The line between luxury and mainstream cruises might once have been distinct, but that's no longer the case. Cruise lines began to discover travelers didn't always fit squarely into one camp or another. Successful professionals were looking for upscale vacations combined with adventure or active pursuits. Experienced travelers wanted to explore new destinations, not all of which were accessible by sea. And hard-working individuals were saving their money for the trip of a lifetime but might feel uncomfortable cruising with high society.
The same operators -- Royal Caribbean, Norwegian Cruise Line and Princess Cruises, for example -- that introduced the world to the affordable inside cabin, silly pool games, buffet lines and kids clubs are adding luxury elements, such as enormous suites, splashy spa facilities, gourmet specialty restaurants and exclusive lounges for V.I.P. passengers in an effort to lure travelers from all income brackets to their ships. And the luxury stalwarts -- Silversea, Seabourn, Crystal, Regent Seven Seas -- that staunchly maintained their moneyed ambience and pricey fares, are diversifying and trying to attract younger cruisers and create more casual onboard vibes.
Luxury cruising now comes in all shapes and sizes. The traditional lines continue to offer quintessential luxury -- fine dining, emphasis on service, expensive appointments, inclusive pricing -- but are branching out into enrichment and wellness programs. Expedition and soft adventure lines focus on exotic or off-the-beaten path destinations that top the avid traveler's bucket list and lure globetrotters with comfortable ships, excellent food and service, and first-rate lecturers and enrichment opportunities. Luxury river cruises, some in intimate hotel barges, see the world at a slower pace by sailing down the rivers of Europe, Africa and Asia while offering gourmet food and personal attention. For travelers who want the amenities of a modern mega-ship combined with the exclusivity of a private hideaway, mainstream lines offer ship-within-a-ship complexes for passengers in their most expensive suites. And for vacationers looking for something in between mainstream and luxury, "luxury lite" lines offer the best of both worlds.
Confused by the diversification of luxury cruise options? Here's your cheat sheet to five different types of luxury cruises to start you daydreaming of your next upscale voyage.
Show Cruise Prices
Hallmarks of Luxury: These lines have always focused on the traditional elements of luxury: caviar on request, personalized pampering, the finest appointments onboard, celebrity-chef-designed cuisine and a world-class selection of wine and spirits. All have intimate ships, with Crystal topping the charts with its 1,000-passenger duo, and SeaDream at the far extreme with its yachtlike, 110-passenger vessels. Spacious cabins are a must; Regent Seven Seas operates two all-suite, all-balcony ships, where almost no cabin is a disappointment. You'll find minimal nickel-and-diming, as most of these lines include alcohol, gratuities and meals at alternative restaurants in their cruise fares as well as the occasional flight, shore excursion, transfer into town and water sports from the ship.
But that's not to say these lines are stuck in the past. Modern-day upgrades include a focus on enrichment programs; Crystal excels with language and music courses, while Regent Seven Seas cleverly pairs onboard "edutainment" with shore tours. The two also offer children's programs, traditionally lacking on luxury lines, on kid-friendly itineraries during the summer and holiday weeks. Spa and fitness centers are being expanded as part of the current wellness trend, and Seabourn's new Odyssey-class ships sport two-deck spa complexes with Kinesis Walls, two Spa Villas each and hydrotherapy pools.
Luxury Within a Mega-Ship
Hallmarks of Luxury: As cruise lines began to build bigger and bigger ships, passengers became more mainstream, lines got longer and service became less personal. To attract upper-level cruisers onto these mass-market vessels, a few lines have ingeniously developed the ship-within-a-ship concept to create an oasis of luxury and pampering onboard a city-sized mega-ship. The concept is simple: Create exclusive spaces onboard where only travelers booked into the most expensive suites are allowed to go, and provide these passengers with extra amenities, services and V.I.P. privileges. The experience is like sailing on an intimate luxury vessel set onboard a larger, amenity-laden cruise ship.
It's a winning combination, especially for cruise travelers who want all the dazzle of a newer, contemporary environment, rather than the more staid atmosphere of traditional luxury lines. These passengers can climb top-deck rock-walls, drive race cars in a simulator, try out a range of fancy and casual restaurant venues, send their kids to shipboard camp and party all night with a young crowd -- and then go back to their luxuriously appointed and extra-spacious living quarters, doting butlers, and exclusive lounges, restaurants and pool areas.
Hallmarks of Luxury: We call these lines "luxury lite" because they skirt the edges of luxury, with a la carte services and smaller cabins like mainstream lines, but incredible itineraries with lots of port time and overnights, intimate ships, and top-notch service and dining that rival those found with luxury operators. Typically, pricing is somewhere in between, too -- more expensive than Holland America or Celebrity Cruises but markedly less than Crystal or Silversea.
Azamara and Oceania both utilize former Renaissance R-class, 700-passenger vessels to form their fleets, though Oceania has introduced two new, larger ships, custom-made for the line's style of cruising. The 1,258-passenger Marina and Riviera each boast a culinary arts center, 10 onboard restaurants (all included in the fare) and impressive suites with designer decor. Windstar operates three motor-sail-yachts, carrying between 148 and 312 passengers; although the ship is motor-driven most of the time, the elegant sails are unfurled when leaving a port in the evenings for a beautiful and romantic sailaway. These lines are a good stepping-stone for cruise travelers interested in upgrading from premium lines but not sure they can afford or want the ambience of traditional luxury lines.
Luxury on the River
Hallmarks of Luxury: European river cruising has exploded in the past few years, attracting passengers who want a slow, convivial, five-star experience and for whom Prague, Budapest and Vienna hold much more interest than another trip to Grand Cayman or Montego Bay, Barcelona or Rome. Nile and Yangtze river cruises are beginning to catch on with the luxe set, too. With most lines including some shore experiences (others are available for purchase), up to six "meals" a day, luxurious accommodations and between six and 200 passengers per cruise, river cruising is an ideal and luxurious way to explore the interior of Europe or more exotic riverside destinations.
Luxury cruisers have a variety of river vessels from which to choose. Go Barging and French Country Waterways operate fleets of luxury hotel barges that carry between six and 18 passengers. These lines spoil passengers with dinner at Michelin-starred restaurants, marble bathrooms with designer bath products, local ingredients and wines served onboard, complimentary use of bicycles and eager-to-please staff. On the slightly larger and exotic end, Abercrombie & Kent charters a variety of ships, from 80-passenger Sun Boat IV for Nile Cruises to 192-passenger East Queen and 180-passenger East King (Orient Royal Cruises) for Yangtze River sailings. Uniworld's extensive fleet of riverboats typically carries between 130 and 140 passengers. Its newest ships boast one-of-a-kind decor, suites with alcoves that can be converted from glassed-in conservatories to open-air balconies, cinemas with Dolby Surround Sound, all-weather lounges on the top deck and even a windowed swimming pool with an adjacent spa. Sea Cloud's 88-passenger River Cloud II carries an air of privilege, mixing 1930's charm with luxurious touches like in-suite marble baths, fine linens, regional cuisine and included beverages.
Hallmarks of Luxury: Luxury cruising is not just about fine food and fawning service -- it's also about traveling to exotic locations and getting in-depth and unique experiences from a destination. As the Caribbean and Europe become "been there, done that" destinations, we've seen a rise in exploration or "soft adventure" cruises to unusual locales, such as Antarctica, the Arctic, the Galapagos Islands, Mexico's Sea of Cortez, Australia and the South Pacific, and off-the-beaten-path Alaska.
And, while touring might be a bit more rugged than the average cruise -- involving riding in Zodiacs, donning boots and heavy jackets to face polar chills or taking long walks in search of wildlife -- onboard amenities are much nicer than a bare-bones research vessel. Passengers can play at Indiana Jones during the day, then turn into Cary Grant (sans tux -- expedition cruises are pretty casual) at night.
For example, Silversea's Silver Explorer, which cruises to Antarctica, Africa, the Arctic and other remote destinations, features a full-service spa, Jacuzzi pools, a cigar lounge and some of the largest cabins on any expedition ship, many with balconies. Many lines, like Un-Cruise Adventures and Celebrity Xpedition, include wine and liquor in their cruise fares. Cabins tend to be small but comfortably appointed, meals are excellent, and the quality of naturalists, photographers and expert lecturers onboard could alone command the premium price points.
--by Jana Jones, Cruise Critic contributor, and Erica Silverstein, Senior Editor