For your next cruise vacation, you're looking for a spacious suite, possibly with butler service, VIP treatment and upscale amenities. Should you go with a small ship from Seabourn or the special suite class on a Royal Caribbean mega-ship? Book a standard suite on Silversea or the owner's suite on Norwegian?
Confused? Luxury has come to the mainstream cruise lines, which have been been increasingly adding amazing, top-of-the-line suites, complete with exclusive spaces and priority services. Some of these luxurious accommodations can rival the true luxury lines on size (through "ship within ships"), perks, pampering and price.
Which incredible suite will suit you depends largely on your cruising style and interests -- and what you're looking for in the rest of the ship. As you narrow down your choices, let us point you in the correct direction -- whether that be sumptuous suite on a small-ship luxury line or amazing accommodations on the newest mega-ship.
Luxury lines like Crystal, Regent, Seabourn and Silversea have small ships, carrying anywhere from 300 to 1,000 passengers, with high space-to-passenger ratios. You won't have to wait in line or jostle through crowds to disembark. The flip side is that smaller ships don't have all the onboard attractions as their mega-ship counterparts, but if you're satisfied with a theater and handful of bars -- and don't need a water slide or rock climbing wall -- you'll be just fine.
Service is extremely important to luxury cruise staff; no matter where you go onboard, a crew member will be trying to make your cruise more enjoyable -- perhaps by having your favorite wine waiting at dinner or carrying your plate at the buffet. On a mainstream ship, you might be fawned over by your butler or cabin steward, but once you step into the ship's public areas, you'll be lost in the crowd.
Luxury cruise lines do not encourage children. They have minimal extra-berth cabins and no, or limited, youth activities or kids clubs. The atmosphere is therefore more refined and adult, with activities geared to a grown-up crowd with lectures, cooking classes, bridge competitions and golf clinics. The few children who do cruise tend to be older, well traveled and well behaved.
Luxury cruise lines aim to explore the world, from the Arctic to the Antarctic, from Asia to Australia and South America. Their small ships sail from port to port (rather than sticking to one homeport for an entire season) and visit smaller or off-the-beaten-track destinations that big ships can't reach. Many itineraries are destination-intensive with overnights in port and limited sea days. While some mainstream ships do offer exotic itineraries on a seasonal basis, they're still restricted to ports that accommodate their size.
"All-inclusive" is the favorite term of the luxury cruise lines. All include tips and drinks in their cruise fares; some throw in Internet access, specialty dining, pre-cruise hotel stays, airfare and shore excursions as well. This setup is ideal for travelers who don't want to worry about the cost of a cocktail once aboard, but would rather enjoy themselves without constantly reaching into their wallets and signing chits.
Another hallmark of luxury cruising is fine dining. You'll find first-rate ingredients and expensive ones (think caviar, lobster and foie gras), crystal glasses and fine china, and beautifully presented fare. It's easy to find a table for two or invite different new friends to dine with you each evening; with open seating, you can show up when you wish during dinner hours. Plus, restaurant staff are willing to customize menus for you, with advance notice. Look for specialty restaurants helmed by top chefs like Nobu Matsuhisa and Thomas Keller.
Mega-ships do family travel well. Most have large kids clubs where parents can drop children off to enjoy sports, video games, arts projects and more with qualified youth staff. Some even have nurseries for the littlest cruisers. Ships are outfitted with attractions like water slides, mini golf, rock climbing walls, multiple pools, arcades, sports courts and poolside movie theaters. Kids menus and high chairs are readily available. Kids will love all the options, and parents will be thrilled to have some kid-free downtime, as well as fun activities to do as a family.
You might prefer to travel in style, with the budget to book an upscale suite -- but your best friends, parents or grown children traveling with you might need a cheaper option. The mainstream cruise lines offer a wider array of cabin types at varying price points, so everyone in your travel party can find acceptable accommodations on the same ship. Whether it be a rock-bottom inside cabin or a mid-priced balcony or mini-suite, no one will be forced to compromise on price or amenities.
Big ships are fun! They've got Broadway shows, large casinos, multiple bars, huge spas and fitness centers, plenty of outdoor and water-based activities -- not to mention wine tastings, trivia games, karaoke, bingo and shopping events. They have a happening vibe, with lots going on at night. If you think a small ship sounds boring, or want to close down a bar or dance club, you'll find your happy place on a mainstream ship.
If you don't drink, book independent excursions and don't need WiFi onboard (there's got to be someone!), you will be subsidizing the cruise of someone who does on a luxury cruise where those amenities are bundled into the cruise fare. On a mainstream ship you pay as you go; you will have to swipe your cruise card every time you want a soda, but you are only paying for the things you use. Some higher-end suites on select lines do come with complimentary drinks or Internet access, or you can choose the inclusion you'll use most with booking perks from lines like Norwegian or Celebrity.
On a luxury line, everyone gets treated equally once they step outside their cabin. On a mainstream ship, suite passengers get VIP status compared to those booked in standard cabins. From priority check-in and tendering to exclusive lounge or restaurant access, you'll be skipping lines and enjoying uncrowded spaces while other passengers wait in line or fight for an empty table or lounge chair.
Updated January 31, 2020