A cruise is a cruise is a cruise, right? Not if you're a highly selective Budget Travel reader. By a margin of 494 votes, BT readers declared Royal Caribbean International (RCI) king of the cruise lines, praising its cheery staff, good value, diverse itineraries, and whale-size roster of activities. RCI's larger-than-life ships may have something to do with it. The Allure of the Seas, which debuts this December, will share the title of world's largest superliner with its slightly older sister, the 2009 Oasis of the Seas. Meanwhile, nine other ships in RCI's fleet are roughly double the size of the Titanic, with at least 15 decks, plus novelties such as mall-like promenades, water parks, ice rinks, and full-blown parades. Up on the pool deck, a daily carnival takes place with blissed-out septuagenarians in hot tubs, mobs of women doing the Macarena, and parents teaching their kids how to dog-paddle. Hard to imagine, right? We set sail on the 3,114-passenger Explorer of the Seas, part of the company's midsize Voyager class, and on a five-night journey from New Jersey to Bermuda, we asked a range of passengers for their insights into why—exactly—everyone and their mother loves this line. royalcaribbean.com, rates start at $379 per person, double occupancy, for a five-night sailing but more typically are $750 to $1,200 depending on the season, itinerary, and ship.
THE GOOD SPORTS
Angelyn, 16; Bret, 23; Leanna, 20; and Ryan Caldwell, 25; of Thousand Oaks, Calif.
It's no surprise that the four Caldwell kids utterly dominated the Explorer's 34-foot-high rock wall: The southern Californians are accustomed to a steady diet of biking, surfing, and bouldering. Though the gang has rented vacation houses in Mexico and Hawaii, this cruise—their first—surfaced as an ideal way to gather the extended clan, including parents, grandparents, and cousins, following Ryan's graduation from Drexel University in Philadelphia this June. Team Caldwell and friends, all 15 of them, hit the high seas running. "We feasted and exercised round the clock," says Ryan. In addition to daily gym sessions, the family also managed to squeeze in plenty of entertainment, including karaoke and an adult scavenger hunt. On one of the last days, the Caldwells were spotted on the sidelines of a parade headed down the ship's simulated Main Street; they were high-fiving and even hugging employees dressed as monkeys and elephants. Says Ryan: "At that point, we'd all become friends."
Best Tip Bring walkie-talkies. "We didn't have them," says Walt, the Caldwells' father, "and it would have helped us find each other."
Wendy Champion, 29, and Vito Ciancia, 31, of North Brunswick, N.J., minutes after their shipboard ceremony
The fact that Wendy Champion and Vito Ciancia decided to make things official after a 13-year courtship was reason enough for a special ceremony. "We wanted to do something memorable—and affordable," says Vito, a systems administrator at New York University. "And we loved the idea of celebrating with our closest family and friends for several days," adds Wendy, a sales manager for a technical publishing company. So while the Explorer was docked in Bermuda, the wedding party gathered in the white chapel at the top of the ship and the Ciancias said their vows (the legal documents had been signed a few days earlier at City Hall in North Brunswick, N.J.). Wedding pictures were snapped on the pool deck, and then the party of 32 piled onto a chartered catamaran for a day of champagne toasts and snorkeling. Wendy was dressed for the occasion in a white bikini with mrs. ciancia spelled out in rhinestones across the bottom and a veil that somehow managed to stay perfectly in place—even after several jumps into the water. Later that night, as the Ciancias cut their wedding cake in the ship's dining room, the veil remained on, looking remarkably fit for the occasion, especially with traces of seaweed still stuck in it.
Best Tip Pack a watch. "We had a hard time finding clocks on the ship," Wendy says, "and since we weren't using our cell phones, we almost never knew what time it was."
Matthew Pascarelli, 30, and Lauriel White, 25, of Merrick, N.Y., drinking Lava Flows (a piña colada/strawberry daiquiri combo)
Matt Pascarelli and Lauriel White set off on their first cruise together with a strict schedule in mind: Eat, sunbathe, nap, drink, and dance. Joining the couple—he's an accountant at BNY Mellon, she's an account executive at a pharmaceutical company—were Matt's parents, who were celebrating their 30th anniversary, and his three siblings and their mates, all from upstate New York. This was everyone's first time on RCI (some had taken a Disney cruise before), but it wasn't long before everyone fell into a groove. Each morning about 11 a.m., the group would descend upon the pool deck to lounge on towel-covered chairs and enjoy the ocean views. Every evening, they made the most of the ship's nightlife. Matt and Lauriel belted out Billy Joel songs at the piano bar ("Hey, no need to be too cool," says Lauriel); Matt and his father came out $400 ahead at the blackjack table. And as a capstone to an incredible trip, Matt's mom and Lauriel had their own bonding moment: doing lemon-drop shots until 4 a.m.
Best Tip Turn on the TV. "There's so much happening on the ship, you can't get to everything," says Lauriel, "but events like the belly-flop contest and the kids' pirate parade get recorded, so you can watch them right in your room."
Melvin, 81, and Betty Luce, 80, of Ridley Park, Pa., at the ship's Schooner Bar
It was a passion for The Love Boat that inspired Betty Luce to book her first cruise with husband Mel back in 1984, and it's been smooth sailing ever since. This Explorer of the Seas trip was the couple's 45th cruise, their 32nd aboard Royal Caribbean. Over the years, the Luces have tested the waters on several lines, passing through the British Isles, Greece, Norway, Hawaii, Alaska, and all of the Caribbean in the process. But when RCI started sailing out of New Jersey in 2004, just two hours from their front door, it became their favorite. Along the way, the Luces have found a rhythm: Betty reads novels on the balcony while Mel walks the ship ("The helipad is always the best forward-looking view except for the bridge, and almost no one knows about it"). And they usually book their next cruise before the end of the current one, a clever loyalty tactic that earns them a $250 discount and a $100 shipboard credit per person. Even dinner—always the 6 p.m. seating—has its own comforting routine: "We don't have to look at the dessert menu," says Mel. "We get ice cream every time: two scoops of vanilla for me, two scoops of chocolate for Betty. What can I say? We know what we like."
Best Tip Check out cruisecritic.com for the latest cruising news and reviews. And for a look at the underbelly of the industry—illness outbreaks, garbage dumping—Mel's go-to is cruisejunkie.com.
THE RAUCOUS RETIREES
Sue, 62, and Mike Boyd, 61, of Parkersburg, W.Va., with seven fellow recent retirees
They streamed onto the ship in matching fluorescent T-shirts. The retirees, as they called themselves, all live in Parkersburg, W.Va., where 9 out of 10 worked for the Wood County school district; several, including Mike Boyd, the director of secondary schools, and his wife, Sue, a seventh-grade geography teacher, had wrapped up their careers just days before. Along with Mike's niece and her entourage of family and friends, the party topped 39. At breakfast, Mike, Sue, and crew would look over the ship's broadsheet, the Cruise Compass, and plan out their activities (trivia contests, stand-up acts). Naturally, the educators couldn't help but absorb some new lessons, such as how to uncork champagne without creating a pop. On the last day in the hot tub, chanting, "No more Mondays, every day Sunday!" they reveled in the fact that this was just their first taste of a very bright future.
Best Tip Pay the extra 20 percent for a balcony room, advises Sue: "The water view from your bed reminds you that you're on the ocean."
THE FAMILY AFFAIR
The Nooitgedagts, of Pennsylvania and New Jersey, on formal night: Heather Zaleski, 27; Hippy Nooitgedagt, 72; Colton Hummer, 15. Center: Pete Nooitgedagt, 39; Gavin Hummer, 9; Nanci Nooitgedagt Hummer, 44. Bottom: Griffin Hummer, 12; Janet Nooitgedagt, 70; Bill Mills, 32
For years, vacations for the Nooitgedagt (pronounced noy-ka-dot) family consisted of all-American road trips; Hippy, a retired trucker from Pennsylvania, would take his wife, Janet, and their kids, Nanci and Pete, to hear country music in Tennessee, or to commune with history at Valley Forge in honor of the bicentennial. Then, in 1991, Janet won a trip for two on Norwegian Cruise Line's Norway, and the couple converted to cruising for good. On their most recent outing—their seventh with Royal Caribbean—Janet and Hippy were joined for the first time by the entire clan. The group was gathered for Janet's 70th birthday and tested just about every service on the ship. That ranged from the kids' clubs to the restaurant options ("They brought us as many lobster tails as we wanted in the dining room!" Gavin says). The family's whopping bar bill perhaps best speaks to how much fun they had—and explains how all-inclusives find their profit margins. The Nooitgedagts hope to return to RCI next summer, for a nine-night Caribbean cruise. "Where else can you find a floating resort that offers such a great vacation for such a good value?" Janet asks.
Best Tip Going as a group? Don't be shy about asking for discounts. When the Nooitgedagts booked their trip a year out, it cost over $13,000 for their party of 11, but they paid closer to $10,000 in the end, thanks to last-minute negotiations.
—additional reporting by Caroline Patience and Megan Stride