The Razor’s Edge: Who’s The Best? Luxury Cruise Lines Square Off

Luxury cruise showdown: Which is the best in the small ship luxury sector? © 2009 Ralph Grizzle

Many of you who visit this web site, as well as people I meet during my travels, have asked me in multiple forums — through social media, on this site and in person — which luxury cruise line is the best? Of course, there is no easy answer, because the luxury lines are all so good at what they deliver. That said, before you reach the final period indicating the end of this article, you will have your answer.

My answer comes with caveats, however. When it comes to comparing the luxury cruise lines, I find the differences between them are as thin as a razor’s edge. After all, each of the luxury lines hangs its hat on the same set of values: 1) superior service; 2) excellent cuisine; 3) plush public areas and staterooms; and 4) exotic destinations.

When I refer to luxury cruises, I’m thinking of Crystal Cruises, Hapag LloydRegent Seven Seas Cruises, Seabourn, Silversea Cruises — and one you may not be thinking of, SeaDream Yacht Club.

I’ve sailed on all of these cruise lines in the past few months, and my absolute favorite among them — sorry to disappoint you — tends to be whichever one I am sailing on at the time.

It’s easy for me to say that Seabourn Odyssey is my favorite, but that’s because I was on the ship as I typed these words.

Seabourn’s Sojourn-class ships are especially nice. © 2009 Ralph Grizzle

We were anchored in a small bay in Rovinj, Croatia, and just across the bay was SeaDream II. Seeing it reminded me that it was my favorite luxury vessel when I sailed on her sister, SeaDream I, in March.

Likewise, I loved Crystal when I overnighted on Symphony in Stockholm in late June (I’ve cruised her several times), adored Silversea when I cruised the Cloud in July (as I did Whisper when I sailed on her two years ago). And I remained regally impressed when on Regent Seven Seas Voyager for the third time just a couple of weeks ago.

I enjoy Crystal’s sushi bar – best at sea perhaps. © 2010 Ralph Grizzle

Each of the luxury lines excels in areas over its competitors: Crystal has the best sushi restaurant among the luxury players; Regent, the best steakhouse; SeaDream boasts the best marina.

The staff at Regent excels. © 2009 Ralph Grizzle

And though I’m uncertain as to whether this has particular relevance, Silversea pours three house champagnes; Regent and Seabourn only one, and Crystal, pours none at all on a complimentary basis (except for sparkling on embarkation day — update: Crystal went all inclusive in the spring of 2012. See ).

All luxury cruise lines pour copious amounts of complimentary champagne. © 2009 Ralph Grizzle

Crystal, in fact, is in another league altogether. Its ships are larger and with two seatings for dinner. The others are all open-seating dining. All but Crystal offers complimentary beverages, including wine, spirits and beer. And Crystal is the only luxury player where gratuities are not included in the cruise fare. Update: In the spring of 2012, Crystal joined its competitors by going all-inclusive.

So which is the best? First, a qualification. A friend of mine, also a travel writer, posed this question to me: If you had your choice of cruising on any luxury vessel — itinerary, room type and cruise fare are not a factor — which would you choose?

My intuition responds SeaDream Yacht Club. I like al fresco dining — without having to make reservations. In fact, I like a ship where I don’t have to make reservations at all. All but SeaDream require reservations for dining at their specialty restaurants.

I also like being able to sleep under the stars on the Balinese beds in custom-embroidered pajamas that SeaDream provides for its guests. And I like the marina. As I wrote this in Rovinj, SeaDream’s marina was in operation; Seabourn Odyssey’s was not. Moreover, SeaDream’s marina is proportionately sized to guest capacity, and with wave-runners, which I enjoy (Seabourn does not have wave-runners.)

I love sleeping under the stars on SeaDream. © 2010 Ralph Grizzle

Of course, SeaDream operates the smallest vessels among the luxury players, carrying slightly more than 100 guests on each of its two yachts. Size matters. I prefer smaller ships.

But having intuitively answered SeaDream, I can’t emphasize strongly enough that SeaDream only edges out over the competition by an ultra-thin razor’s edge. You may not care for marinas or sleeping outdoors.

And SeaDream certainly has its detractors. Staterooms have no balconies, bathrooms are small, the vessels lack multiple dining venues. And if you want Broadway-style entertainment on your vacation, SeaDream will disappoint you. What’s good for me may not be good for you. Also, bad weather, and all bets are off: SeaDream delivers a quality experience only in good weather, which is why the yachts sail only in the Caribbean and Mediterranean.

The point that I am trying to make here is that there are no clear winners in the luxury market — except for one, you.

The competition is fierce, and it’s intensifying. Suddenly, with Seabourn Odyssey in the marketplace, there are 450 more luxury berths to fill each day. Silversea introduces a new vessel later this year.

To vie for your vacation dollars, each of the luxury players is offering steep discounts, more than 70 percent off with air included if you book during your cruise on at least one cruise line. Yes, brochure prices are inflated, but make no mistake: Luxury cruises are offering unprecedented values, which in turn creates unprecedented opportunities for you to chart your course and discover which luxury cruise line ranks among your favorites.

I can assure you of one thing: No matter which luxury vessel you choose, it’s unlikely that you’ll step off the ship regretting your decision. They are all winners in a segment of the industry that sets stratospheric standards — and seldom disappoints.

Join the Conversation

Jeff Rowland says:

Great article! Lots of useful information that I’ve been pouring over the Internet to find.

Jeff

James says:

Bruce…Three of us have reserved an attached Grand Suite on a Silver Shadow 17 day cruise. We have differing opinions on how necessary it is to wear black tie or dinner jackets on formal nights. One of us say, ‘unnecessary’, one says, ‘totally necessary’, and one couldn’t care less. What say you? Which of us will be more comfortable on this Silver Sea cruise?

theavidcruiser says:

Suit or jacket and tie is adequate and you will feel comfortable in either. No need to “dress to the nines.”

Bruce Anderson says:

You left out one very important angle (to us), politics. When my wife and I took a cruise a few years back. I kept finding myself biting my tounge and getting elbowed in the anticipation that I would square off verbally with the liberal dogma that was so prevelant onboard Carnival Discovery. From the comics, to the cruise director, and even the chef. Everyone had to get their dig in at President Bush, blaming him for everything from customs inconveniences to global warming. We don’t need to sleep on red, white and blue sheets and hear conservative speakers. But we would appreciate a “neutral zone” onboard so we could leave the back biting, and snobbery behind. Any affordable options for cruisers who just want to relax in peace?

Ralph Grizzle says:

Thanks for the comment Barry. The Cunard Grills could conceivably be a contender. I know some people include the Grills in their luxury assessments. I prefer to think of the entire ship. If it were opened to a “ship within a ship,” would NCL’s villas also qualify as a luxury contender? I’m not sure.

Joe says:

Where, when, or how do you get the best prices for Seabourn?  I’ve been doing some web searches and have not found much price difference or great deals for Med cruises in May.  Thanks

Anonymous says:

The luxury lines are all pretty competitively priced, meaning that you’re not going to find a lot of differences. At least that’s my experience. You might compare the add-ons, such as Business Class air – a must if you’re going to have a complete luxury experience – and shipboard credits.

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