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How to have a luxury experience on a mainstream cruise line

Picture yourself in sleek formal wear, leaning against the deck of a ship, champagne glass in hand, as the sun sets dramatically over the Caribbean sea. Earlier that day, you indulged in a soothing massage and browsed among fine art and jewelry. Tonight, you will dine on gourmet cuisine and sip fine wine. And to think that you paid under $100 per night for this luxurious cruise vacation.

Another fanciful dream? No, this is reality. Whether you opt to splurge on an upscale suite or purchase an inside cabin so you can spend your money elsewhere, you can have a luxurious experience on a mainstream cruise line. Carnival, Norwegian, and Royal Caribbean may be the cheapest of the major cruise companies, but they offer enough luxury options to make your vacation a true escape from mundane life.

Book a suite

If you can afford it, an upper-tier cabin can turn a mainstream cruise ship into a five-star hotel. The best example is Norwegian’s Courtyard and Garden Villas. The Courtyard Villas are suites with exclusive access to a private deck area with a pool, hot tub, and lounge area, as well as concierge service. The even more fabulous Garden Villas are 5,750-square-foot suites with multiple rooms, butler service, and their own sun decks. The price tag may rival college tuition, but no one can argue that a stay in one of these villas isn’t the ultimate in luxury

Royal Caribbean offers the Presidential Family Suite, which sleeps 14, on the Freedom of the Seas. Your family can live and play in a private warren of rooms, complete with a whirlpool, wet bar, and alfresco dining area. Royal Suite guests have access to a private lounge, and all suite residents can take advantage of special concierge services. Carnival doesn’t offer butler service to its suite guests, but rooms have large-screen TVs and whirlpool baths.

For a more affordable luxury, book a balcony cabin. You’ll feel like a millionaire when you sip wine on your private verandah as the ship sails out of port.

Alternate dining

Dining on a mainstream line can range from exquisitely prepared food in a romantic setting to a no-holds-barred buffet line. If you’re looking for a little luxury, skip the cafeteria-style eateries. You have plenty of nicer dining options.

You’ll find the most luxurious mealtime ambience at a specialty restaurant. These more intimate dining spaces require advance reservations and a surcharge of $20 to $30. But, you can eat there every night if you prefer, and you’ll be dining with far fewer people than in the no-charge venues. You’ll find top-of-the-line linens, china, and cutlery, as well as more gourmet cuisine and excellent service.

All three lines offer a specialty steakhouse. Carnival has its Supper Club, Norwegian has Cagney’s Steakhouse, and Royal Caribbean has Chops Grille. Royal Caribbean adds an Italian restaurant, Portofino, as a second special dining alternative.

Norwegian is known for its dining choices, and you can eat at a different restaurant each night. In addition to Cagney’s, its fine restaurants include Le Bistro for French food and Jasmine Garden for pan-Asian cuisine, including a sushi bar and a teppanyaki room. You’ll certainly feel pampered as the teppanyaki chefs prepare your food to your liking right in front of you in a private area that seats 32 diners.

Want fine dining without the price tag? Then take your meals in the ships’ main restaurants. Unlike the buffets, you’ll find sit-down service, attentive waiters, and expansive menus in a tasteful setting. The dining rooms serve all three meals, but are often quieter at breakfast and lunch when many guests opt for casual dining at the buffet restaurant or poolside grill. Better still, the price of a food is included in your cruise fare so you don’t have to pay another cent.

Alternately, order room service. Room service menus are complimentary on all three lines. You won’t have to worry about rude waiters, a noisy setting, or a wait to be seated. Plus, dining out on your balcony can be the most romantic and luxurious way to enjoy a meal.

Pamper yourself

Whether you paid $250 or $25,000 for your cabin, you can find ways to make your daily activities classy. Your first stop is, of course, to visit the spa. All mainstream ships have beautiful spas where you can indulge in a massage, facial, pedicure, or other treatment. Royal Caribbean has recently begun spa services aimed at teens and men, as well as acupuncture and teeth whitening. Everyone else onboard will likely want a bit of relaxation in the spa, as well, so make your appointment on the first day of your cruise.

Onboard fitness centers treat guests like members of a private sports club. State-of-the-art cardio machines often have individual TV screens, and you’ll find an array of gym classes for free. For around $10, you can sample the hottest fitness trends, such as pilates and yoga. Or, book a session or two with a personal trainer who can do a body-fat analysis and provide you with an individual workout plan. Private training may not be cheap, but you might step off the cruise slimmer than you arrived.

Fine wine was once the domain of the privileged, but on a cruise, everyone can drink in style. Carnival has expanded its wine list to add more premium varieties, and its newest ships have wine bars. Royal Caribbean’s ships all have champagne bars, and the Voyager- and Freedom-class ships also have wine bars. Pull up a chair and the bartender can help you discover which wines suit your palate. Or, sign up for a free wine-tasting class and learn how to appreciate a glass of vino. Norwegian’s newest ship have a veritable bar alley with a beer and whisky bar, a champagne and wine bar, and a martini and cocktail bar, as well as a cigar club. You could almost be in a James Bond movie as you order your single malt or martini—shaken, not stirred.

Art auctions are popular events on cruises these days, and guests can take home a Dali or Peter Max as a souvenir. Even if you don’t plan on bidding, you can chat with the auctioneer about the merits of various paintings or enjoy the works of master artists on the walls of the ship. Solely for attending the auction, you’ll often get a free glass of champagne and a free education in art appreciation.

Not into art? How about shopping? You’ll find designer jewelry and watches, as well as upscale lines of clothing, sold in the ship’s onboard boutiques. Perhaps you’ll purchase a special present so you can always remember this vacation. Or, take the opportunity to try on some pricey gems you could never afford to buy. For a half hour, you, too, can be treated like a movie star.

At the very least, you can offer the simple luxurious pleasures that make cruising such an attractive vacation. Dress up for a formal night and watch the sun set as you lean against the rails of the ship. Sip a glass of bubbly as you listen to classical music in the atrium or a jazz band in a lounge. Order a second entree or dessert, or see a show after dinner. You’ll quickly realize that you don’t have to be rich to afford a little luxury at sea.

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