After my very first day on board, I was really struggling to work out just why my partner and I had paid so much money to be on an ultra-luxury cruise. It felt like the cruise was just a regular cruise on any other line that we had simply just paid so much more for.
So, I set out to find out exactly what, if anything, was different or unique, or if we really had just wasted an awful lot of money, and this is what I found out.
I had naively, with hindsight, thought that when I stepped on board an ultra-luxury cruise line everything would be different. It would be different in so many ways. Things would be absolutely spot on. It would be free of any of the usual issues or inconveniences that you get on other cruise lines.
I thought when I stepped on board things would just look and feel very different, but I soon discovered that on a very superficial or basic level that certainly was not the case. Everything was incredibly familiar with every single other cruise that I had been on. It wasn’t that different to cruising on any other cruise line.
The daily program was basically the same. It looks the same. The format was the same. You have got events, shows, bands by the pool, trivia, bingo, wine tastings, cooking demonstrations, so basically everything that you have on a cruise in format is the same. Of course some of it’s done with a little bit more flair. We had a Abba and caviar sail away for example. We had on demand caviar, but fundamentally it was the same.
The ship had the same kind of facilities. We had the dining room. We had specialty dining venues. There was spa and fitness. There was pools. There was baths. There was lounges. There was a casino. There was a guest services. There was an excursion desk. There was a future sales desk. Dress codes were the same. There was a formal night, where you wore a jacket or a tie; smart casual nights, where you basically dressed up casually.
I also found that many of the things that can be frustrating, inconvenient or just kind of annoying on any regular cruise were still there. For example, our next door neighbours watched a lot of TV really loudly and we could hear them in the cabin. The walls weren’t thicker and more soundproof.
In the mornings the anchor, because we did lots of ports with tendering, would clatter down in the early morning and wake us up, the same as on any regular cruise also doing tendering.
We also had some activities cancelled and some port activities cancelled because of the weather, the same outside influences affecting ports of call or activities. Wi-Fi was subject and variable to location, bandwidth, how many people were using it.
So it became very clear to me that on a basic level cruising and basically how cruise ships work is the same. Whether it’s an ultra-luxury line or it’s a normal regular line it’s similar. So that raised even more the question in my mind just what is an ultra-luxury cruise and what is it going to give me that’s different?
We chose Seabourn to go on our ultra-luxury cruise, but the thing that I really struggle with is understanding what are the options, what is an ultra-luxury cruise? There’s no official classification in the industry for the different classes of cruising. The industry and the lines call themselves six-star cruise lines, or ultra-luxury cruise lines, but there’s no set definition like there is on land, say for hotels, where a three-star, four star or five-star hotel is all consistent, and it has rules around what it’s going to be.
It’s broadly agreed that there’s several categories in cruising. You have kind of the mass market lines like Royal Caribbean, Norwegian, MSC, Carnival, which offer kind of good value resort type cruising. You then have premium cruise lines, which include things like Celebrity, Holland America, Princess, Cunard, which can have mid-size or larger ships.
You also have premium small size ships, Oceania, Wind Star, Azamara. Then you have this ultra-luxury category. However, what I’ve found is no one can agree what is or isn’t in the ultra-luxury category. So, I did lot of Googling, I spoke to different travel agents, I even spoke with some people within the ultra-luxury world around what they saw as an ultra-luxury cruise line, and no one could really agree what those were.
Most of them tended to tell me five or six lines that they saw as ultra-luxury, so names like Regent Seven Seas, Seabourn, which we were on, Silver Sea, Crystal. A lot of people also spoke about Ritz-Carlton Yacht, the new line. Then some would say actually of the European lines like Hapag-Lloyd and Ponant should be in there. Some even threw in the more premium small ship lines like Viking, Oceania, Wind Star, Azamara, so it became clear that nobody could really agree what is an ultra-luxury cruise line and there’s some blurring around what it is.
With that kind of confusion in my mind, and after being on the ship and seeing what I had seen, and talking to passengers, I’ve decided and found, I think, that there are only three things that make a line an ultra-luxury cruise line, that are different, that are unique, and certainly the people I spoke to who were on Seabourn told me that they paid for over going on a regular cruise.
The first of those, and probably the most important, is small, smaller ships, more intimate ships, ships that are all suites, so that sense of size is important. Seabourn, for example, only takes 600 passengers. The same is true of Silver Sea. Some of those edge up towards the 700 number. So, the sense of size and smallness seems to be really, really important to the definition of what is a ultra-luxury cruise line.
Some people argued that if you look at a Crystal theoretically it’s not part of that, because they are just up to the 1,000-passenger level. As I mentioned, they all tend to have suites, usually with a balcony. It’s seen as being important, but the sense of the intimacy, the size, the smallness of the ship seems fundamental to being an ultra-luxury line.
The smallness though does mean that the suites are smaller than many of the premium suites on premium lines. If you go on a Celebrity, a Cunard, a Holland America, a Princess, the suites are bigger than you’ll find on an ultra-luxury cruise line. So, it’s not about the size, it’s about the smallness and the intimacy of the actual experience.
I found having a butler was not part of that whole definition. Some of the lines had butlers, like Silver Sea. Others, like Seabourn, don’t. Also, within that sense of size people did talk about they found high quality fittings, very beautiful soft linen, a choice of pillows, the brand of toiletries that we had, Molton Brown, it created a sort of more sophisticated atmosphere, being smaller, more country club feel.
Also, what people spoke about which was important and linked to the size is the destinations. The size of the ship means that even if you’re going to an area like Greece or the Mediterranean or the Caribbean you can go into smaller, more out of the way ports.
Also, importantly what I’d seen before on various trips I’ve been on, the smaller ship, the more intimate ship in ultra-luxury lines means that you can go to places that others can’t. For example, in Ho Chi Minh City the premiums, which are bigger, they’re quite some distance from the actual city because they must go to a nearby port, whereas the smaller Seabourn and Silver Seas ships go right into Ho Chi Minh City itself.
The same is true in St. Petersburg, where the smaller luxury ships, they go right into the heart of St. Petersburg by The Hermitage Museum. The others are quite a distance out in the harbour.
The size of course, though, does mean there’s less choice of venues. There’s fewer venues. The entertainment tends to be a little bit lower key, because you don’t have the big theatres. There will be groups of singers. But that wasn’t important to the people I spoke to. The important thing was smaller, more intimate, and the ability with the smaller ships to pull into more unusual places.
That is one thing that became really clear to me. The size of the ship being small is fundamental to making a line ultra-luxury.
The second area that came up consistently is people spoke about the crew. Now the crew to passenger ratio is very, very good on ultra-luxury. It’s almost one to one, and the sense that the crew get to know you well. There’s very high attention levels. They can anticipate what you want, and I certainly found that to be the case, and I would agree with the people that I spoke to, that this was probably the second thing that makes a line ultra-luxury.
Many cruise lines have great service and people talk about the great service the get, but there is a real difference on the ultra-luxury cruise on Seabourn that we had. Because there are fewer passengers and a lot of crew, they do get to know you very quickly. They know your name pretty much from the minute you come on board, and they very quickly learn what you like and don’t like.
At dinner people would preempt the sort of drinks you were going to order. When we would go to breakfast we would already find they would have the skimmed milk that I like ready and raring to go, the decaf coffee I liked. They would just spend time getting to know you. They had the time to talk to you. You could discuss things with them, joke with them, get to know them really well, but the attention to detail and the crew was definitely something that was a notch above than I’ve seen on premium lines. I think the crew and the attention to detail and the amount of service you get is a key attribute of ultra-luxury cruising.
The other area, which is a little bit less tangible, is the experience you create. In reality you create a pretty much always adult only experience, partly because of the cost of bringing kids on board. Technically there are no kids facilities. It’s not really geared for kids at all, so you’ll find a pretty much adult experience, and they tend to be a relatively sophisticated experience, again because it’s expensive.
But it’s a little bit more subdued. It’s not as kind of party like, although you can party if you want to. But it’s definitely pretty sophisticated and a very key adult experience. I think that also is a really big plus if you’re looking for an adult experience and that kind of sophistication. That I think is something that was different to even on premium lines like Celebrity or Holland America. They tend to be more of an adult experience.
Exclusivity really seemed to be the key, the sense of you’re buying the smallness, you’re buying the attention that you get from the crew, and you’re buying that kind of sophisticated adult experience.
What I found very interesting though in talking to people is things that I think used to be seen as a fundamental part of ultra-luxury cruising and differentiators from premium lines and even the mass lines do not exist any longer, even though they still get put into the marketing materials.
Let’s focus about the things that I don’t think make a line ultra-luxury any longer. There used to be a lot of talk around the fact that ultra-luxury lines had much more included. This is much less so versus everybody else. Seabourn, for example, you had your gratuities included, your Wi-Fi included, your drinks included, your specialty dining included. The only real extras that you had were excursions or spa treatments or something like that. You had a mini bar even in your room. Regent Seven Seas even includes excursions as part of their inclusions.
There’s much less as I guess it’s called in America nickel and diming. You don’t have people trying to sell you photographic packages. You don’t have people trying to sell you lots of drinks packages, add on. Every time you do something you don’t have to get your card. You pretty much only get your card out when you’re leaving the ship and getting on the ship, is the only time you really use it.
You get all your specialty dining included, so on Seabourn we had Thomas Keller Grill. We had a sushi restaurant as well. But all of your fine dining is included as well, and that’s true across the other lines.
But that degree of inclusions is no longer unique to ultra-luxury lines only. So you’ll find all the premium lines have shifted there. Celebrity has their always included fares now, which also include things like Wi-Fi, gratuities, drinks package. Holland America have their various packages you can opt into. Princess also have their package you can opt into, which is all inclusive and includes those things.
So, inclusions are much less of a differentiator. Perhaps the nickel and diming and the kind of upsell you constantly is still a differentiator, but it’s fundamentally not as big as it used to be.
On Seabourn the one area that they did charge for though was the retreat, which is they have an exclusive little area with about 12 little cabanas you can hire for the whole day. That was an on charge.
The other area that I don’t think is as big a differentiator as it used to be is in the area of food. As I mentioned, food is included. The food is fantastic. The presentation is really remarkable. It’s high quality and when it’s presented it looks like you’re in some very beautiful, fancy restaurant.
However, I think in cruising the food pretty much across the board has been elevated. Food has become fantastic on the premium lines and the premium small lines, and right across cruising generally food is not as big a differentiator as it used to be, because the quality of the food, the range of the food, the styling of the food has just been elevated.
Many of the big cruise lines, whether it’s even the mass market lines or the premium lines, have partnerships with celebrity chefs or eminent kind of culinary groups, so it’s not as big a differentiator. Is the food fantastic? Absolutely. Is it all included? Absolutely. But it’s not the big differentiator.
I was asked by many people if ultra-luxury cruising is quite good value for money once you include everything that’s included and compare it to a premium cruise line. Would it be about the same? I actually don’t think that’s the case. You’re paying much more to go on an ultra-luxury cruise line than if you take an equivalent, say or a suite or something, on a premium line, and then looking at all the inclusions you are paying more.
If you’re only looking at it from a value for money perspective, you’re not going to find it there. What you’re paying for is you’re paying for exclusivity. Small is luxury. Small is ultra-luxury. It’s kind of an antidote. It’s the opposite to the trend in cruising, which is to bigger ships.
You’re seeing even in the premium lines like Holland America, Princess, they’re getting into bigger and bigger ships. You’re basically buying and paying for exclusivity and the sense of intimacy. You’re getting slightly sharper and more interesting destinations.
If you’re simply looking at the value proposition you will struggle to justify value on an ultra-luxury cruise line. It’s really about that sense of smallness, exclusivity, intimacy and incredible service.
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