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.
Every cruise claims to be a luxury cruise and every ship claims to be a luxury ship. Indeed, some newer, larger mass-market cruise ships have dining rooms and public areas much more opulent and luxurious than you will find on a luxury cruise ship.
It has a lot to do with size. The mega cruise ships have bars, restaurants, artwork and public areas that are designed to wow. Holland America's Eurodam has a beautiful Asian-themed restaurant and bar with stunning views. The mainstream cruise lines can provide "grand." You'll never get that on a small luxury ship.
The primary difference is smaller luxury cruise ships provide more personal service and more personal space. It's more about you than it is the ship. The cabins are larger and usually all have balconies; dining is usually open seating; drinks and wine are usually included. If you want a shrimp cocktail and steak delivered to your room and midnight you can probably get it.
The advantage of a luxury cruise comes down to four basic points:
1. No waiting in lines and more space for passengers.
2. More personal attention from a proportionately larger staff. On a luxury cruise there are usually two crew members for every three passengers. On a regular cruise it's one crew member for every two passengers.
3. A more sophisticated group of fellow passengers.
4. No nickel and diming.
The last point seems to make the biggest difference for most luxury cruisers. Passengers hate taking out that cruise card to charge anything, whether it be drinks, wine, tours, or activities.
The luxury cruise lines are pretty much all-inclusive, if not totally all-inclusive. Regent, the line I'm sailing, is completely all-inclusive. Once on board you don't have to charge anything and you don't have to tip anything, unless you buy something in the shops or the spa. It's possible to complete your cruise and have a final bill of zero. With booking promotions and incentives you will often have a credit on your account when you begin the cruise, forcing you to spend money buying things on the cruise to use up your credit. For example, my on board credit was $950.
The all-inclusive nature of a luxury cruise changes the dynamic of the cruise experience. Since drinks are already included, there is much more socializing in the bars and lounges before and after dinner. You can invite friends for drinks without worrying about who is paying. It really is a very different atmosphere from a cruise where you pay as you go. Some passengers will tell you this is why they will never take a regular cruise again.
The food on a luxury cruise is somewhat better than a regular cruise but the service and dining atmosphere are much better. Luxury cruise lines have several choices for dinner, all usually included in the fare; no surcharges. There are four gourmet dinner restaurants on my ship, plus room service.
Luxury lines also have anytime dining. In the main dinner restaurant you can walk in and be seated whenever you wish and there is enough seating capacity to handle it. The premium lines have also moved in this direction but if you arrive for dinner at a peak time you may have to wait for a table.
All of the dinner restaurants on luxury cruise ships would be comparable to the specialty restaurants on regular cruise ships where you would have to pay extra to dine. And if you want something that's not on the menu, if you let them know a day in advance and they'll make it for you as long as they have the ingredients on board, Grand Marnier soufflé, no problem. If you want a special dish such as Beef Wellington, they'll prepare it for you whenever you want it.
Everything doesn't always go perfectly, even on a luxury ship. When there are problems the staff will usually make a prompt effort to fix them. I had some concerns about the service in the dining room the first couple of nights of the cruise. When I wrote them on a comment card I heard immediately from the dining room manager, head waiter and head sommelier. There was a noticeable improvement in the service.
The cabins, sorry, suites, on luxury ships tend to be larger. Regent's minimum size suite is 300 sq. ft., the size of a mini suite on Princess. A basic cabin on a regular cruise ship is about 175-200 sq. ft. My cabin is called a Penthouse Suite (about 375 sq. ft.), although there are many of them on several decks, none of which is actually the penthouse deck. It does come with Hermes brand toiletries in the bathroom if that sort of thing would be important. Some cabins have butlers, although you can find butlers in the top suites on premium lines as well.
But there are some things you're not going to get on a luxury cruise. Do not expect a "hairy chest" contest by the pool (although the equator crossing ceremony came pretty close), and there is no "Inch of Gold" day at the boutique.
Luxury ships tend to have an older, quieter clientele. Very few passengers are under 50 but most everyone is quite active. By midnight everyone is pretty much in bed. While luxury cruise passengers tend to be financially secure, I have never seen anyone showing off or bragging about their financial or social status.
You usually won't find big entertainment on small ships. There is one main show a night and some lounge entertainment but it's all on a smaller scale than you would find on larger ships. On occasion, some luxury lines do have themed entertainment cruises with famous entertainers, or notable lecturers.
What sort of seas are ahead for luxury cruising? Conroy, who will be stepping aside as Regent president at the end of January to consult, believes passengers can continue to expect greater value, even at high fares. "The premium and contemporary guys keep getting better and better all the time," he said. "It raises the level so it's forced us to continue to try to improve the business."
One point everyone agrees on, the key to a strong cruising future is world peace, so cruise ships can call on more ports. "There's an aging population that's aging affluently. It used to be they were all about acquiring stuff," Conroy said. "Today they're about acquiring memories and we're in the memory business at the end of the day."