The Caribbean remains a top destination among cruisers, and more are bringing their children along for the journey, according to a survey by the Cruise Lines International Association.
Cruise experts also say that in response to rising fuel costs, cruise lines have increased surcharges and changed their itineraries. Some are skipping Aruba, once a popular port, because of the extra fuel it takes to get there.
"You're seeing a lot less of the real exotic types of itineraries that require more sea time because it's so expensive," says Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor in chief of CruiseCritic.com.
Consumer interest in cruising remains strong, according to CLIA, with 55 percent of vacationers who have never taken a cruise intending to do so in the next three years.
But many cruisers are watching their spending, says Brown, cutting back on on-board spending, planning independent short excursions and choosing a cruise near a home port to avoid having to fly to meet the ship.
That means the Caribbean is rebounding and the Mediterranean is losing out, says Brown. So much so that Carnival is pulling Carnival Freedom from its previously announced 2009 summer itineraries in the Mediterranean and positioning it year-round in the Caribbean, she says.
The Caribbean is traditionally cheaper than other cruises, because it is a year-round destination and people don't have to travel far to catch the ship. Other cruise regions are seasonal: Canada/New England and Alaska are accessible via cruise ship only in warm months, she says.
"With the Caribbean, one of the biggest advantages is there's simply more choice and it's a much more flexible option," she says, adding that cruisers will have the most choices in terms of a ship from the winter holidays to mid-April. "During times of the year when there's more variety, pricing will be more competitive as well."
Bring the kids
While vacationers, including cruisers, generally travel in pairs, family travel is exploding, says Brown. In 2008, 25 percent of cruisers traveled with kids younger than 18, compared with 13 percent in 2002, according to CLIA.
The increase may be responsible for bringing the median age of a cruiser down to 46 in 2008 from 49 in 2006.
There has been a rise in family vacations overall since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, says Bob Sharak, executive vice president, marketing and distribution, CLIA.
"We don't know if this is due to 9/11, but the growth is not surprising," he says. "Cruising is a perfect vacation for families because it offers activities for every age traveler, supervised children's programs and the opportunity for families to share quality time."
Brown compares today's cruises to camps, with ships retrofitted with science labs; and teen lounges with video games, plasma TVs and dance floors. There's rock climbing, surfing and miniature golf. Some cruises even offer teens their own place to sunbathe and special mom-and-teen spa packages.
Cruises are also a superior economic value for families, says Heidi Allison-Shane, spokeswoman for CruiseCompete.com., adding that her college-age children have run up thousands in room service bills on noncruise vacations.
"You can have as much as you want to eat," she says. "You can have your children with you and yet everyone has their own activity."
Surge in diversity
While close to 90 percent of cruisers are white, according to TNS, the market research firm that conducted the survey, cruise lines are attracting more diverse cruisers with themes, ranging from hobbies, such as bingo and poker; to lifestyles, such as a Christian or a gay and lesbian cruise.
Cruise lines are also increasingly marketing to other countries, says Brown, so some ships have more of an international mix among the guests on board.
Even with no clear end in sight to rising gas prices, cruising is not expected to decline, says Allison-Shane. The overall satisfaction ratings for cruises are high: 95 percent of all cruisers rate their experience as satisfying and more than three-fourths of past cruisers plan to take another cruise within three years.
Brown says some of the most exciting cruise ships have yet to set sail. The new Celebrity Solstice has a freshly manicured lawn on the highest deck, and Royal Caribbean's Oasis of the Seas will be the largest cruise ship in the world when it launches next year.
The 2008 Market Cruise Profile Study was conducted online by TNS in March and April 2008. A random sample of 2,426 U.S. residents were interviewed. All respondents were at least 25 years old, with a minimum household income of $40,000. CLIA has been conducting its biannual survey of American consumers since 1986.