Upper Premium Cruises Defined

What is an Upper Premium Cruise? It’s a great question. It’s just a shame it has no easy answer.

As cruising continues to grow and evolve, so too do the designators that define cruise lines. There are mainstream lines, so-called Premium lines, Upper-premium lines, luxury lines, ultra-luxury lines, expedition lines … the list goes on. And what cruise lines like to be called seems to change with the season.

Azamara Quest in Sorrento, Italy. @ 2013 Ralph Grizzle
A great example of an Upper-Premium Ship: Azamara Quest in Sorrento, Italy. @ 2013 Ralph Grizzle

From our point of view, Upper Premium Cruises refer to lines like Azamara Club Cruises, Oceania Cruises, and Viking Ocean Cruises. Of course, there’s room for debate about this: Premium big-ship lines like Holland America Line could also make the cut thanks to smaller vessels like Prinsendam  that represent a truly upper-premium experience.

On the other hand, lines like Viking Ocean Cruises are raising the bar on what defines “upper premium,” with Viking throwing in a lot more than the kitchen sink into the cost of the cruise, from complimentary wi-fi to a selection of free excursions ashore.

So what defines an upper-premium cruise line? Here’s some of the big-list items:

It’s Semi-Inclusive

Luxury touches are everywhere throughout the Viking Star. Did you know the pool in the LivNordic Spa is offered for no extra charge? Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Normally a hefty per-person charge on mainstream lines, Viking Ocean Cruises lets guests aboard Viking Star use the onboard hydrotherapy pool and thermal suites completely free of charge. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

A good upper-premium cruise will typically (but not always) offer some inclusions in the cost of the fare. This can be as simple as no-fee specialty restaurants or complimentary coffees and sodas, but can go all the way up to including beer, wine and soft drinks with lunch and dinner as on Viking Ocean’s Viking Star and Viking Sea.

It’s On A Small Ship

Holland America's venerable Prinsendam began her life as the Royal Viking Sun. Photo courtesy of Holland America Line
Holland America’s venerable Prinsendam began her life as the Royal Viking Sun. Photo courtesy of Holland America Line

The word “small” is a relative term, because these ships can be plenty big. Their passenger counts, however, are not. Upper-premium ships typically hold less than 1,500 guests, and many will hold less than that. The sweet spot seems to be somewhere around 1,000 guests – and it’s that size and generous passenger-space ratio that helps contribute to that upper-premium experience. Some 5,000 passenger ships offer a luxury “ship-within-a-ship” concept, and while those can offer a great experience, embarking and disembarking with 5,000 of your best friends is not, at its core, truly upper-premium.

Small ships enhance that upper-premium feel by being able to call on ports that are off-limits to big ships. Some lines, like Azamara, Oceania and Viking, make a point of staying in port over and above what a typical mainstream cruise would, and many lines will include overnight port calls that can be paired with special evening shore excursions – many of which are offered on a complimentary basis.

Increased Port Focus

Cannes, France. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders
Cannes, France. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Speaking of ports, they play a huge role in the upper-premium cruise experience. Expect to see relatively few sea days and port calls that run from the early morning hours until late at night. Many upper-premium cruise lines, like Azamara, offer exclusive events designed just for their guests. You might go to see an evening concert in Ephesus, or enjoy a beach barbecue on a remote island in the Caribbean. Ship-wide events like that are just not possible on the larger mainstream vessels.

Subdued Onboard Experience

The Mosaic Lounge aboard Azamara Journey features a clubby, intimate ambiance. Note that furniture and carpeting has been replaced since this press photograph was issued. Photo courtesy of Azamara Club Cruises
The Mosaic Lounge aboard Azamara Journey features a clubby, intimate ambiance. Note that furniture and carpeting has been replaced since this press photograph was issued. Photo courtesy of Azamara Club Cruises

You can usually spot an upper-premium cruise by looking at its daily program. Expect to see an increased focus on lectures, classes in things like cooking, wine appreciation and photography, or more cerebral pursuits. You won’t find the Hairy Chest Competition poolside on these ships. Instead, the focus is on socializing with your fellow guests, reading, drinking, and generally enjoying either your time ashore, or the tranquil quality of your ship when its at sea. These cruises are far from boring, but you won’t much in the way of round-the-clock activities.

It Attracts Like-Minded Cruisers

@ 2014 Chris Stanley
Who takes upper-premium ocean cruises? Well, people just like the intrepid Avid Cruiser himself. @ 2014 Chris Stanley

A funny thing happens on the big, contemporary mainstream lines: You frequently encounter what we’d like to call the “unwilling cruiser.” These are folks that have booked a cruise without really knowing much about it, and they spend much of the voyage hating the experience for whatever reason.

That tends to not happen on upper-premium cruises, for one simple reason: They’re more expensive than a mainstream cruise.

Now, that’s not to say that price alone determines the experience, but it does factor into it. For US$400 per person, your average Joe can try out a Carnival cruise and take a bath on it if they don’t like it. But upper-premium lines have per diems that run into the hundreds of dollars. They also tend to sail more exotic itineraries, away from the vacation hot-spots of St. Thomas and Cozumel.

Breakfast on the Aquavit Terrace, anyone? Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Breakfast on the Aquavit Terrace aboard Viking Star. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

That, in turn, means that people rarely book a premium voyage accidentally. There’s a purpose behind that booking, be it the itinerary or the ship, the line, or all of the above. And that, in turn, means you’ll be sailing with like-minded travellers; ones who are curious about the world – and who love cruising.

The boundaries that define the cruise lines keep changing, but one thing is certain: There’s a huge segment of the cruising population that wants to see premium cruises become even more popular than they already are; a return to the “golden age of cruising,” some would say.

And we’re all for that.

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