Cruising is as popular as ever, with 27.2 million people expected to set sail by the end of the year, according to a cruise industry trade organization. That's an increase of nearly 10 million people since 2009, when 17.8 million passengers embarked.
As the industry grows, cruise lines are finding new ways to appeal to passengers of all ages, with better technology, more exciting destinations, adventures and trendy entertainment (a floating escape room, anyone?), health-centric themes, and more.
"There's a cruise for everyone and there's something on every cruise for everyone," says Megan King, senior vice president, global strategic communications and research at Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA). King and two other cruise experts weighed in on what's trending now in the world of cruises.
Cruises are making it easy to visit places that can be challenging for travelers. Expeditions to hard-to-reach places are big draws to cruising, says Colleen McDaniel, senior executive editor with Cruise Critic, a review site and online community. "They're taking passengers to places like Western Australia and the Kimberley, and western Greenland, which … you don't know you want to go there, but you want to go there," McDaniel says.
King says she's seeing lots of people cruise to such places as the Antarctic, the Galápagos Islands, Cuba, and other off-the-beaten path locales.
"Access is the new luxury," King says. "People are defining luxury as these individualized experiences to places that their friends don't necessarily get to go."
She adds that cruises also appeal to travelers with a sense of adventure whose companions may not feel the same way. On her parents' long cruise around South America, "my mom [climbed] Machu Picchu while my dad smoked cigars on the deck," she says.
Cruise lines are getting more creative with attractions, entertainment, and other offerings — for a price. Cruisertainment goes well beyond karaoke and shuffleboard these days.
Take go-karts, for example. All three experts interviewed for this report mentioned the two-level track on Norwegian Bliss, which can carry 4,000 passengers. Escape rooms — those interactive games where you have to solve puzzles and riddles to get out — are also becoming more popular on cruises, a trend that McDaniel says started with Royal Caribbean and has since spread.
Of course, there's a reason for such offerings, and it goes beyond sheer entertainment value.
"Read the quarterly reports from any of the major cruise lines, and you'll see that they know modern cruisers value experiences over things. Translation: Passengers are more willing to pay to eat in a specialty restaurant or go on a shore excursion than they are to buy a souvenir in the gift shop," says Doug Parker, producer of Cruise Radio, a weekly podcast that shares cruise reviews and news. "That's why new ships feature everything from go-kart tracks to tattoo parlors, all of which come at an added price."
Technology keeps getting better. Over the years, Internet access has gotten more reliable and affordable on cruise ships. "All of the cruise lines are competing for the title of 'best Internet at sea,' " Parker says.
But cruise lines are also experimenting with other technology. King points to Princess Cruises' "Ocean Medallion," which is a wearable device that stores your digital identity and allows you to make payments and access your room. Other cruise lines, she says, have used facial recognition.
"A lot of this is in the development stage, but I think it'll wind up being adopted because it's a convenience to the guest, and it adds to their experience in terms of the level of service they can get," she says.
Health and wellness can be a part of cruising. Travel and healthy diets have never been the best of bedfellows. But the right cruise ship can make it relatively easy to stick to your routine. Weight Watchers participants can count their points easily on a branded cruise via MSC Cruises, for example, and O, the Oprah Magazine, recently partnered with Holland America to offer trips influenced by Oprah Winfrey that keep wellness at the fore.
But you don't have to be on a themed cruise to keep fit. McDaniel is quick to point out that most cruise ships are hyper-aware that wellness is expected today. "Cruise lines do a good job of keeping up with what's trendy on land, so you can do SoulCycle or TRX or whatever is really hot right now," she says.
Conscientious cruising is in. Cruises have become ecologically aware, says Parker: "In ways big and small, cruise lines are trying to decrease their carbon footprint. Every major line is moving toward eliminating single-use plastics, such as straws, and most either have ships on order that use liquefied natural gas or are looking into doing so in the near future."
King adds that the conscientiousness extends beyond the environment and applies to respect for cultures and sustainability. She says that could mean limiting the number of people snorkeling in certain areas."
Cruise ships are embracing their connection to the oceans. McDaniel points to the example of Celebrity Edge, a ship set to launch in December, which incorporates a kind of veranda into the room instead of a traditional balcony that feels separated from the cabin. A guest can push a button and a window lowers, allowing a sea breeze in.
"It's a very different take and no other ocean ship has done this yet," she says. "But I think it's such a cool thing that I expect others will pick up the idea."
She adds that Celebrity Edge, which can carry about 2,900 passengers, also has a feature called the "Magic Carpet," which is a cantilevered platform on the side of the ship that can move to different levels and host special dinners or parties.
McDaniel says Norwegian Bliss has a remarkable observation lounge where passengers can take in views at the front of the ship while sipping a cocktail; and Norwegian Breakaway and Breakaway Plus ships have an oceanfront promenade, with shops to stroll by as well as indoor/outdoor dining and drinking options looking out on the water.
The whole family is going along for the ride. According to research by CLIA, nearly half of families that cruise bring the kids along, compared with 29 percent of those traveling on land. King says a cruise is a good fit for a family because everyone can find activities — mom and dad can go to the spa; the kids can hit the pool or the zip line or the kids club — and still get together for meals or excursions.