Ship-Within-a-Ship vs. Luxury Cruises: Smackdown!

ship within a ship luxury line smackdown
We explore the differences and advantages of luxury cruise lines and a 'ship within a ship'. - Photo by Norwegian Cruise Line and Regent Seven Seas Cruises

Over the past several years, the line between luxury and mass-market ships has been getting a little blurry. In what you could call a “skyboxing” effect (where higher paying guests are separated from regular travelers), lines like Norwegian, Royal Caribbean, MSC, and Celebrity have begun designing ships with ultra-exclusive spaces with high-end cabins, lounges, pools, and restaurants that only travelers willing to pay top dollar can access.

Expensive suite options on mainstream ships are nothing new, but most of the time, you were simply paying for a larger room with more amenities. But new concepts like The Haven on Norwegian, The Retreat on Celebrity, and MSC’s Yacht Club are completely private and self-sufficient onboard spaces, appropriately dubbed a “ship-within-a-ship”.

Guests in these areas don’t have to deal with crowded pools, hot tubs, or restaurants, but they can still enjoy the big-stage entertainment or adrenaline-pumping activities that modern cruise ships are known for. Fares for these exclusive experiences are comparable to (and sometimes higher than) luxury ship pricing, so which option is better?


ship within a ship luxury cabins smackdown
Photos by Norwegian Cruise Line and Oceania Cruises

With few exceptions, the luxury lines generally offer “All-Suite” ships, though the “standard” suites on these ships are rarely larger than and are much more akin to a mini-suite on a mainstream cruise line. Some of the lowest price suites even lack balconies (though all offer an ocean view). Bigger suites on luxury ships feature multiple rooms and a lot more space but tend to be understated in design and amenities. Suites offered as part of a “ship-within-a-ship” also vary in size and configuration from large, single room “suites” to more ostentatious options like the 3 bedroom Garden Villas in NCL’s Haven. 

Winner: Tie. You’re paying for more space, and you’ll get it with either option. Cabin choices shouldn’t factor too prominently in your decision. If you’re looking for a cabin that will provide more Instagram-ready photo opportunities, a ship-within-a-ship is likely the better option. If you want more elegance, stick with a luxury line.



ship within a ship luxury dining smackdown
Photos by MSC Cruises and Regent Seven Seas Cruises

Dining comes down to choosing between the number of options and overall quality. You’ll have a lot more choices on a ship-within-a-ship as the newest vessels from lines like Norwegian, Royal Caribbean, and Celebrity often have over twenty different restaurants onboard, serving just about anything you can think of. You’ll find an abundance of burgers, burritos, pizza, and sushi, and most ships have several high-end dining options as well, like Cagney’s Steakhouse on Norwegian or Murano on Celebrity. However, a luxury ship can deliver Michelin-star quality at every single meal and are far more accommodating of personal requests.

Winner: Tie. It really depends on what kind of foodie you are. If you want to eat somewhere different every night and generally prefer quick, casual dining over multi-course meals, sail on a ship-within-a-ship. But if you accept nothing but the best, stick to luxury.



ship within a ship luxury service smackdown
Photos by Norwegian Cruise Line and Silversea Cruises

While ships-within-a-ship will have a concierge and 24-hour butler service, nothing beats the white-glove service on a luxury line. With that said, the cruise industry as a whole is known for its impeccable service. If you take a look at our member’s choice awards for 2019 (or any other year for that matter), you’ll see that service is by far the highest-rated category. Cruisers are far more impressed by the service than their cabins, dining, or any form of onboard entertainment or activities, so it’s more like you’re choosing between 3-star and 4-star service, rather than 1-star and 4-star.

Winner: Luxury cruise. Your service will still be excellent on a mainstream line, but luxury cruise ship staff are trained to the highest standards imaginable.


Entertainment, Activities & Pools

ship within a ship luxury entertainment smackdown
Photos by Norwegian Cruise Line and Oceania Cruises

Sailing on a ship-with-a-ship gives you access to the best entertainment the cruise industry has to offer. Luxury sailings have entertainment as well, but instead of big stage numbers you should expect more intimate performances, and the onboard music is more along the lines of jazz ensembles and classical pianists instead of reggae bands and DJs. One area where luxury lines do excel is their enrichment lectures. Historians and naturalists are often invited aboard to give informative talks about upcoming ports and destinations and considering that luxury sailings often sail to more off-the-beaten-path ports, it’s no surprise that travelers who sail to experience new destinations often prefer luxury lines.

When it comes to pools, sundecks, and loungers, a ship-within-a-ship gives you access to a private pool and pool deck just for ship-within-a-ship passengers, so you don’t have to fight for a lounge chair or deal with a pool overcrowded with kids. You’ll also have access to the ship’s main pools and sundecks. On a luxury ship, you’re limited to the main pool that all guests on the ship have access to. Given the larger passenger-to-space ratio on luxury ships, you won’t have to fight for lounger space or deal with kids hogging the pool, but having the private area on a ship-within-a-ship is a distinct advantage.

Winner: Ship-within-a-ship. The educational lectures on a luxury cruise might do it for some, but on a mainstream ship, you can see a broadway-quality show, a stand-up comedy act, and multiple live bands all in a single night.


For Kids

ship within a ship luxury kids smackdown
Photos by Norwegian Cruise Line and Regent Seven Seas Cruises

This one is hardly a contest. To be perfectly blunt, most kids will be excruciatingly bored on a luxury ship. Not only are luxury ships simply not designed for families, some lines don’t even allow children on board. Bigger, mass-market ships, on the other hand, are built from the ground up to please families. Kids will have access to everything from age-appropriate activities and contests organized by the ship’s staff to onboard rock walls, mini-golf, and water slides, while parents relish the chance to drop their kids off at supervised daycare while they enjoy some quiet time at the spa or an adults-only area of the ship.

Winner: Ship-within-a-ship. Unless of course, you’re specifically looking for a cruise without kids, in which a luxury cruise is your best bet.



ship within a ship luxury pricing smackdown destinations
Photos by Norwegian Cruise Line and Regent Seven Seas Cruises

There are so many variables that affect pricing that it’s difficult to compare fares between luxury lines and ships-within-a-ship. The average price between lines can vary, and other factors like the newness of the ship, the type of cabin booked, and the month of sailing all have a huge impact on the fare. With that said, we did notice during our research that luxury fares in the Caribbean are far more competitive, with prices generally ranging from $2,500 to $4,500 per person for a 7-night luxury sailing, which was only slightly higher than the $2,000 to $4,000 range for cabins on the Haven on Norwegian, Celebrity's The Retreat, and MSC Yacht Club. For Europe and other more exotic destinations, however, luxury fares were demonstrably higher, ranging from $3,000 to $7,000, whereas ship-within-a-ship pricing stayed in the $2,500 to $4,000 range.

Winner: Tie. There are too many different factors for us to make a confident conclusion on this, although it does seem like luxury cruises offer a better bang for your buck on Caribbean sailings. Still, keep in mind that on a ship-within-a-ship you’re paying for the entertainment and activities of a modern cruise ship that luxury vessels simply don’t have.



ship within a ship luxury overall winner smackdown
Photos by Norwegian Cruise Line and Silversea Cruises

This is not an easy decision to make, and it eventually comes down to what kind of cruise experience you’re looking for. If you’re traveling as a family or a young couple and want to stay active and entertained throughout your cruise, it’s hard to beat the combination of high-end service and mass-market amenities you’ll find on a ship-within-a-ship. On the other hand, if refined relaxation is more your speed and you couldn’t care less about big stage productions or water slides, you’ll likely be much happier on a luxury sailing.



Join the discussion

Do you ever sail luxury or in a ship within a ship area on a mainstream line? Which do you prefer and why?


Posted by moorsb

Last week we were on NCL Breakaway in the Haven but our suite was not located on the 16th floor but rather on the 9th deck. Our suite was very nice and the food was great in the Haven. I really enjoyed all the service provided by the suite staff. The only issue I had was the noise below our room. The crew has a break room below and the door into the room slams 24/7 and during shift change it can be every 15 seconds. It was impossible to sleep. I spoke with staff on day 1, 2, 3 and finally they gave us another room to sleep in. I wish they would have acted faster to solve our issue, after 3 sleepless nights I was not able to enjoy my vacation.

Posted by jleslie48

I went on the norwegian breakaway where I wasn't part of the "ship within a ship" and all it did was make me feel like a second class passenger, the front of the ship cut off from us "steerage" passengers and exacerbated the already cramped feeling of 4000 passengers jammed into a boat that didn't have enough public areas for the amount of people on the ship. When you subtract the square footage that was off limits to us regular passengers, the breakaway had less public space than the nowegian gem that only has half the number of passengers.

Posted by clrtet72sog

Came back from a trans-Atlantic cruise on Windstar, star breeze. Everything was excellent. Though the ship could accommodate 212 passengers, there were only 65, total. The service was impeccable. Your daily schedule was as follows. Wake up, eat, drink, nap, eat, drink, nap, and finally eat, sip and sleep. The open bridge policy day or night was a great feature. We will go again. Maybe early next year. By the third day it was total relaxation. By the 5th day, what day is it? By the 6th day you don't care.

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