|The Norwegian Epic offers two "ship within a ship" experiences. (Copyright NCL, Used by permission)|
There's a new hand being played more frequently within the cruise industry to shake things up a bit. Steadily picking up steam is the "ship within a ship" movement where specific cruise ship spaces and features are offered exclusively to guests of a particular class of cabins such as studios, suites, or villas.
Features once available only aboard luxury liners are making their way onto mainstream ships providing upgraded culinary and lounging experiences, plus the added bonus of preferred access to the remainder of the ship. However, as extensive features only made available to some of the passengers onboard, this cruising option actually reintroduces the class system once absent on cruises but ever present on historic ocean liners like Cunard's first vessels. Contemporarily, Norwegian Cruise Line was first to the game as far as the "ship within a ship" moniker is concerned followed thereafter by MSC.
The Current Lineup
On five of its current ships, NCL offers The Haven, a luxurious extension to its Freestyle Cruising initiative, to guests aboard all of their Jewel class ships as well as the Norwegian Epic, plus two new additional ships, part of Project Breakaway, to arrive by 2013 and 2014. The Haven features a space Norwegian dubs The Courtyard, an exclusive outdoor area on the upper deck with a private pool, hot tub, fitness facility, and dining area for breakfast and lunch, enclosed and enshrined by the top-of-the-line staterooms you must book in order to enjoy the premium solitude. Additional services set aside for Haven guests include a 24-hour butler along with concierge service, in-suite dining, and preferred access to the ship's other far-reaching amenities such as dining reservations and seating at the entertainment venues.
MSC is also getting in on the action aboard two of its ships with the MSC Yacht Club on the MSC Fantasia and the MSC Splendida. Like NCL, MSC has set aside a specific portion of the upper foredecks, for guests booked in the most luxurious 71 suites onboard, complete with private pool and hot tub along with a reserved lounge and restaurant where you can, according to its web site, "dine when you like, with whom you like," plus in-suite dining options. MSC offers VIP shore excursions as does NCL, but MSC additionally offers after-hours shopping experiences for its Yacht Club passengers accompanied by a butler as well as in-room jewelry viewings and purchase delivery. MSC also bests NCL with their private entrance to the ship's spa via direct elevator and in-suite massage services. These guests are also afforded the obligatory butler and concierge services and preferred access to the rest of the ship.
NCL is by no means entirely outdone by MSC, however, as only it can still boast of having their "ship within a ship" space as a contiguous compound where the suites themselves enclose the signature courtyard. The suites on MSC on the other hand are spread about the ship as you might expect on other vessels. Also, the Norwegian Epic impressively has two "ship within a ship" spaces, one being The Haven already mentioned and the other its unique Studio staterooms designed for solo passengers. These guests are catered to by convenient prices conducive to parties of one along with their own exclusive space, the Studio Lounge, a slick two-story loft for mingling and drinking with other cruise mates.
This new trend of exclusivity is strikingly similar to Cunard's current three-tiered accommodations, still "classes" really, where your dedicated dining room is determined by the selection of Britannia staterooms, Princess Grill suites, or Queens Grill suites. Like the other "ships within ships," Cunard also has a private concierge, lounge, terrace, and courtyard available only to guests of the top two "Grill" levels with experiences heralding back to the introduction of the first "Grill" aboard the original Queen Mary in 1936, according to its web site.
It's worth pointing out that really many of these exclusives are not entirely new to cruising so much as they are being specifically expanded upon and improved. The Disney Cruise Line from day one touted adult only sections of its ships if only to maintain serenity away from the onboard youth quotient. Also, many other lines have offered exclusive lounges with snacks and internet terminal access available to guests with rooms on specific decks or those with exceptional repeat sailing status per the time-old frequent cruiser clubs. Holland-America and Celebrity have both for some time offered concierge level suites as does Royal Caribbean with accommodations such as its new royal loft suites, aboard the massive Oasis and Allure of the Seas, complete with high-level benefits. So first-time suite guests can, in many cases, enjoy the benefits of those loyal enough to have sailed numerously on lines in or out of suites.
The "ship within a ship" model offers amenities commonly available only on luxury lines including Crystal, Seabourn, and Silversea, but the curiosity lies in that, unlike these lines, the luxury "ship within a ship" infrastructures are isolated within larger standard-class ships. As such, these exclusives aboard NCL and MSC are more akin to the few rows of first class aboard a jumbo jet crammed the rest of the way with economy seats whereas the luxury lines themselves are similar instead to smaller private luxury jets. Unlike commercial airplanes where the only perk of a first-class passenger making their way beyond the economy curtain being extra lavatories, "ship within a ship" guests have the multitude of other facilities aboard the vessel for their enjoyment, with preferred access, in addition to their own secluded paradise. While luxury lines make all onboard accommodations available to every guest sailing on their ships regardless of a passenger's stateroom selection, these ships are much smaller and offer a far less extensive selection of activities and facilities.
While some of these exclusive options are not brand new to the industry, the distinction between those who can afford such perks and those who cannot is becoming more and more apparent. To be sure, this new shipboard option is quite a well thought out idea and makes for a fantastic experience for those booked in such accommodations, but for those who cannot afford it, the experience can be quite frustrating. For instance, many passengers aboard the Norwegian Epic have felt it unfair that Haven guests are escorted into theaters, such as those for the popular Blue Man Group performance, before the venue is even made open to the remaining guests.
The Bottom Line
What does this all come down to where the "rudder" meets the liquid road in regards to cost? For 7-day European itineraries in September to October booked through the lines directly, the base price for Haven accommodations in a 506 sq. ft. courtyard villa with balcony on the Norwegian Epic is floating around $3000 per person, while entry level in the MSC Yacht Club aboard MSC Splendida is running about $4000 per person in deluxe suites with verandas ranging from 248 sq. ft. to 376 sq. ft. The MSC rate includes substantial bonuses of free wine and spirits in the room plus complimentary airfare, post-cruise hotel stay, transfers, and $100 per person shipboard credit. One can even book a 7-day Cunard westbound transatlantic cruise aboard the Queen Mary 2 at the Princess Grill level during this time for as low as $2300 per person or an eastbound itinerary for $3300 per person. Alternatively aboard the luxury lines, comparable Seabourn cruises begin at $3200 per person, and Silversea cruises begin at $4000.
Assigning value is a different story and is truly dependent on how you chooses to weigh the pros and the cons discussed. You can conclude that there are savings, and hence the best value, to be had with the "ship within a ship" model as it certainly provides a unique and enticing cruising experience at a great price. Still for just a bit more, you can have an entire luxury liner at your disposal, albeit usually with far less to do and enjoy. Or for an extremely reasonable fare, you can even enjoy the palatial Queen Mary 2, itself a larger vessel, with a sort of hybrid cruise experience, a luxury ship within a luxury ship. In the end, controversial or not, it simply depends on what you are looking for in a cruise vacation as there are certainly plenty of options available for those seeking exclusive experiences, and surely there are even more options to come in the future from this ever expanding and evolving industry.