“What’s the worst cruise line?” was a question once posted by a college student doing a research paper on the cruise industry on one of the popular cruise message boards. I’ll never forget the diplomatic, but true answer posted in reply. The response was basically that in the current North American market there really are no “bad” cruise lines. The market is too competitive and word of mouth too important for a “bad” cruise line to exist in this market very long.
On the other hand, there are some cruise lines that don’t highly market to the North American market, sail older ships that have not been refurbished, have small, feature lacking cabins, have had questionable safety records, and provide only buffet meal service. Some of these lines fill a different niche than the large North American lines, and might fall into a “lower tier” of cruise line.
In the North American market the cruise lines must be for the most part excellent. They differentiate them selves by offering trade-offs. That trade off might be as simple as trading value for service. The two largest luxury lines Crystal and Regent offer the highest level of service but they also have suite level prices for all of their rooms. For a person seeking a better “value” a more moderately priced cruise line Carnival, NCL, or Royal Caribbean might be the “best”. Sister companies Royal Caribbean and Celebrity offer two different kinds of cruise experiences at relatively the same price. Royal Caribbean seeks an adventure loving crowd seeking an action packed cruise with amenities to to rival any land based vacation experience. Their newest and largest ship feature rock climbing walls, miniature golf, ice rinks, and mall like shopping areas. Celebrity appeals to those seeking a more traditional yet upscale cruise experiences with very few announcements and more subdued activities. Holland American and Carnival cruise line also offer two different cruise experiences from the same corporate cruise company. Your typical Holland American passenger probably seeks a more laid back and traditional cruise experience, where as a Carnival cruiser tends to be seeking more fun and excitement. NCL, with its “Free Style Cruising” has carved its niche by structuring their cruise line more like a mini resort land based vacation, rather than a traditional cruise line. They seek to attract a passenger who doesn’t like the pretenses of a traditional cruise.
All of the cruise lines serving the North American market offer a fairly adequate cruise experience. Even on the “worst” ships the service levels will probably be much higher than you would experience on any similarly priced land based vacation. Even if you use the CDC inspection score as your gauge as to which cruise lines are the best, you’ll find for the most part that they are in the 95-100% range, with a smaller group slightly lower. Those that do score low on one inspection usually take corrective action and improve their score dramatically by the next inspection.
Each cruise lines specializes in something, and sometimes other features take a lower priority for budgetary reasons. So where one cruise line may excel in entertainment and activities, others excel in food and service. One line may be a non-stop party, while another will have enrichment lectures. In determining the best and the worst cruise lines here in the North American market, it is really a matter of personal preference and trade offs. The best way to determine which cruise would be best for you and which would be your worst is to make a list of priorities. Determine which areas with which you have flexibility and which areas are non-starters. Then talk with fellow experienced cruisers or an experienced travel agent. If you want lots of action, funny pool side activities, and lots of late night parties, than a Carnival cruise might be your best line and Holland American, with everyone in bed by 11:00, might be your worst. If you want a quiet sophisticated cruise with-out a lot of revelers than Holland America or Celebrity might be your best. Also know that shorter cruises tend to attract the younger party seeking crowd on any cruise lines and longer cruises tend to attract an older more laid back crowd on any cruise line. If you enjoy a high level of service in a more intimate atmosphere and have a generous budget to spend on your cruise, you can probably afford a suite on any ship. However the overall atmosphere of the ship and how much you want to do outside of of your suite might make one cruise line better for you than another.
So compare prices, amenities, service, cabin size, activities, destinations, and even fellow passengers. It is really a matter of personal opinion and choice as to which cruise lines is the best and which one is the worst, but most importantly find the one that you like the best.