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Is a luxury cruise right for you?

How could a luxury cruise not be for you? You would definitely appreciate an enormous stateroom stocked with free drinks and fancy bath products. You’d happily dine on gourmet food and love the attentive service. No lines, no fights over deck chairs, no tacky pool games—what’s not to like? Try lackluster nightlife, dinners that drag on for hours, endless games of trivia, and no guests younger than twice your age.

Unlike a luxury hotel or five-star restaurant, a luxury cruise may not be the ideal choice for everyone. More than just luxurious appointments and white-glove service, a high-end cruise is defined by the types of guests it attracts and its onboard attitude and atmosphere. The key is choosing your cruise line and itinerary carefully—and knowing when to admit that a luxury cruise is not the perfect trip for your vacation needs.

What defines a luxury cruise?

The luxury cruise lines Crystal, Regent Seven Seas, Seabourn, Silversea, and Windstar all offer gourmet dining, luxurious amenities, and upscale decor. But, these are not the features their representatives name as defining characteristics of their products.

What makes a cruise line a luxury one? “Space, quality, choices, and excellent service,” says Mimi Weisband, vice president of public relations for Crystal Cruises. At Seabourn, it’s “style, service, and society,” according to Bruce Good, the line’s director of public relations. The other lines agree, focusing on the importance of excellent service, the size of the ship, the choices people have to tailor their vacation, and a certain onboard atmosphere.

“Luxury is defined by the level of service,” says Dianne Moore, vice president of marketing and sales for Windstar. Most luxury lines have a guest-to-crew ratio between one to one and two to one. By the second day of your cruise, many of the staff members will know your name and how you like your favorite drink served. The dining staff will escort you to your seat or carry your plate from the buffet line to your table. Make any request, and someone will do their best to accommodate you.

Most luxury ships are small. These vessels carry 1,000 to 2,000 fewer passengers than the mainstream ships. The smallest Windstar ship holds 148 people, and the largest Crystal ship has space for 1,080 guests. “You’ll find fewer crowds, no lines, and a more intimate experience,” says Andrew Poulton, director of strategic marketing for Regent Seven Seas, about his 330- to 700-guest ships. A small size means you’ll never have to wait for a table at dinner or fight over a lounge chair by the pool. You won’t experience the crowds of a mega-ship, and you can easily find a quiet corner without heading back to your cabin. With only a few hundred people onboard, guests get to know each other and a camaraderie forms. Plus, a limited number of cabins allows the living quarters to be more spacious, with many luxury lines boasting all-suite ships.

Choice is another key to a luxury experience. Many of the well-heeled guests aboard are used to having the world available to them, and the cruise lines want them to feel the same way onboard. Choices may range from where to eat, what to wear, what to do onshore, and where to be onboard.

Regent offers a travel concierge program that puts together personalized shore excursions and a “Circles of Interest” program that offers workshops and shore excursions related to themes such as food and wine, archeology and history, and photography. Most ships have alternative dining areas, usually free of charge, as well as casual and in-room options. Spa and fitness centers, lecture series, classes, art auction, library and Internet centers, and other activities ensure that every passenger can find something to do onboard.

The atmosphere of a luxury cruise is the most intangible of all its qualities. “We have an affluent clientele who are used to getting the best,” says Brad Ball, director of corporate communications for Silversea. “They want to be enriched and not just sit there by the pool and drink margaritas. Silversea cruises aren’t stuffy; they’re more laid back than people would think. There’s no bullying with regard to paying, no showing off of wealth.”

Luxury ships have an atmosphere of refined elegance. Everyone knows everyone else is well off, well educated, and well traveled, so no one needs to flash their money or look down on other guests. Guests are welcoming of new dinner companions or trivia teammates. You’ll rarely find rowdy or unseemly behavior.

NEXT >> Will you enjoy a luxury cruise?

Will you enjoy a luxury cruise?

With these wonderful qualities comes a flip side that many first-time luxury cruisers don’t recognize. To decide whether a luxury cruise is right for you, you must first understand all the nuances implied by a luxury voyage.

Small ships can’t possibly have the amenities of a mega-ship. You won’t find enormous fitness centers, onboard miniature golf or rock-climbing walls, multiple pools, or a large number of bars and lounges. If your itinerary has many days at sea and you need constant entertainment, you may find that the smaller ships can’t accommodate your needs.

Excellent service is a wonderful thing, but too much of it can make some guests crazy. Sometimes you prefer anonymity in the buffet line, rather than having a very polite, white-gloved waiter carry your plate that’s teeming with the unhealthiest of options from the food stations. Leisurely dining can be quite relaxing, but not when the meal runs so long that you’re worried you’ll miss the evening show. Many people revel in being waited on hand and foot, but others don’t need or want this type of service.

Some cruisers prefer to have a full schedule of activity options, but luxury cruises don’t always offer choices that will suit everyone. When the daily schedule lists team trivia, an art lecture, a discussion of world affairs, and a bridge class as the morning’s events, not all guests will be pleased with the choices.

Although the average age of luxury cruisers is coming down, typical passengers are in their mid-50s or older, with certain itineraries skewing older or younger. Many of the lines do not encourage children (though they won’t turn them away) and do not often have facilities or activities for the littler guests. Nightlife often consists of a quiet drink in the bar with late-night discos poorly attended. With the exception of Windstar, most luxury lines have evening dress codes, but not everyone wants to wear a jacket to dinner or pack an extra suitcase of fancy dresses, shoes, and jewelry.

If price were no object, a luxury sailing is perfect for cruisers who like to socialize and meet new people, who appreciate really fine service, who are looking for a peaceful onboard experience, and who care about the finer things. These cruises might not be a good idea for people who have young children that aren’t happy with all-adult company, who are looking for active days at sea and late-night partying, who don’t want to dress up and make dinner an event, and who are intimidated by the presence of older or affluent shipmates.

NEXT >> Picking the right luxury cruise line

Picking the right luxury cruise line

If you’re on the fence about whether a luxury cruise is for you, picking the right ship can make all the difference. Within the luxury category, the lines all have distinct personalities. You’ll need to match your tastes with the atmosphere and amenities of the different lines.

Crystal has the biggest ships in the luxury market, with room for 900 to 1,000 guests. “We differ from the small luxury products in that we offer more to do, more room, and more choices,” says Weisband. “We’re different from the mass-market lines in our attention to detail.” Crystal is ideal for guests looking for a larger ship with more on offer. The line also offers kids’ facilities and activities.

Regent is next in size; its ships carry between 330 and 700 guests. It’s a good midrange option for people who want an intimate experience without being on a really tiny ship. Regent also offers Club Mariner, a very comprehensive kids’ program, and you can often find “kids sail free” deals.

Silversea is one of the truly small-size lines, whose passenger lists range from 296 to 385 guests. “The sense of the ship is that you’re on your own private yacht,” says Ball. You’ll be indulged with a high crew-to-guest ratio and one of the most all-inclusive programs. Sea days feature trivia games, lectures, needlepoint, and bridge classes, and an adult-focused onboard environment.

Seabourn ships carry 208 passengers. “On Seabourn ships, people like to sit and chat,” says Good. “The most popular group activity is team trivia.” This line, like Silversea, is best for adult cruisers looking for a relaxing onboard environment and a more formal dining environment.

Windstar is the most different of all of the luxury lines. Its ship are also small, with 148 to 308 passengers, but they are motor-sailing-yachts, powered by both motors and sails. “It’s magical when the captain unfurls the sails,” says Moore. Although service is first-rate, cabins will be smaller and the onboard atmosphere is definitely more casual than the other lines. This line is best for cruisers looking for laidback elegance, and not right for guests who prefer a traditional cruise experience.

NEXT >> How to make a luxury cruise affordable

How to make a luxury cruise affordable

The starting prices for luxury cruises can cost $400 to $700 per night, but fares can be much higher for the biggest suites. However, if you’re really serious about splurging on a luxury sailing experience, you can find ways to bring the price down.

First, look for specials. Most luxury lines offer the best prices for early bookings; prices only go up as the departure date approaches. You’ll rarely find last-minute deals. Crystal’s “Value Collection” and Silversea’s “Silver Sailings” are voyages that are discounted up to 50 percent for early bookers. Regent, Seabourn, and Windstar list special offers on their websites; deals can include reduced rates, free airfare, and two-for-one specials.

Picking the right itinerary can help you cut costs, as well. Many cruise lines spokespeople recommend a seven-night Caribbean cruise as the most affordable luxury cruise option. Prices are lower on Caribbean sailings because the itineraries are shorter and many luxury cruisers prefer more exotic destinations. The winter season between Thanksgiving and Christmas is also a slower cruise period, so you may find deals for cruises in November and December. You may also want to look at early spring and fall Mediterranean cruises, ocean crossings, and shoulder-season cruises for additional good-value departures.

The last thing to remember is that many luxury lines (but not all) are completely all-inclusive. With the most inclusive lines, your fare covers all meals, alcohol and beverages, entertainment, classes, gratuities, and shuttle buses from the ship to town on port days. Plus, luxury lines don’t have inside cabins. On more casual Windstar, you’re guaranteed at least a porthole window, while Silversea’s smallest cabin is a suite with a picture window. You’ll be hard pressed to find a luxury sailing that costs as little as an inside cabin on a mainstream line. However, if your alternative is a suite on a premium line, you may find that with the inclusions, a luxury cruise can be a comparable, or perhaps a better, deal.

The trick is to first determine whether a luxury cruise will meet your vacation requirement, and if it does, then figure out the wisest way to spend your money. No doubt, a luxury sailing is a big purchase. For some, it’s just not worth the high price tag. But for others, it’ll be well worth every penny spent.

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