By Editor, CruiseCritic.com
updated 3/30/2005 2:25:31 PM ET 2005-03-30T19:25:31

If 2005 is one of the most laid-back years in cruising than we've experienced since the mid-1990's -- at least in terms of new ship introductions -- by no means expect this to represent a boring period. If you haven't ever cruised, or it's been a few years, there's plenty that's new and different.

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Before we get into our picks for 2005's most interesting and evolutionary new trends, we want to acknowledge this:

Safety and security will continue to be of major import, both on shore and in port.

The big ship-building boom of the past half dozen years may be taking a break (with the exception of NCL, which is unveiling two new vessels this year, and Carnival, with one) but look for new ship action to pick up in 2006 and beyond.

Interestingly, the only place we're seeing significant new-build debuts is in the niche arenas of river cruise vessels and canal barges, with longtime players such as Viking River (launching two new ships, one in China, the other in Europe), French Country Waterways (debuting a new, built-from-scratch canal barge in autumn), and Avalon Waterways (premiering its third river-going vessel) all experiencing growth spurts.

In the luxury segment, not only are there few new vessels (only Crystal Serenity and Radisson Seven Seas' Voyager have launched new ships), there's also a sense that, aside from the innovative SeaDream Yacht Club series of twin ships, there's little that's new and different in this arena. Snore.

Moving on, here are our editor's picks for 2005's trends-to-watch!

EUROPE IS THE NEW CARIBBEAN

Details: Europe is, hands down, this year's hottest new cruise destination. We credit the upswing in popularity to a couple of factors. There's what the industry calls "pent up" demand -- many travelers have avoided the vast region since 9/11 for safety and or flying reasons, and now they feel it's safe again. Just as important is the continuing plummet of the dollar against the Euro and other currencies. For Americans, this means cruises, for which you pay in dollars for your cruise fare and even for shore excursions, are the most economical way to visit Europe just now.

Tidbit: The demand has been so huge that Celebrity, for one, just recently announced it would pull Century, originally slated to sail year-round in the Caribbean, from its original summer schedule there -- and send it to Europe instead.

Another Tidbit: Lost in the hype of the big ship migration this spring to Europe is that of the smaller, more intimate niche of cruising on river ships and canal barges. The same value-for-money theme applies -- but these trips offer the only real chance to explore the heartlands by boat. And companies like Avalon Waterways, Viking River, and French Country Waterways are making the most of it -- both are unveiling brand new ships this year.

Bottom Line: Back to that huge demand -- many of the best cabin categories during the peak school holiday times (Europe's becoming a hugely popular cruise region for families, but that's another story on another day) are already sold out ... at high fares, though the price is still a bargain over a European land trip. Waiting around for last minute bargains looks pretty risky at this point.

THE RE-EMERGENCE OF THE MIDDLE-AGED AND MIDDLE-SIZED CRUISE VESSEL

Details: Holland America created a stir last year when it announced it would invest $200 million in significantly overhauling its circa mid-1990's ships, in a time when many cruise lines were trading just this kind of ship away to less demanding regions of the world (Asia, Europe). These ships generally had fewer or no balconies, no room for expansive varieties of alternative restaurants, and smaller and less lavish accommodations. However, on a post-refurbishment trip on Holland America's Ryndam, which launched in 1994, we were wowed by Oasis and the Loft, the distinctive new two-deck teen facility, Explorations' Cafe, a fabulous library-MP3 listening center-Internet cafe/coffee bar, and the Culinary Arts Center, which housed a complete performance-style kitchen. All other ships in the fleet (save for its newest Vista-class vessels) are receiving similar revolutionary refurbishments.

Royal Caribbean is another line that is sprucing up "moldy oldies" for a new life in a most distinctive way rather than selling them. All eyes are waiting on the re-emergence of Enchantment of the Seas, which after its overhaul in late spring will sport the industry's first suspension bridge and bungee jumping facility. This follows major re-dos of other Royal Caribbean ships, including Sovereign of the Seas and Empress of the Seas.

Tidbit: NCL has announced that by 2010 it will have rid itself of all of its mid-1990's ships (anything that sailed for the line in the days before it was acquired by Malaysia-based Star Cruises) but that mindset is easy to understand. The company's patented "Freestyle Dining" strategy, which offers up to a dozen restaurants on its ships and has revolutionized onboard dining, simply doesn't fit the concept.

Bottom Line: Even with all the newfangled gadgets these ships have they're still smaller than the mega-liners and offer less choices, smaller cabins and fewer balcony options. Still, as an occasional option, we found their size -- just big enough to offer plenty of variety, yet never so huge you felt like part of a mass -- to be delightful.

SHORE EXCURSION INNOVATION

Details: Led by Celebrity Cruises' Xpeditions spin-off, shore excursions -- those organized land trips in ports of call -- have become increasingly unique. No longer are visitors relegated to motorcoach tours of scenic sights (though the option is still on many a menu). Now, more personalized fare is on offer. Passengers who ships dock at Russia's St. Petersburg can take a daytrip to Moscow. Those visiting Hawaii's Maui can snorkel in the crater of a volcano. In the Caribbean's Antigua, passengers can attend a private cooking workshop at one of the island's finest restaurants (lunch is included, natch).

Tidbit: Keep an eye on this: Cruise lines are paying increased attention to pre- and post-voyage land tours. Among the more exotic are those offered by Celebrity Xpeditions (one involves a three day trip to Switzerland's Matterhorn, a destination rarely mentioned in the same breath as "cruise").

Bottom Line: Independent-minded cruise passengers should not automatically dismiss cruise lines' shore excursion offerings.

UPGRADED CABIN AMENITIES

Details: Just like hotel resorts, cruise lines are upgrading in-cabin amenities on a large scale, offering high-thread-count cotton bedding (and duvet covers), DVD players, flat-screen televisions and designer toiletries. Leaders in this arena include Holland America, Crystal and SeaDream Yacht Club.

Tidbit: Royal Caribbean, whose onboard innovations have not heretofore included of-the-moment cabin accouterments, has announced that on its new Freedom of the Seas, now under construction, all cabins (not just suites) will have flat screen televisions.

Bottom Line: The comfort and ambience of cabins, once considered merely a place to go to bed, are as important to contemporary cruise travelers as other features, ranging from restaurants to fitness facilities.

ASIA: THE EXOTIC NEW MASS-MARKET DESTINATION

Details: While niche ships like Swan Hellenic's Minerva II and Star Clippers' Star Clipper have spent full cruise seasons (typically December - March) in Asia -- and luxury-oriented cruise lines such as Crystal, Seabourn and Silversea have all offered a handful of itineraries each year -- the big ship lines have pretty much limited sailings there to world-cruise calls. No more: Oceania Cruises' announcement that its new Nautica, due out in November, would debut with a season in Asia was a significant nod to that region's appeal to a wider base of travelers. Princess has deployed Diamond Princess, one of its newest, splashiest ships there (and has announced that the equally new Sapphire Princess will take over next year). And the recent move by Celebrity to position its Summit there next fall solidifies the region's up-and-coming status. Even Australia-based P&O Cruises is making moves toward Asia. The company announced in January that it would base, for the first time, its Pacific Sky in Singapore for a three month season in the fall of 2006.

Add to that the increasingly seamless options offered by major airlines offering nonstops from the East Coast to Singapore, Dubai, Bangkok and Hong Kong.

Tidbit: Even a tsunami hasn't scared off cruise travelers from sailing in Asia (notably in South Asia, where the effect of the series of tragic waves was devastating).

Bottom Line: Travel in Asia is becoming more cost- and time-efficient for cruise passengers than ever before.

HIGHER CRUISE FARES

Details: While you'll still spot the occasional "$399 for a seven-night cruise!" super deals, they're becoming rarer and, more than ever, limited to less desirable ships, seasons, and locales. This is due in part to several cruise lines (such as Royal Caribbean and Celebrity) cracking down on agencies offering discounts and rebates. In the past, many agencies -- particularly those eager to attract new business -- have offered a portion of their commissions to consumers (in the form of discounts, cabin upgrades, value-added incentives, etc.), awarding travelers with fares lower than the cruise line's lowest price. The industry's move to halt this common practice may be in part an effort to level the playing field so that small and high-volume agencies have the exact same selling prices.

Tidbit: One of the easiest ways to find out what's on offer is to sign up for Cruise Critic's weekly Cruise Sails newsletter, chock full of great cruise deals and last-minute bargains.

Bottom Line: Even though fares are rising, there are still ways to get your money's worth on a cruise. Seek out off- or early-season sailings, or repositioning cruises -- and if you don't mind giving up a few amenities or extra space, book on a slightly older ship.

ADVENT OF WIRELESS TECHNOLOGY

Details: Several cruise lines -- notably Carnival, NCL, Holland America and Royal Caribbean -- have offered wireless capability. But you've had to truck your laptop to their designated "hotspots" to get a signal. So what was interesting about Carnival's new Valor isn't just that it offers wireless access -- but also that you can sign on from anywhere onboard.

Tidbit: On a recent cruise on Carnival Valor, we checked out the cruise line's claims and, indeed, our laptop got signals in locations ranging from the upper pool deck to our shower stall.

Bottom Line: It's a blessing or curse depending on how you look at it -- but staying in touch at sea is becoming easier and easier.

NEW YORK'S A BURGEONING YEAR-ROUND HOMEPORT

Details: When NCL announced it was assigning New York as the homeport for Norwegian Dawn on a year-round basis, a lot of skeptics wondered how the line would attract passengers during the coldest weather months. Wonder no more. The experiment was so successful NCL has decided to deploy Norwegian Spirit there for winter sailings, too. In the meantime, New York (and the Hudson River-adjacent port facility in Bayonne, New Jersey) continues to attract most major big-ship and small-ship lines during spring, summer and fall.

Tidbit: Holland America will join NCL for winter sailings when it launches its new Noordam in January 2006.

Bottom Line: The winter itineraries are a massive convenience -- not to mention a major cost saver -- for folks for whom New York is a drive-to port (and so what if it's a tad too chilly to lie by the pool on the first and last days of the voyage!).

Cruise Critic, which launched in 1995, is a comprehensive cruise vacation planning guide providing objective cruise ship reviews, cruise line profiles, destination content on 125+ worldwide ports, cruise bargains, tips, industry news, and cruise message boards.

Cruise Critic has been honored by the Society of American Travel Writers with its Lowell Thomas Award and was recently named in Travel + Leisure's "Best 35 Travel Sites" list.

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