Cruise hack: 6 ways to turn a voyage on a mass-market ship into a luxury experience

Editor’s note: This is a recurring post, regularly updated with new information and offers.

Luxury lovers have a lot of choices when it comes to cruise ships.

Nearly half a dozen so-called luxury lines such as Regent Seven Seas Cruises, Silversea Cruises and Seabourn offer a travel experience at sea that is every bit as elegant, intimate and service-focused as what you’ll find at the top luxury hotels on land.

On Regent’s Seven Seas Splendor, for instance, every cabin is a suite (with some as big as the average American home), the restaurants serve gourmet fare worthy of a Michelin star and the staff-to-passenger ratio is through the roof at nearly one-to-one.

But luxury ships, which tend to be relatively small, aren’t your only option for living large at sea.

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You’ll also find a growing number of luxury experiences available on the giant mass-market ships operated by the likes of Royal Caribbean, Norwegian Cruise Line and MSC Cruises — often as part of a package that’s significantly less expensive than what you would pay to be on a luxury ship.

Indeed, with a few hacks, it’s increasingly possible to turn a voyage on a big, bustling (and affordable) megaship designed for the masses into something almost akin to a luxury cruise.

This can be the perfect solution for luxury lovers who want to experience the world’s biggest floating megaresorts without giving up the upscale touches to which they’re accustomed.

Just keep in mind that even on a mass-market ship you will pay more to live it up in high style. You just might have more flexibility in choosing the luxury experiences for which you do and don’t want to pay.

Here are six ways to turn a voyage on a mass-market ship into a luxury experience.

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Get a room in a private luxury enclave

On a growing number of the biggest mass-market vessels, such as Norwegian Cruise Line’s  Norwegian Encore, you’ll now find private “ship-within-a-ship” luxury enclaves with their own private pools, lounge areas and restaurants.

You’ll often pay a big premium to get a room in one of these private areas but the luxury perks can be well worth it.

Cruisers staying in the luxury enclave on Norwegian Encore known as The Haven, for instance, have access to a pre-cruise concierge who can handle all sorts of requests such as the delivery of special pillows to your room or the stocking of a particular type of chamomile tea. A pre-cruise concierge also will book your spa treatments, dining reservations and shore excursions long before you ever get on board.

The Haven passengers on Norwegian Encore also get access to a private check-in lounge upon arrival. They’re quickly whisked on board where they enjoy additional perks including butler service, special seating in theaters and priority disembarkation on port days.

The Haven complex itself is quite the luxury hideaway. Among its standout features is a stunning, two-deck-high lounge that overlooks the front of the vessel and offers the best views on the ship. There’s also a private restaurant where you’ll never have trouble getting a table and a private courtyard area with its own pool, sundeck, hot tub and fitness area.

Similar The Haven complexes can be found on sister ships Norwegian Bliss and Norwegian Joy. Several other Norwegian ships have different versions of the complexes, including the line’s newest ship, Norwegian Prima.

The lounge in The Haven on Norwegian Cruise Line’s 4,004-passenger Norwegian Bliss has the most spectacular view on the ship. NORWEGIAN CRUISE LINE
The exclusive The Haven suite complex on Norwegian Bliss includes a private pool area. NORWEGIAN CRUISE LINE

You’ll also find “ship-within-a-ship” luxury enclaves on more than half of MSC Cruises’ ships, while the newest Celebrity Cruises ships such as Celebrity Apex and Celebrity Beyond have their own private keycard-accessed luxury hideaways for passengers staying in suites known as The Retreat.

Royal Caribbean’s recently unveiled Wonder of the Seas has a luxury getaway, too.

Related: The 7 most anticipated new cruise ships of 2022

The luxury complexes found on MSC Cruises ships, each of which is called the MSC Yacht Club, are located at the very top of the vessels and each comes with a private lounge, pool, sunning areas and restaurant.

The exclusive MSC Yacht Club area on MSC Bellissima has a spacious lounge with stunning views over the front of the ship. MSC CRUISES

MSC Yacht Club accommodations also come with 24-hour butler service and a dedicated concierge.

Book a ‘concierge cabin’

In lieu of offering private luxury enclaves on their biggest ships, some mass-market lines offer “concierge cabins” on their vessels — cabins that come with special concierge service and, sometimes, an exclusive concierge lounge.

You’ll typically pay a premium to get into one of these rooms compared to a similarly sized cabin that does not come with the concierge designation. But, again, this sort of premium cabin can be well worth the extra cost.

On Disney Cruise Line ships, for instance, booking a concierge cabin gets you access to a concierge lounge with complimentary food and nonalcoholic beverages throughout the day; complimentary beer, wine and spirits in the evening (served by a bartender); access to an exclusive sun deck with lounge chairs via a private entrance and a private Disney character meet-and-greet.

Oceania Cruises ships Marina and Riviera both have a dedicated Concierge Lounge with concierge services for passengers staying in Concierge class cabins. OCEANIA CRUISES

In addition, a concierge is on hand during the day to help make onboard dining reservations, book shore excursions and spa appointments, organize childcare services and arrange special occasions on board.

Similarly, on the two largest Oceania Cruises ships, Marina and Riviera, passengers staying in Concierge Veranda-category cabins get access to a private concierge lounge serving snacks and nonalcoholic drinks throughout the day. Plus, a concierge is on hand to help make onboard dining reservations, book shore excursions and spa appointments and answer questions about ports.

Upgrade your onboard dining

The world’s biggest mass-market cruise ships these days are loaded with an incredible range of restaurants, from cavernous, included-in-the-fare main dining rooms serving banquet hall-like dishes to much more intimate, high-end, extra-charge “specialty” restaurants. This offers luxury lovers a chance to upgrade their experience greatly simply by shunning the former and embracing the latter (a strategy that, of course, will cost more).

On the biggest Norwegian, Royal Caribbean and MSC Cruises ships, I’ll often skip the main restaurants entirely during cruises and reserve tables at an extra-charge restaurant every night. This greatly changes the feel of cruising on these vessels, as dinnertime transforms from what is often a very mass-market experience to something much more upscale.

Royal Caribbean’s giant Oasis-class ships have intimate, upscale restaurants called 150 Central Park, which offer a six-course tasting menu with wine pairings for $115 per person, including gratuity. ROYAL CARIBBEAN

Norwegian’s newest ships, including the just-unveiled Norwegian Prima, offer such extra-charge options as Onda by Scarpetta, a high-end Italian restaurant from the creators of New York’s Scarpetta, and Food Republic, a casual tapas and sushi venue created in partnership with Miami’s Pubbelly Boys.

Royal Caribbean’s biggest ships have extra-charge eateries designed by celebrity chef Jamie Oliver.

Reserve private deck space

One of the downsides of sailing on a big mass-market ship is that you’ll be sharing the ship’s deck-top pools, hot tubs and loungers with thousands of other passengers. But there increasingly are ways on the biggest ships to get away from the crowds — for an extra charge, of course.

Some of Norwegian’s newest ships have exclusive, extra-charge deck-top retreats called Vibe Beach Club that will let you relax in the sun in style.

On Norwegian Encore, the Vibe Beach Club area spans both sides of the ship (instead of just one side as on earlier vessels in the same series) and extends upward to a partial deck above. Priced at $229 for a seven-night cruise (if booked in advance; the cost is $249 when purchased on board), it’s a lovely hideaway with a full-service bar, cabanas and two hot tubs that might make you think you’re on a small luxury ship.

If you want to upgrade even more, you can pay $599 for two to rent a cabana in Vibe Beach Club for a seven-night cruise, if you book in advance ($629 when booked on board).

Other big-ship lines with extra-charge upscale retreats on their top decks include Princess, which is known for The Sanctuary adults-only sun decks.

Private cabanas available for an extra charge offer a taste of luxury on the Celebrity Cruises ship Celebrity Equinox. CELEBRITY CRUISES

On other ships, such as the Celebrity vessel Celebrity Equinox, you can book private cabanas to give you an upgraded feel at otherwise public top-deck venues.

Make the spa your second home

One often-overlooked way to escape the masses on a mass-market ship — and get a taste of the fancy life — is to spend at least part of your days lounging in the ship’s spa.

Many of the world’s biggest cruise ships have spectacular spa zones that offer a lot more than just treatment rooms and salon services. You’ll find huge thermal suites full of special pools, hot tubs, steam rooms, saunas and heated ceramic tile loungers.

You’ll sometimes get access to these thermal suites on a complimentary basis when you book a spa treatment. But you also can buy day passes to these areas that are sold through the spa or the ship’s guest services desk. That means that you don’t need to sign up for a spa treatment to spend a day escaping from the tourist hordes in your ship’s spa.

A thermal suite in a spa on a Princess Cruises ship. PRINCESS CRUISES

Just be warned that the number of available spa day passes often is limited to keep the spa uncrowded, which is exactly how you want it to be if you’re using it as an escape.

Note that some lines also offer thermal suite access to passengers who book special spa-class cabins. Celebrity, for instance, has spa-themed AquaClass cabins that come with special access to its shipboard spas. You’ll pay a little more for an AquaClass cabin on a Celebrity ship than a similar cabin that isn’t part of the AquaClass.

Go swanky during port calls

There’s nothing that says “mass-market” quite like being stuck on a bus excursion with 40 or more fellow cruisers. But just because you’re on a mass-market ship doesn’t mean you have to sign up for a standard, big-group tour.

For an extra charge — sometimes a quite hefty extra charge — many big cruise ships will arrange for you to have a private car and driver in a port to take you wherever you want to go.

Many lines that operate private island destinations also have been adding ever more upscale, exclusive options for passengers willing to pay up for a luxury experience.

Royal Caribbean, for instance, recently built elaborate floating cabanas at Perfect Day at CocoCay, its private island in the Bahamas. Costing as much as $1,500 per day during peak times, they come with space for up to eight people, a private attendant, an overwater hammock, a slide to the water and a shower.

The first floating cabanas in the Bahamas have opened at Royal Caribbean’s private island, Perfect Day at CocoCay. ROYAL CARIBBEAN

The cabanas are part of a relatively new, exclusive private corner of Perfect Day called Coco Beach Club, which offers a ritzy private beach, infinity pool, upscale restaurant and al fresco bar. Passes to the Coco Beach Club start at $54 per person.

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