As we let these hot new ships duke it out for deal supremacy, the real questions become: Which one are you going to pick and how much will you pay?
Meet the Contenders
Based out of Fort Lauderdale, the 225,282-ton, 5,400-passenger Oasis of the Seas debuted in December 2009, claiming the undisputed title of "biggest cruise ship in the world." The heavyweight vessel features such innovations as balconies overlooking a lush onboard park and Coney Island-esque boardwalk, new dining venues like the beachy Seafood Shack and upscale 150 Central Park, two rock-climbing walls, surf simulators and a water-based acrobatics show.
The newcomer -- the Miami-based 153,000-ton, 4,100-passenger Norwegian Epic -- was christened just last week, bringing fresh new approaches like curvy cabin designs, name-brand entertainment such as Blue Man Group, cruising's first Ice Bar (kept at a bone-chilling 17 degrees), and more dining choices than ever (like an Argentinean churrascaria and a Chinese noodle bar). Epic is also taking aim at solo travelers, and the ship features an unheard of 128 "studios," Yotel-like mini-accommodations priced for one.
Start comparing 2010 prices between Oasis and Epic, and one thing quickly becomes apparent: Oasis of the Seas is consistently more expensive than Norwegian Epic. On a weeklong Caribbean cruise departing September 18, 2010 (incidentally low season in the Caribbean because it's during Hurricane Season), a standard balcony cabin with an ocean view on Norwegian Epic costs $949 (a pricey but not ridiculous $135 per night), while the equivalent cabin costs $1,589 on Oasis of the Seas (over $200 a night). Being thrifty and booking an inside cabin on the same sailing will cost $649 on Epic and $1,029 on Oasis.
Those looking to travel over Christmas (which falls within high season in the Caribbean) will pay even more for the same cruise in the same accommodations. Epic's Christmas cruise costs $1,349 for an inside cabin and $1,869 for a balcony. Contrast that with Oasis, which is quoting a breathtaking $1,999 fare for an inside and $2,849 for a balcony.
As we trolled both cruise lines' websites for fares, we noticed that more categories on Oasis of the Seas were sold out than on Norwegian Epic, which clearly may account for the higher rates on Oasis.
In addition, NCL has been including Norwegian Epic in recent sales. As part of NCL's Hello Balcony! promotion, you can book a deluxe balcony cabin for the price of a regular balcony (what this means is a little more in-cabin space to stretch out in). Throw in a separate promotion, an airfare sale on Epic's Caribbean cruises, and you can lower your total vacation cost with airfares from select cities from $99 or $199 roundtrip. We haven't seen the same discounting of Oasis cruises, with the exception of some quiet fare drops for shoulder-season April and May cruises. (And in fact, during Oasis' early days, "deals" were unheard of).
In addition to checking the cruise lines' Web sites, we also contacted travel agents. Elda Maldonado, owner of One World Cruises, priced some last-minute summer Oasis and Epic sailings for us. For a family of three sharing a balcony cabin, the August 7 sailing of Norwegian Epic costs $3,761 (total, cruise only). Ocean-facing balcony cabins are sold out on Oasis of the Seas, but Maldonado found an interior-facing Central Park cabin for $4,605.
Future Fare Wars?
But does Oasis' sister, Allure of the Seas, which will feature all the same innovations as Oasis with a few notable tweaks, command a lower price point because some of its sheen has been lost as the second of two. We checked fares for 2011 Caribbean cruises. The good news: Deal hunters will be happy to know that fares for these sailings are a lot closer in price.
Using the second week of January as our target dates, on a Norwegian Epic cruise, you'll pay $789 for an inside or $1,079 for a balcony. On Allure's second week January cruise, prices right now start at $899 for an inside or $1,249 for a balcony -- a difference of just a few hundred dollars. (Checking Oasis for the same week, we're seeing $1,149 for an inside and $1,449 for a balcony.) April fares, which are usually higher priced than in the dead of winter, are similarly matched: Epic's April 16 cruise runs $1,009 for inside and $1,319 balcony compared to Allure's April 17 cruise at $1,299 (inside) and $1,749 (balcony). (Checking Oasis for the same week, we're seeing $1,299 for insides and $1,649 for balconies.)
Of course, we must offer this caveat: As the sail dates approach and categories begin to sell out, fares could change at any time.
Which Ship is the Value Champ?
Although Norwegian Epic base rates are consistently lower, that doesn't necessarily mean your Epic cruise will be cheaper or a better value than one on Oasis or Allure. Remember that all three ships charge extra fees for everything from specialty dining to drinks, shore excursions, spa treatments and souvenirs -- which could significantly impact your final vacation bill.
Plus, while both ships are pulling out the stops with new dining and entertainment options, not to mention unusual ship designs, and both offer similar Eastern and Western Caribbean itineraries, in the end, they belong to different cruise lines with different philosophies. You may be a Royal Caribbean fan, willing to pay more for the action-packed, activity-focused experience that line promises, or you may be so devoted to NCL's Freestyle Cruising, do-whatever-you-want atmosphere that even an Oasis price drop couldn't convince you to switch lines.
We want to know: Is Oasis worth more? Is Epic a better value? Are you swayed by the deals or devoted to your favorite cruise line? Vote in our poll!
--by Erica Silverstein, Senior Editor