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When you're shopping for a cruise, do you find yourself booking premium staterooms on big ships? Onboard, do you dine at boutique restaurants, splurge on pricy private pool sanctuaries and long for a bartender who remembers your favorite tipple? If you enjoy these kinds of splurges, why not make the jump to an ultra-luxury cruise line?
There's an illusion that ultra-luxury cruising is way more expensive than big ship voyages. Surprisingly, the gulf between mass-market and luxury may not be anywhere near as big as you imagine. "It's actually not unusual to find that the fare to travel on a luxury ship is lower than your premium category suite," says Edwina Lonsdale, managing director of upscale cruise specialist agency Mundy Cruising. "If you are tired of crowds, waiting in line, waiting to get served, indifferent service, cafeteria-style food or ending up with a huge and unexpected onboard account, then you are ready for an upgrade."
Certainly, the upfront payment for a luxury line may be more but the bill at the end of your cruise should be practically nothing. Price out your options. We did the math, choosing a seven-night Caribbean and Central America voyage on Crystal Symphony in December. Cost per person: $2,820 for a balcony cabin. That's $402 a night and it includes drinks; specialty coffees; one evening in each of the ship's top specialty dining restaurants, Prego and Nobu's Umi Uma (as well as unlimited visits to any of the ship's other restaurants); crew gratuities; and classes in the gym.
A similar Caribbean cruise on Royal Caribbean's Allure of the Seas costs $1,902 in a Junior Balcony Suite, or $271 per night. Add on $80 per person for two nights' high-end specialty dining in, say, 150 Central Park and Chops Grille; $48 for four classes in the gym; $122 for a week's worth of gratuities in a suite; and $65 per day for the Deluxe Beverage Package and you arrive at $2,607 -- or $372 per night. Not much difference from Crystal's pricing-- but a world apart in terms of ships. Of course, a lot of people choose Royal Caribbean for the kids' clubs and the Broadway shows, but if you've previously not considered a luxury line simply because you think it's too expensive, this is a case in point.
"Think about what it is you enjoy about larger ships," advises Scott Anderson, general manager of The Luxury Cruise Company. "If it's the choice of dining venues, the big production shows, the multiple bars… then maybe you're better off staying there. But if you love the suite pampering, the feeling of exclusivity, the butlers, the luxury of it all… then for sure, think seriously about upgrading to a more upmarket line."
What else makes a luxury cruise such a good value? Need help to make the case? We share our favorites.
Luxury ships are smaller and have a more favorable ratio of crew-to-passengers -- which means a much smoother operation. There's no waiting in line to disembark, or get back on the ship after a long day ashore. Say goodbye to shuffling around a buffet line with a tray, cooling your heels in the lounge waiting to disembark or hanging around outside a restaurant with a beeper waiting for a table to become free.
Luxury lines understand that not everybody wants to dine with strangers and while some cruisers enjoy the social side, others only want a table for two. With flexible dining times or prebookable tables in the specialty restaurants, this should always be possible. No first or second sitting, either; all of the luxury cruise lines now offer open-seating dining, giving you flexibility and freedom.
It's a fact that luxury lines spend more per passenger per day than the mass-market lines. Although the food and wine you consume on a luxury ship may on the surface seem similar to that on a mass-market ship, you'll find the quality all-around is higher: better cuts of meat, locally sourced fish and seafood, fruit beyond the endless melon slices, cheeses from local markets. Luxury cruise lines budget for better ingredients because they know their clients are more discerning -- and that their competition is not so much other cruise lines but luxury resorts ashore like those belonging to Four Seasons or Mandarin Oriental. Luxury lines also have to maintain standards in their specialty restaurants that are consistent with the chefs and organizations with whom they work: on Crystal its chef Nobu Matsuhisa, proprietor of Nobu, whose signature dish, black cod in miso, you'll find onboard.
That feeling that your chosen cruise line is trying to extract every last cent out of you is not a good one. Paying for mineral water, cabin service, early embarkation, a better cut of steak, a quiet spot on deck, in-cabin movies, drinkable coffee, mediocre Wi-Fi -- who needs it? Fair enough, in the absolute top cabin grades on mainstream lines, a lot of this is thrown in, but on luxury lines, there's never a charge for these simple pleasures. Not only is your end-of-cruise bill lower but your mood should be better, too. Nobody likes to feel constantly gouged.
So you're currently choosing a top grade cabin or a suite on a premium ship. It's understandable that you might consider a standard balcony cabin on a luxury ship a step down. The thing is, though, there are no bad staterooms on luxury ships. Even the lowest grades are beautiful. Imagine a marble-lined bathroom, a luxurious bed piled high with pillows (and a pillow menu, even); a mini-bar stocked in advance with your favorite spirits. A fluffy robe as a matter of course, and thoughtful extras like binoculars and umbrellas to borrow. Expect luxurious bathroom goodies.
While the service on a mainstream ship is usually very good, you'll experience something else altogether on a luxury ship. Let's face it, on a big ship carrying thousands of passengers, there's only so far the crew can go to make it personal. On a smaller, more luxurious ship, though, the crew will quickly learn your name and make you feel like a member of the family (I remember boarding my first luxury cruise, some years ago, and feeling astonished; repeat passengers were embracing crew members like long-lost friends). Little things count; a waiter offering to carry your plate to your table at breakfast, or a bartender remembering exactly how you like your martini. And if you book a top-grade cabin, you'll enjoy the service of a personal butler, who will unpack your luggage, serve meals course-by-course in your suite, polish your shoes and fetch ice.
On big cruise lines, the fashion is for wearable technology or cellphone apps to "personalize" your cruise experience, so the crew instantly know, for example, how you like your drink, or whether you're a keen gambler or a vegetarian. Luxury lines don't use this technology as they get to know you personally. They'll never make you wear a colored sticker to go on a shore excursion, either.
However high-end your accommodation is on a mainstream ship, there are inevitable crowds, unless you really do behave like a hermit once you're settled in your suite. Getting on and off the ship can be time-consuming. There's constant noise around the pool, not to mention kids dive-bombing, pumping music and hairy chest contests. Sure, you probably have a private sunbathing area (for example, The Haven on Norwegian Cruise Line, or the Suite Sun Deck on Royal Caribbean), so the nightmare of deck chair hogging won't affect you, but it's so much less stressful being in an environment where everybody onboard can enjoy serenity and peace.
Especially during school holiday seasons, ultra-luxury lines embrace family travelers, particularly multigenerational cruisers. On our own recent family cruise, aboard Crystal Symphony, we loved the way the crew made a fuss over the kids, and the fact that the ship felt small enough for them to wander around on their own.
While there's an enormous range of itineraries offered by ships of all sizes, smaller, more luxurious vessels can take you to more exclusive places. You might anchor off Dubrovnik's old, walled city, for example, rather than being bused in from the cruise port. Or, you could squeeze in among the mega-yachts in St. Barths or tie up alongside Mykonos town instead of the rather soulless cruise dock along the coast. Itineraries balanced interests of bucket-listers and well-traveled, so you'll visit Saint-Tropez and Ibiza as well as Rome and Barcelona in the Mediterranean, or Iles-des-Saintes and Virgin Gorda along with Barbados and San Juan, in the Caribbean.
Luxury cruise lines have quiet periods, too, so make the most of these. There's always a dip around Thanksgiving, should you decide not to stay home for once. Early December is often quiet, as are the shoulder seasons -- early fall in the Mediterranean or the Baltic, for example. A repositioning cruise is a great way to try out a luxury line for a lot less, as there are fewer ports of call and therefore lower prices, but you can enjoy a great deal of lotus-eating on a 12-day Atlantic crossing. Work with your travel agent, too; let them know you're in the market for a switch to luxury and they will look out for deals for you.
"Of course, once you have taken the plunge, you will be reluctant to go back to the more mainstream products," says Edwina Lonsdale. "Luckily, onboard booking incentives and past guest reductions will help with the fare."
*Sue Bryant is an award-winning journalist and a big fan of expedition cruising. As well as working for Cruise Critic, she is Cruise Editor of The Sunday Times in London and also contributes to publications worldwide, among them Sunday Times Travel Magazine, Porthole, World of Cruising and Cruise Passenger (Australia). *