More people are taking cruises than ever before. And more options are available to cruisers than ever before—more destinations, a bigger variety of activities on and off the ship, even more choices for dinner. Niche cruises abound, from sailings for wine aficionados to trips that teach photography. And even though most cruisers use travel agents to book their trips, the Internet is playing an increasingly important role as a research tool.
Such are the trends in the cruise industry as travelers look ahead to holiday cruises, winter getaways to warm places, and other 2005 vacations.
The number of people taking cruises continues to grow. Nearly 8 million people took cruises in 2003; about 10.5 million are expected to cruise this year, according to the Cruise Line Industry Association, which represents 19 cruise lines serving 95 percent of the North American market.
Non-cruisers may understandably think of cruises as a refuge for sedentary passengers who spend their days filling up at free buffets. But cruise lines are trying to shake that reputation. Scuba diving, snorkeling and swimming with sting rays and dolphins are typical excursions on Caribbean cruises. Depending on the destination, Royal Caribbean cruises offer everything from glacier-climbing to cliff-rappelling to biking adventures, and its ships are known for amenities like rock-climbing walls and ice rinks. Royal Caribbean is also lengthening its Enchantment of the Seas ship to add a trampoline deck among other attractions.
Children at sea
A growing segment of the cruise market consists of passengers age 17 and under. A million children sailed on CLIA ships in 2003; about 1.1 million children are expected to sail this year. Most ships offer far more than baby-sitting to keep their young charges happy. Celebrity Cruises has a hands-on science and nature program; Costa Cruises has Italian lessons and kids' karaoke; the Queen Mary 2 serves a formal tea for children, but also has a splash pool and children's disco. Disney's Magic ship offers everything from meetings with Disney characters to fireworks and magic shows to an "Oceaneer's Lab."
New on Disney's Wonder ship is an area specifically for teenagers called Aloft. It's filled with the kind of comfy chairs you might find in a coffee shop or student lounge. Teenagers meet here for activities like a scavenger hunt that sends them all over the ship. Disney also organizes excursions just for teens, such as snorkeling, canoeing and harbor tours aboard smaller party boats.
“Teens want unique things, and this way they get their freedom but they still have structured activities,” said Disney Cruise spokeswoman Christi Erwin.
To entice repeat customers to come back, cruise lines are also adding new ports of call. "We're constantly searching out unique destinations," said CLIA President Terry Dale. "There are 1,800 ports now worldwide."
Holland America Lines even has a name for repeat cruisers for whom Mexico and the Caribbean are old news. They're called "destination collectors." To keep them coming back, the cruise line is adding new ports of call like Komodo, Indonesia, and Halong Bay, Vietnam, this year; and Muara, Brunei, and Port Louis, Mauritius, next year.
"We try to go to places we haven't been before, just to see other cultures, other sights," said Patricia Noble, a Holland America fan from North Vancouver who's taken 55 cruises to places ranging from Morocco and Tunisia to Australia and New Zealand.
You can even go around the world on one continuous cruise. For example, Silversea's “Silver Odyssey 2005,” a 100-day trip between Jan. 12 and April 22 from San Diego to Venice, includes stops in Mexico, Spain, Chile, Malta, Peru and Dakar. Prices for the entire trip begin at $42,156 per person, but passengers can go for as little as seven days.
Cruising for hobbyists and epicures
For some passengers, cruises are more about activities than destinations. Carnival offered a cruise in October called “Get Caught Reading at Sea,” where avid readers got to discuss their favorite books with authors like Mary Higgins Clark. A similar trip is planned for the spring of 2006; details at www.GetCaughtReadingatSea.com. Carnival also has a Mexican cruise with workshops on digital photography scheduled for Dec. 3 to 11; visit www.dpcorner.com/cruise/ for information.
Another trend is an upscaling of basic amenities. Cruises are showcasing fine wines, promoting menus from celebrity chefs, and making Internet cafes and spas as common as pools and casinos. Crystal Cruises offers signature dishes from Wolfgang Puck; the Queen Mary 2 has a Todd English restaurant, and Silversea offers a wine series with tastings and guided excursions to vineyards. Crystal Cruises has even introduced its own wine label.
Booking the vacation
Also on the rise is the increased importance of the Internet. Although CLIA's market research finds that 80 percent of cruisers still use travel agents to book their trips, cruise Web sites are proliferating. At www.cruisecompete.com, you can pick a cruise you're interested in and travel agents will submit price quotes. All cruise lines have their own Web sites, and in addition to well-known travel sites like www.expedia.com, www.cheaptickets.com and www.travelocity.com, you can also plan your cruise using www.cruise411.com, www.cruisequick.com, www.cruisebrothers.com, www.ecruises.com or www.cruisevaluecenter.com.
Or go to www.cruising.org, CLIA's Web site. Just type in your zip code to locate one of the 16,000 travel agents who specialize in cruises.
But it may be harder than in the past to find discounts from travel agents for certain trips. Traditionally, travel agencies that sell large numbers of cruise trips have given part of their commissions back to the customer in the form of reduced pricing. Royal Caribbean and Carnival recently instituted policies to discourage that.
The continuing problem with onboard viruses
One negative trend is the continued incidence of norovirus, a gastrointestinal illness, on ships. As the number of people taking cruises rises, so do reports of onboard illness, with 32 outbreaks reported this year to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, up from 30 last year and 24 in 2002.
Some 23 million Americans get norovirus each year without ever stepping on a ship, according to the CDC; for most people, it's a day or two home with "stomach flu." But because ships must notify the CDC when 2 percent or more of those on board get sick, outbreaks on ships—unlike outbreaks at your office—become public information.
The CDC makes surprise inspections of cruise ships to examine hygiene and sanitation protocols; you can see inspection scores for every ship at www.cdc.gov/nceh/vsp, where you'll also find advice on avoiding the disease with simple steps like washing hands vigorously and often.
Getting the inside scoop
For general advice on cruising, check out the Trendwatch columns at www.cruisecritic.com. A recent Trendwatch explained, for example, that a $399 cruise can cost a whole lot more unless you resist add-ons like spa products, gambling, ship-to-shore phone calls, pay-by-the-minute Internet centers, liquor and pricey classes. Passengers also use www.cruisecritic.com as a forum for the skinny on what's great and what stinks. “If you get off the ship in Belize, remember to bring bug spray,” wrote a recent contributor. “I'm still hoping we don't come down with malaria.”
You might also consult Berlitz's “Ocean Cruising & Cruise Ships 2004,” which has rated Hapag-Lloyd's Europa as the No. 1 ship in the world for four consecutive years. The November issue of Conde Nast Traveler rates cruise lines, too; Crystal Cruises was No. 1 among large ships, while Silversea won highest honors for small ships. If you have kids, pick up the fall/winter 2004 issue of Travel + Leisure's Family magazine, which compares trips with children on Disney vs. Royal Caribbean.
Dale, the CLIA president, says the array of choices available to cruisers is part of what keeps them coming back in such high numbers. "Fifty percent of our cruisers today are repeat customers," he said. "As soon as somebody takes that one cruise, it's like they become hooked. They want to do it again."
For more information on individual cruise lines: