Cruising aboard a luxury ship is the kind of travel many of us can only fantasize about -- a glamorous experience of old movies. But for those who can afford it, there are a few cruise lines where caviar and bubbly are served before dinner by a white-gloved butler or very seasoned room steward; where men in tuxedos and women in elegant gowns dine in intimate restaurants on the finest food afloat, served by the most experienced crew in the world. And these ships cruise the most exotic itineraries, with top lecturers aboard who are experts in the areas visited.
But in no other segment of the industry does there seem to be such confusion about the choices of ships. While the four luxury cruise companies listed below all excel in levels of food and service; large, comfortable cabins and exotic itineraries, there are enough significant differences in style, size and itineraries to warrant careful study.
If you're new to luxury cruising, don't be misled by the cruise lines calling all their cabins "suites." Real suites have at least two separate rooms, and are rare in the cruise industry. Staterooms are measured in square feet, and I suggest that you use this standard when comparing cabins from one category to another, and one vessel to another.
Herein lies my take on the subtle- and not-so-subtle- differences I've found when sailing on the luxury cruise lines.
Fellow passengers: Crystal's 65+ passengers love the full-day lineup of speakers, lecturers and lessons; at night, this is a glitzy bunch who stay up late frequenting the casino and shows. Bring gowns and tuxes for these elegant voyages. This is my pick for solo cruisers – onboard activities enable you to meet many new friends.
The bottom line: the cruise fare does not include alcohol, wine, gratuities or any special shore excursions. Pre-dinner caviar and champagne is extra as well.
Crystal Cruises' biggest plus: This line is my pick for the warmest, most professional staff and crew, with the most consistently high levels of service. The shore excursions are the priciest, but they are among the best offered by any cruise line in terms of diversity, attention to detail and comfort. More days at sea with non-stop lessons, guest lecturers and activities.
Radisson Seven Seas Cruises
With seven-night Europe itineraries, this line is attracting a younger, affluent crowd to luxury cruising. These are port-intensive itineraries and passengers are early to rise and early to bed. If you're new to luxury cruising and don't want to haul a mountain of gowns and shoes on your cruise, this may be your cup of tea.
Fellow passengers: Couples in their 40s and 50s are more prevalent on Radisson Seven Seas' Europe cruises than on the other luxury vessels. On itineraries over seven days, passengers are normally 65+.
The bottom line: Upon arrival, you'll find your favorite spirits already stocked in the cabin at no cost. Fares include wine with lunch and dinner, plus gratuities.
Radisson Seven Seas Cruises biggest plus: The new "travel concierge" on each ship who will book any shore activity you like, or arrange individual sightseeing excursions, making it easy to tour with private car and driver and see attractions most tourists miss. This cruise line offers the best spas afloat, operated by the famous Carita of Paris.
Seabourn Cruise Line
Coversation is very popular since entertainment and nightlife are limited. But you'll dine on some of the best cuisine afloat served by an impeccable crew. In the elegant single-seating dining room, expect dinner invitations from officers and even the Captain in a much more personal environment. Everyone gets dressed to the nines a few nights during each cruise. However, a day at sea may seem endless if you're active or restless, since there is little to do and very limited public space. Seabourn also offers singles supplements as 110%, depending the voyage and, you'll find quite a few aboard these ships.
Fellow passengers: Sophisticated, dressy and primarily 60+ in Asia and Central America In Europe, one week cruises attract many 40s to 60s passengers.
The bottom line: Fare includes all alcoholic beverages and gratuities.
Seabourn's biggest plus: The best itineraries, very personal service and haute cuisine. In major shopping ports, Seabourn offers the services of a personal shopper with car and driver. And you'll find one exclusive shore excursion on each cruise, such as caviar and champagne served on the beach by the ship's waiters in a secluded Caribbean cove.
Fellow passengers: Wealthy passengers from many countries, the majority in the 65+ age group -- although I've seen families as well during summer months and holidays.
The bottom line: Practically everything is included in the cruise price: mixed drinks, wine and gratuities.
Silverseas' biggest plus: Beautiful ships and lovely cabins, top flight itineraries and gracious service.
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