What is luxury to you? Nearly 2,100 people responded to a series of questions on luxury cruising preferences in our recent Members Speak Out: Luxury poll -- our first survey on the topic. What's apparent first and foremost is that luxury means different things to just about everybody. For some, luxury is any time they're not doing the dishes, while others won't settle for anything less than a small ship with enormous suites, five-star cuisine, free drinks and white-glove service. For others still, the chance to sip a steaming mug of coffee laced with Baileys Irish Whiskey -- while paddling a kayak off the coast of Antarctica -- qualifies.
While our respondents were quite experienced with mainstream small-ship luxury -- 37 percent have taken at least one such cruise and 16 percent of those wouldn't go to sea any other way -- we were pleasantly surprised to see that another 16 percent have tried the big-ship, big-suite experience in accommodations such as Holland America's Penthouse Suite, Norwegian Cruise Line's Garden Villa and Courtyard Villas, and Royal Caribbean's Presidential Suite.
So, where do you fall on the luxury spectrum? Check out the results:
When asked "What size ship do you prefer for a luxury cruise experience?" most of you (38 percent) voted for medium-sized ships of 300 to 800 passengers. Seabourn has already taken this trend in account, and ordered two 450-passenger ships -- its first new-builds in a decade -- that are three times larger tonnage-wise than its existing trio of 208-passenger vessels. The first, Seabourn Odyssey, launched in June 2009 and the second, Seabourn Sojourn, debuted in London in June 2010. Silversea Cruises, too, has added some girth to its fleet; its 540-passenger Silver Spirit, which debuted in December 2009, exceeds the capacity of its previously largest ship, Silver Whisper, which holds 388 guests.
Coming in second were "Large" ships (800 to 1,200 passengers) with 29 percent of the vote -- followed by "Jumbo" (1,200-plus) with 20 percent, and "Small" (300 or fewer) with 13 percent.
We thought a special occasion might be a good reason to splurge by traveling in luxury on a luxury ship, but a whopping 57 percent said no occasion was necessary. For those who did cite an occasion, 47 percent said a romantic getaway (such as a honeymoon or anniversary) would convince them to upgrade, 10 percent said a multigenerational trip and 9 percent said a family vacation.
Are certain areas of the world better for luxury cruising? Sixty-four percent would take a high-end cruise to Europe, followed by 45 percent who'd sail in style to the Caribbean. Twenty-nine percent would take a luxury cruise to Asia, 29 percent to Hawaii, 24 percent to Alaska, 18 percent to Africa or the Middle East, and 15 percent to Canada and New England.
The real window into readers' minds was our check-all-that-apply question on which elements of luxury are most important. Sixty percent cited personal service -- that intangible element that makes a good cruise so much better; 58 percent voted with their stomachs when they chose cuisine. Suite accommodations were essential to 56 percent of voters, and unique itineraries appealed to 40 percent. Flexibility (a range of restaurants and activities) was important to 36 percent, spa and fitness facilities were a must for 14 percent, and custom-created shore excursions sounded ideal to another 14 percent.
The poll results revealed that cruise travelers have very different ideas of what constitutes luxury and when it's worth it to splurge for added niceties. Here's what our readers had to say about what a luxury vacation means to them and their decisions about which ships to cruise on.
How Do You Define Luxury? Let Us Count the Ways…
"Complete pampering. I don't have to get up to do anything except take care of me and do what I want to do. Minimal kids running about, quiet decks, my drink refilled when it's empty, ice in my cabin all the time, and my husband to get the lotion on my back." -- mgonagl
"Luxury means that people know your name and treat you like an individual instead of a number." -- karenj4546
"Exceptional service which gives you those 'little extras.' Fantastic cuisine which rivals (or surpasses) nearly all restaurants in a large metropolitan city. Not having to worry about being 'nickel and dimed' for drinks, food, etc. while on board." -- JanR
"No Norovirus, no embarkation or disembarkation delays, great cuisine and lots of singles." -- gloriaw011
"Fellow passengers that have some couth and know how to dress appropriately. Passengers that do not pick through the buffet food with their hands, and staff that does not yell at me." -- anonymous
"Large cabin, large double-sinked bathroom, separate shower and tub, high thread count linens and wonderful towels, large balcony, separate dining and living areas, 5-star cuisine, outstanding entertainment with name headliners, excellent unobtrusive cabin stewards" -- harrodsfan
"Any time I don't have to work or clean my house!" -- anonymous
Some Believe Luxury is Impossible on a Mass-Market Line...
"It's like paying a premium to have the largest table at McDonald's." -- kfbesq
"The value is not there on a mass-market line...regardless of price. The big ships are too crowded and allow way too many children. As a result there is not a high level of personal service and there is no peace." -- anonymous
"You CANNOT get anywhere near a luxury experience on ANY mass market line. Once you're out of the fancy suite, you're still on a mass market [ship]." -- kitty9
"Unfortunately, Holland America does not provide a luxury cruise, even staying in its finest suite. The food was mediocre, the ship was much too large, and the service was spotty. The only reason we took the ship was for its teen program (which was outstanding), because we were taking our grandson to Alaska." -- JudgeB.
...While Others Can Find Luxury Anywhere
"For me, luxury is far more something in the mind of the consumer than it is something defined by self-serving promotional literature, amenities, cuisine, etc. I have enjoyed 'luxury' cruising on HAL's Rotterdam, Amsterdam and Prinsendam, and I've enjoyed it on Princess' Star, Sapphire and Dawn. For that matter, I've encountered true luxury on a 20' pontoon, too." -- Sizzlin Sailor
"Royal Caribbean's Navigator of the Seas Owners Suites are great. Royal Caribbean does a great job of making its suite guests feel like VIP's, whether it be with express check in or the lounge for suite guests only. They do little things that make you feel important." -- anonymous
"[I've been] treated to luxury in my 3 ocean view, 2 inside and 1 balcony (a Celebrity free upgrade from outside) cabins. Because my husband and I have never employed others to do our house and garden work -- only petsitters when we travel -- to have people waiting on us on board seems incredibly luxurious to me. We've been treated like royalty on Holland America, Celebrity, Princess, Royal Caribbean, Celebrity (again), and Oceania." -- Beach Nut
"We feel the level of service we receive in Owners Suites on NCL is the best out there. Butler, concierge, free soft drinks and booze, special Captain's party and much more. No request is ever refused. Luxury ship service, big ship amenities. It doesn't get any better! -- markandrews
"Why I'll Only Travel on Luxury Ships"
"I try to use luxury ships whenever possible. Life is too short to deprive yourself." -- sailormd
"Hate the thought of cruising with the masses, having to queue up for everything, and being nickeled and dimed to death." -- nadge
"In my younger days I did Europe on $5/day, youth hostels, cold showers, etc. Now I'm much older and I want luxury -- fine food, a great room, a real bathtub for relaxation. I can't handle the crowds, the lines and the regimentation anymore." -- burlingame46
"I cruise almost exclusively on Seabourn for service, familiarity with the ships and crew after some 20 cruises, as well as cuisine, itineraries and special touches. I am a recent widow and appreciate the extra service given those traveling alone. I always feel as if I am coming home when I board." -- Winner
"We like the smaller ships, more personal service, and 'the customer is always right' attitude that's not found on the more mainstream lines. The quality of food and wine is also an issue for us and we prefer to go to more off-the-beaten path ports." -- AndreaRH
"Why I Stick With Big-Ship 'Luxury'"
"We prefer to go high end on a mainstream line with personal service and perks, and eliminate the excessive 'jewelry and clothes requirement' of luxe lines." -- Timezarrow
"I love having a stateroom attendant to make up my bed and tidy my room (which I keep clean anyway) as well as freshen up my bathroom. And I love having my meals prepared for me and dishes done. However, I'm perfectly happy in a standard room with the standard above things. Frankly I wouldn't be comfortable being waited on hand and foot completely." -- anonymous
"I'm a middle-class working American. My vacation budget isn't limitless and in fact is kind of skimpy. I cruise the lines/itineraries/sailings I can reasonably afford. That said, if I win the lottery, Katie, bar the door!" -- michellp
"I guess the fear of stuffiness and that bone-chilling attitude of superiority some wealthy folks put out makes me feel as if I'm better off 'in my place' in the middle of the cruising cost spectrum." -- Beach Nut
"We are limited financially, and we would rather take two less-luxurious cruises than one luxury cruise. The luxury is not important to us! All the ships we've been on are beautiful, clean and well-kept." -- janekline
"It would be too expensive and not worth it to take my two young daughters (7 and 9) on Crystal; so I take them on Carnival and RCI." -- scbwino
"I would probably have to sell my mother if I did [take a luxury cruise]!" -- No.534
"It Depends on the Situation"
"Sometimes, luxury cruising really matters. Like -- the Caribbean. It's a way to transform a mass market experience into something really special. But in Europe? Not so necessary. Europe is more about the ports; the ship is just a hotel for the end of the day." -- anonymous
"We much prefer the luxury ships, but do go on the premium lines if the itinerary is very appealing (HAL Prinsendam is the fleet's exotic pathfinder) or a group of our friends is going (Caribbean Princess last winter)." -- count Florida
"Family trips are often dictated by the needs of the most, but when we travel alone, we try to go luxury if we can find the itinerary that works for us." -- nparmelee
"Travel with wife -- we go luxury. Travel by myself -- it might be Carnival." -- carabenz
--by Erica Silverstein, Associate Editor