Looking for Luxury What constitutes a top-end cruise line? The latest in a series. By Paul Motter Sept 25, 2006
This installment in our series on the four main categories of cruise lines (budget, mass market, premium, luxury) covers luxury cruises.
These days, it takes a true cruise professional to define the term "luxury cruise" -- because "luxury" is the most overused word in cruise advertising. Travel ads aimed at the public at large (not specifically at cruisers) that contain a picture of a passenger ship often describe the offer as a "luxury cruise," even if the ship only does one-day gambling junkets from Miami to Nassau.
But true luxury cruising is defined by certain standards. Veteran cruisers with some experience of the different brands understand this. So this article is especially important to the newly initiated cruiser, because you cannot rely on claims of cruise "luxury" that you may read in advertisements.
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A Short History of Luxury Cruising
The concept of shipboard luxury, as depicted in the movie Titanic, is certainly not new. The grand old ocean liners offered palatial suites for exorbitant prices, many of them named for and used by royalty or people of honor. Having stayed in the Winston Churchill suite myself, on the Queen Mary 1 now anchored in Long Beach, I can tell you it is extraordinary. Luxury Liner Article.
Many of the traditions honored on luxury ships today were started on those old liners for the pleasure of the upper crust, including classical music recitals, smoking rooms with cigars and cognac, chimes at dinner, high tea, and formal dinners featuring Beef Wellington and Baked Alaska. But, as the age of liners waned in the late 1950s, and the age of "fun in the sun" Caribbean cruising was ushered in, the old style of shipboard luxury was nearly lost.
Until the late 1970s, when a group of Norwegians started a cruise line called Royal Viking Line. This line is still considered by many to be the defining luxury cruise experience. It differed from the other lines of its day with a much higher staff to passengers ratio (500 to 700). The smaller passenger load made single seating dining possible. The itineraries were hardly ever repeated, with all the ships sailing in completely different parts of the world, each of them touching on each of the major continents approximately every two years. Royal Viking thrived through the 1980s, but by the 90s its ships were aging and were sold off one by one until the line no longer existed. The Royal Viking Sun (the line's most famous ship, rated "Best cruise ship" by the Doug Ward's esteemed "Berlitz Guide to Cruising" for seven consecutive years) is now sailing for Holland America as the Prinsendam. In homage to her heritage, Holland America does treat her as a special ship with unique itineraries and onboard enrichment programs.
In fact, there are many Royal Viking alumnae still working in the luxury cruise industry today. And I am one of them, having worked for the company in 1982/83.
What is a True Luxury Cruise Line? For people in the cruise business, "luxury cruising" generally refers to ships that offer:
Inclusive pricing. There should be some degree of "all-inclusive pricing" beyond that offered by more mainstream lines; it may be wine with dinner or sometimes all alcoholic beverages. Most luxury lines also include the tips in the cruise fare, and some provide one special shore excursion for the entire ship as part of the cruise package.
An uncrowded environment. Luxury ships carry far fewer passengers than mainstream lines, and there is more space on the ship per passenger (called the passenger to space ratio). Thus, a luxury cruise customer will rarely wait in line for the buffet, restaurants, or at the shore excursions desk.
Acknowledgement and recognition. Most luxury ships carry a small enough passenger load that you will be greeted by name on several occasions -- in the dining room by the maitre d'; the sommelier and your waiters; by the guest relations desk; and of course by your room steward.
Top-quality amenities. The lotions, shampoos, soaps, towels, bathrobes, bed linens and furniture in guest staterooms should all be of the finest quality.
Gourmet cuisine. Luxury ships are generally renowned for their food, and several have won prestigious awards. These ships are usually small enough that food is cooked to your specifications, uses only the finest ingredients, and arrives hot and fresh at your table. Alternative specialty restaurants are available , and there is rarely an additional charge.
Generally, little for children. With the exception of Crystal and Regent who do offer children's programs, the smaller luxury ships have next to nothing for anyone under 21, and make few apologies.
A world cruise. Most luxury cruise lines offer a cruise around the world every year on at least one of their ship. World cruises can be taken in full, or in individual segments of varying length. The other ships in each fleet tend to sail on non-repeating itineraries that lead them throughout the world.
Along the lines of unique destinations and itineraries, it should be noted that many luxury ships are relatively small, some of them practically yacht-like. This introduces the distinct advantage of being able to enter many ports not available to larger ships, such as smaller Caribbean or Mediterranean isles. In addition, a smaller ship can also dock much closer to a city center, for example in Stockholm, Sweden or St Petersburg, Russia.
Even though we have suggested these guidelines to identify luxury cruise lines, please note that within the genre there are significant variations on the theme, and choosing a specific luxury vessel is a matter of individual taste and style. We will describe each of the individual lines in followup articles...
Which Are the Luxury Cruise Lines?
In alphabetical order: the lines that CruiseMates puts into the luxury category are Crystal, Regent, Seabourn, SeaDream Yacht Club and Silversea Cruises. Meanwhile, three other lines also deserve honorable mention, because they appeal to many of the same people. These lines are Cunard, Oceania Cruises and Windstar. They all have distinguishing characteristics that set them apart from the mainstream cruise market.
The differences among these cruise lines are as varied as the entire spectrum of cruising. For example, Crystal's 68,000-ton Crystal Serenity is larger than some mass market ships. But with only 1,080 passengers it also has a very favorable space to passenger ratio, meaning that even though it is a big ship, it never feels crowded. At the other end of the scale is SeaDream Yacht Club, whose entire fleet of two boutique ships -- at 108 passengers each -- is smaller than almost any cruise ship you can name.
Luxury Cruising has Changed
In the previous decade, luxury cruise ships were the domain of retired folks with nothing but time and money on their hands. But today the passenger demographic is skewing to a much younger age, and as more baby boomers (and even their children) test the luxury cruise waters, the savvy luxury lines are finding ways to respond.
Younger, well-heeled cruisers usually face time constraints; especially working people with only one-week of vacation time to spare. They want to make their time special. Many of them have recently discovered Seabourn Cruises, now offering seven-day cruises that commence on the weekend, with active shore excursions and a focus on water sports from the ships own diving platform. For those who can stay longer, the following cruise itinerary features a different selection of ports.
Silversea has taken the same concept a step further: You can embark in the middle of one cruise and disembark in the middle of the next. Get on and off wherever you please, as long as you stay onboard at least five days.
As passengers get younger, shore experiences are becoming more action-oriented. How does piloting a Russian MiG jet fighter over Moscow sound to you? Crystal Cruises offers that. Both Seabourn and SeaDream Yacht Club offer a shoreside caviar and champagne buffet where guests can loll in the tepid Caribbean waters while waiters wade in to deliver champagne flutes and caviar in blinis. Some of the lines now include at least one special shore-side "experience" that is available to all of the passengers at no additional cost per cruise. For example, Silversea is known for renting out an entire medieval monastery on the Italian Amalfi Coast for a special outdoor dinner cooked by the ship's chefs. Other such offerings include private tours of royal residences conducted by the owners.
Can You Get a Discount on a Luxury Cruise?
Don't expect to see ads for luxury lines touting "75% off last-minute cruises." They just don't work that way. But this doesn't mean you won't be rewarded for shopping around. Prices often include stealth discounts like two-for-one specials, air upgrades to business-class or first-class for the price of coach, or early booking discounts, especially for repeat passengers.
In fact, repeat passenger programs are among the best ways to get discounts on luxury cruise lines. Look for Crystal's "Value Collection" and Silversea's "Silver Sailings" for discounts up to 50% available to repeaters - but these cruises tend to sell out early. How do you afford that first cruise to qualify as a repeater? Look for shorter Caribbean cruises. These are often offered as incentives to get new people to try the line. Repositioning cruises can also be bargains, they offer many days at sea for you to relax and enjoy the quiet surroundings.
Luxury Costs More, but Offers More Value
Even if you didn't major in math, when it comes to luxury cruising it pays to do a little homework.
Consider this actual 10-night sailing on Celebrity Constellation: The cruise fare is $3,910 per person for a suite. Add in $12 per person per day in tips ($240), alcoholic refreshments at three drinks per person per day ( approximately $400), plus a very special shore excursion for two ($480). Your final bill now tacks on $1,120 for things that would have been included in the initial price with a true luxury line. Total price for two: $8,940.
Now, look at an 11-night New Years cruise on Regent Seven Seas Navigator in which the fare includes tips, wine with meals, alcoholic beverages, sodas throughout the day, a $300 credit, and suite accommodations for $4,532 per person. You are on an all-inclusive ship - on a holiday cruise, with one extra day, for a total price of $8,764. You're actually spending less money for more value. And if you want that extra drink on New Years Eve, there's no extra charge.
We must qualify the above by saying that while these are real prices, they are not necessarily typical. Cruise prices vary like airline tickets and are subject to many variables. It is possible to find the same Celebrity suites priced lower on other sail dates.
Testing the Waters
If you think luxury cruising might be for you, why not try a shorter cruise and use it as an opportunity to join the line's past-passenger program? For example, there is a four-day cruise on Regent Seven Seas in November. Another way to test the waters is with repositioning cruises. How about a 17-day Crystal cruise to Hong Kong from $3,195, or a 10-Day Big Band Lisbon-to-Miami cruise for $2,995?
In our follow-up articles we will look at each of the luxury lines and tell you what they offer. We also asked each of them to describe how they have changed in the last few years. The answers are diverse and interesting. One line says one-week cruises with active shore excursions are the ticket to filling their ships, while another says longer cruises with the most exotic itineraries (e.g., South America) are flying off the shelf.