Best New Luxury Cruises
The recession of the past two years has done little to slow the burgeoning growth of the cruise business: In 2009, as airlines slashed schedules and watched their traffic and revenues plummet, the number of cruise passengers grew by 3.3 percent, to 13.4 million, and the number of cruise berths available increased by more than 8 percent—with a lot more growth on the way.
Public and media attention has focused on the increasing size of the newest mass-market cruise vessels. Last year, Carnival Cruise Lines added the largest ship in its fleet, the 3,646-passenger Carnival Dream, followed by rival Royal Caribbean’s introduction of the world’s largest ship: the 16-deck, 5,400-passenger Oasis of the Seas. Norwegian Cruise Line was due to launch the 4,200-passenger Norwegian Epic in June 2010, and Royal Caribbean will christen Oasis’s equally massive sister ship, Allure of the Seas, later this year.
But if you’d rather not go to sea in a giant floating megaresort to rub elbows with thousands of fellow passengers guzzling umbrella drinks, we have good news: The luxury segment of the cruise business is expanding as well. Not only are new (albeit considerably smaller) five-star ships joining the fleets of the luxury lines, but new onboard amenities, shoreside options and enhanced pricing policies are making upscale cruising a more attractive vacation possibility.
In addition to offering a more intimate cruise experience than the floating behemoths mentioned above, the luxury lines have other distinct advantages for discriminating travelers. Their smaller ships can call at ports where the big boys can’t go; the vessels have larger passenger accommodations—some are all-suite vessels—and an increased focus on white-glove personal service, such as butlers, concierges and a higher staff-to-guest ratio; they offer varied itineraries that span the globe, instead of repeating the same seven-day Caribbean or Alaska schedules week after week; and their pricing is generally more inclusive than the mass-market lines, often covering cocktails, wine with dinner and crew gratuities in the cruise fare instead of constantly nickel-and-diming you with extras.
New luxury ships
Last December, Silversea Cruises launched its largest ship yet, the 540-passenger Silver Spirit (its other ships hold fewer than 400 guests). Some 95 percent of the new ship’s staterooms have verandas, and the vessel offers six dining venues and a spa that provides innovative treatments such as Botox injections, acupuncture and a Chinese herbal medicine program. This addition comes after Silversea had already bolstered its fleet in 2008 with the addition of the Prince Albert II, a small luxury expedition ship that visits the farthest corners of the world.
The Yachts of Seabourn, whose first three vessels each carry 208 passengers, is also upsizing. In the summer of 2009, it introduced the 450-passenger, all-suite Seabourn Odyssey, due to be followed in June 2010 by a sister ship, the Seabourn Sojourn. A third new ship should be close on their heels in 2011. The new Odyssey has four restaurants with menus from celebrity chef Charlie Palmer, six outdoor whirlpools, a mini-golf course and even a private diamond showroom.
In January 2011, Oceania Cruises’ newest vessel, the Marina, will hit the waves. This 1,258-passenger ship—by far the largest in the company’s four-ship fleet—boasts 10 restaurants, one of them the first shipboard venue by master chef Jacques Pépin. Other amenities include a state-of-the-art culinary studio for cooking classes sponsored by Bon Appetit magazine, as well as a full-service Canyon Ranch SpaClub.
If sails are your thing, look out for Sea Cloud Cruises’ new Sea Cloud Hussar, due to launch in 2011—it has 28 of them. The company claims that the Hussar is “the largest full-rigged, three-mast passenger ship ever built,” yet the five-star vessel carries just 138 passengers in 69 cabins, all of them facing the sea.
Two other popular luxury lines—Crystal Cruises and Regent Seven Seas Cruises (a sister company of Oceania)—don’t have any new ships scheduled to launch, but they have made some major improvements. Crystal recently finished a $25 million refurbishment of the Crystal Symphony, giving the ship new Swarovski Crystal chandeliers, sunken Jacuzzi bathtubs by Philippe Stark and a new Italian eatery from famed restaurateur Piero Selvaggio, among other enhancements. The 490-passenger, all-suite Regent Seven Seas Navigator was the last of the line’s three vessels to undergo a bow-to-stern makeover; like its fleetmates, the Navigator has a new American steakhouse among its dining options, and its spa was remade into a Canyon Ranch SpaClub.
Regent and Crystal also introduced big marketing innovations for 2010. We noted above that luxury lines often include many extras in the cruise fare that would require an additional charge on mass-market ships. But Regent took that a big step further this year: Its cruise fares include two-for-one pricing, round-trip airfare to the departure/return port and free shore excursions on all 2010 departures. Will Regent extend all three offers on its 2011 cruises? “Yes, yes and yes,” says Regent spokesman Gary Gerbino. The company also expanded the availability of free butler service to a wider range of staterooms and adopted a less formal dress code for passengers.
Crystal revamped its pricing for 2010, too, and now offers two-for-one fares on all cruises, onboard spending credits of up to $2,000 per couple and free round-trip air to most cruise departure/arrival points (including business-class air to Europe for guests who book Penthouse-category cabins). At press time, the line hadn’t yet decided on 2011 pricing, but Crystal VP Mimi Weisband notes that for the rest of 2010, rates on Crystal and other luxury lines are “the best anyone has seen for a long time.” Next year, she adds, “there will be strong values, but probably not as rich [as in 2010]. Everyone in hospitality is trying to bring their yields up.”
Luxury cruises are certainly more expensive than mass-market or premium lines, but few travelers pay the full brochure price for any cruise these days. Even the five-star companies resort to discounts and value-added deals when they have unsold cabins to fill, often using such promotions as low-cost business-class air upgrades, “kids sail free” offers for children who share a stateroom with their parents, shipboard spending credits and so on. For example, earlier this year, the Yachts of Seabourn offered round-trip business-class air starting at just $1,999 (or economy from $499) from 40 U.S. cities to its cruise departures in Europe and Asia. You can often find these specials by searching the line’s website—or, better yet, by using a good travel agent. Unlike the airlines, major cruise lines often cut special deals with the agents who give them the most business, and the agent in turn passes along those savings to clients.