At the end of every year, Cruise Critic's group of a dozen editors -- based on travels on cruise ships and our coverage of news, tips and trends -- assesses which new and different trends we'll see in the year ahead.
Below, we share our cruise trend picks for 2016. Do you agree with our predictions? Tell us. Have suggestions of your own? Share them. When it comes to making any cruise the best possible vacation, we're all in this together.
Photo: elena moiseeva/Shutterstock.com
Cruising as a Traveler Rather Than a Tourist
Fun-in-the-sun cruises are still enticing, but more and more, cruise travelers are seeking to learn, do, feel and connect when in port. Azamara kicked things off a couple of years ago when it created overnights, not just in pre- and post-cruise ports but also in interesting places visited mid-journey. It also offers once-a-cruise Azamazing Evenings, free to all passengers, which showcase special-access opportunities.
Other lines are following suit, creating their own experiential offerings. Seabourn features a handful of mid-cruise journeys off its ships to places that aren't easily accessed by ocean vessels. One such opportunity: On a cruise along India's coast, passengers can debark in Cochin and fly to Agra to visit the Taj Mahal before rejoining their ship. And sign us up for the new Seabourn Ventures, through which passengers can kayak among glaciers in Antarctica. Royal Caribbean's new "Come Seek" program emphasizes local experiences in port, whether it's regatta racing in St. Maarten or sampling a johnnycake stand in St. Kitts. And Holland America waded into the "you can cruise as a traveler, rather than a tourist" fray with an announcement that it's partnering with Afar, an experientially oriented travel magazine, to provide its customers with travel tips and advice. (We'll point out, though, that we think Cruise Critic's destination tips and member port reviews are also amazing.)
The launch of Carnival Corporation's Fathom brand, which will focus on voluntourism efforts in the Dominican Republic and people-to-people cultural enrichment in Cuba, occurs in spring 2016. Will vacationers be willing to trade some fun-in-the-sun time to help teach English to school kids, work with female entrepreneurs to develop businesses and bring clean water to poor villages?
Photo: Azamara Club Cruises
Avoya Travel's Scott Knopf was on to something when he told us cruising around Australia and New Zealand is red-hot for North American cruise travelers. The combination of an improving economy that encourages longer trips and bigger splurges, and the fact that our winter is the Southern Hemisphere's summer (enough said!) means we're in. Another plus: The cruise industry's massive interest in growing cruising in the Asia/South Pacific region means that newer vessels with up-to-date amenities -- such as Seabourn Odyssey, Celebrity Solstice and Holland America's Noordam -- are offering more itineraries there. Other hotspots include Costa Rica, an eco- and adventure-oriented place to cruise. Windstar, for one, has positioned two of its ships there this winter (one a sailing vessel, the other a yacht-style cruise). For summer, Norway continues to grow in popularity, thanks, in part, to the movie "Frozen," which made the destination's glorious fjords part of the travel lexicon. But it's also a place that's extraordinarily expensive to tour on land, so cruises provide real value.
While Cuba is quite possibly the hottest destination, the big-ship lines still don't have permission from the Cuban government to go. (The cruise lines got permission from the U.S. but need sign-off from both governments.) In the meantime, small-ship lines like Cuba Cruise and International Expeditions are serving the market on a seasonal basis. For river cruise fans, Uniworld is introducing India's Ganges in 2016, and it's definitely on our wish list.
Cruise Lines Target More All-Inclusive Pricing Strategies
While cruising never truly has been all-inclusive (passengers on mainstream lines have typically paid out of pocket for cocktails, gambling, shore excursions, Internet access and spa splurges), the industry's penchant for adding extra-fee options has begun to grate -- and not just with experienced cruisers. According to "What Concerns You About Cruising," a Cruise Critic forum poll aimed at first timers, almost 50 percent said nickel-and-diming is a turn-off. Here's the good news: Some cruise lines have taken notice and are ratcheting down the practice by offering a discounted rate if you pay up front for extra charge features.
Celebrity Cruises pioneered the "Go Big, Go Better, Go Best" strategy. Passengers who book applicable cruises can pick one to four options from a menu that includes classic beverage package (eliminates nasty post-cruise bar bills), prepaid gratuities (no service sticker shock), unlimited Internet (which could run you hundreds of dollars) and onboard credit. Norwegian "Freestyle Choice" also offers Wi-Fi and a cocktail package but adds shore excursions and specialty restaurant entry fees to the menu of possibilities.
While cruise lines would argue that adding extra choices onboard means someone has to pay for them, the goal with these packages is to raise cruise fares -- even while providing a touch of extra value. We'll see if the movement grows.
Small Ship Cruising Gains Steam
How is small-ship cruising different from mainstream luxury? Both nip into undiscovered ports and offer more intimate and service-oriented onboard experiences, but small-ship cruises don't operate on a butler-and-caviar price point. We're seeing a lot of growth in this style of cruising, which relies more on soft adventure and exotic itineraries by cruise lines like Windstar, which doubled its fleet last year; Ponant, the French company whose new-builds spend a lot of time in Antarctica; and International Expeditions, which has the Peruvian Amazon's only balcony-with-every-cabin new-build.
In 2016, mainstream luxury line Crystal Cruises introduces spinoff Crystal Yacht Cruises; its first ship, 62-passenger Crystal Esprit, will summer in Europe's Adriatic. And Lindblad Expeditions, which offers top-notch small-ship enrichment cruises, went public in 2015, in part to raise money to build new vessels.
Photo: Lindblad Expeditions
Embracing New Identities
Teaming up with brand names like Starbucks, Guy Fieri, Fisher-Price, Blue Man Group and The New York Times over the past decade has infused cruise life with recognizable features and amenities. We're now seeing an evolution in the partnership-with-brands trend toward pairing cruise lines with companies that could materially influence the experience, whether onboard or in port. For instance, Princess Cruises' mashup with Discovery Channel for its "Discovery At Sea" program means that activities on the ship are inspired by programs like "MythBusters," "Deadliest Catch," and "Shark Week." Off the ship, Animal Planet-inspired tours include a visit to a sloth sanctuary in Costa Rica, searching for whales by safari boat in Alaska and a shark encounter in Hawaii.
Holland America's joint offerings with BBC Earth will start in 2016 and feature ramped-up enrichment onboard and more immersive tours. And we'll still see cruise line partnerships for the fluffier stuff continue to be incorporated onboard. Most notably, in late 2015 Norwegian introduced Jimmy Buffett's first Margaritaville at Sea.
Photo: Norwegian Cruise Line
Cruise Lines Work to Keep Passengers Connected
Most cruise passengers, regardless of age, don't want to disconnect completely, and cruise lines have made major investments in creating new technologies that make at-sea Internet faster, more efficient and definitely cheaper. (Remember the days when agonizingly slow Internet access cost $1 a minute?) On Carnival Cruise Line, most of the ships in the fleet have swapped from the per-minute model to package plans: Social ($5 per day) allows unlimited access to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other apps. Value ($16 per day) is for folks who want to access the Internet, and Premium ($25 per day) is three times faster. You can book plans for a day at a time or the whole cruise. Viking Oceans, the new cruise line that launched in 2015, has taken the concept a step further by offering free, unlimited WiFi to all passengers.
Royal Caribbean's Voom Wi-Fi program is fast, and it's accessible from bow to stern. Available on Oasis- and Quantum-class ships, the technology allows passengers to do everything at sea that they'd do on land, including streaming videos and using Skype. The cost is $15 per device, per day.
Regent Seven Seas will offer free, unlimited Wi-Fi next year to all passengers on its luxury ships. Also intriguing is that Royal Caribbean's Majesty of the Seas, after a major refurbishment in 2016, will be the first mass-market ship to give it away for free.
Photo: Royal Caribbean