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.
Of course, if you are about to set sail — 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 that’s not to say they are 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.
One of the big reasons that many people pick a specific cruise is the price. While cruise lines can offer a similar experience, what you pay for that can vary widely. That’s one of the differences between Norwegian and Royal Caribbean.
Both are generally more expensive than lines like Carnival and MSC, but we’ve found Norwegian Cruise Line is often (though not always) pricier than Royal Caribbean.
For instance, take a July 2022 trip aboard Norwegian Sky from Miami to The Bahamas. The 4-day cruise offers four departure dates during the month, starting at $608 per person for an interior room when we searched.
Royal Caribbean offers a similar trip, also sailing from Miami to The Bahamas aboard Freedom of the Seas. Their four sailing dates during July 2022 start at $519 per person. That’s about $100 less per person.
And a 7-day cruise from New York on Norwegian Joy in July 2022 started at $1,112 per person for the least-expensive cabin when we looked. Royal Caribbean offers a 7-day cruise from New Jersey during the same month aboard Oasis of the Seas, starting at $988.
This isn’t to say that Norwegian Cruise Line is always more expensive. However, in our experience you’ll often find the two lines are in the same ballpark, but with NCL being slightly higher in price.
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 25 different ships and has a new ship planned each year out until at least 2026.
Norwegian Cruise Line is no slouch, but the fleet totals 17 ships — about two-thirds as many as Royal Caribbean. That said, NCL also has a new ships scheduled each year until 2027.
Bottom line, if you want more options, Royal Caribbean offers the larger lineup.
We covered cruise fares above, but experienced cruise passengers know that’s not all you’ll spend on a cruise. 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.
In 2019, Royal Caribbean Group — the parent of Royal Caribbean and other lines — saw “Onboard and other revenues” totaling $3.1 billion according to financial reports. Given the number of passenger days, that comes out to about $69 per person, per day in onboard spending.
Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd. — the parent of NCL — saw onboard revenue of $1.9 billion, or about $94 per person, per day based on the number of people carried.
Keep in mind we don’t have data for each cruise line specifically, only the parent companies. Still, quick checks usually show higher prices for many things on NCL. For example, the cruise line’s drink package is priced at $99 per day, while Royal Caribbean’s starts around $65-70 per day.
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.
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 to pick among perks to have for free on their trip. The options include everything from free drinks on the ship to free specialty dining to free wi-fi and even free airfare. (The number of free perks usually depends on the type of room you book.) To be sure there are some terms and conditions, but overall the sale can give you up to five or six different items for free.
One thing to know is that cabins with this perk are more expensive than booking without. Still, if you don’t like extra charges on the ship, then this offer could be for you.
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.
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 feature an outdoor promenade that sticks out from the ship, giving you a place to take in the sun and fresh air away from the pool deck. But where the biggest difference seems to be is with outdoor dining.
It seems like a no-brainer that if you are at sea then dining out in the fresh air will come with the territory. Truth is that the wind and sun can be a major issue. A five mile per hour breeze into the face of the ship can turn into 25 miles per hour when the ship is underway. That means everything on your table will be blown off. And if you are dining during the day, the tropical sun can make eating outside uncomfortable.
In other words, a cruise line has to think a lot about how to set up outdoor dining so that it’s a comfortable and relaxing experience — not a mess that leaves you annoyed.
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.
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 Oasis-class ships are the largest cruise liners in the world, measuring more than 1,000 feet and 225,000 tons. 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 is making huge strides in this area, however, as a whole the fleet isn’t quite there yet. 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.
To be fair, we think these newer ships are comparable with Royal Caribbean, it’s just that on average Royal Caribbean offers larger ships with more things to do.
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, and the largest freshwater pool in the Caribbean. 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.
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 is the first of six new ships in its new Prima class, set to debut 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 look as if Norwegian is focusing on a more luxurious experience compared to Royal Caribbean — or even other ships in its fleet.
Have more questions about sailing on Royal Caribbean or Norwegian? Let us know in the comments below.