Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings (NASDAQ:NCLH) is buying access to the upper crust. The company has agreed to acquire privately held Prestige Cruises International in a deal worth just over $3 billion, the company announced today. In doing so, Norwegian will pick up brands that serve upscale travelers -- a smart move as the cruise industry shifts its focus away from bargain rates toward premium experiences. It also gives Norwegian a new way to compete with the upper-tier brands operated by Carnival Corporation (NYSE:CCL) and Royal Caribbean Cruises (NYSE:RCL).

Upscale at full sail
Prestige's two brands lead the luxury cruise and upper-premium cruise markets. Regent Seven Seas Cruises currently sails three ships that max out at 700 guests -- guests who are happy to pay premium rates for no-holds-barred luxury: suites up to 2,000 square feet, chef-prepared meals, and land adventures including treks to Egypt's Valley of the Kings and French wine tours.

Prestige's other brand, Oceania Cruises, operates five ships, with the largest capable of carrying up to 1,250 passengers. Oceania positions itself as an upscale value line with offerings that include themed cruises focused on Mediterranean art, French cuisine, and other delights. Where Regent Seven Seas is all-inclusive, Oceania touts promotional deals, but its offerings are definitely for the traveler with a large budget.

A quest for more of the luxury market
The deal brings Norwegian Cruise Line's total fleet from 13 to 21 ships, leaving the company 3rd in size compared to industry leader Carnival and the 2nd-largest operator, Royal Caribbean. The value is not in the number of berths Prestige delivers but in the customers that Prestige will bring with it. These cruisers are happy to pay, for instance, $8,500 for a seven-night Caribbean luxury cruise -- or $149,000 for an 87-day epic sailing voyage from Tokyo to London. The latter cruise, which sails in March 2015, is already almost sold out, although there are suites left in the $63,000 range.

Suffice it to say that the Prestige purchase will better position Norwegian to compete with Royal Caribbean and Carnival at the uppermost end of the cruise market. While Carnival cruises are a popular mass-market option in the U.S., the company operates a total of 10 cruise brands, including the premium Holland America and "ultraluxury" Seabourn lines.

Royal Caribbean's six brands include Azamara Club Cruises, which offers butler service for suite guests on its 686-passenger ships, and Celebrity Cruises, which last week launched a new slate of luxury vacation packages that include African safaris and trips from the Amazon River to Antarctica.

Better balance
While a $149,000 cruise is not for everyone, courting that market gives Norwegian a hedge against economic downturns that can hit middle-class travelers disproportionately hard. During a recession, rich cruisers might scale back from the $150,000 suite to the $53,000 option, while travelers with less discretionary income will likely scale back to a staycation on dry land.

"From the travel agent perspective, it's a positive move for both Norwegian Cruise Line and Prestige since the brands can diversify their portfolios, while still maintaining each cruise line's unique brand personality," said Michelle Fee, CEO of the travel agent network Cruise Planners, in an email to The Motley Fool. "I think this acquisition will strengthen the Norwegian Cruise Line brand as a whole, as it will now allow them to catch up to its competitors who also have diversified portfolios."

The Prestige purchase doesn't mean that Norwegian is moving away from the mass market. In July, the company announced its order for two new big boats, 4,200-passenger Breakaway class vessels that will launch in 2018 and 2019. Expect these ships to offer popular amenities such as Broadway shows and celebrity chef dining options. But with strong demand for upper-tier service and amenities, Norwegian's move into the upscale market is a smart way to balance its brand portfolio.

The transaction is subject to regulatory approvals and is expected to close in the fourth quarter of 2014. The total transaction consideration of $3.025 billion includes the assumption of debt and there is an additional contingent cash consideration of up to $50 million to be paid to Prestige shareholders upon achievement of certain 2015 performance metrics. Shares of Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings were up roughly 11.5% as of 2:15 p.m.

Casey Kelly Barton has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.