Cruise travel is always evolving to meet different cruisers’ expectations and to offer new and exciting options for oceangoing getaways, but not every change or trend is necessarily positive.
There are some trends cruisers should be really concerned about, because they might signify a fundamental change in what cruise vacations offer. If these trends continue, cruising may never be the same.
In This Article…
What Is a Cruise Trend?
A one-time change for an emergency or an unusual situation is not a trend, but when cruise lines adapt new policies and shift operations permanently, that can create a new trend that other cruise lines may follow.
Some trends are great and may offer more value for guests, make it easier to enjoy a cruise, improve accessibility onboard ships, or open up new ports for visitors.
Other trends, however, can be more troubling, and may involve cutbacks, service reductions, or loss of what makes cruising so special and enjoyable for millions of passengers every year.
There are times when a cruise line might try out a trend for a limited time or only on a few ships, only to find that it has a negative impact on guests’ experiences and the trend will be discontinued. Other times, a trend might be necessary due to operational difficulties, no matter how it may be received by loyal travelers.
In recent years, changes in the overall travel industry, including pandemic-related necessities, have created a variety of trends in the cruise industry. Are they all good trends?
Cruise Trends to Worry About
While some recent cruise trends, such as upgraded cleaning procedures onboard or more sustainable operational procedures, are positive and helpful, not all cruise travel trends are necessarily welcomed by all guests. These are the top trends that just might have worrying impacts on the cruise travel experience.
Gratuity Increases and Service Decreases
Cruise lines regularly increase the suggested daily gratuity rates, tips that are given to crew members for their outstanding service. Automatic gratuities are a convenience for cruise guests, and help ensure that all appropriate crew members receive tips at a rate comparable to other industry wages and economic inflation rates.
The amount for suggested gratuities varies between different cruise lines, and higher stateroom categories such as suites or cabanas often have slightly higher gratuities because of the extra services they receive.
Gratuities can range from $12 per person, per night to as much as $20 or higher per person, per night. On a longer sailing, these extra charges can add up quickly, especially for a family on a budget.
Recently, however, cruise lines have been increasing gratuities more frequently, yet these higher gratuity levels have been combined with reduced services. Instead of cabin attendants cleaning staterooms both in the morning and evening, many cruise lines have changed to once-per-day service, even with the higher gratuities.
Other small parts of stateroom service have also been removed, such as no ice buckets provided in cabins, daily newsletters being transitioned to online apps and no longer delivered to the stateroom, and loyalty gifts needing to be picked up in different areas of the ship instead of being placed in guests’ cabins as a personalized welcome.
While it is true that these changes are more comparable to service provided at land-based hotels, land-based properties do not always add automatic gratuities to guests’ bills (though they do often have other types of fees). Similarly, cruise lines have prided themselves on providing service beyond what land-based hotels provide, and this distinction is not as clear any longer.
Nickel and Dime Costs for Extra Attractions
Cruise ships have many onboard attractions for guests to enjoy, from waterslides and aquaparks to theaters, live music, comedy shows, pools, ropes courses, miniature golf courses, and much more.
Newer, larger ships even have more thrilling options, such as go kart tracks on Norwegian Cruise Line’s Breakaway-class vessels, the Bolt roller coaster on Carnival Cruise Line’s Mardi Gras and Carnival Celebration, and adrenaline-inducing FlowRider surf machines, skydiving simulators, escape rooms, ice rinks, and more onboard many Royal Caribbean ships.
Cruise lines have long promoted themselves as being as close to all-inclusive as many vacations get, with onboard attractions, multiple restaurants, shows, and more all part of the basic cruise fare. More and more new attractions, however, are now priced as a-la-carte features, requiring a few extra dollars here and there for guests to participate.
As more features begin to have extra costs, fewer onboard attractions are available without additional fees. This can make what seemed to be a budget-friendly cruise vacation much more expensive if travelers want to truly enjoy everything onboard the ship.
One cruise ship can only host so many features, and if more and more of those features come at an added cost, there will be less and less that guests can enjoy without a bigger budget, making it more challenging to plan for the full cost of a vacation.
Cruise ships have always had different categories of staterooms, from tiny interior cabins to more spacious oceanviews, balconies, and suites. Not only do stateroom sizes and locations vary onboard the ship, but different views, such as aft-facing balconies or staterooms overlooking popular on deck show theaters can command different prices.
In recent years, more cruise lines have begun to capitalize on the exclusivity of private areas onboard, creating ship-in-a-ship designs with special spaces such as elite lounges, restaurants, pools, and sun decks only available to guests booked in certain categories of cabins, which are priced much higher than similar cabins in “regular” areas of the same ship.
These private areas also often come with extra perks, such as dedicated butler service, premium bathroom amenities, priority boarding, or other benefits.
Yet this ship-in-a-ship concept also restricts how much space is available for all guests to use, and can create a class-like system not all guests will be comfortable with.
This is especially true when these private areas also include perks such as reserved seating in main lounges or priority reservations to restaurants or spa treatments, when those limited features may fill up before other guests have a chance to book these amenities for themselves.
Overall Ship Size
Many mainstream lines are focused on building ships larger and larger – the upcoming Icon of the Seas, for example, can accommodate up to 7,600 guests at once when fully booked.
While many cruisers do enjoy a very busy and energetic ship, so many people can also lead to tremendous crowds, long lines for onboard activities, slower dining service, sold out reservations, and other congestion.
Some cruise lines are seeking to combat heavy crowds by requiring reservations for entertainment venues with limited seating. When reservations fill up quickly, however, especially if ship-in-a-ship guests can book seats earlier than other guests, many guests are left missing out on signature activities and once-a-cruise performances.
Furthermore, larger ships can simply have too much for guests to enjoy on a single vacation, especially if reservations are limited or sailings are shorter. This can make guests unhappy when they take a cruise but feel as though they haven’t “done” the ship because there was simply too much to do and not enough time.
As ships get bigger, more intimate ports of call are increasingly taking measures to deny ships the ability to visit. Limits on numbers of ship calls, total passengers visiting, gross tonnage of permitted ships, and other restrictions may make it harder for larger ships to include a greater variety of ports on their itineraries.
Already, ports such as Key West, Venice, Juneau, and Bar Harbor have all sought restrictions on cruise ship visits, and more ports are considering similar measures.
This means these larger ships will have fewer ports of call to choose from, and therefore those ports that do accommodate larger vessels may also become more overcrowded and begin restricting visits.
While many of the reasons behind such restrictions are respectable – such as not overwhelming local communities with thousands of guests, or protecting marine environments from the disturbances of massive vessels – the trend is a worrying one for any passenger who enjoys sailing the world and visiting new and unique ports of call.
Inability to Unplug
There is no denying that cruise line apps can be very helpful and convenient, but not all guests are happy with that convenience. Many travelers prefer to digitally unplug while on vacation, and while they may use a smart phone camera for photos, they don’t want to be held hostage by a screen and sometimes inconsistent wireless signals.
When printed alternatives are not available – such as menus in the dining room or newsletters with daily activities – guests may feel obligated to carry cell phones and mobile devices at all times, detracting from the relaxation of their vacation. This can also be a problem for guests who may not have mobile devices, or when devices may not be compatible with a particular cruise line’s app programming.
During the industry restart after the pandemic lockdown, many cruise destinations had emergency health and safety protocols in place, and it was necessary for cruise lines to implement health screenings, vaccination requirements, and pre-cruise testing to ensure that guests, crew members, and port communities were as safe as possible.
What is unsettling, however, is that this might become a future trend whenever an outbreak of disease is noted or when seasonal diseases such as flu flare up.
While cruise lines have always advised guests to take health precautions before traveling and reserve the right to deny passage for guests who may be dangerously ill and present a risk to others, will guests be required to demonstrate seasonal vaccinations in the future?
What about creating cruise restrictions based on age, due to increased health risks with the elderly? Should guests have to provide proof that they are not subject to any dangerous condition before setting sail? The implications of such possibilities are very worrying indeed.
Dining Quality Changes
Food has always been a key component of a cruise vacation, and more and more ships are offering a wide variety of specialty restaurants ranging from the classic steakhouse, Italian kitchen, and French bistro to barbecue smokehouses, sushi bars, fresh seafood restaurants, and fusion options for truly unique menus and extraordinary culinary delights.
These delicious dining options come at a cost, however. Not only are many of these specialty restaurants an extra charge for each meal, but in some cases, guests are noticing the quality of food in ships’ main dining rooms and casual buffets declining or becoming repetitive.
Both Royal Caribbean International and Carnival Cruise Line have also begun imposing limits on main dining room meals, such as charging for multiple entrees or streamlining menus with fewer options.
While these individual changes may be minor, it can seem as though cruise lines are trying to push guests toward paying more for specialty dining instead of simply enjoying the included dining venues.
More Trends on the Horizon
While these trends are all consistently appearing on most major cruise lines, other trends still need to be watched to see if they become stronger or fade away completely.
Fewer ports of call in the name of sustainability, the debate about how much private island destinations truly help local economies, parking and traffic challenges at ever-busier homeports, and cutbacks in cruise ship staffing are all further trends that may need more attention in the coming weeks and months.
Stay tuned to Cruise Hive for all the latest news about cruise trends, which patterns are great news for cruisers, which trends might be problematic, and which trends aren’t trends at all!