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Why 2023 is the year for a cruise

Photo courtesy Viking Cruises/White Rain

The joy of cruising is back. After a rough couple of years, cruise lines have figured out health and safety protocols, and—as ports, ships, crews, and guests have gotten back up to speed—cruising has reestablished itself as a prime way to vacation.

“I can’t think of a better time to cruise,” says Samantha Brown, host and executive producer of the TV series Samantha Brown’s Places to Love. “Think about it: People have had 1 or more cruises of a lifetime postponed because of COVID and now they are finally able to take that dream vacation.”

This year, more than any other in recent memory, is the year for a cruise. Here’s why.

More cruise options

Quark Ultramarine

Quark Cruises' Ultramarine in the icy waters of Ilulissat, Greenland. Photo by David Swanson

There are more options than ever for exploring the world on small ships: Windstar has a fleet of 6 vessels, each holding anywhere from 148 to 342 passengers, and American Queen Voyages plies the Great Lakes of America. Independent cruise brands such as Quark, Ponant, Atlas, and Scenic are also making a mark.

The traditional 7-night itinerary out of Florida has evolved into longer sailings. Holland America’s new Rotterdam does 10- and 11-night back-to-back departures that reach deeper into the Caribbean. Itineraries sailing well-trod regions, such as the Mediterranean or Alaska, are seeking a broader range of ports to call on.

In summer 2023, you’ll find cruises to places like Wrangell and Haines in Alaska. In the Med, Kotor (Montenegro), Trieste (Italy), and Thessaloniki (Greece) will see increased calls.

You may also like: How to choose a cruise that's perfect for you

More activities for all ages

“Cruises are for the newly wed or nearly dead,” goes the cliché. It’s time to put it to rest. Cruise Lines International Association reports the average age of cruisers in 2019 was 47.6 years old, a figure that encompasses everyone from children to seniors.

A cruise ship sitting in the distance behind a group of kayakers

Silver Sea Cruises' Silver Wind stops in Uummannaq, Greenland, where passengers can kayak. Photo by David Swanson

On family-cruise magnets like NorwegianRoyal Caribbean, and Carnival, up to a quarter of the guests may be children, especially during summer or holiday periods. Conversely, cruise lines such as Viking and Virgin Voyages have strict, no-child policies, and some upscale brands—Regent, Seabourn, Silversea, and Windstar—do not tailor activities for teens and younger children.

But the industry increasingly caters to a key market: multigenerational travelers. Larger ships offer activities throughout the day for passengers of varying ages. The new Norwegian Prima is chockful of diversions, such as waterslides—tame or hair-raising, take your pick—game show productions, a 3-level racetrack with vehicles that can seat an adult or a child, and 2 escape rooms, one for families, the other just for adults.

A cruise ship anchored in the distance as a group of people zipline

Zip line riders look out at the Carnival Miracle at Alaska's Icy Strait Point. Photo by David Swanson

TV host Brown sailed to Alaska last summer aboard Holland America’s Eurodam with her family, whose members range in age from 9 to 77. “We had 3 generations in our group and each had different ideas on what they wanted to do every day,” says Brown. “Letting the cruise line help us plan made it easy and fun.”

You may also like: 7 reasons why a cruise is the ultimate multigenerational vacation

More variety in shore excursions

Cruise ship sitting off the shore of Alesund, Norway

A cruise ship hugs the coast near Alesund, Norway. Photo by David Swanson

For many years, cruise lines took a cookie-cutter approach to shore excursions, because, in most cases, the tour operator at a given port sold the same tour to every ship that called. That meant Royal Caribbean’s snorkeling excursion in Grand Cayman would be the same as Carnival’s.

Now, cruise lines are seeking to differentiate their wares from competitors, employing independent tour operators to make onshore experiences unique from 1 cruise line to the next and 1 port to the next.

“Shore excursions have improved and now offer much more variety,” says Kalosh. “There are more active and adventurous offerings, and smaller-group and special-interest options with greater cultural focus and authenticity, too.”

Silversea Greenland Cruise

Silversea Cruises' Silver Wind plies the waters off Kangaamiut, Greenland. Photo by David Swanson

Silversea’s Sea And Land Taste program, for example, offers tours that take a deep dive into the culinary culture of each port, such as cheesemaking in Mykonos, Greece, or exploring the Garifuna cuisine of Roatán, Honduras. In Nice, France, Celebrity Cruises offers a small-group excursion to the medieval village of Saint-Paul de Vence, with lunch at Alain Llorca’s Michelin-starred restaurant.

Another recent push: shore excursions that embrace sustainability and education. In Cozumel, Mexico, for instance, Carnival offers a tour called Make a Difference: Give Back with Purpose, where passengers visit a village to meet with Mayan descendants and learn about its orphanage.

Improved health protocols

The cruise industry has learned valuable health and safety lessons from the pandemic, says Iain Hay, managing director of Anchor Hygiene Services Limited.

“Cruise lines have been held to a much higher standard,” says Hay, who works with companies to ensure their ships comply with the CDC’s Vessel Sanitation Program. “The cruise ships are miles and miles ahead of any hospitality sector that you see in the U.S.”

Cruisers viewing a waterfall from the deck of a Holland America cruise ship

Cruising the fjords of Norway on Holland America Line's Rotterdam. Photo by David Swanson

By the time cruises came back online in the U.S. in June 2021, crews had been vaccinated, strict testing and vaccination standards had been established for guests, and quarantine procedures had been honed. For example, cruise lines installed hand-washing stations outside restaurants on many ships, as well as UVC lighting in many HVAC systems to disinfect recirculated air. Many ships also implemented staggered embarkation and debarkation times.

The industry kept rates of serious illness or hospitalization from COVID below land-based incidences. Regular testing was one reason; a staffed medical center—something rare at terrestrial resorts—was also helpful.

“Some ships now have infection control officers, in addition to the medical staff,” says Kalosh. “That’s a totally new position.”

Innovative technology

Cruisers lining the deck of a Holland America cruise ship

Holland America Line's Zaandam in Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska. Photo by David Swanson

Apps like the Princess Medallion Class limit some face-to-face and physical contact onboard to avoid the spread of germs. Guests can order drinks poolside, book shore excursions and dinner reservations, connect with other passengers, and find their way if they get lost on the ship. On the new 4,000-passenger Disney Wish, passengers can use their mobile devices to access a high-tech adventure game with hidden surprises throughout the ship.

More importantly, advanced technology allows ship personnel to locate passengers in an emergency. On a Princess ship, for example, if a guest doesn’t show up to their designated muster station, the bridge crew can use the app to quickly find the passenger and send assistance.

On most ships, a virtual drill has replaced the standard in-person Muster Drill, which helps ensure passengers know the route from their cabin to a designated muster station in an emergency. Now, passengers do the exercise from their cabins, with instructions on TV or an app.

You may also like: How new tech is making cruising safer & greener

Greener ships

Carnival Cruise

Carnival Cruise Line's Carnival Legend in Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska. Photo by David Swanson

Over the past decade, the cruise industry has placed an ever-sharper spotlight on sustainability. This has been driven by governments, particularly in Europe and Alaska, but also by the public.

Today’s ships are designed to maximize fuel efficiency. Energy consumption has been reduced in almost every area of a ship’s operation, through streamlined hulls, optimized engines, LED lighting, and more, according to Teijo Niemalä, editor and publisher of CruiseBusiness.com Magazine. Ports are installing shoreside electrical facilities, which allow ships to “plug in” to the local grid, substantially reducing emissions while docked.

“One of biggest things happening is new energy sources,” says Niemalä, who notes that ships sailing Norway’s fjords will have to be totally CO2-free by 2026.

Cruisers watch the passing scenery from the deck of their ship

Cruising offers great value in places such as Norway. Photo by David Swanson

Vessels are using scrubbers to remove excess sulfur from exhaust and relying on less-polluting bunker fuel, such as liquefied natural gas (LNG). While LNG is viewed as a “bridge” solution for megaships, other fuel sources are being advanced.

In September 2022, Holland America Line tested the use of biofuels on its ship Volendam, and Norwegian Cruise Line is researching carbon-neutral methanol as a future fuel source. Silversea Cruises will rely on LNG as the principal fuel for its new ship Silver Nova, while incorporating hybrid technology to charge fuel cells and batteries. Viking Cruises says its 11th and 12th ocean ships will be partially powered by hydrogen, starting in December 2024.

“There are going to be big things coming in the next few years,” Niemalä says.

Newer and more modern fleets

Oceania Marina

The Oceania Marina cuts through tranquil waters. Photo by David Swanson

When a cruise ship is built, its life expectancy is 30 or even 40 years. To keep vessels up-to-date and appealing, they undergo renovations and eventually may be moved to lesser-known cruise brands.

In 2020, as the pandemic took hold, cruise lines off-loaded older ships. Carnival Cruise Line scrapped 6 of its (then) fleet of 27 ships, vessels that originally entered service in the 1980s and 1990s. Holland America Line parted with its 4 oldest ships. Since the pandemic, Carnival has added Mardi Gras and Celebration, and Holland America debuted Rotterdam.

Travelers chatting over drinks at the Celebrity Cruise Sunset Bar

The Sunset Bar on Celebrity Cruises' Celebrity Beyond, which debuted in 2022. Photo by David Swanson

The result: more new ships on the seas than ever before. They have more features and attractions that today’s cruisers expect—restaurants like renowned chef Daniel Boulud’s Le Voyage aboard Celebrity Beyond; Broadway shows such as the Tony-winning Kinky Boots on Norwegian Encore; and even tattoo parlors on Virgin Voyages’ ships. And, of course, who doesn’t love that “new ship” smell?

San Diego native David Swanson’s writing and photography has been featured in the pages of National Geographic Traveler, American Way, and the Los Angeles Times.

Book a themed cruise for 2023

By Jim Benning

Beatles and Beyond

Fans of the Fab Four and British rock enjoy performances by the Bootleg Beatles. Cunard Line’s Queen Elizabeth departs Tokyo on April 19 with stops that include Kanazawa in Japan and Busan in South Korea. Book the Beatles and Beyond Cruise.

Essence of Burgundy and Provence Wine Cruise

AmaWaterways’ 2023 wine-themed itineraries include a 7-night journey down the Rhône and Saône rivers—paired with Mâconnais, Cornas, and Côte Chalonnaise wines. Book the Essence of Burgundy and Provence Wine Cruise.

Soulful Epicurean Experience

AmaWaterways’ first river cruise celebrating Black history and culture in France departs Arles on August 24 and sails down the Rhône River to Lyon. The trip concludes with 3 nights in Paris.

Star Trek: The Cruise

Star Trek aficionados can beam themselves onto Royal Caribbean’s Navigator of the Seas for a 7-night voyage that departs Los Angeles on February 26 bound for Puerto Vallarta.

The ’80s Cruise

Pack your pink leg warmers for Royal Caribbean’s The ’80s Cruise. Devo, Living Colour, and other ’80s icons perform during the 7-night Mexico cruise that leaves L.A. on March 3.

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AAA travel alert: Many travel destinations have implemented COVID-19–related restrictions. Before making travel plans, check to see if hotels, attractions, cruise lines, tour operators, restaurants, and local authorities have issued health and safety-related restrictions or entry requirements. The local tourism board is a good resource for updated information.

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