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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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Comments

Comment from Kuki
Time March 27, 2009 at 9:51 am

Hi Rita,

Just wanted to throw in the exception to the all inclusive luxury lines- Crystal Cruise Line.

On Crystal, which is a luxury line (and charges accordingly) they still have traditional assigned seating, with set dining times, and you do have to sign “chits” for your liquor purchases, and gratuities are not included.

I haven’t sailed Crystal yet, but my sister loves them despite knowing there are additional onboard expenses.

I imagine that some Crystal folks might be willing to try some of the suites on the more mass market lines since they are used to the extra onboard charges.

After my recent cruise on Silversea I can say there are many more “luxury touches” that you notice than just the additional space, and the cost included liqour and gratuities.

The attention to so many other “small details” is what I thought really set them apart as a “luxury” experience.

Comment from Rita
Time March 27, 2009 at 4:22 pm

Yes, I did notice from the Expo that Crystal was the exception to the other luxury lines in terms of liquor being included. I guess, in some respects, that would make them more of a deluxe or premium line than a luxury one?

I guess to me, the difference between a luxury cruise and a more “mainstream” one would be what is included and what is not. I read on the luxury cruise boards the appeal to some people of not having to sign “chits” for everything while onboard … being their primary reason for sailing the luxury lines. They order a drink and it is brought to them. They go back to their suites at night and pop open a can of soda, and they know that soda will be replenished in the morning with no added charges. Then, as you say, there is the heightened level of service, the attention to detail, that probably simply can’t be delivered on a main stream cruise line due to the size of the ship and the number of staff onboard.

So, that’s why my original question. Why sail in premium accommodations on a main stream cruise line when you’re going to be paying pretty much the same as the passenger sailing the luxury line? True, your accommodations may be on the luxury level, but what about the rest of your shipboard experience? Wouldn’t that be pretty much a mass market experience … just the same as what everyone else on that ship were getting, including those in the inside cabins?

Comment from Fireba11
Time March 27, 2009 at 11:22 pm

Hey Rita,

I haven’t taken a luxury cruise as of yet, however I have researched all of them in hopes of booking a future cruise with one.
Here are a few thoughts on why someone would rather sail a Mass-Market Ship rather then a luxury line.

1. Most luxury ships severely limit where you can smoke.

2. Many cruisers, like me, only sail bigger vessels because of the sea-sickness factor.

3. Most luxury lines have no facilities for children. This wouldn’t make for a good family vacation.

4. There are many more activities on a mass-market ship then on a smaller luxury vessel.

5. Being able to afford the best on a mass-market line might make someone feel important where on a luxury vessel you are just another passenger, it’s that vanity thing.

Just some thoughts
Chow
Tim

Comment from Rita
Time March 28, 2009 at 12:06 am

Ahhhhh, Tim. Now the lightbulb goes off. Those are some very good reasons to sail in luxury accommodations on a mass market line.

And, number 5 … I had to chuckle over that one … because I’ve thought the same thing many times. There are some folks who just enjoy feeling important, and there’s nothing whatsoever wrong with that. They want to feel that they are getting something that the “average bear” is not … and perhaps that is why they would rather sail a main stream cruise line in luxury accommodations. They feel that they are getting the VIP treatment, which they are. They get priority for dining arrangements, invites to exclusive parties, etc. … things that others onboard don’t get. If they sailed on a luxury line … yes, they may get better overall service, but they would still be getting the same service that everyone on the ship was receiving. And, for some people, this would detract from their overall experience.

Thanks for your thoughts. Things are clearer now for me.

Comment from John
Time March 28, 2009 at 6:18 am

I have been on Silversea, Seabourn, Crystal and NCL. My favorite of all of them is the Garden Villa experience on NCL. It is unlike anything I have ever experienced, and therefore we have repeated it several times now. They will make sure that you are shielded from all of the crowds, plus there is no cabin on any ship ANYWHERE that compares to the Garden Villa, as well as the service that comes with it. I would take a Garden Villa experience over Silversea or Crystal anyday. Kind regards

Comment from Lisa
Time March 28, 2009 at 12:20 pm

I’ve sailed Crystal.I will go back anytime but I could not afford it right now.You feel great being greeted by the Captain on your way in and then he still there when you disembark.He checked every place in the ship even the laundry room.
Every port you leave you drink champa-
gne on the house to raise your glass for those you left behind as friends for the day.
The charming hosts make the ladies dance
and during day in port they accompanied
ladies for shopping.If there are excursions
some others hosts help handicapped or someone who need attention.
The food and service are very classy.The
afternoon tea in the Palm Court is serve
the english style with white gloves.
Entertainment is special through out the ship,recital,small concert and big play or dance in the theater,
I love every minute of it.
Lisa

Comment from Rita
Time March 28, 2009 at 4:31 pm

John,

You say that the Garden Villa experience is unlike any you have experienced on even the luxury cruise lines. Would you mind elaborating a bit? Just how is it different? Is the villa itself nicer than the accommodations you would get on those other lines, or is it the overall service?

Also, you say NCL “shields” you from crowds. How do they do that? Surely when you leave your villa you’re in the general passenger population, aren’t you?

Thanks for any clarification you can provide.

Comment from john
Time March 29, 2009 at 12:24 pm

The Garden Villa is on Deck 14. Keycard access in elevator to that deck — only for Garden Villas and Courtyard Villas. The corridor providing entrance to the two garden villas only has two doors (one for each of the Villas). They are huge glass doors which give you the feeling of entering a home; not a cruise ship cabin. Each garden villa has about 5,000 square feet. The living room/dining room look out through floor to ceiling glass windows to the main pool deck. It is a fabulous view. The outside living space is a full garden downstairs with jacuzzi that holds about 10 persons. You walk up a staircase and you basically have the entire top deck as private sunning space for the Garden Villa. You get reservations for whatever restaurant you want, and you can even send the butler to bring you food from the pool deck bbq buffets. We have sailed in the Owners’ Suite on Silversea, the Master Suite on Regent RSSC and the Grand Suite on Cunard. They all feel like large cruise ship cabins. The Garden Villa feels like a seaside home, not a large cruise cabin. Kind regards.

Comment from Monkeythyme
Time May 1, 2010 at 1:18 pm

I am one of those weirdos who likes the intimate feel of a smaller ship, but does not care for the other trappings of a luxury cruise. My favorite ship in recent years has been Carnival’s Holiday, because it was small compared to the mega-ships, but with a “mass-market fun-ship” experience.
I find a certain level of service to be optimum, and beyond that it becomes intrusive to me. Especially the “personal butler” thing that some lines tout. I would bet it comes with a “satisfaction survey” at the end of the cruise, and to me that is “performance evaluation”, the part of my professional life that I find most annoying.

Comment from Kenneth Eden
Time January 8, 2011 at 7:44 am

Regarding Cunard and the “segregation of dining”, that is a very disturbing word, and extremely politically incorrect.

Cunard has been sailing without a main dining room on their liner ships, 1969, Queen Ellizabeth 2, for decades, and it has proven to be quite popular.

The Britannia is a lovely room, and has been on the QE2, and is more elaborate on the Queen Mary 2, as well as the ne Queen Elizabeth and Queen Victoria. If you have not sailed on a Cunard Ocean Liner, you do not have first hand knowledge of how the dining, vis a vis, cabin/stateroom/suite allotment works. I have sailed on all ships cunard since 1969, and have occupied inside upper/lower berths cabins, standard inside cabins, mini and balconied, and non-balconied suites, Britannia, Columbia (originally found on QE2, later called Princess Grill), and Queens Grill accommodations. Here is the low down, the skinny, on the dining. I will not go back to my wonderful cruises and transatlantic crossings on QE2, those days are long gone. I will concentrate on the new QUEENS.

Britannia, Princess and Queens Grills all have the same menus for BLD, with the exception of a few added items added to the Princess, especially at dinner, and one or two more items added to the Queens, in adition to those found on the main menus in the Princess Grill. Additionally, there is a supplemental menu available in the two grills, with more elaborate offerings, most notably, in the Queens Grill, unlimited caviar is offered every evening. Do not be miffed with the menus in the Britnnia, they are exquisite. It must be noted that on the Cunard ships, flamebed and table side preps are the norm, and a real cheese course is available, regardless of the restaurant at dinner.

A two seating arrangement is par for the Britannia, one seating in the two grills. On the QM2 and the QE there is the Britannia Balcony stateroom, which offers dinnig in the Britannia Club, a step above in that it offers ONE seating as opposed to the two in the Britannia, and offers one or two items, such a shrimp cocktail always available at night, and ceasar salad. The Britannia Club is not as lavish as the main Britannia, and the Britannia is a wonderful room, ultra grand.

It must be noted that Cunard keeps a very strict dress code in the evening. Only a fool would be caught improperly dressed on a Cunard liner, but, they do. For those casual dresser, they enjoy fine dining up at the “lido” restaurants, and enjoy extensive menus, that change each evenng, and are not merely buffets. There is something for eveyone on a Cunard liner.

Woukd, lets say, anyone fault the NORWAY for having two dining rooms, with slightly different menus, allotting the dining venue that you paid for? I think not.

Today, from the hundreds of reviews available on line at numerous sites, it seems that the main stream lines are offering less and less, charging more on board, and offering a dining experience akin to a mall or city center or “chain restaurants” found all over US and Canadian highways. It is sad, even disgusting, yet, people fall for it, complain and go back for more of the same.

Perhaps nobody in the home office of a cruise line actually reads the comment forms or maybe, they could care less. Newer and bigger ships are being built, somebody will sail them.

Comment from Peyton
Time January 15, 2011 at 12:41 pm

I agree completely with the editor. I don’t care how elaborate or “exclusive” a certain suite, section or part of a mass market ship may be -even with 5000 sq ft, I personally would not want to be confined on a ship.

So you book a cruise to hide from the rest of the ship? That does’t make sense to me. Yes you might feel like you’re the king of the ship but the factors the editor posted contradict that. A cruise experience is about many factors including the people in many ways. Dining, excursions, activities, entertainment, and more. Secondly, how many people book inboard cabins and are very content to do so. Simple. they are more interested in what the ship as a whole has to offer. These people use their cabins as a sleeping and changing room. Otherwise a high end cabin experience on a mass market is mostly aprpeciated by the key holder. No one else really cares which leads us back to the isolation point. Lets get back to the people factor on mass market U.S. based cruises. Like the rest of life you’re goign to have all walks of life and the math is simple. How many high end cabins are there on a MM ship? Miniscule compared to the rest of the boat. So what you have are vacationers trying their first cruise which would include many Joe Six Packs that think the prime rib night is gourmet dining. The “high rollers” that go on a cruise once or maybe once every 5 years. So we’re back to isolation factor. Those cruisers will be everywhere you go outside your cabin.

In contrast as you read through the descriptions of the Luxury lines you see the word “well heeled” or other similar terms. As I see it if I am sophisticated enough to appreciate and afford a Penthouse type cabin on a MM ship I’d prefer to be around a majority of cruisers that have somewhat the same tastes and backgrounds as me. Certainly cruises are about conversations and possibly making new friends and sharing experiences. I’d rather have a better shot at meeting an airline pilot, engineer or maybe a person that travels to Europe yearly rather than the majority of fellow cruisers that is the night manager from Wendys, or the married couple that are cashiers at a Super Walmart. No offense to any one that is in those positions but to me it’s no different than the neighborhood you choose to live in as well.

So Luxury? People, experience throughout the ship -not just inside your mega cabin with its exclusive dining area, the ratios of the presumably “better healed” staff on a Luxury line, rather than the rationed service you’d mostly receive on a M.M.

Comment from TLR
Time March 24, 2011 at 10:34 am

LOL @ some of the ‘Titanic’ type references that apparently still exist: Luxury accommodations on a MM line get you certain ‘special’ areas to hang out/eat/relax. Joe Blow in ‘budget’ Interior acc gets cafeteria food and little more than a pillow & blanket. They can SAY they’ve eliminated the ‘class’ system, but in effect, they really haven’t. If you’ve got the $$ to pay for the amenities, you get them.
And on Tim’s #5 comment, I wonder how many LL passengers who are ‘just like everyone else on board’ still play the “my money is better than your money” game- LOL!

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