Attitude will alter future cruising

Changes are coming aboard.

What will your future cruise be like?

You'll be sailing on bigger and more luxurious ships. Visiting more exotic ports. Taking more adventuresome excursions. Staying in more expansive balcony cabins.

You'll enjoy more dining options. Relax in larger, upgraded spas. Choose new diversions aboard ship, perhaps some even more innovative than today's onboard bowling alleys, car-racing simulators, and surfing machines.

But perhaps the biggest change will be in attitude.

"The biggest difference between the way we cruise now and the way we'll cruise five years down the road . . . is that the priority is more on experiencing individual vacations than in participating in group-esque tours," says Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor of CruiseCritic, an independent online cruise magazine. "That means, in a word, cruise travelers will expect choice."

Baby boomers and the generation following, she says, will "not be interested in cruises in which their dining times and tablemates are predetermined. They'll look for outings that offer unique looks at a tour or place." In other words, they'll be less interested in regimentation and more in doing their own thing.

"Some lines have already begun to embrace choice," says Brown. "Norwegian Cruise Line with its freestyle dining and flexible disembarkation is right up there in the front on this. The luxury lines offer more unique [and smaller-group] choices when it comes to shore excursions." And large ships offer such a huge range of activities that "there literally is something for everyone."

Those are some of the changes coming in the next five years, during which 38 new cruise ships will enter service. That's quite an increase for the industry, which for the last several years held off on ordering new ships, because of the unfavorable euro-dollar exchange rate.

But with interest in cruising still high, fleet owners are biting the financial bullet to meet demand, and all will be honing ship facilities and activities to cater to future passengers. In fact, some lines are renovating their older ships to install some of the features that tomorrow's cruisers want.

New and reconditioned ships, however, are just part of the future.

Experts are watching these trends:

New ports are emerging all over the world, from Australia and Europe to Asia and South America, giving cruise passengers access to areas they haven't had the opportunity to visit before.

Cruising patterns likely will change as well. "I think you'll look at more cruises outside the Caribbean, because the baby boomers coming into the market are experienced travelers, and they'll be looking for something new," says Ron Kurtz, an industry consultant. Cruise lines already have begun to shift some ships to Europe, where cruising is growing rapidly. All of Costa's new ships, for example, will stay in Europe year-round.

Ships are going upscale. Such amenities as higher-count sheets and flat-screen TVs, already being installed on many existing vessels, will be standard on most new ships. Menus are becoming more diversified. Concierge services, once the province only of luxury lines, are expanding into other ships. Another verification of the upscale trend in cruising came last month, when Royal Caribbean announced the creation of a new brand, Azamara Cruises, that will offer cruises in the upper-premium range.

Shore excursions are changing, too. Responding to the very active and curious generations starting to enter the cruise market in large numbers, expect more physically challenging adventures, as well as itineraries that venture into less-traveled regions.

Expanded services and facilities require larger vessels, so all but six of the new ships on order will carry more than 2,000 passengers, and 15 will board at least 3,000. Several will be so large that they won't be able to pass through the Panama Canal. Royal Caribbean's yet-unnamed Genesis-class ship will become the world's biggest cruise ship in 2009, with beds for 5,400 passengers. (A few years ago, a 2,000-passenger ship was considered really big.)

On the other hand, smaller upscale lines like Seabourn, Silversea and Oceania also are building new ships, counting on the coming generations' preference for more intimate cruise experiences. So it's a brave new world ahead for cruising.