Best Cruise Trends for 2008

| January 28, 2008
The most innovative trends in cruising for 2008, from new itinerary planning to onboard refurbishments.

In the last two weeks a reporter asked me about the hottest cruise trends for 2008, and today I read a press release from another cruise web site with nearly the same title.

I'm not concerned about what is "hottest" for 2008; that would indicate the public is aware of everything the cruise industry is doing. Even people like me who watch the industry closely have a difficult time knowing what is new at every cruise line. So instead of the "hottest" trends in cruising, I would like to comment on what I see as the "Best New Trends" in cruising in 2008, "hot" or not.

Port Intensive Itineraries in the Caribbean For the last few years, the trend in Caribbean cruises has been to put the focus on the ship itself as a destination, and play down the ports. Obviously, if offering variety in ports were important, we wouldn't see so many ships going to the same islands week after week.

Most Caribbean cruises follow one of two routes: the typical Western Caribbean itinerary to Jamaica, Grand Cayman and Cozumel; or the standard Eastern Caribbean sojourn, with stops in St Thomas, St Martin and a Bahamian island (Nassau or a private island owned by the cruise line).

Bigger and bigger ships frequently arrive in the same ports on the same day as they service the same itineraries. Does this make sense? Absolutely not. Why schedule three or four ships, each carrying 2,500 to 3,000 passengers, to descend on the same island on the same day?

So the best new trend in Caribbean cruising is one Carnival Cruises has instituted with Carnival Destiny. The concept is to do for the Caribbean what the lines already offer in Europe -- itineraries that go to unusual destinations, visiting a port every day. This could actually get people interested in cruising the Caribbean for what they will see there, not just for the experience of being on a ship.

I love this idea. Yes, I understand the concept of people wanting to lie on deck in the hot Caribbean sun, but why limit your market to just those people? Many of us cruise to see the world, not just a ship. If all I wanted were the hot sun, I'd book a beach resort.

Carnival Destiny will sail seven-day itineraries from San Juan and Barbados that visit a different port every day. Why San Juan? Because the Southern Caribbean has the most beautiful and uncrowded islands -- far better for sightseeing than the "usual" islands -- but a ship can't reach the Southern Caribbean from Miami, offer a port-intensive itinerary, and return home in seven days.

The Destiny's San Juan itinerary is:

  • Day 1: San Juan, Puerto Rico -- Depart 10 p.m.
  • Day 2: St. Thomas, USVI -- 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.
  • Day 3: Dominica -- 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
  • Day 4: Barbados -- 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
  • Day 5: St. Kitts, WI -- 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
  • Day 6: La Romana, Dominican Republic -- Arrive 3 p.m.
  • Day 7: La Romana, Dominican Republic -- Depart 5 p.m.
  • Day 8: San Juan, Puerto Rico -- Arrive 7 a.m.

And the Barbados itinerary:

  • Day 1: Barbados -- Depart 5 p.m.
  • Day 2: St. Lucia, WI -- 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
  • Day 3: Antigua -- 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.
  • Day 4: St. Kitts, WI -- 7 a.m. to 4 p.m.
  • Day 5: San Juan, Puerto Rico -- 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.
  • Day 6: St. Thomas, USVI -- 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.
  • Day 7: Dominica -- 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
  • Day 8: Barbados -- Arrive 8 a.m.

Nine-Day Caribbean Cruises The second good Caribbean trend in 2008 comes from Norwegian Cruise Line. NCL has scheduled nine-night Caribbean cruises that go to the same beautiful Southern Caribbean islands, but the ship sails from Miami.

The best thing is the timing: These cruises leave Friday afternoon and return on Sunday, so many passengers can get away to the best of the Caribbean and still only take one week off of work (well, maybe a week and a day). Here is the nine-day itinerary:

  • Friday: Miami -- Depart 5 p.m.
  • Saturday: At Sea
  • Sunday: Samana -- 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
  • Monday: Tortola -- 10 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.
  • Tuesday: Antigua -- 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
  • Wednesday: Barbados -- 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.
  • Thursday: St. Lucia -- 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.
  • Friday: At Sea
  • Saturday: At Sea
  • Sunday: Miami -- Arrive 7 a.m.

South of the Equator The most depressing travel news story I saw this year was about tourist sites in India no longer accepting the U.S. dollar because of its falling value against the Rupee. They will only take Rupees in India now -- no more dollars.

We all know how expensive Europe has become for tourists with dollars. There are economic benefits to a weak dollar -- we sell more goods overseas, and tourism to the U.S. is finally picking up -- but it's a big drawback for U.S. travelers who want to visit Europe.

So I say stay west, young man or woman -- Western Hemisphere, that is. There are many exciting cruises to South America this year, and they are bargains.

The luxury lines have known about South America for many years; Chilean Fjords cruises were among Silversea's most popular sailings in the 1990s at a cost of $1,000 a day per person. Now you can go to those same fjords on Norwegian Dream (nine departures scheduled in 2008) on a 14-day cruise starting at about $1,000 for the entire cruise! (Balcony cabins are about $2,699).

Another trend for 2008 is cruises to Antarctica. I am hesitant to promote these cruises as the area is getting overcrowded, and some of the ships are too large to be going there. But the way things are going, the years ahead could be your last chance to see Antarctica in any kind of pristine condition. Who knows what may happen in the future -- over-commercialization, for example, or a world agreement to shut it down to tourism completely to save it from overexposure.

If you want to go to Antarctica, please take a small vessel. You will get closer, contend with fewer people for shore excursions, and contribute less damage to the natural habitat.

Mexico The best new trend in Mexico cruises is that many now sail from San Diego, one of America's most attractive cities. The pre and post-cruise options from the city are some of the best anywhere -- certainly better than Miami.

But the Mexico cruises themselves from San Diego are also good news. Holland America's Ryndam is offering a 10-day cruise that explores the Bay of Cortez with stops in La Paz and Loreto, the port for the Copper Canyon train known by rail enthusiasts worldwide. Another attractive Mexico cruise option is Holland America's Oosterdam, one of its newest and nicest ships. Also consider the lovely and smaller Dawn Princess, 12 years old now but still an elegant vessel. It is selling for a song -- as low as $389 per person for a seven-night cruise.

No longer are Mexico cruises limited to older, ramshackle vessels on the mass-market cruise lines.

Moving Ships to the West Coast Speaking of the West Coast, another good trend is that some lines are moving more exciting ships to our western shores. Royal Caribbean's mega-ship Explorer of the Seas will be coming to Los Angeles soon. Also coming is Disney Magic. Similar ships have been here before, but the fact that no mega-ships are permanently homeported on the West Coast makes one wonder if the market is not limiting itself. The Caribbean is soft but still full of mega-ships. Mexican ports can be a little boring, but I am curious to see whether Explorer of the Seas will generate its own business as a destination unto itself.

Better Entertainment (More Youth-Oriented) Another good trend is that shipboard entertainment is finally catching up to the average age of today's passengers. Royal Caribbean now regularly books one of the nation's best Beatles tribute bands, Beatlemania Live. I saw these guys in concert on land and they were excellent. I paid to see them, and I certainly give credit to Royal Caribbean for being smart enough to book them for their cruises.

Why does it seem that whatever a cruise line's average passenger profile, the entertainment is geared to an audience about 10 years older? Royal Caribbean's average passenger age (including long, exotic trips) is now 42. That indicates the typical passenger age on mega-ships like Freedom probably averages close to 39. And yet they are just now starting to book Beatles-oriented entertainment. The Beatles broke up 39 years ago.

Carnival also debuted a Beatles tribute stage show on Carnival Freedom this year. It is not a band doing Beatles songs -- it is one of Carnival's "Vegas-style" production shows. Not too bad, but still a little too "old" for me in terms of choreography and costuming (and I was in high school when the Beatles broke up).

Upgrading Older Ships Remember when ships got older and people considered them "classic?" Those days are gone for good. Today, newer is better, and for good reason -- mostly because the cruise lines put the bulk of their effort into the newest ships, assigning the best cruise staff and entertainers to them.

But a trend has cropped up in the last few years to renovate the older ships and make them like new. No more "coasting" under the radar for older ships; these days they get scrutinized almost as much as the newer ships, thanks to the Internet.

This year, it is NCL's and Carnival's turn. Carnival just invested $450 million in upgrading its fleet of Fantasy-class ships, mostly built in the 1990s. NCL just announced a major initiative called F2 to upgrade the bedding and finishings on every ship in its fleet during 2008.

Holland America and Windstar started this fleetwide overhaul trend a few years ago with what Holland America called the "Signature of Excellence" campaign (it was "Degrees of Difference" for Windstar, now owned by Ambassadors International). Celebrity overhauled its older ships, Century and Mercury, in the last two years.

Keeping Cruise Fares Low We continue to hear gripes about "nickel and diming" on cruise ships, but in fact, cruise fares are exactly where they were three or four years ago -- and except for fuel supplements, no new mandatory charges have been added to the fare.

True, there are a few things you must pay for now that you did not before -- specialty coffees in the dining room on some lines, for example. But keep in mind, the prices of cruises have not gone up -- and if you adjust for inflation, in many cases they have never been cheaper. So what are you complaining about?

Yes, you pay one dollar for pizza delivery to your cabin on one cruise line we know of -- but it also now offers free sushi every night for dinner. We don't approve of charging for room service, but is one dollar really a big deal?

Cruises from New York City Back in 2001, the year of 9/11, there were no cruises sailing out of New York year-round -- only during the summer. Then NCL started one, followed by Holland America. There are now more than a hundred cruise departures out of New York harbor every year, including sailings from two new cruise terminals that supplement the Hudson River piers in Manhattan -- one in Redhook, Brooklyn (for Princess and Cunard) and the other in Cape Liberty, New Jersey (for Royal Caribbean and Celebrity).

Summing Up The cruise industry has its ups and downs, its proponents and detractors, but overall it still offers the best vacation value and excellence in service. The industry went through an explosion of growth in the late 1990s, and since that ended we have been in a relatively quiet period. A new round of explosive growth is right around the corner, and that means renewed interest as new and bigger ships emerge. The best of 2008 is notable, but the true excitement has not yet begun. That is coming in late 2008, when the first of the industry's next generation of ships arrives.

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