You can actually choose either cruising experience for the exact same price.
With all of the obfuscation in luxury cruise pricing it is very hard to compare luxury cruise prices to mainstream lines where all of the ancillary costs are charged separately from the cruise fare. Most luxury cruise lines now include airfare, shore excursions, all beverages and gratuities in the cost of the cruise. If they do not specifically include these things, they generally offer thousands of dollars in onboard credit to cover those costs.
To provide a working comparison, we looked for identical length Caribbean cruise itineraries on a luxury and a mainstream cruise ship. Then we estimated how much a cruiser could spend on a mainstream cruise if he was given an unlimited spending account, similar to what people get on all-inclusive luxury cruises.
Here is what we found; it is possible to spend the same amount of money on a mainstream cruise as it is to spend on a luxury cruise. But here is the difference - you will be getting the top of the line accommodations on the mainstream line, but the entry-level stateroom on the luxury ship.
We looked at Regent Seven Seas Navigator sailing March 19, 2012 on a ten-day cruise to the Caribbean from Fort Lauderdale. You can get the entry-level suite for $4995 per person, wait-listed. This window suite is 301 sq. ft. without a balcony. The cruise fare includes all gratuities, air fare (roundtrip), one-night pre-cruise stay at a luxury hotel, transfers, shore excursions and all beverages including a mini-bar in your stateroom stocked with beer, soda and bottled water.
Then we looked at Celebrity Equinox, one of the more attractive, upscale but still mainstream cruise lines as far as price is concerned. The Celebrity Equinox sails a ten-day Caribbean cruise from Fort Lauderdale on March 16, 2012. One can book a sky suite for $2749 per person. The Sky Suite is 300 square feet with a 79 sq. ft. balcony.
Since most ancillary costs are not included in the cruise fares on Celebrity, we have to assume that the person cruising would be willing to use as many of these services as they would if they were included in the cruise fare. This means they would have a pre-dinner cocktail and possibly two glasses of wine with dinner and an after dinner brandy. We also have to assume they would go on a shore tour in every port, as if they were included in the cruise, as well as book a one-night pre-cruise luxury hotel room.
So here is what a person on an unlimited budget might spend on Celebrity Equinox; Celebrity Equinox Sky Suite cruise fare $2749, air fare $500, shore tours $720, transfers $20, beverages (ten days, water, soda & liquor) $350 ($35/day), $111 gratuities and $245 for seven special meals, $300 for a luxury hotel stay: total: $4995.
That's right, in the end both cruises have identical prices; so let's look at the differences:
On Regent Seven Seas Navigator one would be sailing on a smaller, luxury ship which means faster and more personalized service with more crew members per passenger. The restaurants are open seating with gourmet food provided by chefs from Le Cordon Bleu. For this reason we calculated seven dinners on Celebrity Equinox in the upscale alternative dining rooms which generally cost $35 per person per meal.
Regent ships are extremely comfortable and accommodating, but they are definitely quiet by comparison to a mainstream or premium cruise ship that carries close to 3000 passengers. Celebrity Equinox offers far better stage shows, a bigger casino, more sports options, a bigger spa and fitness center and more onboard shopping. The nightclubs will be more active and there are more food options onboard.
In the end, for the same price you can get the entry level suite on a luxury ship, Regent Seven Seas Navigator, or you could spend a lot more and get much nicer accommodations. Or you can get the second highest category of suite on Celebrity Equinox (the Sky Suite) and you can pay separately for all of the options not included in the cruise fare.
Some people say they do not like all-inclusive pricing because they don't want all of the optional costs included in the cruise fare. The usual line is, "I don't want to supplement someone else's drinking." This comparison shows that you have to really splurge on Celebrity Equinox - drinking and touring at almost every opportunity - just to match what you are paying for on the luxury cruise ship.
But by the same token, on a luxury ship you will get things you would never get on Celebrity Equinox such as complimentary caviar service in your stateroom, or small shore tours with top notch guides for just a handful of people.
In the end we can draw two conclusions; (1) it is possible to have similar accommodations on a mainstream cruise ship as you can get on a luxury cruise, but the mainstream cruise line offers the option to economize and sail the same cruise for much less; and (2) that luxury cruise lines generally start where mainstream cruise lines leave off, meaning that the top mainstream accommodations are closer to the bottom tier on a luxury cruise ship.