After a slow start to cruising in 2022 and even into parts of 2023, cruising is fully back and more popular than it's ever been, with booking numbers repeatedly breaking pre-pandemic records. On a broad level, a few cruise trends are immediately clear. This year's hot destinations are just as hot in 2024, though there's a growing interest in cruises going further afield. Additionally, the line between who is a premium cruise client and who is luxury is starting to blur.
Here are the cruise trends TMR identified after talking with several travel advisors and executives.
Europe was hot in 2023. It's even hotter in 2024.
"More Europe bookings," Adam Martindale, owner of a Cruise Planners franchise told Travel Market Report.
It's not only ocean cruises around Europe that are popular. We heard from several advisors that they're booking lots of European river cruises.
"River is selling like fire in Europe," said Ryan Warshaw, owner of Epic Jaunts. "People love the idea of getting into the small towns."
River cruises are hot for Cynthia Connelly-Paxton, CTA, owner of Travel Advisor Team, as well, but so too is Alaska, something almost every advisor we spoke to echoed.
"Alaska is very popular," Martindale said, while Amy Madson, co-owner of a Dream Vacations agency said, ""Alaska is top of list. We are booking a lot of Alaska cruise tours for 2024."
But while the perennial favorites continue to trend upwards, so are more far-flung destinations, advisors told TMR.
"One of the things that's really evident is that people are looking for what is different," said Warshaw. For his agency that means requests for polar cruises, and Israel and the Middle East. "There really is a lot of desire to get into the polar regions of the world… particularly for people who lost a couple of years during COVID, who are getting older and saying, 'this has been on my bucket list and I need to do it while I can.'"
For Madson's clients, it's cruises to Egypt and Asia, while for Martindale's clients, Antarctica and Egypt dominate his "exotic" requests.
Curious about luxury
In 2023, we heard from travel advisors that clients were splurging on suites. This year, instead of the suite life, many clients are looking to move from main stream to premium or from premium to luxury.
"We have been receiving more inquiries and bookings for luxury river cruises," said Martindale. "We have many clients moving from premium cruise lines to luxury lines."
In some cases, the move is from larger premium ships to smaller upper-premium and luxury ships, primarily because the value is similar across the brands, but the capacity on the upper-premium and luxury vessels is "much reduced."
"In the past few years, we've seen a remarkable trend where travelers are buying more premium staterooms, plus a viable growth in luxury brand sales," added Michelle Fee, founder, and CEO of Cruise Planners. "Travelers are spending more and once they have that luxury experience, the bar is set for future experiences to match that."
Longer trips still preferred
Another 2023 trend that's continuing into 2024 is the desire for longer cruises, particularly on trips that require international air.
"We're also seeing a lot of people who want to take longer trips, which I think is probably driven by air travel headaches," Warshaw said.
"If the trip includes an international flight, they still want the seven-plus night cruises," added Connelly-Paxton.
Madson told TMR she's seeing much the same. "We're seeing more of the longer cruise bookings. Europe for 10 days-plus, longer transatlantic crossings and unique itineraries.
But Warshaw also told TMR he believes part of what's driving the longer trip trend is clients' desires to see destinations more in-depth.
"We're hearing a lot more people ask, how do we get more time in port? How do we get more overnights?"
But Drew Daly, senior vice president and general manager for Dream Vacations/CruiseOne, told TMR advisors shouldn't count shorter cruises out.
"As we move closer towards the end of the year, we have seen a good mix of bookings between short and longer cruises... When we review bookings from last year at this time going into the next year compared to the booking data from this year, it does appear that there is a slight shift focusing in on the shorter cruise length... this is largely due to new itineraries, inventory and it is also a good sign of 'new to cruise.'"
Another trend, Daly said the Dream Vacations network is seeing is people taking more than one cruise each year, for instance one longer family vacation plus a weekend getaway cruise.
Expanding booking window
While we keep hearing there are still some clients calling for last minute cruise bookings, generally speaking, people are booking far out… even into 2025.
"Definitely, people are booking farther in advance," Connelly-Paxton told TMR.
"Most people are booking between six to 12 months out," said Martindale. "We have a large amount of bookings for 2025 already, mostly on luxury cruises."
"We're booking into June 2024," Madson said. "We have group bookings into 2025."
One agency franchise group that wished to remain anonymous shared North American booking numbers with TMR that backup what travel advisors said, particularly in Europe. The booking window for cruises to Europe is more than 360 days for 36% of all bookings, with bookings 270 to 359 days before sail date representing 16% of all bookings, and 180 to 269 days before sail date representing 18% of all bookings.
The booking window is shorter for domestic cruises. For instance, 28% of Alaska bookings were made 90 to 179 days before the sail date, whereas 19% of bookings made 360 days or more before sail date.
Open to new cruise lines
In addition to an interest in "new" destinations, advisors told TMR that clients are also open to considering new cruise lines, though for the most part they're not outright asking for them.
"Honestly, clients aren't coming to us with those requests" Madson told TMR. "Based on qualification, we may recommend these products."
"We have clients showing interest in Atlas, Virgin, and Explora but mainly because we educate and offer these brands to them," Martindale added.
Warshaw and Connelly-Paxton were the only advisors we spoke to who said they're actively getting requests for new cruise lines – though for Connelly-Paxton those requests are limited to Virgin Voyages.
"Atlas, Ritz, Explora, they've all spent an incredible amount of seven and eight-figure money on marketing," said Warshaw. "You can't get a Travel + Leisure magazine without flipping it pen and seeing a full-page ad for all of them. People who are seeing these advertisements are asking questions."
High pricing, lower value
One thing all the advisors we spoke to agree on was that pricing is high. As a result, and because of some of the other changes cruise lines are making, the value of cruising has gone down a bit.
"The prices have greatly increased," said Connelly-Paxton told TMR.
"Cruising is still a great value, but with pricing so high for summer 2024, some of our clients are rethinking their family vacations," Madson said. "They are more open to shifting to off-season to find a better value."
"You're definitely seeing some of the promotionality lighten up," added Warshaw. "The value is there but it all comes down to what brand makes the most sense."
In some cases, advisors and clients are being more discerning about the brands that they choose to sell/cruise, in order to find better value.
"A large percentage of our bookings are with Oceania," said Martindale. "Their new 'simply more' program seems more attractive and a better value to our clients."
"I've moved some of my quotes to Princess and Holland – current promo includes gratuities – away from NCL and Celebrity due to their more inclusive offers," Madson added.
Warshaw said his clients are seeing less value not from the lack of promos and booking perks, but from the erosion of loyalty benefits.
"People feel like the loyalty programs of some of the lines are getting weaker. We are seeing people who historically have said 'I'm chasing status with this brand' open up to something else because they're not getting the same perks they used to and those were the reasons they chose that line."
It seems some travel advisors may still be feeling a little pandemic PTSD, as fears of changing regulations and governmental policies are still prevalent.
Connelly-Paxton told TMR she still worries about the return of COVID travel restrictions, while Warshaw said it's still top of mind for his client.
"I still get asked multiple times a week, do I need an injection? Do I need a COVID test," he said.
But Warshaw added he's more concerned about changing policies related to ports, like in Amsterdam, Barcelona, and Venice, which can adversely affect clients' vacations.
"As those places shut down, they have to move the itinerary, which is well within their right but that's not always consumer friendly, when clients are saying I booked this cruise because it was going to X and now we're not going to X."
Madson told TMR she's more worried about finding clients to book cruises in 2024 and 2025 because so many of her clientele has already booked.
"We have nearly $2 million in departures booked for 2024 already, so we always wonder if the bookings will slow down. Sometimes we fell that all of our key clients are already booked, so who's left to sell to?