The class system has been quietly making a comeback on some large cruise ships, where big spenders are increasingly being tucked away in sumptuous – and hidden – enclaves that resemble members-only country clubs, complete with lavish suites, separate pool decks with private cabanas, exclusive dining areas and even trained butlers.
Luxury staterooms on big ships are nothing new, of course; many cruise lines offer VIP suites with access to lounges and other high-end perks. For example, Cunard has always embraced classed cruising with its exclusive dining venues for its Queens and Princess Grill passengers, and Disney Cruise Line offers concierge-level suites on its two largest ships.
But two mass-market lines – Norwegian Cruise Line and MSC Cruises – have taken exclusivity to another level. Book a stateroom in The Haven on Norwegian or in the Yacht Club on MSC, and you’ll gain keycard access to a special section of the ship that is so rarefied, the experience is almost like being on a different vessel. Billed as a world of private luxury, they offer first-class amenities and service – and even secluded spaces away from the masses.
The latest line to dive into the so-called “ship within a ship” waters is Celebrity Cruises, which will debut its Suite Class next year, featuring a swanky suite with sea views, a dedicated private restaurant and a butler who will unpack and book excursions for you.
The concept is a departure from the social equality that existed for decades on most mega cruise ships, with all passengers dining together, rubbing elbows in the same bars and competing for the same deck chairs. While you could pay for a larger stateroom, you couldn’t always avoid the crowd at the pool or the lines at the buffet.
Now you can. Mixing the best elements of mass market cruising with the exclusivity and top-notch service of luxury cruising is proving to have huge appeal. “We are definitely seeing that there is a market for people who want all the amenities of a big ship – the entertainment, the big casino, plenty of options when it comes to places to eat and drink – but they also really want a more exclusive luxury experience,” said Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor of CruiseCritic.com.
Brown said her favorite ship-within-a-ship experience has been with MSC. “The Yacht Club has big lounge on the forward of the ship that’s just beautiful,” she said. “They have a really big, nice pool deck and the experience is so personal. Everyone knows your name after the first day.”
On Norwegian Cruise Line, which offers The Haven on seven of its 14 ships, the “ship within a ship” has proven so popular that it has been given a larger presence on the line’s two newest ships, the Breakaway and Getaway. “And it will be even larger on Norwegian Escape, coming in 2015,” said Norwegian Cruise Line spokeswoman AnneMarie Mathews.
Passengers in The Haven say they value the exclusivity and high levels of service above all else, Mathews said. “We started with a dedicated concierge and then added trained butlers to the top-level suites. We’ve also opened the dedicated Haven Restaurant for all meals, so guests can enjoy that exclusive dining experience at every meal, if they so wish.”
Then there are all the little extras, such as the welcome beverage upon arrival and light snacks and hors d’oeuvres offered during the cruise.
The new cruise class system is virtually unrecognizable from the trans-Atlantic ocean liners of a century ago, when third-class passengers traveled in steerage so they’d remain out of sight of the first-class passengers. Nowadays it’s the premium-class passenger who is ensconced in a discreet area of the ship.
“One of the things these cruise lines have done really well is that they’ve tucked the special rooms and lounges and sundecks away,” Brown said. “If you’re not in The Haven or the Yacht Club, you’re probably not even going to know that there is this option.”
As you might expect, butler service and exclusive sundecks don’t come cheap. Staterooms inside the ship-within-a-ship can command three or four times what an “ordinary” cabin would cost, which is beyond the budget of the majority of passengers, said Sherri Eisenberg, editor-in-chief of the online cruise magazine Bon Voyage. “The price points are so different that someone looking at a lower-priced cabin is not going to be also considering The Haven. So I think it’s probably a different category of customer that’s comparing The Haven to more expensive cruise lines.”
Luxury travelers, meanwhile, tend to see value for money, said Brown. “You get many more services and you’re paying for the exclusivity of the space.”
When choosing a ship-within-a-ship experience, Brown recommends taking a careful look at which services are included and whether the price includes alcohol.
Unsurprisingly, the private and semi-private spaces in a “ship within a ship” are attractive to multigenerational families traveling together. “On a multigenerational trip, different family members can have different price points, and this option offers the ability to travel on one ship and have everyone get what they want,” Eisenberg said.
“Besides,” says Brown, “there aren’t too many luxury cruise lines that cater to families. So this appeals to families who can afford to do luxury but want the kids’ clubs, or they want the amenities like theater shows and lots of places to dine – but they also want a place they can retreat to.”
So what’s not to like? “You have to be OK with the fact that you’re still going to be on a ship with 3,500 other passengers, so there will be crowds and lines to some extent,” said Eisenberg. “Being inside the ‘ship within a ship’ will help you avoid some of that, but it’s going to be a very different experience than on a small luxury ship.”
Suzanne Rowan Kelleher is the family vacations expert at About.com.