A short while back, cruise industry analysts at the Wall Street firm Bear Stearns issued a report called "Fighting Through a Sea of Sameness." While overall it was positive about the state of the industry, the title was not so encouraging.
One of its main conclusions was: "As the cruise industry has gone mass market, most of the major players have converged on a common formula to grow the business. The residual effect has been somewhat of homogenization of the product offering. This is particularly true from the standpoint of first-time and inexperienced cruisers."
While there are two qualifying points, "most of the major" and "somewhat," the report basically is saying that all of the big lines are the same -- and that this is bad for the beginner cruiser. I usually do not take exception with analysts I respect, but this time I think they are way off the mark. Yes, to the degree that the overall cruise offering consists of destinations, dining, service, entertainment/activities and the ships themselves, there is a certain degree of similarity. But beyond that, each major cruise line has its own points of differentiation -- and they work very hard to communicate those differences. Perhaps more importantly, there are so many options beyond the major lines that beginner cruisers have a greater range of opportunities than ever.
First, the main lines: Yes, all their ships seem to be getting bigger. And there is an overlap in what they offer. But isn't that true of the large hotel chains as well? In the cruise business, at least each line has a personality.
Carnival has been promoting its vessels as the "fun ships" forever, it seems like. And they stick to that successful formula. The activities on board are active and virtually endless, and they cater to the family market with an outstanding kids' program. Royal Caribbean reinvented itself when it installed rock-climbing walls on its new ships, along with the trademark ice-skating rink. The line now has rock climbing walls on all of its ships, and it promotes an active lifestyle on shore excursions as well as on its ships. RCI also has Johnny Rockets diners on board, an industry first. (But since RCI just announced a 47% increase in profits, the company's recently announced surcharge for eating in Johnny Rockets seems like overkill).
Holland America is deploying a significant upgrade of its premium experience, and the expansion of culinary arts programs for its guests seems like a natural addition to its traditional style of cruising.
Norwegian Cruise Line introduced Freestyle Cruising back in 2000, and continues to evolve it. The line also has made a huge corporate commitment to cruising in Hawaii, offering itineraries and experiences no one else can.
Princess' on-board product is extremely wide-ranging, and while their latest innovation is outdoor movies on deck, I think their Scholarship @ Sea program, a long list of enrichment classes from fun to serious, has to be the best in that category, offering something way above the usual cruise product.
Celebrity Cruises has had dining as one of its primary selling points since its inception. The food is definitely a cut above the others in its category, especially when one takes into consideration its offering of multi-course gourmet meals, sushi and real Italian pastries cooked fresh on board.
Oceania, in the premium category, offers smaller-than-usual ships, open seating and two outstanding alternative restaurants. It also just may have the best linens and pillows at sea.
And that's just the mainstream lines. In the past year I've has a chance to experience some other types of ships that really offer unique options for cruisers, whether they're first timers or not. Some other ships/lines or types of cruising that I think should be considered:
River Cruises: Peter Deilmann and others offer river cruises on boats carrying 100 to 200 guests along some of Europe's fabled waterways. I cruised their MV Mozart along the Danube for seven nights, visiting Vienna, Budapest and some other small cities in Hungary, Austria and Slovakia. This line and others can provide cruises on rivers all over the world, including the Rhine, the Seine, the Amazon, the Yangtze, and, of course, the Mississippi.
Sailing Ships: Earlier this year I sailed on the extremely casual, 40-guest Arabella, and on Windstar's largest ship, Wind Surf, which carries about 300. Both vessels were under sail much of the time, which is a marvelous experience. The food may not be as extensive as on the big ships, but the experience is terrific.
International Ships: For something different, try sailing on one of MSC's newest ships. This is an Itlaian cruise experience, from the main language spoken on board to the dining room's Italian service and menu items. Americans are in the minority on board; there's a very international flavor with many European languages spoken. While the company is making some superb changes to its on-board product to cater to Americans (especially when its ships, Opera and Lirica, are in the Caribbean), it's still going to be premium cruising with significant Itlaian flair. If you like things Italian -- and I do -- this can be an experience worth doing.
Luxury Ships: Most of the main cruise companies' ships are pretty large. If you want to sail with fewer people and are willing to spend the extra bucks, the luxury ships are worth a look. Ranging in size from SeaDream Yacht Club's 100-guest ships to the 1,000 or so on Crystal Cruises' three great ships, this category, which also includes Radisson Seven Seas, Seabourn and Silversea, offers high-class luxury. Service is extraordinary, the dining just wonderful and the hardware superb.
Ocean Crossings: Cunard's newest mega-liner, Queen Mary 2, the largest ship at sea, has accommodations ranging from regular rooms to ultra-luxury cabins in Queens and Princess Grill classes. But what it offers in terms of the cruise experience is unique: an extensive series of transatlantic sailings that give cruisers a chance to relax and enjoy several days without ports and excursions. There is such a range of things to do on board that I challenge anyone to become bored.
In Conclusion: Yes, there are similarities among the main lines, but if one looks more closely, the differences and options are extraordinarily wide-ranging.
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