Updated September 2, 2014: Ship numbers, capacities, ownership and other details have been updated.
Few perks of the job intrigue us more than looking under the hood to see what makes a luxury cruise ship purr. By nature, boutique ships are able to offer a more specialized and intimate cruise experience.
Although most cruise lines purport to offer a luxury product, the reality is that the mainstream lines offer their premium experiences only via larger suites. The extra real estate and plussed-up amenities are nice, but once outside these suites a mass-market ambience takes over. So, when we talk about luxury cruise brands, we’re referring to the handful of cruise lines that cater to an audience that demands the very best, from the moment they step aboard and are handed a glass of (real) Champagne till the point the butler packs their bags—a level of service that extends right down to the least expensive cabins available.
For some cruisers, the five-star experience is about white gloves and formal ministrations; for others, elegance is defined by subdued, personalized service—first names, please—and cozy boutique ships. So between the various luxury brands there are subtle but important differences, particularly regarding the number and type of inclusions the cruise fare covers.
Read on to get a better handle on the top luxury and boutique brands catering to the North American market. And if it all starts to sound a bit too dear, you’ll find our overview of the mainstream cruise brands here.
6726 passengers on 3 ships
With just three ships, Cunard Line has a storied legacy dating to 1840, when Cunard instituted regular trans-Atlantic crossings between Southampton, England and New York. Two of Cunard’s most famous ships were the original Queen Mary (going to sea in 1936) and the much-loved QE2 (from 1969). Miami-based Carnival Corporation acquired Cunard in 1998, leading to the arrival of the Queen Mary 2 in 2004—at the time the largest, tallest and most expensive ever built, and the only true ocean liner cruising today. In 2007 the Queen Victoria debuted, and in 2010 the new Queen Elizabeth arrived, two sisters considerably smaller than Queen Mary 2 and with a more traditional cruise ship hull design.
Cunard is a bit of an anomaly—there’s a distinct upscale product as well as a more standard Britannia Class. The latter actually represents more than 80 percent of the cabins on each ship, accommodations that tend to be fairly average in size and amenities. But common areas throughout all ships are beautifully designed, with great attention to detail. A strong emphasis on evening dress codes continues to define the Cunard experience—though relaxed somewhat in 2013, many guests use a Cunard cruise as an opportunity to showcase their fanciest duds on formal nights. Food and service in the main dining room and buffet restaurants can be unexceptional, while specialty restaurants are a cut above. Cruise pricing is a la carte, with add-ons for gratuities, drinks and specialty dining. The Cunard fleet gets around, with annual round-the-world sailings and frequent trans-Atlantic crossings on the speedy Queen Mary 2. Cunard Line is one of 10 brands owned by Carnival Cruise Corp.
4552 passengers on 5 ships
The Oceania fleet is pitched to older, upper-income travelers, promising easy-going elegance at sea with a strong emphasis on dining. The line’s pride would be a pair of midsized ships that arrived in 2011-12, the 1250-passenger Marina and Riviera. These vessels have lots of bells and whistles, including eight restaurants, spas operated by Canyon Ranch and hands-on cooking lessons. The line’s smaller ships, Regatta, Nautica and Insignia carry just 684 guests; they date to 1998, inherited from the now-defunct Renaissance Cruises. This trio was subject to $50 million in upgrades in May 2014.
Fares do not include gratuities or alcoholic drinks; shore excursions, onboard WiFi and other elements can be pricey. Most cabins aren’t much larger than those of mainstream cruise lines, with sizes starting at about 210 square feet on the newer ships (not including balconies); inside cabins, while few in number, are 174 square feet. Lavishly appointed suites are also available. Children are allowed but there’s no children’s program. These globe-hoppers visit most regions of the planet, with a particular focus on the Mediterranean and Northern Europe, the Caribbean and South Pacific; voyages shorter than 12 days are rare, while multi-continent itineraries make frequent appearances on the schedule. The parent company is mass-market Norwegian Cruise Line, which also owns Regent Seven Seas (see below).
2248 passengers on 8 ships
Aiming for the same sophisticated audience as Seabourn, but with a more European aura and clientele, Silversea is a privately held Italian-based cruise line offering a wide range of vessels and itineraries. The company’s newest and largest is Silver Spirit, a 540-passenger ship that debuted in 2009—cabins start at 312 square feet and the six restaurants include a 26-seat Japanese venue with a degustation menu and an intimate supper club with live jazz singer. The line’s original ships Silver Cloud and Silver Wind carry 296 passengers each; they were followed in 2000-2001 by Silver Shadow and Silver Whisper, carrying 382 guests. A 132-passenger expedition ship Silver Explorer has an ice-rated hull and handles voyages to the ends of the earth. In 2013 another expedition ship was added, the former Explorer II and dating to 1990; the 100-passenger vessel was renamed Silver Galapagos and sails the Galapagos Islands year-round. And in 2014 a third expedition ship arrived, the former Clipper Oddysey, now 120-passenger Silver Discoverer.
Silversea fares include gratuities and drinks; there are one or two specialty restaurants on most ships requiring a modest surcharge. Although prices are generally high, last-minute deals—especially in off-season—are not uncommon, often yielding excellent value.
2060 passengers on 2 ships
Sailing two comfortably midsized ships, larger than is common among the luxe brands, Crystal targets an older, well-heeled audience on journeys that span the globe. The passengers are equally worldly, including some who will splash out on fine wines and exclusive shore excursions carrying extravagant, four-digit price tags. Crystal also maintains a better children’s program than is found on other lines in the luxury category.
The 1070-passenger Crystal Serenity is the younger of the two ships, having emerged in 2003. Crystal Symphony carries 922 passengers and dates to 1995, but the line has invested heavily in upgrades to keep the ship fresh and contemporary (most recently in 2012 for Symphony, 2013 for Serenity). In addition to a traditional main dining room and expansive buffet, each of the ships has two specialty restaurants: one with Italian cuisine overseen by Piero Selvaggio and a Nobuyuki Matsuhisa-run Japanese venue. Crystal earns high marks for service and its onboard enrichment programs are among the industry’s finest. The line has some seven-night itineraries—mostly Mediterranean—but the majority of voyages are 10 to 12 nights or longer, including annual world cruises. Crystal offers a fairly inclusive product—cruise pricing includes tips and most drinks. A third ship is reportedly in the works, presumably to arrive in 2017 or later. Based in Los Angeles, Crystal is owned by the Japanese NYK Line.
Regent Seven Seas
1890 passengers on 3 ships
Part of the same family as Oceania Cruises, Regent Seven Seas has operated under various names and permutations through the years. The bones of the company date to 1992, when Radisson Cruises and Seven Seas Cruises merged. Since then, ships have been added and discarded—three vessels make up the fleet today. The oldest and smallest of the trio, Seven Seas Navigator, dates to 1999 and carries 490 passengers; Seven Seas Mariner and Seven Seas Voyager debuted in 2001 and 2003, respectively, and carry 700 apiece. Cabin sizes start at 252 square feet on Mariner and a generous 301 square feet on the other two.
Perhaps more than any other, the Regent Seven Seas cruise fare packs in the inclusions—transfers, shore excursions, gratuities and beverages are all part of the package. This is a boon for those who tire of signing checks or loathe check-out surprises, but those who like to explore ports independently or don’t imbibe much may find better value elsewhere. Interactions with fellow guests are frequent—a high contingent of repeaters can give the ships a clubby feel and dressing up is fairly common. There are four restaurants on each ship, including a steakhouse and Italian and French venues, and cuisine is a standout. Regent canvases the four corners of the earth: Voyages of 10 days and longer are typical, though seven-day itineraries in Alaska are the norm each summer (along with a few seven-day journeys in the Mediterranean). A fourth ship, to be delivered in summer 2016, will carry 750 passengers and will reportedly offer the biggest ratio of space per passenger in the industry. As of 2014, Regent is owned by Norwegian Cruise Line.
Seabourn Cruise Line
1778 passengers on 5 ships
With a fleet of five smaller ships catering to upscale travelers, Seabourn has several unique attributes setting it apart from luxury competitors. There is a high staff to guest ratio—just 1.3 passengers for each crewmember, maximizing service. Cabins on the line’s three newest ships—sisters Seabourn Quest, Seabourn Sojourn and Seabourn Oddysey—start at 295 square feet, the largest “standard” accommodations at sea. There is also the most generous passenger space ratio of any cruise line—that is, more square footage per guest overall. So although the ships are intimate, ranging from just 208 to 450 passengers, there’s lots of elbow-room on these design-forward vessels.
While Seabourn charges a premium, prices include all tips and most alcoholic beverages, and there are no up charges for any restaurants. Evening entertainment is fairly modest—no big production numbers here—and there’s no kids program, Bingo sessions, basketball court. While fellow guests are well heeled, the mood is fairly quiet and subdued; unpretentious elegance is the byword. Seabourn’s ships spend the year canvassing the globe, visiting smaller ports of call that aren’t common to the bigger lines. Note that Seabourn’s smaller sisters have been acquired by Windstar Cruises and will be shifting to that line in 2014-15. Meanwhile, a new, 604-passenger Seabourn ship is under construction for delivery in the second half of 2016. The parent company is Carnival Cruise Corp.
Azamara Club Cruises
1388 passengers on 2 ships
Established in 2007 as an offshoot of Celebrity Cruises (and similarly a subsidiary of Royal Caribbean), Azamara Club Cruises has just two ships, sisters built in 2000 that accommodate 694 guests apiece. Over the last few years the line has moved its price-point upwards while adding inclusions such as gratuities and drinks. A key component of the Azamara experience is “destination immersion”—that is, an emphasis on ports of call, often involving late departures or overnight stays with evening shore excursions exclusive to Azamara. In 2013 the line added what it calls AzAmazing Evenings—a cultural show for each voyage held away from the ship, accompanied by light food and beverages.
The Azamara cruise isn’t for all tastes, but the line has a devoted following, partly for its relaxed atmosphere—recommended attire is resort casual, with no formal nights. For such a small fleet, itineraries are wonderfully varied, spending significant chunks of time in Southeast Asia, the Mediterranean and northern Europe, with occasional forays into South America, the Black Sea and Middle East; a slight majority of guests overall are from North America. In winter 2012-13, both ships received refurbishments.
814 passengers on 4 ships
Based around a trio of four- and five-masted ships built in 1986-1990, Windstar Cruises offers a unique experience that has great appeal for those with a love of canvas. In truth, these older ships motor more than they sail—a drawback to port-intensive itineraries with strict schedules to maintain—but the intimate, relaxed ambience (no formal nights) is catnip for some, luring a slightly younger, more casual crowd than most of the upscale lines. The largest in the fleet is Wind Surf, and cabins are fairly comparable to those of typical big-resort ships with one major exception: no balconies. But there’s plenty of teak to roam on upper decks, food is surprisingly good, and a high crew to passenger ratio promises attentive service. Drinks and tips are not included in cruise fares, pushing the overall cost into the luxury category. Shore excursions are few, but a watersports platform with kayaks and small sailboats—no charge—opens up at most tender ports. Passenger makeup is heavily North American, but skews slightly younger than most upscale lines.
Acquired in 2011 by Xanterra Parks & Resorts, Denver-based operator of National Park lodges, the Windstar line has been evolving, with all three ships benefitting from a much-needed $18 million refurbishment in 2012. The big news is the acquisition of the three older ships of the Seabourn fleet—Legend, Spirit and Pride—effectively doubling the size of the Windstar operation (Star Pride joined in May 2014, the others follow in 2015). While none of these have sails, the 208-passenger vessels should be a good fit for Windstar. Voyages are concentrated in the Mediterranean, Caribbean and South Pacific, and itineraries of six to ten days are typical.