Explained: Differences Between New Cruise Ships and Older Ones

It’s no exaggeration to say there is an “arms race” when it comes to building new cruise ships. With interest in cruising booming, cruise lines are building new ships as fast as they can — and each one seems to be bigger and better than the one before.

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Whereas a decade or two ago you might enjoy a ship with a pool and a rock-climbing wall, new ships today have everything from go-kart tracks to ziplines to roller coasters. And that’s just for activities by the pool.

Head inside and you’ll find more restaurants than ever before, lounges, and neat perks in cabins that simply didn’t exist years ago.

Of course that leads to more choice for cruise passengers, which can mean more indecision.

In order to have fun on a cruise do you have to sail on a new cruise ship? Are old cruise ships run down or boring?

Ultimately, it leads to the question of if you should sail on a new ship or if an older one will work just fine for your vacation.

Below we cover some of the things to think about when deciding if you should sail or new or old ship, along with our opinion on the matter based on our experience cruising…

New Ships Offer the Latest and Greatest

As we mentioned above, new ships are coming out fast and furious, and cruise lines are innovating just as quickly. Whether it’s small tweaks like more electrical outlets in a cabin or technological changes like video walls in interior cabins that project an outside view or the first roller coaster at sea, when you sail on a new ship you are getting the best of what a cruise line can offer.

That’s not to say that older ships aren’t worth sailing, but when you compare them side-by-side with a line’s newest ship, the differences are going to be substantial.

There Are More Things to Do on a Newer Ship

In line with offering the latest in innovations for a cruise ships, new ships have more things to do compared to older vessels. While on the surface you might think this only relates to activities on board like go-karts, laser tag, or the like, it actually applies to features big and small.

New ships are larger and have more space, which means not only more room for activities but also more public spaces like restaurants, shops, and lounges. So instead of only have a few options for bars or restaurants, for example, you can have more than a dozen.

If you’re the type that simply wants to lounge by the pool then this might not be a big deal. But for those who want lots of things to do on their cruise, it’s a good reason to look toward newer ships.

Older Ships Have Cheaper Prices

So if new ships are so much bigger and better than older ships, why sail on older ships at all? One big reason is that you’ll usually find cheaper fares that make your vacation more affordable.

The new mega ships have a lot to offer and also get a lot of marketing and publicity when they launch. This results in a lot of interest in booking on the new vessels. But older ships aren’t just forgotten — cruise lines want them to sail completely full too. By dropping prices, the cruise lines can get more people to sail.

For example, a recent search for a Royal Caribbean cruise found an 8-night Eastern Caribbean cruise board Empress of the Seas departing April 2020 for $439 per person for an interior room. Empress of the Seas is among the oldest ship in the cruise line’s fleet, first sailing in 1990.

Searching more, we also found a 7-night Eastern Caribbean cruise (one night less) aboard the Oasis of the Seas, also departing in April 2020. This trip aboard the Oasis of the Seas — a ship that’s 20 years newer than the Empress — costs $980 per person for the cheapest cabin. That’s more than twice as much!

Older Ships Often Sail From Smaller Ports

When it comes to cruising, everyone knows about Miami or Fort Lauderdale. What many people might not realize is that a number of smaller ports combine to serve millions of passengers each year… and it’s often thanks to older ships. Cruise ports like Tampa, Mobile, Baltimore, and others are almost exclusively served by older vessels.

Why is this such a big deal? While cruise fare may be your biggest expense when sailing, it’s not your only one — especially if you live a long way from a port. Having to fly to a port can cost hundreds of dollars, or thousands if you are sailing as a family.

Instead, by providing cruises from smaller ports using older ships, the cruise lines make it easier to drive to your cruise, saving yourself a considerable chunk of change.

Newer Ships Have More Room Choices

Norwegian Joy Haven Cabin

If you sail an older ship, you’ll usually find four choices of cabin — interior, oceanview, balcony, and a suite. On new ships you still have the same basic categories, but there is a lot of variation and different styles and type of each room.

For instance, Norwegian Cruise Lines has an exclusive “resort within a resort” called The Haven. This area features only a few dozen luxury rooms that are a step beyond what you’ll find anywhere else on the ship. New Carnival ships have “Havana” cabins that are themed differently from the rest of the ship and offer an exclusive pool area.

Bottom line, you’ll find more choices for cabins on newer ships.

Older Ships Are Refurbished Constantly

Imagine a Las Vegas hotel that was built in the 1990s. Each day thousands of people come and go, the doors never close, and after a while the hotel shows its age. It’s a similar situation on a cruise ship that sails every day.

To keep things fresh, older ships are regularly refurbished — often at significant expense. It’s not unheard of for a refurbishment to run more than $100 million.

Meanwhile, these updates aren’t just to patch up worn-out parts of the ship. They are often complete overhauls that will change the layout, add spaces or restaurant, activities, and otherwise bring an older ship more in line with its newer counterparts. The result is that there isn’t as big a gap between older ships and new ones as you might think.

Fewer People May Be on Older Ships, But They Might Feel More Crowded

Empty cruise ship deck
Thousands of people are on the ship, but you can still find quiet spots.

If you’re the sort of person who likes some quiet time away from the crowds, then you might think that an older ship would be better for you. After all, older ships are usually smaller, which means there are fewer people on each sailing. While the largest ships can hold more than 6,000 passengers, a smaller ship might hold 2,000.

But one thing to keep in mind is that even though there are fewer people on smaller ships, there is also less overall space. The result is that the ship may not feel less crowded than a newer, larger vessel. Instead, it is often the case that larger ships — with more bars, restaurants, and public spaces — may be easier for you to find a quiet place out of the way from the crowds.

Older Ships Often Sail Shorter Cruises

Over the past few years there’s been a big push by cruise lines to offer shorter cruises. Whereas a week-long cruise means a long time off work for many people, taking a four or five-day cruise that includes sailing over a weekend means only a few days away from the office. In addition, these trips are often less expensive for passengers.

Most of the time these shorter trips are on older ships. For instance, Royal Caribbean sails three and four-day cruises from Florida to the Bahamas on its Navigator of the Seas and Mariner of the Seas — both of which were launched about 15 years ago. Newer ships are often sailing longer week-long cruises. So if you want a cruise that’s not as long, you’ll often end up on an older ship.

So Should You Sail On Newer or Older Cruise Ships?

So should you take that cruise on an older ship or only focus your search on those new ships? The information above should give you some idea on what you might prefer, but we want to share our personal preference as well.

Having sailed on countless cruises across multiple cruise lines and everything from 15-year-old ships to the inaugural sailing of a new ship, we have some experience on the real differences between new versus old.

When given the option, we prefer to sail on newer ships. For us, the big benefit is that there is simply so much more to do on newer ships. The innovations on cruise ships is happening quickly and newer ships simply have a lot more to offer in everything from activities to the design of public spaces.

So do we never sail older ships? It’s the exact opposite, in fact. The deals you can find on older ships mixed with short journeys make them perfect for quick getaways where you want to vacation without spending a bundle. Meanwhile, refurbishments keep the ships feeling updated so it’s not as if you are having a “second class” experience.

Bottom line: Our opinion is to sail newer ships when you can, but don’t fret if an older ship makes more sense for your budget or schedule.

Frequently Asked Questions

How can I know when a ship was built?
Not sure when a ship first started sailing? In this case Wikipedia is your friend. They offer up a full list of the fleets of each cruise line, along with their first year sailing. Here are the fleet listings for the three biggest cruise lines in North America:

What’s a little harder to find is the refurbishment date of a cruise ship. For that, we suggest simply Googling the ship’s name + refurbish to bring up news stories about the last time it went to drydock.

Do any new ships sail shorter trips?
Want to take a shorter cruise but also sail on a new ship? That can be tough, but not impossible. If you have a ship in mind, look at its future schedule. We’ve found that there are often a few dates here and there where a ship may sail a shorter trip to help adjust its schedule for the future.

In particular you can find these shorter trips right when a new ship starts sailing from a new port. It may arrive on a Tuesday and need to schedule a shorter trip to then sail weekly trips on a Saturday.

Do you prefer older ships or newer ones when you sail? Let us know in the comments below…

1 COMMENT

  1. On Norwegian Cruise lines, one stark difference between old and new ships, I think the new ships were designed by the bean-counters. No matter where you go on the public areas, you cannot walk very far without running into an “opportunity” to spend money. For the older ships, which we love, there is a real Promenade Deck where you can walk completely around the ship, or you can play shuffleboard, or you can just read in a lounge chair. Plenty of room. Fun. No place to spend money. On the newer ships, there is the Waterfront, a place to walk, but you don’t get very far without a corner to turn with a place to spend money. Also, with the older ships, you can always attend the 7pm or 9pm shows in the big theater. In the new ships, there are too many passengers, so now you have to make reservation for many of the shows. We’ll cruise on the new ships, but if we have a choice, we’ll take the older ships.

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