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Compare: MSC Cruises vs. Royal Caribbean

Compare: MSC Cruises vs. Royal Caribbean

The atmosphere of a cruise line can truly make or break your vacation experience, which is why it's so important to choose a line, ship and sailing that are right for you.

If you're looking for a breakdown of Royal Caribbean vs. MSC cruises, we can help. Below we've compared these two brands so you can make an informed decision, based on key areas like food, cabins and, of course, price.

Overall

Radiance class ship

Both cruise lines specialize in fun, offering upbeat and lively atmospheres, and they pride themselves on featuring the latest in cruise ship technology, from in-cabin virtual assistants that can tell you the latest news or weather reports to apps and digital signage that prevent you from getting lost onboard and allow you to make reservations for dinner and shows.

Both lines are solid choices for families, but they also include plenty of onboard activities for all ages.

Royal Caribbean is a great line for active passengers, with plenty of outdoor pursuits that keep cruisers moving. It also prides itself on jaw-dropping, "I can't believe that's on a ship" amenities like carousels, designer shops and entertainment that features acrobats, high-divers and ice skaters surrounded by choreographed drones. The ambiance is fairly casual.

MSC, on the other hand, offers a slightly more glitzy experience. Touches like fine art and atrium staircases inlaid with Swarovski crystals help to shape the decor, which drips with elegance. It's important to note that although the line has some ships designed specifically with North Americans in mind, it does have a largely international cruiser base, with ships often presenting key announcements in five or six languages and serving up leisurely meals that can take hours.

Food

MSC specialty restaurant

Both lines offer free meals for breakfast, lunch and dinner in the onboard self-service buffets and waiter-served main dining rooms.

Royal Caribbean passengers can opt for set-seating (fixed dining time at the same table every night) or flexible (eat any time between set hours at any table that's available) options when they eat in the ships' main dining rooms. MSC also offers these choices, but only to cruisers who pay for the privilege. (See the "Cabins" section below for information about MSC's experience tiers.)

Want a less formal meal but don't particularly like buffets? Not a problem. You'll find plenty of alternative eateries on the ships in both lines' fleets.

Where the lines differ is in how many options are available and how much extra it'll cost you. In general, MSC has fewer alternative dining options, and you'll pay for them. However, the food is excellent, particularly on the line's newer ships, which feature a steakhouse; pub fare; seafood and Spanish tapas in a partnership with chef Ramon Freixa; Asian-fusion, hibachi and sushi with a menu designed by chef Roy Yamaguchi; and gelato, crepes and a variety of fun beverages from a link-up with Italian chocolatier Venchi.

Royal Caribbean's free alternative choices include Mexican, hot dogs, pizza, cafe snacks and even breakfast at Johnny Rockets, which is found on some ships. Added-cost options comprise Asian, Italian, steak, BBQ, pub grub and Starbucks, as well as lunch or dinner at Johnny Rockets on the vessels that have it. The line also has a mystery dinner theater on certain ships.

Cabins

MSC cabin

With so much to do onboard, it's likely you won't spend too much time in your cabin, whether you choose MSC or Royal Caribbean. Even so, passengers should still weigh their accommodation options.

Both cruise lines provide passengers with well-appointed cabins, although neither line is known for having the most spacious accommodations at the basic level. Because it has an older fleet, Royal Caribbean's cabins vary more than MSC's, which are as elegantly furnished as the rest of the areas on the line's vessels.

Within its large number of category choices, Royal Caribbean shines with its suite options, which include some of the largest mainstream living spaces found on cruise ships. Perks include concierge and/or Royal Genie (butler) service, complimentary formalwear pressing, a pillow menu, priority boarding, upgraded cabin toiletries, tours of the bridge and galley, and more.

Virtual balcony

In terms of group accommodations, both lines have them, but Royal Caribbean offers Royal Family Suites (on select ships), which have two floors and feature bunkbeds, a play area with games and toys, a balcony with an outdoor climbing structure and even an indoor slide that takes the kids from their bedroom to the living room below in a matter of seconds.

For its part, MSC does have a selection of rooms for families or other groups traveling together, but in order to choose those staterooms, passengers must book a higher-tiered experience.

What we mean by "higher-tiered experience" is that cruisers must choose from a list of four different levels of inclusion -- Bella, Fantastica, Aurea and Yacht Club -- for their sailings. Those levels determine whether travelers are allowed to choose a cabin type or a dining time (or flexible dining). The tiers also offer additional perks like spa discounts and priority boarding.

MSC Yacht Club

Bella, the most basic and least expensive, means passengers are assigned a cabin and a set dining time and receive no additional perks. The most lavish (and, of course, pricey) is Yacht Club, which is tied to an exclusive enclave of private cabins with the same name.

Yacht Club staterooms offer a ship-within-a-ship experience via access to restaurant, pool and lounge areas that are reserved for Yacht Club passengers only. Like Royal Caribbean's suites, Yacht Club accommodations are some of the largest and most impressive at sea, offering concierge and butler services, priority embarkation and disembarkation, and free alcoholic beverages within the Yacht Club area.

Things to Do

MSC Theater

Whether you prefer a more relaxing vacation or you're always on the go, you won't be disappointed with Royal Caribbean or MSC. Both offer plenty of out-of-the-way places for reading, sun decks for tanning and adults-only spaces if your goal is simply to escape the kids and soak in the pool or hot tub. Ships in both fleets also have exceptional spas if a facial, pedicure or massage is more up your alley.

When it comes to activities, there are several differences between MSC versus Royal Caribbean cruises. In general, MSC excels with its nightly entertainment, while Royal Caribbean offers more adrenaline-pumping activities like rock climbing, bungee trampolining, laser tag, trapeze classes, bumper cars, ice skating, simulated surfing and skydiving, and ziplining, most of which are free.

MSC also features dual ziplines on its newest vessels; although they weren't the first ship-based ziplines, they are the industry's longest. Riding them comes with an added fee, however, as do other daytime activities like onboard bowling, billiards and 4D cinemas.

Additionally, both lines have packed daily schedules filled with trivia, bingo, movie screenings, dance lessons, port talks, shopping opportunities and live music. Further amenities -- like fitness centers, for-fee arcades and nightclubs with DJ-spun music -- allow cruisers to make their own fun without a schedule. Further, Royal Caribbean presents a variety of game shows, including "Battle of the Sexes," the "Love and Marriage Game" and adult scavenger hunt "Quest."

You'll find plenty to keep you busy outdoors during the day, too, with both lines providing at least one pool (but usually two or more) on every ship, along with children's splash areas, mini-golf courses, jogging tracks and basketball courts on most vessels.

Mariner of the Seas

Both cruise lines have also included water slides on the top decks of their most recent ships. Royal Caribbean's Perfect Storm is a trio of waterslides that includes two racing slides and either a funnel-style bowl slide or a boomerang slide (depending on the ship).

Meanwhile, MSC's latest ships are outfitted with up to four slides: a standard slide, two racings slides and a fourth one used for "slideboarding," which puts riders on a board that allows them to push buttons corresponding with lights that flash inside the slide as they're gliding through it (sort of like a video game).

After dinner, Royal Caribbean does well terms of production shows, featuring Broadway titles like "Cats," "Grease" and "Hairspray" on select ships. It also incorporates acrobats, AquaTheater high-divers and drone-backed ice skaters into its nightly theatrics.

AquaTheater on Harmony of the Seas

However, nothing beats MSC when it comes to sheer wow factor. Although the entertainment on most of the line's North America-based ships caters to an English-speaking audience (read: you can expect more comedic performances because the dialogue doesn't present an issue with language barriers), many of the line's vessels sail in the Mediterranean, which means the passengers are more diverse, hailing from a number of countries that speak different languages.

As a result, MSC focuses largely on entertainment that requires few words: magic, acrobatics, contortion and music. Loose storylines are overshadowed by lavish costumes and scenery, especially on ships where the line's partnership with Cirque du Soleil creates a visually stunning experience for cruisers.

For children, both Royal Caribbean and MSC have created clubs with plenty to keep the youngest cruisers busy and entertained. Both feature complimentary daytime activities like game play, story time, scavenger hunts and dance parties.

For its part, MSC features Doremi (pronounced "doh-ray-mee") and friends characters and partnerships with LEGO and Chicco, while Royal Caribbean offers over-the-top fun in the way of science experiments and even acting classes.

Price

MSC_Meraviglia

Prices for both lines vary based on several factors, including ship, destination, cruise length, cabin type and add-ons. With either line, you'll find more expensive pricing on newer ships, particularly if you book a suite.

Generally, MSC has a larger number of ships sailing internationally than Royal Caribbean, so it's difficult to do a fair comparison of pricing across the board. While Royal Caribbean has one of the largest selections in the industry in terms of cabin categories, MSC is known for its tiered pricing, which allows passengers to select how many add-ons they'd like to include with their cruises.

Although you'll pay fees for extras with both lines, Royal Caribbean includes more in its fares in terms of dining and activities, allowing cruisers to use its ziplines, rock climbing walls, bungee trampolines, and skydiving and surf simulators for free, while MSC charges for zipline use, as well as things like billiards, bowling and the Formula One racing simulator. Royal Caribbean also does not charge for the privilege of selecting dining times or opting for flexible dining.