Putting The Best (& Worst) “Ships-Within-A-Ship” To The Test

Putting The Best (& Worst) “Ships-Within-A-Ship” To The Test

Ship-Within-A-Ship Showdown: Putting the Best (& Worst) “Ships-Within-A-Ship” To the Test

Although most cruise reviewers say there are five, there are strictly speaking only two cruise lines that truly have a “ship-within-a-ship”. A fully self-contained world where passengers paying at least $500 per person a night for a suite are given the special entry card to a door that lets them step out of the regular cruise ship and into an exclusive VIP (Very Important Passenger) one.

Once in, they don’t have to leave because it’s got their suite with a butler bringing them treats and drinks. A bar, lounge, restaurants, front desk with concierge to sort out all their issues, and a pool deck with hot tubs. Of course, most do leave occasionally to eat in one of the regular cruise speciality restaurants, go to the shows, or head off on an excursion.

But when they do, they get priority bookings, the best seats in the theatre set aside for them and are fast tracked and escorted to the front of any line by their butler.

On other ships, while those high fare paying suite guests have dedicated suite guest venues, they’re dotted around the ship. So, they must move around the ship to get to them. But I am going to include in this review.

I’ve stayed in all five of these spaces in the last 20 months, and here’s what I found to be the best, and the worst and why.

I’ll talk about the two that are true ships-within-a-ships first.

Putting The Best (& Worst) “Ships-Within-A-Ship” To The Test

Putting The Best (& Worst) “Ships-Within-A-Ship” To The Test – MSC Yacht Club

I will start with MSC Cruises Yacht Club, as this was this year’s Cruise Critic Editor’s choice as the best suite complex. They felt it provides a lot of luxury for not a lot of cost versus the others.

I agree. One key pro of the Yacht Club is they are usually the lowest priced of all options. And, unlike all the others, there are even some inside cabins alongside the range of suites making it even more affordable.

The facilities are also a pro and feel upmarket. The Top Sail Lounge is a popular social hub. It serves unlimited drinks and cocktails, premium tea and coffee, snacks all day, fancy Butler-served Afternoon Tea and in the evenings has live music.

The restaurant is attractive and, on most ships, has stunning views over the bow. It’s open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, with a varied and decent sized menu which changes daily and is all made in the dedicated Yacht Club kitchen. Personally, I found their food good but at “Premium” cruise line Main Dining Room level not luxury cruise line level.

The pool deck is really attractive, with plunge pool, hot tub, bar and an informal dining venue for breakfast and lunch.

The bulk of the suites are a decent size, and comfortable. Not as memorable or fancy as other lines I will come to.

One big pro of MSC Yacht Club is all the inclusions. The fare includes drinks package and mini-bar, Wi-Fi, and access to the spa facilities in the thermal suite.

Of course, it has the usual things like priority check in, with dedicated Yacht Club bag drop and embarkation lounge, and priority lifts to get to and from Yacht club.

Putting The Best (& Worst) “Ships-Within-A-Ship” To The Test

MSC Yacht Club Downsides

In terms of the downsides, MSC Yacht Club is not for those seeking an adult-only or adult-focused option as MSC is very family focused. In holidays times, there will be many in Yacht Club. But, of course, great for families seeking a premium experience on a family line.

Also, MSC is a busy, crowded, boisterous line, with many big nightly parties and while the Yacht Club offers some respite the Yacht Club itself is big and full. I found that it was not enough to compensate for the full-on nature of the line as I am not a big party, crowds, and high energy environment cruiser.

Putting The Best (& Worst) “Ships-Within-A-Ship” To The Test – Norwegian’s The Haven

The other true ship-within-a-ship is Norwegian Cruise Line’s The Haven.

Personally, I found this even more upmarket in feel than the Yacht Club, especially as it has evolved from The Haven in ships like Breakaway with more central courtyard to the newer Prima Class ships with big outside decks at the rear of the ship.

It feels luxurious and plush and is a very large space. That’s also a negative from people who aren’t in the Haven as they feel it takes up too much of the ship. The bar, lounge, restaurant, concierge desk area, deck with bar, plunge pool, hot tubs and sauna and stream room all are stylish. Touches like dedicated elevators to get to and from the Haven, adds to the experience.

Another pro is the suites are stunning. So, overall I found it more luxurious in feel than Yacht Club.

Putting The Best (& Worst) “Ships-Within-A-Ship” To The Test

The Haven Cons

There are though some big cons. Prices can be high, as much as going on an ultra-luxury cruise line in peak periods, but with less inclusions.

Unless you get the “Free at Sea” package, which is often included as a promotion, you need to buy a drinks package and pay for Wi-Fi and on top of the daily auto-added gratuities. The Butler also expects tips as they are not included in those.

I found the restaurant menus, unlike the Yacht Club, rather disappointing. Pretty limited choice and they do not change. It’s the same menu every day. So, you can pretty much work your way through the entire menu on a cruise. The Main Dining Rooms have bigger and more interesting menus.

Although some tell me it varies by class of ship, but certainly when I was on Norwegian Viva there was no included tea and coffee or snacks in the lounge, nor live music. So, with no included drinks either, while the lounge is very attractive it did not become a social hub to meet and chat people as on Yacht Club.

The Haven guests also must pay for all the added activities around the ship, Go-karts, Crazy Golf and so on.

Putting The Best (& Worst) “Ships-Within-A-Ship” To The Test

Premium Family Experience

Of course, to enjoy The Haven you do need to like what Norwegian offers as a line in terms of entertainment, on board experience and size of ship. Although not as family-focused as MSC, it is very popular with families and so do not think of this as an adult-only or focused space if you are seeking that.

Again, making it a good choice for families seeking premium experience with the ability to tap into Norwegian dining, bars, and entertainment options.

Now I want to talk about those lines that don’t have true ships-within-a-ship but come close with many of the same exclusive dedicated facilities but scattered around the ship.

Putting The Best (& Worst) “Ships-Within-A-Ship” To The Test – Royal Caribbean Royal Suite Class

I want to talk first about Royal Caribbean and their Royal Suite class.

On the plus side, they do have many exclusive-access facilities. The key one is Coastal Kitchen and Suite lounge and bar area, which on many ships overlooks the pool deck. The Coastal Kitchen is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner and has a pretty good menu which changes daily.

The food was fine, but I felt regular Main Dining Room standard not luxury line. But it is less busy and rushed. Capacity is limited and so reservations are required unlike in Yacht Club or The Haven.

The lounge and bar are comfortable spaces, though can be hard to get seats at times. As drinks are not included in the fare, except at highest grades, they have a nightly happy hour from 5pm to 8pm where they have snacks and complimentary drinks.

The concierges are in the lounge and unlike Yacht Club and The Haven they email about a week before the cruise to see if they can help organise arrangements.

There is a suite-only deck with a bar but no pool or hot tub. I found it a noisy area as on Symphony of the Seas it overlooks pool deck area and to go for a swim, I had to leave the deck.

Only the very top grades get a butler, but there is priority embarkation, disembarkation, getting off in port and reserved seating in the shows for all suites.

Putting The Best (& Worst) “Ships-Within-A-Ship” To The Test

Suite Class Downsides

This leads me to one off the downsides as the perks vary a lot based on type of suite. For example, those in “Sea” grade suites only have some access to the Coastal Kitchen for dinner. “Sky” grade that I booked get one Wi-Fi connection, Coastal Kitchen for all meals, while “Star” get a butler called Royal Genie Service, all specialty dining, drinks package, gratuities, way better seats in the theatre and so on.

Having the spaces dotted around the ship is a downside as it takes some moving around these huge ships to access and use them, often waiting for very busy lifts.

Like with the others, it is not an alternative to a small luxury ship experience as you need to like big busy ships, with lots going on, lots of families and teens, and all sorts of attractions and big shows. And again, how adult or family filled these suite areas will be will depend on time of year.

All these ship-within-ship have been on the resort lines, but they are also a feature on two of the lines that the industry classifies as “premium” lines, lines like Holland America, Princess, and Virgin Voyages.

Putting The Best (& Worst) “Ships-Within-A-Ship” To The Test – Celebrity Retreat

The first of those is Celebrity Cruises with “The Retreat”.

In terms of the pros, Celebrity Cruises Retreat feels even more classy and sophisticated than all of those I have spoken about. Though they do cost more. Comparing entry level suite to the others equivalent, often $700 per person per day versus the circa $500 on the others.

I find the venues included within The Retreat stunning, especially on the Edge class ships where they were built from scratch versus being retrofitted on the other classes.

For me the highlight is the Luminae restaurant, which does have food from the dedicated kitchen that is more elevated and sophisticated than the Main Dining Room. More luxury line style. Again, it’s open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

On the Edge class ships, the large and stylish lounge with concierge has drinks, snacks, and afternoon tea. It also has an outside space and then a staircase leading up to decent sized deck space with a bar, informal dining venue, plunge pool and hot tub. Lots of comfy places to lounge about.

Though it can get busy, and in vacation time the kids and families can take over the pool.

The fare does include premium drinks package, premium Wi-Fi and the higher grades get included speciality dining and a dedicated butler. The lower grades access to more of a butler-style service.

Putting The Best (& Worst) “Ships-Within-A-Ship” To The Test

So, What Are The Cons Of The Retreat Beyond Price?

It does differ dramatically based on the class of ships, with the Edge Class  (Edge, Apex, Beyond, and Ascent) having the most kind of cohesive Retreat experience, though the restaurant is not within the overall space. On the others the facilities are spread out across the ship.

Celebrity also seems to be reducing the perks that they do offer, taking gratuities out and cutting included on-board credit from The Retreat package, removing dedicated butlers for all suite grades – so there’s a sense of cutting back on the experience.

Putting The Best (& Worst) “Ships-Within-A-Ship” To The Test – Cunard Grills

The other premium line offering suite facilities close to a ship-within-ship is Cunard with their Grills: Queen Grill and Princess Grill.

They have a dedicated Queens Grill restaurant for those in suites, and the Princess Grill Restaurant for those in mini suites. Even though Cunard has a reputation for being the most class-based, it is the one of all of these I am talking about that has the fewest or least extensive facilities.

The main pro about going Cunard Grills is the dining experience. This is where they place most focus. I would say the restaurants do offer some of the best food at sea, certainly within the premium category and better than in Celebrity Retreat’s Luminae. There are large menu options, particularly in Queens Grill where you can also go off menu and have caviar for dinner as often as you want.

The other big difference to all the others is that in Queens Grill and Princess Grill, while open seated dining you get allocated a table for all meals with the same serving staff, so you can build a strong rapport. They get to know you well and can tailor your experience.

They do have a lounge with bar and a deck, but they’re not particularly large nor impressive. The decks have no pools, and only on Queen Mary 2 does it have a hot tub.

In terms of cons, there are few inclusions or added perks, with things like drinks, Wi-Fi and gratuities are being extra. In Queens Grill you can get your minibar stocked with two kinds of alcohol.

Beyond the dining, the perks and the facilities are not of the scale of the other lines I have covered. It is much lower key, and more about that dining experience and the bigger cabins.

Putting The Best (& Worst) “Ships-Within-A-Ship” To The Test

So, Which From These Five Are The Best And The Worst?

As there are only two true ship-within-a-ships. I would say that while the best of those two overall for style is Norwegian Haven, the best value, particularly if you’re travelling with your family is the Yacht Club. They also win on the overall experience of the lounge and restaurant and number of inclusions.

Once you take in the other lines who have almost ship-within-ships, while the Yacht Club stands out for the value, I think The Retreat is the most luxurious and closest to a luxury line experience – and since that is what these are trying to create that for me is the best of all five.

The worst? There is not a terrible one but overall, I would put Royal Caribbean there as think it lacks the real elevation the others have. There is no one big stand out feature, as handy as the facilities are.




Gary Bembridge

I grew up in Zimbabwe, but I have been based in London since 1987. My travel life spans more than three decades and that includes more than 95 cruises. In 2005, I launched Tips for Travellers to make it easy and fun for people to discover, plan and enjoy incredible cruise vacations. And the rest, as they say, is history. I have the largest cruise vlogger channel currently on YouTube, with more than 3 million video views per month.

You may also like...

1 Response

  1. Andrew Hollo-Tas says:

    Dear Gary, I have been regularly reading your postings, and I enjoy your comments. However, your postings always give the impression that they were just shovelled together in a hurry, without having taken the time to read them before sending them, with spelling mistakes, grammatical errors and daft careless mistakes having been corrected. These unfortunately reflect on your credibility. Just to mention one: recently you have put Venice into the wrong geographic area. Or perhaps, are you deliberately dumbing down, especially your style, to be acceptable for the uneducated reader? Notwithstanding, with kindest regards, Andrew Hollo-Tas. ([email protected])

Leave a Reply