By David Barclay | August 10, 2022
For those who don’t already know this fact about me, I want to share that I love cruising. It’s not the only way I will explore the world. I’ve taken many wonderfully customized land-based vacations, either as a couples’ getaway with my wife or as a family vacation with our kids. But because it’s such a great way to explore many regions of the world, cruises have become a meaningful portion of my personal leisure travel.
In future blog posts I’ll dive into more detail on luxury cruising and why I recommend my clients travel in style while they explore the world by ship. For today’s post, I want to provide a more wholistic overview of cruising and why I think it is a great option for any type of vacation. I will cover the various classifications of cruise lines, where cruises can take you, how cruising differs from land-based vacation options, and common reasons travelers haven’t tried cruising and why they should reconsider.
Cruise Line Classification
When someone hears the words “cruise”, “cruise line”, or “cruise ship”, invariably an image pops into their head. What people envision when they think about cruising can be very different, based on their prior experiences with cruising or what they have heard from others. A key driver for the variation in views on cruising is that there is a vast variety of options in the cruising universe.
Imagine if I asked everyone reading this blog to think of a hotel or resort. Some people might think of a Holiday Inn. Others might envision a Four Seasons or Ritz-Carlton. Some might think of an all-inclusive resort in Mexico or Jamaica. Or maybe a ski resort in the mountains. Just as a wide variety of lodging options exist on land, there are an incredible number of options when considering cruising. Cruises can range from bare-bones weekend getaways on the equivalent of a floating city, to month long explorations of remote regions while staying at a 5-star all-inclusive resort that travels with you.
With so much variety, even the cruise lines disagree on how to segment the cruise industry. Some have even created their own industry segments just for their cruise lines, as they try to make their brands stand out to their target audiences. To help cut through the clutter, I want to provide you with my view on the cruise industry and how I classify the lines. First, I divide cruising into Ocean Cruising and River Cruising. These are quite distinct types of cruises, with unique aspects of the cruise experience for each. Ocean cruises make up most of the cruise market, with an abundance of options, while the variation among river cruise options is a little more subtle.
Ocean Cruising Categorization
Ocean cruise lines can be segments into 5 categories: Mainstream, Premium, Luxury, Ultra-Luxury and Small Ship/Yacht.
Mainstream lines are the behemoths of the industry, and that term applies to both the cruise lines and their ships. Every year these lines try to outdo each other with the largest ship and newest activities at sea. Carnival and Royal Caribbean are examples of mainstream cruise lines. While these lines have their place in the market, unfortunately I think they also create a strong stereotype of cruising in many consumers minds and turn off many potential cruisers to the idea of cruising. Massive ships that resemble amusement parks (many with over 5,000 passengers), overwhelming ports of call during the day, are what many people envision when I mention cruising. Mainstream lines are likely the lines that some of you sailed on when you were younger. While these lines appeal to younger travelers both from a standpoint of budget friendliness and plethora of onboard activities for all ages, travelers with greater disposable income and more refined tastes tend to avoid these lines.
Premium cruise lines tend to have slightly smaller ships than mainstream lines, typically carrying 2,000 to 3,500 passengers. Holland America and Princess Cruises are two well-known premium cruise lines. These lines tend to be more refined than mainstream lines, with better food and more sophisticated public spaces. These lines tend to appeal to less price conscious travelers, who are willing to pay a little more for less crowded ships and a nicer onboard experience. Cruise fares include the basics (a stateroom, food in the main restaurants, use of public areas) but travelers incur extra charges for premium dining, beverages, wi-fi, and crew tips. Ships likely have inside staterooms for budget conscious travelers, but also provide many options to upgrade to premium staterooms with private balconies or suites with more space and added amenities. Many of these lines offer Grand Voyages and World Cruises, and it is not unheard of for luxury and ultra-luxury cruisers to consider these lines for those longer bucket list trips.
Celebrity Cruises is a premium line that positions itself as a good option for luxury cruisers. They have classified their line as “New Luxury” and moved to a more all-inclusive model to appeal to premium and luxury line cruisers who don’t want to feel nickel and dimed while on board. Celebrity is also one of the few cruise lines to introduce a “ship within a ship” concept, called The Retreat. The Retreat provides a private suites-only area, private pool, private restaurant, and priority embarkation/disembarkation at each port. The “ship within a ship” concept is designed to offer a luxury style cruising experience while providing guests access to the many amenities on a larger ship.
I personally like to separate the cruise lines at the upper end of the industry into luxury and ultra-luxury. The luxury lines provide many of the features and services one would expect with that classification, including smaller, uncrowded ships, fine dining options, and a high crew to guest ratio to ensure exquisite service. Smaller ships enable these lines to visit ports that larger ships cannot, and the smaller guest capacity means ports will not seem overrun with fellow passengers. Azamara and Oceania Cruises are examples of luxury cruise lines. While fares are more all-inclusive than the premium cruise lines, guest may need to purchase upgraded beverage packages or pay to dine at some of the signature restaurants. However, this more al la carte structure means the base fares tend to be lower than those for the ultra-luxury lines. Luxury lines can be a great introduction for first time cruisers (or lapsed cruisers who have only sailed on mainstream or premium lines) wanting to sample luxury cruising before moving up to an ultra-luxury line experience.
These lines are the equivalent of 5-star resorts on the sea. Every ultra-luxury line delivers a nearly all-inclusive experience with incredible levels of service. Crew to guest ratios can be close to 1:1 and it’s not uncommon for crew members to remember guests’ names after the first day. Most suites on the all-suite ships have private balconies/verandas and the onboard space to guest ratios are the highest in the industry. Lines may include airfare, transfers between airport and ship (even between guests’ homes and their departure airports), and butler service. All of the lines include complimentary dining in a majority of the onboard restaurants, with only a few charging a small fee for signature restaurants designed by some of the world’s most famous chefs. Some lines will also include a choice of complimentary excursions in each port, with the option to upgrade to premium excursions for those who want the ultimate land experiences during their cruise. Seabourn and Silversea are examples of ultra-luxury cruise lines. Once guests have tried an ultra-luxury cruise it is hard for them to go back to anything less, and many guests will develop a strong loyalty to a single ultra-luxury cruise line. Many of the ultra-luxury lines have added expedition ships in recent years and offer the finest expedition cruises in the industry.
This category covers a large number of smaller lines, many with only a few ships. Ships can range from actual yachts that accommodate 12-16 guests to larger ships with several hundred passengers. The lines with larger ships position their onboard experience as more of a yachting experience, with little formality, no required dress code, and a more relaxed vibe. Aqua Expeditions is a splendid example of a small yacht line, while the ships of SeaDream Yacht Club and Windstar Cruises can welcome 100-300 guests each. This is also a category that is growing as interest in cruising grows and many established travel suppliers look to enter the cruise market. The Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection, set to launch later this year, is an example of a luxury travel supplier entering the small ship/yacht category. Given the number of lines catering to many niche experiences, navigating the options requires the assistance of an experienced travel advisor.
While a smaller segment of the cruise market, interest in river cruising has been growing quickly and so have the cruise lines. In many cases, the ships are nearly identical in size (this is the case for most European river cruise ships) as the ships must be able to fit inside the locks located along the cruise routes. In general, the cruise lines differentiate themselves by the level of service and degree of all-inclusiveness (with fares reflecting what the lines offer), with offerings ranging from the equivalent of a premium cruise line to an ultra-luxury cruise line.
Where You Can Cruise
Most countries are accessible from a cruise ship. Cruise ships can take you to major cities, small ocean-side towns, remote sparsely populated regions and everywhere in-between. Depending on the duration of a sailing, cruising can provide a sample of a region’s unique characteristics or allow in-depth exploration over many weeks. Cruising also allows travelers to cover a lot of ground in a short amount of time, with even shorter 7-night cruises visiting multiple cities and countries.
For remote areas of the world, cruising can many times be the best (or only) way to vacation in these hard to access regions. Visiting the Galapagos Islands, seeing the Antarctic (including the Falkland Islands, South Georgia Island and Antarctica), experiencing the Norwegian Fjords or exploring Alaska are some of the trips best done on a cruise ship. Expedition cruising (visiting these remote, unspoiled areas) is growing due to the ability to experience unique parts of nature up close.
Cruising vs. Land-Based Options
There are many reasons why people love cruising, and you can find many “top reasons to cruise” lists online. Today I want to share why I like to cruise along with some benefits compared to a land vacation:
- Your hotel travels with you, so you only need to unpack once
This is a common reason people like cruising and one I fully agree with. When taking land vacations, I only like to change locations every 3-5 days, since I don’t enjoy having to pack and unpack during the trip and feel I lose a good portion of the days where travel is involved. On a cruise, you can unpack your suitcases on your first day and stow them under your bed until it’s time to depart for home. And since your hotel is traveling with you, there is no “lost” time as your travel from destination to destination.
- All-inclusive luxury
The luxury and ultra-luxury cruise lines provide luxury-style service that rivals 5-star land-based properties (Four Seasons, Relais & Chateaux, etc.). These higher end cruises are nearly all-inclusive, with incredible food, unique activities and frequent pampering that truly make for an unforgettable experience. Unlike 5-star land-based resort where I’m restricted to staying relatively near the property, cruises can take me to a new place every day while still delivering an incredible resort experience. As I mentioned above, luxury hotel chains like Ritz-Carlton have taken notice of this space and are starting to offer their unique brand experiences on the sea.
- Sampling of new regions
I really enjoy cruising as my first taste of a region I haven’t visited before. I can visit multiple towns/cities and multiple countries without having to commit multiple days to any specific location. I’ve found on each cruise there has been at least one city or country that stood out and earned a place on my future travel list, earmarked for a land trip to allow a more in-depth exploration. On one of my favorite cruises (well, honestly they are all my favorite) I visited Greece, Cyprus, Turkey and Israel. Except for Greece, these were all new countries for me, and both Turkey and Israel were added to my list for future travel (see my future blog posts about the 2-week trip to Turkey I’m taking later this fall).
- Value price for a luxury experience
I left this point for last, because it may seem like an oxymoron to equate luxury cruising with value. But when you look at the per day investment for a luxury or ultra-luxury cruise, including fine dining, beverages, transportation, guided tours, and incredible service, then add extra benefits including great rates on business class airfare, you get a lot for your vacation dollars compared to other options.
Common Reasons Travelers Have Not Cruised
There are many reasons why people who would enjoy cruising have yet to try it. As I mentioned earlier, many people have an impression of cruising driven by the mainstream cruise lines and feel that type of cruising is not for them. I completely agree and thankfully there are many other options which can fit the needs of any traveler.
A few other reasons I often hear for not trying a cruise include:
- I get motion or seasick
This is probably the most common reason people don’t try a cruise. In fact, this was the reason it took me many years to convince my wife to try cruising, since she is prone to motion sickness. While it is not possible to guarantee seasickness won’t happen on a cruise to someone prone to motion sickness, there are many ways to reduce the likelihood. First, most modern cruise ships have stabilizers which significantly reduce the movement of the ships. This combined with selecting a region known for calmer seas can increase the likelihood of smooth sailing for the entire voyage. Second, selecting a cabin that is low and close to midship will limit ship movement felt while in the cabin. Getting fresh air can help (either from time spend in the public outdoor areas or from a private balcony) which means selecting a ship that has plenty of outdoor space. Many ships have bowls of ginger candy strategically placed in common areas, as ginger can help with queasiness from motion sickness. For those very prone to motion sickness, prescription medicines can help during any rough seas.
- Cruises don’t let travelers experience the local culture
While most cruise ships are only in port during the day, that does not mean travelers can’t experience the local culture. Many of the top lines visit smaller ports untouched by the masses, and have unique excursions focused specifically on providing an in-depth cultural experience. These lines also tailor their menus for the region of travel, allowing guests to sample the local cuisine while on board. And many itineraries are adding overnight stays in port to allow more time to experience the culture and nightlife of a region. Finally, for those who want even more interaction with the local culture, options exist for pre/post land-based extensions or overland programs where passengers disembark the ship for a few days, travel overland and embark again at a future port.
- Cruise ships are too crowded
Another perception driven by the mainstream cruise lines. Luxury and ultra-luxury cruise lines provide an incredible amount of space and their ships do not feel crowded. Pool areas always have available deck chairs (even on sea days), many quiet areas exist for those looking to sit down away from fellow guests, and couples can always get a table to dine by themselves, no need to sit with other guests unless that’s desired. Private balconies provide personal outdoor space that’s always available, and suites feel spacious with walk-in closets, large bathrooms and separate sitting areas.
- Cruising is only for older/retired travelers
While the average age on many cruise lines can be in the low 60’s, that average has been steadily decreasing as cruise lines worked to attract younger travelers. Even on ultra-luxury lines, you will see many travelers in their 30’s, 40’s and 50’s, along with multi-generational families with a wide range of guest ages. New lines, including Explora Journeys and the Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection, are positioning their brands to attract a younger audience and families who may have otherwise excluded cruising as a viable travel option. These lines are looking to attract travelers who would typically consider a 5-star hotel or resort for their vacations.
If there is one take-away I’d like for my readers to remember, it’s that there is no single option for a cruise experience. The offerings of the cruise industry are as varied as anything on land and it’s possible to find a cruise that will fit any traveler’s interests and needs.
When you start thinking about your next travel experience, I hope you will include cruising in your consideration set, and I am always available to discuss which options might work for you.
Owner, Barclay & Company Travel
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