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Hot cruises and trends for 2006

Want to be the envy of all your cruising friends? Want to be the first on the block to sail to the hottest destination or experience the newest cruise ship amenities? As the industry continues to expand and innovate, we’ve got the scoop on the cruising trends for 2006. With a little inside knowledge, you’ll be able to book the hottest sailings and experience the best the cruise lines have to offer this year.

Hot cruise destinations

The Caribbean will always be one of the most popular destinations, but this year Europe and Alaska are the hottest selling sailings. “Europe is shaping up to be the hottest destination in 2006,” says Michael Dauberman, vice president of cruise for Travelocity. The reason: Mostly because you can avoid a bad Euro exchange rate by paying for your cruise in dollars. Also, a cruise allows you to see a lot of Europe in a short period of time.

“Alaska is hot this year because you have a lot of choices and more ships are being added to the region,” says Mark Kammerer, vice president of cruise for “Alaska gives cruises a closer-to-home adventure vacation choice.”

Hot ports

Homeport cruising from the U.S. is still on the rise, and the hottest departure ports this year are New York City, Seattle, and Hawaii. “New York City is becoming increasingly popular since Norwegian began sailing year-round from New York with demonstrated success,” explains Terry Dale, president and CEO of the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA). Several lines are now sailing from the Big Apple, and you should keep an eye out for increased departures from other East Coast homeports such as Boston, Norfolk, and Baltimore.

“Seattle is a growth port due to the popularity of Alaska cruising,” Dale adds, “and Hawaii is seeing an increase in itineraries” due to NCL America.

Hot ship designs

Only six new ships are debuting this year, but they represent all that is hot in shipbuilding. “One of the major trends—at least among the mainstream cruise lines—is to build bigger and bigger ships. Along with the bigger ships come innovative new onboard amenities such as water/surf parks, rock climbing walls, bowling alleys, and on-deck movie theaters,” Dauberman says. Royal Caribbean’s new Freedom of the Seas will epitomize this trend with its variety of activities, including an onboard surfing pool and boxing ring.

“We are also seeing cruise lines focus more time and energy on food and dining,” adds Dauberman, and Norwegian’s new Pride of Hawaii will take the lead with 10 restaurants, 12 bars, and an innovative dining reservations system geared at reducing wait times at the most popular onboard eateries.

“Multigenerational travel continues to be hot with grandparents taking kids and grandkids because of the diverse activities a cruise provides,” says Dale. The new ships are offering a variety of cabin types to accommodate families of all sizes, with Royal Caribbean and Norwegian taking the lead in this area.

Luxury is also important in 2006. When Holland America introduces the ms Noordam, it will be the first new ship to feature all of the cruise line’s “Signature of Excellence” amenities, including superior bedding and an expanded spa. Both new ships and old will be making changes to improve your onboard relaxation, whether you’re turning in for the night or getting a massage.

The final trend in shipbuilding is an emphasis on balcony and outside cabins. The new Crown Princess will offer balconies in almost 900 staterooms; on the new MSC Musica, 80 percent of the cabins will have either a window or balcony. Balcony cabins are also selling out the fastest this year, so you shouldn’t delay your booking if you want a sea view.

Trends to watch for

Alaska and Europe may be hot this year, but Hawaii and exotic sailings (Asia, South America, Australia) are the up-and-coming destinations to watch. If you want to be a trendsetter, these are the cruises to book as cruise lines continue to expand their offerings in these areas.

World cruises are also on the rise. “World cruises are doing great in 2006, but are even stronger in 2007,” says Kammerer. Whereas just a few years ago, cruise lines were canceling their world cruises, several lines have added world cruises to their schedules in 2007. But, you must book this year for next year’s world cruise.

And as premium lines add more luxurious amenities, Kammerer advises trend followers to “watch how luxury lines continue to do versus the improvement in the premium products. As Celebrity, Holland America, and Princess deliver more at the upper end, it puts more pressure on the luxury lines. They’ll need to find a way to distinguish themselves in the eyes of the customers.”

Booking trends

All the experts agree that early booking is here to stay. CLIA is finding that almost 50 percent of bookings are made at least six months out. Procrastinators may find their preferred ships, sail dates, or itineraries are no longer available a couple of months prior to departure.

If you want to book a cruise to a popular destination or on a hot new ship, you’ve got two options. The first is to book early. As cruise lines and travel agents do a large percentage of their booking at the beginning of the year, now is a great time to find wide availability as well as discounts and special offers.

The second is to be flexible. As Kammerer puts it, “Look at where people are less likely to travel, and you’ll find better pricing.” For instance, fewer people want to travel to Alaska in May and September or to the Caribbean during the fall hurricane season, so you’ll find more attractive prices for these sailings at these times.

If you can plan ahead or plan smart, you’ll have no problem getting a coveted spot on one of the hottest cruises for 2006.

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