Cruise industry trends and how to take advantage of them

By Lew Toulmin

by Lew Toulmin

Cruising is hot! According to the Cruise Lines International Association, or CLIA (80 Broad St., Ste. 1800, New York, NY 10004; phone 212/921-0066 or visit, 2004 was a banner year for the cruise industry in terms of new builds and passenger growth. Last year, CLIA cruise lines capped a record-setting 5-year building boom that introduced 62 new ships to the North American market out of a total of 150 represented by CLIA.

Twelve new ships were introduced in 2004 alone, although new introductions will be reduced to six in 2005 due to the fall in orders for new ships in the two years following September 11, 2001. (It takes that long to finance, plan and launch new vessels.) Although in 2005 new-capacity growth will be reduced compared with previous years, in the long run the cruising building boom likely will continue, as several lines are planning new vessels for 2006 and beyond.

The biggest vessel on order (and the biggest cruise ship ever) is Royal Caribbean’s Freedom of the Seas, set to debut in April 2006, with 3,600 passengers and weighing 158,000 gross registered tons.

High demand

Passenger numbers are up. CLIA estimates that about 10.6 million people sailed on its member ships in 2004, including nine million from North America — the industry’s highest-ever total. Moreover, during the past 15 years guest totals climbed by an average of eight percent each year, and in recent years as much as 15 percent, with growth in 2004 estimated at 11%.

These passengers spend a lot. According to CLIA president Terry Dale, “The total economic impact of the cruise industry is $23 billion a year.”

Responding to consumer demand for closer-to-home vacations over the last several years, the cruise lines inaugurated “close to home” or “home port” cruise itineraries departing from a wide variety of North American coastal cities to serve the fast-growing “drive to the port” market. This year, CLIA ships will sail from more than 30 North American and U.S. territory ports, including Baltimore, Philadelphia, Mobile, Galveston, San Diego and Honolulu.

With the home port phenomenon firmly entrenched, cruise lines are now expanding itineraries that feature exotic twists, including cruises of 15-plus days out of North American ports that sail to South America and voyages of 10-plus days that explore the lesser-known islands of the deep southern Caribbean.

The impact on you

What do these trends mean for you, the potential cruiser? The main message is book now for your desired cruises. In past years occupancy rates were lower and last-minute decisions were possible, but it appears that this year and early into the spring of 2006, higher demand and lower-capacity growth will dictate better planning ahead by passengers. Experienced cruise travel agents are urging customers to book nine to 11 months in advance to avoid disappointment.

What sells out first? High-demand periods include July/August, when children are out of school, plus Christmas and New Year’s, Presidents’ Week in February, spring break week in March and Easter week.

What are the hot destinations for 2005/2006? For those trying to visit new countries, the most unusual new stops are Libya and Albania. Neither of these usually come to mind when you plan a grand tour, but Libya actually has some of the best-preserved Roman ruins in the Mediterranean, and the State Department has now cleared this destination for Americans. And bizarre but fascinating Albania has the world’s largest collection of beehive-shaped concrete pillboxes. Every road and beach is lined with them! Who could resist that?

Cruise lines visiting these countries include Clipper Cruise Line (both countries); Oceania Cruises and Radisson Seven Seas Cruises (Libya), and Swan Hellenic Cruises (Albania).

For passengers with more standard tastes, cruising to Western Europe this year makes a lot of sense due to the devaluation of the U.S. dollar. You will pay for your entire cruise experience, including your accommodation, meals, flights and tours ashore, in cheap U.S. dollars instead of paying for everything in expensive euros traveling on land.

New trends

What can you expect once you get aboard? High tech is hot and getting hotter. For example, Carnival Cruise Lines’ new cruise ship, Carnival Valor, is the first major cruise ship to offer 100% bow-to-stern Wi-Fi computer access. With the new pilot program, guests can wirelessly surf the Web, check e-mail and obtain stock quotes and news updates from literally anywhere aboard the 2,974-passenger ship, including in all cabins and public spaces.

The system works with any Wi-Fi enabled laptop computer, and both laptops and Wi-Fi cards are available for onboard rental. The price for this service will be 75 cents per minute — more than with other lines such as Princess, which at 35 cents per minute offers access only in certain “hot spots” on their ships. It appears likely that other Carnival ships and other cruise lines will adopt this new bow-to-stern access technology.

Expect to see more families on board. Multigenerational and family cruising is growing as families place more emphasis on spending quality time together. CLIA estimates that more than one million youths under the age of 18 sailed in 2004. This trend is expected to accelerate in 2005 and beyond as cruise lines continue to add amenities and activities for the whole family, from toddlers to grandparents.

Virtually all lines are starting to feature extensive, highly supervised children’s programs where kids are placed in age-appropriate groups. Teen lounges, video arcades, computer learning centers, toddlers’ play areas and even special shore excursions for children and teens are all a part of the new mix. This might be the time to organize a family reunion at sea.

Tips on saving money

So you’ve decided to experience the cruising boom but don’t want to break the bank. Four tips come to mind: book early, book a repositioning cruise, buy a “cabin guarantee” and use a special singles program.

Booking early is always a proven money saver. Study ITN for special offers, search the website of your favorite line or talk to your travel agent about special offers and advance-booking discounts. Discounts of 10%-20% or more off the rack rate should be achievable.

A repositioning cruise is a voyage from one major cruising ground, such as Europe, to another, such as the Caribbean. Often this is a great way to get a low daily rate yet have a more exotic cruise on a less crowded ship.

A “cabin guarantee” is another way to save big on your cruise. Here the cruise line “guarantees” you the category of cabin you want (such as “outside cabin with at least a small balcony” or “inside cabin with twin beds”), but you don’t know your cabin number until shortly before sailing. You cannot be given a cabin in a category lower than the guaranteed level or cabin style, but if you get lucky you may get one in a higher category. The cruise line waits until they get a final passenger count, then hands out the remaining cabins.

If you’re very specific in your cabin desires (e.g., “outside fourth level on the starboard side”), then do not book a guarantee, but if you are more flexible this may work for you.

Many lines charge singles an exorbitant fee called a “single supplement.” Try lines such as Holland America Line or Royal Caribbean International which have devised special programs for singles. Here you agree to share a stateroom with another nonsmoking guest of the same sex and you pay only the per-person, double-occupancy rate, guaranteed.

Amazingly, if the line can’t find a partner for you, you will cruise solo at the agreed-upon double-occupancy fare with no single supplement charge or fee. And even if you do get a roomie, who knows, you might make a friend for life!