With no end to its growth in sight today’s consumer can have their pick from are small ships, medium ships, mega vessels, as well as from the many more riverboats that are now sailing up and down the world’s most famous waterways.
Each cruise industry sector will promote their options as the best, often creating consumer confusion, especially for first time cruisers.
Which is best for me? What is the real difference between these choices? These are questions I am frequently asked.
Over this next three weeks I will discuss each separately to try to provide a balanced overview of the comparative advantages of each, and point out why each appeals to some and not to others.
While definitions may vary I will describe the small ship experience relating to those cruises with less than 600 cabins. While there certainly is a mid-range in-between category that could be addressed, there are not many in that category anymore, and they borrow from benefits and disadvantages of each.
I will refer to the big ship category as vessels that carry over 2500 passengers, with about 1300 cabins or more.
River cruises tend to have smaller ships but deserve special attention because of the nature of their necessary construction and dramatically different itineraries that the others cannot duplicate.
Firstly the big ships; what is it that these ever expanding vessels have that attracts the largest majority of cruise passengers?
For the most part these ships are about the quantity of on-board amenities that are offered.
Especially in the new mega-ships the dining and entertainment options seem limitless. From skating rinks, to climbing walls, to water slides the opportunities to keep busy on board are varied and exciting.
So much so that the new strategy for the bigger ships is to down play the port stop itinerary in favour of creating an on-ship resort experience throughout the journey.
While meals are included there is still much more passengers must pay extra for on board. Many of the extra amenities have charges attached to them.
And the costs for alcohol, specialty coffee, and other beverage purchases can add up. Since no cash is exchanged with each purchase, clients are often faced with real sticker shock when they receive their invoice the evening before disembarkation. They add up the chits they have signed for and express astonishment once they confirm that figures are accurate.
There is opulence to the bigger ships that passengers seem to appreciate. With the number of decks available designers are able to create multiple story common areas that create a feeling of luxury and openness. The sense of luxury created by space and uncompromising investment is one of the non-tangible benefits that cruisers will talk about upon returning home.
While the new mega-ships like Royal Caribbean’s new 5000 plus passenger vessels have tried to create a sense of community by creating villages of sorts, the big ship experience can be much less personal, and for a couple travelling alone finding friends can be as challenging as running into someone twice in a week in a small city.
On the other hand the casinos, major revenue producers for cruise lines, can seem as large as those in some Las Vegas properties. They provide a focal point for gathering, and the energy can feel much like that in a major casino.
The exercise room and spa facilities are likely to be as large and comprehensive as you will find anywhere on land.
The primary theatre offers the seat numbers, and with it the quality entertainment you won’t find on cruise lines that operate smaller ships.
On the biggest ships there may be more than one swimming pool, but as at many resorts finding a deck chair during days at sea can be difficult during prime hours.
While the training provided by the cruise lines is professional, the service can often be impersonal since the staff and passengers don’t get the opportunity to interact on- on-one very often. The bigger the ship the more time spent on exploring and participating in the various amenities. In a one week journey it will take some time before passengers settle on their favourite places.
One of the detractions that have occurred as ships have expanded in size is the limitations of getting close to shore at any number of port stops. This can be a significant challenge as passengers’ line up to take their turns to go ashore and then get back to the ship in time for its departure.
The tender process, combined with the additional time on the water, can be slow and cumbersome stealing time from exploring cities or attractions, when the stay at a destination is only a few hours.
In the end one of the biggest attractions is price. The economies of scale truly come in to play in big ships. Prices so far for sailings have been reasonable and given the fact most sailing are sold out consumers may be sharing that view.