ABOARD THE REGENT SEVEN SEAS MARINER CROSSING THE ATLANTIC OCEAN EN ROUTE RECIFE, BRAZIL: If a cruise vacation is a dream, then a true luxury cruise is more like a fantasy. Twenty million people will take a cruise this year, based on industry figures, but only a few percent will sail a top luxury line. Is the ultra-pampering worth all the extra money, sometimes five times the price of a regular cruise? After all, how much lobster and caviar can you eat?
Like all lines, the luxury cruise lines are growing and they need new passengers to fill their suites. That's what they're called on a luxury ship by the way: Suites. Not cabins. So the luxury lines are trying their best to get you to make the jump to the world of small ships and big prices. But is it worth all that extra money?
Taking a luxury cruise is a bit like going to the "Cheers" bar, everybody knows your name; except this bar is at the Ritz-Carlton.
I'm writing this story from my cruise vacation, a 17-night Atlantic crossing from Monte Carlo to Rio de Janeiro on the Regent Seven Seas Mariner. Regent Seven Seas Cruises is one of the four top-rated luxury cruise lines along with Silversea, Seabourn, and Crystal. In 20 years of cruising and more than 30 cruises I've sailed about 10 times on Regent. Most of the other cruises have been on Princess and Holland America, two very popular premium cruise lines, the ones that fall just below the luxury classification and include most of the lines on which Americans like to sail. Regent is the only luxury line I have taken, although all four luxury brands are excellent and have loyal followings.
Sailing on a luxury line usually costs anywhere from $400-$900 per person, per day depending on the itinerary. A similar cabin on Princess would cost half as much or less. So what's the difference?
"At the end of the day it's not what you pay to get on those ships, it's what you pay to get off," said Regent president Mark Conroy, a pioneer in the concept of all-inclusive cruising. Regent is a small line with only three ships and a line-wide capacity of 2,000 passengers, equal to just one Holland America ship. Regent carries 65,000 passengers a year, less than one half of one percent of all cruise passengers.
Conroy likes to use a Holland America Alaska cruise as an example of the price comparison with Regent, noting a comparable cabin for a one-week cruise would cost $2499 on Holland America and $4999 on Regent. Since Regent's fare is double, Conroy acknowledged someone shopping price alone would never buy the more expensive cruise. Then he pointed out his cruises included all drinks, shore excursions and gratuities. And in what many travelers would see as an added bonus, his ship in Alaska had 490 passengers while Holland America's had 2,000.
When you break down the actual daily cost of cruising, Conroy's point is the price difference becomes much less. "Instead of being twice as much we're anywhere from $5-$30 per person per day more," Conroy said. "And then the question is would you rather be with a smaller group or a larger group?"
The cost of a shore excursion, six drinks and gratuities can add up to $200 per person a day. You'd be surprised how easy is to have six drinks a day including wine with lunch and dinner, and some people double that.
Conroy believes all-inclusive sells cruises. "We have expanded the luxury market because of the all-inclusive nature of our product," he said. All-inclusive makes the price of a luxury cruise more attractive, although it will always cost more than a cruise on a premium line.