What's New in Cruising in 2006?

| April 3, 2006

The 22nd Annual Seatrade Cruise Shipping Convention, which convened recently in Miami, is the largest gathering of industry executives, port representatives, ship and shore-side suppliers, analysts, the consumer/trade press, and anyone interested in cruising on ships big and small. As always, there were speeches, panel discussions, a massive trade show and many press conferences. It was a great opportunity for executives to tell the audience what was going on with their various companies.

No earth-shattering news was divulged by the cruise execs in attendance. Virtually everyone from these large, publicly-held companies is too scared of the analysts in the audience to break major news. This time they were quite overt about the supposed secrecy, but kudos to Rick Sasso of MSC -- a privately held company -- for being candid. Still, there was plenty discussed that is of interest to cruisers. Here's a brief summary:

Was Wave Season a Disappointment? While most members on the cruise executives panel tried to be circumspect as to how they characterized 'wave season' -- that wonderful time early in the year when cruise lines book guests like crazy -- there's no doubt that bookings were not robust. Was it the economy? Last year's hurricane season? Warm weather in the northeast during this key period? No one really can say; maybe it was all three. Maybe it's a perception among consumers that cruise fares are rising. Maybe it's a bit of backlash that onboard prices have surged.

Whatever it is, if there is any sort of booking weakness in the first part of the year, this will wind up being a good thing for cruisers, because it will lead to discounted cruises down the line. Cruise execs, especially at the large lines, just won't let most sailings go out less than full. So keep an eye out for discounts on selected cruises, especially in the Caribbean. They may not be rock-bottom prices, but they should be quite enticing. Also, even though execs have claimed that Alaska and Europe bookings are doing very well, there will still be the occasional promotion and discount, to be sure.

How is the Cruise Experience Changing? I've been saying for some time now that even though the basics of the cruise experience haven't changed - they still involve food, service, activities, entertainment, accommodations and ports - the overall quality of cruising has improved tremendously. This was echoed by cruise executives, who commented on aspects like:

Space ratio: Ships are getting bigger and carrying more guests, but the amount of room allocated to each person is much greater than on earlier vessels.

Balconies: They used to be rare, and available only on the most expensive ships. Not so anymore. And if you haven't cruised with a balcony, it's truly worth the extra money.

Dining: This is perhaps the biggest area of improvement. Yes, some will say there's too much. Some will say buffets are chock full of unappetizing stuff. I say those people are living in the past. Buffets are better than ever, especially for lunch, and no one is forced to consume more than they want.

Shore excursions: Just take one look at what is being offered on today's cruises, and that should dispel the "same old, same old" point of view. From passive to extremely active (not to mention expensive), shore-side options are better than ever.

How Big is Too Big? With Royal Caribbean's recent announcement about its 5,400-passenger, 220,000 gross-registered-ton Genesis project, it's natural to ask if ships are getting too big. I've never sailed on the really big ships, but I will be on Voyager of the Seas in April, so I'll have a firsthand report of my impressions. But even with the port and other logistical challenges presented by such a large ship as the newly announced RCI behemoth, as long as it's seaworthy and provides new on-board options, cruisers will absolutely jump at the chance to sail on it. It's up to the line to make it interesting and workable beyond that.

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