Which cruise is right for you? Part 2: Premium Cruising

TakeOffEh guide to cruising

Take off eh.comLast week we examined Mainstream Cruising, this week we’re looking at Premium Cruising and next week we’ll cover off Luxury & Specialty Cruising.

Within the cruise industry’s rating system, mainstream, premium, deluxe and luxury are the successive steps of sumptuousness, adding layers of service and style with each move up the ladder.

In premium cruising, personal space is one of the perks: while ships defined as premium carry as many as 2,850 guests, many are in the mid-size range of 500-1,500. That means larger staterooms and public areas. The ratio of staff to guests is higher, offering more personalized service. Dining is a focus, with more options, from celebrity chef restaurants to in-cabin dining served by the course. Pricewise, premium lines are generally 20% above mainstream fares, yet half as much as the luxury lines, which ramp up pampering to new heights. In 2009, however, all bets are off, with depressed demand closing the gap between tiers. For many cruisers, trading up is a more affordable option than ever.

The design of premium ships tends to be a bit more subtle and subdued than on mainstream ships. The same goes for entertainment, which may consist of multiple choices in smaller venues rather than a big Vegas-style theatre and show.

Premium cruise clientele skews higher than mainstream in terms of average age. It’s popular with Boomers and their elders, and aside from Holland America, none of the premium lines directly target the family market. There’s a strong focus on enrichment, in the form of intriguing shore excursions, lectures, courses and demonstrations, and several premium ships feature extensive art collections.

Deluxe is almost a sub-category between premium and luxury cruising, with Azamara Cruise Line laying claim to the space, while Oceania nips at its heels in the ‘upper premium’ category. At this level of cruise quality, however, much comes down to personal preference, as each line, and indeed each ship, offers something distinct.

Pricewise, premium lines are generally 20% or more above mainstream fares, yet still often half as much as luxury lines, which ramp up the pampering to new heights. In 2009, however, all bets are off, with depressed demand closing the gap between tiers. For many cruisers, trading up is a more affordable option than ever.

Premium Cruise Lines: A Breakdown

Celebrity Cruises

By launching ever-bigger ships, Celebrity is rewriting the book on premium cruising, managing to retain a high level of service and style on a larger canvas. Founded 20 years ago, it was purchased by Royal Caribbean in 1997 and now operates as a sister line to the mega-ship leader. As well as commissioning dazzling new ships, Celebrity has spent many millions making over its older ships. Some Celebrity highlights:

  • Nine ships, most of which carry 2,000 or more passengers.
  • Solstice : the first of 5 uniquely appointed ships in its class – accommodates 2,850 passengers with larger standard staterooms, 90% with ocean views; 85 percent with verandahs.
  • Concierge Class accommodations: extra amenities, services and luxury furnishings.
  • Despite size, high level of personal service and gourmet dining.
  • Popular with baby boomers, seniors and honeymooners.
  • Ships decorated with high-end contemporary and traditional art.
  • Modern, chic ambience – intimate public spaces.
Holland America Line

Now part of industry giant Carnival Corp., the venerable Dutch cruise line that crisscrossed the Atlantic for decades retains a strong sense of tradition. Holland America’s fleet now sails to the far corners of the earth, with all seven continents on its annual calendar. While known for attracting ‘traditional’ cruisers who like a little formality, HAL is broadening its offerings with an appeal to families through expanded children’s programs.

  • History dating back to 1873 – traditions like afternoon tea.
  • “Signature of Excellence” program – over $500 million investment in upgrading existing ships.
  • Range of ships, carrying from 1,258 to 2,104 passengers.
  • Extensive culinary program with classes and demonstrations.
  • Strong in Alaska with extensive cruise-tour program.
  • Wanderlust — sails to over 320 ports of call on all 7 continents.

Cunard Line

Even older than Holland America, Cunard was founded by Halifax entrepreneur Samuel Cunard in 1840. Today, like Holland America, it’s a member of the Carnival family. The Cunard name embodies the spirit of ‘Old World’ or ‘Golden Age’ transatlantic cruising, and its ships still have a ‘very British’ feel that many cruisers enjoy.

  • Fleet of two: Queen Mary 2 and Queen Victoria, Queen Elizabeth on the way.
  • Famous for transatlantic crossings, but also offers European and Caribbean itineraries.
  • Queen Mary 2 was biggest-ever cruise ship when launched in 2004.
  • Mix of European and North American guests.
  • Queen Mary 2 caters to families with excellent children’s facilities.
  • Class distinction: Restaurants assigned based on level of accommodation.

Oceania Cruises

Oceania wins raves for delivering a luxurious experience for a surprisingly reasonable price. Its current three ships carry just 684 passengers, but the young line’s first new-builds will arrive over the next two years, each ready to welcome over 1,250 passengers. Founded by veteran executives of other premium and luxury brands, Oceania’s service and dining aim for five-star hotel standards.

  • Nautical Names: Regatta, Insignia, Nautica. Coming soon: Marina.
  • Popular with 50+ well-travelled Americans & Canadians.
  • Children not encouraged.
  • Master chef Jacques Pepin presides over fleet’s kitchens.
  • Destination-intensive: wide range of itineraries world-wide.
Azamara Cruises

Azamara was born in 2007 after Celebrity Cruises acquired two former Renaissance Cruises ships and judged them distinct enough to justify separate branding. Azamara unabashedly competes directly with Oceania, with high-touch service one of its hallmarks. Azamara’s ships are now known as Journey and Quest.

  • Exceptional service – butlers with every category of stateroom.
  • All meals open seating, smart casual dress code.
  • Onboard “Destination Specialist” offers in-depth info on ports of call.
  • Exotic, off-the-path itineraries.
  • Mostly older, well-travelled, North American crowd.

Next Week: Luxury & Specialty Cruising

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