This year promises to be another blockbuster for cruising. More ships are sailing to more ports than ever before, and more travelers are planning a vacation at sea. The cruise industry is hot, but the question on many savvy cruisers’ lips is which destinations and ships are the hottest of them all. We did a little investigation to bring you the word on the most popular cruises, as well as the latest booking trends and best advice on snagging the hottest sailings at the lowest prices.
Hot cruise destinations
The hottest cruise destination by far this year is Europe, and cabins are selling fast. “European cruises are on fire,”
Mark Venezia, director of marketing services for Vacation Outlet, told us. “Travelers can buy their cruise vacation in U.S. dollars, and that price will include their accommodations, meals, and entertainment.” With the dollar so weak against the euro, people planning vacations to Europe realize that they’ll get a much better value and see more of the Continent for less money if they book a cruise rather than a land vacation.
And cruise lines are prepared to handle this demand. Mark Kammerer, Expedia’s vice president of cruise, says that cruise lines have been capitalizing on the increased interest in Europe cruises and have been expanding their capacity in Europe by sending more ships to the region. Customers now have more choices than ever with regards to cruise length and ports-of-call. In fact, Celebrity recently pulled a ship out of the Caribbean and relocated it to Europe to give its customers even more choices for Baltic and Mediterranean sailings.
Alaska is also extremely hot this year, carrying over from its immense popularity in 2004. “Many people want to go to Alaska, but they can’t get there because the logistics are so challenging,” explains Kammerer. “A cruise is a very convenient way to see the beauty of Alaska while having many choices of activities in a variety of cities.” As cruise lines have increased the number of ships that sail from the Seattle homeport, cruisers now have more options for Alaska sailings. Plus, with more adventurous shore excursions, such as dogsledding and wilderness treks, Alaska cruises are suddenly appealing more to families and young couples, not just retirees.
And don’t forget to put the Caribbean on the list of popular destinations. Venezia tells us that in terms of sales, the “Caribbean is doing extremely well, better than before.” Caribbean itineraries are the mainstay of the cruise industry, and with an increased demand for cruise vacations of all sorts, the Caribbean is hotter than ever. Within the Caribbean, Western Caribbean sailings (usually including stops in Mexico and Jamaica) and exotic Caribbean sailings to islands such as Tortola are selling the fastest.
Hot ships and cabins
The hottest ships are the newest ships. Cruise lines have really listened to customers and have delivered cruise ships that have all the desired amenities. When people asked for more onboard activities, Royal Caribbean responded with the Voyager-class ships that include a rock-climbing wall and ice skating rink. When cruisers showed more interest in health and fitness, cruise lines expanded their spa and fitness-center facilities. Crystal Cruises is even planning eight cruises this year focused on yoga, Pilates, and Tai Chi. So, of course, savvy cruisers want to sail on the ship that they had a hand in designing. (However, if you’re looking to save, older ships often have lower fares.)
New ship or old, the most popular cabins these days are balcony cabins. Cruisers prefer the combination of a larger interior space with an outdoor retreat, perfect for sipping a morning coffee or watching the sunset at night. And cruise lines have responded, increasing the number of balcony staterooms on their ships. Radisson operates two ships—the Seven Seas Mariner and the Seven Seas Voyager—that have only balcony staterooms, and one of Norwegian’s newest ships, to be delivered in 2007, will include balconies on all oceanview staterooms. And on ships that combine inside, oceanview, and balcony cabins, it’s routinely the balcony cabins that sell out first.
The increasing popularity of cruising has also had a major effect on the way people book cruises. Just a few years ago, with people uneasy about traveling, cruise lines were offering rebates and last-minute deals to convince Americans to take a sea vacation. “Toward the end of the year, there are normally really low fares available [for winter cruises],” says Brad Jones, director of cruise and tour at Orbitz. “But this year, there was no inventory. The sailings had sold out, and prices for any remaining cabins were higher.” Whereas people used to book 30 to 60 days in advance, now Orbitz is seeing people book 90 to 115 days in advance and sometimes longer. And instead of finding last-minute savings, customers are finding that prices are increasing the closer it gets to a cruise’s departure date.
How to nab a hot cruise
So, if you do want to book that balcony stateroom on a Europe cruise this summer, or even if you want a less popular cruise, how do you make sure you get the sailing and price you want? Follow these tips and you’ll be sailing away on the hottest cruises in no time.
Book early: Gone are the days of plentiful last-minute deals. While less popular sailings may have some close-in savings, most of the hot cruises are selling out months in advance. And as cabins sell out, prices for remaining cabins rise. If you want to have your pick of sailings, cabins, and shore excursions and find the best prices, you would be wise to book as early as possible, and at least six months in advance for popular cruises. If you’re looking for a summer Europe or Alaska cruise, you should be booking now.
Cruise in the shoulder season: If you want to sail one of this year’s hottest cruises, you could find more availability and better prices if you cruise during a less popular month. Plus, you may also find fewer crowds in your ports-of-call by cruising in the shoulder season. Look for Alaska cruises in May or September or Europe cruises in the early spring or late fall. For more information about the shoulder seasons of destinations, read our feature on the best times to cruise.
Be flexible: If you’re just starting the booking process now, you may find that your top-choice itinerary and sail date has sold out or has gone out of your price range. However, there are so many cruise options now that a little flexibility could mean the difference between sailing and staying at home. Ask yourself if your travel dates are set in stone or if you could sail a week earlier or later. You might find an available cabin on a different date. Do a little research and you also might discover that more than one cruise line offers the ports and amenities you seek. For instance, Holland America and Princess are both premium lines that are leaders in Alaska cruising. Royal Caribbean and Celebrity are sister companies, so if you liked one line, consider trying the other. The more flexible you can be, the better chance you have of finding the perfect cruise at the perfect price.