The Small Ultra-Luxury Ships (let’s call them SULS) are defined by their numbers.
They are spacious. The passenger space ratio is at least 65 for true SULS. We derive this figure by dividing the gross tonnage of the ship by the number of passengers. The passenger space ratio is the most accurate estimate of how crowded each ship is. Tight quarters are linked to how quickly a virus can spread among guests and crew members.
You can buy Berlitz Cruising & Cruise Ships (Douglas Ward) on Amazon for less than $20. It provides this ratio for the 300 cruise ships that serve the American and Canadian markets. If the calculated ratio is in the 30’s or 40’s, the CDC may demand that ship sail with fewer guests.
All the staterooms (“suites” in cruise-speak) have private balconies. This is important, because it gives passengers direct control of their ventilation by simply opening the door to the balcony. It’s also a great place to relax, dine, or nap where proximity to other guests is not a problem. These days, if ships want to improve their percentage of private balconies, they will simply remove staterooms that don’t have this feature from their inventory of available rooms.
The passenger to crew ratio is 1.5 or less. This means that, at worst, there are two crew members for every three guests. This ratio is also available in Berlitz; and it’s important for safety, since it translates to no lines in dining rooms or at Guest Relations, maid service 2-3 times a day, and free 24-hour room service. This number can be improved by carrying fewer guests but keeping the size of the staff the same.
SULS are expensive. Fares start at around $800/day for a couple, with everything except for airfares, shore excursions, and spa appointments usually included. When SULS go on sale, airfare and some shore excursions may also be included in the price. Except for repositioning cruises, the daily rate seldom drops below $800/day for a couple.
The Leading Companies Offering SULS
Regent, Silversea, and Seabourn are the undisputed leaders in the American SULS market. They are the only lines, of which I’m aware, that can meet the passenger space ratio limit of 65 or more, and the passenger to crew ratio of 1.5 or less, without carrying fewer guests. By selling only staterooms with balconies, some ships from Crystal, Viking Ocean, Ponant, Azamara, and Oceania can enter the fray.
Typical SULS cruisers are 55-90 and have traveled on most of these lines. They usually cruise once or twice a year. I’d estimate that most spend $15,000-$50,000 annually on their cruise habit. The SULS cruise lines have carefully positioned themselves to ensure they will still be among the favorites late this year, when cruising resumes. Here are the strategies they seem to be adopting.
Regent Seven Seas is continuing to position itself as the cruise line that bundles the most luxury features into a cruise’s price. On many cruises, Business Class Air is included. Also, nearly all shore excursions are free on Regent. This largess isn’t really “free.” Fares on Regent for similarly sized staterooms are 20%-40% higher than on the other two lines. None of the restaurants cost extra. The Seven Seas Explorer is one of their newest ships. It carries 750 guests, has a passenger/crew ratio of 1.3, and a passenger space ratio of 74.6. All the staterooms have private balconies.
Silversea is counting on their restaurants and spaciousness to make the difference. On their newest ships, they have done away with the main dining room entirely. Now everyone gets to choose nightly among 6-8 specialty and “popup” restaurants. The restaurant choices surpass the variety and quality of dining available in most American cities. Silversea is trying to edge Seabourn, Oceania, and Crystal out for the right to claim the title, “Best Ships for Foodies.” However, two of their restaurants (the French and Japanese) have surcharges, something the two other lines have done away with entirely. The Silver Muse is one of their newest vessels. It carries 596 guests, has a passenger/crew ratio of 1.4, and a passenger space ratio of 78.8. This makes it one of the roomiest vessels afloat, even at full capacity. All the staterooms have private balconies.
Seabourn is taking another tack. In an era where COVID-19 dominates our thinking, they are stressing safety and health as their dominating themes. But they’re not ceding the “best dining” claim to Silversea. They still offer free caviar 24-hours-a-day and a killer Thomas Keller steak & seafood restaurant on most of their ships. All of the restaurant choices are included in the fare. The Seabourn Ovation is one of their newest vessels. It carries 604 guests, has a passenger/crew ratio of 1.3, and a passenger space ratio of 67.2. All of the staterooms have private balconies.
Summing It Up
These three ships have much more in common with each other and their sister ships than with larger resort ships, or with smaller expedition ships” that are even more expensive. The SULS lowest passenger space volume is 67.2. Most other premium brands cannot break 55, and popularly priced resort ships typically score less than 40 on this measure of spaciousness. Even the much smaller expedition ships cannot score 67.2, unless they decrease their passenger capacity.
Similarly, the SULS highest passenger/crew ratio is 1.4. Other premium brands ships are usually upwards of 2.2 on this indicator of quality of service, and many mass-market ships score 2.5 or higher.
Thus, only the SULS cruise line seem to operate cost-effectively and with maximum safety. Other brands must reduce the passenger capacity to reach these quality levels. This cuts sharply into their profitability, which is probably why so many ships have already been sold off.
Seabourn’s COVID-19 Safety Measures
Last week, Seabourn released their safety measure for their 2021 voyages.
- Three COVID-19 tests will be required of every guest: Prior to departure from home, at the airport, and before they board the ship. This will be required, even if guests are vaccinated. All guests will also be tested before leaving the ship at the end of the cruise.
- Wearing masks is mandatory whenever indoors and outside, whenever physical distancing cannot be maintained. All masks must have to comply with CDC standards. These regs also apply to all crew members, and to guests when they are on excursions.
- All ships will be staffed with doctors and nurses fully capable of handling COVID-19—no more jokes about the Ship’s Doctor being a podiatrist on vacation. Medical precautions are now serious business.
- All Seabourn ships are able to administer COVID-19 tests and process them onboard. Isolation staterooms have been set aside for any guests or crew members testing positive or exhibiting symptoms.
- Guest airport transfers and boarding times will be coordinated with flight arrival times to avoid crowding when travelers are embarking.
It’s likely that, by the time you read this, the other SULS brands will be echoing, “Me Too.” This is because everyone realizes that some form of these precautions will probably be needed well into the next decade. We have already seen that the COVID-19 is constantly evolving. This implies that we will need to deal with it by giving COVID-19 “booster shots” and tracing outbreaks, until we can eradicate the disease entirely.
Next on the Agenda
The quartet of elephants we haven’t dealt with yet are:
- Will vaccinations be required if you want to cruise or eat in quality restaurants?
- How can COVID-19 insurance be purchased for reasonable prices?
- How can airline flights to, and from, ships be made as safe as cruising?
- What needs to happen before large ships can safely resume cruising?
We’ll deal with these matters next week. Until then, stay safe and begin to think about the vacations you will take this year.
Dr Steve Frankel and his wife have sailed on most of the Seabourn, Silversea, Crystal, Azamara, Oceania, Regent, and Windstar ships on more than 40 cruises. For the past six months, he has been writing a weekly column, Point-to-Point, for Travel Research Online (TRO) that’s shared with more than 70,000 travel advisors and industry leaders. Steve is the CEO of two companies: Travel Intelligence Associates (TIA), and Cruises & Cameras, LLC (C&C). TIA provides writing, consulting and White Box services. C&C specializes in small ship cruises and is associated with LUXE Travel (a FROSCH company) and the Signature Travel Network. Steve has a doctorate in Educational Research and Marketing from Indiana University, He is one of the first travel advisors to complete a five- course sequence of courses in epidemiology from Johns Hopkins University. In his former life, he was the director of several organizations specializing in public policy studies. He’s the author of 13 books and a former Contributing Editor of The Washingtonian magazine. His email address is Steve@CruisesAndCameras.com.