With contemporary cruise lines building bigger and bigger ships — today's megaships hold more than 6,000 passengers, the size of a small city — a lot of people are taking a closer look at a different kind of vacation: a cruise on a petite luxury ship.
I've been on more than 300 cruises over the years on all kinds of ships, and when I'm lured back to the sea, I usually gravitate toward the higher-end vessels. That means a luxury cruise.
Cost & savings
Now, your first reaction might be that a luxury cruise costs much more than a regular cruise. Often true, but not always. Not when you consider that most luxury cruise lines include tips, all beverages (liquor, wine and soft drinks) and other costs that can run up a big tab on the mainstream lines where passengers can feel nickel-and-dimed to death.
Let's consider some of the advantages of opting for a luxury cruise and what you'll encounter on a luxury sailing.
If you prefer peace and quiet to ear-piercing Caribbean music blasting from over-amped bands when you are trying to relax up on deck, you really need to consider sailing on a small luxury or premium ship from Seabourn, Silversea, Regent, Crystal, Oceania, SeaDream, Ponant, Paul Gauguin, Windstar and one or two others. (By the way, Cunard and Azamara as well as river cruise ships from Avalon, Uniworld and Tauck are often included in roundups of luxury and boutique cruise experiences.)
When you're up on deck of most of these ships, you might hear a trio playing or some light background music, and sometimes there will be a deck party, but for the most part, serenity prevails. Plus, while you’re by the pool or lounging in a chaise on the ships of Seabourn, Silversea, Crystal or Regent, deck stewards come by offering drinks, cold towels and iced water. There are also lots of towels for your convenience.
Little touches that count
Also the luxury liners come with amenities such as robes, slippers, kits that contain sewing stuff, lint removers, upscale bath and body cosmetics in the bathroom, even sunscreen and eyeglass cleaners (on Seabourn) and binoculars in your stateroom on Crystal and Silversea ships. You just don’t get that kind of service on the ginormous ships. You also get special treats when you go upscale, such as caviar on request (for no fee) on Seabourn. There is always plenty of Champagne being served, too.
Of course, some folks do prefer larger ships and like to cruise with thousands of shipmates, wait in long lines and enjoy lots of hoopla — as well as the need to tip (even on a bottle of water, which is sometimes 18 percent) and pay for drinks and even non-specialty coffee if you happen to be fussy about your java, which I am and have had to buy better brews on Princess. Luxury ships also give you complimentary cappuccinos, espressos, lattes, etc., which will run you $2.50 on the big guys.
Pick the ship that fits
Picking a cruise ship that’s right for you is the same as choosing a hotel or destination — it’s all in the fit. For this seasoned seafarer, small and luxury is best, nothing larger than the Crystal Symphony or Serenity which carry around 1,000 passengers, give or take.
Of all the ships at sea that I've been on, here are the ones I found the most awesome and pleasing, each offering open seating and room service meals (which are a must for us) and each one inviting enough that I could sail on them again and again (which I have).
Regent Seven Seas Cruises
Ships: Seven Seas Navigator, Seven Seas Voyager, Seven Seas Mariner, Seven Seas Explorer
The first time ever I sailed with Regent, I was awestruck by the suite, food (which truly is some of the best at sea), service and chic but relaxed ambiance. This line is so highly respected that some of its cruises are sold out a year or more in advance. I also like that this is one of the only honestly inclusive cruise fares: Air fare, shore excursions, tips, drinks, wireless Internet, a pre-cruise hotel night and transfers all come with your ticket.
Highlights include all-suite accommodations, highly personalized service, acclaimed cuisine, fine wines and spirits, sightseeing excursions in every port, pre-cruise luxury hotel packages and complimentary wi-fi for those guests staying in suites that are concierge-level and higher. However, even more compelling than the quality of the ships is the adventurous spirit of the cruise line, with imaginative itineraries, excursions and land tours. There are no dedicated children's programs on board.
Ships: Silver Cloud, Silver Wind, Silver Shadow, Silver Whisper, Silver Spirit, Silver Discoverer, Silver Explorer, Silver Galapagos, Silver Muse
It was also love at first cruise on Silversea, which like Regent offers seamless service, great cuisine and big, beautiful suites, most of which provide private verandas. Ships range from just over 100 people for expeditions all the way up to nearly 600 guests. Passengers get butler and concierge services, and all meals and beverages (including top alcohol brands) are included in your fare. If you're looking for a romantic getaway, Silversea is a good choice — you can have Champagne up on deck at midnight (free of charge as all drinks come with the fare) and you can even order food to accompany your bubbly. You'll find classy touches everywhere, from the Pratesi linens to the marble-clad bathrooms with shower and tub. Open-seating dining is the rule at all times. Silversea is best for adults and older teens, as there are no dedicated youth programs. Personal favorite: I love the Hot Rocks outdoor restaurant.
Ships: Seabourn Quest, Seabourn Sojourn, Seabourn Odyssey, Seabourn Encore
The first time I sailed on all-inclusive Seabourn, I loved the elegant dining service, and now they've added free wines and drinks as well as stateroom verandas. The line offers a casually chic cruise experience, with great food (some say better than Silversea) and smart, attentive service. Look for spacious, thoughtfully appointed suites; superb dining in a choice of venues; open bars throughout the ship; fine wines poured at lunch and dinner, and a relaxed, sociable atmosphere that makes guests feel right at home on board. Personal suite stewardesses provide butler-style service to all passengers. Evening entertainment might include a Broadway musical, variety acts or classical music. Seabourn's three all-suite ships all carry 450 guests and nearly the same number of crew. The newest and largest member of the fleet, Seabourn Encore (604 guests) , debuted in December 2016. All of Seabourn's ships travel to exotic destinations. Just be aware there are no dedicated youth programs on Seabourn.
Ships: Crystal Serenity, Crystal Symphony, Crystal Esprit
Crystal Cruises has been the essence of shipboard elegance for years. Its two main ships are larger than the other luxury lines' but still have an intimate feel. We've stayed in a Penthouse Deck stateroom that has a butler and we've been blown away by the high quality of service from every one of these well-trained valets. All staterooms offer premium feather beds, cotton linens and terrycloth robes. Suites feature Jacuzzi tubs and include crystal, china and other nice touches. I love the food in the Nobu-inspired Silkroad and Prego and being able to dine in our stateroom or out on our private balcony (as with other luxury lines as well). Crystal may have more enrichment programs per guest than any other line. A kids club is provided for 3- to 17-year-olds during summer and holiday sailings. Crystal Symphony and Crystal Serenity perennially win awards as the two highest-rated ships in the world, and they were joined by the luxury yacht Crystal Esprit in December 2015. More ships from Crystal are on the way.
Ships: Riviera, Marina, Insignia, Nautica, Regatta, Sirena
I've only been on Oceania Cruises' Marina and was blown away by the cuisine, which most of the passengers whom we met on board said was one of the key reasons they sail again and again with Oceania. The service is top-notch, too. Marina is slightly larger than Crystal's midsize ships and, while it doesn't quite have the same panache, I'd go back in flash. Oceania positions itself as an “upscale” line just below luxury and above premium. Oceania offers six open seating restaurants helmed by legendary master chef Jacques Pépin. Other highlights include lifestyle and wellness programs run by Canyon Ranch SpaClub and intriguing itineraries from Buenos Aires to Cape Town. Oceania is an adult-oriented line.
Ships: Paul Gauguin, Tere Moana
I love, love, love Paul Gauguin Cruises for its flagship's Tahitian styling, food and ambiance. It's the best way to see French Polynesia and, like the above lines, wines and spirits are included, as well as tips. The two petite ships offer luxurious warm-weather voyages in French Polynesia, Tahiti, Europe, the Caribbean and Latin America with unique itineraries to smaller ports. In the South Pacific, no other luxury ship in history has offered this level of single-destination focus and expertise on a year-round basis for such an extended period of time. Highlights include gourmet food, luxurious accommodations and, on the main ship, a retractable water sports platform that lets you paddleboard, windsurf, launch a kayak or set out for an optional scuba diving outing. Children ages 9-17 will enjoy the Ambassadors of the Environment Youth Program on the Paul Gauguin.
Ships: Wind Spirit, Wind Star, Wind Surf, Star Legend, Star Breeze, Star Pride
Windstar Cruises' fleet of small luxury boutique cruise ships are renowned for their intimate, yacht style experience and voyages to the world’s best small ports and hidden harbors. It's an especially epic experience for people who like to sail under full masts (though you should expect a good deal of motoring as well). You have a choice of Windstar's three recently renovated sailing yachts or three newly refurbished power yachts. The food is among the best on the high seas and, while I'm not a fan of the sometimes smallish cabins, Windstar makes up for it with a relaxed, casual atmosphere, excellent service and wide-ranging itineraries. While shore excursions are few, all of the ships feature a water sports platform with kayaks and small sailboats at no charge. There are no dedicated youth programs on Windstar.
Ships: SeaDream I, SeaDream II
I've loved SeaDream Yacht Club for years. They're small, intimate, all inclusive and about as chic as it gets. The tiny, identical 112-passenger ships resemble yachts more than cruise ships. The service is amazing, according to friends who have been on recently, with 95 crew members who provide a nearly unparalleled level of personal attention. The food is among the best at sea, and the fare is mostly inclusive. Tip: if you're a couple, request a private dinner up on deck. We did this once while anchored off St. Barts, it was magical and so romantic. There are no dedicated children's activities on SeaDream.
Ships: Le Lyrial, Le Soleal, Le Boreal, L'Austral, Le Ponant
Although I haven't cruised with Ponant, its reputation has landed it on my bucket list. The Paris-based company operates with a French flair. It sounds dreamy since each of its five ships are small and sail into exotic places where big ships can't fit. The fare doesn't include tips but they do provide drinks, robes and in-cabin meals on request. Ponant's newest ships might best be described as luxury expedition ships.
How about you? Which luxury or premium line do you prefer, and why?
In our series Luxury Cruises
- Guide to all-inclusive pricing on cruise ships
- Guide to VIP enclaves on cruise ships
- 20 most luxurious staterooms on a cruise ship
- Experiencing Alaska on a luxury ship
- Butler service: A blissful perk on high-end cruises
- Top amenities on a Crystal cruise
- Top luxury spas at high-end cruise lines
- 10 world class hotels
- Is a world cruise right for you?