Ship-Within-a-Ship vs. Luxury Cruises: Smackdown!
Over the past several years, the line between luxury and mass-market ships has been getting a little blurry. In what you could call a “skyboxing” effect (where higher paying guests are separated from regular travelers), lines like Norwegian, Royal Caribbean, MSC, and Celebrity have begun designing ships with ultra-exclusive spaces with high-end cabins, lounges, pools, and restaurants that only travelers willing to pay top dollar can access.
Expensive suite options on mainstream ships are nothing new, but most of the time, you were simply paying for a larger room with more amenities. But new concepts like The Haven on Norwegian, The Retreat on Celebrity, and MSC’s Yacht Club are completely private and self-sufficient onboard spaces, appropriately dubbed a “ship-within-a-ship”.
Guests in these areas don’t have to deal with crowded pools, hot tubs, or restaurants, but they can still enjoy the big-stage entertainment or adrenaline-pumping activities that modern cruise ships are known for. Fares for these exclusive experiences are comparable to (and sometimes higher than) luxury ship pricing, so which option is better?
With few exceptions, the luxury lines generally offer “All Suite” ships, though the “standard” suites on these ships are rarely larger than and is much more akin to a mini-suite on a mainstream cruise line. Some of the lowest price suites even lack balconies (though all offer an ocean view). Bigger suites on luxury ships feature multiple rooms and a lot more space, but tend to be understated in design and amenities. Suites offered as part of a “ship-within-a-ship” also vary in size and configuration from large, single room “suites” to more ostentatious options like the 3 bedroom Garden Villas in NCL’s Haven.
Winner: Tie. You’re paying for more space, and you’ll get it with either option. Cabin choices shouldn’t factor too prominently in your decision. If you’re looking for a cabin that will provide more Instagram-ready photo opportunities, a ship-within-a-ship is likely the better option. If you want more elegance, stick with a luxury line.
Dining comes down to choosing between quantity of options and overall quality. You’ll have a lot more choices on a ship-within-a-ship as the newest vessels from lines like Norwegian, Royal Caribbean and Celebrity often have over twenty different restaurants on board, serving just about anything you can think of. You’ll find an abundance of burgers, burritos, pizza, and sushi, and most ships have several high-end dining options as well, like Cagney’s Steakhouse on Norwegian or Murano on Celebrity. However, a luxury ship can deliver Michelin-star quality at every single meal, and are far more accommodating of personal requests.
Winner: Tie. It really depends on what kind of foodie you are. If you want to eat somewhere different every night and generally prefer quick, casual dining over multi-course meals, sail on a ship-within-a-ship. But if you accept nothing but the best, stick to luxury.
While ships-within-a-ship will have a concierge and 24-hour butler service, nothing beats the white-glove service on a luxury line. With that said, the cruise industry as a whole is known for its impeccable service. If you take a look at our member’s choice awards for 2019 (or any other year for that matter), you’ll see that service is by far the highest-rated category. Cruisers are far more impressed by the service than their cabins, dining, or any form of onboard entertainment or activities, so it’s more like you’re choosing between 3-star and 4-star service, rather than 1-star and 4-star.
Winner: Luxury cruise. Your service will still be excellent on a mainstream line, but luxury cruise ship staff are trained to the highest standards imaginable.
Entertainment, Activities & Pools
Sailing on a ship-with-a-ship gives you access to the best entertainment the cruise industry has to offer. Luxury sailings have entertainment as well, but instead of big stage numbers you should expect more intimate performances, and the onboard music is more along the lines of jazz ensembles and classical pianists instead of reggae bands and DJs. One area where luxury lines do excel are their enrichment lectures. Historians and naturalists are often invited aboard to give informative talks about upcoming ports and destinations, and considering that luxury sailings often sail to more off-the-beaten-path ports, it’s no surprise that travelers who sail to experience new destinations often prefer luxury lines.
When it comes to pools, sundecks, and loungers, a ship-within-a-ship gives you access to a private pool and pool deck just for ship-within-a-ship passengers, so you don’t have to fight for a lounge chair or deal with a pool overcrowded with kids. You’ll also have access to the ship’s main pools and sundecks. On a luxury ship, you’re limited to the main pool that all guests on the ship have access to. Given the larger passenger-to-space ratio on luxury ships, you won’t have to fight for lounger space or deal with kids hogging the pool, but having the private area on a ship-within-a-ship is a distinct advantage.
Winner: Ship-within-a-ship. The educational lectures on a luxury cruise might do it for some, but on a mainstream ship, you can see a broadway-quality show, a stand-up comedy act, and multiple live bands all in a single night.
This one is hardly a contest. To be perfectly blunt, most kids will be excruciatingly bored on a luxury ship. Not only are luxury ships simply not designed for families, some lines don’t even allow children on board. Bigger, mass-market ships on the other hand, are built from the ground up to please families. Kids will have access to everything from age-appropriate activities and contests organized by the ship’s staff to onboard rock walls, mini-golf, and water slides, while parents relish the chance to drop their kids off at supervised daycare while they enjoy some quiet time at the spa or an adults-only area of the ship.
Winner: Ship-within-a-ship. Unless of course, you’re specifically looking for a cruise without kids, in which a luxury cruise is your best bet.
There are so many variables that affect pricing that it’s difficult to compare fares between luxury lines and ships-within-a-ship. The average price between lines can vary, and other factors like the newness of the ship, the type of cabin booked, and the month of sailing all have a huge impact on the fare. With that said, we did notice during our research that luxury fares in the Caribbean are far more competitive, with prices generally ranging from $2,500 to $4,500 per person for a 7 night luxury sailing, which was only slightly higher than the $2,000 to $4,000 range for cabins on the Haven on Norwegian, Celebrity's Suite Class, and MSC Yacht Club. For Europe and other more exotic destinations, however, luxury fares were demonstrably higher, ranging from $3,000 to $7,000, whereas ship-within-a-ship pricing stayed in the $2,500 to $4,000 range.
Winner: Tie. There are too many different factors for us to make a confident conclusion on this, although it does seem like luxury cruises offer a better bang for your buck on Caribbean sailings. Still, keep in mind that on a ship-within-a-ship you’re paying for the entertainment and activities of a modern cruise ship that luxury vessels simply don’t have.
This is not an easy decision to make, and it eventually comes down to what kind of cruise experience you’re looking for. If you’re traveling as a family or a young couple and want to stay active and entertained throughout your cruise, it’s hard to beat the combination of high-end service and mass-market amenities you’ll find on a ship-within-a-ship. On the other hand, if refined relaxation is more your speed and you couldn’t care less about big stage productions or water slides, you’ll likely be much happier on a luxury sailing.