1. Home
  2. Cruise Styles
  3. Luxury Cruises
  4. Luxury Cruise Basics: The 6 Types of Upscale Sailings
Seven Seas Explorer (Photo: Cruise Critic)

Luxury Cruise Basics: The 6 Types of Upscale Sailings

Updated February 20, 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.


The Lido Deck on Crystal Symphony

Traditional, All-Inclusive Luxury

Major Players: Crystal Cruises, Silversea Cruises, Regent Seven Seas, Seabourn Cruise Line, Hapag-Lloyd

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.


The Living Room on Viking Star

Contemporary Luxury and the Upscale Cruise Lines

Major Players: Azamara Club Cruises, Oceania Cruises, Viking Ocean Cruises

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.


The Haven on Norwegian Escape

Luxury Accommodations on Larger, Mainstream Cruise Ships

Major Players: Cunard's Princess and Queens Grill Suites, Norwegian's Haven Complex, MSC's Yacht Club, Royal Caribbean's Suite Class, Celebrity's Suite Class

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.


The Plunge Pool on Tauck Grace

Find a Cruise

Luxury on the Rivers

Major Players: Uniworld, Abercrombie & Kent, Tauck River Cruises, Scenic, Crystal River Cruises

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

Major Players: Silversea, Scenic, Ponant

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.


 Wind Spirit cruising the South Pacific

Small-ship Cruises and Luxury Yachts

Major Players: Crystal Esprit, SeaDream Yacht Club, Windstar Cruises, Paul Gauguin

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.

Find a Cruise

Popular on Cruise Critic

Cruise Packing 101
There once was a not-so-savvy seafarer who didn't feel right unless she took two steamer trunks crammed with outfits on every cruise. This, she learned, was not a good idea. Besides incurring the wrath of her male traveling companion, who pointed out that he would have to wrestle with excess baggage through airport terminals and beyond, she quickly tired of cramming her belongings into tiny closets and bureaus. The now savvy seafarer follows her own packing 101 rule: Thou shalt put into one's suitcase only that which will fit neatly in the allocated storage space without hogging every available nook and cranny for thyself. Following that advice is getting easier these days because, for the most part, cruising has become a much more casual vacation -- even on luxury and traditional lines. Plus, with airlines charging to check bags and imposing extra fees for overweight luggage), it's just plain economical to pack light. To do so, you need to have a good sense of what you’re going to wear on a cruise so you don't pack your entire closet. If you're wondering what to bring on your next cruise, here are our guidelines for what you'll need to pack.
Secrets the Cruise Lines Don't Tell You
Cruise ship life can be a little mysterious. Your choices aren't always spelled out in black and white. The more you cruise, the more you pick up on the unofficial secrets the cruise lines don't tell you -- which give you more options, let you save money and generally allow you to have a better time onboard. Maybe it's knowing what your cabin steward is able to bring you or what the off-the-menu items are at the bar or dining room. Or perhaps it's a tip to getting a good deal on an onboard purchase. But why wait to figure these things out the hard way -- possibly after you've missed your chance? We trawled through all the great advice on Cruise Critic's Message Boards to bring you some of the worst-kept cruise secrets ... at least among our readers who love to share. But whether you're a first-time cruiser or an old sea dog, you might find there's something here you didn't already know.
8 Best Luxury Cruise Ships
The moment you step aboard a luxury cruise ship, a hostess is at your arm proffering a glass of bubbly while a capable room steward offers to heft your carry-on as he escorts you to what will be your home-away-from-home for the next few days. You stow your things (likely in a walk-in closet) and then emerge from your suite to get the lay of the ship. As you walk the decks, friendly crew members greet you ... by name. How can that be? You just set foot onboard! First-class, personalized service is just one of the hallmarks of luxury cruise lines. You can also expect exotic itineraries, varying degrees of inclusivity in pricing, fine wines and gourmet cuisine as well as universally high crew-to-passenger ratios. That being the case, you might think any old luxury cruise ship will do, but that's not quite true. Like people, cruise ships have their own unique personalities -- and some will be more suited to your vacation style than others. Lines like SeaDream might not offer the most spacious suites, but their intimate yachts can stealthily visit ports that large ships can't manage. Regent Seven Seas and Oceania Cruises are owned by the same parent company but Regent offers a completely inclusive vacation experience, while Oceania draws travelers with a more independent streak. Take a look at Cruise Critic's list of best luxury cruise lines and ships to see which one resonates with you.
Best Time to Cruise
It's one of the most common cruising questions: When is the best time to cruise Alaska, Australia, the Caribbean, Canada/New England, Hawaii, Europe or the South Pacific? The answer depends on many variables. Fall foliage enthusiasts, for instance, will find September and October the best time to take that Canada/New England cruise, whereas water sports-lovers (and families) much prefer to sail the region in the summer when school is out and temperatures are warmer for swimming. The best time to cruise to Alaska will vary depending on your preferences for viewing wildlife, fishing, bargain-shopping, sunshine, warm weather and catching the northern lights. For most cruise regions, there are periods of peak demand (high season), moderate demand (shoulder season) and low demand (low season), which is usually the cheapest time to cruise. High season is typically a mix of when the weather is best and popular travel periods (such as summer and school holidays). However, the best time to cruise weather-wise is usually not the cheapest time to cruise. The cheapest time to cruise is when most travelers don't want to go because of chillier temperatures or inopportune timing (too close to holidays, the start of school, etc.). But the lure of cheap fares and uncrowded ports might make you change your mind about what you consider the best time to cruise. As you plan your next cruise, you'll want to take into consideration the best and cheapest times to cruise and see what jibes with your vacation schedule. Here's a when-to-cruise guide for popular destinations.