right down the middle of the new behemoth.

Meanwhile, Norwegian’s largest Breakaway-Plus-class ship, Norwegian Encore, accommodates 4004 guests (5,000 maximum) and offers up a go cart racing track, a waterpark and a ropes course among its diversions. Not to be outdone, fast-growing MSC’s new 21 deck, LNG-powered MSC World Europa is a whopping 215,813 gross tons and accommodates 5,520 passengers with attractions like an 11-deck spiral slide and the World Promenade, a seven deck tall outdoor atrium at the ship’s stern.

Passengers on a typical cruise aboard these mega ships will be challenged to sample more than just a portion of the public areas and attractions, which perhaps, is part of the appeal.

It is also true that some of the newest and biggest ships can only visit ports that have the infrastructure and space to accommodate them. On Caribbean cruises, many major cruise lines make up for this in spades with their private island resorts designed specifically to cater to these beloved behemoths.

Old Cruise Ships

Serenade of the Seas in Alaska (Photo: Aaron Saunders/Cruise Critic)

On the other side of the coin, older ships usually provide a cozier, laid-back cruise experience, typically with fewer passengers, more open deck space and -- for traditional cruise lovers -- real teak promenade decks and plenty of ocean views.

Older cruise ships also offer features that are less common on newer ships, like forward-facing observation lounges, panoramic glass elevators, and intimate bars, lounges and public rooms. Some standouts in this region include Royal Caribbean's Radiance-class ships that have an endless array of public rooms adorned in floor-to-ceiling glass windows, panoramic elevators, and promenade decks that wrap completely around the ship.

Holland America Line, meanwhile, makes a point to offer a forward-facing observation lounge on each of its ships -- even the newest ones. Its two oldest ships, Volendam and Zaandam, offer an intimate coziness that is prized among the line's past passenger base.

Another advantage of smaller, older ships is their passenger flow -- corridors often tend to be wider and the elevators and stair towers are less crowded. Sailing with 2,000 passengers, versus 5,000 or 6,000 cruisers also means there is more of an opportunity to get to know your fellow guests and not overwhelm smaller ports when your ship pulls in.

Old Cruise Ships vs. New Cruise Ships: Cabins and Suites

Costa Toscana balcony stateroom (Photo: Aaron Saunders)

New Cruise Ships

Aside from the obvious things like brand new plumbing, ventilation and huge smart flatscreen televisions, new cruise ships tend to have more balcony staterooms overall and a much wider variety of layouts and perks -- not to mention more power outlets, USB chargers, and the like.

Newer ships also treat passengers to more bells and whistles at the cabin level. For instance, on Viking’s oceangoing ships like Viking Star, the bathroom floors have a heat option and superb anti-fog mirrors. Many new ships also have a night light setting that will hopefully aid in not disrupting sleep patterns during those 4:00 AM wake up calls.

Like Princess Cruises' Medallion Class technology that unlocks stateroom doors as the guest approaches, most major cruise lines are able to provide almost anything one desires, from specialty coffee orders to more towels, via the line’s app. Virgin Voyages takes it a bit further with in-cabin tablets controlling the temperature, mood lighting, movies, and music. On top of that, the balconies on Virgin ships have hammocks that are perfect for relaxing on those warm-weather Caribbean days.

The Crown Loft Suite on Allure of the Seas

Top suites on newer cruise ships can have elaborate perks like a glass floored shower that is cantilevered over the sea to banquet-sized dining rooms. Royal’s Oasis Class has double deck 1,524 square foot Royal Loft suites boasting 17-foot windows and 843 square foot balconies while Oceania’s Marina and Riviera have Owner’s Suites furnished with exclusive Ralph Lauren decor and a grand piano. And Disney Cruise Line even has a two-level suite inset into the forward (dummy) funnel aboard Disney Wish.

Stateroom options found on newer ships include special cabins designed exclusively for families and solo travelers. Even the lowest cabin grades can offer technological advances such as virtual portholes or balconies that offer digital screens linked to exterior cameras on the newer ships of Disney and Royal Caribbean.

Old Cruise Ships

The Balcony Cabin on Norwegian Sun

Aside from staterooms and balconies being larger overall on some of the older ships, there is admittedly less variety to choose from, and the percentage of balcony cabins tends to be lower.

On the older ships, there may be a slight bit of wear and tear but for those who dislike having to use their phone or a tablet to function, less technically advanced older ships may be the preferred way to go.

Old Cruise Ships vs. New Cruise Ships: Top Deck Amenities

Overlooking the Boardwalk neighbourhood aboard Wonder of the Seas (Photo: Aaron Saunders)

New Cruise Ships

There is no question that newer ships offer many more outdoor diversions than older ships. If you are seeking bells and whistles that will make you forget you are actually on a ship, definitely go big and new. Carnival, Norwegian Cruise Line MSC, Royal Caribbean all have waterparks with a variety of slides (some of which loop over the side of the ship) and Carnival’s Aquaparks come with massive dunkers, huge buckets that fill with water and drench all below.

Norwegian's Breakaway-Plus ships like Norwegian Bliss and Norwegian Encore have go-kart tracks and laser tag areas while Royal Caribbean's Quantum-class ships like Quantum of the Seas and Anthem of the Seas have sky diving simulators and the North Star, a glass enclosed pod that raises guests 300 feet above the sea -- not to mention bumper cars onboard.

Still, the ultimate thrill on newer ships might be the BOLT roller coaster found aboard Carnival’s Mardi Gras and Carnival Celebration.

Old Cruise Ships

Pride of America

Despite the lack of amenities on many older ships, those without all the new bells and whistles actually have more deck space to spread out in, including more laid back, uncluttered pool areas, which are, of course, among the hallmarks of traditional cruising.

Most of these older ships have a running track, shuffleboard courts and perhaps a basketball court that may be used for deck tennis or even pickle ball.

But keep in mind, not all older ships are featureless: Carnival’s older ships have been given upgrades with outdoor eateries like the BlueIguana Cantina and Guy’s Burger Joint in addition to longer, taller waterslides; while Royal Caribbean has given large, older ships like Freedom of the Seas and Navigator of the Seas waterslides, new bars and lounges, top-deck cabanas, and more new features in recent years.

Old Cruise Ships vs. New Cruise Ships: Dining

Queen Mary 2 (QM2) Dining

New Cruise Ships

It’s hard to discount the advantages of having more dining options, which is another perk of newer, larger cruise ships.

Royal Caribbean's Wonder of the Seas, for example, offers up to 21 different dining venues (ten of which are included), ranging from Johnny Rockets burgers to a steakhouse, Italian eatery, Teppanyaki experience and even Southern-style cuisine in the new Mason Jar restaurant and bar.

Carnival’s Celebration and Mardi Gras have seafood, Italian and Shaq’s Big Chicken among their nineteen options, while Norwegian Cruise Line, which was a pioneer of multiple dining venues when it introduced its "Freestyle Cruising" concept back in 2000, offers twenty dining options on its four Breakaway Plus ships and no less than thirteen on the slightly smaller Norwegian Prima, the first of six identical ships on order.

Of course, most of these venues command surcharges, which is all part of the bottom line -- more choice usually means more opportunities to spend your hard-earned cash.

Old Cruise Ships

Navigator of the Seas Dining

Older, smaller cruise ships also offer alternative dining options but not on the scale found on the newest mega ships.

For those not wanting to pay for the extras and those who get confounded by too many choices, smaller, older ships are the way to go.

While some older ships may not have the multiple specialty restaurants of their newer fleetmates, their main menus often provide selections from those eateries. For instance, only the Signature and Pinnacle Class Holland America ships have the actual Tamarind Asian Specialty Restaurant but the line’s Vista Class quartet (Zuiderdam, Oosterdam, Westerdam and Noordam) and Volendam and Zaandam offer Tamarind-inspired menu selections.

The same holds true for Carnival’s remaining Fantasy-class ships, Carnival Elation and Carnival Paradise, which don’t have steakhouses but do have steak options available for a fee in the main dining rooms.

Old Cruise Ships vs. New Cruise Ships: Activities & Entertainment

Aquatheater performances aboard Wonder of the Seas are stunning (Photo: Aaron Saunders)

New Cruise Ships

With all their extra space, the newest and biggest ships serve up a broader scope of entertainment options. NCL’s Breakaway-Plus ships offer up everything from full Broadway revues like "Six", which transforms the six wives of Henry VIII into modern pop princesses, to dinner theater (charges may apply) and even intimate cabaret style performances. On Roya' Caribbean's Oasis-class, the aft-situated Aquatheater boasts a giant pool that is the setting for dazzling acrobatic performances while Icon of the Seas will bring the Aquatheater to lofty new heights under a huge glass dome that sits atop the navigation bridge.

Holland America, once a line known for its low-key evenings, is now one of the entertainment leaders with its Music Walk complex that features live rock, blues, and classical performances each night. The Music Walk was introduced on Koningsdam in 2016 and while it has been retrofitted to the older ships, the Pinnacle-class ships to which Koningsdam and sisters Nieuw Statendam and Rotterdam belong to, provide the best spaces and settings.

Billboard Onboard on Oosterdam

These ships also have The World Stage, which is the big show venue where massive high tech video screens enhance the main shows and there are dazzling video presentations in collaboration with BBC Earth.

Probably the most provocative show afloat is on Virgin Cruises new Scarlet Lady. In "Never Sleep Alone", a "sexologist" and her team of "researchers" interact with audience members about their sexual fantasies, which is more proof that cruising has evolved in recent years.

While the biggest, newest ships may offer more entertainment options, the downside is that some of the main attractions fill up quickly, so be sure to use those apps and book your seats as early as possible.

Old Cruise Ships

Schooner Bar on Freedom of the Seas

For many, there is an organic charm to smaller, older ships and their less glitzy, over-the-top entertainment options. Traditional cruise shows can be very entertaining, and on some older ships, it is all about the good old fashioned Piano Bar where guests end up after all the big shows are over and people can really let their hair down.

Updated November 23, 2022
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