Considering making the leap from a mega ship to a luxury vessel?
It may not exactly be an original thought, but here's a piece of advice for anybody planning a cruise vacation: Buy as much cruise as you can possibly afford.
Generally speaking, a cruise -- in any category of room -- tends to be a fairly hefty investment. So why not get the most bang for your buck, and the most satisfying vacation experience? In other words, why settle for the lowest-end inside stateroom if another couple of hundred dollars will get you outside accommodations? Don't take a standard outside room if a few more bucks will get you into a unit with a balcony and don't book a basic balcony room if you can make your budget stretch to a mini-suite or suite! It's that simple.
And finally: Why not consider traveling on a small luxury vessel rather than on a mainstream cruise line's massive mega ship? Many people never give the likes of Silversea, Seabourn, Crystal and others in that upscale niche a second thought when they get down to making their cruise plans. That could be a mistake. Sure, these companies charge more. But they tend to give a lot more as well.
Here, in no particular order (and with a nod to David Letterman) are 10 reasons why you might want to think about moving up to one of the luxury lines. It should be stressed that not all of these apply to all luxury lines. Policies, practices and ambiances differ from company to company. But they're the kind of things you are more likely to find on luxury ships.
Accommodations. Almost by definition, luxury ships (Silversea Cruises' Silver Shadow, Regent Seven Seas Cruises' Seven Seas Mariner, et al) are all-suite, no-inside-rooms vessels. How important is that? Very. It's especially important in a destination area such as, say, Alaska, where the weather is not always your friend and where shore excursions, however informative and exciting they are, can be tiring (try a half-day Chilkoot Trail hike out of Skagway, for instance, or a five-hour kayaking adventure in Prince William Sound and you'll know what we mean). It's so nice after outings like that to put your feet up in an airy, well-appointed, super-comfy suite. And the balcony that invariably comes with the suite makes wildlife and scenery viewing so much more enjoyable -- also, of course, of particular significance in places like Alaska, Hawaii, and the fjords of Chile and Norway. And for the most part, even standard cabins on luxury ships will be outfitted with luxurious appointments -- from high cotton thread count sheets to flat screen televisions.
Touches. There's no other way to put it. It's the little things -- the attention to design, detail and layout -- that make the difference between a luxury experience and "just another" cruise. Things like Bvlgari toiletries; twin sinks; separate bathtub and shower; terry robes; a well-lighted dressing table (is there a woman out there who doesn't appreciate that feature?). The stateroom drapes will form a real blackout over the windows, eliminating once and for all those annoying chinks of light that keep you awake at night and intrude on your early morning slumber. In Northern Europe and Alaska, where it's light most of the day in the summer, that is a real blessing.
Construction materials. About those twin sinks we mentioned: The counter tops that enclose them are likely to be real marble. The faucets may be of absolutely top quality stainless steel. The soft furnishings will be plush and inviting, the carpets deep. On luxury ships, you won't find a lot of plastic or Formica coverings.
No tipping. Most of the luxury lines do not encourage the practice. In fact, some make it very clear in pre-cruise literature that no gratuity is expected. And it appears that the crews have gotten the word. On two cruises in the last year -- on Seabourn Pride and the Silver Shadow -- our offers of a small gratuity for special services rendered were flatly (but politely) declined.
Free beverages, including alcohol. On some of these ships, there is no charge for booze -- at the bar, in the restaurants and lounges, in the stateroom (your in-suite fridge will be stocked with a bottle of wine or champagne, some beer and soft drinks). The ships include wine -- on the whole excellent and thoughtfully chosen -- with lunch and dinner at no charge. It's true that if you have very expensive tastes (if the only thing you can drink is a Chateau Mouton Rothschild Premier Grand Cru Classe - 2000, for example, or a 1998 Opus One), you'll pay extra. Maybe a lot extra. But most people don't have that problem. One passenger we met on a recent cruise on Silversea's Silver Shadow expressed a preference for Pinot Grigio rather than the Chardonnay that was being served that day. And he got it! The wait staff simply opened a bottle of Pinot Grigio from the complimentary wine list and…voila.
Itineraries. Smaller ships, including those in the luxury category, are able to visit places that their bigger brethren can't or, at any rate, don't. In Alaska that means the likes of Wrangell and Haines, Misty Fjords and Sawyer Glacier. In the Western Mediterranean, they'll call at more exclusive places like Portofino and Capri. Not only are these ports of call a bit more exotic -- it's also less stressful to be, for instance, part of a group of just a handful of passengers of the only ship in Haines that day than a tourist in Juneau when four or five mega ships are in port.
Service. There's a reason that service people (stewards, maitre de's, waitstaff and so on) don't hustle tips on the luxury ships: They're paid better than their counterparts on mainstream ships. And because they are paid more and are therefore not as reliant on the generosity of passengers for their income, these lines manage to attract a higher quality of employee, well-trained, well-disciplined operatives who understand the concept of "the customer comes first."
Fewer announcements. Because they tend not to get involved in the seemingly never-ending stream of onboard entertainment opportunities, there is no need for the cruise director to be constantly on the public address system ("Hey folks, this is Peter from the bridge reminding you that in fifteen minutes we'll be starting our jackpot bingo in the main show room, with a prize today standing at $600!"). On some ships, the announcements seem to come on with mind-numbing frequency. Not so on luxury vessels. There's generally a morning announcement of the day's events, maybe a lunchtime follow up -- and that's it!
Hot food. Think about it. On huge ships -- vessels like many of those operating in Alaska each year, some with 2,600-plus passengers -- the sometimes enormous distances involved in getting food from the galley to the table often drops the temperature of the food by several degrees. That may not sound like a big deal, but some people find lukewarm victuals unappetizing. And when you're looking forward to a bowl of nourishing soup after a morning on deck in the chilly air watching glaciers calving, you want that soup piping hot. On the luxury ships, it tends to be -- and so does every other dish that's supposed to be.
Getting to know people in depth. On any of the mega-ships, especially in this day and age of freestyle dining and alternative restaurants aplenty, it's possible to meet people once and never see them again. On a smaller ship, you tend to be thrown together more easily, and more often.
Although this can sometimes work to your disadvantage, it's often a benefit. Case in point: On the first night on a recent Silversea cruise, we met out what seemed at first glance to be a rather intimidating English couple. She was a dairy farmer, short, stocky -- the absolute quintessential Shropshire lass. You could just picture her striding across her acreage, wearing a tweed suit and wellington boots. Her husband, a tall, almost patrician ex-British Army officer (he insisted on being addressed as "Major" even though he retired from the service a dozen years before) was, let's say, "teddibly" British. Now, if this had been a mega ship, we might have given this duo a wide berth for the rest of the voyage. But it wasn't. It was a 25,000-ton luxury ship in which the available space afforded no real way to totally avoid contact.
And what a boon that proved to be. On subsequent meetings, as these two relaxed and opened up, we saw a whole new side of them. They turned out to be delightful, amusing traveling companions, whom we were able to know in more depth because of the nature of our cruise ship. We didn't eat dinner with them every night (they were invariably among the first into the dining room while we usually ate later in the evening, but we saw enough of them in bars and lounges, on tours and on deck, to realize that our initial impressions of them were quite wrong).
Ultimately, you can't expect all of the aforementioned to happen to you, even if you upgrade to a luxury ship. This is simply a random sampling of impressions gained during recent voyages on that kind of vessel. Find out before you book which ships offer the features that most appeal to you. Just keep in mind is that it's sometimes "penny-wise and pound-foolish" to take the cheapest room when it might make more sense to upgrade -- maybe even all the way to a luxury ship.