10 Major Differences Between Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL)

When it comes to cruising, two of the biggest players are Norwegian Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean. If you are planning to set sail, the odds are high you’ll be at least looking at one of these lines.

Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Cruise Line logos next to each other
Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Cruise Line are two large, popular cruise lines. So what are the differences between the two?

Of course, if you are about to cruise — or if you are just planning your next vacation — then you might wonder exactly what the difference is between the two. After all, at first glance they both seem to offer a similar experience with massive ships sailing to exotic ports of call with thousands of passengers.

The truth is there are a lot of things that are similar between Royal Caribbean and NCL. For the most part, taking a cruise on either line will have a similar feel. But they are not exactly the same. Each line has things unique to its service that can endear them to passengers and potentially be what you’re looking for.

Below, we cover some of the bigger differences between Norwegian Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean. This should give you a better idea of what you can expect on each cruise line and if it’s the right fit for you.

In addition, we’ve also covered the differences between Norwegian and Carnival here and differences between Royal Caribbean and Carnival here.

Fleet Size

While both cruise lines are major players, Royal Caribbean is the larger of the two cruise lines with a fleet measuring more than two dozen ships. That gives more options to fit your schedule.

Why should you care about the size of a cruise line’s fleet? After all, you can only sail one ship at a time.

Fleet size gives you more options. It means more departures, more itineraries, and more choice for which ship you cruise. Bigger fleets mean more likelihood of finding the cruise that fits exactly what you want.

On that front, Royal Caribbean has a larger lineup of ships. In total, the cruise line currently offers sailings on 27 different ships and has multiple new ships coming online with Utopia of the Seas and Star of the Seas.

Norwegian Cruise Line is no slouch, but the fleet totals 19 ships — about two-thirds as many as Royal Caribbean. That said, NCL also has new ships scheduled annually to increase its fleet size in the years ahead.

Bottom line: Both cruise lines have large fleets, but if you want more options, Royal Caribbean has the larger lineup. 

Onboard Pricing

Experienced cruise passengers know that what you pay for the cruise fare is not all you’ll spend on your trip. There is also onboard spending. This category includes all the money you spend on things on the ship, including drinks, specialty restaurants, wi-fi, and more.

In this case, average passengers on Norwegian can likely expect to spend more compared to Royal Caribbean.

While Norwegian has its “Free at Sea” offer (more on this below) that can save you money, in general you’ll find that prices on NCL ships are generally more expensive. For example, the cruise line’s drink package is priced at $109 per day, while Royal Caribbean’s varies, but starts around $70 per day.

You’ll find similar differences with things like wi-fi and gratuities. The fastest Internet service on NCL is $40 per day. On Royal Caribbean, it’s around $24 (often with discounts for booking early).

As for gratuities, most cabins see a charge of $20 per person, per day with Norwegian (the price is $25 per person, per day for suites). That price is $18 per person, per day for Royal Caribbean, with those in suites paying $20.50.

Bottom line: In general, you can expect higher prices for things onboard NCL, from gratuities to drink packages to wi-fi access. Royal Caribbean prices are generally lower.

The Haven

Haven Resort
The Haven with its private courtyard pool, as seen on a Norwegian ship. This area is an exclusive spot only for guests paying extra to stay in the higher-end cabins.

Looking for a more luxurious cruise? You could try sailing on smaller, more luxury-focused ships and cruise lines. However, that can be a very different experience than the fun of sailing on a larger vessel. For instance, if you have children, they would enjoy a big ship with things like go-karts and kids areas compared to a high-end ship focused on adults.

Norwegian Cruise Line offers a solution. Its ships have an area called The Haven. This is a high-end “resort within a resort” that features a small number of higher-end cabins along with numerous private amenities like pools, lounges, a bar, and restaurant. Regular passengers don’t have access to these areas.

In short, if you’re wanting a more exclusive experience while still getting the advantage of a larger ship, then NCL has the solution.

Royal Caribbean does offer exclusive areas for high-end suite passengers, but The Haven is a step above.

Bottom line: Norwegian’s The Haven is a unique “resort-within-a-resort” that offers small ship luxury but big ship amenities.

Free At Sea Offer

Tired of being nickeled and dimed? One big difference you’ll find with Norwegian and Royal Caribbean is NCL’s “Free at Sea” offer.

Put simply, Free at Sea is Norwegian’s regular sale where passengers get a number of perks to have included on their trip. The options include everything from a drink package on the ship to free specialty dining to free wi-fi and even free airfare. To be sure there are some terms and conditions, but overall the sale can give you up to five or six different items included with your cruise.

One thing to know is that cabins with this perk are more expensive than booking without. There are also gratuities required on items like the drink package, which means you will pay some money even though it’s “free.” Still, if you don’t like a ton of extra charges on the ship, then this offer could be for you. 

Bottom line: Don’t want to be nickeled and dimed? Norwegian’s Free at Sea offer can include a number of amenities with your cruise, but you will pay a higher price. 

Status On the Ship

Check out the message boards for Royal Caribbean and you’re likely to hear a lot about Platinum, Diamond, and Pinnacle status in the Crown and Anchor Society. These are levels of the cruise line’s loyalty program, which indicate how many days you’ve sailed with them. Anecdotally, we’ve found status to be flaunted much more on Royal Caribbean than on Norwegian.

This isn’t to say a lack of status is held against you; truth is no one really cares if it’s your first cruise or 100th cruise. We’ve just noticed that there are a lot more high-status cards being shown on Royal Caribbean ships (most often being on a lanyard).

On Norwegian cruises we’ve see very few people with high-status key cards and fewer people in general wearing lanyards that show off the status of their card.

Bottom line: Royal Caribbean passengers seem to place more emphasis on loyalty status on the ship. That’s not a big deal, but we’ve noticed more high-status cards on the cruise line.

Connecting Outdoors

The outdoor promenade aboard some NCL ships offers a way to connect with the sea. The cruise line seems to place an emphasis on the outdoors compared to Royal Caribbean.

You’d think that when you’re at sea, it’s a way to have lots of outside time and connect with the ocean. Truth is that most ships offer pool decks, but seemingly not much more outdoor space. 

Norwegian Cruise Line, however, puts a bigger focus on being outside during the cruise than Royal Caribbean.

For instance, many NCL ships (especially newer vessels) feature an outdoor promenade that sticks out from the ship on the lower decks, giving you a place to take in the sun and fresh air away from the pool deck. Royal Caribbean has far fewer options like this. Royal’s Central Park on many ships is an outdoor space featuring trees and foliage, but it is walled off from the ocean with decks that tower above. 

Where we see a big difference is with outdoor dining, as well.

Norwegian seems to focus more on outdoor dining, with several spots on its ships where you can sit in the outdoors and eat without having to worry about the wind ruining your dinner or sun beating down on you. Royal Caribbean doesn’t seem to offer as many places to eat outdoors with a view of the water.

Bottom line: Norwegian purposely creates spaces on the ship that connect passengers more to the ocean than Royal Caribbean does.

Global Itineraries (Including Hawaii)

Every cruise ship sails to international destinations, but some are definitely more global in nature. In that case, both Royal Caribbean and NCL can take you to destinations around the world. Whether it’s Europe or Alaska, Australia or the Greek Isles, if you want to go there, these cruise ships can do it.

However, there are some differences. For one, Norwegian seems less focused on the Caribbean than its rival. During the summer of 2025, NCL shows just three ships sailing from the Caribbean, Bahamas, and Mexico to the area. Royal Caribbean has fourteen on its schedule. 

Norwegian, despite having a smaller fleet, sails more ships to Alaska (five versus four). And perhaps most unique is Pride of America. This ship is the only major cruise ship to be registered in the United States. That allows it to sail the Hawaiian Islands without having to visit a foreign country on the trip. So if you’ve ever wanted to tour this part of the world, NCL is your best best.

Bottom line: These two cruise lines sail all around the world, but NCL’s itineraries seem to be more global in focus and less on the Caribbean. Norwegian also offers a ship based in Hawaii.

Ship Size and Things to Do

When it comes to the largest ships with the most features, there’s little argument that Royal Caribbean is the gold standard.

Its Icon-class ship is the largest cruise liner in the world (with a second, Star of the Seas, on the way), measuring more than 1,000 feet and 250,000 tons. It also has all six of the largest cruise ships in the world.

The ships are also well-known for having unique things to do, including ice skating, FlowRider standing waves, huge multi-story slides, and tons more. If you want a ship with the most to do at sea, then Royal Caribbean is likely your choice.

Norwegian — after making huge strides in this area with ships like Norwegian Bliss, Joy, and Encore — is taking a different track.  Its Breakaway-Plus class of ships are the cruise line’s largest. These ships measure about 165,000 tons. On board you will find a number of unique things to do, including go-karts(!), laser tag, and even waterslides that will take you out over the edge of the ship. They are comparable to Royal Caribbean.

But now, the cruise line is moving more toward luxury with its newest ship (more on this below), seeming to cede the “bigger and more activities” crown to its rival.

Bottom line: When it comes to the ship size and number of things to do onboard, Royal Caribbean sits head and shoulders above other cruise lines.

Private Islands

Royal Caribbean’s CocoCay features a full-fledged waterpark on the island.

These days every large cruise line offers a private island. Norwegian offers two — Harvest Caye near Belize and Great Stirrup Cay in The Bahamas. Royal Caribbean offers CocoCay in The Bahamas and Labadee, Haiti.

We love going to these private islands. They have beautiful beaches and are custom-made for cruise passengers. If you just want to hang out by the pool or work on your tan, then you can — without worry about transportation or paying fees like in other ports.

So what’s the difference? Royal Caribbean has transformed CocoCay into much more than just a simple island where you sit and relax on the beach. The island now includes Thrill  Waterpark with more than a dozen waterslides, a wave pool, 1,600 feet of ziplines, over-the-water bungalows, the largest freshwater pool in the Caribbean, a beach club, and an adults-only area. Similar to Royal Caribbean’s ships, the company has gone “big” with its private island.

In comparison, Norwegian’s island are a bit more laid back. They still offer plenty to do (ziplining, pool, watersports) and enjoy, but it’s not quite the massive scale you’ll find at CocoCay.

One other benefit is that CocoCay features a pier, while Great Stirrup Cay — right next door — only offers a water shuttle into shore. That means Royal Caribbean is able to dock on days where the water is too rough for NCL to tender passengers into shore. (Norwegian is planning to build a pier that will debut in 2025.)

Bottom line: Both cruise lines offer private islands. Great Stirrup Cay from NCL is more laid back and relaxing while CocoCay from Royal Caribbean features much more to do, including a full waterpark.

Future Developments

Royal Caribbean’s Icon of the Seas shows the cruise line’s move to cement its role as a top family cruise line. Norwegian’s newest ships focus more on luxury and relaxation. Image courtesy of Royal Caribbean.

There’s no doubt that right now Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Cruise Line offer a lot of similarities and generally appeal to the same sets of passengers. It is a question if that will be the case as much in the future. 

NCL already has pushed more into luxury cruising with The Haven on its ships. But future ships seem to be focused even more on offering a high-end experience. The cruise line’s Norwegian Prima, Viva and Aqua are the first three of six new ships in its new Prima class, which debuted in 2022. These vessels look and are designed differently from the rest of the fleet.

With modern design, upscale dining options, infinity pools, and more, the new ships focus on a more luxurious experience compared to Royal Caribbean — or even other ships in its fleet.

Royal Caribbean, meanwhile, debuts its Icon class. As mentioned, this is the largest cruise ships in the world, with a large focus on family cruising with lots for kids and teens to do. That includes a complete waterpark on the ship and special family “neighborhoods” on board.

Bottom line: The direction of the future ships is very different. NCL seems to be focusing more on luxury and style while Royal Caribbean continues to go big with lots to do on the ship.

Have more questions about sailing on Royal Caribbean or Norwegian? Let us know in the comments below.

You can also see the differences between Royal Caribbean and Carnival, or the differences between Carnival and Norwegian.

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10 Major Differences Between Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL)


  1. Which ship would you suggest for 2 people age 65 and a 30 year old female, We have never been on cruise. Our plans are Alaska. Want to have some great food, entertainment and fun things to do . Don’t want to have to wait for every to get to enjoy an activity and be pushed around every time I want to go out of room. Comparing Royal Caribbean Ovation of the Sea and Norwegian Encore. Any suggestion would be helpful. And what excursion are wonderful!

    • To me, those are fairly similar ships. I’ve sailed Norwegian Encore personally, but also took an Alaskan cruise on Odyssey of the Seas, which is the same class as Ovation. Both are great for Alaska as they have large indoor areas where you can enjoy the scenery when it’s cool outside. I also know that Odyssey had heated pools, which is nice.

      My suggestion? I think it would just come down to which one was less expensive.

  2. I’m trying to decide between Norwegian Joy and RC Anthem of the seas out of NJ/NY area. It’s two families with 4 kids (10-14). Parents are foodie people. We did Disney Dream last year and loved it, my kids 10 and 13 loved it too. We are Disney/universal people, the other family not so much into Disney.

    • Either should be pretty good. Depending on when you sail, you might tip the scale toward Anthem as it has more indoor area in case it’s cold in New York when you cruise.

  3. I’m considering a cruise to Greece in 2025.. Norwegian has the new Viva… going to Greece Royal Caribbean has the explorer of the seas .. Coratia, Italy and Greece …which experience would you choose….😃😃😃

    • Are there other factors? Viva is obviously a nicer/newer ship but will likely be more expensive. If the cost is the same, I’d go with Viva. However, either one will be a fun trip.

    • Of course. It’s a large ship with lots to cater to everyone. That’s one of the advantages of today’s enormous ships. It’s harder to be bored.

  4. Good review! I have been doing some pretty elaborate price comparisons between the two lately, and I am finding that NCL is cheaper once you add in all the extras you want.

    For instance, we want the alcoholic drink package which is included in the fee with NCL when booking. You can also prepay your service fees at the time of booking, and can choose to add flights as well. Excluding your excursions and on board spending, I never have any bill to pay on disembarking day.

    You can see a full, all-inclusive cost with NCL but RC you need to do your research as you have to add in all of these fees later (gratuities, flights, drink packages, transportation to/from airport). One thing I really dislike about RC is that you can’t book flights with them at the time of booking, so you can’t see what they charge for flights.

    I love both lines, but go with NCL because I know what the price will be at the time of booking, and the prices are basically the same, but you get the free at sea promos with NCL.

    Note: you need to compare similar class ships or the prices won’t be comparable.

  5. i enjoyed your comparison, as I have traveled on NCL many times but not on Royal Caribbean. As a senior I have no complaints about NCL. I have taken grandchildren twice and Kids Club has saved our sanity both times! It is a great experience for the kids and allows us to do other things… I don’t need the high powered fun park setting and, in fact, prefer to travel on a smaller vessel just so the walk-about is not so daunting!
    Thank you!

  6. hi
    i am planning a cruise and dont know what to choose. (i am female middle aged) In Nov 2022 I was on Harmony of the Seas with my 2 sisters. I loved that there were so many activities. not a foodie so i dont have any need or desire to spend money on specialty dining. i will be going with my husband and 2 sons. 28 (has Aspergers ) and 30 year old. The 30 year old and i need activities. The 28 yr old and hubby are more relaxers but need night time entertainment. 28 year old loves go karting or bumper cars. Do i go with NCL or RCL???

    • So there are bumper cars (free) on Royal Caribbean’s Quantum class ships. NCL’s newest ships have go-karts, but they are an extra charge.

      I like to suggest the newest and largest ships for the most things to do (no matter the cruise line), whether that be activities (like go-karts) or entertainment. Given that you are all adults, I’d suggest NCL as it has a bit more “adult” feel where Royal Caribbean is more into families with kids. Just be ready for a higher cost!


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