Just as every traveler has a unique style, set of interests and vacation needs, every luxury cruise line has a personality unique to its brand. Some lines will emphasize certain aspects of the cruise experience over another -- like the level of all-inclusivity, food and wine, spa facilities and destination immersion. You need to ferret out these subtle differences in order to find your best match and the ship of your dreams.
Personalized service is the hallmark of a luxury voyage. You will feel like a VIP on all luxury cruise ships, which have a shared goal of exceeding your expectations and anticipating your needs. On larger ships, service might be a bit more formal and reserved. Your suite butler will see to it that everything you need -- from breakfast in bed to afternoon canapes or an evening nightcap -- is executed flawlessly.
On yachts and intimate riverboats, the service might be delivered in a more personal way. You will be addressed by name throughout the ship (even on embarkation day). Bartenders will learn your drink of choice. Waiters and waitresses will recommend options in the dining room based on your previous selections.
Which of these is most important to you?
Many of the traditional luxury cruise ships share a similar profile: high space-to-guest ratios throughout the ship; and large cabins (which are usually referred to as suites) that include balconies, spacious marble bathrooms outfitted with both a full-size tub (often a whirlpool) and separate shower (often with rain showerhead), with an array of high-end bath amenities from purveyors like L'Occitane, Aveda, Hermes, Molton Brown or Ferragamo.
Linens in suites and in the dining rooms will be from top designers, as will the china, silverware and glassware. (For example, that Champagne toast at dinner will likely be poured into Riedel, Baccarat or Schott Zwiesel barware.)
Luxury riverboats, on the other hand, will lack the spacious cabins found on its oceangoing counterparts but will still offer things like high-end bath products in your cabin and designer china in the dining room.
No matter what aspect of the cruise is most important to you, you'll find a luxury cruise line that fits your desires to a "T." If you're looking for a luxury cruise line that excels in the areas you care about most, keep reading to find which cruise is the perfect fit.
The luxury cruise line model is based on inclusive fares, without the level of nickel and diming found on mainstream ships. However, each company defines the term "all-inclusive" a bit differently, and some lines pack a bit more punch in their fares than others.
Regent -- a leader in offering all-inclusive, oceangoing cruises. -- touts the phrase, "It's all included," and that means roundtrip air (including business-class air on 2016 European cruises and all intercontinental flights on 2017–2018 Voyage Collection cruises); unlimited shore excursions (though there are some paid options available as well); a one-night, pre-cruise stay in a luxury hotel if you're booked into a Concierge-level or higher suite; specialty restaurants; Wi-Fi throughout the ship; transfers between the airport and ship; and pre-paid gratuities. Free unlimited beverages include wine and spirits throughout the ship as well as in your in-suite mini-bar, which is replenished daily.
When it comes to the world of river cruising, Uniworld offers one of the most all-inclusive and luxurious experiences. Ships carry about 130 passengers, allowing the line to offer impeccable service.
Additional perks include all gratuities (onboard and onshore), all airport transfers, butler service in all suites in Europe (except in Russia and Portugal in 2016), unlimited beverages (including premium spirits like Grey Goose, Crown Royal and Glenfiddich), shipwide Wi-Fi and a range of personalized shore excursions.
This line offers a nice all-inclusive option when it comes to its river cruise ships that sail the rivers of Europe -- including the Rhine, Main, Danube, Seine, Rhone and Volga -- as well as Asia's Mekong and Irrawaddy.
Scenic fares includes butler service in every cabin as well as free drinks throughout the day, plus shore excursions, all tips and transfers to and from the ship, and even e-bikes that you can use ashore.
A new entrant in the luxury river cruise category, Crystal River Cruises brings Crystal's commitment to luxurious amenities, impeccable service and fine dining to Europe's rivers. Fares are inclusive, covering unlimited soft drinks and alcohol (including beer, wine and spirits) throughout the riverboat and in your cabin; meals at all restaurants, including 24-hour room service and a self-service drinks pantry; at least 60 minutes of free Wi-Fi per person, per day, and unlimited free Wi-Fi on the line's own excursion coaches; and airport transfers to and from the ship.
Also included are daily yoga or fitness classes, self-serve laundry, select shore excursions in every port (including an exclusive evening event on every cruise), one dinner at a Michelin-starred restaurant on every itinerary, and use of e-bikes and Nordic walking poles.
All cabins feature butler service.
While luxury cruise ships strive to raise the bar on food and wine served onboard, the quality of the provisions, the artistry of the chefs and the breadth of the wine list can make or break a voyage for any self-described "foodie." Food-focused luxury cruise lines tend to enter into partnerships with celebrity chefs (including Jacques Pepin and Thomas Keller) to create menus and entire restaurants that rival what you'll find on land. The wine list is a point of distinction, and trained sommeliers are at the ready to offer outstanding wine lists at complimentary open bars throughout the ship. Provisions tend to be of the highest caliber and may include things like USDA prime dry-aged beef, caviar, lobster, organic produce or high-end, brand-name chocolate. Yet dining aboard a luxury cruise ship doesn't mean set seatings and the same tablemates each night. These days, dinner is usually open seating with plenty of tables for two, as well as seating for large groups, so you can choose intimate dinners or socialize over a meal. The following cruise lines exceed expectations in regards to food and wine.
Legendary French chef Jacques Pepin is the line's Executive Culinary Director and the gastronomic mind behind Jacques (aboard Marina and Riviera) and Jacques Bistro (on Sirena). His bouillabaisse and lobster thermidor are standout dishes.
The wine list at Jacques lists some exclusive selections such as Domaine William Fevre Chablis and a Bordeaux by Chateau Jeanguillon.
Marina and Riviera are both outfitted with a Culinary Center. This state-of-the-art teaching kitchen includes individual workstations where you can learn how to craft a memorable meal of your own.
This line has its own cheese "sommelier" who was certified by the International Cheese Academy to select the cheeses served onboard.
Wines served at The Vintage Room dinners have included some nearly impossible-to-purchase wines, such as the illusive 1959 Chateau Lafite-Rothschild and a 1996 Screaming Eagle from Napa Valley.
A new dining venue, The Grill by Thomas Keller, was recently installed aboard all Seabourn ships. The venue was crafted by Chef Thomas Keller, whose land-based restaurants (The French Laundry, Bouchon and Per Se) are all Michelin-star rated.
Seabourn serves Black River Ossetra caviar onboard and offers a signature "Caviar in the Surf" beach experience that pairs fine Champagne with this salty delicacy. You can also order caviar from the room service menu.
SeaDream offers a casually elegant cruise experience with the best possible dining experiences, both night and day. With just 112 guests onboard, chefs can use top-quality provisions such as foie gras, lobster, filet mignon and lamb.
The line has a raw food menu created with the Hippocrates Health Institute that includes menu items prepared exclusively with raw, organic and vegan ingredients -- none heated above 118 degrees.
Don't miss SeaDream's Dessert Extravaganza -- often served on deck under the stars. You'll sample an amazing variety of baked treats, from pies and tarts and cakes to ice cream and a sinfully good bananas Foster.
Not all cruise ship spas are created equal. Multi-deck facilities with high space-to-guest ratios earn the highest marks. The best spa complexes include thermal suites, thalassotherapy pools, beautifully decorated treatment rooms, private hideaways for couples to enjoy leisurely days, well-trained staff that don't hawk products at the end of each session, special access to a spa bistro or spa menus throughout the ship, and spa suites that offer a plethora of value-added perks. And, of course, every good spa also offers a fitness center with high-end workout equipment and exercise classes, plus a range of personal grooming services from hair care and facials to manicures and pedicures. Some even offer medi-spa services such as teeth whitening and Botox. Here are a few of the lines that maintain spas with a "wow!" factor.
Seabourn's spas span up to 8,820 square feet and include options like a sauna, steam room, Thermal Suite Lounge, Hydropool with massaging jets, Kneipp Walk water therapy system and full-service beauty salon.
Private Spa Villas are hidden away on the Spa Deck, where you can enjoy personalized treatments and half- or full-day spa packages in a beautiful setting. Each villa is outfitted with an oversized bathtub, balcony, living area and day bed.
Spa enthusiasts love Seabourn's Penthouse Spa Suites, which offer complimentary access to The Spa at Seabourn serene area. Extra in-suite spa amenities include a second fridge packed with healthy beverages and snacks, as well as extra Molton Brown spa products such as bath sponges and scented oils.
Massage treatments range from Thai Herbal Poultice to Elemis Aroma Stone Therapy to a Bamboo Massage. You'll also find options like Ionithermie Cellulite Reduction and seaweed wraps.
The Crystal Spa, with its Feng Shui-inspired design, is one of the most Zen-like facilities you'll find at sea. The goal here is for guests to feel a sense of tranquility, and you'd be hard-pressed to spend time at the spas aboard Crystal Serenity and Crystal Symphony and not feel rejuvenated.
Treatments range from Aroma Stone Therapy to a Japanese Silk Booster Facial.
A gorgeous -- and private -- canopied outdoor area at the ship's aft is available to spa-goers before and after their treatments.
A range of popular noninvasive medi-spa treatments includes wrinkle-targeting procedures such as Thermage CPT, which uses radiofrequency technology to tighten loose and sagging skin.
Crystal Serenity's spa offers an unusual MLX Quartz Crystal treatment bed, which can be heated to a variety of temperatures to help promote comfort and alleviate aches and pains.
If you've been to a Canyon Ranch SpaClub on land, you'll be familiar with the options offered in the company's at-sea outposts on Regent's cruise ships. You can book almost any type of service, from skin care and tanning treatments to massage, acupuncture, reflexology, reiki, hair care, makeup application, fitness classes and personal training.
Each Regent spa offers a range of thermal areas, such as an aromatic steam room scented with herbal essences or a hot Finnish sauna lined with Nordic cedar.
Canyon Ranch SpaClub offers a surprisingly long list of options when it comes to facials, body scrubs and detoxification treatments.
The onboard Ocean Spa spans nearly 9,000 square feet.
Ocean Spa offers eight treatment rooms, a sauna, whirlpool and on-deck relaxation area. An unusual "ice wall" is the perfect way to cool down on a hot day. If you're a fan of hydrotherapy, there's a Kneipp pool filled with cold water.
Fitness options include a large exercise room plus a yoga/Pilates studio and golf simulation area.
You can book a private spa haven called "Your Personal Spa," on an hourly or daily basis. The hideaway includes a whirlpool, a relaxation area and a massage space with a TV set in the floor so you can watch programs during your treatment.
Upscale line Viking Ocean Cruises makes the list because its LivNordic Spas are some of the most inclusive you'll find at sea. The thermal suite is open to everyone, free of charge. Hot and cold experiences within the thermal suite include a thalassotherapy pool, steam room, snow grotto, hot and cold showers, heated loungers and a hot tub. Men's and women's changing rooms have same-sex dry saunas and cold plunge pools.
The Snow Grotto is particularly invigorating. Delicate snowflakes -- meant to stimulate your circulation -- gently float from the ceiling. After you've enjoyed the icy flakes, move on to the sauna to finish the experience.
The spa itself offer high-quality treatments with no product pitches at the end. The Swedish team specializes in Nordic treatments as well as typical facials and massages. A salon, men's barber shop and small fitness area round out the offerings.
Upscale travel does not have to equate to a formal or stuffy atmosphere. Many cruisers wish to pair exquisite, top-notch service in an intimate setting with a comfortable and casual onboard vibe. Yacht cruises feel homey yet elegant; choose a yacht-style ship if you prefer to avoid stringent dress codes and scheduled dinner seatings.
One of the newer options in the luxury world is Crystal's 62-passenger yacht, Esprit. Here you get the same excellent Crystal service that you would aboard its cruise ships, while benefitting from a low passenger count and more relaxed vibe. Service can be that much more customized and personalized for each person onboard.
You'll feel as if you're in a boutique hotel and not aboard a cruise ship.
The yacht also has a watersports marina at its aft where guests can swim, snorkel or take out a personal watercraft. That's an incredibly nice feature when sailing the Seychelles in the Indian Ocean or along the Mediterranean Coast. It even carries a three-person submersible for underwater exploration.
This yacht has a slightly less formal dress code than the other Crystal ships. While Crystal Serenity and Symphony offer two evening dress codes -- Crystal Casual and Black Tie Optional -- the yacht asks that passengers dress in a "fashionably chic style" at dinnertime. This makes Esprit a fantastic option for those who prefer to dress in tropical collared shirts/slacks or sundresses in the evening.
SeaDream owns a pair of 112-passenger yachts. Itineraries include the Caribbean and Mediterranean; both offer a mix of the world's most sought-after ports as well as some hidden-away gems that larger ships can't access. Service is over the top without being pretentious.
The deck is peppered with comfy Balinese beds for sunbathing during the day. But by reservation, you can even sleep under the stars in one of these beds, made up by the staff with fluffy duvets and snuggly pillows. It's an amazing experience everyone should try at least once.
The goal for guests on a SeaDream voyage is to enjoy the ship, meet new, like-minded people onboard and enjoy independent activities ashore (although the line also offers a few for-fee shore excursions in each port). You are typically ferried ashore by a tender, or via a skiff for wet landings on nearly deserted beaches.
The watersports platform is deployed as often as possible from the ship's aft, and you can swim, snorkel or take out a JetSki or kayak.
While meals are exquisite multicourse affairs, the dress code is down played. Formal attire is eschewed in the evening for country club casual with most women wearing sundresses and men donning slacks and open-collared shirts. At all other times, passengers prefer beachwear, T-shirts and shorts.
Windstar is not quite as expensive or inclusive as cruise lines such as Regent, Silversea or Crystal Cruises, but it does present a solid product at a good price point via two different types of small ships: three masted, motor-sail yachts (Wind Surf, which accommodates 310 people, and Wind Spirit and Wind Star, which each have a capacity of 148) and three traditional, 212-passenger yachts (Star Legend, Star Pride and Star Breeze).
What you'll love about Windstar is the crew. You are treated like a member of the Windstar family; the staff is friendly without being too familiar.
The sails aboard Wind Surf, Wind Spirit and Wind Star are enough to convert many passengers to repeat guests. There is something majestic and romantic about seeing the sails unfurl and billow in the wind as the ship makes its way to the next port of call.
Sailing to the Caribbean, Costa Rica and the Panama Canal, French Polynesia and the Mediterranean, the line draws a younger, active crowd that enjoys shore excursions and making use of each ship's aft watersports marina, from where you can swim, snorkel or take out a personal watercraft like a kayak or canoe.
This French-flagged line offers both an intimate (64-passenger), masted, motor-sail yacht as well as sleek and elegant expedition yachts with a capacity of 264 for voyages around the globe.
An emphasis is on food and wine onboard minus any pretension -- even though menus have a decidedly French flair.
Sun decks and outdoor lounges create a relaxed vibe that encourages passengers to spend time getting to know one and another, or simply take in the sea air while reading a book and sipping a cocktail.
If you really want to get to know a port, choose luxury lines that truly focus on destination immersion. They do this in several ways, such as offering overnights in the most popular cities around the world and delivering a wide variety of shore excursions in port, including niche tours that really go deep into one aspect of the culture. Some cruise lines leave ports later at night, allowing passengers to have a full day on land as well as an opportunity to enjoy dinner and some nightlife before boarding. This intense emphasis on the port itself ensures you have time to immerse yourself in the destination before sailing to the next port of call.
In addition to port overnights and late-nights in cities around the globe, Azamara also offers something called AzAmazing Evenings. These are once-per-voyage, complimentary events on land that feature the local culture in a unique way. In Tuscany, you might be serenaded by three tenors as you sip wine in a gorgeous countryside setting. In Russia, you might enjoy a performance by the St. Petersburg Symphony Orchestra.
Azamara offers a variety of voyages from seven nights or longer. Many itineraries can be booked back-to-back without repeating ports of call.
Viking Ocean Cruises, sister company of the uber-popular Viking River Cruises, focuses heavily on the ports its ships visit. Its itineraries are destination-heavy with very few sea days, often paired with longer stays in port. Most cruises are longer than a week and can be combined for back-to-back sailings with few to no repeated ports.
The cruise fare includes one complimentary shore excursion in each port -- though you can also buy a variety of "premium" options. Paid excursions can include activities such as hot air ballooning, biking or touring a local marketplace.
Onboard programming focuses on enrichment lectures by engaging speakers that shed light on the destination, and menus reflect the regional cuisine.
Silversea believes that overnights in ports are an important aspect of introducing guests to cities across the globe, and often programs at least one and sometimes two overnights in its itineraries. For example, a popular 10-night Mediterranean voyage from Venice to Civitavecchia overnights in both Dubrovnik, Croatia, and Sorrento, Italy. These leisurely port calls make it easy for passengers to enjoy several excursions and do a bit of independent sightseeing.
Silversea also visits some destinations -- like the Arctic and parts of Africa -- that other luxury lines don't. The expedition ship Silver Explorer offers itineraries in the Arctic, and both Silver Discoverer and Silver Cloud visit Africa and the Indian Ocean on a regular basis.
Paul Gauguin sails French Polynesia year-round and is an expert in the local culture, flora and fauna. A troupe of Polynesian singers, dancers and storytellers -- called Les Gaugines -- sail aboard each voyage and teach passengers about their culture through crafts, stories and songs.
For some cruise-goers, luxury means the opportunity to have an adventure and visit some truly far-off places while taking part in activities like snorkeling, diving, hiking and biking. Several luxury lines excel in this arena, and Silversea even has an entire arm of its operations devoted to expedition cruises. You won't sacrifice the finer things in life, even when booking the most exotic sailings possible.
This intimate ship currently sails the Adriatic as well as the Seychelles in the Indian Ocean -- a destination not offered by most cruise lines.
The ship's claim to fame is its onboard submarine, which is available to guests in the form of short undersea excursions.
The line is currently building a 200-passenger, polar-class, mega-yacht, Endeavor; launching in 2018, it will take to the Arctic and Antarctica as well as to some tropical destinations. New cruise ships -- the first of which debuts in 2019 -- will be polar ice-class rated, opening the line up to more adventurous itineraries in icy waters.
Silversea masterfully blends a luxury experience with expedition-style voyages. While half its fleet consists of luxury ships, the other half is made up of purpose-built expedition ships that sail the globe without sacrificing things like gourmet food and wine or attentive service.
Enjoy itineraries to the Galapagos Islands (Silver Galapagos sails there year-round), Alaska, the Arctic, Antarctica, Africa and the Indian Ocean, Asia, Russia's Far East, Australia and New Zealand, South America as well as Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia.
The foremost goal of Un-Cruise voyages is for passengers to get up close to nature and wildlife and learn from the experience, all the while being pampered by the staff.
The line offers some of the smallest yachts out there. You can sail the 22-passenger Safari Quest to Alaska's Inside Passage or the Pacific Northwest's Washington and San Juan Islands. The 36-passenger Safari Explorer also sails the Inside Passage, as well as the Hawaiian Islands, while the 48-passenger La Pinta exclusively sails the Galapagos Islands. If you wish to explore Costa Rica and Panama, Un-Cruise's 62-passenger Voyager makes the trip, while the 84-passenger Safari Endeavour sticks to Alaska and Mexico's Sea of Cortes.
What's especially interesting is that Un-Cruise ships have all-American crews -- from the captain to the room stewardesses to the onboard naturalist/guide.
Un-Cruise captains can adjust the itinerary to suit the passengers and weather conditions, and excellent onboard naturalists take guests on complimentary shore excursions and present talks each evening in the lounge.
One of the most romantic ships at sea is Paul Gauguin. Sailing the South Pacific year-round with special emphasis on French Polynesia, this 332-passenger ship is just the right size: small enough that you can get to know the crew and your fellow passengers as you sail remote islands and atolls but large enough to have multiple high-end restaurants, a spa and boutique onboard.
The aft watersports platform is a boon; passengers can swim, snorkel or borrow a personal watercraft right from the ship and enjoy the crystal clear waters of Polynesia.
A beach day and BBQ feast at PG's private island, Motu Mahana, is a real treat on the ship's French Polynesia itineraries. A cast of Polynesian singers and dancers (called The Gauguines) are a lovely authentic addition to the ship.
In addition to sailing French Polynesia, the ship offers a limited number of itineraries that include both Fiji and French Poly as well as Fiji, Melanesia and Indonesia. A 16-night, Bali-to-Fiji voyage calls on spectacular destinations including Vanuatu, Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands, Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea, and Indonesia's Komodo Island.
Lindblad partners with National Geographic to bring cruisers to some of the world's most amazing destinations, including the Amazon, Galapagos, Mexico's Sea of Cortes, Alaska's Inside Passage, Southeast Asia, the Arctic and Antarctica.
Lindblad exceeds when it comes to onboard naturalists and historians, as well as National Geographic photographers that lead excursions and offer tips to help passengers take the best pictures possible.
Excursions hedge to the more active end of the spectrum and may include snorkeling and diving or hiking and walking tours.
Here is where expedition and luxury voyages intersect, with Ponant offering itineraries to more rugged destinations like the Arctic, Antarctica and Australia's Kimberely region. You won't find mass-market lines offering voyages like these. Ponant also offers compelling expedition voyages to the South Pacific, Easter Island, Papua New Guinea in Melanesia, Southeast Asia and Russia.
The vibe onboard is decidedly European and meals are served with a French flair. Expect an extensive cheese board and desserts such as creme brulee, crepes Suzette, tarts and souffles.
Just because you're planning a family vacation or a multigenerational trip, you don't have to give up on luxury. Some luxury cruise lines do offer limited programs for children. And some mainstream lines offer high-end suites with incredible perks and access to the onboard kids programs and amazing entertainment options and activities that are the hallmarks of the mega-ships. When traveling with kids, it's important to select a luxury experience that can offer something special to everyone in your party -- regardless of age.
One of the ritziest options for family cruises is actually aboard Norwegian's mainstream cruise ships. Look for suites in The Haven, the line's VIP section that offers passengers fantastic suites that can easily accommodate families. With the cruise line's ongoing Free at Sea promo, the suite experience is even more inclusive with free unlimited beverages, specialty dining, shore excursion credits and free Wi-Fi package. And, of special interest to families, third and fourth stateroom passengers are free on certain sailings.
The Haven offers passengers access to a concierge and 24-hour butler service; a private sun deck with a small pool, hot tubs, cabanas, loungers and fitness area; and priority when it comes to embarkation/debarkation, tender service, entertainment and dining times.
The Haven Lounge and Haven Restaurant are only available to VIPs booked into this area of the ship.
You can find The Haven aboard Norwegian Escape, Norwegian Getaway, Norwegian Breakaway, Norwegian Epic, Norwegian Pearl, Norwegian Gem and Norwegian Jade.
Crystal Serenity and Crystal Symphony offer a variety of children's activities on certain holiday voyages, as well as throughout the summer when kids travel with their parents and grandparents. Of note is the fact that these ships have dedicated youth lounges -- something that other luxury ships often lack.
Crystal charges 50 percent of its fares for children 11 and younger when they travel with two adults that are paying full price. The line also sometimes offers "children sail free" specials (as long as the child shares a room with two paying adults).
In-suite babysitting is available on a first-come, first-served basis for kids ages 1 and older.
If you have tweens and teens that are interested in the environment, don't miss Paul Gauguin's Ambassadors of the Environment Family Program. Adults and kids select from a variety of daily activities onboard and off that focus on the culture and natural resources of Polynesia. You can take part in an onboard scavenger hunt or snorkel as a family with the guidance of a trained naturalist. Designed by Jean-Michel Cousteau's Ocean Futures Society, the Ambassadors program is meant for kids ages 9 to 17. The program generally costs $349 per child, but is free on certain sailings throughout the year.
Paul Gauguin Cruises often runs a promotion that includes free airfare from Los Angeles.
You can also have a luxurious experience aboard a more mainstream ship by booking a suite within the Yacht Club on certain MSC Cruises ships. The Yacht Club offers more spacious cabins and suites, concierge and butler service, free beverages, an amazing private pool deck plus a VIP-only lounge and restaurant.
You can also indulge in a range of specialty restaurants from famed Italian marketplace, Eataly, including Eataly Steakhouse, La Cantina di Baccio (with its excellent pizza selections) and Ristorante Italia. All three offer a la carte menus that are worth the money.
Look for The Yacht Club aboard MSC Divina, MSC Fantasia, MSC Preziosa and MSC Splendida.
Updated December 12, 2019