Thinking about making the leap from a mainstream mega-ship to a more intimate luxury vessel? With so many new ships of all kinds sailing the world's waters, competition is fierce. Every cruise line is looking to entice new passengers -- sometimes with exceedingly low prices. And while a luxury cruise is certainly no small investment, the per-person cruise fare can represent a very good value when you consider everything that may be included.
Before you book on your usual cruise line, do some calculations. Figure the cruise fare, plus any extras like beverage packages, specialty restaurant fees, entrance to the adults-only pool, laundry services, etc. Now, compare that with the base fare of the luxury cruise lines on your wish list. Try to compare apples to apples. For example, if Regent Seven Seas Cruises is on your list, remember that the cruise fare includes shore excursions. You might be shocked to find what you're paying on a mega-ship isn't all that less than what you'd pay for a sailing on a high-end vessel.
It's not all about the money, though. If you're planning a special getaway, you might want to spend a few extra dollars to splurge on an experience you won't soon forget. Luxury ships are generally smaller than their mainstream contemporaries, and great pride is taken in the level of personalized service provided. Lines like SeaDream Yacht Club, Seabourn Cruise Line, Silversea Cruises, Crystal Cruises, Regent Seven Seas Cruises, Compagnie du Ponant, Paul Gauguin Cruises, Oceania Cruises and Azamara Club Cruises all deserve a look.
To jump-start your luxury cruise planning, consider 10 compelling reasons to upgrade.
1. Pre- and Post-Cruise Pampering
Every traveler wants convenient ground transportation from the airport to port and back. Unlike mass-market lines that generally offer bus transportation, high-end lines feature a range of options -- from taxis, private cars, shared vans and buses.
Luxury lines also tend to have robust pre- and post-cruise land packages so you can make the most of your vacation experience. Silversea in particular offers fantastic options with its "Silver Shore Land Adventures" to places like Australia's Outback, Southern Africa's game reserves, Peru's Machu Picchu and India's Taj Mahal -- among other destinations.
2. Luxury Accommodations
Here's something to love about luxury ships: most offer all-suite accommodations with ocean views (no inside cabins!), and a majority of staterooms have a balcony. Easy access to the outdoors is especially important when you're sailing Alaska, Hawaii, the Caribbean, Chile, Norway, French Polynesia, or anywhere where you just can't get enough of the spectacular views. (Psst! Look in the dresser drawer in your cabin and you'll probably find a pair of binoculars to use throughout your voyage. It's just a tiny example of how high-end lines try to exceed your expectations.)
Luxury staterooms and suites tend to be quite spacious and feature niceties like a dressing table with magnifying mirror, a full tub and shower in the bathroom that's generally decked out in granite or marble, black-out curtains and high-end toiletries from purveyors like Bulgari, L'Occitane, Ferragamo and Molton Brown. Flat-screen TVs, en-suite Wi-Fi and iPod docking stations are also very common.
3. Attentive Service
Luxe lines like Regent Seven Seas, Seabourn and Silversea take pride in their crew. In fact, these lines have rigorous training programs for crewmembers like butlers and stewardesses. On SeaDream yachts, cabin stewards, bartenders and waiters seem to magically know your name from the moment you set foot onboard. Need those sunglasses cleaned or your luggage polished? These tasks are proactively tended to -- no need to ask.
4. Gratuities Included
Despite the high level of personalized service you'll encounter, you are not required to tip on luxury lines such as Azamara, Crystal, Paul Gauguin, Regent, SeaDream, Seabourn and Silversea. Gratuities have already been built into the fare. Of course, if someone goes above and beyond, feel free to offer something extra by making a donation to the crew fund at Reception.
5. Free Beverages, Including Alcohol
On most of the luxury lines -- Azamara, Regent, Paul Gauguin, SeaDream, Seabourn and Silversea -- there is no charge for alcoholic beverages -- at the bar, in the restaurants and lounges, or even in your stateroom (your minibar will be stocked with a bottle of wine or champagne, beer and soft drinks). It's true that if you have expensive tastes (the only thing you can drink is a Chateau Mouton Rothschild, for example, or an Opus One), you'll pay extra. Maybe a lot extra, but most people don't have that problem.
6. Fine Dining
Many renowned chefs have teamed with luxury lines to develop memorable dining experiences. Chef Nobu Matsuhisa created the Japanese-centric Silk Road for Crystal Cruises. The luxury hotel and restaurant brand Relais & Chateaux created Le Champagne for Silversea ships. Parisian chef Jean-Pierre Vigato developed signature cuisine for Paul Gauguin Cruises, in L'Etoile aboard Moana and at La Veranda on Paul Gauguin.
Beyond famous chefs, you'll find incredibly accommodating maitre d's who are happy to fulfill your special requests. Just give the chef a bit of a heads-up, and he or she will create a magical meal to your specifications.
Smaller ships, including those in the luxury category, are able to visit places their bigger counterparts can't or don't. In Alaska, that means spots like Petersburg, Haines and Misty Fjords. In the Western Mediterranean, expect more exclusive ports such as Portofino and Capri. And exotic stops like Indonesia's Komodo Island in southeast Asia. Another trick: Luxury ships often visit very popular ports, say Greece's Santorini, on a day and time when the village isn't overrun with tourists from the mega-ships.
In a growing trend, luxury lines also tend to overnight in popular ports so travelers can get a real sense of the place and enjoy both daytime and nighttime shore excursions.
8. Shore Excursions and Exclusive Events
One of the most compelling things about the luxury cruise lines is the importance they place on developing special shore events for passengers.
In addition to regular excursions, lines such Azamara and Seabourn host complimentary outings, just for customers. Azamara takes passengers on an "AzAmazing Evening" once per cruise. Expect to visit the Mikhailovsky Theater in St. Petersburg, Russia, a polo match and reception in St. Tropez, France or a festive gala at the Titanic Belfast museum in Northern Ireland. One of Seabourn's most famous complimentary excursions is a lovely evening of classical music at the Odeon theater at Ephesus in Turkey.
9. Fewer Announcements
Because they don't always offer a never-ending stream of onboard entertainment opportunities, these lines don't need to have the cruise director constantly harping on the public address system ("Hey folks, in 15 minutes, we'll be starting our jackpot bingo in the main show room, with a prize today standing at $600!"). There's generally a morning announcement of the day's events, maybe a lunchtime follow-up -- and that's it.
10. Getting to Know People
On big ships, especially those with freestyle dining and alternative restaurants, you often meet people once -- and never see them again. On a smaller ship, you tend to be thrown together more easily, and more often. Many cruisers make friendships that last long after the journey.
These are just a few ways in which luxury cruise lines differ from the mass market options. If you're thinking about upgrading to a luxury ship soon, be sure to check out Cruise Critic's member reviews. That will help you define which cruise line and ship is right for you.
And don't forget that sometimes the old adage "penny-wise and pound-foolish" is true when it comes to cruise travel. Book the best cruise you can afford -- and maybe that means you'll be on the deck of a luxury ship for your next vacation.
--Updated by Andrea M. Rotondo, Cruise Critic contributor