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Why you can't really trust online cruise ship reviews

24 Jul 2018
Matt Hochberg

If you're using online reviews to pick a cruise ship, you should probably stop.

Serenade of the Seas in St Lucia

One of the most common questions someone new to Royal Caribbean has is how good is a certain Royal Caribbean ship.  Or if a certain ship is too old/new/boring/outdated/flashy these days.  Or better yet, a question along the lines of, "I read a lot of negative reviews about ____ of the Seas, so should I not go on it?".

Based purely on the frequency of these types of questions, we wanted to tackle the general notion of trying to answer this question.  Interestingly enough, the answer is to question the inquiry itself.

Cruise ships are not like takeout diner

Arguably one of the best uses of the internet is the ability to research any venue, show, eatery, book and get instant feedback on how good or bad it is.  Websites like Yelp, TripAdvisor, Google and Rotten Tomatoes have all built their reputations on giving consumers the opportunity to share their experience and thoughts.  So when it comes to a cruise ship vacation, why not apply the same logic?

The reality is cruise ships offer such a varied and experiential vacation that it cannot be properly reviewed in its entirety based on a single experience.  Cruises are by their very design a "create your own adventure" experience.  You could sit at the pool every day of the cruise and never do one activity, whereas the guy next to you could be zip lining, crocheting, belly flopping and dancing the night away.  In short, we all cruise differently.

The age of a ship is equally irrelevant to determining how good or bad it is.  Cruise ships are not like the family car that you own.  In most cases, people buy a car, but never add significant new features after purchasing it.  Cruise ships undergo extensive refurbishments periodically and regular maintenance every few years.  While you could probably look at the corners of a room and see a piece of rust or inspect the upholstery of a chair for worn material, those aspects are superficial and irrelevant to the overall experience. 

...but I read bad things about that ship

Negative reviews have a powerful effect on everyone.  Think about a time someone shared a rotten experience involving a certain restaurant, movie, book or car repair shop and how quickly you probably abandoned any consideration of trying it yourself.

The thing to remember is one person's experience is not indicative of what yours will be.  Think about broccoli.  I could find hundreds of people who hate broccoli and never want to eat it ever again. I could find another few hundred people that love broccoli, and think it is really good.  Then of course you have people who have written negative reviews of Star Wars, chocolate, newborn babies and Alf.  All that proves is we have different tastes in things.

There was a great piece in the New York Times titled, "Why You Can’t Really Trust Negative Online Reviews" and it starts off with this wonderful fact:

"The Great Wall of China has more than 9,000 Google reviews, with an average of 4.2 stars. Not bad for one of the most astonishing achievements in human history."

One of the greatest feats of mankind left some people questioning how good it really was.  This is why those people that gave Anthem of the Seas a one star review is frankly ludicrous. The fact negative reviews exist about any Royal Caribbean ship is not a sign of a pitfall or disaster waiting to happen.  Rather, it just goes to show you that you cannot please everyone.

I really love this line from that Times article, which really sums up why online reviews are anything but a definitive way of booking a cruise, "Reviews are subjective, and the tiny subset of people who leave them aren’t average."

The answer is the always the same

Inevitably when someone asks what I think of a certain Royal Caribbean ship, or if they should avoid a certain ship, I always give the same answer because it applies to every single Royal Caribbean ship in the fleet.

They are all great ships and you can have a great time on any of them.

No ship in the fleet is inherently flawed, and no ship is a mistake to sail on.  Are some ships older than others? Of course, that is a chronological fact.  But age does not make a ship better or worse than another.

I firmly believe anyone can have a great time on any Royal Caribbean ship.  It just comes down to a few simple steps you need to take before stepping foot onboad, which are truths that can be applied to any sort of travel:

  1. Cruise with an open mind
  2. Be flexible
  3. Research before booking what the ship does and does not offer

What you should do instead of reading reviews

First and foremost, stop reading online reviews of these ships.  They are at best a quirky form of entertainment, and certainly not a proper barometer of what makes a ship great or not.

What you want to to do instead is look into what features, amenities and entertainment a ship offers and figure out if that is what you are interested in. You need to figure out what you are looking for in a cruise and then see which ship might be a better fit for you.

Some Royal Caribbean ships have water slides, and some do not.  Some have Broadway shows and some do not.  Some have FlowRider surf simulators and some do not.  Some have a multitude of specialty restaurants and some have just a couple. Which of these matters to you? 

The key to going on a great ship is going on a ship that offers the kind of experience that will appeal to you.

One story I like to tell is about a man at the Solarium pool on Brilliance of the Seas that I struck up a conversation with on a past cruise.  We talked about a few topics before he complained, "this ship is terrible.  We went on Oasis of the Seas last time and there was so much more to do."

Naturally I just smiled and went whatever he said to avoid an awkward exchange.  But deep down, I wanted to respond that of course Oasis of the Seas will offer much more to do than Brilliance.  Oasis of the Seas is more than double the size of Brilliance (225,000 GT compared to 90,000 GT).  More space equals more options to pack into the ship.  

Had this person done some research into Brilliance of the Seas, they would have realized that they clearly enjoy the type of experience Oasis of the Seas offers, and the Brilliance of the Seas does not have a number of the onboard activities and entertainment that Oasis of the Seas.  It does not make Brilliance of the Seas a bad ship, just a different one.

What you want to focus on

Now that you know what not to worry about (general reviews of ships), you should know that learning about a ship is still a great idea.  You ought to focus on figuring out what you want from the cruise and which ships offer things to do that appeal the most to you.

If you do not have kids, then picking a ship with a large Adventure Ocean space or DreamWorks Experience may not really matter much.  If you consider yourself a foodie, then a Royal Caribbean ship with lots of specialty dining options might be something to lean towards.

Essentially, you want to look at what the ship and itinerary offer, and determine which combination might be the best option for you.

Your thoughts

How much have online reviews played a role in determining which ship you do or do not cruise on?  Does the ships' age matter in your decision making? Please share your experiences when it comes to recommending one ship over another in our comments.