Cruisemates says the best European cruise is a smaller ship sailing a port intensive itinerary. Why fly all the way to Europe just for the same onboard experience you can get sailing out of a U.S. port? You are there to see Europe and a cruise ship is the perfect conveyance.
Small ships are better because you get on and off faster. Security lines are shorter, restaurant service is generally faster, and it's always a shorter walker walk to your stateroom. Generally, while they have requisite internet access, they don't have as much in the way of production shows and night-life revelry. Who cares? Your goal is to spend each day exhausting yourself sightseeing, come "home" to a delicious meal, get to bed early and get ready for the next full day in a new location.
Let's compare two well-known small, deluxe cruise lines servicing Europe; Oceania Cruises vs. Azamara. What makes this comparison so compelling is that both lines sail virtually identical ships. The three Oceania and two Azamara ships all are former Renaissance Cruises R-class vessels. Each is 30,000 tons, 694 berths on Azamara, 700 on Oceania, 592 feet long, 83.5 feet wide. Eight of these ships were built from the same blueprint in rapid succession in France in the 1990s. The other three belong to Princess Cruises (Island, Pacific and Royal Princess).
These small ships feature very comfortable staterooms and four open-seating (anytime dining) restaurants. There is the main restaurant, an Italian eatery and steakhouse specialty restaurants, and a Lido-style buffet also open at dinner for fast meals. On Oceania, none of the restaurants ever carry an additional service charge. On Azamara they do carry an extra charge, but all guests get two night's dining in them at no cost, and suite passengers get three nights.
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In any case, on most nights the main dining room or Lido dining, which also has delightful al fresco dining on the stern of the ship, is satisfying enough to fill the bill.
And so, where are the differences? Well one big difference we noted is price. Azamara has been struggling to establish its identity since it began just two years ago and gets most of its passengers from Celebrity Cruises, as the smaller, yet upscale resort casual sister to that premium cruise line. Oceania has been operating for six years now and inherited its passenger base from the fervent following of Renaissance Cruises. The line has been a money maker practically since its first cruise.
So, with nearly identical ship designs and dining options, we compared two very similar itineraries on the same sail dates:
Oceania Nautica sailing 12-days from Athens to Istanbul on July 19, 2008:
You stay in Athens overnight, see Dubrovnik, Santorini, Delos, Ephesus and other ports, one day at sea.
Azamara Quest, sailing 12-nights from Athens to Rome on July 19, 2008:
You visit Ephesus (overnight), Santorini, Sicily, Naples (overnight), Monaco, Florence/Pisa (overnight).
For the same ship, general location and number of nights on board, Azamara seems a much better offer. Why? There is nothing wrong with Azamara. It is just vying for attention and trying to compete with low pricing. Here is another comparison:
Oceania Nautica sailing 12-nights from Rome to Athens on August 12, 2008:
Rome to Portofino, Monaco, Florence, Amalfi, Naples (overnight), Sicily, Malta and Santorini. One day at sea.
Azamara Quest sailing 14-nights from Athens to Rome on August 16, 2008:
You sail from Athens to Ephesus (overnight) Santorini, various Greek Isles, Sicily, Monaco, Naples and Florence (both overnight). Two extra days, one sea day. Some of the Greek Isle ports are obscure; Chios, Nauplion, Gythion, Itea, but consider those extra days. Once again, the Azamara seems to be the much better value.
Most Oceania cabins do sell out early, because they are very adept at marketing early-booking incentives like free airfare or two-for-one pricing (such discounts are common in the deluxe and luxury end of the cruise market). Azamara, on the other hand, does not market quite so aggresively and appears to be competing solely on price.
Conclusion: Azamara is definitely worth a try, especially for people who enjoy the class of ship for which Oceania Cruises is already well-known.
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