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Luxury cruising: Get the best value for your money

Editor’s Note: In case you missed this popular article when we first published it in November, we’re re-running it in this week’s Cruise News. We hope you find this travel advice useful.

It is quite easy to be tempted by cruise vacation offers for under $100 per person per day, but many travelers forget to look at what they’re getting for that price. A small inside cabin on a 2,000-person cruise may suit your needs just fine, but if you’re looking for high-quality service and pampering, a more expensive product might be in order. Just as you would not book a cheap two-star motel when you prefer four-star hotels, so too should you pick a cruise based on the type of experience you desire.

Contrary to popular belief, luxury cruises can be a good deal. More amenities, more attentive service, and more spacious accommodations can easily justify the extra expense of a premium sailing. We’ve done the legwork to uncover just how much more you get for your cruise fare, as well as how to find the deals that will make your luxury cruise experience that much more affordable.

Pampering and service

In the words of Bruce Good, Seabourn’s director of communications, luxury cruising gives you the experience of “living like a rock star.” The first thing you’ll notice is your stateroom. Unlike mainstream lines, where the least expensive cabin is often a small, inside cabin with basic furnishings and no window, luxury cruises tout spacious, oceanview cabins, occasionally suites, as their lowest-level cabin category. Stateroom amenities may include walk-in closets, televisions with VCRs or DVD players, bathrooms with showers and full-size tubs, designer bath products (Radisson uses Aveda), Italian bed linens, personalized stationery, and fresh fruit and flowers. Instead of a tiny space you try to stay out of, you’ll actually enjoy spending time in your cabin, perhaps having room service bring breakfast to your balcony or enjoying a cocktail from your stocked mini-fridge.

The second thing you may notice is the superior level of service. Good says that it’s not uncommon for Seabourn guests to “get addressed by name by the crew on the first day of sailing.” He likens the level of intimacy onboard to that of a prestigious club. And with close to one crew member for each guest on most luxury lines, you’ll not only receive an excellent level of service, but passengers in the least expensive cabins will receive the same high-quality service as those in the most expensive cabins.

Luxury liners tend to be smaller and don’t try to squeeze as many passengers as possible onto one ship. Andrew Poulton, director of strategic marketing for Radisson Seven Seas Cruises, says it makes a big difference to “sail with hundreds, not thousands.” You won’t have to wait in long lines or worry about not finding an empty deck chair by the pool. Also, getting on and off the ship is often a lot smoother, both because smaller ships can pull right into port rather than docking farther out and ferrying passengers to shore on tenders, and because it takes less time for a few hundred rather than a few thousand people to unload. Brad Ball, director of corporate communications for Silversea, says that easy disembarking means that cruisers are allowed to spend more time in port because the cruise line doesn’t need to factor in extra hours to get everyone back onboard.

More inclusive cruising

Dollarwise, the best part of luxury cruising is the ships’ all-inclusive factor. While mainstream lines include meals, accommodations, evening entertainment, and ship transportation between ports in their fares, you will have to shell out extra money for soft drinks, coffee drinks, alcohol, crew gratuities, shore excursions, and special recreational opportunities. Your total cruise bill might end up being hundreds or possibly thousands of dollars more than you originally intended.

But not so on luxury lines. Tips for the crew, meal gratuities, and most drinks, if not all, are completely covered by your cruise fare. You’ll find your cabin stocked with your favorite soft drinks and alcohol at no extra charge. While you’ll have to pay for that hour-long massage at the spa, you won’t have to pay recreational fees to take a pilates or yoga class. Specialty restaurants may require reservations but never a surcharge to eat there. Seabourn and Silversea offer one complimentary shore excursion on select sailings, where guests will receive a unique experience exclusive to passengers on their cruise line. Silversea also offers complimentary shuttle buses from the ship to the center of town at all ports so you don’t need to book a shore excursion or pay for a cab just to explore a destination on your own.

Frugal travelers may be willing to forego alcohol and special opportunities to keep their cruise fare down. But if you want to enjoy your vacation to the fullest without constantly having to worry about cost, a luxury cruise won’t nickel and dime you once you’re onboard.

Luxury for less

Luxury lines realize that they’re getting a bad rep as unaffordable vacations that cater only to the over-65 set, and they’re working hard to change that image. They’ve increased the number of shorter itineraries, usually seven days, that appeal to working professionals, especially potential guests who can’t afford to pay high prices for a two-week trip. And, where in the past you’d never find savings, the cruise lines have begun to offer discounts on their sailings.

Silversea’s “Silver Sailings” program offers up to 50-percent savings on select itineraries. Plus, solo travelers can take advantage of minimal singles’ supplements on certain cruises. Seabourn routinely offers discounts on its website with current savings of up to 60 percent off brochure rates. Radisson often offers Web specials such as two-for-one pricing or reduced cruise or airfares. A $2,500 cruise is not nearly as intimidating as a $6,000 sailing.

And as Ball told us, these offers are true discounts. Your bar bill won’t offset your savings because it’s already included.

Make the most of your luxury cruise

If you’re going to splurge on a luxury cruise, make sure you get the best vacation for your dollar. Luxury cruises are very destination-focused, often spending more hours or even days in port than their mainstream counterparts. Do your research in advance and choose an itinerary that includes destinations that excite you. Get out and see each port, but also take advantage of the ship’s amenities. Try all of the onboard restaurants and be adventurous with your choice of food and drink. Explore the ship and various recreational offerings, but be sure to indulge in the comforts of your cabin.

So do the math and figure out how many bottles of water, Cokes, glasses of wine, and coffee you drink per day on vacation, and how much you’d have to tip your room stewards, waiters, and sommeliers. Add that to the cost of a mainstream cruise, and then compare that price to that of a discounted luxury cruise. The difference between the numbers might not be as big as you thought. Given the increased comforts and services of a luxury cruise, you may decide that your dollars will work a little harder for you when you spend a few more of them on a five-star vacation.

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