It doesn’t take a soothsayer or a crystal ball to predict that the hottest cruise trend of 2009 is getting the best possible bargain. Indeed, 2009 is looking like the biggest buyers’ market ever with the absolute cheapest fares we’ve seen in a long, long time. We’ll resurrect on oldie-but-goodie cruise line marketing slogan: “Get out there,” because there’s no better time to book a trip.
But what’s to come in 2009 beyond “the year of the deal”? Read on for a list of the top 10 trends we’re watching.
1. Oasis Mania
What we’ve seen: Sure, Royal Caribbean‘s upcoming 220,000-ton, 5,400-passenger Oasis of the Seas has been garnering attention for its size—the ship is a whopping 40 percent larger than the next biggest (which happens to be the cruise line’s own Freedom class). But it’s Oasis’ innovations—unveiled in November at an event at its Finnish shipyard—that are delightfully surprising. They include the outdoor Central Park, complete with live plants; the Boardwalk, an exterior promenade, complete with an antique carousel; and the AquaTheater, a pool area and amphitheater at the ship’s bow that will feature a high-dive and other aqua-acrobatics.
In 2009: Oasis of the Seas sails its first pre-inaugural cruise on December 1—and the hype has already begun! Look for a few more reveals before the launch; still to be announced are details about dining, onboard entertainment, and what RCI is calling a “revolutionary” embarkation process.
2. Beware of More a la Carte Charges
What we’ve seen: Dreaded fuel surcharges—the extra fees, ranging from $5 per person, per day to the most expensive £19 per person (about $27, see XE.com) per day—that were a result of a 2008 oil price spike, were one of the hot button issues this year though, fortunately, they’re receding now. Still, while cruise travel has never been a truly all-inclusive experience—you’ve almost always paid extra for spa treatments, Internet and phone access, casino gambling, shore excursions, and the like—it’s fair to say that nickel-and-diming is on the increase.
Royal Caribbean’s $15 charge for a special in-dining-room steak was particularly controversial this year. While most passengers have accepted paying extra fees to dine in specialty restaurants, ships’ main restaurants have been considered off-limits for wallet gauging. These days, you’ll pay for almost all fitness classes, and $10 to $15 per session can add up on a weeklong trip. On some cruise lines, such as Norwegian Cruise Line, you not only pay a service fee at alternative restaurants but also a la carte menu charges at some of the onboard venues. And, speaking of specialty restaurants, service fees—which used to hover in the $5 to $15 range—have risen fairly dramatically; among those now charging $30 include Carnival, Celebrity, and Cunard.
In 2009: Keep a grip on your wallet. As cruise ships get bigger, extra fees for admittance will be more a part of the experience than ever. That’s partly for crowd control (facilities can only accommodate so many passengers, so a fee controls demand), but as cruise fares continue to drop and cruise line profits suffer, it’s unavoidable that companies will investigate new areas for revenue enhancement.
3. Up or Down—Cruise Regions to Watch
What we’ve seen: Interest in exotic (and world) cruising to far-flung places like Australia/New Zealand, South America, and Asia—which, in the economy’s boom time, were hugely popular—has slowed way down. Not only are these trips pricey, but they also generally last longer than the average seven-night cruise and require long and expensive air flights. As a result, closer-to-home destinations are experiencing a renaissance: Bermuda, the Caribbean, and the Mexican Riviera for North Americans and the Mediterranean and Baltic for U.K.-based travelers.
In 2009: Cruise line cutbacks on world voyages and exotic cruises will mean less choice and higher prices. However, because lines have moved ships out of these regions and to more accessible parts of the globe, there are more choices in, say, the Caribbean and the Mediterranean—and the additional competition will result in lower fares. An added bonus for U.K. and North American travelers, whose pounds and dollars are suffering mightily against the euro, is that cruising makes for a much cheaper way to vacation in Europe because passengers can pay cruise fares and onboard charges in local currency.
One exception, ironically, is the Middle East—a region that most would consider “exotic.” It’s rising in popularity, and both Royal Caribbean and Costa will base ships in Dubai in 2009.
4. Luxury New-Builds
In 2009: Seabourn Odyssey, which will launch in June, will be the first out of the gate. On tap is the biggest spa on a luxury ship, roomier accommodations (the vessel will be three times larger than its fleetmates but carry only double the passengers); course-by-course, in-room dining; and more. Silversea Cruises launches Silver Spirit in November. Silver Spirit will be similar in style and design to the line’s existing trio of upscale ships, but with a few firsts—including a supper club and an Asian-themed restaurant—and a larger spa.
Looking forward to 2010, there are even more new-builds, such as Seabourn Sojourn—Odyssey’s sibling—and Oceania Cruises’ all-new Marina. However, not all lines are committing to new designs; Crystal, SeaDream, Hapag-Lloyd, and Regent Seven Seas Cruises are among those that have no official plans at this time to commission vessels.
5. Focus on Refurbishments
What we’ve seen: Some of the most popular features on new-builds—such as plentiful balconies, vivacious kids’ facilities, and expansive spas—are being added to older models. Carnival, Holland America, and Princess are among those who’ve made major investments of late. Carnival’s “Evolutions of Fun” initiative has brought a series of upgrades—such as expansive childrens’ water parks, 300-foot waterslides, and adults-only Serenity decks—to Fantasy-class ships. On Holland America, ships like Statendam, Ryndam, and Rotterdam were outfitted with the Explorations Cafe, expanded shopping areas and new carpeting and flooring. (A second phase of refurbishments for these ships—which were designed before affordable and plentiful balcony cabins were the norm—includes the addition of more verandahs.) Princess brought its popular Sanctuary, an adults-only sun deck, to Island Princess, Grand Princess, and Star Princess in 2008. (Princess ships that don’t already have the Sanctuary will be retrofitted by 2010.)
In 2009: Carnival has already finished upgrades to Fantasy, Inspiration, and Imagination; Sensation is due for refurbishment in January 2009, but dates for Paradise, Ecstasy, Fascination, and Elation have not yet been set. Holland America was relatively far along with its initial “Signatures of Excellence” program (with just Oosterdam to go this year) when it announced late 2008 that it would take the overhaul even further. Beginning in spring and continuing for 18 months, Holland America will send Maasdam, Rotterdam, Ryndam, Statendam, and Veendam to dry dock for enhancements to cabins, pool decks, soft goods, and entertainment options, including a new resort-style retreat aft and spa-centric staterooms. Veendam will be the first ship to receive the upgrades this year, before the start of its Alaska season. Rotterdam will also go in 2009, with the rest slated for dry dock in 2010.
On the luxury end, Regent Seven Seas Cruises is undertaking a program to enhance its trio of all-suite vessels. The $40 million project includes the addition of a steakhouse; redesign of lounges, public rooms, and suites; and the addition of pizza ovens and ice cream bars.
6. Short Cruises Better Than No Cruises
What we’ve seen: Taking a less-than-a-weeklong cruise is one way to cut vacation costs, and cruise lines have responded by upping the appeal of short cruises. If, in the past, ships deployed on shorter cruises were usually older models with far fewer bells and whistles, today’s travelers have the chance to sail on newer, more amenity-laden trips.
In 2009: Carnival Destiny, some 50 percent larger than Carnival’s Fantasy-class of ships (which largely serves the short cruise market), has embarked on a new series of four- and five-night voyages that leave from Miami and alternate between the Western and Eastern Caribbean. On the West Coast, Royal Caribbean will offer a series of four- and five-night Mexican Riviera cruises on Radiance of the Seas, which is more typically deployed on cruises of seven nights or more, calling on Cabo San Lucas and Ensenada. Royal Caribbean’s keeping the still-modern Explorer of the Seas on five-night Bermuda itineraries from the New York area’s Cape Liberty cruise port. In the U.K., Norwegian Jade will sail two three-day cruises from London; among the other lines offering the occasional U.K.-based “sampler” are Thomson, Royal Caribbean, P&O, and Fred. Olsen.
7. The Dining Room Revolution
What we’ve seen: Cruise lines continue to implement freestyle dining—being able to eat when and where you want, rather than committing to a set table at a set time. The concept was pioneered by Norwegian, and now other big-ship lines—including Holland America and Princess—are offering more flexible evening dining options. Royal Caribbean has been a holdout until this year, when it tested “My Time Dining” on Freedom of the Seas, Brilliance of the Seas, and Serenade of the Seas. The good news? The test scored an “A.” Carnival also tested out the concept on Carnival Liberty and Carnival Legend.
In 2009: Royal Caribbean will roll out “My Time Dining” fleetwide. Carnival hasn’t made a decision about whether to expand its effort beyond a handful of ships—stay tuned.
8. Last-Minute Cruising
What we’ve seen: Fabulous last-minute cruise deals are back, due to a soft economy. And although a last-minute cruise is defined roughly as a sailing that departs 15 days to 3 months in the future, we’ve seen super-cheap sailings just a few days out.
In 2009: If you can be flexible with dates and take advantage of home-port cruising (or find that flights to and from major cruise embarkation ports aren’t prohibitively expensive)—and you’re not too picky about leftovers—hold out until a month or so before a cruise for the best chance to save.
9. Homeport Resurgence
What we’ve seen: Are you sick of the hassle and extra cost of flying to traditional cruise embarkation cities like Miami or Ft. Lauderdale? Homeport cruising—the strategy of basing ships in drive-to ports all along the East, West, and Gulf Coasts—is back in favor.
In 2009: The most dramatic news for 2009—at least for those relatively nearby—was Carnival’s announcement that it would base Carnival Pride in Baltimore on a year-round basis. But residents in or near other U.S. coastal cities, ranging from Charleston to San Francisco and from Boston to San Diego, also have more varied options—often newer, more amenity-filled cruise ships—than ever before. Carnival is also putting Carnival Triumph in Norfolk for the first time in 2009, and Royal Caribbean’s Grandeur of the Seas will stay in Boston after a successful first run in 2008.
10. New Perks for Solo Travelers
What we’ve seen: In today’s tough economy, cruise lines are reaching out to every potential traveler in order to fill ships. Solo cruisers, who’ve long complained about paying as much as double the cruise fare to occupy a cabin alone, are finally getting some respect. Fred. Olsen—a British line that in 2008 made an effort to attract North American travelers to its Braemar and Balmoral, both in the Caribbean during winter—is a standout. It not only designates a percentage of cabins for solo occupancy but also decorates them with a single occupant in mind (removing a second bed, for instance, to make room for a settee).
In 2009: Cruise lines are already waiving single supplements more often than in the past; for example, Uniworld is eliminating the supplement on select 2009 river cruises if booked before January 31. Voyages of Discovery is enticing solo travelers to book last-minute December and January sailings to Antarctica with free airfare from eight departure cities, 10 percent off expedition cruise tours and no single supplement in select cabin categories. Most heartening was P&O’s announcement that it will actually design and build solo cabins in its new Azura, due for launch in 2010.