Unheard-Of Discounts Make Luxury Cruises More Affordable Than Ever

February 13, 2009
A sudden influx of value-added deals has made luxury cruises more affordable than ever before. Regent Seven Seas kicked it off by offering free shore excursions on most cruises -- but other luxury lines have taken the game to a whole other level by offering onboard credits of proportions we've never seen.

First, Silversea Cruises announced a $1,000 per cabin onboard credit, which means passengers can basically enjoy several shore excursions or spa treatments and souvenirs at no charge. This week, Crystal Cruises topped Silversea with a competitive $2,000 per couple offer.

What's going on here? Well, luxury cruise lines are hurting as much as any travel provider in today's economy, but instead of heavily discounting fares they're offering bigger perks for once you get onboard -- like free excursions or these unprecedentedly large spending credits. That way, you get more value for your money, and they don't tarnish their reputations by reducing cruise fares to those of premium-level cruises. For example, Crystal is offering up to $3,000 off cabins on select Europe cruises, but the cheapest cruise fares still hover around $350 per person a night.

The bigger question, though, is which of the "dueling" onboard credit deals is the best bargain -- and whether any of these whopping luxury promotions are good enough to convince premium cruisers to upgrade or persuade luxury travelers (who now have a smaller vacation budget) to keep sailing. British luxury cruisers are also in luck as the deals are also available in the U.K.

We did the math, and here's what we found:

Regent Seven Seas: If you book a cruise eligible for free shore excursions, your cruise fare now includes standard shore tours, beverages and gratuities. Plus, on select summer cruises, solo travelers pay no supplement and kids sail free. However, cruise fares aren't discounted, so you'll be paying $500 to $950 per person per night -- plus airfare.

Silversea: Select summer Europe cruises are eligible for $1,000 per cabin onboard credit and free economy airfare (Alaska cruises get credit, but not flights). Although Silversea includes beverages, gratuities and transportation into town, $500 a person is probably not enough to cover all of your shore excursions and spa treatments unless you budget wisely. Plus, Silversea's early booking discounts still put fares in the $650 to $850 range. For Silversea Cruises' U.K. offer, take a look at Cruise Critic's U.K. luxury deals.

Crystal: Crystal probably has the best deal with up to $3,000 discount per cabin on select Europe cruises and up to $2,000 per cabin onboard credit. Its discounted fares work out to be about half as much as the other lines ($300 to $500 per night). But you'll be on a ship that's twice as big, and you'll have to use part of your onboard credit for drinks and gratuities, as well as shore excursions and other purchases. Again, U.K. cruisers can take advantage of Crystal's $2,000 onboard credit offer.

If you were already planning on a luxury cruise, these promotions definitely sweeten the deal. If you're deciding whether to upgrade from a premium (more upscale big-ship lines like Celebrity Cruises or Holland America) to a luxury line, it gets trickier. You'll have to compare the cost of a similar premium cruise fare -- plus the amount you'd typically spend onboard -- with the luxury cruise fare, adding in any onboard expenses over the credit and shore excursions offers, and figuring out how much more you're willing to pay for intangibles such as a smaller ship, higher-quality food and excellent service. Every person will have their own "right" answer.

Which of these recent deals could convince you to upgrade from a mainstream or premium cruise line to a luxury line? Please vote in our poll.

--by Erica Silverstein, Associate Editor