Here at ShermansTravel, cruise expert Donna Tunney has been sharing the inside track on trends and updates to help readers plan the perfect vacation at sea. With the start of the new year, we thought it'd be a great time to pick her brains on excellent cruise trends that she's loving right now. Here are some of her favorites:
1. More deals, better prices.
We all love a good deal, and happily we're seeing more and more chances to save money on a cruise. It used to be that the cruise lines waited until “wave season” -- typically the first quarter of a new year -- to roll out discounts and perks aimed at jumpstarting advance bookings. But now we're seeing many more discounted cruises and lots of free amenities being offered throughout the year, especially on Caribbean and Europe voyages. For examples from the past year, Princess Cruises launched a suite and balcony cabin sale in July, while Royal Caribbean held two of its signature Wow sales in late summer and early fall. In October, MSC Cruises offered weeklong Caribbean voyages for an eye-popping $299 per person. One note: These deals always have a short booking window, so be ready to put down your deposit when a great discount, an onboard credit, or other valuable offer comes along.
Big family groups are embracing vacations at sea like never before. Grandparents splashing in the pool with the grandkids and Baby Boomers on shore excursions with their parents are common sights on cruise vacations today. With meals and entertainment included in the cruise fare, family group cruising has already been seen as an affordable travel option with plenty of activities for all ages. But the trend is gaining even more steam as cruise lines go all out with special accommodations choices, free or reduced fares for children , and more supervised activities for tots and toddlers. And families can now stay close -- but not too close -- in multi-room staterooms and adjoining cabins that offer both privacy and proximity for multi-generational families. Some family suites, as on Royal Caribbean International ships, are configured with two bedrooms and two baths, plus larger balconies for outside enjoyment.
3. Catering to solos.
There was a time when cruising solo was only for the well-to-do, because cruise lines charge a single supplement fee when just one person books a double cabin. The fee usually is at least 100 percent of the single fare, meaning you'll pay the equivalent of two cruise fares. This policy is slowly but surely going the way of the dinosaur. Today, we're seeing more cruise lines, of all sizes, waiving these single supplements at various times during the year as well as building ships that have specially designed solo cabins. Carnival Cruise Lines, for instance, waived all single supplements on upward of 60 cruises between April and June of 2014, and Norwegian Cruise Line was first out of the shipyard with single staterooms a few years back. We're expecting more lines to join in kind -- so if you're a solo traveler, read this guide to solo cruising, then start packing.
4. Cruising all sorts of rivers.
River cruising started blowing up before 2014, and it's showing no signs of slowing down. In fact, the river cruise lines -- which generally carry 200 or fewer passengers -- can't build new ships fast enough to keep up with demand. A leader in the river market, Viking River Cruises, launched 18 ships in Europe in 2014 and will add another dozen in 2015. We love this trend because it caters to a lot of what our readers crave -- river cruise ships are more intimate and less noisy, they deliver passengers as close to town and city centers to maximize exploration, and they do a great job of using local foods on their menus. They're good value, too; fares typically include wine and beer, onboard lectures, and some onshore activities. Two interesting changes that we are seeing? While the river cruise crowd continues to be mostly middle-aged and older folks, we're beginning to see more culturally minded, younger guests too; and while river cruises have been wildly popular in Europe, they're growing in Asia as well as back home in the States.
5. More immersive (and healthy) cuisine.
Foodies will be delighted that serving up locally sourced foods -- and sometimes even beverages -- is becoming a focus for many smaller cruise ships. While large vessels with thousands of passengers have to load tons of frozen foods on board at the start of each voyage out of logistical necessity, cruisers looking to tap into regional cuisine have lines like American Cruise Lines to look forward to. In 2014, this particular line launched a Cruise Local, Eat Local program that serves up produce, fish, and meats sourced from the region its ships are sailing into. Mississippi River cruisers can expect fresh pralines from New Orleans, for example, and those sailing coastal Maryland will dine on local blue crab and Georgia shrimp. Bonus: In addition to satisfying palates, this also all adds up to more healthy dining choices at sea.
6. A focus on fitness.
Speaking of being healthier, cruises are slowly disassociating themselves with the all-you-can-eat buffet lifestyle. Gyms are getting sleeker and fancier -- like Olympic-grade equipment aboard Crystal Cruises -- and myriad fitness classes from yoga to aerobics to spin are often free. We've talked about extra special opportunities, like working out with an avatar in Norwegian Cruise Line's Nexersys experience. And that's not to mention daredevil recreational activities like skydiving, surfing, and rock climbing that'll keep you moving as well as give you a good adrenaline rush.