Eric Tan and his friends were having breakfast one morning aboard a ship in Cozumel, Mexico, when they found out rocker Elton John was giving a concert that night among the Maya ruins at Chichén Itzá, a four-hour drive.
“We starting joking that we should go,” Tan said. “Incredibly, the cruise line made it happen.”
The eight friends were on a voyage with Seabourn Cruise Line, a luxury line that specializes in making the unexpected come true.
The ship’s concierge desk got 12th-row seats for the friends, chartered a plane and limos, and got them to the concert on time. Tan and his wife, Penny, who live in Vancouver, Canada, paid $2,000 each for the special night out.
That event several years ago was a turning point for Tan, a veteran of 165 cruises: He switched permanently to high-end cruise lines.
“It only happened because we were on a luxury brand that had the people and connections to make it happen,” he said.
Cruise lines expend a lot of energy going the extra mile for guests. That’s true whether the line caters to high-end travelers or Middle America.
But many have been upping the ante on invitation-only parties, secret experiences and unique mingling events. All seem funky and fun, but some of the perks available to VIP travelers are over-the-top.
Austin, Texas, resident Keith Steiner, who has been sailing with Crystal Cruises since 2002, said his favorite perk is private Crystal Tours.
“For my wife’s birthday, we went on a special tour in Honolulu that included lunch at Natsunoya Japanese Tea House, where a spy viewed Pearl Harbor troop movements prior to the start of the Pacific war,” he said. “The restaurant was opened just for my wife, Anne Marie, and me.”
Steiner said they had a wonderful meal, an interesting history lesson and breathtaking views of Pearl Harbor.
What to expect
VIP perks usually include such amenities as private car transfers to and from the ship, priority check-in and tendering, butler and concierge service, exclusive restaurants and free specialty dining, exclusive lounges and free drinks, said John Mast, senior director, global cruise market, Expedia CruiseShipCenters.
Parties often are part of the mix: On Cunard Line, guests with platinum or diamond status, achieved by being a frequent cruiser, receive an invitation to the World Club cocktail party with senior officers.
Other amenities allow you to:
► Hang out in your own private dining room, available exclusively to guests in the Regent Suite aboard Seven Seas Explorer.
► Hop on a bike on an AmaWaterways European river cruise for a local tour.
► Go shopping at a local marketplace with a chef on a Seabourn cruise.
If you’re sailing on Ponant, a French line that specializes in luxury expeditions, you can retreat to the underwater BlueEye Lounge to reflect on marine life.
“The motivations of cruisers are changing,” said Navin Sawhney, chief executive of Americas for Ponant. “Travelers no longer want tangible goods. They want a transformative travel experience.”
Ponant’s BlueEye Lounge “turns travelers into modern-day explorers,” he said. “You see tropical flora and fauna, and there are hydrophones, which stream in sounds from the sea.
All kinds of parties
Unusual shipboard parties are trending on many lines; many are open to all passengers, not just VIPs.
Regent Seven Seas is known for its Block Party, usually the second night of a voyage. Passengers leave their cabins to mingle with neighbors as the captain walks the halls getting acquainted.
At Norwegian Cruise Line’s White Hot Party, also known as H2GLOW, everyone wears white and dances the night away as they hold glow sticks.
Princess Cruises throws a Love Boat Disco Deck Party, which transports guests to the days of disco, eight-track tapes and roller skates. There’s a video message from the original “Love Boat” cast, a performance, a trivia contest, ’70s music videos and a live kiss cam.
On Royal Caribbean, guests receive a message that “Mr. Gold” has invited them to a secret event, which turns out to be a Roaring ’20s party featuring flappers, gangsters, jazz performances and Prohibition-era cocktails.
At Disney Cruise Line, the ship celebrates pin trading (pins represent the line’s ships and ports of call, among other things) with a one-night Officer Pin Trading Night. Passengers and crew line up for some good, old-fashioned bargaining. The Officer Pin Trading Night is rarely publicized, so guests are encouraged to check the Disney Cruise Line Navigator app daily for details.
Celebrity Cruises also holds a ’20s party. This one is called Indulgence and features dancers, singers and masked waiters offering cabaret-themed cocktails, appetizers and dance performances throughout the party.