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This year’s so-called wave season, that Black Friday-like period from January through March in which cruise lines entice travelers with early booking incentives, is already revealing new twists in passenger preferences. Many travel agencies do the bulk of their cruise business during this time.

Prospective cruisers are seeking more exotic and less-visited destinations, requesting more time on land, and asking more questions about a cruise line’s sustainability practices, according to a new trends report from Virtuoso as well as travel advisors who spoke with Skift.

Faraway Places

“In 2020, cruisers are choosing itineraries based on destinations — and the more unusual and faraway the better,” said Beth Butzlaff, Virtuoso’s vice president of cruise sales. “Cruising used to be considered more passive, but lines have overcome that misperception with more time in port and experiences that are unique to the destination.”

Interest in remote or less-visited ports is so strong that it’s not just limited to experienced cruisers taking expedition-style voyages, according to Thomas Carpenter, owner of Huckleberry Travel in New York City.

“People who’ve never cruised before are coming to us asking about cruises for off-the-beaten path destinations,” he said. “And not all the inquiries are for expedition-style cruises — we’ve been marketing to a group going to Greenland on Princess.”

Bookings for the Caribbean and Mediterranean are no less brisk this year. Vicky Garcia, co-owner and chief operating officer of the travel agency franchise group Cruise Planners, however, said the choices are growing broader, with destinations like Oman, the Cook Islands, and Ecuador piquing more interest.

She’s also seeing growing demand for expedition-style cruises, partly fueled by an increasing number of luxury vessels, including new entries from lines not normally associated with expedition travel such as Crystal Cruises and Scenic Cruises.

“In the old days, expedition ships were not glamorous, but now they’re bringing in gorgeous state-of-the art ships with helicopters on board and even casinos,” Garcia said.

At the same time, cruise destinations in the U.S., including river cruises on the Mississippi and Columbia rivers, are taking off in popularity among North Americans as well as travelers from overseas, particularly Australia, according to the Virtuoso report. It also noted a trend for “micro-cruises,” two-to-five night cruises sailing out of U.S. ports to the Caribbean.

Shaia Bragg, owner of Go Enchanted Travel and a family travel specialist, welcomes this trend.

“The revitalization of so many ships on shorter itineraries from U.S. ports has been wonderful in capturing business from busy families who cannot dedicate a full week to time off,” she said.

Viking Cruises’ recent announcement that it will begin expedition sailings on the Great Lakes starting in 2022 is stirring interest, according to Garcia.

“This will be a new type of luxury vessel for the Great Lakes, and it will open the region up as a cruise destination for many people,” she said.

Port Time

No matter where the port, cruisers are seeking more time on land and, as is true with other types of travel, want more immersive experiences and local contact, according to Virtuoso.

“People definitely want more time in port and they especially like it when the ship stays in port overnight,” Garcia said. “You get to see the Eiffel Tower lit up at night or go to an evening performance.” Clients are seeking a wider range of port experiences than ever before — and cruise lines are stepping up, said Mary Rembold, owner of Pikes Peak Cruise and Travel.

“Cruise lines are offering amazing special evenings and culinary experiences in port, really bringing in more local culture for guests,” she said. “More are also offering community service activities where guests can give back (to the) local community.”

Repeat cruisers, in particular, are opting for port experiences outside of the usual canned excursions, said Shaia Bragg, owner of Go Enchanted Travel.

“They want new ports and unique experiences, and they are interested in booking customized shore excursions that keep them from being shuffled into large groups,” she said.

Sustainability Matters

The 2020 wave season finds more passengers are holding the cruise industry accountable for its environmental practices.

“We’ve placed a real focus on sustainable travel in the past year, and our clients are really on board with that,” said Huckleberry Travel’s Carpenter. “As far as cruises are concerned, anything we can point to that shows progress in environmental sustainability is exciting to us and gets a great response from clients. They’re also looking for port destinations that aren’t subject to overtourism.”

Opportunities that cruise lines provide for passengers to participate in environmentally friendly activities such as beach clean-ups are growing in number and are resonating with clients, according to Garcia.

“For example, MSC Cruises offers excursions where you can help plant coral underwater,” she said. “People realize that the oceans are in trouble, and they want to get involved. Younger people in particular will choose a cruise line based on their environmental practices.”

Early Booking Advantages

Are there advantages to booking during wave season or can clients do better by waiting closer to the sailing date? With cruise lines eager to fill as many cabins as they can as far out as possible, travel advisors maintain that it’s not only the best time to find value, but booking early is crucial for those who want a particular type of stateroom or shore excursion.

“Clients who book late are almost always disappointed — not just on price,” Carpenter said. “We had clients on a recent Regent cruise who booked primarily because of the all-inclusive nature of the sailing. But when they found that the included shore excursions that they most wanted were already booked up, they were really sour on the price tag.”

Staterooms that are limited in number, particularly single-occupancy studios or high-end accommodations like penthouse suites, are especially important to book early. The Virtuoso report noted that demand for premium accommodations has become so strong that some cruise lines encourage booking them now for the 2022 season.

Bragg added that passengers who want connecting cabins or multi-unit family cabins especially need to book early, as these also sell out quickly.

While some cruise lines with unsold cabins do drop fares at the last minute, cruise experts said most passengers are going to find the best value during wave season.

“These days cruise lines rarely cut prices right before the sailing,” said Tanner Callais, founder of the cruise site Cruzely. “They can forecast well ahead of time how full the ship will be and change pricing in advance.”

In particular, Wave Season is a good time to save on shipboard amenities, especially with cruise lines that don’t offer all-inclusive fares.

“During wave season, you’ll find cruise lines throwing in a lot of extras, so it’s better than just lowering the price,” Garcia said. “We’re seeing some great sales this year — free Wi-Fi, gratuities, shore excursions, beverage packages. It’s very important for travel advisors to make clients aware of these values.”

Photo Credit: Expedition cruises such as this one on Hurtigruten Cruises' MS Road Amundsen in the Antarctic are popular among travelers during this year's wave season. David Avila / Hurtigruten Cruises