Monday, May 14, 2012

Upper Premuim vs. Luxury Cruise Lines - What Are The Differences?

With the maiden voyage of the Oceania Riviera upon us, and her accolades flowing, there are some comments and some things happening that show the real distinction between Luxury and what has now become called Upper Premium cruises.

But before I get into the specifics, you need to ask yourself:  Does it matter?  For some of you it will not matter one bit, but for others it makes all the difference in the world.  That is not a criticism of one, but it is a reality that any good travel agent must respect because you should never pay for something you do not want or is not of relevance to you.

I am a luxury travel advisor.  I enjoy the finer things in life and appreciate the nuances; the things that take the really nice and make them extraordinary.  The differences matter to me; not because I am guilty of making that dreaded "List", but because I inhale everything from the extra care to the special effort to the wonderful effect. 

A landbased example from this weekend: For Mother's Day my family dined at Restaurant Nicholas. (BTW, I had the six course tasting menu with a very nice 2009 Domaine Samuel Billaud Chablis, Les Grand Terroirs with a cheese course in lieu of the dessert.) Mother's Day is a very difficult day for service as there is high demand all day. Our meal was a bit slow - though we enjoyed our time together - and there were a couple of small service glitches. We wound up just a glass short of wine to complete our meal. The sommelier saw this and brought my wife and I a complimentary glass of wine...each one paired to our specific dish (she had lamb and I had suckling pig)...and then brought out the dessert I passed on...complimentary as well. Someone else might have said, "Who needs a six course tasting menu...at those prices?"

In short, if you are someone that simply wants a standard cabin with decent food and a good time this article and the differences are irrelevant.  If not, read on!

Difference No. 1 - Oceania Cruise Line's Customer Loyalty "By Decree"
*Bad Value for the Cruise Consumer*

Oceania has just announced a very restrictive policy that assures you pay the highest possible price while receiving the least amount of value.

It has done this by limiting your ability to transfer your direct bookings...right after it eliminated travel agent discounting and limited how and how much travel agents can add value (upgrades, onboard credits, etc.).  Oceania Cruises designed this "system" to box you in to your financial and service detriment

Now, if you book an Oceania cruise directly with the cruise line and want to transfer that booking to a travel agent, you MUST transfer it within 30 days of making the reservation (not from the deposit date) or that travel agent will not earn a commission and, thus, you will not receive any added value or amenities (which can be equal to 5% of the cruise fare).

This is, to my mind, not Upper Premium no less Luxury. It is anti-competitive and abusive to the consumer.  So you need to ask yourself, "If Oceania Cruises won't let me move my reservation or rebook it with the travel agent that gives me a better price/value and more personalized service, what are the other limitations I am going to experience?"

Caution No. 1 - False Perspectives vs. Realty...Your Reality 

And with that thought two comments by travel writers caught my eye. In Travel Weekly, the author wrote that the Oceania Riviera's Owner Suites at about 2,000 square feet "is larger than the house [she] lives in" (rents?) and Paul Motter, that rather angry/frustrated/incompetent editor at CruiseMates wrote "Seabourn is for people willing to pay extra for a product that really delivers next to nothing, solely because they have been able to convince certain people that "quiet solitude" is an asset worth paying double."

Respectfully, when someone who rents a small house or you know is clueless as to luxury gives an opinion, you need to stop and ask, "Do I and my desires identify with that person? If they don't then I should be very careful when I read what they write.."

As for Paul Motter's fraudulent - yet again - diatribe, I just took a look at a 14 day Northern European cruise on the Seabourn Pride versus a 10 day Northern European cruise on the Oceania Nautica sailing at about the same time. On Seabourn you would pay $16,021 for a 277 square foot French Balcony Suite and dock right in downtown St. Petersburg overnighting for three days, while a 216 square foot Concierge Class cabin with premium drink package costs $15, 372 including gratuities while docking an hour outside of the city.  On a per day basis, Seabourn is less expensive than Oceania...and there are only 208 guests vs. 684 passengers.

A Few of Examples of the Differences
Between Upper Premium and Luxury Cruises

OK, now onto just a few of the differences between Upper Premium and Luxury cruiseships

Content (Not Size) Matters

Some people complain about the size of the televisions on the new Seabourn Odyssey-class ships and are thrilled with the televisions on the new Oceania Marina and Riviera suites (with one even overlooking the outdoor whirlpool tub in the top suites).  What is the difference between the two?  On Oceania (except in the suites) you must get DVDs from the ship's library and bring them back to your suite.  On Seabourn you have hundreds of movies on demand coupled with a very sophisticated on-demand entertainment/information system.  For me, deciding on a movie at midnight from my bed means a lot.  Looking at the sea rather than a television when outdoors means even more.  But if a big screen television is worth the limitations of walking half the ship to get a DVD...if the library is open...is worth the compromise, it is an option.  In short, size doesn't matter to me; content does.

Size Matters - Sometimes

I read that Oceania Riviera has a slightly larger shower because people found the Oceania Marina showers so small that they couldn't pick up dropped soap.  (And on the older Oceania ships the showers are so small that the shower curtain attacks you.)  And then, of course, is the issue of whether there is even a bathtub as many of their cabins (especially on the older ships) they aren't offered.  Seabourn offers a bathtub tub/shower in all its categories or seperate bathtub and shower in all Odyssey-class categories.

Service Matters

On Seabourn, Silversea and Crystal, your drinks are included...even most premium brands...so service is seamless and your glass is rarely empty when you don't want it to be and you have a properly stocked  in-suite bar setup (on Seabourn and Silversea) with Seabourn taking the added step of free flowing champagne and true caviar.  On Oceania, you can pay as you go (with hefty gratuity added) or you can purchase one of two packages (essentially chosen wines and beer with meals or open bar service with limitations), presenting your card each time.  Caviar is not really an Oceania-option and when it is you pay dearly for it.  In short, seamlessness and no sense of penny-pinching matters...especially when I am staring at Oceania gratuities of up to 18% in the face.

Cuisine Matters

And when it comes to cuisine, Oceania can speak of being a cruise line for Foodies, but the fact is that it just cannot compete with the quality, presentation and variety that Seabourn offers.  That is, in large part, because Seabourn focuses on ala minute preparation for 208 or 450 guests rather than staging for 684 or 1,250 people dining at the same time.  (Remember the delay at Restaurant Nicholas - one of the finest restaurants around - I spoke of earlier?)  Reality is that Oceania can speak of the flour and butter is uses (it really isn't that unique), but it cannot speak of going to the local fish market mid-cruise, finding something unique and putting it on the next evening's menu.

I found curious a comment by one travel writing being impressed that the tongs on the buffet on the Oceania Riviera were faced in, so that the server could use them rather than it being self-service.  On Seabourn that is "normal"...and staff is there to carry your plate...or, if you like...to allow you to sit and dine while you never go to the buffet.

What's Best For You?

This article just touches the tip of the iceberg.  But what it also does is let you know that everything from how you book, to the itinerary, to the port locations to the amenities, to service and cuisine differences remain significantly different between Upper Premium and Luxury.  And, as you see, the price just may not be the issue you have been told it is.

Remember, Goldring Travel wants you to be the best educated cruise consumer you can be...and we want to earn your business for life; not just one cruise.

If you have more questions or would like to discuss booking a cruise or other vacation, please give us a call at (877) 2GO-LUXURY or UK: 020 8133 3450 or AUS: (07) 3102 4685 or International: +1 732 578 8585.  You can also email me at eric@goldringtravel.com