Luxury Cruising on a Mass Market Ship?
Written by: Rita
I guess sometimes I just don’t “get it,” and when I don’t I usually come here for help.
I recently attended a virtual luxury cruise expo. The presentations for the most part were understandable. I realize that there are some people who prefer a more intimate cruise experience on a smaller ship where everything is top drawer — the service, the amenities, and the ship. But what I don’t understand is why someone would go on a mass market, or even a premium cruise line, in order to get this experience. Huh? Yeah, I was thinking the same thing.
One of the presentations offered during this expo was a roundtable discussion where members of four “mass market” cruise lines were the participants. There was someone from Holland America, another from Royal Caribbean, Andy Steward from NCL and a representative from MSC. These individuals were touting their luxury accommodations and describing how passengers can book into them for an entirely different cruise experience while onboard their ships. This I just don’t understand.
True, the accommodations can be truly luxurious on these mass market or premium lines. Holland America discussed the features of their penthouse and deluxe suite acommodations, especially the penthouse categories with close to 1,000 square feet of living space, including an enormous balcony — along with all the special amenities including free laundry and pressing, a private hot tub on the balcony, second “guest” bathroom, ensuite canapes served nightly, the opportunity to have dinner served course by course in the suite or on the balcony, and the list goes on and on — not the least of which is exclusive access to the “Neptune Lounge,” with a concierge who can take care of all manner of needs for suite guests, including making dinner and spa reservations, as well as taking care of arranging for private cars and tours in port.
NCL talked about the advantages of their suite accommodations — some of them called “Garden Villas,” where guests have access to a private courtyard, complete with butler service and their own private pool. Of course, butler service is provided ensuite as well.
But the thought that kept running through my head is that the bottom line is that people booking into these accommodations — right up through the highest priced ones on the ship — are still sailing on a mass market ship. Sure, if they are willing to isolate themselves in their suites or on their exclusive suite deck, they could probably have a somewhat luxury cruise. But the sad fact is that as soon as they venture into any of the public areas on the ship, they will be subjected to a mass market experience, the same as anyone else. Now, I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that experience, but … after all … if you are paying the major bucks for a luxury cruise experience, don’t you want to get that? I know I would.
As I see it, there are two major differences that separate a mass market from a luxury cruise experience: (1) Size and expansiveness of the accommodations; and (2) The all-inclusive nature of the shipboard experience. True, a mass market cruise line can certainly duplicate the luxury cruise experience in terms of accommodations. A suite onboard the mass market ship can be identical in elegance to one onboard a luxury vessel. It’s all about size and amenities afterall, and a mass market ship can certainly provide large suites with first rate amenities just as well as the luxury cruise line can. However, where the mass market line falls way short, in my opinion, is in providing the luxury shipwide experience. They can’t possibly compete in this area, as far as I’m concerned.
When the luxury cruise ship passenger leaves his cabin, he remains immersed in the luxury cruise experience. There is a much higher staff to passenger ratio throughout the ship, and that shows in the level of service he receives, whether that be in the dining room or in his favorite bar or lounge. Luxury ships generally carry less passengers — that’s precisely what makes them luxury ships. The bar waiters have more than ample opportunity to get to know their guests and know what they like to drink. All a passenger has to do is walk into a favorite bar or lounge, and chances are his drink of choice will magically appear before him in a matter of seconds.
On a mass market ship, often carrying 2,000 to 3,000 passengers, this level of service is simply not possible to deliver. The crew to passenger ratio is not as high, meaning that less crew members are available to service the guests. This means that sometimes there will be lags in the service, and since there are so many people onboard for any given sailing, it will be very difficult for even the most competent bar server to remember each individual guest’s personal preferences. As a result, it will be nearly impossible to deliver the same level of personal service that one would expect on a luxury type cruise.
This lack of a luxury experience also filters down into other aspects of the cruise experience. Head off to daily trivia on a small luxury ship and chances are it will be held in an intimate venue where the atmosphere will be friendly and the game will move at a more relaxed pace. Time limits won’t be strictly imposed because even if the event runs over by 15 or 20 minutes, it’s no big deal. But on a mass market ship, daily trivia could be a blood sport. Often you could have several hundred people participating, and you have to stay on schedule. After all, you must hold it in a large venue to accommodate all of the people, and chances are that venue is probably tightly scheduled. Run over by ten minutes and the next event is ten minutes late getting started. That can cause a major problem.
And is not the onboard environment entirely different between the mass market ship and the luxury vessel? If you’ve ever sailed one of the luxury lines, I would love to hear from you in this regard. I would assume that usually the luxury vessels are smaller, and carry far fewer passengers, and that fact alone would seem to encourage passengers to mix more freely. If you are only sailing with 600 other people, do you not have the luxury of time to get to know some of them as you frequent the same hangouts onboard. With some of the larger mass market vessels, if you meet someone onboard whose company you enjoy, you’d better get their cabin number because the odds are you’d never run into them again without pre-arranging it.
Also, are not the itineraries more varied on the luxury lines, giving guests a chance to visit more exotic ports, and some smaller ones that are simply not accessible to the larger ships? This fact alone would seem to give the luxury vessels an edge over the mass market lines.
Dining too is very different on a mass market ship when compared to a luxury one. Chances are the dining venues on the luxury ship can easily accommodate the entire passenger population even if everyone decided to eat at essentially the same time. Not so on a mass market ship. People have to be “slotted” — main or late seating, or flexible dining. If you choose flexible and don’t make reservations early in the day, chances are you will have to take “pot luck” when you arrive in the dining room — either having to share a table with others or perhaps having to wait a half an hour for a table for two. Not so on the luxury lines. There the dining is far less structured, generally always open seating and with plenty of capacity to accommodate everyone with a minimum of waiting. While the luxury ship may have a few “premium” restaurants onboard, these venues will generally never have an added fee and will only require that advance reservations be made.
Also, dining on a mass market line means eating mass market food, where little is available in the way of customization. The kitchen has 2,000 meals to prepare in a very short window of time. Really, how much can truly be handled in regard to “special” orders — even for the penthouse suite guest? The bottom line is the penthouse suite guest is in the same “boat,” so to speak, as everyone else onboard. He eats the same quality of food, prepared in the same manner, as the guest staying in the lowest category inside cabin.
Finally, the biggie, drinks — both alcoholic and otherwise. Onboard most luxury cruise lines, drinks are included in the passenger’s cruise fare. A lot of folks will say that the reason they don’t sail luxury cruise lines is specifically because of that fact. “I don’t drink enough to make it worth the extra money,” I’ve heard several people say. But is really about how much you drink? Or, could the real difference be in the ambience of the environment in which you drink it? On the luxury line, one doesn’t have to sign “chits” everytime they place an order at one of the bars. They don’t have to deal with the often awkward question of “who’s buying?” when they join friends for pre-dinner cocktails. They don’t have to worry about gratuities for the serving staff, because those gratuities are already paid upfront in their cruise fare. This creates a much more relaxed environment onboard ship, similar to that of a private country club. People are encouraged to venture into the lounges before dinner to enjoy a cocktail, or even a soft drink, as they socialize with friends. This creates a more friendly environment among passengers, whether they tend to be drinkers or not. On a mass market ship often people who don’t drink will hesitate to frequent the bars and lounges in the evenings because they feel that they will look “cheap” when they decline to order a cocktail.
True, there are some cruise lines — Cunard comes to mind — that try to compensate for these shortcomings with luxury cruising on a mass market ship. They segregate the dining venues based upon passenger accommodations. People staying in Queen’s Grill Suites (the most expensive) are the only ones who can dine in that venue, or visit the exclusive lounge only open to Queen’s Grill guests. The choices and ambience in the Queen’s Grill restaurant are far different than what the more “common” passengers will find in the lowel level dining venues such as the Britannia Restaurant. Lots of special requests can be accommodated, and as a result those suite accommodation guests can truly enjoy a luxury dining experience in tandem with their luxury shipboard accommodations — something others cannot. But I know of no other mass market cruise line that offers this dining distinction to its suite-level guests.
And finally, the nuts and bolts issue — money. Could it not be actually more expensive to take a luxury cruise on a mass market ship? You’re probably paying about the same on the mass market vessel as you would on a luxury sailing when you consider the cost of some of those suites. But, in addition to the cost of your accommodations, you now have to also budget for drinks, gratuities, basic shore excursions, and even soft drinks and bottled water on the mass market sailing. Not so on the luxury voyage as generally they include all soft drinks, liquor, wine and spirits. They also include gratuities and even some basic shore tours within the cost of the cruise fare. Often they even go so far as to forbid staff from even accepting additional gratuities if they are offered.
So, I am left with the question: If someone had the means and the desire to avail themselves of a luxury cruise experience, why would they choose to do it on a mass market line, especially since the cost would probably be the same and sometimes even more? Would it not be better to take advantage of an integrated cruise experience where all aspects of it were on the luxury level — from the accommodations to the dining, to the onboard ambience, and everything in between? Or are there just advantages I’m overlooking to enjoying a luxury experience, despite its limitations, on a larger mass market ship? Is it just the desire to sail on a larger ship with more amenities and more venues in which to enjoy them?
What has been your experience? Have you ever been on one of the luxury cruise lines and if so, what was your experience? Did you find it to be superior to a luxury experience offered on the mass market ship? Do you have a preference, and if so, why? And, if you prefer enjoying upper level accommodations on the mass market ship over sailing a luxury vessel, why?
I’d love to hear your insights.
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Posted: March 27th, 2009 under Rita.