Cruise lines test pay-for-perks programs

Royal Caribbean guests who buy The Key package get an embarkation lunch in Chops Grille, among other amenities.

Royal Caribbean International is testing a package of for-purchase amenities intended to upgrade the passenger experience with features such as a steak lunch at embarkation and VIP show seating.

The Key, as the package is branded, is one of a growing number of such programs by cruise lines trying to bridge the gap between one cabin category and another or to sell perquisites once reserved for a few.

Holland America Line (HAL) recently launched Club Orange, with somewhat different benefits but the same general concept. Club Class at Princess Cruises spans the gap between its mini-suite and full-suite categories. And Carnival Cruise Line has Faster to the Fun, which is mainly a way to jump the line on many Carnival experiences.

All of the programs offer an "in-between" level of amenities for guests who seek more than the basic cabin accommodation but can't afford or don't want a premium cabin category. 

"We believe there are guests who maybe can't afford a Neptune Suite experience with a larger suite that would like to have an upgraded experience in the dining and onboard experience," said Michael J. Smith, senior vice president of guest experience and product development at HAL.

Club Orange is being tested on the Koningsdam and Nieuw Statendam for potential rollout fleetwide.

Privileges attached to The Key start with a personal drop-off service that delivers carry-on bags directly to the guest's stateroom. Next up is an embarkation lunch at Chops Grille. Key holders get private hours at crowded attractions such as the FlowRider and zipline, and they sit in the VIP section at show performances.

They also get priority disembarkation at ports of call and at the end of the cruise, where an a la carte breakfast will be available in a full-service venue. The Key also comes with one Surf and Stream high-speed internet connection. 

The Key is being tested on several ships, including the Oasis of the Seas and the Liberty of the Seas, with price points varying from $14.99 to $24.99 per person, per day, depending on the ship and the itinerary. Rules stipulate that if one person (age 6 or over) in a cabin buys the Key, all must do so, making it up to a $700 buy for a family of four on a seven-day cruise.

"My instinct is that my clients would say no to it," said Barb Artel, a cruise specialist at All Travel Co. in Indianapolis. Artel said she considers the package expensive. "I think the only thing of value would be the private lunch when they board and then some of the priority seating or private times they can enjoy."

Artel added that for families, beating the lines on some popular attractions on big ships such as the Oasis could make sense. "On some of these megaships, you just don't get to do things, because there's only so much time." 

HAL's Club Orange features a dedicated restaurant in what used to be the Culinary Arts Center on Pinnacle-class ships. Smith said the food is similar to what's served in the main dining room, with some specials made in the on-site kitchen, but the atmosphere is much more intimate.

The name comes from the House of Orange, "a play on our Dutch heritage," Smith said. Members also get priority embarkation and disembarkation, tender service and alternate restaurant reservations as well as a dedicated concierge hotline and upgraded bathrobes. Club memberships will be limited in number on each cruise and cost $50 per person, per day.

"This is a test," Smith said. "We're seeing the interest in it."

Princess Cruises' Club Class and Carnival's Faster to the Fun have been around longer and are a little different. Club Class is an upgraded type of mini-suite and can't be bought without the accommodation. Faster to the Fun is another pay-for-privilege product. It includes luggage priority, a dedicated guest-services line and other perks.

Marcia Finkelstein, owner of Cruises & Tours Worldwide in Boynton Beach, Fla., said that programs like the Key have ruffled some feathers among those with elite status in Royal's Crown & Anchor loyalty program. 

"The clients who don't have as much loyalty, they're going to be able to pay for it," Finkelstein said. "They're going to like it. The clients who have all the loyalty toward that cruise line, they're going to be a bit perturbed about it."

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