Blurring the lines between budget, premium and luxury ships

Cruise ships have a reputation for encouraging a measure of gluttony.

On nearly every modern ship, you may start eating before the sun comes up and maintain a forkful until late into the night, when a call to room service will bring a snack to tide you over until dawn. A cruise can be a constant flow of French fries, sticky buns, and globs of multi-course meals with a never-ending supply of desserts and between-meal enticements.

Eating full, of course, is not the same as eating well.

When an expert travel agent described Oceania Cruises’ newer vessels — the upscale Marina and Riviera — as the “eating ships,” he wasn’t talking about passengers stuffing themselves from plates piled high. Instead, he was describing meals at sea that rival the quality of your favorite restaurants at home — all included in the basic cruise rate.

This is a formula that is working well for Oceania Cruises, which is branding its ships as floating country clubs with a host of chefs who draw the biggest applause from passengers at gatherings of ship personnel.

On Oceania, the chefs are the artists whose presentations vacationers come to taste.

Before I get to the unlimited lobster tails and lamb chops on the Riviera during a recent Caribbean voyage, let’s look at what you get for your money on one of the so-called premium cruise lines:

The cruise industry has three basic rankings for ships — contemporary (or budget), premium (or pay a little more) and luxury (with daily rates that reach my monthly rent).

Lines between the categories have blurred, especially among the bigger ships. For instance, contemporary cruise companies such as Royal Caribbean and Norwegian keep adding intriguing activities and new restaurant choices to raise the value of their products (and their rates) in competition with large ships operated by premium lines such as Princess, Celebrity and Holland America.

Complicating the issue is the trend toward charging extra for some activities and for meals at specialty restaurants, which are at least a cut above the fare in main dining rooms, where food is included in the basic rate. The result is that you may have premium experiences aboard a budget ship by paying extra fees. These days, a cruise that started at $100 per person per night easily can become $200 a night.

When comparing ships of different categories, such as contemporary and premium, two major differences stand out — the quality of service and the public spaces available for relaxing, reading, and talking to new friends.

On contemporary ships, cruise lines seem to be shoe-horning as many people aboard as they can get away with (for obvious financial reasons), which is why buffet lines are crowded and you probably won’t see much of your busy cabin attendants or table waiters.

So, if you book one of the contemporary ships, upgrade to a higher-priced cabin and take advantage of some fee-based accoutrements, you may pay as much for your cruise as you would pay on a premium ship that has a larger, better trained staff and public rooms with an atmosphere of more elegance and comfort.

Such differences can be significant on the best of the smaller premium ships — some call them upper premium — operated by Windstar, with three (soon to be six) ships of approximately 200-300 passengers; Azamara, with two nearly 700-passenger ships; and Oceania, with five ships that range from about 700 passengers to the newest 1,250-passenger Marina and Riviera.

Each of these three lines has its own niche. From my experiences, outdoorsy Windstar draws passengers more active and sailor-casual, while guests tend to be more excursion-oriented and intellectual on Azamara, where dinner is accompanied by a harpist. All three, with rates usually $200-$300 per night per person, operate somewhat below the luxury level (such as ships operated by Silversea, Crystal, Regent Seven Seas and Seabourn), at rates sometimes substantially below the luxury level.

Don’t try to compare rates, however, without considering what is included in the overall price. Some of the upper premium and luxury cruise lines include all alcohol in their rates, some include beer and wine, and others throw in the cost of shore excursions, special nights ashore, staff gratuities, airfare or, on competitive routes, shipboard credits for shops and activities.

Confused? These differences are reasons enough to consult with a travel agent to book a premium or luxury line. Otherwise, be prepared to spend hours on research, with a calculator.

Which brings us back to the sushi, the lobster and the lamb chops aboard Oceania’s Riviera.

“As long as you put lobster and caviar on the menu, with a glass of champagne, everybody is happy,” said Christophe Belin, Riviera’s senior executive chef. “Our food and food service are well in competition with luxury lines, with no charge for the specialty restaurants. But we are not luxury. We are like an exclusive country club.”

Sisters Riviera and Marina are roomy ships. My Caribbean cruise was full, but that never was obvious. Deck chair areas and indoor lounges were not crowded. In the dining rooms, from the Grand Dining Room to the outdoor café, there was always an empty table, unless you wanted an extra evening at one of the four fine specialty restaurants in prime time. Every passenger is guaranteed a set number of specialty restaurant reservations, depending on the length of the voyage, at Red Ginger (Asian), Polo (steakhouse), Toscana (Italian) and Jacques Pepin’s French bistro called Jacques.

I tasted escargot, French onion soup, lobster thermidor, curried chicken in coconut milk, foie gras, duck breast, Kobe beef burgers, steaks, veal chop, king crab, shrimp, papaya, sushi, tuna, sea bass, Maine and Caribbean lobster tails, salads, fruit, cheeses and a few desserts.

Oceania has managed to make its Terrace Café a dinner favorite. The self-serve, food station restaurant, high at the aft end of the ship, is well staffed and has tables inside and out. They drew a regular group of casual diners who filled a series of small plates from a substantial array of choices that included a raw bar, sushi and cheese counters, and a grill that never ran out of lobster tails or lamb chops.

Chefs showed up regularly in dining rooms, talking with passengers about food and presentation.

Each night, it seemed, Belin, the executive chef, was in the Terrace Café. As I passed him, he would look over the items on my plate, and I could feel his judgment. I wanted to rearrange things, so the plate looked more presentable, or stop back at one of the serving stations to add another color to the palate to please the artist on this ship of foods.

David Molyneaux writes monthly about cruising. He is editor of