The cost of being inclusive and the charm of 2-for-1

Fair warning: This post is about cruising, as in on the ocean. It has nothing to do with exclusivity, ethnicity, or anything else related to social issues.

High-end cruising is expensive. That’s sort of a given. By “high-end” I mean primarily luxury cruises (Crystal, Regent Seven Seas/RSSC, Seabourn, Silverseas and some tiny little lines…plus luxury-priced exploration lines)–with an oddball, Oceania Cruises, as a semi-luxury line.

Note: “Premium” is one step below “Luxury” in the cruise world–i.e., Luxury cruise lines are the equivalent of 5-star and 6-star hotels, while Premium cruise lines are the equivalent of 4-star hotels. Holland America is the most clearcut Premium line, with Celebrity and, to some people, Princess as others. Notably, most Holland America (HAL) ships are medium-size, in the 1,300-1,900 passenger range, while luxury ships always carry fewer passengers–400 to 800, sometimes up to 1,000–and most contemporary ships carry well over 2,000 passengers. Of those discussed below, the Crystal Symphony carries 900+ passengers, the Seven Seas Navigator 490, Oceania’s ships 680, and HAL ships for these cruises around 1,400. The Symphony and Navigator have much more space per passenger than the others. Noted briefly, the Seabourn Odyssey carries 440 passengers, the Silver Shadow 382.

2-for-1 fares?

Lately, there’s been a rash of 2-for-1 pricing in the Luxury field. Nearly every Regent Seven Seas (RSSC) cruise in their brochures is advertised as 2-for-1. Ditto Oceania. Ditto Crystal. Silversea seems to be advertising a lot of 55%-off fares.

But what does 2-for-1 “off brochure fares” mean when the 2-for-1 fares are part of the brochure?

Since we haven’t kept brochures from past years (for Crystal and RSSC; we’ve never cruised on Silversea or Seabourn), I can’t prove this–but to me, the “brochure fares” (RSSC’s in particular) are a lot higher than they used to be. Maybe almost twice as high–or, at least, the discounted fares seem substantially higher than before. And 2-for-1 and 55%-off fares can be called “capacity controlled,” so the line can nick you for a much higher fare if you book late or otherwise screw up. But the prices sound like great bargains, don’t they?

I think of this sort of thing as “Ma..err, certain nameless department store pricing”–setting a very high “list” price then offering a Big Percentage Discount…which may still be higher than the manufacturer’s suggested list price, although that’s not a factor where cruising is concerned.

Maybe not so much. We took two RSSC cruises in the past. We look at the new brochures, at the 2-for-1 prices, and think we may never do so again, even if our income wasn’t down.

But that’s only part of the story.

All-inclusive and partially-inclusive: At what cost?

With mainstream cruise lines, you have (or should have) a pretty good sense that the quoted fare is just the beginning. That–plus a possible “port and security charge” that appears elsewhere on the invoice or fare statement–covers your room, meals in the primary restaurant(s) or Lido/buffet restaurant, usually room service, most shipboard entertainment, books (and possibly DVDs) from the library and that’s about it.

Extras? Drinks except at mealtimes (although many ships now have 24-hour complimentary coffee & tea service); alcoholic drinks, period (although you may get a free drink at the Captain’s Reception); shore excursions; gratuities–and these really aren’t functionally optional, since that’s the only real money most of the hard-working hotel staff makes; laundry & dry cleaning; internet (if you must); casino expenses and shop expenses; and, to be sure, air fare to and from the ship.

It can add up. If you drink a lot (or have high-end tastes) or if you go through a lot of sodas, if you go on fancy shore excursions, it can add up fast. On the mass-market cruise ships, where fares are sometimes under $100/day, it’s not at all unusual for the “everything else” total to be much larger than the cruise fare.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

  • Every luxury line includes all nonalcoholic drinks as part of the fare.
  • Every luxury line includes meals at all restaurants as part of the fare, where most premium and mainline cruises have surcharges for the best restaurants. (Every Crystal and RSSC ship, at least, has at least four or five dining venues; ditto Oceania.)
  • Until recently, RSSC included wine with dinner and a stocked minifridge (beer, wine, soda). Now, RSSC includes all alcoholic drinks on board, period, except for high-end wines (the regular RSSC wines have been pretty good). Silversea and Seabourn, I believe, both went to all-drinks-included fares some time ago.
  • Currently, Crystal, RSSC, and Oceania are all including coach air fare from “gateway cities” (most major cities) as part of their fares (business-class air for some categories of cabins on some ships).
  • Most luxury lines–Crystal excepted–now include gratuities in the fare.
  • RSSC’s taking it a little further: Most ordinary shore excursions–the ones typically costing up to around $150–are now included in the fare, although the kind of special shore excursions that luxury lines specialize in are still extra (sometimes thousands of dollars extra). I believe Seabourn and Silversea also include some or all ordinary shore excursions.

So RSSC cruises must be better values, right? After all, everything’s included!

Not so fast.

Let’s look at very similar cruises on six different cruise lines–all of the luxury lines, Oceania, and Holland America. The cruise is Auckland to Sydney or vice-versa, typically with stops in Melbourne, Hobart, Dunedin, Christchurch, and one or two other places in New Zealand.

Australia/New Zealand cruises are typically on the expensive side, but these are all roughly the same itinerary, making them reasonably comparable.

  • A 12-night cruise on the Crystal Symphony, air included and with a $2,000-per-couple shipboard spending credit to be used for drinks, shore excursions, gratuities, whatever, will cost $17,200 for two people in a veranda suite. Figure $15,200 (not including the spending credit) as a comparable veranda-suite fare. [Call it $1,266 per day for two people.]
  • A 15-night cruise on RSSC’s Seven Seas Navigator, all-inclusive, will cost $27,000 for two people in the lowest-category cabin (they’re all veranda suites). [Call it $1,800 per day for two people.]

There’s a head-on comparison. Is $566/day a fair differential for gratuities, drinks and shore excursions? Well, gratuities are typically $19/night for two people, maybe $21. My guess is that you’d spend about $250/day-$300/day for shore excursions for two people–but not every day, since these cruises include some days at sea. (The RSSC cruise has seven stops excluding start and end; Crystal has five.) That leaves $250-$300/day for drinks. That’s a lot of drinking! (Excellent wine on the Symphony is $5-$6/glass: The prices just aren’t outrageous.

In practice, I’d guess $2,000/couple would just about cover shipboard expenses for a 12-night cruise: $228-$250 gratuities, say $360 for drinks ($30/day), leaving almost $1,400 for shore excursions ($280 per port). So, realistically, unless you’re a big drinker or go on two shore excursions a day, the full Crystal fare at $17,200/12 days ($1,433/day) is considerably cheaper than the full RSSC fare–and I know of almost nobody who would claim that RSSC outshines Crystal significantly, certainly not to the tune of nearly $400/day.

Consider some of the other options, looking at verandah suites for comparability:

  • Seabourn: 14 night cruise, $20,300/couple–but while that includes alcohol and gratuities, it does not include airfare; figure at least $23,000 with air, or $1643/night. (May include some shore excursions.)
  • Silversea: 15 night cruise, $20,700/couple–not including air, and Silversea quotes $4,000 as a coach air price. That does include alcohol and gratuities; figure $24,700 total, or $1647/night.

Is it purely coincidental that Seabourn and Silversea have nearly identical prices? Could be. Maybe not.

  • Oceania: 16 night cruise, $16,000/couple for a veranda suite–includes air, but nothing else, so it’s really comparable to the $15,200 price for Crystal. At $1,000/night per couple, it’s less expensive, to be sure.
  • Holland America: 14 night cruise, $8,000/couple for a veranda suite, plus around $3,000 for air. Figure $11,000 for a comparable price, or $786/night.

From experiences on Crystal, RSSC, and Holland America, and what I know of the others, I’d say that RSSC is a little overpriced–and the rest are all “fairly” priced given the ship qualities and number of passengers.

But that’s a little misleading as well. Those are all “minimum” prices–but for RSSC, it’s literally the cheapest cabin on board. With Crystal, you can get down to $13,600 (including the $2,000 shipboard credit) for a suite that doesn’t have a verandah; for Oceania, you can get down to $12,000/couple for an ocean-view cabin with no verandah; for Holland America, you can go a long ways down if you don’t need a suite or a verandah. (Silversea and Seabourn also have non-verandah suite categories, saving a little money.)

Conclusions?

You pays your money, you makes your choices–but “all-inclusive” and “2-for-1″ can be somewhat misleading. RSSC, Seabourn and Silversea most decidedly aren’t appealing to the “drunk all the time” crowd; they can lay out a lot less money for a constant stream of Bud or margaritas on a mainstream ship. Eliminating by-the-drink and wine charges simplifies shipboard life in some ways; it’s not at all clear that it saves you money.

As it happens, I know exactly how much we spent for extras on a wonderful 14-night up-and-back Alaska cruise two years ago, this one on Holland America. The cruise itself was $4,913 (for a good cabin that didn’t have a verandah) for the two of us. Air was $800 for two (this was SFO-Vancouver, admittedly a lot cheaper than flying to Auckland and back from Sydney, or vice versa). Everything else–shore excursions, drinks, laundry, gratuities–totaled almost exactly $1,500. In other words, the total was roughly $7,200–or $515/day. More significantly, the “inclusives”–good but not great wine, all the shore excursions we wanted, air, gratuities, and even $90 worth of internet time–totaled $2,300 for 14 days, and only $1,500 of that was for on-board expenses.

That may be a bit misleading. It was our fifth Alaska cruise, so we skipped some pricey shore excursions–but we did quite a few, actually.  Given that, we look at all-inclusive with a slightly jaundiced view. Well, that, and our experience back when RSSC only included wine with dinner: People drank more than they realized because the glasses were constantly refilled. There’s some virtue to knowing each time you have another glass of wine or beer or whatever.

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