Frommer’sfounder Arthur Frommer recently published an interesting commentary on the state of the modern cruise industry. Titled There’s Been a “Sea Change” in the Character of Ocean Cruises, and the Only Remedy Seems an Increase in What You Spend for a Cruise, it outlines Frommer’s dismay at the current state of the mainstream cruise industry, where gadgets and extra-surcharge gimmicks seem to be all the rage and the simple beauty of being at sea is being neglected.
I couldn’t agree more.
Frommer writes: “Realizing that they could best fill their cavernous vessels with parents and children, the cruiselines’ effort nowadays is to compete in recreational facilities for the young ones, like bumper car rinks, or rock-climbing walls, or water chutes.”
This is my biggest single issue with mainstream cruise lines. Don’t get me wrong – I love mainstream cruising. It’s great for what it is. But I, too, am dismayed at the increased reliance from some lines – Royal Caribbean, most notably – on gimmicky things like bumper car arenas, skydiving simulators and whatnot – in order to market their cruises. Some folks will love that; to me, it’s a total deal-breaker. Rather than exciting me and filling me with wonder – as other mainstream ships do – things like that turn me off completely.
There are, however, some notable exceptions to this. While Carnival’s ships may be big and unabashedly fun, I was both surprised and impressed to be able to constantly find a quiet corner aboard their Carnival Breeze this past February. The Library Bar quickly became my fortress of solitude, where I could relax with a good book and – let’s face it – a cocktail. Sure, that cocktail ran me $10, but I’ve been gouged more than that at the last hotel I stayed in. I was also impressed at the sheer amount of open deck space aboard her, with quiet sections of open decks to contrast the busier parts where families reigned supreme. Carnival also bucked the trend by offering Guy’s Burger Joint and the BlueIguana Cantina free of charge, when they could very easily have slapped a surcharge on both.
Carnival is filling their ships with fun features – but they’re also mindful of their guests who appreciate what they have always done in the past: provided a good cruise at an inexpensive price.
Another mindful company is Norwegian Cruise Line, which bucked the trend of removing the Promenade Deck in favor of more onboard shopping. Instead, the line’s Norwegian Breakaway re-invented the space and created one of the coolest features I’ve seen in the industry in a long time: a true Promenade that functions as outdoor seating for some of the line’s bars and restaurants.
Although Frommer takes exception to the increase of families aboard cruise ships, I do not. If I had kids, I would introduce them to cruising at an early age. I’d rather see families that travel together onboard a cruise ship than those who simply take the kids down to Disneyland every year – or worse, sit at home and watch television all summer. I’ve even seen kids – very well behaved ones, albeit – aboard luxury lines. I have no issues with that whatsoever.
Where I do agree with Frommer is the assessment that mainstream cruising has become almost entirely fee-based. Sure, it might only cost you $500 per person to step onboard, but gratuities, drinks (with an auto-gratuity added), specialty restaurants, shore excursions, spa treatments, shops, and the like are all aimed at parting you with your hard-earned cash. If you go into your cruise knowing that, there’s no problem. But if you think you’re getting onboard for a week for $500 flat, you’re living in a fantasy world – and you’ll come away disappointed.
In that respect, Frommer is spot-on: if you spend more money for a “Premium” line like Holland America or Oceania, you’re going to get a completely different experience. Part with a little more cash and go on Windstar Cruises sailing vessels that only hold 140 guests. A little more cash brings you to the likes of Crystal Cruises, Regent, Seabourn and Silversea. Sure, the price upfront is significantly higher, but when you sail, your gratuities are included. Your drinks are included. You never wait in line, your accommodations and service are better and more elaborate, and there’s something beautiful about not having to sign a chit for, well, everything. Onboard revenue generators just aren’t needed here like they are on mainstream cruises.
Which brings us to the subject of the Onboard Art Auction. Frommer himself alluded to the absurdity of this and I’ll be honest – as a teenager on my first cruise in 1998, I thought the whole thing was nuts. Why would people come onboard a cruise to drink a flute of cheap sparking wine and purchase ‘art’ that was over-the-odds expensive? And yet, someone must, because companies like ParkWest aren’t going anywhere.
It’s Frommer’s closing statement, however, that I think will resonate with many cruisers – and even travellers who have never been onboard a cruise ship: “I’ve reached the inescapable conclusion that the cheaper, mass-volume ships–the ones carrying 4,000 to 6,000 passengers–are no longer designed or operated to satisfy the needs of intelligent travelers.”
There’s something to that. But I have to wonder: with CLIA reporting(PDF) that 86.6 percent of consumers indicated that price (clearly, the initial price)was their biggest motivating factor in choosing to take a cruise, will big cruise lines care? Or are megaships with diversions that come fast-and-furious here to stay, simply because they’re the most non-threatening option to the traveller who hates the idea of being at sea?
To read Arthur Frommer’s full article, click here.
From the Deck Chair will return tomorrow.