Lower fares or more inclusions? Jane Archer takes a look at how the very top of the market is luring clients

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Silversea has called time on the six-star trend of luring bookings with giveaways, hoping instead to attract customers with new fares that guarantee a refund if the price is subsequently reduced.

It’s a brave U-turn by the cruise line, which has spent the past four years giving away flights and throwing large sums of on-board credit into its packages, especially when several of the cruise line’s six-star peers continue to offer ever-more inclusive packages.

New in 2013, Regent Seven Seas Cruises is including one pre-cruise hotel night in the cruise price, adding to the flights, transfers, shore excursions, drinks and gratuities included as standard and the occasional pre or post-cruise land tours.

Crystal Cruises, which started including drinks and gratuities in prices last year, is giving away flights on most cruises in 2013, and offering other extras on an ad-hoc basis.

Azamara Club Cruises is snapping at the heels of the six-star lines by including gratuities and, from spring, drinks served during bar hours. Passengers can also get free flights on selected cruises.

Oceania Cruises, another worthy alternative to ultra-luxury cruising, is giving away free flights with all cruises and regularly offers up to £1,000 per person off fares.

Ironically, the 2008 economic crash resulted in increased bookings for the ultra-luxury lines – the likes of Silversea, Seabourn, Crystal and Regent – which reacted by giving away so many extras that suddenly they were great value.

In 2010, the number of UK passengers taking an ultra-luxury cruise rose 6%; in 2011, it was up 8%, to almost 26,000, according to the Passenger Shipping Association. And this trend looks set to continue.

Crystal Cruises is enjoying record forward bookings for 2013, which Philip Ordever, vice-president international sales and marketing, attributes both to the new drinks-inclusive fares and shorter, more destination-rich cruises. These not only appeal to time-poor travellers but are, of course, less expensive.

Such growth is great news for the six-star cruise lines, especially as once people have tasted the good life they are unlikely to want to go back to the mass-market. On the negative side, the six-star giveaway has prompted moans from past passengers of cost-cutting and a fear that lower prices will attract the ‘wrong type’.

Silversea’s UK general manager Mike Bonner believes it has also caused confusion, hence the new Silver Privilege fares.

These take Silversea back to pre-2008 times when its fares were cruise-only – the line can add flights, transfers, hotel and land tours, but passengers pay for each item. For voyages departing after June 1, the cruise line will refund the difference if the price passengers pay is then discounted.

This is in line with the price promises launched by P&O Cruises, Cunard, Swan Hellenic and Voyages of Discovery last autumn; the difference is that Silversea passengers have to request a refund if they see their cruise on sale at a lower price, whereas the other lines will automatically refund customers.

Bonner said the new fares make it easy for people to understand the real price of each component of their holiday. It’s true, but as other six-star cruise lines continue adding value, the jury is out on whether the ploy will work.