A Beginner’s Guide to Luxury Cruises

From how to choose the right luxury cruise line to selecting the perfect suite, here are some expert tips for those thinking about taking a luxury sailing.

The two-story Grand Wintergarden suite on "Seabourn Venture" with a seating area below and a loft above

Worth the splurge: the two-story Grand Wintergarden suite on Seabourn Venture.

Courtesy of Seabourn

While the term “luxury” is often thrown around and overused, the top-end luxury cruise lines really do deliver a five-star experience that’s akin to staying at a grand hotel—with the added bonus of all-inclusive pricing and a ship that brings you to multiple destinations during your stay.

When you book an ultra-luxury cruise, you can expect a carefully curated travel experience. Having sailed on dozens of luxury cruises the world over, I can attest that on these best-of-class vessels, you’ll enjoy high-quality design details, fine artwork, and all-you-can-consume champagne and caviar between visits to tony and lesser-known destinations. In addition, luxury cruise lines also focus on providing immersive and enriching programming that offers a more meaningful and richer understanding of the places and cultures you are visiting through expert-led lectures and guided tours. And the crew to passenger ratio is often as high as one crew member to every two guests, ensuring an elevated level of service.

For years the ultra-luxury end of cruising was limited to a small selection of top brands: Seabourn, Silversea, Regent Seven Seas Cruises, and Crystal, to name a few. But that’s changing. New brands are emerging such as Scenic and the newly launched Explora Journeys, each with their own nuances and expertise. (Scenic is making a name for itself in the expedition cruising space, for instance, while Explora promises a beautiful boutique cruising experience on a 900-plus passenger ship.) Luxury hotel companies are also getting in the game, with such well-recognized names as Ritz-Carlton, Four Seasons, Orient Express, and Aman all recently unveiling plans to offer a luxury cruise product to guests.

Natalya Leahy, who was named president of Seabourn in March, says the luxury cruise market is growing due to several factors, not the least of which is that there are more than 22 million people in the U.S. with a net worth of a million dollars or more. Well-heeled boomers are booking luxury cruises, but so are Gen Xers and even younger travelers.

AFAR spoke with Leahy in Genoa, Italy, in late July, as the brand prepared to launch the 264-passenger Seabourn Pursuit, the second ultraluxury expedition ship the company has introduced in 12 months—and a ship that will explore destinations that include Antarctica and the South Pacific in its first year.

“What’s luxury really?” says Leahy. “Luxury is a choice. Luxury is about unique, small details.”

We asked Leahy’s advice on what travelers should know before going on a luxury cruise—and added a few of our own tips as well.

The aft of the Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection's 298-passenger Evrima featuring two pools on two decks surrounded by empty lounge chairs

The Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection’s inaugural vessel, the 298-passenger Evrima (pictured), launched in late 2022, leading the charge for luxury resort names getting into the high-end cruise market.

Courtesy of Jack Hardy/Ritz Carlton Yacht Collection

How to pick the luxury cruise line that’s best for you

Leahy suggests starting out by asking your luxury cruising friends and acquaintances what lines they like. Word of mouth is frequently a factor in the luxury-end of cruising. “Our guests are our biggest ambassadors and bring many new guests onboard,” she says.

Once you get some ideas, or even if you don’t, consult with an expert. “In general, for luxury travel, it’s helpful to have either a travel advisor or, if you book directly with us, a personal cruise consultant,” she says. “It’s very helpful to have someone who is there to advise you.”

A luxury cruise should be a carefree vacation experience, given all the inclusions, Leahy says. She notes that “when you want to see the world and compare land travel to cruise travel, cruise is much easier to organize.”

But there are nuances—between cruise lines, types of accommodations, and even what is (and isn’t) included in the “all-inclusive” pricing (for instance, certain more exclusive excursions might be extra). This is where working with an expert comes in handy.

Leahy says she seeks advice even when she cruises, which is often with multiple family members or friends. “If I even attempt to organize it on land, I think we all would become ‘best enemies,’” she laughs. “I really believe travel advisors play an incredibly strategic role for us,” Leahy adds. “They know our brands.”

Two-thirds of Seabourn’s business comes through travel advisors, and on any given cruise, about half the guests have cruised with the line before and half are new to the brand—and often new to cruising—Leahy says.

The white and beige lobby area in Explora Journeys new 922-passenger "Explora I" luxury ocean vessel with soaring ceilings and a central bar

This summer, Explora Journeys became the newest player to enter the luxury cruising market with the launch of the 922-passenger Explora I.

Courtesy of Explora Journeys

The best luxury cruise lines

Luxury ships vary in size and destinations they visit as well as other factors such as what’s included in the cruise fare. For instance, is your transportation included? Wi-Fi? Are there any upcharges for specialty dining? Will you pay extra for excursions? Will you have a butler? Every brand has its bragging points.


The resurrected Crystal Cruises, now owned and managed by high-end tour operating company Abercrombie & Kent and known simply as Crystal, consists of two ships, the 740-passenger Crystal Serenity and 606-passenger Crystal Symphony, both with complimentary Nobu restaurants aboard.

Explora Journeys

Explora Journeys, a new luxury line from shipping company MSC Group, recently launched its first, 922-passenger ship, Explora I, with an extensive spa, four pools, and lush interior design details.

Regent Seven Seas

Regent Seven Seas Cruises differentiates itself by including a lot in its fares—such as business-class airfare and unlimited shore excursions—on ships ranging from 490 to 750 passengers. The line will launch a new ship, the 750-passenger Seven Seas Grandeur, the latest of what Regent calls its “world’s most luxurious” ships, in November.

Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection

The famous hotel brand launched its first cushy yacht last year. Aboard the 298-passenger Evrima, attractions include hotel-like suites and bartenders who are whizzes at creating personalized concoctions. The 456-passenger Ilma follows in September 2024.


The Seabourn fleet, with ships ranging from 458 to 600 guests, features complimentary steakhouses with menus by renowned chef Thomas Keller (of French Laundry fame). The brand’s two expedition ships are outfitted with 24 Zodiacs and kayaks for exploration led by a 24-person expedition team, plus a six-passenger submarine for undersea views.


Australian expedition line Scenic has as many as 10 dining experiences onboard its intimate vessels and toys that include an eight-passenger submarine and state-of-the-art Airbus helicopters aboard its two 228-passenger expedition yachts.


Silversea ships range from 254 to 728 passengers, plus two smaller expedition ships, the 132-passenger Silver Explorer and 100-passenger Silver Origin. The line’s S.A.L.T. program focuses on local dining and drinking experiences, and all guests get butler service—– on ships that include the recently launched 728-passenger Silver Nova.

White reception area for the Aurora spa onboard the luxury Crystal ocean ships with curved desk, a loveseat, and two armchairs

Travelers can relax at sea in the new Aurora spa onboard the reborn Crystal ships.

Courtesy of Crystal

Make sure to choose the ship that’s right for you

Many people start off their vacation planning with the destination, but Leahy makes a case for the strong role the ship should play in your decision-making.

“The unique thing about cruising is your experience continues 24/7,” she says. “It doesn’t end with visiting the destinations. You step onboard and have this experience with fine dining and interaction with our cruise members and entertainment and shows and live music that continues the experience.”

Social media posts and cruise line websites provide clues to help you understand the environment on board specific brands, Leahy says, adding that you should check reviews and look for photos.

She says it’s not uncommon for guests to describe Seabourn ships as their “home away from home.”

Because you will be spending a considerable amount of time on the ship, just as you would when comparing land-based resorts you’ll also want to get idea of what’s offered onboard in terms of bars, restaurants, lounges, gym and spa facilities, and entertainment. Also consider the amount of outdoor space, such as outdoor dining options, pools, bars, and other spots to catch sea views.

Another thing to think about is service and those personal encounters that lead to lasting memories. “Our guests are very sophisticated people, very accomplished individuals, and what they are looking for from travel is not just getting from destination A to destination B,” Leahy says. “They really are looking to experience the world in a very authentic way. What they are looking for in ultra-luxury is relaxed elegance and authentic lasting connections, both with each other and our crew.”

How to decide on the right suite and whether to upgrade

Luxury ships in general are usually entirely or mostly made up of suite accommodations with features such as large bathrooms and walk-in closets. You’ll have ocean views and will likely have a balcony on these high-end vessels.

If you’re looking for more space, you might consider upgrading to a suite with a living room and a larger deck. Some luxury suites are apartment-size and come with amenities such as private outdoor hot tubs.

Cruise line websites generally do a good job in terms of providing descriptions, layouts, square footage, and photos of the various options, but a specialized travel advisor or consultant can help you assess your space needs.

Start with a shorter cruise

While you can book luxury cruise itineraries for weeks or months, Leahy suggests before you go all out with a longer sailing you consider a test cruise to see if you will like the experience.

“I think it’s important to start cruising by trying for seven days whether the Caribbean, Alaska, or the Mediterranean,” she says. “They are bucket list destinations and yet they don’t commit you to being the first time on a ship for too long. It’s a great way to start cruising and experiencing.”

A red and blue temple, with a waterfall and green mountains in the background in the Wakayama Prefecture in Japan

If you are cruising in Japan, chances are you are going to want to extend your stay for a deeper dive into the destination.

Photo by Tom Vining/Unsplash

Don’t forget about the land-based experiences

Once you decide on a destination and what cruise line you want to try, and you book your suite, it’s important to start thinking about what land-based experiences you’d like to have at the various ports of call.

An advantage of cruising is that your cruise line will provide a selection of carefully curated choices for exploring the ports, for those who prefer not to do independent exploration.

And think about whether you want to extend your stay whether in your embarkation city or your final destination and whether the cruise line might be able to help with that. It’s not uncommon for cruise lines to offer pre- and post-cruising packages.

A goal of Leahy’s is to create “deeper and richer” land experiences, and the line is making investments in this regard, including with dedicated crew. “If you are going to Japan, for instance, you are not just doing the cruise, most likely,” she says. “We want to expand that Seabourn experience and give our guests a choice of hotels to stay, prepackaged, personalized, with more bespoke experiences.”

And once you have put those final pieces into place, are booked and ready to go, we’ve also put together a guide on whether or not you should consider cruise insurance, our essential cruise packing list, and the ultimate guide to tipping on cruises—so that you can check off everything you might need (and need to know) before you sail away.

Fran Golden is an award-winning travel writer who has sailed on some 170 ships to destinations around the world.
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