Have you ever wondered what makes the best cruise ships, well, the best? Frommer’s announced its Best Cruise Ships of 2011 last week and, having been on a few cruises myself, I wondered about the criteria used by Frommer’s cruise travel experts to determine their rankings. Megaships, luxury cruise liners, and small cruise ships provide very different travel experiences, obviously: It must be a challenge to crunch numbers and derive a valid, reliable measure.
Matt Hannafin is one of Frommer’s two cruise experts, and he’s covered all aspects of the cruise industry since 1997. He, clearly, knows his boats! I spoke with Matt about Frommer’s Best Cruise Ships of 2011, and found him to be effusive, enthusiastic, and well-considered in his responses.
1. What measures do you use to determine the “best cruise ships?” Do you take other guests’ feedback into account?
Our ratings system is fairly simple, based on the classic customer-satisfaction survey. It rates ships on: (1) overall vessel appearance and upkeep; (2) stateroom size, design, usability, and amenities; (3) comfort and spaciousness of the public areas; (4) decor; (5) dining options; (6) children’s facilities; (7) gyms/spa facilities (or, for the small-ship lines that don’t focus on gyms and spas, “Adventure & Fitness Options”); and (8) the overall enjoyability of the onboard experience.
Nearly all the reviews (and the star ratings) are based on Heidi Sarna’s and my personal experience of each ship or ship class. We assign each ship a grade in each category (1 is poor, 2 is fair, 3 is good, 4 is excellent, 5 is outstanding), add them up, and divide by eight (the number of categories) to determine the final star rating, which ranges from 1 to 5.
It’s important to note that we grade ships on a curve: Because comparing all cruise lines and ships using the same yardstick would be like comparing the St. Regis in NYC to some rural B&B, we grade on a curve that compares ships only with others in their category—mainstream with mainstream, luxury with luxury, small ship with small ship. This allows readers to decide what kind of experience is right for them, then find the best ships in that category based on their particular needs.
2. Are some on this list more attuned to, say, romantic cruise travel, or cruise travel with kids?
Let me break that down to answer it.
Yes, some ships are better for different niches than others, though this list doesn’t address that specifically — it’s a list of the overall best ships, the ones that really just stand out above the crowd. In the guidebook on which this list is based, we have a whole chapter that enumerates the “bests” in a bunch of different categories: family cruise travel, romantic travel, best for foodies, best for spa fanatics, etc.
Yes, some are more attuned to travel with kids: The Royal Caribbean Oasis-class ships would be our family pick among the Top Ships, followed by NCL’s Jewel-class vessels. Cunard’s QM2 is also surprisingly good for kids, especially very young kids — it has one of the only nurseries at sea (along with those on RCI’s Oasis-class ships and the Disney ships).
Romance is harder to peg. Eye of the beholder, you know? All the ships we’ve listed have some romance to them. For myself, I’d probably consider the sailing ships (Star Clippers’ Royal Clipper, Windstar’s Wind Surf) among the most romantic, but that’s just me. Other folks would pick the luxury ships, or some of the more romantic megaships, like Celebrity’s Solstice class.
3. Which of these are perennial favorites, and which of these are new to the list?
New to the list:
- RCI’s Allure of the Seas (though sister-ship Oasis was on last year)
- Celebrity’s Eclipse (though sister-ships Solstice and Equinox were on last year)
- Seabourn’s Sojourn (though sister-ship Odyssey was on last year)
- Cunard’s Queen Victoria
Among the runners up, the only new one is NCL’s Norwegian Epic, which made that list for very specific reasons (mostly its entertainment and restaurant selection), even though it has some problems in other areas.
A bunch of ships have been on for a while, including Celebrity’s Millennium-class ships. They were always lovely, but over the past year Celebrity has been spiffing them up with some new features they developed for the Solstice-class ships.
4. The Disney Dream cruise ship launches very soon. Do you see this as potentially making your list obsolete in less than a month?
That’s the problem with putting anything into print, isn’t it. The list as we created it was based on the 5-star ships (plus runners up) in the new edition of Frommer’s Cruises & Ports of Call, plus one vessel (Allure) that debuted after the book went to press. Since there’s no way to ethically review a ship before it debuts, we couldn’t include the new Disney ship — nor the new Oceania ship that’s debuting next month, nor the new Carnival or Seabourn ships coming in May, or the Costa ship coming in June, etc. You have to put the pencil down sometime.
That said, I think it’s likely that the new Disney ship will be very, very good, based on the line’s track record. And at least two others among the ships debuting in the next six months will almost certainly make next year’s list — something I feel comfortable saying because they’ll be near-identical sister ships to existing Top Ships.
5. Would you consider green shipping practices to be relevant in accounting for the best cruise ships? What about other unseen measures? (That is, service, food, accommodations are seen by passengers, but there are some aspects of cruising that we guests don’t experience but might like to know about.)
That’s not something we factor into the ratings. I personally think that’s all great, and have done a bunch of writing about it over the years. But, I don’t think American society has yet reached the point where most consumers are factoring particular ships’ relative environmental impact into their decision when choosing a cruise — just as I doubt many people think about planes’ environmental impact when they choose a flight.
I think it’s probably safe to say, though, that the newer the ship, the less environmental impact it has on a per-passenger basis. A lot of work has gone into improving efficiency, reducing waste, and improving recycling practices over the past several years.
We do what we can to raise awareness. I did a blog post at the end of 2008 suggesting that cruise lines should emulate what were then the first in-airport kiosks selling carbon offsets to travelers for their flights (at San Francisco Intl.). The post said, in part:
So my question is, when will the cruise lines start offering passengers a chance to offset the energy impacts of their cruises? I know what you’re saying: “Hey, bonehead, we’re in the middle of an economic crisis. Why would I voluntarily add to my travel costs?” Good question, but I actually have an answer: Because every dollar that’s put into offsets is a dollar (or at least a chunk of one) that goes to creating jobs in the clean-energy sector, which analysts and venture capitalists are betting will represent a huge chunk of our economy over the next decade and beyond. By buying offsets, you’re investing in the future success of the U.S. (and world) economy.
A related issue is the cruise lines’ labor practices and ship-registry practices (i.e., the fact that most staff are foreign and are paid fairly low base wages and required to work long hours, and the fact that U.S.-based cruise lines almost always register their ships overseas to avoid U.S. labor regulations and other issues). I’m sure that’s important to some travelers, but it’s not something that goes into our star ratings.
The bottom line here is that we’re rating ships for the quality of the experience they offer guests, based on the aspects of the cruise that actually touch the guests directly, while aboard ship. Environmental and labor issues are very important, but they’re something to discuss in a separate forum, in great detail, not in what’s essentially a quick list of comfortable, exciting, enjoyable experiences.
Thank you, Matt. The Vacation Gals appreciate that you took the time to answer these interview questions so thoughtfully and thoroughly. Frommer’s Best Cruise Ships of 2011 is surely a valid list of the best cruise lines for any given desired cruise vacation experience. Happy cruising!