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. And hard-working individuals were saving their money for the trip of a lifetime but might feel uncomfortable cruising with a lot of formality.
The same operators -- Royal Caribbean, Norwegian Cruise Line and Celebrity Cruises, for example -- that introduced the world to the affordable inside cabin, silly pool games, buffet lines and kids clubs now offer luxury elements, such as enormous suites, splashy spa facilities, gourmet specialty restaurants and exclusive lounges for VIP passengers in an effort to lure high rollers to their ships. The luxury stalwarts -- Silversea, Seabourn, Crystal, Regent Seven Seas -- that staunchly maintained their moneyed ambience and pricy fares, are diversifying and trying to create more casual onboard vibes. And other types of at-sea experiences -- on yachts, riverboats and expedition vessels -- are competing for the vacation time and budget of cruisers looking for something a bit different, but still high end.
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
Hallmarks of Luxury: These lines have always focused on the traditional elements of luxury: personalized pampering, 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.
On these lines, spacious cabins are a must; for example, Regent Seven Seas operates three all-suite, all-balcony ships (a fourth does have some cabins sans verandas), where even the lowest-category cabins are roomy and airy. Dining choices are varied, gourmet and only on rare occasions incur extra fees. In fact, 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, self-service laundry, shuttles into town, pre-cruise hotels and water sports from the ship.
Just because they're traditional, don't think these ships 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 has built a state-of-the-art show kitchen on its newest ship. Spa and fitness centers have been expanded, and Seabourn's Odyssey-class ships sport two-deck spa complexes with Kinesis Walls and hydrotherapy pools, as well as watersports marinas built into the back of the ships. Silversea now offers butler service in every suite. Hapag-Lloyd's Europa 2 aims for a younger traveler with family suites and babysitting service, as well as a gin bar, huge spa and multiple upscale dining venues to appeal to the adults.
Contemporary Luxury and the Upscale Cruise Lines
Hallmarks of Luxury: 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, offering a mix of mainstream cruise hallmarks (a la carte services and smaller cabins) and more luxurious attractions, such as incredible itineraries with lots of port time and overnights, intimate ships and top-notch service and dining. Typically, pricing is somewhere in between -- more expensive than Holland America or Celebrity Cruises but markedly less than 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, though 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 an exclusive and complimentary shoreside event on every itinerary.
Viking Ocean Cruises is the newest entrant in this category, with two (soon to be three) 930-passenger new-builds that focus on destination immersion, modern design and a comfortable, Scandinavian-style home away from home.
These lines are a good steppingstone 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.
Luxury Accommodations on Larger, Mainstream Cruise Ships
Hallmarks of Luxury: 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
Hallmarks of Luxury: 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, butler and room service. Most itineraries are along Europe's waterways, but lines are branching out to offer river cruises in Egypt, Vietnam, Cambodia, Russia, China and India.
Luxury cruisers have a variety of river vessels from which to choose. Uniworld's extensive fleet of riverboats typically carries between 130 and 150 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 and even a windowed swimming pool with an adjacent spa. Scenic prides itself on its generous space-to-passenger ratio, four dining options, plenty of true balconies and retractable windows that can create a balcony-like space within a cabin, butler service and a range of tour options in port (including GPS-enabled devices that provide walking tours for independent travelers). Ships carry about 170 passengers.
Crystal brings its oceangoing luxury to Europe's rivers with its new-in-2016 river cruise line. Crystal Mozart is the largest riverboat to sail Europe, but only carries 154 passengers; sister ships will be smaller but still spacious with high crew-to-passenger ratios. Hallmarks of the line include high-end, high-tech amenities (like Toto toilets and iPads in every suite and Wider speedboats for private touring), a variety of dining options and larger-than-average spa, salon, pool and fitness facilities. Mozart's largest suite measures 860 square feet.
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
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. 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.
And, while touring might be a bit more rugged than the average cruise -- 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 expedition fleet (Silver Discoverer, Silver Explorer and Silver Galapagos), which cruises to Antarctica, Africa, the Arctic, Pacific islands, the Galapagos and other remote destinations, feature full-service spas, Jacuzzi pools, cigar lounges, fine dining and some of the largest cabins on any expedition ship, many with balconies. Its fares are all-inclusive.
Other lines are less posh, but offer valuable experiences that make them worth the premium price point. Un-Cruise Adventures' ships carry just 22 to 88 passengers, and cruises focus on experiencing the natural world up close, off-the-beaten-path itineraries, personalized service and regional cuisine. Lindblad Expeditions partners with National Geographic to offer an impressive roster of naturalists, photographers and expert lecturers, as well as high-tech equipment like underwater cameras, remotely operated vehicles with video capabilities, hydrophone and video microscopes.
Many ships will also carry kayaks, snorkeling gear and wetsuits, paddleboards, hiking poles 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
Hallmarks of Luxury: 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 more of an emphasis on relaxing on deck and in the water and really vacationing than on bigger ships. 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 to exotic locales like the Seychelles and the Adriatic coast. At least one tour is included in every port, but activities generally revolve around active pursuits like snorkeling, hiking, biking and kayaking. The ship even carries a two-person submarine for underwater exploration. Onboard, passengers can enjoy the finer things -- like king-sized beds, marble finishings and superb dining -- and the camaraderie of an intimate ship.
SeaDream's identical 110-passenger ships offer a similar style of relaxed luxury. Passengers 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; 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 sail-away. It also runs three small yacht-like cruise ships (formerly Seabourn's) carrying 212 passengers and with larger cabins and more public spaces than its sailing vessels. Ponant also spans the size range with the 64-passenger Le Ponant, a three-masted motor-yacht, and four 264-passenger mega-yachts. Its larger ships are ice-strengthened, so they can cruise in the Arctic and Antarctic, while Le Ponant sails off-the-beaten-path cruises, such as around Corsica or in the Cape Verde Islands.
One of the biggest of the small ships, 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.