Cruise Companies:
Mainstream, Premium, Deluxe or Luxury
by Paul Motter, CruiseMates Editor
March 16, 2009

The cruise industry slots each cruise company into one of four categories. Here are the definition and occupants of each category.

It always helps to know something about the business behind something you enjoy. When it comes to cruise companies, there are many definitions and classifications used by cruise travel agents and the cruise press when describing these cruise companies in articles.

All cruise companies fall into a well-known set of cruise categories to describe the appeal they normally have for certain demographic of guests. Simply knowing these cruise company categories and their definitions is enough to give a tremendous amount of insight into the difference between various ships.

These categories generally describe the pricing, ship size, average passenger profile and levels of food and service for each cruise company. The definitions are not written in stone, however, and there is often some debate about where and whether any particular cruise company belongs, but it is in understanding those discussions that one learns the deep differences between cruise line companies.


Beginning at the bottom, here is list of the cruise company categories and what cruise lines belong in each one. We will also give a brief synopsis on any exceptions to the definitions any cruise companies may have.

Contemporary Cruise Companies

Contemporary is the industry term for the most successful, popular and pervasive cruise companies in the industry; Carnival Cruise Lines, Royal Caribbean Lines and Norwegian Cruise Lines (NCL). Other common terms for this group are mainstream, mass-market and even budget.

These cruise companies offer the most affordable cruises generally on the biggest and most highly populated ships at sea. They operate megaships such as the Royal Caribbean Freedom-class, currently the largest cruise ships in the world, the Carnival Conquest class and Norwegian Cruise Line's newer Free-style 2 ships.

At 160,000-gross tons, the Royal Caribbean Freedom class may be the world's largest now, but it will soon be out-sized by a newer Royal Caribbean class of ships. Oasis of the Seas will debut in November at 220,000-tons and a 5400 passengers capacity - double occupancy. A sister ship (identical model) called Allure of the Seas will debut in 2010.

Carnival is considered the most successful of all cruise companies. It is the largest cruise line in terms of number of ships and passenger capacity. Its ships are not as big as Royal Caribbean's in size, but they are big enough averaging 105,000-tons for the mega-ship categories including the Destiny, Conquest and Freedom classes. See our article on cruise ship design for more details.

Norwegian Cruise Lines (NCL) is the smallest of the contemporary cruise companies in terms of number of ships and total passenger capacity, but they have a significant fleet with many ships of various ages and sizes. The line is currently building their first true mega-ship, the NCL Epic, to debut in May 2010. The ship is 153,000-gross tons, 4,200-passengers and the most innovative Freestyle Cruise ship to date. Currently under construction at STX Europe in St. Nazaire, France, the contemporary, balcony-rich, 19-deck ship will be 1,068 feet long, 133 feet wide, with a draft of 28.5 feet when completed in May 2010.

All of the cruise companie's entrée to anytime-style dining can be attributed to NCL's introduction of Free-style dining in the early 2000s. Free-style means guests can dine anytime they want to in any of several restaurant choices onboard. On NCL, free-style also means no mandatory dress codes, although they do suggest styles of dress on a few nights of each cruise.

For more complete descriptions and differences between the three contemporary cruise companies, please see our articles on The Cheapest Cruises and Premium or Mass-Market?


In industry jargon, Celebrity, Holland America, and Princess are considered to be premium cruise companies. Their ships are a bit more upscale in terms of food and service - though with some shopping, you might find cruises on these lines that cost less than some cruises on the contemporary cruise lines listed above.

Celebrity Cruises

Celebrity ships deliver a taste of luxury. The atmosphere is slightly more elegant and refined than you will find on the contemporary companies. Celebrity attempts to deliver a more polished European style service, with well-trained and well-dressed staff and crewmembers.

The onboard experience is very traditional, with two pre-set dining times with passengers assigned to specific tables. There are also suggested dress codes each evening, and one is much more likely to see the dining room maitre d' ask guests to change their clothes if they are dressed inappropriately than on any of the other cruise lines mentioned so far in this article.

Celebrity is well known for its cuisine and restaurant designs throughout the fleet. All the ships have very elegant dining rooms, with refined furnishings and tableware. Alternative dining venues are a specialty, especially on the newest class of ship, the Solstice-class, which has five optional dining spots with service charges ranging from $5 to $25 per person.

The service is refined with guests most often addressed as sir or madam rather than by name. The staff on Celebrity takes their European style of service very seriously, however, and may seem a bit pompous to more casual Americans.

Holland America Lines

Although Holland America once had a reputation of drawing an older crowd, generally this is no longer true. On Caribbean sailings the average age is the same as other premium cruise lines, especially since many Holland America cruise fares are competitive with the contemporary cruise companies listed above. However, on the longer and more exotic itineraries one can still expect the older Holland America crowd.

If you're looking for a more refined cruise experience than the contemporary cruise companies you are likely to be pleased with Holland America. The ships are much smaller and carry fewer passengers. The average ship size is under 80,000 tons and the passenger capacity up to the low 2000s. The smaller and older ships are a mere 70,000-tons and carry up to 1800 passengers. These are the most quiet and refined ships in the fleet, although many younger people may find them too quiet.

Activities and menus on the newer Holland America ships have become much more baby boomer and family oriented over the years. Still, they have accomplished their goal of adding these elements to the cruise experience without disenfranchising their older, dedicated repeat passengers. You will find midnight adult comedy shows, daytime enrichment lectures, very well attended trivia contests, and often a crowded dance floor in the ship's lounges and the karaoke contests.

Holland America offers traditional assigned dining as well as anytime dining with open seating. Over the years the dining room food and service has generated more complaints. For many years Holland America's strength had been its Filipino and Indonesian crew. However, the Indonesian waiters no longer appear to understand English well enough for the critical levels of service one expects on a premium ship. One can always count on the Filipinos, however. Their English is excellent and they perform their jobs expeditiously and in good humor.

Passengers on any ship won't find better beds and bedding than on Holland America. The standard cabins are generous in size, and the higher balcony categories are quite luxurious and spacious, even before getting to the full suites.

Princess Cruise Lines

Princess is an anomaly in the premium category. Although many of their ships are even bigger than Carnival ships, 110,000 gross tons with as many as 3600 passengers, they still manage to keep the premium experience intact by careful management of the passenger flow.

For example, these large ships have three separate main dining rooms, each of them just one deck tall and holding well under 1000 guests at any given time. Each Princess ship has at least two alternative dining spots, one Italian and one for grilled steaks and chops.

Princess also offers traditional dining as well as Personal Choice which allows guests to dine when they want, and with whom they want. Unlike Norwegian's Freestyle, Princess does have suggested dress codes each evening, and guests are expected to dress appropriately for designated formal nights throughout the ship. There is a great deal of leeway in the definition of formal, however, to the point where slacks and a Polo shirt are close enough.

Princess also features a 24-hour Horizon Court (buffet restaurant) for those who want to dine in a casual setting or for late night snacks, coffee etc. princess was the first and is still one of the few cruise lines to keep their buffet area open 24-hours/day. Most cruise lines do offer the dining alternative and have some food throughout the night, mostly pizza, and all offer 24-hour complimentary room service (except Royal Caribbean who just started a $3.95 service charge between midnight and 5:00 am).

Princess' evening entertainment is almost on par with the contemporary cruise lines and a cut above the other premium lines. Standard cabins on Princess are a bit on the smaller side in size.

Unlike Holland America, the service staff on Princess is an international mix. You can expect very attentive service in most cases, which helps to keep the line in the premium category. Food quality is generally good in the dining room and very good in Grill.


Sometime in the early part of this decade a new category of cruise lines emerged. In an unusual set of circumstances three different cruise lines all offer deluxe cruises all based on identical ships - the former R-ships of Renaissance Cruises.

Deluxe is meant to be a cut above premium, most significantly in terms of the passenger capacity and the size of the ships. Deluxe ships are about 30,000 tons and only carry about 700 passengers. But they are also a step below luxury, our next category, because they do not feature the same levels of service and do not have all-inclusive pricing.

Oceania Cruises

The first cruise company to claim the deluxe category was Oceania Cruises. Frank Del Rio, the former president of Renaissance joined up with a former president of Crystal Cruises, Joe Watters, to start the company. It was targeted to appeal to Crystal cruisers (a luxury cruise line) but at a lower price point. Eventually, however, the actual customers were largely former fans of Renaissance and the Crystal fans stuck to Crystal.

Oceania has three 30,000-ton ships. They are perfect ships for world travel, with the focus on almost daily destinations, great food at night and a comfortable bed. Shipboard activities other than dining and a little dancing are limited - this not a sexy legs contest cruise line. Nor will it feature speakers like Bill Moyers or other renowned cultural icons.

Dinner is open seating in any of four restaurants, none carrying a service charge. The main dining room is open seating nightly. There is a steakhouse grill and an Italian Trattoria both requiring reservations. The food is very good, especially in the special restaurants. A casual dining buffet is also offered nightly with al fresco seating.

The staterooms are smaller than average but very comfortable. The bedding is excellent. The focus on unusual destinations with long stays in port. Shore tours are extensive but many people make their own tour arrangements.

Azamara Cruises

Azamara has the same vessels as Oceania Cruises (also acquired from the defunct Renaissance Cruises) but the d?cor has been invigorated and the service has been enhanced in the style of parent company Celebrity Cruises. The line is very similar to Oceana described above. The pricing is competitive and so it is recommended that one look at both lines when considering a deluxe-style cruise.

Princess Cruises (two ships)

The third line with these small former R-ships is Princess. The line uses the ships for more exotic and longer cruises. Their restaurants have been changed to the Princess names but are still a grill and an Italian restaurant (Sabatini's as on the other Princess ships). The two ships are the Tahitian and the Pacific Princess.


In alphabetical order: The cruise companies that CruiseMates puts into the luxury category are Crystal, Regent, Seabourn, SeaDream Yacht Club and Silversea Cruises. Meanwhile, three other lines also deserve honorable mention, because they appeal to many of the same people. These lines are Cunard, Oceania Cruises and Windstar. They all have distinguishing characteristics that set them apart from the mainstream cruise market.

The differences among these cruise lines are as varied as the entire spectrum of cruising. For example, Crystal's 68,000-ton Crystal Serenity is larger than some mass market ships. But with only 1,080 passengers it also has a very favorable space to passenger ratio, meaning that even though it is a big ship, it never feels crowded. At the other end of the scale is SeaDream Yacht Club, whose entire fleet of two boutique ships -- at 108 passengers each -- is smaller than almost any cruise ship you can name.

For further information we recommend reading the extensive luxury cruising section at CruiseMates.