If you're planning a cruise vacation in 2010, get ready for higher prices, better entertainment, water parks and one of the most innovative concepts to come along in a while: rooms designed for solo travelers on the Norwegian Epic, without the supplemental charge that single passengers on cruises have traditionally paid.
"I think it's genius," said Cynthia Boal Janssens, editor and chief blogger at AllThingsCruise.com. "I'm amazed with so many new ships coming on line that this hasn't been done sooner. Lots of single people cruise and want to cruise, but right now, if you are going on a cruise as a single person and you occupy a double cabin, they charge you an additional fee for doing that, sometimes as much as 200 percent."
The Epic, which launches this summer, will offer 128 studios for singles. The cabins open onto a lounge area where solo travelers can socialize.
Paul Motter, editor at CruiseMates.com, said he thinks the single studios "will take off. We have a whole message board on CruiseMates for people seeking cruise companions. It's a huge potential market."
Motter said another emerging trend in cruises is more brand-name entertainment. For years, mediocre musical revues with names like Salute to Broadway were standard fare on ships, to the point where they "kind of became a joke," said Motter.
In contrast, the Epic will feature Blue Man Group and Second City improv shows. Royal Caribbean's megaship, Oasis of the Seas, which launched last fall, offers a complete production of Hairspray.
Hairspray is "the first time a cruise ship has fully licensed a Broadway production. And it's a really good production, on par with a national touring company," Motter said.
Oasis was the "it" ship of 2009, attracting enormous publicity as the largest cruise ship ever built. It carries 6,300 passengers and 2,100 crew members, with facilities that include an ice rink, golf course, volleyball and basketball courts, a 1,300-seat indoor theater and seven "neighborhoods," including a boardwalk and a miniature Central Park. There is so much to do onboard that when the ship pulls into a port, "a lot of people don't get off," said Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor of CruiseCritic.com.
The cruise industry will launch a dozen new ships this year, but Brown said, "Nothing will compete with Oasis."
Ships debuting in 2010 include a sister ship of Oasis called Allure of the Seas, a new Queen Elizabeth from Cunard, and Celebrity Eclipse, the third in a series of Celebrity ships that started with the Solstice in 2008 and the Equinox in 2009.
Despite all these new ships coming onto the market during a recession, the cruise industry has managed to keep them full. In 2009, ships sailed at 104 percent capacity on average, meaning that every room was occupied, and some rooms were shared by more than two people, according to the Cruise Lines International Association, an industry group with 25 cruise lines representing 97 percent of cruise capacity in North America.
At the same time, the number of passengers keeps increasing: 13.01 million people cruised on CLIA ships in 2008, 13.44 million in 2009 and a projected 14.3 million will sail in 2010.
"Maybe we are not recession-proof, but we are recession-resistant," said Richard Sasso, CEO of MSC Cruises and marketing director of CLIA.
One way cruises have kept ships full is by dramatically increasing the number of international passengers, to make up for slow growth in the North American market. The number of passengers from outside North America has doubled to more than 3 million a year since 2003, while the number of U.S. and Canadian passengers has increased by just 30 percent to 10.29 million.
Discounts have brought customers in, too. Cruise prices go down when demand is weak — just like airfare — until every cabin is filled.
But the low prices of 2009 are starting to disappear. "Fares are going up, for sure," said Brown, the CruiseCritic editor.
One sign of change: More passengers are booking farther in advance. In 2009, the average booking window for a cruise was 4.6 months before the departure date, and 39 percent of passengers were booking their trips less than four months out, Sasso said.
For 2010, the average booking window has already increased to five months out, and only 30 percent of clients are booking less than four months before their departure.
What does this mean for consumers?
"As the ship fills up, the prices go up," said Motter, the CruiseMates.com editor. "They give you the best prices six months to a year out, and at the very end, if there are still empty cabins, they discount them. The best way to get the best deal on a cruise is to book early. Almost all the cruise lines offer price guarantees, so if you see a price lower than what you booked, they will honor that."
On the other hand, you can still find last-minute bargains in places where the market is "really soft," said Brown. "Eastern Mediterranean, Greek Isles, Turkey. For the Mexican Riviera, I'm still seeing $299 departures on seven-day trips."
Appealing to families
Don't forget to check social media when planning a cruise. More cruise companies and cruise Web sites are using Twitter and Facebook to highlight deals and trips. Cunard even has a YouTube channel where fans can watch construction progress on the new Queen Elizabeth, as well as videos of James Taylor performing on another Cunard ship, Queen Mary 2.
Another long-term trend in cruising is the increase in family-friendly programs and attractions. In the last 10 years, the median age of cruisers has dropped from 57 to 47, according to Bob Sharak, CLIA's executive director.
"Multigenerational groups — the groups that bring adults, kids and grandkids — are bringing down the average age," said Mimi Weisband, spokeswoman for Crystal Cruises.
One feature on new ships that younger passengers are sure to love is the water park. Carnival Dream, which launched last year, has an aqua park called WaterWorks with a 300-foot-long water slide, the longest water slide at sea.
A new Disney ship, the Dream, launching next January, will have a 765-foot-long water coaster, the AquaDuck, that will wrap around the perimeter of the ship's top deck, with one loop jutting 13 feet over the side of the ship, 150 feet above the ocean.
Other innovative features on the Disney Dream include virtual portholes for windowless staterooms that will offer live views of the sea and sky from videocameras mounted around the ship. The Dream will also have an adult lounge called Skyline with changing backdrops offering views of famous skylines around the world.
Cruises also keep offering more and more sophisticated programming. In late 2009, Celebrity ships launched a series of enrichment seminars and activities called Celebrity Life. In addition to fitness classes and spa treatments, the programs include cooking classes, wine tastings, stargazing, scrapbooking and lectures on art and history.
Cruise itineraries keep changing too. Crystal Cruises' new port calls include Kuwait City, Bandar Abbas in Iran, Jeddah in Saudi Arabia, Sevastopol in Ukraine and Port Elizabeth in South Africa, with new excursions that include South African wineries and Australia's Great Barrier Reef.
Princess Cruises will visit 17 new ports in the next two years, including Abu Dhabi, Tangier in Morocco, and Xiamen, on the southeastern coast of China. A "Highlights of Germany" tour offered by Princess this year will include two nights in the town of Oberammergau to see a passion play that villagers only perform once a decade.
Janssens, the AllThingsCruise editor, says river tours of Europe are also increasingly popular. "They're replacing the bus tour of Europe," she said.