This is not your grandma's cruise anymore.
The cruise ship industry is on the cusp of a technological revolution that, for the most part, spells good news for consumers. In the next five years, the new normal in cruises is going to be a better-connected voyage that will largely do away with lines and waiting — some of the factors that now deter travelers from taking cruises.
In the last year, the four top cruise companies — Carnival Corp., Royal Caribbean Cruises, Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, and MSC Cruises — have all come out with innovations that promise to make cruises a less cumbersome experience. Most of it incorporates facial recognition and geo-location.
"It seems like it has really been on the horizon for a while, but everybody has been coming out with their product right about now," said Colleen McDaniel, senior executive editor at CruiseCritic.com.
The intricacy of the new technology ranges from complex infrastructure that turns vessels into smart ships to simple apps that travelers can access on their own devices to skip lines or order services.
The move to a tech focus is a departure for the cruise lines, which have focused more on upgrading ships — with water slides and zip lines and go-karts — but which left the underlying experience unchanged. The new technology aims to reduce irritations: the long lines to embark or disembark, crowded bars, the impersonal feeling of a mass congregation of people.
Perhaps most important, technology levels the playing field for all travelers, said Joe Pine, co-author of The Experience Economy," which suggested as early as 1998 that consumers valued personalized experiences over goods. "It elevates the experience for everyone, not just the highest-paying passengers, and not just on its best and newest [ships]," Pine said. "I think it will become the norm … eventually in the cruise industry and in other tourism [entities]."
But with the new technology will likely come privacy concerns. Much of the software cruise lines are introducing also involves capturing passenger information and using it to curate suggestions about what to do.
Experts agree there will likely be an adaptation process. But they also say that if the technology makes the experience easier, cruisers — and maybe even first-timers — will buy in.
If a cruise is on your horizon in the next few years, take a peek at what it may look like from now on.
In the race to create new cruise technology, Carnival Corp. finished first.
The Miami company is leading the way with an entire suite of technological developments that will transform its fleet into smart ships. In January, it announced the result of an 18-month project aimed at making the cruise experience more intuitive.
Instead of largely relying on smartphones, the company chose to build a "medallion." The quarter-size, 2-ounce disc contains personal information, incorporates geo-location services, and bears each passenger's name and sail date. It can be carried in a pocket or worn on a wristband or pendant for an additional cost.
The medallion interacts with the whole of the ship, which will be retrofitted with thousands of sensors and interactive screens and miles of cable.
For example, as guests approach their stateroom doors, the door senses the medallion and unlocks itself. A digital photo wall senses a passenger's approach and adjusts to show his or her vacation pictures. After a guest requests a drink via an interactive screen, smartphone, or other device, crew members can find him or her anywhere on the vessel because of the geo-location function.
The operating system behind the medallion is Ocean Compass, an online vacation profile that passengers create before sailing, entering their preferences; during the trip, they can add information via onboard screens and personal devices. Crew members can also access passenger profiles in Ocean Compass, allowing them to offer relevant suggestions and address passengers by name.
As passengers move around the ship, the Ocean Compass will suggest activities in line with guest preferences.
The technology also essentially eliminates lines. Travelers who check in online via their Ocean Compass profiles will be able to board immediately. Passengers can later book a slot to disembark, skipping what is often an hours-long slog to reach land.
"I think initially most people won't comprehend it. And they will say, 'We have stuff like that,' and they are wrong. They don't," Arnold Donald, Carnival's president and CEO, said in an interview in 2016. "We think once it's actually executed … when people experience it, it's going to be transformational."
The nine-line cruise company planned to debut the technology in November aboard the Regal Princess, but the launch was postponed. Carnival now plans a phased implementation over the spring that will roll out the technology on select cabins before completely offering it to all passengers on all its ships.
In November, Royal Caribbean Cruises of Miami teased what the near and more-distant future of cruising may look like for its cruise lines — Royal Caribbean International, Celebrity Cruises, and Azamara Club Cruises.
Royal is turning its focus to experiences, a major shift for a company that has made its name as a leader in hardware enhancement. It was the first to put a rock-climbing wall and an ice rink on a ship, a trend it continued with water parks, surfing simulators, its multineighborhood concept, virtual balconies, skydiving, bumper cars, and other innovations.
Now, it's looking at technology that could increase time spent on board.
In the short term, those innovations will look like this: Guests will check in through facial-recognition technology, not check-in counters, eliminating lines. Once aboard, passengers will be able to sign up for excursions, order drinks, and make dinner reservations from a new Royal Caribbean app that also will enable crew members to find passengers based on facial recognition.
The app will partner with Royal's WOW Bands, similar to Disney's MagicBands, to open stateroom doors. And, thanks to RFID tags on luggage, guests will be able to track the progress of their bags to their rooms. As with Carnival, the more passengers interact with the technology, the better equipped the app will be to offer meaningful recommendations.
The features will become available to passengers on the company's 48-ship fleet over the next two years, Royal Caribbean said. About 15 percent of ships were to have the app enabled by the end of 2017, and more than 30 percent of ships will have it by the end of 2018.
Beyond that, Royal Caribbean plans to add virtual reality and augmented reality to the passenger experience. These concepts might transform cabin interiors with images of a starry night or a peaceful sunset displayed on screens on the walls, ceiling, and floors. It could also transform dining by introducing virtual reality glasses that can transform the room into a new landscape based on the cuisine passengers are eating.
"We all know that the world is moving in this unbelievable, digital way. That customers, ourselves, we connect to the world around us very much now in a digital way. So it's really important that Royal Caribbean take those steps and transform ourselves into the same place and space that our customers already live in," said Michael Bayley, president and CEO of Royal Caribbean International, at an event in New York to show off the new technology. "We are creating an ecosystem."
For travelers who sail on Norwegian, the key to tapping into the line's new technology is already in their pockets: All they need is a smartphone.
The Miami cruise line announced in December a new app that will allow passengers to check in ahead of their vacation, book excursions, make dinner and show reservations, and purchase drink packages or other amenities. Unlike the Carnival and Royal Caribbean versions, the app doesn't change the physical embarkation process, but it does offer the option to go paperless with the documentation needed to go aboard.
On board, passengers will get complimentary connection to the ship's WiFi to use the app. For families who want to stay connected while on the ship, unlimited onboard calls and messages through Cruise Norwegian comes with a $9.95 fee. The app will offer group messaging and photo-sharing capabilities. To connect with loved ones off the ship, outbound calls will cost $0.79 a minute.
When it's time to leave, the app will also include information about onboard purchases and the disembarkation process.
"Once on board, the Cruise Norwegian app will allow guests to continue customizing their ideal cruise experience and view or manage their existing account information, allowing them to maximize their time and spend it on the things they enjoy the most," Andy Stuart, president and CEO of Norwegian Cruise Line, said in a news release.
The app is already available on the Norwegian Sky and will be on the Norwegian Bliss when it launches in summer 2018. Cruise Norwegian will be available in the entire fleet by the end of 2018, the line said.
MSC Cruises' version of shipboard technology incorporates bits and pieces of what the three other major cruise lines are offering.
Like Norwegian, the Geneva company will rely heavily on an app component, that, as with Carnival, will be available on interactive screens around the ship, in addition to on mobile devices and stateroom TVs. And, like Royal, MSC will have a smart watch with geo-location that is also connected to the app.
The technology is a result of a three-year project in collaboration with Deloitte Digital, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, and Samsung, and encompasses 130 technological functions.
The app will also have facial recognition to allow crew members to identify passengers. Other features include way-finding navigation — such as Google Maps for ships — the ability to make purchases, request services, book excursions, and plan daily activities. The MSC for Me app will offer suggestions based on passenger preferences