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Cruises Report 2017

Pricing · Amenities · Innovations · Safety

Pricing is stable. Safety still has to be improved.

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Royal Caribbean International

While the cruise industry adds ships and passengers at a record-setting pace, base prices in mainstream and luxury categories should stay relatively similar for the 2018 season to what they were for the 2017 season. Add to this the fact that meals, kids’ clubs, entertainment and a higher level of service still are part of the fare that you pay, and you have the opportunity to get good value from a cruise vacation.

PRICE IS RIGHT. Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) indicates that new ships for 2018 will add capacity for more than 29,500 passengers across the industry. According to Sally Black, who is a travel agent who specializes in cruises and family travel, this means that prices for the 2018 cruising season should remain stable and even might drop a bit.

Previously, our research indicated that any cruise that cost less than $100 per day was a bargain. Today, many entry-level options on mainstream ocean-going cruise lines still hover around the $100-per-day plateau. Two examples that have comparable amenities that we found in July 2017: A 3-day Bahamas cruise from Miami aboard the Norwegian Sky starts at $329 per person, or about $110 per day; and a 7-day Alaska cruise from Seattle aboard the Carnival Legend starts at $874 per person, or about $125 per day.

Mainstream cruise companies would like you to believe that pricing is more “inclusive” today than it was before, with sizeable discounts on amenities to which travelers are partial: all-you-can-drink alcohol or soda, dining at specialty restaurants and a select number of shore excursions. Experts, however, say cruise fares actually are less inclusive than ever before.

“Beyond the basic fare you pay, on many ships, particularly larger mainstream vessels, there are so many more ways to reach into your proverbial wallet,” says Carolyn Spencer Brown, who is the editor of Cruise Critic. “Expenses for casino gambling, spa treatment, gratuities, cocktails and shore excursions have always come on top of the cruise ticket. Now, there are alternative restaurants and coffee bars and tons of shops, as well as special events, such as wine tastings and fitness classes.” All of that costs extra. Depending on what you buy, it could add thousands of dollars per person per trip.

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The luxury market tells a different story. Although ticket prices for this segment are higher, of course, Brown says consumers legitimately get more bang for their buck, from airline tickets and precruise hotel rooms that are included in the price, to open bars and complimentary shore excursions. A 12-day Caribbean cruise on the all-suite Seabourn Odyssey starts at $3,499 per person, or about $292 per day. A 7-day Alaska cruise from Vancouver, Canada, on Silversea’s Silver Shadow starts at $4,000 per person, or about $571 per day. A 7-night Mediterranean cruise from Athens aboard the all-suite Crystal Esprit starts at $5,295 per person, or about $756 per day.

Brown says that depending on when you book, discounts large and small still might be available. Some cruise lines report that they’ll offer last-minute deals, so they can fill cabins, but our research indicates that a significant amount of fare fluctuations will exist throughout 2017 for travel during the 2018 season. For the best price, the adage is true: Book as early as you possibly can. Most cruise lines publish schedules that are 2 years in advance and allow bookings that are up to 18 months in advance. Early-bird bookings typically are the best option for you to get a deal.

PORTS OF CALL. For U.S. customers, many of the typically popular cruise destinations remain strong. The Bahamas, the Caribbean and Hawaii reported record numbers for the 2016 season, and growth is expected to continue in 2017 and beyond. Black says that despite the increased demand, prices should remain the same or drop slightly in the coming years because of the increase in the number of cruises and new ships that are being ordered.

Alaska seems to treat the cruise lines well. John Shallo, who is the founder of and content editor at Cruise Addicts, which is an online community for cruising fans, describes Alaska as a “destination like none other.” Between glaciers and whales and eagles and native cultures, “the experiences and sights of Alaska are just so unique and genuine.”

RIVER CRUISING. River ships must be long and narrow, so they fit underneath centuries-old stone bridges.

RIVER CRUISING. River ships must be long and narrow, so they fit underneath centuries-old stone bridges.

Crystal Cruises

Our research indicates that prices of cruises to southeast Alaska increased by an average of 5 percent to 7 percent during 2017 over 2016. Experts anticipate that prices for cruises to this destination will continue to rise for the 2018 season.

Cuba, which was expected to become a major cruise destination after President Barack Obama initiated a détente with the island’s government, might have a murkier future under the Trump administration, which seems less interested in doing business there. As of press time, many of the new regulations regarding Cuba allow people-to-people programs, which cruise lines already run. Still, if the Trump administration’s policy toward Cuba changes, so, too, will the capability of cruise lines to dock there.

The current arrangement could work in a traveler’s favor if the cruise that he/she wants to take meets the regulations, Brown says. She adds that Cuba is a great place to visit by cruise ship, because cruise-ship accommodations far outshine the accommodations that travelers would find if they stayed at some of the island’s hotels. As of press time, at least six cruise ships are cleared to dock in Cuba in 2017, and two additional ships are cleared for trips there in 2018-2019.

RIVER RUNS. Experts agree that no niche within the cruise industry is growing more rapidly than is river cruising. Viking alone launched 52 ships on Europe’s rivers during the past 5 years. Statistics from CLIA indicate that member companies deployed 184 river cruise ships in 2015, and they expected to increase that by at least 13 by 2017.

Of course, river cruises are different from ocean cruises. Passengers board in a city and spend time sailing down narrow rivers. Ports of call generally are other cities. With this in mind, the cruise itself becomes a luxury transport, a haven for travelers as they wind their way through a foreign countryside.

Molly Morgan of cruise line Crystal  Cruises says the advantage that a river cruise has over visiting numerous cities via other means of transportation is the convenience that you have to board a ship, unpack once and explore an entire region without having to repack and unpack again. “This allows the destinations to take center stage,” Morgan says.

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Pricing is similar among most river cruises. Basic staterooms aboard Uniworld’s River Princess for a 15-day cruise from Budapest, Hungary, to Amsterdam start at $7,199 per person, or about $480 per day. Prices on the Crystal Mahler are comparable: A 16-day journey between Budapest and Amsterdam starts at $7,815 per person, or about $490 per day. Both are typical examples of itineraries in this luxury market.

It’s worth noting that river cruise ships are configured differently than are ocean-going ships. Obviously, river ships must be long and narrow, so they fit underneath centuries-old stone bridges and through tiny locks. Because the river ships are slender, they lack some of the options that are standard on the larger vessels. One example, Brown says, is that river ships typically don’t have as many restaurants as do open-water ships, and river ships have cabins that often are an average of 50–80 square feet smaller than are the average accommodations on an ocean-going ship.

SIZE MATTERS. Ocean-going cruise ships are bigger than ever before. Bigger ships mean more passengers per ship, which, in turn, maximizes profits for the cruise line. For consumers, more passengers (read: bigger crowds) can diminish their enjoyment.

Royal Caribbean International, which operates eight of the 10 largest cruise ships, has the industry’s largest ship in Harmony of the Seas, which boasts 18 decks and can hold up to 6,687 passengers. In 2018, the company will christen Symphony of the Seas, which will have the same number of decks and a similar passenger capacity.

At the other end of the spectrum, small-ship companies naturally emphasize that smaller is better, but, in general, the smaller that the ship is, the higher the price is that you have to pay. These companies say the setting allows you to have more-intimate experiences and travel to places that bigger ships can’t visit. Southeast Alaska cruises by UnCruise Adventures, for instance, sail into fjords where passengers can see bears, whales and forests up close.

“The level of personal service, especially for higher end and smaller ships, [delivers] experiences not unlike the concept of the ‘Cheers’ bar, where everybody knows your name,” says Mark Murphy, who is the president and CEO of TravAlliancemedia, which is a trade-publication company.

DIFFERENT VIEWS. Smaller ships give passengers a more-intimate experience, while larger ships provide more amenities.

DIFFERENT VIEWS. Smaller ships give passengers a more-intimate experience, while larger ships provide more amenities.

Norwegian Cruise Line

AMENITIES WORLD. As you might suspect, more cruise lines provide different amenities to make their brand stand out. Dining is one area of differentiation, and the latest dining amenities revolve around choice. In addition to having different venues for dining, such as restaurants that spotlight Brazilian, Japanese and other specific types of cuisine, most cruise lines now provide a higher level dining experience that gets you seats at specialty restaurants—perhaps restaurants that are led by a celebrity chef. The upcharge for the latter experience runs an average of $20 per day, with an additional 18 percent gratuity. “By offering these new experiences, cruise lines are attracting more foodies who may have shied away from the dining experiences of yesterday,” Murphy says.

VIVA CRUISE VEGAS. Casinos still are a mainstay on most cruise lines.

VIVA CRUISE VEGAS. Casinos still are a mainstay on most cruise lines.

Crystal Cruises

A recent ultra-exclusive trend is a ship-within-a-ship model in which a block of rooms operates as a boutique hotel. The rooms are luxurious and have the best views. They also come with 24-hour concierge service, which essentially acts as a private-butler service. On certain Norwegian Cruise Line ships, for example, such an area is called The Haven by Norwegian; on MSC Cruises, it’s dubbed the MSC Yacht Club. Depending on their size, the cabins that are in these sections of a ship cost an additional $70–$1,000 per passenger per day.

Private islands constitute another cruise trend. According to CLIA, cruise lines in 2017 have ports on seven private islands. Castaway Cay, in the Bahamas, is reserved for Disney Cruise Line guests on Bahamian and Caribbean cruises. Half Moon Cay, which is a 2,400-acre Caribbean island, is for passengers on Holland America and Carnival Cruise Line cruises. MSC is expected to open its own private island, Ocean Cay, in the Bahamas in October 2018.

ENTER THE YOUNG. As the cruise customer’s average age increases, companies court younger travelers more than ever before.

CLIA indicates that 46 percent of cruise passengers travel with children, and many cruise lines now let children who are age 16 and under cruise for free. Such promotions look good on paper, but we encourage consumers to read the fine print. Even though children cruise for free, Mom and Dad still have to pay for a room that’s big enough for everyone to sleep in comfortably. Brown notes that, depending on the availability of rooms, this promotion can increase the cost of a cruise by hundreds of dollars per day.

Millennials are a target audience, too. Carnival has a microbrewery on Carnival Vista, and the company plans to replicate the model on other ships during the next few years. Uniworld’s U by Uniworld, which is a new brand of river cruise, provides onboard mixology classes, painting classes and yoga. Prices for those cruises are about half of the regular Uniworld prices.

Cruise lines also came up with new ways that they can leverage technology. Passengers on most ships can buy social-media-oriented connectivity packages for $5 per device per day. One cruise line—Carnival—even invested in wearable technology that you can use as a bracelet or a necklace pendant and is designed to act as a room key, a credit card and an ID. If you lose your pendant/bracelet and don’t report it, someone could make charges to your account, but your personal information is encrypted and protected, Carnival tells Consumers Digest.

Carnival christened this sensor-based technology the Ocean Medallion and unveiled it in January 2017. The company has been rolling it out to all of its brands since then. The devices are complimentary for passengers. They work much the same way that electronic toll-collection systems work on highways. We expect this technology to be available on all major cruise lines within a few years.

Matt Villano is a writer and editor who has written for CNN Travel, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and Time.

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