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Luxury Cruises and Cruise Lines - Choosing A Luxury Cruise

The Razor’s Edge: Who’s The Best? Luxury Cruise Lines Square Off

Luxury Cruise Lines Square Offby Ralph Grizzle. An award-winning travel writer, and recognized cruise ship expert.

Many of you who visit this web site, as well as people I meet during my travels, have asked me in multiple forums — through social media, on this site and in person — which luxury cruise line is the best? Of course, there is no easy answer, because the luxury lines are all so good at what they deliver. That said, before you reach the final period indicating the end of this article, you will have your answer.

My answer comes with caveats, however. When it comes to comparing the luxury cruise lines, I find the differences between them are as thin as a razor’s edge. After all, each of the luxury lines hangs its hat (hoists its life buoy?) on the same set of values: 1) superior service; 2) excellent cuisine; 3) plush public areas and staterooms; and 4) exotic destinations.

When I refer to luxury lines, I’m thinking of Crystal Cruises, Regent Seven Seas Cruises, Seabourn Cruise Line, Silversea Cruises — and one you may not be thinking of, SeaDream Yacht Club.

I’ve sailed on all of these cruise lines in the past few months, and my absolute favorite among them — sorry to disappoint you — tends to be whichever one I am sailing on at the time.

It’s easy for me to say that Seabourn Odyssey is my favorite, but that’s because I was on the ship as I typed these words.

We were anchored in a small bay in Rovinj, Croatia, and just across the bay was SeaDream II. Seeing it reminded me that it was my favorite luxury vessel when I sailed on her sister, SeaDream I, in March.

Likewise, I loved Crystal when I overnighted on Symphony in Stockholm in late June (I’ve cruised her several times), adored Silversea when I cruised the Cloud in July (as I did Whisper when I sailed on her two years ago). And I remained regally impressed when on Regent Seven Seas Voyager for the third time just a couple of weeks ago.

Each of the luxury lines excels in areas over its competitors: Crystal has the best sushi restaurant among the luxury players; Regent, the best steakhouse; SeaDream boasts the best marina.

Silversea pours three house champagnesAnd though I’m uncertain as to whether this has particular relevance, Silversea pours three house champagnes; Regent and Seabourn only one, and Crystal, pours none at all on a complimentary basis (except for sparkling on embarkation day).

Crystal, in fact, is in another league altogether. Its ships are larger and with two seatings for dinner. The others are all open-seating dining. All but Crystal offers complimentary beverages, including wine, spirits and beer. And Crystal is the only luxury player where gratuities are not included in the cruise fare.

The competition is fierce, and it’s intensifying. Suddenly, with Seabourn Odyssey and Seabourn Sojourn are in the marketplace, there are 2 x 450 more luxury berths to fill each day. Silversea introduced the 540 passenger Silver Spirit in late 2009.

To vie for your vacation dollars, each of the luxury players is offering steep discounts. Luxury cruises are offering unprecedented values, which in turn creates unprecedented opportunities for you to chart your course and discover which luxury cruise line ranks among your favorites.

I can assure you of one thing: No matter which luxury vessel you choose, it’s unlikely that you’ll step off the ship regretting your decision. They are all winners in a segment of the industry that sets stratospheric standards — and seldom disappoints.

What's Included?

While luxury cruise fares on small ships are almost always a bit more than fares for similar cruises on large ships, luxury cruises are more inclusive, which should be factored in to the total amount paid.

For example, alcohol is served free of charge as are specialty coffees and soft drinks on luxury vessels. Gratuities, which are added to passengers’ final bills on large ships, are included on luxury cruises. (Crystal is an exception, but it skirts the issue with on-board credits.)

Crystal Cruises
Crystal Cruises' “As You Wish, All-Inclusive” programWhen Crystal Cruises introduced its “As You Wish, All-Inclusive” program last year, giving a $2,000-per-couple onboard credit that passengers can spend on whatever they want, the line challenged the very notion of the “all-inclusive” cruise.

Luxury cruise lines have always hung their hats on being the most inclusive of vacations. What that means varies by the line, but for most – Regent Seven Seas, Silversea Cruises, Seadream Yacht Club, and Seabourn – it means premium liquors and wines, bottled water, specialty coffees, specialty restaurants, and gratuities, are all included.

Crystal has always been a luxury line anomaly in this way. It doesn’t include wine or liquor in its price, or gratuities. Crystal Senior Vice President of Sales Bill Smith explained his view that the term “all-inclusive” is actually a misnomer. While its competitors bill themselves as being more inclusive than Crystal by offering an open bar and some shore excursions, Smith explains that only Crystal really allows its guests to design the vacation experience they want.

Smith proves his point with a look at what Crystal passengers are spending their onboard credit on: shore excursions and spa treatments. The bar, he said, is not even close to the top item. That may be true, but on the other luxury lines, it is nice to not have to sign checks each time you order a drink.

Regent recently one-upped its competitors on the all-inclusiveRegent Seven Seas Cruises
Regent recently one-upped its competitors on the all-inclusive front with the addition of a selection of free shore excursions at every port. "One thing we have learned about Regent customers over the years is that they hate to be nickel and dimed to death,” says Mark Conroy, president of Regent Seven Seas Cruises. ”We have therefore made the conscious decision to make our product more and more inclusive – first with gratuities and wine with dinner, then with all the liquor, and now with shore excursions and government taxes. You pay one price up front and that is pretty much it. Our guests love that concept.”

Added values on Regent Seven Seas include ♦ free shore excursions ♦ free beverages, including fine wines, beer and premium spirits, soft drinks, bottled water, specialty coffees and tea served throughout the ship ♦ free in-suite mini-bar replenished daily with soft drinks, beer and bottled water ♦ all staff gratuities ♦ welcome bottle of Regent champagne and fresh fruit in your suite ♦ in-suite dining, served course-by-course during restaurant hours.

Seabourn cruising the MediterraneanConroy also notes that Regent ships have up to four gourmet restaurants including the iconic new steakhouse Prime 7 and Signatures, featuring Le Cordon Bleu®-inspired cuisine, Compass Rose, La Veranda plus the al fresco Pool Grill. Open seating dining in Compass Rose and La Veranda - dine when and with whom you choose. Prime 7 and Signatures are by reservation only. Dress code on Regent Seven Seas is "Elegant Casual, with Formal Optional evenings".

Added values on Seabourn include ♦ open bar throughout the ship ♦ open-seating restaurant with gourmet, prepared-to-order cuisine created by celebrity chef Charlie Palmer (Seabourn offers up to four dining venues per ship) ♦ in suite dining - you can enjoy dinner from The Restaurant served course-by-course in your suite, complete with white linens, fine china and silver service ♦ water sports directly from the ship's unique built-in marina, with swimming, snorkeling, windsurfing, kayaking or waterskiing right from the ship ♦ Evening Under the Stars® sumptuous barbecue dinners or gala parties with live music and dancing on the open deck ♦ in some ports Seabourn hosts a lavish beach party on a secluded stretch of sand, complete with fresh grilled seafood and Caviar in the Surf® ♦ and on Seabourn gratuities are included - tipping is neither required nor expected.

Silversea Cruises
What’s Included On A Silversea Cruise? Everything, it seems ♦ complimentary beverages served throughout the ship - an extensive selection of fine wines, champagne, spirits, bottled water and soft drinks are yours to enjoy, all courtesy of Silversea ♦ the in-suite beverage cabinet - besides the chilled bottle of champagne that awaits you, every suite features a beverage cabinet stocked with your preferred assortment of complimentary beverages ♦ gratuities - all onboard gratuities are included and none are ever expected ♦ open seating dining - no assigned dining time, no assigned table - when, where and with whom you dine is up to you ♦ complimentary in-suite dining and 24 hour room service - a formal dinner served course-by-course, a late-night snack, or a full breakfast delivered at your request, all with no charge and no tipping ♦ complimentary transportation into town - roundtrip transportation from the pier to the heart of town in most ports of call ♦ butler service - all suites - all ships.

Crossing Lines: Big Ship, Small Ship

by Ralph Grizzle. An award-winning travel writer, and recognized cruise ship expert.

While true connoisseurs of luxury cruising may not accept a substitute for sailing on a small upscale ship, there are now pockets of luxury on almost every large premium and contemporary cruise ship afloat.

Recognizing that there are many cruisers with a taste for luxury but who appreciate big ship amenities (and often lower rates), or who may be traveling with families or in groups for whom bigger ships make more sense, most cruise lines now offer optional exclusive experiences to passengers.

The exclusive Queen's Grill outdoor seating on Cunard Line's Queen VictoriaOn some ships it may be concierge service, or a special lounge, a pool deck cabana, or exclusive access to the spa or certain restaurants. On others, entire areas are blocked off for people in some of the ship’s best staterooms to have a private pool and deck area. For the cruise lines the logic is simple – these programs and amenities keep passengers who can afford to from straying to luxury lines. “A large percentage of our guests simply stay with Celebrity because they appreciate all that we have to offer and find no reason to select another brand,” says Dan Hanrahan, President & CEO, Celebrity Cruises and Azamara Cruises. “And, rather than our guests trading up, we’re actually attracting many luxury cruisers”.

Hanrahan says an example many luxury cruisers have selected the new Celebrity Solstice for its widely acclaimed attributes, from innovative dining options, to attentive service, to plush accommodations — including AquaClass, ConciergeClass, and several categories of suites with 24-hour butler service — and for the incredible value Celebrity offers, particularly when compared with luxury products.

Similarly, he adds, many luxury cruisers also select Azamara Cruises for similar attributes.

Perhaps the most upscale way to cruise on a downscale ship is to book a room or suite in a private area that houses some of the ship’s best cabins, private butlers, and exclusive pools and sun decks.

Ship-within-a-ship accommodations, an elevator ride away from the myriad restaurants, casinos and other big ship draws, was started by Cunard Line, but has been replicated by contemporary players Norwegian Cruise Line and recently, MSC Cruises.

On Cunard, Grill-level passengers have exclusive access to Grill-level restaurants, as well as the use of the concierge-staffed private Grills Lounge and the Grills Courtyard for outdoor dining and afternoon tea.

Norwegian Cruise Line exclusive Courtyard area - with retractable roofNorwegian Cruise Line has created the exclusive Courtyard area, available on all but two of their ships, with private pool, sundecks, and with a restaurant for the exclusive use of Courtyard passengers.

Ah, Spa
The premium cruise lines also have been innovative with their spa category offerings. It is another way to attract not just luxury cruisers but also land-based spa-goers.

Celebrity’s Hanrahan says the new AquaClass accommodations on Celebrity Solstice are indeed attracting certain luxury cruisers, as well as land-based spa enthusiasts.

Costa introduced the first spa-friendly cuisine in a special restaurant for Spa cabin guests, which has also been followed by the other lines. Carnival was the first to copy its sister line’s idea, which Holland America recently followed on the Eurodam.

Celebrity’s Solstice was the most recent ship to introduce its own version with AquaClass cabins. The line has added sound, light and aroma elements to the rooms to give them a spa feeling, as well as a five-head Hansgrohe showerhead in its bathroom.

Guests who book any of the 130 AquaClass staterooms on Solstice also have exclusive access to “Blu,” Celebrity’s Mediterranean-themed specialty restaurant, and complimentary use of the Persian Garden and AquaSpa relaxation room. There are also ways to add luxury to a cruise experience without splurging on the best staterooms.

Oceania Cruises was the first line to offer private cabanas, which it has done quietly for years. For a daily fee, passengers can rent the cabanas, with Balinese Day Beds on its top deck, that look out to sea.

The cabanas have a personal valet who serves fruit skewers, ice cream, and chilled towels. Customers can also order from a special cabana menu.

Holland America began offering private cabanas last summer, making them a signature element of its new ships. The line even upped the cabana ante by offering a group of them in the Retreat, an exclusive, open-deck area looking over the main pool. The private cabanas are outfitted with loungers, and also offers its guests fresh fruit and lunch delivery, and also an iPod with preloaded music, a glass of champagne and chocolate-covered strawberries. Cabana guests also get discounts on certain spa services during port days.

HAL also offers the cabanas and their amenities right on the pool deck, for a lesser fee.

The Murano specialty restaurant on Celebrity SolsticeAlternative Restaurants
Beyond cabanas, every large cruise ship now offers alternative restaurants. These steakhouses, sushi bars, rustic Italian places, and many more, offer intimate dining experiences and superior food.

On the Solstice, Celebrity used celebrity chefs and designers to offer people eating experience that rival top restaurants in New York and Las Vegas.

Adam Tihany, the creative mind behind New York’s famous Per Se and Jean Georges restaurants, designed the Solstice’s Tuscan Grille.

Concierge Classes
Making a big-ship cruise experience feel more upscale is not only about offering private areas, added amenities, or top cuisine. Many upscale cruisers come onboard because they enjoy the amenities that only the largest vessels can offer – a variety of restaurants, water sports and rock-climbing walls, a golf simulator, a lively nightlife. For them, the cornerstone of offering a luxury experience on a contemporary or premium ship is getting expedited check-in, smoother ways to book shore excursions, spa treatments and restaurant reservations.

Celebrity Cruises came out with its “Concierge Class” in its largest balcony cabins, which offers amenities like fresh flowers, canapes, champagne, and better bedding than in its other cabins. But what is most special about this cabin class is the priority check-in, the expedited luggage delivery, a more elaborate room service menu, and dining and shore excursion preferences.

The same is true for Holland America’s Neptune class cabins on its Navigation deck. The exclusive Neptune Lounge, which has free espresso drinks and pastries, has a concierge to help with booking tours and restaurants. Neptune passengers get priority embarkation and debarkation, even when the ship has to tender; Neptuners can go whenever they want. A big perk is also free laundry and pressing.

Penthouse on Holland America Line's Oosterdam“Holland America Line guests have always enjoyed a premium cruise experience and have been able to choose from many additional luxury options,” says Richard D. Meadows, executive vice president, marketing, sales and guest programs. ”While everyone aboard the ship receives our Signature Mariner stateroom experience, fine dining, entertainment, ports and intimate environment, some guests choose to do this in a most luxurious and personal manner.”

Meadows says that in addition to booking suites and Neptune class cabins, luxury seekers also reserve Holland America Line’s exclusive shore excursion options, called Signature Collection and featuring private transportation and guide. ”When you look at everything together, this personalized luxury allows our suite guests to enjoy the best stateroom categories with our renowned service and choose the experience that is important to them, whether it be a spa or shore excursion focus,” Meadows says.

Not everyone thinks that the butlers, large suites, and private spa access are enough to sate the upscale palette. They feel the level of product, capacity, service, cuisine can not be replicated by contemporary or premium brands. Passenger to crew ratio on upscale ships, for example, can’t be replicated by larger ones.

But the key challenge is that luxury cruisers often want to cruise with other members of the upper echelon, which is not guaranteed even in the best cabins on premium lines. Those cruisers want to travel with likeminded travelers who have an appreciation and respect for the same type of lifestyle experience and financial demographics, and they want the luxury service and luxury experience throughout the ship.

Moreover, passengers who cruise on upscale lines are discovering that luxury ships are offering added values and deals that may make the price be only a notch above what they’d pay on a larger ship.

The 21st century river cruise: a luxury experience

Uniworld's River Beatrice in Budapest at nightby Ralph Grizzle. An award-winning travel writer, and recognized cruise ship expert.

Peter Deilmann Cruises brought luxury river cruising into the 21st century, and now its successors are carrying the torch into the future, innovating and updating river cruise ships and services to create a modern, high-end travel experience.

European river cruising takes place in what is, at maximum, a 38-by-410-foot vessel, dimensions dictated by the locks and bridges the vessels must past through and under along Europe’s rivers.

But even within that box, the 21st century river cruise experience has evolved.

“If you compare the amenities of the Avalon Artistry [built in 2004] at introduction with the Creativity at her christening in August 2010,” said Patrick Clark, managing director of Avalon Waterways, “we have added an elevator, rear club lounge, whirlpool on the sundeck, sundeck grill and outside forward viewing area; increased the percentage of floor-to-ceiling windows/French balcony staterooms; enlarged the shower; added flat-screen TVs, additional dining options — the late-riser breakfast, afternoon cake and coffee and an alternative lunch option — and added beer or soft drinks as a choice with wine at dinner.”

A Junior Suite on the Avalon Creativity“With the added competition and rapid growth, the river cruise sector has undergone changes, to the ultimate benefit of the customer,” said Guy Young, president of Uniworld. “What we have seen is a very marked evolution in the service standards onboard the ships. Basic service no longer satisfies the needs of travelers attracted to river cruising.”

Consequently, Young said, the number of onboard staff has increased, and the quality of the staff has improved.

As for the ships themselves, “20 years ago, you did not have a river cruise ship with spacious staterooms, hotel-style beds, comfortable mattresses, luxurious linens and other fine amenities,” Young said. “You also didn’t have all-inclusive wine with dinner, an all-English speaking staff, Internet, TV.”

To keep up with the evolving demands of the marketplace, Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection, for one, adopted an aggressive refurbishment schedule.

“All of our ships have been completely refurbished since 2005, and we have a strict capital improvement plan whereby all of our ships undergo a refurbishment every four years,” Young said. “Our two oldest ships are the River Ambassador and the River Baroness, and these are also two of our most successful ships in terms of load factors.”

The restaurant on Uniworld's River QueenFor instance, Uniworld’s River Ambassador entered service in 1993 and was refurbished in 2006. The River Baroness entered service in 1994 and was refurbished in 2005. Truth be told, the Ambassador’s refurbished interior is not all that different in look and feel from Uniworld’s newest ship, the River Beatrice, which launched in 2007 and was refurbished this year.

Part of the reason is that Uniworld’s parent company TravCorp also owns the Red Carnation Hotel Collection of luxury boutique hotels, which consults on Uniworld’s interiors.

That investment in creating fresh design appeal is not unwarranted in a market where Avalon is on course to introduce two new ships in 2010 and recently announced that it will add three new vessels in 2011.

AMA plans on introducing an additional ship in 2010, one more in 2011, and possibly an additional program on the Mekong River in 2011.

“You keep your customers enthralled with new ships,” Ron Santangelo, vice president of business development at AMA, said of the recent emphasis on newbuilds.

As for whether there’s room for further innovation on river cruise ships, “I absolutely believe that will continue,” Santangelo said. “People will continue to come up with some unique ideas and make the product even more interesting. And any limitations in size onboard are compensated for by the opportunities ashore.”

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