Atlas Ocean Voyages passenger kayaking in Antarctica. Photo: Atlas Ocean Voyages

The 11 Biggest Trends In Cruising Right Now

by Matthew Meltzer Oct 24, 2023

Cruising has made quite the comeback. Far removed from the pandemic-era horror stories that some said would sink the industry, cruising continue to grow in popularity among solo travelers, families, and intrepid explorers. Our perception of cruising has changed too, where once we saw cruise ships as floating temples of gluttony, many see them now as convenient ways to explore far-off remote destinations.

So what’s next in the ever-changing world of cruising? We talked to insiders from cruise lines large and small to see what passengers are asking for and how the ships are adapting.

Ships are getting bigger

Like suburban neighbors trying to outdo each others’ home additions, the big cruise lines are competing to see who can build the biggest ships. Much of this, according to our insiders, is driven by the surge in multi-generational travel after the pandemic.

“People tend to be trending towards bigger and better (ships) nowadays,” says Cruise Planners Travel Specialist Danny Ickes. “You can get on these large ships and there’s something for everybody. Retired people can go to wine tastings and cooking demos. If you’re younger, you have ice skating, rock climbing, and surf simulators.”

The cruise line with the biggest ships is Royal Caribbean, whose Icon of the Seas will be the largest cruise ship in the world when it launches in 2024. The 20-deck behemoth will hold an astounding 7,600 passengers and will weigh over 250,000 tons.

Not far behind them is MSC Cruise Lines, who debuted the MSC World Europa this year as the largest ship outside of Royal Caribbean’s. Its twin, the World America, will hit the Caribbean in 2025.

“These (larger ships) have more experiences and a variety of amenities and very modern design,” says Ruben Rodriguez, President of MSC Cruises USA. “Guests really appreciate it across generations.”

Small expedition ships are also hot

Trends in cruising: The Havila Capella, a small ship of cruise line Havila operating in Norway.

The Havila Capella, a small ship of cruise line Havila operating in Norway. Photo: Alex Bresler

But just as the giants are gaining steam, so are the little guys. Smaller ships that can navigate smaller ports and go to more off-the-beaten-path destinations are getting a lot of attention from people who typically might steer away from cruising altogether.

“I’m seeing a big boom in smaller ship experiences,” says Ickes. “Somewhere along the lines of Viking or Regent or Windstar. Those are a little more intimate, you have butlers that cater to your every whim.”

Following this trend, a bevy of small ship cruise lines have popped in the past few years. One such line is Sea Cloud, whose fleet of sailing yachts takes 60-136 guests to boutique ports around the Mediterranean and Caribbean.

“After COVID, people want to be out on the deck, enjoying the sun,” says Sea Cloud President Mirell Reyes. “People are leaning towards smaller ships and getting away from the crowd.”

In Norway, Havila Voyages launched just before 2020, carrying around 600 cruise passengers along the Norwegian coastline in its four ships. They hit ports around the Arctic circle that have been around for centuries, in towns of under 1,000 residents that could never handle large ship traffic.

Excursions are getting more active

Trends in cruising: Zodiac expeditions with Atlas Ocean Voyages

Free Zodiac expedition with fauna and fora experts with Atlas Ocean Voyages. Photo: Jesse Adams

The days of herding passengers from the ship to a popular tourist attraction may be a thing of the past. Or, at least, they’re waning in popularity after the pandemic. Cruise passengers, even older ones, are seeking shore excursions that keep them active.

“Coming out of the pandemic, people don’t want to be on buses with a hundred other people,” says Sea Cloud’s Reyes.

In Norway, Havila Voyages has excursions where guests disembark in one port, take a bus to the top of a mountain, and dogsled down another mountain to meet the ship at its next stop. As they descend the hill, they can see the ship lit up and floating through a fjord to its next harbor.

Boutique Atlas Ocean Voyages has eschewed many of the traditional shore excursions for expeditionary pursuits, stocking kayaks, stand-up paddle boards, and other water toys on board. During its Antarctic cruises, it even offers passengers the chance to camp overnight on the ice.

“We take guests ashore and they can camp in either tents or in ice holes,” says Atlas CEO James Rodriguez. “It immerses them in the place, and it sells out pretty quickly.”

WiFi at sea is getting better

While some might argue the point of a vacation is to disconnect, increased WiFi speeds and better connectivity have become a priority on cruise ships.

Virgin Voyages broke the mold of cruise line WiFi by offering basic surfing capabilities for free (high-speed streaming WiFi is available for $50 for four nights). Royal Caribbean’s VOOM WiFi claims to be the fastest at sea, and while that hasn’t been officially proven, it still lets you use the Internet like you do at home.

The large cruise lines’ embracing of connectivity has trickled down to smaller companies too, as even expedition yachts like Altas Ocean Voyages acknowledge guests want to stay online.

“We implemented a StarLInk system, because we found many people were working on board and wanted to make sure they have access to emails and work,” says CEO Rodriguez. “Older guests want to keep in touch with family. It’s been innovative for us.”

Kids are not welcome

Virgin Voyages took cruising and turned it upside down. And people love it,” says Ickes. “They made it adults only, no kids, and people love it. They love it in the restaurants.”

Other cruise lines haven’t quite caught up, as family travel is still a big market. But cruise lines like Viking heavily tout their 18+ policy, and Ickes says his clients frequently request kid-free cruises.

Solo travelers are getting looked after

“Something else Virgin did that other cruise lines are adopting is that they’re the first line to have solo cabins,” says Ickes. “Before, if you wanted to sail by yourself, you had to pay double occupancy. Now, Virgin and a couple of other lines have implemented solo staterooms, which means if you are a single person, you’ll only pay for one person.”

He notes this still is about 150 percent of the cost that someone traveling with a partner might pay, but it’s a marked improvement over the double-fare solo travelers used to get saddled with. Royal Caribbean, Norwegian, and Celebrity Cruises have all debuted solo products of late, he says.

Solo cabins aren’t limited to the big ships either. Havila Voyages offers interior cabins to solo travelers at a much lower rate than its exterior rooms. The rooms don’t have balconies or windows, but if you’re looking to cruise Norway by yourself, it’s a more economical option.

Private islands are getting more amenities

MSC's private island in the Bahamas, Ocean Cay

MSC’s private island in the Bahamas, Ocean Cay. Photo: Joni Hanebutt/Shutterstock

Ever since Royal Caribbean debuted its Perfect Day at Coco Cay — complete with waterslides, ziplines, and a wave pool — the race has been on to see whose private island can offer the most. And now, many cruise lines are opting to just go straight to their private islands and skip some regular cruise stops.

“The joke in the industry is that everyone goes to Nassau, and I have clients who’ve been 30 times and don’t even get off the ship anymore,” says Ickes. “Now, cruise lines are saying, ‘Maybe let’s skip Nassau and go straight to our private island.’”

For its part, Perfect Day at Coco Cay is adding an adults-only dayclub this fall called Hideaway Beach, where guests 18 and over can while away an afternoon at seven open-air bars or two infinity pools.

MSC went a different route with its island, rehabbing an old industrial excavation site in the Bahamas and transforming it into a marine reserve. The result is Ocean Cay, a reclaimed slice of island nature with white-sand beaches, abundant sea life, coral, and a natural lagoon. MSC has even partnered with the University of Miami and Nova Southeastern to develop and harvest super coral, a species of coral that’s more resistant to global warming. The island is also welcoming a Marine Conservation Center, where university researchers will work and guests can learn about local marine life.

“The highest guest experience we have is at Ocean Cay,” says Rodriguez, President of MSC Cruises USA. “We have a long call, often overnight, and we have shore excursions where people can go kayaking with underwater LED lights on their paddleboards.”

Smaller ports are getting more attention

Atlas Ocean Voyages' World Traveller in the small port of Vopnafjordur in Iceland.

Atlas Ocean Voyages’ World Traveller in the small port of Vopnafjordur in Iceland. Photo: Jesse Adams

“If you ever pull up to Venice at a ferry port, and that’s how your cruise begins or ends, it’s not a nice experience,” says Sea Cloud President Reyes. It’s an understatement of titanic proportions, as anyone who’s ever emptied out of a mega ship at a popular port knows the crowds and endless tourists traps can put a bad face on an otherwise lovely destination.

The result is a shift to lesser-known ports, especially in Europe.

“Cruise lines are getting very strategic about planning where they have ports throughout the year,” says Ickes. “They’re making sure that in the Med, if you want to go to little unique ports like Egypt, Morocco, or parts of Croatia, they’re putting a small ship that can navigate those channels.”

Still, Reyes says, small ports might be interesting but they still don’t put heads in cruise beds.

“In order to attract someone, you have to have a famous port on the itinerary. Nobody would book if there’s ports nobody’s ever heard of,” she says. “But (the small ports) are always the ports guests love the most. Because people want to go somewhere and do something that’s different and say, ‘Guess what I did?’”

Ships stay longer in ports

There’s something inherently frustrating about pulling into a port at 8 AM, hustling off the ship to enjoy the city, but always having in the back of your mind that you have to return to the ship by 4 PM. Passengers have long lamented these brief port calls, and cruise lines have heard them. Now, they’re beginning to stress quality over quantity, and staying in port considerably longer.

“It used to be that itineraries had four or five port calls on a seven-day cruise,” says Rodriguez, President of MSC Cruises USA. “As the industry has matured some, we get guests who appreciate more immersion, so now we might have three ports but we stay longer and even sometimes overnight. And we get great feedback about that.”

Atlas Ocean Voyages CEO Rodriguez maintains that people don’t buy a cruise for the sea days, and overnight stays help promote local immersion.

“Take Barcelona, it doesn’t start to happen until 10 PM, and that’s when (passengers) are usually leaving,” he says. “So we stay there overnight so guests can have dinner with locals. That’s part of the expedition experience.”

These days, it’s all about the destinations, not the ships

Trends in cruising: cruises to Antarctica with active excursions

Atlas Ocean Voyages passengers kayaking in Antarctica. Photo: Atlas Ocean Voyages

Sure, the allure of an onboard laser tag arena and a midnight buffet will never go away. But as more people have experienced cruising, many are beginning to see it as a way to reach far-off places, and not a floating entertainment complex.

“We’re seeing people prioritize destinations over ships,” says Havila’s US Head of Sales Matthew Valentine. “So we promote the destinations.”

That includes an enticing northern lights Promise during winter months, where guests who don’t spot the aurora borealis are given a free six-day return voyage so they can try again.

“People came out of the pandemic watching the Discovery Channel, and people who haven’t thought about cruising want to go to the Arctic or Antarctica,” says Atlas Ocean Voyages CEO Rodriguez. “You can’t get to a lot of these areas unless you’re on a cruise, so we’re changing their dynamic of what a cruise was.”

Moving towards some semblance of sustainability

Transporting hundreds and sometimes thousands of people across the water without environmental impact is impossible. And while passengers aren’t necessarily all clamoring to sail with the most sustainable cruise line, many lines are competing with their innovations in sustainability with the same fervor they do onboard amenities.

Norwegian Cruise Lines was the first to eliminate single-use plastics across all its ships in 2020, and Royal Caribbean has made strides to cut its single-use plastic by 60 percent. Liquid Nitrogen Gas-powered engines are replacing typical fossil-based marine fuel in many ships. Havila’s two LNG engines also charge a set of batteries which power the ships when they float through fjords. The result is a silent trip through the scenery with no engine noise to disrupt the serenity and the marine wildlife.

MSC has set goals to reduce its carbon emissions by 40 percent by 2030, and the new MSC World America will be completely powered by LNG.

“If you go to a conference and talk to travel advisors, sustainability is what they ask about,” says Sea Cloud’s Reyes. “So I think sustainability, period, has become so much more important. In our industry, and in the world.”

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