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USA Today - This isn't your grandparents' cruise

On the road with...
Kathy McCabe

This isn't your grandparents' cruise: Trends for 2003

In a very gray year for the travel industry, the relative success of the cruise lines stands out as one of the bright spots. Although the reasons to stay home have been convincing (terrorism, the economy), cruise companies are succeeding in getting passengers off their couches and into ships' cabins.

Approximately half a million more passengers have taken to the sea this year compared to last, according to the Cruise Lines International Association. That's a total of 7.4 million cruisers projected by the end of 2002.

Great prices and new services helped to draw in the crowds. But can we expect to see the same in 2003? I spoke to some cruise-industry watchers and here's their take on what to look for over the next year:

Discounted cruises will still be available, but passengers should be prepared to pay more onboard.

Like the rest of the travel industry, the cruise lines were forced to slash prices to win back travelers after 9/11. At the beginning of the year, they were practically giving trips away and luckily for cruising customers, prices still remain low 10 months later. For example, this week Carnival advertised a five-night Caribbean cruise for $179.

While the right price has helped attract more passengers this year, the cruise lines now face a new challenge: plenty more cabins to fill.

Six new ships will be coming out in the next three months, making a grand total of 15 new ships in 2003. "The cruise lines ordered these ships years ago when things were good. They're filling them now at much lower prices," says Anne Campbell.

However, beware of a catch. Cruise lines are trying to make up for lost cash by getting passengers to spend, spend, spend onboard. More days at sea is a tangible result of cruise companies closely watching the bottom line, according to Dale Rim, editorial director for Porthole Magazine. "The lines generate more income with people on the ship with drinking, the casinos and the shopping venues," he says.

Ports that cruisers can drive to will remain popular.

Another post-9/11 trend will continue through 2003 — cruise lines will choose departure ports based on the convenience of passengers driving to them, rather than flying. Ports on both coasts that saw heavy traffic last year should see the same business again next year.

Norwegian Cruise Line, in particular, has led the way with its "homeland cruising program," offering cruises departing from 10 ports in the United States and Canada. On the East Coast, Baltimore, Boston, Charleston, New York and Philadelphia have become popular embarkation points for cruise lines. On the West Coast, expect to see more cruises originating in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle. On the gulf coast, Carnival offers several cruises starting in New Orleans and Holland America sails from Mobile, Alabama.

"Cruising from local ports is hugely popular with families. More and more are cruising now that they just have to get in the car and drive," says Campbell. "As a result, you might have as many as 600 kids in the summer on a Carnival Cruise."

Get ready to pick your own itinerary.

The luxury line Silversea recently introduced "personalized voyages" aboard the Silver Cloud, allowing passengers to choose how long they sail and where and when they get on and off. The option is available on the ship's 2003 itineraries, which include the Caribbean, the Mediterranean and South America.

"They hear that people want to do this and they're responding," says Linda Coffman of, crediting Silversea for listening to their customers.

According to Campbell, the flexibility is all in the name of attracting younger passengers. "The age of the passengers jumps when you exceed one week. Younger passengers have families and jobs," she says and younger cruisers are attracted to shorter, more flexible itineraries.

Rim likes the idea of personalized cruising, but doesn't expect it to go mainstream. "I don't think it will extend to the mass market," he says. "They are in business to make money."

Alternative dining is here to stay and celebrity chefs are coming aboard.

If you haven't been on a cruise lately, one of the biggest changes you've missed is the advent of alternative restaurants onboard. Passengers still have the option of eating in the main dining rooms at appointed seating times, but for $10-25 per meal, they can eat at smaller specialty restaurants that offer gourmet selections and superior service. And many of the luxury lines, such as Radisson and Silversea, do not charge extra for alternative dining.

"I had one of the best meals of my life on the new Carnival Legend and it was only $20 extra," Campbell says.

"Cruise lines have to entice people who are considering a Las Vegas vacation," Rim says. In the past few years, Las Vegas has built a reputation for fine dining, bringing in chefs from around the country. The cruise lines are doing the same.

Dishes from Wolgang Puck's Asian restaurant, Chinois on Main, are now featured in the specialty restaurant, Jade Garden, aboard Crystal Cruises' Crystal Symphony. Silversea offers signature dishes from Relais & Chateaux hotel chefs. Seabourn serves cuisine designed by celebrity chef Charlie Palmer.

Travel agents will continue to serve as a vital intermediary between cruisers and the cruise companies.

Like all facets of the travel industry, cruise lines are trying new tactics to get bookings. Customers can now book a Carnival cruise while shopping at some Walmarts, reports Rim. The success of Web sites such as indicates that cruise companies are also harnessing the power of the Internet.

Yet unlike their cohorts in the airline industry, cruise execs are remaining loyal to travel agents. Crystal Cruises, for instance, will only take bookings through a travel agent.

"It's really a very different process to book a cruise. Customers have so many questions," notes Campbell, who says travel agents are among the best resources for the answers.

Rim says cruise lines would be foolish to cut ties with travel agents. "It costs a lot less money for a cruise line to compensate a travel agent than to have a sales force," he says.

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