These days, you can find "elite suites" -- which provide access to exclusive restaurants, lounges and decks on otherwise mainstream ships -- not just on Cunard but also Norwegian Cruise Line, with its now-signature Courtyard Villa complex, and MSC Cruises' exclusive Yacht Club. In fact, with the launch of Norwegian Epic a few weeks back, NCL has upped the ante -- that ship's elite suite hideaway is the biggest of the fleet, now with its own restaurant and bar.
But: If you want to cruise with the creme de la creme -- without upgrading to a true luxury cruise ship -- who's got the better deal? Will you find fantastic rates on Epic as NCL pushes its new ship? Are Grill sales sweet in order for Cunard to compete? Are the best rates only available to frequent cruisers loyal to one line? Here's our comparison of the industry's top elite suites -- what you get and what it costs.
The Ship: 155,873-ton, 4,100-passenger Norwegian Epic
The Suites: In Norwegian Epic's Courtyard complex, passengers have the choice of a courtyard villa (sleeps six, 506 square feet), a courtyard penthouse (sleeps two, 322 square feet) or an owner's suite (sleeps four, 852 square feet). All have private balconies.
The Amenities: Courtyard passengers have exclusive use of a private pool, two whirlpools, saunas, a sunning area, a fitness facility, private indoor/outdoor dining, a bar and a concierge lounge. Each suite comes with butler service, as well.
The Cost: A seven-night Mediterranean cruise in July 2011 costs $3,949 ($564 per night) per person for a penthouse, $4,149 ($593 per night) for a villa or $6,149 ($878 per night) for an owner's suite. (Prices were sourced from NCL's Web site and were valid at press time.)
Cunard's Queens and Princess Grill
The Ship: 90,000-ton, 2,014-passenger Queen Victoria
The Suites: Princess Grill suites range from 335 to 513 square feet, and come with private balconies. The more luxurious Queens Grill suites range in size from 508-square-foot Queens Suites to 2,131-square-foot Grand Suites, which feature separate living and dining areas, a marble bathroom with a whirlpool bath and an extra-large balcony.
The Amenities: Queens Grill passengers dine in the Queens Grill restaurant and have special access to the Queens Grill lounge and private deck area. Princess Grill passengers eat in the Princess Grill, but also have access to the Queens Grill lounge. Cruisers in both areas receive priority embarkation and luggage delivery, and concierge service. However, Queens Grill residents also have butler service and priority disembarkation and tender service.
The Cost: On a 12-night Mediterranean cruise, also in July 2011, Princess Grill prices start at $7,141 ($595 per night) per person -- comparable to NCL's courtyard villa. Queens Grill fares start at $9,141 ($762 per night) -- a cheaper nightly rate than NCL's most deluxe accommodations. Then again, the fares are for a Queen Suite, not the over-the-top Grand Suite. However, with special deals, like the targeted past-passenger offer mentioned above, you might be able to save even more. (Prices were sourced from Cunard's Web site and were valid at press time.)
MSC's Yacht Club
The Ship: 133,500-ton, 3,300-passenger MSC Fantasia
The Suites: Standard and Deluxe Yacht Club suites range from 223 to 316 square feet, and the Royal Suite ranges from 417 – 439 square feet. All suite types feature bedroom and sitting areas, bathrooms with tubs, and in-cabin Wii consoles. Most, but not all, have private balconies.
The Amenities: The Yacht Club suites and exclusive areas occupy prime top-deck real estate on the bow of the ship. Exclusive to Yacht Club passengers are the Top Sail lounge and eatery, bar, and private pool and whirlpool areas. Passengers also eat in dedicated areas in the ship's main restaurant -- no mingling with the hoi polloi over steak and lobster. Yacht Club passengers also have access to butler and concierge services.
The Cost: A seven-night Mediterranean cruise in July 2011 costs $3,029 ($433 per night) for a suite or $3,289 ($470 per night) for a deluxe suite. (Prices are from Cruise.com; at press time, no pricing was available for Royal Suites.)
So what's the bottom line? While MSC's fares are cheaper than either NCL's Courtyard or Cunard's Grill suites, it's impossible to say that MSC is the best value across the board. Pricing can vary based on when you book (early versus late, during a sale), where you book (high-volume travel agencies may have access to cheaper group pricing) and your past-passenger status (which can get you access to exclusive deals). Likewise, Cunard may have larger and more lavish suites at the top end of its price range than NCL, but Epic's Courtyard amenities include amenities you may covet, such as a private gym and pool. Plus, the three lines have very disparate itineraries and very different vibes (international MSC, traditional Cunard, laidback NCL), so a higher price may be a better value for you if it buys you a cabin on the ship that will give you the best vacation experience for your travel preferences.
Which exclusive suite complex are you excited to try -- or are you too egalitarian to go for classed cruising? Vote in our poll!
--by Erica Silverstein, Senior Editor
Fan Cruise Critic on Facebook!
Follow Cruise Critic on Twitter!