The McArthur family from the United States had been planning a family vacation for a few months. Having just returned from their cruise to the Bahamas and Florida, John, the patriarch of the family, remarked, “Time on the cruise allowed us to bond like never before.” For Sarah and James from New Zealand, taking a river cruise on a smaller ship was a conscious decision that afforded them quiet time to experience the kind of intimacy they shared during their courtship. Valerie, from Australia, who had been commitment phobic, booked a trip with Crystal Cruises, known for solo travellers interested in a luxury experience, didn’t realise she would meet not one, but four suitors. Finally, Ralph and Gregory from Ohio have been a couple for thirty years. Their ultra-luxury cruise allowed them to rediscover themselves as they dabbled in playing bridge, their favourite game, along with other on board activities. The selection of on board and on shore activities created the perfect getaways for these first time and experienced cruisers and have them glued to the idea of cruising.
The wide selection of cruises and quality of ships has expanded greatly over the years. Catering to only the well-heeled is now passé as more and more people hop on the cruise bandwagon and experience for themselves the fact that the world has become more affordable and accessible for even the average traveler. For those wanting to retain the exclusive cruise experience, there are small ship options, but the mini city-sized cruises with a buzz of activity, accommodating more than 5000 people, replete with restaurants,
theatres, and other facilities, offer a wide range of activities for those that can keep pace. For those in search of a more affordable option, there are ships and itineraries customised to this market as well. A successful cruise starts with understanding your goals and planning accordingly.
Even if cruise lines seem similar at first, they have their own perks and quirks with the same line offering different experiences based on the size of the ship, destination, and time of year you choose to sail. Educating yourself on general trends with respect to cruise ships is the first step.
Most people think in terms of overall destination (Asia, Europe, South America, etc.) when selecting a cruise, but which cruise line and which cruise ship you choose are critically important. Ocean or river cruise? Mega ship, expedition, or small ship? Ship, yacht, or barge? In the cruise industry, size matters as it affects the ports that the ship can enter along with access to hard to navigate sites, as well as the amenities they can offer.
Many lines may sail to the same destinations, but their itineraries can be quite different with the intent to offer a very unique experience to their guests. Also important is your personal interests with regard to time on board and on shore, and the types of dining options offered. Lastly, according to cruise regulars, it’s more than just the cruise line you select, it’s also about the kind of guests it will attract.
Typically, big ships have more features and amenities and cost less to cruise while smaller ships offer a more exclusive ambience and personal attention at a higher price. Inevitably, the combination of lower cost and wider entertainment options attract more families and party goers to larger ships. Those wanting to make friends and enjoy the company of a wide variety of people tend to opt for these, while the premium price and relative simplicity of entertainment options on small-ship luxury cruises appeals to an older clientele or those wanting to maintain more privacy and exclusivity on the ship.
Get the timing right
There is no escaping the fact that planning for the perfect cruise requires substantial work and research. Getting tips from those who have experienced a particular route, cruise line, and season for travel is helpful as well. Be very clear what it is that you are seeking from the cruise experience. If you want a specific itinerary, like sailing through exquisite foliage regions, then August to October would be ideal months to plan a cruise to Canada/New England or France and Switzerland. If witnessing the tulips bloom in Holland is your goal, then mid-April is the only time to experience nature’s Dutch beauty. If adventure water sports is a family bonding activity, then summer would be best when school is on break and temperatures are warm enough for swimming. Head to Alaska from June through August to view wildlife, go fishing, or experience a glacier calf, but if viewing the northern lights is your goal then September to April is peak.
The cruise calendar is comprised of peak demand or high season, moderate demand or shoulder season, and low demand or low season. High season is when there are maximum bookings, typically schools are closed and summer vacations are in full swing. Shoulder season are the weeks just preceding or just after peak season when you’ll find fewer tourists and there are bargain opportunities in year-round destinations. In places like Alaska and Bermuda, which have a 5-6 month sailing season, low season is the few weeks after cruises begin and before they end. Some of the popular places on the cruise circuit, like the Panama Canal and Northern Europe, remain “in season” most of the time due to more consistent demand for seasonal attractions or more favourable weather conditions.
Most cruise lines agree that tourist seasons have extended with year-round travellers. They are witnessing more demand, booking pressure, and queries from well-informed cruise goers, many who are repeat clients that have made cruising part of their regular travel itineraries.
Cruises with extended families in tow
Families with children are easily swayed by the Disney Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean International. The former takes great pains to assure that little children are well taken care of and suitably entertained. From crèches and nurseries for babies as young as three months to themed play spaces for preschoolers and young children, Disney characters playfully befriend and interact with the guests, fuelling their creative imagination and giving them memories to hold onto.
Cabins are specially designed to give families unique moments to bond and share the travel experience. Split baths with tubs, extra berths, room-dividing curtains and child-proof balcony locks are just some of the add-ons that can be found. On its ships, Royal Caribbean has toddler play spaces and nurseries with babysitting facilities, making it easy for parents and older siblings to explore the ship and its many activities without worrying about the safety of their infants or younger children. Partnerships and collaborations with Dreamworks have resulted in bringing much loved characters onboard with parties, parades, and photo opportunities. For older kids seeking action and adventurous sport, there is ice skating, flow riding, rock
climbing, iFly, bumper cars, circus school, carousal, zip line, and dedicated class space for jewellery making, dancing, and scrap booking. Nothing seems impossible for these mini-township-style big ships. To Royal Caribbean’s credit goes the feat of bringing innovation to the high seas with Broadway Musicals and first-atsea onboard features such as Robotic Bar, Central Park – the first living park at Sea and SeaPlex – the largest indoor active space at sea, only available on Royal Caribbean.
Rekindle the Romance
Couples seeking time to re-ignite the romantic fires of companionship and intimacy can be assured of exactly that, as they sign up for the Regent Seven Seas luxury line. Their higher fares take into account pre-cruise hotel stays, most shore excursions, gratuities, onboard alcohol and drinks, fine candle lit dining in main and specialty restaurants, attentive service, and luxurious accommodations in suites, as well as on board activities and entertainment.
An entire mini industry is working to cater to this segment of traveller that wishes to take their wedding vows aboard a liner and continue their honeymoon cruise to the most romantic destinations.
Most luxury lines are now catering to those who love specialty cuisines. Oceania features multiple dining venues on board from Asian, Italian, steak and continental cuisine, along with an equally extensive pairing of wines and beverages. Crystal Cruises’ range of ships also offer unique culinary selections with celebrity chefs that ensure authentic sushi bars, Pan-Asian cuisine, French and Northern Italian specialties, among others. Their regular dining options with poolside buffets and afternoon teas are equally tantalising. Cooking lessons, wine tastings, author readings and art appreciation over smoked salmon and other delicacies are part of the art-food themed activities.
Entertainment is a much anticipated aspect on all cruise lines, with each trying to add something new and novel every season. Enriching the on board experience are gala shows, fashion shows and music concerts, along with full-fledged Creative Learning Institutes offering computer skills training, language classes, golf instruction, art workshops, cooking demos and music lessons along with historians and well-known experts lecturing on political science, current affairs, culture, food and wine, astronomy and art. Disney cruise ships are known for their original productions with live versions of hit movies like Aladdin and Toy Story, replete with catchy tunes, creative props and costumes, and of course, much loved Disney characters. Its best known event is its once-a-cruise pirate-themed deck party, which combines an interactive musical show with dance parties and at-sea fireworks. Royal Caribbean International has even brought Broadway musicals to the high seas.
Many younger guests, in particular, aim to forego their sleep to stay awake and soak in all of the on board activities. Norwegian ships cater to this segment and promise not to disappoint with their watering holes and White Hot Parties with karaoke and all-night dances to keep spirits high and everyone’s foot tapping.
Solo travellers have found a kind of resonance with lines like the Norwegian and Crystal Cruises. Apart from having plenty of things to do for those who want to enjoy their solitude, they also provide the opportunity to mingle and make new friends. There is an overall atmosphere that is communal and social ensuring no one feels lonely, out of place, or isolated.
There are lines that cater to specific regions and niche interests like Star Cruises, which specialise in Asia- Pacific cruises. Another line popular with families and large groups is Dream Cruises, an Asian luxury cruise line that sails from Hong Kong or Guangzhou. It has a waterslide park, spas, kid’s clubs, cinema, and its very own nightclub. Their ‘China’s Got Talent’ show at sea has become a huge hit, with guests coming specially prepared to perform and wow the audience.
River cruises: tracing life alon waterways
Historically, cities sprung up on the banks of a river as they provided the highways for early navigation. Today, we cruise these rivers to experience life around these waterways and port towns. In Europe, The Danube, Rhine, Rhone, Douro, Elbe and Siene rivers are well travelled. River ships, yachts, and barges that can access more unique and inland ports have found favour as they offer a more active and educational experience. River and canal cruises in and around Amsterdam are popular and so are cruises to cities along the Mississippi River and the Pacific Northwest in the U.S. In Asia, China’s Yangtze River has long been a river cruising staple with the newly ascending Mekong Delta, which runs through Vietnam and Cambodia. The Viking River Cruises and Victoria Cruises are main players on the Yangtze.
For those embarking on a river cruise, it is important to understand the differentiators with respect to ocean cruises. If sea sickness is an issue, river cruises are less turbulent since they traverse inland waterways. Barge cruising focuses on boats that carry less than 25 passengers and navigate the waters of smaller rivers, staying mostly within canals. Small yachts, such as Windstar’s, offer access to sea ports as well as deep water destinations along major rivers.
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