Are on-board Class Divisions on the Rise?

A Touch of Class


I had an interesting debate recently about the possible resurgence of ‘class divisions’ on board modern cruise ships. The discussion was initiated by an article from Robin Searle, reporting on the Miami SeaTrade exhibition in March:

“Mainstream cruise lines will increasingly offer a two-tier experience with high-paying customers enjoying separate privileges to standard passengers, according to the chief executive of Royal Caribbean, Adam Goldstein. He also said: ” the days of all passengers mingling in open communal areas once they left their cabins were a thing of the past”.

Most people are familiar with the historical perspective of class division on-board passenger ships from the Titanic story. It is a well known fact that the poor in ‘Steerage’ class (so called because their accommodation was traditionally on the lower decks near the rudder mechanism) generally drowned and the rich passengers travelling in First Class mainly survived.

This was not limited to the Titanic, as most of the great ocean liners of the past had a three class structure with separate accommodation, separate dining rooms and even separate deck space for each class. This tradition even persisted on cruise ships to an extent, until the mid 1970’s.

The cruise ships which followed the great ocean liners ships could be regarded as ‘one class’ in a sense that all public rooms and dining rooms are available to all guests. However a range of cabins from modest to palatial are available at varying fares. Additionally, alternative restaurants which charge extra fees have become commonplace on-board most modern ships today.

The premium cruise line ‘Cunard’ has been an exception to the rule. They have continued to maintain a class system, albeit a ‘quasi’ one. In fact this class system is viewed by many as one of their unique selling points. Cunard offers 3-4 grades of dining, in separate restaurants, linked to cabin grade/fare.

The upper tiers of Cunard dining, the ‘Queens Grill’ and ‘Princess Grill’ offer passengers traveling in the most expensive suites two intimate dining rooms, with an exclusive patio (Queen Victoria) and private lounge with bar and some private deck space (Queen Mary 2). Access to these areas can be by private elevator (Queen Victoria) and these particular facilities are off-limits to the non-Grill Passengers.

Interestingly, there has been a trend in recent years where even ‘mass market’ (standard) ships have begun to offer high grade accommodation and facilities. For example, most of NCL’s ships offer private ‘Courtyard Villas’ which are large suites which share an exclusive private courtyard with their own pool. Of course there is a premium cost for such accommodation and facilities. Former NCL CEO,  Colin Veitch said: “There clearly is a market for that product onboard a large ship, with people wishing to enjoy the facilities of a bigger ship but still wanting exclusivity.”


The Yacht Club (MSC)

In response to this growing trend the ‘Mediterranean Shipping Companies’ newer ships feature enhanced premium accommodation, called “The Yacht Club”. It consists of spacious suites and other designated VIP areas that include a bar, a solarium, jacuzzis, swimming pool with a sky dome, an observation lounge.

The “Yacht Club” will also feature a 24/7 “Butler Service”, with one butler for every 5 suites. Such talk of on board segregation initially caused some heated discussion emotions within net forums.  One commentator proclaimed “THE CLASS SYSTEM BELONGS IN THE GARBAGE HEAP OF HISTORY” while another said: “What really bothers me is the will of some to have specific public areas for the richest passengers on mass market ships. If you’re rich and don’t want to intermingle with the “mass”, go with Silversea or Crystal….”

Let’s Apply a bit of Sociology

I wonder what the historic figure, Karl Marx, the godfather of ‘class theory’ would think of all this? On the one hand, Marx might simply divide society into those that can afford to go cruising and those that cannot.

However a ship board vacation is now cheaper than ever, it is becoming a mass market product. If we persuaded Marx’s ghost to board a modern cruise ship I suspect he might be of the opinion that there is still a clear class division today,  which has not changed very much from the days of the great ocean liner. He would probably divide the guests into the bourgeoisie ‘ (the haves) in the Suites and the ‘Proletariat’ (the have-nots) in the cheap cabins.


On the other hand, sociologist Max Weber’s saw class division as being much more ‘stratified’ than Marx. The wide range of cabin grades (14 or more, on some big new ships) and a wide range of fares and dining options available could be seen as evidence supporting his ideas. In other words, there is not just ‘us and them’, modern class stratifications are much more complex than that. Today’s wide range of cruise ships, cruise lines and in turn cruise experiences that are available, from ‘Crystal’ to ‘CMV’ can also be viewed as supporting Weber’ stratification approach.

Norwegian Epic Haven Private Villas (NCL Image)

So is their a class divide on-board ships?

So then, is there a resurgence of class-division on board modern ships?

As a response  I will pose the question “Did it ever go away”?

Personally I do not see big suites, private lounges and alternative dining as a symptom of class division. I simply see them as the cruise lines offering a range of ‘experiences’ at a range of prices – that’s the nature of capitalism.

We all have the option to buy a range of accommodation including the big suite with private balconies and dine in alternative restaurants. In fact we have more choices than ever before. No one is excluded because of where they were born, where they were educated or who there parents were. The division is not one of ‘social class’ it is one of ‘consumption’. There are probably blue-collar workers dining in Cunard’s ‘Queens Grill’ because they feel it is work trying and they saved up. At the same time plenty of wealthy people who would not dream of paying Cunard’s high Grill Class fares.

As one commentator succinctly put it, “It’s not a matter of the “haves and have-nots”, it’s a matter of the “haves and have-mores”.

Malcolm Oliver

Below, NCL’s ‘Haven’ (private ship within a ship complex):


4 Responses to “Are on-board Class Divisions on the Rise?”

  1. jenni Says:

    good point malcolm about class division vs range of facilities :) thank you for getting back to me and look forward to seeing more of your blog in the future

  2. Malcolm Oliver Says:

    Hi Jenni, thanks for the positive response. I believe I wrote the article in 2008. The problem with online sources (references) is that that web sites get re-vamped and material can be deleted, unlike books which are available forever. The reference is probably gone.

    Interestingly many cruise lines now offer a ship-within-s-ship experience with private accommodation, a private restaurant, private pool and a butler etc. It’s more common that ever. However is it a ‘class division’ or just a range of facilitates aimed at different budgets.

  3. jenni Says:

    hi malcolm, I really enjoyed your article :) would you be able to help provide any reference information about robin searle’s comments in 2012 that you quoted above? I have searched and searched and can’t find the seatrade article. thank you so much :) I am doing a phd on perceptions in cruising and have found some interesting results about this idea of a two-tier system re-emerging and the quote is a great one.

  4. Mila Says:

    I don´t think there’s actually a class division. Sure, there are different types of staterooms, just as in a hotel there are rooms, suites, executive suites and presidential suites. I don´t see a class division there!
    Now, sometimes you can find snobs that right after saying hello ask what your grade is exactly…but hey! It’s a cruise! With thousands on people, it would be too much to ask that each and every one of them were nice and polite although it would be a nice utopia if you ask me. Fortunately, as I said, there are thousands of people there so you have a wide selection of soon to be friends.
    PS: Love the blog! And sorry for any mistakes, not my native language

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