After two sailings on Carnival Cruise Line, the first cruises I had ever taken, Royal Caribbean’s casino started sending me offers for sailings.
Generally, these were for three- or four-day sailings on midsize ships or longer ones on older ships.
Once I did my first sailing on the cruise line’s Independence of the Seas, a typical example of the middle tier of Royal’s fleet, I was more or less hooked. A Freedom-class ship, Independence has been “amped,” Royal Caribbean’s (RCL) – Get Free Report program to update older ships.
It offers the cruise line’s Playmakers sports-bar concept, and has an Italian restaurant, sushi/hibachi concept, and Chops steakhouse. Most of my first 30 or so cruises were on Indy, as she’s casually called, or the slightly smaller Voyager-class (and also “amped”) Navigator of the Seas.
For a three- or four-day sailing, these ships had more than enough to do and they both offered my favorite onboard venue, Royal Caribbean’s British pub, where guitarists play acoustic music (mostly covers).
Nearly every Royal Caribbean ship has a pub, but Freedom and Voyager class pubs are located next to a spiral staircase that leads to the casino.
These ships offered plenty to do at night, upgraded food choices, and quiet spaces for me to work during the day. On a three-day weekend trip, I often seemed like the only person with a laptop rather than an umbrella drink, tequila shot or beer in hand. But for the two years leading up to the pandemic, Navigator was my weekend home about a dozen times.
Guitarist Sam Ensuque has played on both Royal Caribbean and Celebrity ships.
Image source: Daniel Kline/TheStreet
How I Discovered Celebrity Cruises
When I was sailing every few weeks on Navigator, Sam Ensuque, one of the best musicians in Royal Caribbean’s fleet, was the pub guitarist. On some early trips he played an Elvis Costello song at my request, and after his set I would join him and other passengers for a drink.
After his Navigator contract ended, he popped up as the guitarist for a Thanksgiving sailing on Explorer of the Seas, which I took my teenage son on. Over a lot of late nights we became unlikely friends who stayed in touch during the pandemic.
Once ships returned to sailing, when Sam got a contract I would usually try to book a trip or two. Last year, after a few years on Royal Caribbean, Sam took a short contract on sister brand Celebrity’s Summit.
She’s an older ship without many of the modern touches Royal Caribbean’s larger vessels offer.
There are no waterslides, Flowrider, or Starbucks onboard, and when I booked the week before Thanksgiving and Christmas week for five-day sailings. I did so with low expectations for the ship. This was mostly a chance to watch my friend play, share some meals, and walk around a port or two.
So, I was very pleasantly surprised that one of Celebrity’s smaller, older ships proved to be a wonderful way to sail.
What I like about Celebrity Cruises compared with Royal Caribbean
Essentially, there’s no such thing as a bad cruise, and I still love Voyager and Freedom-class ships. I have also been able to experience all the Oasis-class ships, and nothing beats the tranquility of Central Park at night or the amazing pool decks, dining, and entertainment options on those ships.
I also like the fact that almost every Royal Caribbean ship has a guitarist who plays in the pub most nights and a piano player who entertains at the Schooner Bar.
Celebrity actually offers more live music with guitarists, acoustic duos, party bands, and other acts sprinkled around the ship, but the company moves them around and often schedules them during the day when I tend to be busy.
Celebrity’s ships, however, down to the smallest and oldest ones, all feel a bit more upscale than Royal Caribbean’s. The main dining room food meets a higher standard and Cafe Al Bacio, the onboard coffee shop. compares favorably with my favorite cafes in New York and Seattle.
The pools on Celebrity’s ships offer a bit more tranquility, as fewer kids are onboard (the ships have kids’ spaces but not as many kid-friendly offerings). In addition, Celebrity’s ships are filled with distinct bars that serve unique cocktails. Some of Royal Caribbean’s bars, like Schooner Bar and Mason Jar’s bar, offer these, but most of its bars are more generic.
For a trip with friends, especially friends with kids, I’d probably opt for Royal Caribbean, preferably Oasis class. When I’m traveling alone and working for at least part of the day, which is usually the case, I prefer Celebrity. And having recently sailed on its newest ship. Ascent, I’ll say that the cruise line manages to keep the intimate feel on the larger ship.
Royal Caribbean ships with their huge open “Promenade” spaces have a more festive environment, while Celebrity, even on a larger ship like Ascent, maintains a more exclusive feel.
I’ll also say that a controversial Celebrity offering, the Infinite Balcony, was one of my favorite features on Ascent. These balconies are enclosed and passengers have the option to lower a window to get fresh air.
I found that the balcony actually made my room bigger and I used it a bit whereas I almost never make use of a traditional balcony aside from taking a picture or two.
I also enjoyed that Ascent’s balconies offered blackout curtains instead of the looser curtains used with traditional balconies. It’s a small thing, but the blackout curtain enables one to sleep past dawn. That’s not a bad thing on a ship that has so many choices, it’s hard to make yourself go to sleep at night.