By David G. Molyneaux, TheTravelMavens.com
If you like to spend your precious leisure hours in a world that is big, brash and innovative, these are the best of times to vacation at sea.
The cruise business is on a roll. In the last few years, a fleet of huge new ships has slipped into the seas to cart hundreds of thousands of vacationers around Europe, the Caribbean and into the Pacific to Alaska and Hawaii.
Each new big ship flaunts inventive diversions – grassy gardens and glass-blowing exhibitions, water slides and zip lines, entertainment that ranges from Broadway shows to circus acts, fancy restaurants with tasting menus and casual buffets with such choices as burrito bars, tandoori ovens and Mongolian woks.
To sell additional outside cabins, Royal Caribbean built balconies on inside cabins, pictured above, then ripped off the roof on Oasis of the Seas.
Unlike many of the world's boring vacation products – shops, restaurants and fast food joints that look the same no matter where you travel – new cruise ships are similar on the outside, but inside can be worlds apart.
Cruise lines are not homogenizing their ships – cookie-cutter style like accommodations along the nation's super highways – they are purposefully moving in different directions.
Pick a cabin at your budget
The result is an array of vacation choices among the most popular, mass-marketed mainstream big ship brands operated by Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Norwegian, Disney, Holland America, Princess, MSC, and Celebrity.
The best news is that you can ride these ships at different price levels, depending on your vacation budget. Opportunities abound for spending money, from lavish meals to spa treatments. But if you are practical and careful, you can cruise on the same ship as the high rollers for about the budget price you paid for a cruise 10 years ago. Not many vacation choices can say that.
Which brings us back to the concept of big.
The price of efficiency is size. All of the most popular cruise lines have chosen to go big with their newest ships – from Royal Caribbean's gigantic Oasis of the Seas and Allure of the Seas to the Carnival Dream, Holland America's Eurodam and Nieuw Amsterdam, Celebrity's Solstice series, the Norwegian Epic, the Disney Dream (debuting in January 2011), and the Princess fleet that has been popping huge new vessels into the ocean at a furious pace since 1998.
Cruise companies keep trotting out bigger ships because of the economies of scale; they hold more passengers to divvy up the basic costs of added diversions. On today’s big ships, you will be sharing your vacation home with at least 2,100 of your closest friends (on the Eurodam and Nieuw Amsterdam) or as many as a small town, 6,000 or more (on Oasis and Allure).