With so many cruise options in the market, it’s easy to get caught in analysis paralysis.
Once the go-to holiday for retirees and families, cruising has exploded in popularity for young couples and singles as well, and cruise providers are taking note. There are quite a few similarities between two massively popular cruise providers, Royal Caribbean and MSC, but there are also some key differences.
Which one is best for you, Royal Caribbean or MSC? Take a look at our side-by-side comparison to find out.
Speak to a Cruise Advisor
Make travel planning easy with the help of a travel advisor. Save time and get assistance from a Cruise expert to protect your investment on your next trip.
Royal Caribbean Overview
Perhaps one of the most widely recognized names in the industry, Royal Caribbean boasts a fleet of 24 of the largest cruise ships in the world. The biggest ship can carry over 5000 passengers, and its smallest ship, Rhapsody of the Seas, can hold well over 2000.
Royal Caribbean is a great choice for a romantic couples’ or honeymoon cruise. Whether you want to spend the entire trip relaxing on deck with a drink in hand, get your heart racing with adrenaline-pumping activities like zip-lining, or enjoy some pampering in the spa, the options are almost limitless. There are also plenty of itineraries and departure ports to choose from.
Although European-based, MSC is still very popular in North America, particularly for its European itineraries. It is a luxury cruise operator that offers high-end, eclectic experiences at a surprisingly affordable price.
MSC cruises are more low-key than Royal Caribbean cruises. Especially popular with families, MSC lets children ages 3-11 years old sail for free, and kids between the ages of 12-17 sail for a discounted fare. MSC’s largest ship can hold over 6000 passengers, while its smallest ship, called the MSC Armonia, can carry around 2500.
Passengers can purchase packages, called “experiences” in MSC terms, on top of their base fare that let them customize their holiday. There are 3–Bella, Fantastica, and Aurea–and they include perks like priority dining reservations and the option to choose cabins.
Guests can also choose a luxurious upgrade with the MSC Yacht Club, which grants members their own VIP section, private pool, dining options, free drinks, personal butler and concierge services, and priority embarkation and seating.
Royal Caribbean vs. MSC Cabins
While their cabins might not meet the same luxury standards as some other higher-end cruise lines, Royal Caribbean’s rooms are comfortable and include thoughtful add-ons. They have especially creative family rooms. Far from simple, these are more like giant playhouses that include slides, games, and Lego-inspired walls.
Couples on Royal Caribbean can enjoy peaceful cabins with modern furnishings, large windows, and private balconies. The cruise line’s largest suites are equipped with 4 beautiful bedrooms so groups can conveniently stay together without feeling cramped.
Meanwhile, MSC accommodations vary from basic to extraordinary, depending on what kind of experience you go for. Not all cabins have balconies, and the ones that do can sometimes come with metal railings or other obstructions that block your view of the sea.
The nicest suites come with separate sitting areas, walk-in closets, whirlpool bathtubs, and bathrooms with their own balconies. The Duplex Suite, which is only available on the MSC Meraviglia and MSC Bellissima, is two floors high and includes 2 bathrooms.
There are also studio rooms for solo travelers. They are small and only come equipped with a single bed which folds into a sofa during the day to make the suite roomier.
Royal Caribbean vs. MSC Destinations and Itineraries
Although Royal Caribbean sails primarily to the Caribbean and Europe–offering cruises that average from 3 to 14 nights–they sail to almost every destination you can think of. Cruises to Australia, New Zealand, and Asia skyrocket in popularity during the North American winters.
Royal Caribbean’s longest cruise, an epic round-the-world journey, is between 250-270 nights long and stops at over 60 countries. You can also book an Ultimate World cruise and explore your favorite corner of the world in detail over 60 nights.
MSC has a strong European fanbase, and most of its sailings are concentrated around Western and Northern Europe. However, they’ve made considerable efforts to market themselves more to North American passengers, offering year-round itineraries in the Caribbean (including their own private island in the Bahamas, the Ocean Cay MSC Marine Reserve).
Seasonal MSC itineraries popular with European passengers sail to parts of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East including Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia. Their World Cruise is considerably shorter than Royal Caribbean’s but visits many of the same places.
Royal Caribbean vs. MSC Activities and Entertainment
While you certainly can spend your days onboard relaxing, Royal Caribbean cruises are geared more toward folks who can’t sit still. Exciting activities include a surf simulator, giant rock climbing walls, sky-diving simulators, a zip-lining course, tall waterslides, a skating rink, and bumper cars.
Royal Caribbean is one of the most family-friendly cruise operators out there, and they have plenty of activities available to keep kids and teens busy while parents enjoy a leisurely lunch or have a relaxing treatment in the full-service spa. During the evening, passengers can take in a show, try their luck at the casino, or dance at the nightclub.
MSC has round-the-clock entertainment that rivals that of Royal Caribbean, with a few original extras thrown in like their video arcade, 4D movie theater, and innovative Diamond Bar and Library. Here you can enjoy a creative cocktail and a good book, perfect for folks who don’t like socializing in noisy nightclubs and crowded lounges. MSC ships also have a bowling alley, casino, theater for Broadway plays and musical acts, and a Formula 1 racetrack simulator.
There is also a kids’ club and babysitting services available for no extra charge on MSC ships, which is a major perk for cruising families. MSC used to offer activities like language and cooking classes for older kids, but that’s no longer the case.
Royal Caribbean vs. MSC Dining
Meals at some of Royal Caribbean’s restaurants are included in your cruise fare, and there are additional dining packages you can purchase if you want some variety. (Unfortunately, Royal Caribbean’s biggest drawback is not offering all-inclusive cruise fares.)
Packages range, including one with 3 onboard restaurants and an unlimited dining package, which is a pretty sweet deal especially if sailing on one of the larger vessels. Royal Caribbean’s largest cruise ship, Wonder of the Seas, has 20 different restaurants to choose from. Plus, the unlimited dining package includes lunch and you’ll score additional discounts on bottles of wine for the entirety of your cruise.
Royal Caribbean drink packages can also be purchased but come with price limits, usually around $12-$13. If you order a more expensive drink, you’ll just pay the difference. Even if you don’t plan to drink every day, a drink package usually works out to be cheaper than paying as you go, and you can sometimes get a discount on a second drink package if you’re traveling with someone. Alternatively, you can always try to sneak your own alcohol onboard.
MSC, on the other hand, includes breakfast, lunch, and dinner in their fare price, but only at 2 of the ship’s restaurants. Guests can choose between the buffet restaurants or the main sit-down option. Specialty restaurants and room service are available for an extra cost, and the all-inclusive fare doesn’t include drinks unless you get the Yacht Club upgrade.
Purchasing any of the experience upgrades entitles you to discounts on the 5 available drink and specialty dining packages but only if you purchase them at the time of booking. MSC’s drink packages include alcohol-free and minor options, so unless you’re going to be drinking nothing but water on the cruise, a drinks package is definitely worth it.
Royal Caribbean vs. MSC Cost
Prices for a Royal Caribbean cruise can fluctuate greatly depending on what time of year you go, what kind of cabin you want, and how many nights you book, but you can expect to pay between $150-$250 per person per night for a cabin with an ocean view balcony. That’s not including the cost of drinks, though, so unless you purchase a package, a Royal Caribbean cruise can end up costing tens of thousands of dollars per week for a family.
MSC has much more affordable fares and offers generous discounts on their food and beverage packages, but figuring out which package to get and whether or not experience add-ons are worth it can be confusing. Working with a cruise travel agent saves you from doing all that math and can end up saving you hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars on your cruise vacation.
Royal Caribbean vs. MSC Clientele
Both Royal Caribbean and MSC cruises welcome a wide range of passengers, from couples of all ages to groups and solo travelers. They are both popular with families thanks to the kid-friendly environment, large selection of activities, and itineraries to every corner of the globe.
While Royal Caribbean tends to have mostly American passengers, passengers onboard MSC cruises are typically European. However, MSC cruises are gaining popularity in North America, especially with budget travelers.
The main difference here is the overall vibe onboard. Royal Caribbean cruises are fast-paced, exciting, and loud, while MSC cruises are more low-key and relaxed. They don’t generally attract a party crowd. MSC cruises are far from boring but if you want a cruise experience that keeps you on your toes, Royal Caribbean might be the way to go.
Now that you’ve read our comparison of Royal Caribbean and MSC, what do you think? Will you book a cruise with one of these companies? If you’re still not sure whether Royal Caribbean or MSC is best for you, check out our other articles comparing cruise lines: Norwegian vs. Royal Caribbean, Norwegian vs. Princess, Royal Caribbean vs. Celebrity, Royal Caribbean vs. Princess, and Carnival Cruise vs. Royal Caribbean.
He is an expert travel advisor and enthusiast. He has traveled extensively in the USA, Central American, South America and Europe. He has visited every Sandals Resort and is one of a select few Diamond Elite members of the Sandals Chairman’s Royal Club.
Dan graduated from Johnson & Wales University with an associate degree in Culinary Arts. Later he graduated from the University of Utah with a bachelor’s degree in International Studies with a focus on people and culture.