Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Mitsubishi Outlander vs. Cadillac SRX - What Does This Have To Do With Luxury Cruises?

This past weekend I drove my children 325 miles to Vermont where they will spend four weeks at sleepaway camp...without cell phones, texting, computers, iPods, video games, air conditioning or fashion.  It may seem like a horror to some, but my kids can't wait to get back to probably their favorite place on earth. 

At my son's camp, Keewaydin, the owner, Peter Hare, walked right up to my son, recognized him by name, shook his and said "Welcome back. Great to see you!" and at my daughter's camp, Songadeewin, she was greeted with, "Oh, I didn't recognize you with your hair pulled back. We are so excited you are here for your second year!" Yeah, that name recognition thing is important to me...and even more so to my kids. It makes them/me/(you) feel valued and something other than just a nameless person that needs to be mechanically greeted just because you are there. But that is only a side note to what I am thinking about today. 

During my 12 hours of driving there and back I thought about how many things we have that really aren't necessary and clutter our lives.  I thought about how for years I drove a $50,000+ Cadillac SRX because it was supposedly a luxury SUV, but for me it was one headache after another.  Then I thought about my used 2007 Mitsubishi Outlander I bought about 6 months ago for $19,000 and how this rather ordinary SUV does so many things better than the Cadillac SRX...and how much happier it made me...because it gives me what I need (whether to haul hay or take the family on a long journey).

Seriously, the Outlander has all the basic luxury and functional items such as leather seating, automatic climate control, satellite radio, high intensity/self-leveling lighting, true 4 wheel drive (locking differential), 3 rows of seating, etc., but it doesn't have much in the way of wood trim, heavy doors, rear air conditioning or gimmicks.  The Mitsubishi is quicker and handles better than the Cadillac, maintains the same highway speeds equally as well...and has the bonus of 25 mpg vs. 18 mpg (40% better!).

And that lead me to thinking about a discussion I have had, and has recently been had on Cruise Critic, about why Seabourn is worth the premium in price, but Celebrity is a better value than Silversea or Regent.  Note:  I am not saying Silversea or Regent are not good cruises, but wonder if the "value" is there. 

Lincoln used to be the standard bearer of luxury, but then it started to slip in quality and had gimmicks that just didn't work.  Then the fit and finish started to slip and it became really not much more than a Ford with a few bits and slick marketing.  When compared to Lexus or Mercedes it just doesn't make it...even with the premium pricing and efforts to maintain its cache.  Cadillac is much the same.  But then compare that Lexus to an Infiniti and you start to wonder if the value doesn't lie in the Infiniti.  I mean the name doesn't have the cache, but the car has all the bells and whistles, and fit and finish of a Lexus, though the ride is different.

Thinking about cruise lines as I was driving I began categorizing them as The Yachts of Seabourn and Crystal Cruises being the Lexus/Mercedes, Silversea and Regent Seven Seas being the Lincoln and Cadillacs and Celebrity being my new best friend, the 2007 Mitsubishi Outlander.  (I figure Oceania is probably an Infiniti, btw.)  I leave the superyachts to the Rolls Royces and Maserattis.

I mean, all luxury lines have nice alternative restaurants, but Seabourn doesn't charge for any while Silversea overtly does (and, in fact, is quite expensive) and Regent has increased its pricing to include the cost of (though, admittedly, it never did charge for) alternative dining. Compare Celebrity which charges $25 or $30 per person for a truly excellent cuisine with great service in Murano and a solid steak in Tuscan Grille or decent (if not gourmet) Asian in Silk Harvest. 

Then I thought Celebrity Cruise Line's upper suites are really quite nice, and up to the standards of the luxury lines.  The butler actually makes a difference (as opposed to Regent and Silversea where they don't really), you have a private lounge with complimentary breakfast in the morning and cocktails in the evening before dinner.  Add to that its Premium Liquor Package where for less $70 per day (including gratuities) you have unlimited access to premium liquors and wines...and soft drinks.  So for about $100 per day in an upper suite (over and above the cruise fare) you can been doing quite well.  Yes, there are a few compromises like having to sign (or at least show your card), you may encounter a line or a crowd, the pool will probably be a disaster (but I don't hang out there), etc., but you also have more entertainment alternatives, a better casino, etc.

Celebrity is, like my 2007 Mitsubishi Outlander, providing me with the things I like without my having to pay a premium just because the SRX is a Cadillac...although I did have to give up a bit of flash...and, importantly, disappointments and frustrations when the flash (or anything) didn't work properly.

But, alas, that does not mean I want to give up cruising on a luxury line.  I just want to find the value in doing so.  Paying for tours I will never take (ala Regent) or getting credit for a "free air" that was never free (Regent and Silversea) don't add value.  And, honestly, those pitches things make me look closer at the little things.  It makes me wonder if I need headlights that automatically come on (I don't miss that much) or a seat that pulls back when I turn the car off (I hated the feature) or wood trim that is really just a veneer that is coated with a durable plastic finish or dual passenger air conditioning controls (does that really work anyway?).  They make me feel like I am overpaying for Lincoln when for the same money or less I can have a Lexus, Mercedes or Infiniti....with stuff that really matters.

Ever look at a luxury car and say, "That is silly or doesn't work."?  Remember the BMW radios that were so complicated they were impossible to use?  Remember the first automatically parking car which really didn't park itself?  It does not mean that the vehicles are bad vehicles, but if you paid an extra $2,000 for a navigation system that didn't function as promised, you would be disappointed...even if the automobile rode well, was comfortable and otherwise functioned as promised. Or what about having purchased that Mercedes only to find out that the fuel filter costs $500 and must be replaced, when you would have thought that fuel filters should have been included (or more reasonably priced) for what you paid for the car and/or tune-up.

It is no different, to my mind, with cruise lines.  Pay $200 a person for dinner in Le Champagne or $80 in Sheisen on Silversea... or buy that fuel filter?  Have a new ship built that doesn't accommodate physically challenged people ala Silver Spirit?  (BTW, my brother-in-law recently broke both legs and is being accommodated on the Seabourn Odyssey.  Silver Spirit obviously - even though possibly less expensive  - wasn't even an option.)  Have a navigation system or tours included that just don't function well ala Regent Seven Seas?  What about a service department that pretty much requires "Mike" to work on your car or you will be there all day (or in the Compass Rose on Regent)?

These issues always make me look even harder at the little things.  A slightly misfit panel, a rattle, a bit of wind noise.  A failure to refresh my drink.  The lack of a smile.  Ordinary canap├ęs and no caviar.

Seabourn and Crystal are two different styles of cruises.  But one rarely hears of such issues.  They are not perfect, but when a Maiden Voyage of the Seabourn Sojourn is described as "Flawless" and the renovations of the Crystal ships are given rave reviews, it skews the field... and not because of favoritism, but because of performance. 

I bought my first Cadillac SRX because I liked the car and thought it had value.  I got my second one because the first one had lots of issues (mechanical and electrical) so I got a large discount to try another.  (Sound like a cruise gone bad and then given a discount on the next one?)  But when the troubles continued..as they did for me on Regent Seven Seas...I had enough and knew I needed to look at other brands.  So I looked and saw that quality control and service was more of an issue than it had been in the past.  I saw companies struggling to reduce costs in this economy. 

And I saw Toyota...and thought of Silversea.  (Not that Silversea is dishonest - I strongly do not believe same.)  This bastion of perceived quality was hiding the financial issues and that the cutbacks...which are now admitted to be related to financial issues...will effect the quality of the luxury product more and more. And I ask, "Do I really want to get myself into a long term lease or purchase when I am going to be charged $500 for a filter/dinner or wonder if the quality that once was will be in my car/cruise?"

For me, and the way I analyze cruise lines, I see that Seabourn strives for perfection, has strong financial backing and remains focused on the little things....those things that give luxury "value".  Crystal also has strong financial backing, though its approach and style of cruising is different: less flash and more of a stoic approach (though one it is trying to shed).  But just as even a Rolls Royce or Maseratti may be the pinnacle of one's automotive experience, neither is perfect. Things may break or not work as designed.  Things may need improvement.  But overall you get the feeling of "WOW!"

So when you are looking at your next cruise, take a look at the actual car/cruise rather than the one you used to know or paid for.  Take a look at whether what is offered today is of true value or if you are going to regret paying for things that either don't function as promised or in the end aren't useful.  And, of course, don't forget my 2007 Mitsubishi Outlander for there are some really good deals out there if you just take a fresh look at some of the offerings by other cruise lines such as Celebrity.