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Hot cruises and trends for 2007

SmarterTravel

This year, 12.62 million people will take a cruise, according to a study by the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA). That’s a half million more cruisers than in 2006. Where do all these travelers want to go, and what should they expect from a vacation at sea this year? Better yet, how can you beat them to the best deals and the hottest destinations? The answers are easy to find—just read the following tips about the hot cruises and trends for 2007.

Hot cruise destinations

The hottest cruise destination for 2007, hands down, is Europe. In the past few years, Europe cruising has gone from completely dead to the strongest it’s ever been. At the same time, Caribbean cruises have behaved in the opposite manner. After being very hot post 9/11, island sailings are now in a slump.

Three factors have led to the popularity of Europe sailings, according to Mike Driscoll, editor of industry magazine Cruise Week: price, demand, and bigger ships. “A Europe cruise is cheaper than a land vacation,” says Driscoll. Because the dollar is so weak against the euro, hotels, food, and transportation within Europe have become more expensive for Americans. With a cruise, travelers pay the majority of their travel expenses in dollars and can avoid the exchange-rate gouge.

Second is demand. “The middle-income market has been more affected by recent economic issues than the upper-income market,” says Driscoll. Middle-class Americans, who tend to book Caribbean cruises, may not be able to afford a weeklong vacation this year. Wealthier travelers, who make up the Europe cruise market, have plenty to spend, and are filling up ships sailing in the Mediterranean and northern Europe.

Third is the backlash against bigger ships. When five mega-ships dock at a small Caribbean island at once, the effect is noticeable. Crowded streets and shops and a lack of an authentic experience are not so appealing to the experienced cruiser. In Europe, many of the ports are cities, which can handle a large influx of travelers, and cruise passengers find the experience much more attractive.

Far-flung destinations, such as Asia, South America, and the South Pacific, are also on the hot list this year. “Wanderlust is alive,” says Terry Dale, president and CEO of CLIA. “People want to see the world on a ship.” The Panama Canal is also gaining popularity with Baby Boomers because it’s replacing Alaska as the once-in-a-lifetime trip for retirees.

Hot ports

This year’s hot ports-of-call are the smaller, exotic destinations you’ve likely never heard of. Many are only accessible to smaller ships. Driscoll mentions Lipari and Stromboli in the Aeolian islands just north of Sicily, and Monopoli on Italy’s Adriatic coast. Dale says that Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast and South America’s Pacific Coast are also gaining popularity. In the Caribbean, cruise lines are heading south to introduce guests to lesser-known ports-of-call such as St. Kitts, Virgin Gorda, Bequia, St. Barts, and Tobago.

On the homefront, San Diego and New Orleans are making headlines as departure ports. This year, Carnival will launch the first-ever year-round itineraries from San Diego with four- and five-night Baja Mexico cruises on the Elation. Carnival—in addition to Celebrity, Holland America, Princess, and Royal Caribbean—will continue to run seasonal sailings out of the southern California port.

New Orleans will offer its first full-year cruising season since Hurricane Katrina shut down the cruise port. Last fall, Carnival, Norwegian, and Royal Caribbean brought ships back to the port to sail Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico itineraries. This year, Carnival will introduce the first year-round sailings from Louisiana when the Carnival Triumph homeports there starting in August.

Booking trends

Here’s a mantra to remember for booking cruises this year: The farther away your cruise destination is, the farther out you should book. Over the past year, the Caribbean has become a last-minute market, with cruisers waiting longer before booking a sailing. Deals should continue to be available a month or two prior to departure. Europe and more exotic cruises, on the other hand, are selling out six to 12 months in advance—sometimes more. If you want to sail to these destinations, you’ll need to book as far in advance as you can.

Trends to watch for

Last year, the new ships stole the spotlight with their headline-grabbing amenities, including onboard surfing, boxing, bowling, and race-car driving. This year’s 10 new ships will have a hard time impressing cruisers who think they’ve seen it all.

However, the cruise landscape is changing in other ways. Here are some trends to watch for in 2007.

  • Alaska is getting younger—not the state but the people who cruise there. Round-trip cruises out of Seattle allow a younger generation to enjoy a seven-night tour of the Inside Passage without taking two weeks off work and paying hefty sums for one-way airfare to Vancouver and Anchorage. Mature cruisers, with more time and money, are increasingly booking cruise tours to combine a seven-night sailing with an exploration of inland Alaska.
  • In addition to Alaska tourists, cruisers in general are getting younger. According to CLIA, 68 percent of Gen Xers have indicated a desire to cruise in the next three years. Plus, a push for family-friendly amenities and activities from the cruise lines keep the kids coming back for more vacations at sea.
  • Customization is a popular industry buzzword this year. Travelers don’t want to just sit on a tour bus in every port-of-call—they want to really experience a place and its culture. Look for more cruise lines offering customizable shore excursions and overnights in ports. In addition, customization means more types of staterooms and adjoining cabin configurations, such as family suites, as well as expanding options in onboard dress codes, dining options, and onboard activities.
  • World cruises are gaining popularity, and more cruise lines are offering them. In 2007, Silversea launches its first-ever world cruise, as does Cunard’s Queen Mary 2. Crystal, Holland America, Regent Seven Seas, and Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth 2 are also offering cruises of over 100 days this year. What’s the reason for this popularity in months-long voyages? Technology. World cruisers can easily stay in touch with friends and family through onboard email and international-plan cell phones. Travelers with the time and money to sail for four straight months no longer need to feel isolated or out of touch.
  • In 2007, cruises will shed their images as lazy vacations solely devoted to eating, drinking, and lounging in the sun. Many cruise lines, especially the luxury ones, are adding enrichment programs to their roster of onboard entertainment. This year, guests can listen to lecturers, and learn about art, dance, cooking, computers, languages, and history while onboard.
  • The old adage is that cruisers gain a pound a day through a daily regimen of constant eating, prodigious drinking, and excessive lounging around. Not in 2007. Cruise ships are on a healthy kick this year. Spas are offering acupuncture, weight loss treatments, and teeth whitening; menus have eliminated trans fats and embraced healthier options; and the midnight buffet is no longer offered every evening. As onboard fitness centers become bigger and better, guests may even find that they can lose weight during their seven days at sea.
  • Another trend to watch for is the cruise lines’ continuing quest to spread elements of luxury across all ship categories. Look for mainstream lines to add spacious suites for high-paying customers and gourmet menus and new spa treatments available to all guests. From the high-end lines, expect continual refinement of their highly regarded customer service and attention to detail.

Be a trendsetter

Why care about cruising trends? There’s a couple of reasons. If you know which cruise destinations are hot, you also know which voyages to book early because they’ll soon sell out. An understanding of current booking trends also gives you the inside scoop on where and when to find deals.

Experienced cruisers want to keep an eye on up-and-coming ports to see where cruise lines might put more ships or how they might structure new itineraries. If you’re tired of the same old ports after your 10th, 20th, or 50th cruise, you’ll want to know where to find unique experiences for your next voyage.

General trends impact almost every traveler. Vacationers who wouldn’t dream of taking a cruise or were unimpressed by their first cruising experience may find that sailings have changed dramatically over the past few years, with more opportunities for all kinds of travelers. Cruising aficionados, on the other hand, will want to know how the lines have responded to their requests for better onboard programs and amenities, as well as innovative itineraries and shore excursions.

Or, perhaps, you’re the kind of traveler who wants to be the first on the block to experience a new destination or vacation style. If so, these tips will help you become the trendsetter you’ve always wanted to be. Bon voyage!

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