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Updated August 21, 2018
Luxury travel is not one-size-fits-all when it comes to cruises. Some lines focus on smaller ships, impeccable service and inclusive fares. Others care more about delivering immersive experiences in bucket-list destinations, while some larger cruise lines create exclusive, high-end enclaves on otherwise mass-market ships.
Confused by the sheer volume of luxury cruise options? Here's your cheat sheet to six different types of luxury cruises to start you daydreaming of your next upscale voyage. And, if you want to know which of these lines will cater to your personal interests -- whether that's superior wine and food or destination immersion, read our companion piece on finding a luxury cruise that fits.
Traditional, All-Inclusive Luxury
Why They Are Luxurious: These lines have always focused on the traditional elements of luxury: personalized pampering, spacious cabins (often all have balconies), the finest appointments onboard, gourmet cuisine and a world-class selection of wine and spirits. While all traditional luxury cruise ships can be considered small, they range in size from Crystal's 1,080-passenger Crystal Serenity down to Silversea's 296-passenger Silver Wind. Passengers tend to be on the older side, though you will find wealthy young couples and families, especially during school breaks.
Another hallmark of this type of luxury cruise is inclusive pricing. You'll find minimal nickel-and-diming throughout your luxury sailing, as most of these lines include alcohol, gratuities and meals at alternative restaurants in their cruise fares; some also include flights, shore excursions, Wi-Fi, self-service laundry, shuttles into town, pre-cruise hotels and water sports from the ship.
Look to these line's newest ships for the most modern touches. Regent Seven Seas built a state-of-the-art show kitchen and two-story Canyon Ranch spa on its newest ship, while Silversea's newest offers eight restaurants. Hapag-Lloyd's Europa 2 aims for a younger traveler with family suites and babysitting service, yet pleases adults with a gin bar and huge spa. Seabourn impresses passengers with big-name partnerships, including a restaurant by Thomas Keller, wellness program by Dr. Andrew Weil and a show featuring Tim Rice.
Contemporary Luxury and the Upscale Cruise Lines
Why They Are Luxurious: The cruise industry can't agree on a collective name for these lines that skirt the edges of luxury. They might be referred to as "contemporary luxury," "upscale," "ultra-premium" or "luxury-lite." The lines themselves are quite different from each other, too, but we group them together because they offer a mix of mainstream cruise hallmarks (more a la carte pricing and smaller cabins) and luxurious attractions, such as destination-intensive itineraries with plenty of overnights, intimate and adult-oriented ships and top-notch dining. Typically, pricing is somewhere in between the premium lines, such as Holland America or Celebrity Cruises, and the traditional luxury lines, such as Regent or Silversea (though this varies based on cabin class and itinerary).
Azamara and Oceania both utilize former Renaissance R-class, 700-passenger vessels to form their fleets, which are much loved, despite small-for-luxury accommodations. Oceania has also 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. Azamara focuses on destination-immersion, emphasizing evening tours in ports and a complimentary shoreside event on every itinerary.
Viking Ocean Cruises is the newest entrant in this category, with a growing fleet of 930-passenger new-builds that focus on port-intensive itineraries, Scandinavian design and modern touches, like free Wi-Fi.
These lines are a good choice for cruise travelers interested in upgrading from premium lines but not sure they can afford or want the more formal ambience of traditional luxury lines. They are also hailed by luxury travelers who enjoy the destination-intensive itineraries, especially from the top-end suites.
Luxury Accommodations on Larger, Mainstream Cruise Ships
Why They Are Luxurious: Not all luxury travelers prefer a small, formal ship with minimal entertainment options and an older passenger base. Young entrepreneurs might want a more happening nightlife; well-to-do families need a ship that can keep their kids happy. Many mainstream cruise lines have stepped up to accommodate these travelers, either with exclusive suite complexes or packages of extra perks for their higher-paying passengers. This way, affluent travelers can avoid the hassles of mega-ship life -- long queues, crowded sun decks and lounges, nickel and diming -- while still benefiting from what those ships do well: more diverse passenger base, expansive kids clubs, active top-deck pursuits and multiple nightlife and entertainment options.
Cunard's Princess and Queens Grill Suites, Norwegian's Haven and MSC's Yacht Club are all examples of exclusive suite complexes, which combine top suites with private restaurants, sun decks and lounges inaccessible to the majority of passengers. These passengers also receive extra amenities, services and VIP privileges. The experience is like sailing on an intimate luxury vessel set onboard a larger, amenity-laden cruise ship.
Other lines, like Royal Caribbean and Celebrity, take a different approach, creating over-the-top suites on their new ships and offering a more inclusive amenity package to people who book into them. For example, travelers who qualify for Royal Caribbean's Royal Star Class get personal "Royal Genie" butlers, complimentary dining in all alternative restaurants and the suites-only Coastal Kitchen, free beverage package, unlimited free Wi-Fi, included gratuities and luxury-brand toiletries -- plus more. Sister line Celebrity offers its Suite Class passengers access to a private lounge and restaurant, butler service and other perks, depending on suite category.
Luxury on the Rivers
Why They Are Luxurious: European river cruising is generally more expensive and more inclusive than mainstream ocean cruising, but luxury travelers should note that certain river lines have separated themselves from the pack as offering a more high-end experience. These cruise lines include most (if not all) shore excursions and exclusive events (think private concerts or gourmet meals), drinks throughout the ship and around the clock, bicycles for passenger use, airport transfers and gratuities. Ships may offer a spa and fitness center, pool, multiple dining options, accommodations that creatively maximize space, and butler and room service. They tend to carry fewer passengers than other river lines and have higher space-to-passenger ratios, so ships feel roomy and uncrowded. Most itineraries are along Europe's waterways, but lines are branching out to offer river cruises in Egypt, Vietnam, Cambodia, Russia, China and India.
Unique touches on these lines include cinemas with Dolby Surround Sound (Uniworld), GPS-enabled devices that provide walking tours for independent travelers (Scenic) and high-end, high-tech amenities, such as Toto toilets and iPads in every suite and Wider speedboats for private touring (Crystal).
Two luxury tour operators also offer upscale river cruises. Abercrombie & Kent charters a variety of ships, from 80-passenger Sun Boat IV for Nile River cruises to the 124-passenger Sanctuary Yangzi Explorer for Yangtze River sailings. Tauck uses its own ships, which carry between 118 and 130 passengers despite having the space to carry more. Its claim to fame is a high number of large suites on every ship, including plenty sized at 300 square feet. Tauck also includes drinks, gratuities, airport transfers and all excursions in its fares; the line even gives passengers spending money for meals on shore.
Luxurious Adventure and Exploration
Why They Are Luxurious: For some explorers, luxury cruising is about traveling to exotic locations and getting in-depth and unique experiences from a destination. More adventurous cruisers are attracted 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. They're willing to get a bit rugged -- riding in Zodiacs, donning boots and heavy jackets to face polar chills or taking long walks in search of wildlife -- to experience bucket-list destinations.
High-end expedition cruises combine onshore adventure with onboard amenities that are much nicer than those found on a bare-bones research vessel. For example, Silversea's expedition fleet features full-service spas, Jacuzzi pools, cigar lounges, fine dining and some of the largest cabins on any expedition ship, many with balconies. Scenic Eclipse -- the river line's first foray into luxury expedition yachts -- will offer 10 dining options, two helicopters and a seven-person submarine, all-balcony cabins with butlers, and a heated pool with a retractable roof. Ponant offers French-style luxury in polar and exotic destinations, offering gourmet French meals, Hermes bath products in staterooms and a spa in partnership with Sothys Paris.
Many ships will also carry kayaks, snorkeling gear and wet suits, and walking sticks -- everything you need for active exploration. Some lines visiting Polar Regions will offer complimentary, insulated parkas for passengers, and stock boots to wear ashore.
Small-ship Cruises and Luxury Yachts
Why They Are Luxurious: For some, luxury means not dealing with crowds of people, dressing up when you don't feel like it or being told what to do. A few cruise lines offer ships that mimic that private yacht feel with pampering service and fine dining, but without the strict dress codes and with more of an emphasis on relaxation and water play. Fares can be all-inclusive, but some lines have more a la carte pricing.
On the smaller end, Crystal Esprit is a 62-passenger yacht run by Crystal Cruises. Onboard, passengers can enjoy the finer things -- like king-sized beds, marble finishings and superb dining -- but off the ship the focus is active pursuits like snorkeling, hiking, biking and kayaking. On SeaDream's identical 110-passenger ships, cruisers can arrange to sleep on deck in Balinese beds, enjoy turn-down gifts like matching pajamas, get caviar delivered anywhere onboard, enjoy water sports (including ride Jet Skis) straight from the ship's onboard marina and indulge in a blissful spa treatment.
A little bigger, Windstar operates three motor-sail-yachts, carrying between 148 and 312 passengers, and three small yacht-like cruise ships carrying 212 passengers and with larger cabins and more public spaces than its sailing vessels.
One of the biggest of the small ships, the 332-passenger Paul Gauguin sails exclusively in the South Pacific, visiting French Polynesia, as well as Fiji, Melanesia and Indonesia. Its hallmarks include elaborate beach BBQs on a private island and a troupe of entertainers/cultural ambassadors called Les Gauguines who bring a local vibe to the ship.