“Cruise ships used to be for the newlywed or nearly dead,” quips Carolyn Spencer-Brown, Editor in Chief of Cruisecritic.com, an authority on the cruise ship industry. For years these floating clichés offered bingo, buffets and boredom in the form of shore excursions adhering to a well-trampled tourist trail. Now there’s a cruise to suit every demographic, from intellectuals to adrenaline junkies, princes to paupers and everyone in between.
There are cruises catering to those with religious and academic interests, for single travelers and families, gay travelers, wandering gourmands, adventurers and more.
In part, the renaissance of cruise vacations has been the result of vastly better boats. “Ships have become bigger and more contemporary,” says Spencer- Brown, “they have the same features as land resorts like fitness centers, movie theaters, great shopping and kids clubs.” An impressive 12.5 million people took a cruise in 2008—according to a report issued by the industry’s regulatory body Cruise Lines International Association (C.L.I.A.)—and a whopping 51 million Americans indicated that they were intending to take a cruise in the next three years. The big dilemma: which one to choose.
Spencer-Brown feels that the most common mistake travelers make is going for the cheapest vacation without properly researching the options. She advises reading many reviews and in-depth feature stories to get an idea of not just how a cruise rates but also how the experience meshes with your lifestyle. “Do you stay at the Hyatt or Relais & Chateaux? If it’s the latter then you knock out all the big ships because you’re not going to get that Relais & Chateaux experience,” she comments. “If it’s Hyatt, you can start looking at Princess, Royal Caribbean, Celebrity, Holland America and Carnival”. Next, consult a good old-fashioned travel agent: According to the C.L.I.A., a vast majority of passengers still book through one of the 16,000 travel agency members. They should pepper you with targeted questions aimed at matching your personality and behavior with a shortlist of vessels. But don’t be afraid to ask what preferred relationships the agent has with various cruise lines, especially if you feel you’re being steered in the wrong direction.
Why all the palaver? Well, cruise ships vary enormously (and even change amenities to suit the season) and something as simple as a deck layout can turn a love boat into a loathe boat. A ship without child-friendly distractions, for instance, can lead to a family mutiny. A berth without a queen bed can make for a rather, shall we say, unromantic honeymoon. Less mobile guests may find that not every ship is wheelchair friendly—stairways leading to common areas, narrow doorways and bulkheads make choosing a cruise a real challenge for millions of disabled Americans.
Generally speaking, a modern ship means modern amenities (and we don’t mean new shuffleboard courts). “They’re not designing ships for seniors anymore,” says Spencer-Brown. “They’re designing them for young people, and a younger audience wants all the bells and whistles, like a wave pool for surfing, twenty restaurants, a central park and really hip nightclubs”. All this adds up to much bigger boats like the 5,400-passenger behemoth, Oasis of the Seas, launching in 2009. It’s so large, it is divided into seven neighborhoods.
Oddly enough, some modern cruise customers could care less about the boats. “Our ships are very luxurious but, on expedition cruises, the ship is not as important as the destination, itinerary and enrichment program,” says Bob Simpson, vice president of business development for luxury operator Abercrombie & Kent. “Our clients are essentially looking for something that is off the beaten path.”
Some cruise operators make it clear in their name what their target demographic is. The Largest Gay Cruise in History, run by Atlantis Events, is unlikely to lead to confusion. “We charter the whole boat and deconstruct the cruise experience,” explains Oscar Yuan, vice president of Atlantis Events. “We’ll hire our own entertainment like Joan Rivers and change port times around to take advantage of destinations like Ibiza and Barcelona which have a vibrant gay nightlife. The whole pool deck becomes a dance floor and, if we have a party at night, we delay housekeeping until the afternoon.”
Fortunately several fonts of knowledge help narrow the options for anyone looking to try their sea-legs. Web sites like Cruisecritic.com and Cruising maintain thorough searchable databases about cruise lines, vessels and amenities. Paul Ellerby, sales and marketing director for European-based easyCruise advises logging on to message boards and asking questions of seasoned cruisers, or meeting up with other passengers before departure, lest you waste half the trip at the getting-to-know-you stage.
When choosing a cruise, there are so many options you’re bound to find one that, well, floats your boat.