Cooking classes, craft beer, yoga, EDM shows, mountain bike tours, ropes courses, nighttime bar crawls in different cities - this is what cruising looks like in 2018, and it is, as the kids would say, "lit."
Reaching that "lit" status has been intentional on the part of cruise lines, says Colleen McDaniel, who is senior executive editor with CruiseCritic.com, a cruise review site and online community. As someone who cruises up to eight times a year, McDaniel has seen how the industry is shedding its shuffleboard image and appealing to younger travellers.
"Cruising long held a reputation for being for an older crowd, and while years ago, it might have been true, today you'll find travellers of all ages cruising," she says.
To stoke their interest, McDaniel says cruise companies are trying approaches that have long worked on land, by offering immersive local onshore experiences, more reliable (and less expensive) WiFi, a wider range of culinary options and more. I
McDaniel shared the ways she's seeing ships draw in the next generation(s) in cruising.
They're offering excursions for travellers, not just tourists. A bike ride to a coal mine in Cologne, Germany; a tour of Amsterdam's Red Light District; a street-art walk in Paris; mountain biking through the Bavarian Forest - these are all options for travellers on U by Uniworld river cruises, which float down the Seine, Main, Rhine and Danube. The company also has a partnership with EatWith, a meal-sharing service, so passengers can arrange to dine in the home of a host in different cities along the way. It's all a far cry from the mass of tourists often associated with a cruise excursion.
"I think when most people think cruise ship excursion, or tours in general either on cruise or on land, they picture the person standing there with the lollipop and 50 people trudging along behind them," McDaniel says. "One thing that cruise lines have been doing a really good job of is giving people excursions that are unique and customisable."
She also highlights Azamara Club Cruises, a small luxury company offering intriguing travel opportunities, such as truffle hunting and wine tasting in Slovenia, and guided nighttime rendezvous to pubs, dinner parties, theatres and more - with outings limited to groups of 25 or fewer.
They're the ticket to visiting a hard-to-reach destination. In the past, the cruise ships themselves were often seen as the main act and just about any island port would do. Today, says McDaniel, destination is the driving force.
"Survey after survey says that for making a decision about a cruise, destination is the top consideration we see, beyond ship, cruise line, even price. People want to make sure that they're going where they want to go," McDaniel says.
She says she's seen expedition cruises become more popular, because they allow people to travel to out-of-the-way areas such as Alaska, Antarctica, Greenland and the Galapagos, while still enjoying all the creature comforts of the ship.
Internet access, once notoriously slow and prohibitively expensive on cruise ships, also has vastly improved. Today, it tends to be fast enough that you can stream movies and use FaceTime with family, McDaniel says, and prices are more affordable. Some cruise ships offer social media packages so that, for a modest fee, passengers can access just their Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and Snapchat accounts. That allows them to share their latest photos - and perhaps dredge up some cruise envy (and in doing so, reach new cruise audiences). "It's very clever," McDaniel says. "Because word of mouth is the best kind of advertising."
In addition, cruise apps allow passengers to communicate with one another, book spa appointments and excursions, order drinks and other items and get into their cabin, all by using their phones. "You still are going to put your phone on airplane mode because you don't want to ring up a huge cellphone bill," McDaniel says. "But if you get internet and you're using the ship's app, you're in great shape."
And they're feeding the appetite for better food and beverages. While luxury liners and river cruises have been leaders in the culinary arena, McDaniel says mainstream cruises are beginning to up their game. She attributes that, in part, to collaborations with celebrity chefs.
Flavortown has been afloat ever since Carnival teamed with Guy Fieri to offer Guy's Burger Joint on its ships, and Jamie Oliver fans can get their fill at Jamie's Italian on Royal Caribbean's Anthem of the Seas.
On some cruises you can find cooking classes and excursions to local markets. Others even offer diet themes: Weight Watchers is working with MSC to offer cruises with "points" listed for meals, snacks and drinks.
Speaking of drinks, some ships have started brewing their own beer. Carnival Vista and Carnival Horizon (which sets sail in April) both have breweries on board. Carnival Vista's RedFrog Pub & Brewery and Carnival Horizon's Guy's Pig & Anchor Bar-B-Q Smokehouse|Brewhouse (Guy as in Fieri, again) transform ocean water to beer, with the help of desalination and a reverse osmosis water system.
As the cruise industry continues evolving to appeal to younger audiences, there's no doubt that every generation stands to benefit. McDaniel says that with the ever-growing offerings, it takes some time and research (or a good travel agent) to find the ideal fit. "One ship might not be right for everybody," she says, "but there is a right ship for everybody."