Cruisers aren’t giving up their at-sea vacations anytime soon. But, for the time being, most cruisers want to stay closer to home and prefer to book with cruise lines that have strict safety protocols and flexible cancellation policies.
“We’re the fly on the wall for booking habits,” said Mark Patscher, sales director of CruiseCritic.com, at a presentation on the “State of the Cruiser” at this week’s Seatrade Cruise Global conference. The media and booking site has been taking the pulse of its subscribers with monthly surveys since the pandemic started.
Fifty-eight percent of respondents to a September survey said they have a cruise currently booked and have no intention of canceling. Another 8% said they have a cruise booked but are reconsidering their plans. Only 4% of the 5,400 respondents said they’d canceled an already-booked cruise.
Of the 58% with a cruise booked, 65% are sailing within six months and 27% are sailing within seven to 12 months. Eight percent are booked for a cruise more than a year away.
Most cruisers are staying closer to home, with 49% taking a Caribbean, Bahamas or Bermuda cruise, and 13% booked on a North America cruise. (North America includes Alaska, New England and Canada, and North American river cruises.) Another 4% are booked on a Mexican Riviera cruise and 5% are booked on a South/Central America and/or Panama Canal sailing.
However, not everyone is staying close to home. A full 15% are currently booked on a Europe ocean cruise and 5% on a Europe river cruise.
The vast majority of those with cruises booked will be sailing with adult family or friends. Only 4% said they’re a family planning to sail with kids under 18.
More than half (51%) of survey respondents said they’re actively looking to book a future cruise.
However, nearly one-third (29%) said that while, yes, they do want to book a cruise they’re waiting for travel restrictions and warnings to ease. And 16% said they’re simply unsure of whether they want to book a future cruise.
Of the 51% of cruisers actively searching for their next cruise, 43% want to cruise within seven to 12 months and 31% want to cruise within the next six months. But nearly a quarter (24%) aren’t looking to sail for another one to two years.
While a large number of soon-to-book cruisers are looking to stay close to home, more are likely to go further afield when compared with those who are already booked.
Only 34% (compared to the 49% above) are interested in a future Caribbean, Bahamas or Bermuda cruise. Eighteen percent (compared to 15% above) want to do a Europe ocean cruise and 7% (compared to 5% above) want to do a Europe river cruise.
Fifteen percent (compared to 13% above) are looking to stay in North America. According to Patscher, the increase is due to the return of Alaska cruises, which weren't an option for much of 2021.
Furthermore, 6% said they are likely to book a South/Central America and Panama Canal cruise (vs 5% above).
Interest in more exotic locales (Asia, Australia/New Zealand, Antarctica/Arctic), goes up when talking about future cruises but not by a lot. Just 3% of cruisers looking to book a cruise said they are likely to select an Asia, Australia or New Zealand cruise (vs. 1% of those with a cruise currently booked).
Travel advisors have been saying it for months, but cruisers are looking to get away for longer. A mere 4% of survey respondents actively looking to book a cruise want to go for three to five days. In fact, more cruisers – 17% -- want to go away for longer than 15 days.
The majority are looking to sail for six to nine days (41%) and 10 to 14 days (38%).
Shore Excursion Uncertainty
By and large, survey respondents with a cruise booked are planning on at least one shore excursion. Most (56%) said they’ll book through the cruise line. Another 10% said they’ll book with an independent excursion provider.
Yet, a full one-quarter (26%) of respondents said they’re not sure whether they’ll do a shore excursion. And, another 8% said they definitely won’t be doing one.
That travelers have kept their cruise bookings reflects their confidence in the cruise lines to keep them safe. But the reluctance to book an excursion shows less confidence in the destinations visited.
Cancellation Policies/Health & Safety Protocols Are Critical
Price and destination top the list of considerations for travelers looking to book a cruise. These are not new and should not come as a surprise to travel advisors. But, a new consideration has emerged as almost as important. Cancellation policies are now also a top concern for cruisers. In a world of uncertainty, they want to know that they can cancel a cruise without any penalty.
Similarly, when asked to rate the most important aspects of their next cruise, survey respondents overwhelmingly cited the same three things they’ve always cared about: itinerary, ship and price. But coming in fourth is a new area of concern: safety policies and protocols.
Most cruisers want cruise lines to have strict mask and vaccine policies in place, Patscher said.
Booking Window Fluctuates
Of all the booking elements CruiseCritic.com has tracked since the start of the pandemic, the booking window has fluctuated the most, Patscher said. As the COVID-19 pandemic goes, so goes the booking window.
For instance, at the start of the year, before vaccines were readily available, the booking window sat at about 325 days. But it steadily shortened until July, when the Delta variant took off. From July to August the booking window climbed from just over 200 days to just under 250 days.