Cruising isn't what it used to be. And to the more than 10 million people who took to the high seas last year, that's a good thing.
While cruising used to be considered a venue for "the newly wed or nearly dead," 21st century cruising is attracting an entirely new audience, according to Tom Margiotti of Cruise One, a cruise broker. Margiotti sees the average traveler as more experienced, better read and more sophisticated than ever before.
"Cruise lines have done a fantastic job of figuring out what their customers want, and giving it to them," he said.
This includes providing an unprecedented range of choices in everything from dining to special interest activities to meet that demand.
In surveying a cross section of cruise lines, from mid to high end, here are the latest trends in cruising:
Dining Your Way
It used to be that first or second seating were your only options when it came to dining. Not any more. Princess Cruises offer guests a choice of dining in the ship's main dining room, or in one of several themed freestanding restaurants onboard. Norwegian Cruise Lines "freestyle" program takes that idea a step further, allowing passengers to dine whenever they like with whomever they choose. And the traditional formal night is now "formal optional."
You don't have to gain weight on a cruise unless you really want to. The majority of cruise lines now feature a menu of healthful selections at every meal, including vegetarian entrees.
Spas at Sea
Luxury spas, with a full range of exotic treatment options, are becoming commonplace on new ships. Fitness facilities have evolved as well, now often comparable to full-service land-based fitness centers, complete with personal trainers and the latest work out equipment.
Interested in rock climbing? Feel like shooting a few hoops or strapping on your roller blades? You can do all that, and more, aboard many of today's newer ships. For example, Royal Caribbean's Voyager-class ships offer guests a rock-climbing wall, ice skating rink, in-line skating track, basketball court, golf course and virtual golf simulator.
Adventures Aboard and Ashore
If you think the typical shopping and sight-seeing excursions sound ho-hum, you have options. How about scuba diving, snorkeling, dog-sledding, sea-kayaking, white-water rafting, mountain biking, helicopter glacier adventure, fishing, hot-air ballooning, and golfing at world-class golf courses? Weaving eco-tourism and soft-adventure opportunities into cruise itineraries is the wave of the future.
You've Got Mail
Shipboard Internet cafes keep passengers connected no matter where they are on the nautical chart.
This trend speaks to the need to maximize your time and experience while on vacation. More and more people want to have more than photographs to remember their holiday by. Themed cruises, as well as cruises that incorporate an enlightening agenda, touch on subjects ranging from art, architecture, wine and food, big band music, dancing and foreign language. There are even cruises that allow professionals such as physicians and attorneys to earn continuing education credits while at sea.
A Family Affair
Today's cruise ships are designed with families in mind. Many cruise lines have full-service children's programs that offer secure and supervised activities for children across a wide range of ages.
Most of these programs are staffed by professionally trained counselors and feature a combination of entertainment, activities and educational enrichment. Cruises are also a top choice for family reunions.
Shipboard Wedding/Honeymoon Combo
Weddings are performed aboard ship or on land in a number of exotic destinations, including Bermuda, the Bahamas, the Caribbean, Hawaii and Alaska. Getting married onboard is so popular that Princess Cruises now includes a full service wedding chapel aboard its newer ships. The idea of combining the wedding with the honeymoon -- with or without family and friends -- is appealing to an increasing segment of the cruising population.
A growing number of cruise lines have adapted their ships to be accessible to disabled individuals. From increasing the number of accessible cabins to making shore tenders and excursions accessible, strides continue to be made in these areas.
If you've ever cruised, then you know that the day of disembarkation can be an agonizing exercise in hurry-up and wait. Norwegian Cruise Lines now offers freestyle disembarkation, allowing you to sleep in, eat breakfast at a leisurely pace and disembark whenever it's convenient.
Navigating the Cruise Waters
Picking your first cruise can be overwhelming. Cruising has its own lingo and every ship is different, so what's a first time cruiser to do? It's no wonder that some 90 percent of cruise passengers use travel agents to book their cruises.
The first question travel agent David Charles asks his customers is where they like to go on vacation.
"That gives me a feel for the kind of trip they like to take," he said.
If they like to stay casual in shorts and sandals the whole time, there's a cruise for them. If they like dressing up and fine dining, that's another cue.
"There are so many options, you really need somebody who knows the business," he said. Factors like age, budget, desired destination and if children are in the picture are all figured into the equation.
There are three basic types of cruises, with myriad variations within each category. There are the contemporary megaships, large cruisers powered by companies like Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Disney and Norwegian Cruise Line. Then, up a price point, are the luxury ships, which include Princess, Holland America and Celebrity. Then there is the pinnacle of service and amenities in the premium segment, with names like Silversea, Radisson and Crystal.
A good cruise agent can make sure you are choosing the right ship, the right itinerary and the right cabin, assuring a more hassle-free vacation experience. But how do you find a good cruise agent? A good place to start is to ask someone you know who has cruised if they can recommend someone. It's also good to work with someone who specializes in cruising, since he or she will have a better handle on the multitude of product in the market.
According to www.cruisecritic.com, the agent should also be able to:
• Explain the proper immigration documentation necessary for your itinerary, including any visas that are needed prior to departure.\n
• Inform you of your dining choices and advise the cruise line of any special requests.\n
• Explain the cruise line cancellation policy, as well as trip cancellation insurance policies.\n
• Show you where your cabin is on the deck plan.\n
• Check periodically to see if the price of the cruise has dropped.\n
• Book your air and hotel.\n
• Review your documents and reservations to make sure that everything is in order.
And most importantly, while a capable agent can handle booking your trip, a real pro is going to shine when problems arise and everything isn't smooth sailing. And that's the person you'll go back to the next time you have the urge to travel.
Beth D'Addono is a food, travel and lifestyle writer based in Philadelphia.