Monday, August 3, 2009

Which is the Best Luxury Cruise Line - Another View

I guess I asked for this.

I pointed a number of my readers to Ralph Grizzle's Avid Cruiser website as I posted his short video on Seabourn Odyssey's cuisine. So today I read Ralph's post about which is the best luxury cruise line. He mentions Seabourn, Silversea, Regent Seven Seas, Crystal and SeaDream Yacht Club. His choice: SeaDream, but not because of the totality of the product, but some very specific personal likes (sleeping under the stars, small demand at the marina, etc.)

This is where the difference between analysis, providing info and personal preferences can really create issues for those relying on what one writes or says. (I actually had one client contact Ralph about the marina on Odyssey and then seek advice from me...which is great by the way...as a result of his personal bias - said in a nice way.)

As most of you know, I believe SeaDream is a very good product...in fact, one of the best. However, you really have to want to be on SeaDream or you will be sorely disappointed. It has cabins; not suites and their are no balconies of any sort. It is a fairly casual affair. It is small, so if you do not like your shipmates you can be in for a long cruise. (But also is why the ships are great for large families and charters). They are not fun in even slightly rough seas and rainy days are not filled with activities and venues for private escapes. Also, itineraries need to be considered. These ships are, by nature, limited in ports and duration. However, the cuisine is very good and the service is strong.

But you need to ask yourself a single question before you get into your analysis: Do I need a suite? With so many luxury cruisers answering that questions in the affirmative it is no wonder that such a strong product has so many sailing with availability. That is not a criticism, but a reality check. Balinese beds and a marina are great, but defining the best luxury cruise line by them is - for a competent travel agent - a worry.

I have heard such divergent views on Regent Seven Seas (It was fantastic vs. It was terrible. The service was outstanding vs. The service was horrific., The food was marginal vs. The food is was great., etc. many times from the same cruise) that my approach has to be one of caution. Regent has taken the approach of keeping its prices higher, but adding what it has determined is value (ex. inclusive tours). If those tours are not attracting the true luxury guest, then it is a negative in two respects: Lack of justification for the higher prices (since the other luxury lines have slashed prices) and attraction of one-off non-luxury passengers who are attracted to the perceived added value. With excellent suites, newly renovated public areas and 700+ guests when sailing full, it is in a way the antithesis of SeaDream which has consistent raves from its small ship guests.

It has been mentioned that Silversea pours three different complimentary champagne while Regent pours none and Seabourn pours one. Seabourn continues to serve complimentary caviar. Would either cause me to declare Seabourn or Silversea the luxury champion? Me thinks not.

What I have heard from quite a number of guests returning from the Seabourn Odyssey is that she is the best of both worlds: highly personalized cruising with plenty of private space coupled with extraordinary service and cuisine. There have been grumblings of some minor misses on the triplets from a few people (but they were minor grumblings), but then I received an email from someone just back from the Seabourn Pride stating, "Trip was sooooooooooo over the top........I cannot begin to describe right now. We put the deposit down on a trip for next year." So the question becomes: Does size make a difference? Is the luxury experience on the Seabourn Odyssey better than the one on the Seabourn Pride? Are these two different luxury cruise lines or one luxury cruise line with different offerings?

SeaDream vs. Seabourn Pride vs. Seabourn Odyssey vs. Regent Voyager = 100 vs. 208 vs. 450 vs. 700+ (I use the "+" because Regent actively markets itself for children and, as such, the capacity - at least in the summer and holidays - can well exceed the published lower berth capacities).

So what is the best luxury cruise line? Tell me what your desires are. Tell me what your likes and dislikes are? Let me know what makes you happy. Only after I have that information can I tell you what the best luxury cruise line is...for you.

Are you looking for my opinion for me personally? It depends. You say, "What?". Yes, it depends.

If traveling with only my wife I would choose Seabourn without hesitation. Seabourn has greatly improved and unique itineraries and consistently high service and cuisine. Don't get me wrong, I do love the Seabourn Odyssey, but I would not exclude the triplets as the ship itself is not as important to me (for they all have more than acceptable faciliites for me.)

If I am traveling with my wife and children (ages 10 and 13) I would have said Regent Seven Seas...right up until I cruised on the Celebrity Solstice. (I don't think Seabourn is great for MY kids...though others disagree.) In two weeks I am cruising on the brand new Celebrity Equinox for 13 nights in two Concierge Class cabins. I have five evenings reserved in the specialty restaurants to start with. At less than $165.00 a day, adding a few dollars for specialty dining and having to sign for drinks and water doesn't really degrade the possibility of a luxury experience (as I sign at land-based restaurants and private clubs all the time.) I mean, Regent is marketing value to support its higher prices, right? And higher prices do not mean higher quality to an educated consumer, right? So right now I would say, "I don't know, but there are some good options." In the meantime I would say Regent may be the best of the "marketed as luxury lines" if they get their capacity in line with their ability, but I would look very hard at Celebrity.

So which is the best luxury cruise line...for you?