Travel

Luxe lines

John and Linda Mercer of Houston had sailed on several large cruise ships and tired of the ships’ size and of constantly having to sign chits for whatever they ordered. With their two daughters in college, the couple decided last year to try a smaller, more luxurious ship, Silversea Cruise’s Prince Albert.

Unlike mainstream cruise ships, fares on luxury ships like Silversea’s include gratuities, beverages (including alcohol), and a high level of service. Most carry far fewer passengers than mainstream ships and impart a far more intimate cruise experience.

“Let’s see if this makes a difference,” Linda said. It did.

They liked paying for everything up front, not as they went. They liked the staff and the service, the elegant quarters and amenities, the more relaxed cruise experience, the comfort of enjoying a cruise without constant interruptions, the fact that smaller ships can go where large ones can’t. “It turned out to be a pretty good deal,” said Linda.

So good, in fact, that the Mercers sailed recently on another luxury liner, the Regent Seven Seas Navigator, and have booked another cruise on a Silversea ship.

The Mercers are among many cruisers who in recent years have opted to cruise on upscale ships. Luxury ships have become attainable for more vacationers, in large part because the recession has forced these ships to discount fares by as much as 65 percent. At the same time, a number of new luxury ships have come on the market, adding more berths that need to be filled.

People who never thought they could sail on a luxury ship now find them affordable. Before the recession, luxury fares reached as high as $1,000 a day. The discounting since has dropped some fares to as low as $200 a day.

“The food’s superior, they are more personal and you’re not being nickel-and-dimed all the time,’’ said Marty Krebs of Junction City, Wis., who with his wife, Jan, also has cruised on many lines.

Luxury cruise lines measure passenger satisfaction through post-sailing surveys, and Mark Conroy, president and CEO of Regent Seven Seas Cruises, says, “Ninety-seven percent of our passengers say they will sail again with us.”

Not only have luxury cruise lines discounted fares, many also offer hundreds of dollars worth of onboard spending credits, air and other amenities that reduce the total cost of a cruise. Rather than making drastic fare cuts, Regent, for instance, decided to include all shore excursions costing less than $200 – a move that has paid off for the line.

Then, too, the luxury lines have added a number of ships to their fleets. Seabourn has introduced three new ships in the past three years, Silversea one and Oceania one, with another coming out this year. These ships are larger, which means more cabins to fill. And there are always mainstream cruisers who want to graduate to the more sophisticated experience.

Access to more ports

Most luxury ships are smaller than the big mainstream vessels, creating a more intimate cruise experience for its passengers. They often visit ports that the large mainstream ships can’t get into, and they range worldwide.

Silversea ships, for instance, can dock on the Neva River in the center of town in St. Petersburg, Russia, while the larger ships have to stay miles out, said the line’s Brad Ball. And unlike large ships, they also can tie up close to downtown in Shanghai and Ho Chi Minh City.

Says Krebs, who prefers smaller ships and says their itineraries are important in choosing their cruises: “We get to different places, have extended stops (in ports of call) and experience more.”

Perhaps more important for the future, luxury lines that used to cater only to retirees are now wooing younger passengers. Seabourn, for example, is offering more watersports activities and adventure excursions.

Beyond that, Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor of Cruise Critic, an independent online magazine, sees a new category of upscale cruising arising – islands of luxury aboard otherwise mainstream vessels.

“Cruise lines are adding more suites on mass market ships,” she said, citing Norwegian Cruise Line’s The Haven, a complex of luxury accommodations on several ships. On the Norwegian Epic, The Haven has 60 suites on two private decks with access to a pool, gym, saunas, sun deck, a restaurant and lounge.

More information

Luxury cruising

Azamara Cruises

Azamara fares include gratuities, wine with lunch and dinner, sodas, bottled water, and specialty coffees and teas. Other alcoholic beverages are extra. The line also has English butler service for suite guests. Air credit offered on some cruises.

Details: 877-999-9553; www.azamaracruises.com.

Crystal Cruises

Crystal is noted for its enrichment programs, which include complimentary courses in a second language, computer skills, piano instruction, wellness and wine, as well as theme cruises. The line has not included gratuities and alcoholic beverages in its fares, instead offering onboard spending credits of as much as $1,000 per suite. In March, it will include gratuities and alcohol in fares and reduce credits. Fares include air and two-fer deals. Like Regent, it revisits prices every month, so early bookers get the best deals.

Details: 866-446-6625; www.crystalcruises.com.

Cunard

The line’s three “Queen’’ ships each have three levels of accommodations, from mainstream to luxury, each with its own restaurant and amenities. Most luxurious are the Queens Grill suites, whose guests dine in the Queens Grill, have an exclusive lounge, butler service, concierge service, complimentary bar setup, free soft drinks, beer and bottled water. Fares do not include gratuities or alcoholic beverages other than beer.

Details: 800-728-6273; cunard.com.

Oceania

Oceania ships provide complimentary soft drinks and bottled water. Fares include air, but not gratuities or alcoholic beverages. The line has inaugurated options offering house wine and beer at $29.95 a day per guest or open bar at $49.95 per day.

Details: 800-531-5619; oceaniacruises.com.

Regent Seven Seas Cruises

Fares include air, one night in a hotel, gratuities and alcoholic drinks, and nearly all shore excursions. A tour of gothic and medieval Barcelona, Spain, previously cost $119. Early bookers get the best deals, as the line bumps up prices every month.

Details: 877-505-5370; rssc.com.

Seabourn Cruises

Current deals offer 50 percent or more off, said John Delaney, senior vice president of marketing and sales.

Details: 800-929-9391; seabourn.com.

Seadream Yacht Club

All cabins are ocean view. Fares on these small (112-passenger) ships, which include gratuities and alcoholic beverages, have been discounted up to 60 percent. Water sports and mountain bikes are included as well as some crew-led excursions. You can have dinner on deck if you choose – sleep the night away under the stars in a Balinese bed.

Details: 800-707-4911; seadream.com.

Silversea Cruises

Silversea fares include alcohol, gratuities and onboard credits.

Details: 800-722-9955; silversea.com.

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