New ships, new trips, Europe beckoning

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Baltic ports such as Mariehamn, Finland, have become an affordable option for Americans.

Last year was a very good one for the cruise industry, with a spike in passenger numbers and a flurry of ship construction. But now it's time to look ahead to the top sailing trends for this year. Oh, Caribbean, we shall miss you, but we'll think of you while basking in the Mediterranean sun.

The cruising world started '08 with a strong push. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, 2.5 million passengers sailed on 1,063 North American cruises in the second quarter of 2007, the highest level in the last four years. That number is a mere 20 percent of all 2007 cruisers - 12.6 million, per estimates by the Cruise Lines International Association, which represents the major cruise lines. To accommodate these vacationers, at least 12 new ships took to the seas.

For this year, the industry had better keep its hammers handy. CLIA forecasts passenger figures to grow 1.6 percent, to 12.8 million. "Overall, the cruise industry is still reaching out to people who haven't cruised before," says Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor in chief of Cruise Critic, which publishes an online cruising magazine (www.cruisecritic.com). "Cruising is definitely going to grow."

So what can the Cruising Class of 2008 expect? Here are some developments.

Destinations

Air travelers from the United States may be souring on Europe, but those arriving by sea are just gearing up for the Continent. "Europe is so hot this year," says Paul Motter, editor of CruiseMates, an online cruising guide (www.cruisemates.com). "The farther the dollar drops, the more popular [seeing Europe by cruise] becomes." Specifically, the most scorching itineraries are in the Mediterranean and Baltic.

One of the biggest reasons to cruise Europe is the industry's booking arrangement, which allows Americans to pay in dollars and therefore avoid the weak currency exchange rate. Unlike ground travelers who feel the pain every time they pay for a meal, hotel or transportation, cruisers pay one lump sum that covers all of their major expenses.

"This is a contemporary variation on 'If it's Tuesday, we must be in Belgium,' " Spencer Brown says. "It's a great way to sample Europe. You pack once and sleep in the same bed."

As Europe's popularity grows, though, so do the cruise prices. Rates can be high, and cabins sell out fast. Experts suggest booking six to nine months out. To save money, Motter recommends sailing in May or September.

"As the boat fills, it gets more expensive," he says. "Check for a ship that is not full and be flexible with dates. In the Baltic and Mediterranean, the same itinerary can be 30 or 40 percent less early or late in the season."

Many lines are addressing the demand by increasing supply. Some lines are shifting ships from the Caribbean to Europe (Carnival, for the first time, will have a vessel in the Mediterranean and another in the Baltic) or are docking them in Europe year-round, as Royal Caribbean and Costa are doing.

On this side of the Atlantic, the Caribbean isn't necessarily out, but travelers are seeking islands with fewer tourists and more variety.

Spencer Brown gives as an example St. Maarten, which can welcome as many as six 3,000-passenger ships on a typical high-season day.

"The western Caribbean is overly congested, and cruisers are tired of going to the same old places," she says. "The beaches are packed. People want a change."

For something a little different, experts point to such Central American destinations as Belize and Panama. Motter also sees South America on the horizon: "South America is a longer cruise, and you have to fly there, but the cruises cost the same or are cheaper than Europe - and your dollar goes a lot farther."

Ship innovations

The industry will unveil a slew of new ships, such as the 3,006-passenger Carnival Splendor (July), and new cruise lines as well. Jewel River Cruise Line will introduce the Jewel Imperial Blue, a boutique luxury ship, to European waterways in May, for example. In August, Pearl Seas Cruises will debut with a luxury small ship cruising Canadian waters, and moving to the Caribbean in the fall.

Cruise lines also are building new classes of ships, a major development not seen in more than 10 years. Celebrity is at the forefront with its Solstice-class fleet, scheduled to come out in December. Some companies also are figuring the destination into the design, such as Costa and its glass-domed pools (so cruisers in Europe can swim "outdoors" in colder months).

To attract younger passengers, the major lines are injecting some hipness into their ships. They hope to reach out to families and the under-50 set by adding or promoting such youth-oriented amenities as nightclubs (Crystal Symphony), surf parks (Royal Caribbean's Freedom of the Seas, Liberty of the Seas and, debuting in May, Independence of the Seas), bowling alleys (Norwegian Cruise Line's Norwegian Pearl), bungee trampolines (P&O Cruises' Ventura), and fencing (Cunard's Queen Victoria). "It's a new energy," Spencer Brown says. "Young and active is where the industry is going."

A CLIA trend report released last month says: "Families and multigenerational travel are the biggest growth area for the cruise industry, followed by baby boomers [ages 43-62] - which certainly dispels the perception that cruises are strictly for seniors or couples. Repeaters and first-time cruisers were neck-and-neck in growth ratings."

Cruise lines are also modifying their dining choices to cater to the growing legion of vacationing foodies. Though dining rooms and assigned seating are still prevalent, ships are creating alternatives such as celebrity-chef restaurants (Wolfgang Puck's Jade Garden on Crystal Symphony, Charlie Palmer's Tastings@2 on Seabourn) and individualized menus.

The downside of these extras is a larger bill; Carnival's Supper Club, for example, costs $30 per person. "As ships get bigger, there is a lot more you can spend money on," Spencer Brown says. "The opportunities to lighten your wallet are definitely there." Among the splurges: alcohol (ships are more stringent about contraband cocktails), teeth-whitening procedures, acupuncture, and boxing classes. And no one is exempt from the much-maligned fuel charge, which can tack on about $10 a day.

Cruise culture

Because of the strength of the euro and other foreign currencies, Americans are getting bumped from their chaise-lounge thrones. Germans, French, English, Australians, Japanese and other international travelers are coming aboard, and not just in their backyard waters.

Foreign cruisers are flying across oceans to sail in Alaska or the Caribbean, markets once dominated by Americans. Indeed, the Russians are climbing to the top deck.

The industry is also addressing a more universal shift in travel tastes: the active vacation for body and/or mind. One of the most recent innovations is to combine shipboard activities with shore excursions.

For example, Regent Seven Seas offers an "enrichment program" for passengers to take onboard classes in such subjects as photography, fashion and history, then apply their lessons or skills to topical land excursions.

Cruise ships continue to cater to special interests, adding theme cruises to their schedules.

"People want to get more out of a cruise than resting and relaxing," Spencer Brown says. "They want to go to a lecture or learn a hobby." On Crystal Serenity's 12-day May voyage from London to Rome, for example, a chef and sommelier will hold onboard classes, and one-third of the 57 shore outings will be culinary-related. For those with even more specialized passions, how about a knitting or naked cruise, or sailing with the Motley Crue crew?

The demand to see penguins and blue-footed boobies is hardly waning. Eco-cruises are still going strong, with Antarctica still the rage. Just remember the refrain of 2008: Book early.


Contacting the Cruise Lines

Major lines

Carnival Cruise Lines

1-888-227-6482

www.carnival.com

Celebrity Cruises

1-800-647-2251

www.celebritycruises.com

Costa Cruise Lines

1-877-882-6782

www.costacruises.com

Crystal Cruises

1-888-722-0021

www.crystalcruises.com

Cunard Line

1-800-728-6273

www.cunardline.com

Disney Cruise Line

1-800-951-3532

www.disneycruise.com

Holland America Line

1-877-724-5425

www.hollandamerica.com

MSC Cruises

1-800-666-9333

www.msccruises.com

Norwegian Cruise Line

1-866-234-0292

www.ncl.com

Orient Lines

1-800-333-7300

www.orientlines.com

Princess Cruises

1-800-774-6237

www.princess.com

Regent Seven Seas

1-877-505-5370

www.rssc.com

Royal Caribbean

1-866-562-7625

www.royalcaribbean.com

Seabourn Cruiseline

1-800-929-9391

www.seabourn.com

Silversea Cruises

1-800-722-9955 www.silversea.com

Windstar Cruises

1-800-258-7245

www.windstarcruises.com

Boutique lines and tour operators

Abercrombie & Kent

1-800-554-7016

www.abercrombiekent.com

American Canadian Caribbean

1-800-556-7450

www.accl-smallships.com

American Cruise Lines

1-800-814-6880

www.americancruiselines.com

Butterfield and Robinson

1-866-551-9090

www.butterfield.com

Club Med 2

1-888-932-2582

www.clubmed.com

Cruise West

1-888-851-8133

www.cruisewest.com

French Country Waterways1-800-222-1236

www.fcwl.com

Hurtigruten

1-866-257-6071

www.hurtigruten.us

Intrav

1-800-456-8100

www.intrav.com

Lindblad Expeditions

1-800-397-3348

www.expeditions.com

Majestic America Line

1-800-434-1232

www.majesticamericaline.com

Mountain Travel Sobek

1-888-687-6235

www.mtsobek.com

Peter Deilmann Cruises

1-800-348-8287

www.deilmann-cruises.com

Riverbarge Excursion Lines

1-888-462-2743

www.riverbarge.com

Star Clippers

1-800-442-0551

www.starclippers.com

Swan Hellenic

1-866-923-9182

www.swanhellenic.com

Travel Dynamics International

1-800-257-5767

www.traveldynamicsinternational.com

Viking River Cruises

1-800-304-9616

www.vikingrivercruises.com

Voyages of Discovery

1-866-623-2689

www.voyagesofdiscovery.com