Biggest cruise trends of 2020: Theme cruises, expeditions, private islands, greener ships – USA TODAY

What makes the world of cruising so much fun is that the cruise lines are constantly innovating, seeking out new destinations and hopping on the latest trends. At Cruise Critic, we love to watch it all and speculate on what’s coming next.

Every year, Cruise Critic’s editors look back at the previous year to see what trends are emerging and predict what we might expect in the coming year. Check out our take on what’s coming in onboard dining, fun, shoreside entertainment and more in our guide to 2020 cruise trends.

1. Cruise lines make strides to lower environmental impact

With global warming a hot topic and growing awareness about the effects of tourism on local communities and the planet as a whole, we’ve seen cruise lines start to take serious action to reduce their environmental impact, with plans to expand those efforts into 2020 and beyond.

Hurtigruten has already eliminated all unnecessary single-use plastics, and most lines have announced plastic bans, starting by eliminating plastic straws and/or water bottles. As we near the end of 2019, there are more than a dozen LNG (liquefied petroleum gas-powered) ships on order, Hurtigruten’s Roald Amundsen expedition ship became the first cruise vessel to sail on battery power and MSC Cruises says its fleet will be carbon-neutral by the start of the new year. Many lines have been implementing scrubber technology to reduce emissions or taking advantage of shoreside power, so ships don’t have to run their engines when docked.

Expect to see more environmentally focused changes – both big and small – as cruising tries to go greener.

2. Private islands and beaches on the rise

Private islands have always been a hallmark of cruising, but decades later, the cruise-sponsored beach day needs a refresh. Pair that with the loss of Cuba as a new cruise destination and cruise lines’ desire to offer something new in the Caribbean, and the result is a new focus on expanding and upgrading the private beach experience.

Royal Caribbean leads the pack with its Perfect Day initiative, reinventing CocoCay in spring 2019 with a thrilling water park, followed by announcements of a private beach club for Royal Caribbean cruisers heading to Antigua in 2021 and Perfect Day experiences in the South Pacific on Lelapa near Vanuatu in 2022. Virgin Voyages debuts as a new cruise line in 2020 with its own beach club on Bimini in 2020. MSC is soon to unveil a pristine marine reserve, Ocean Cay, from what was a former sand excavation site.

Carnival has announced plans for an expansion of Half Moon Cay and the construction of a pier to eliminate time-consuming tendering. Norwegian has just unveiled an exclusive oceanfront lagoon area on Great Stirrup Cay with a private beach, luxurious villas, a spa, and new restaurant and bars.

Besides improving and adding beaches, cruise ships are staying longer in these island playgrounds, with CocoCay, Ocean Cay and Bimini Beach Club offering evening amusements like live music, beach bonfires, stargazing, light shows and even fireworks. Expect more amenity and programming upgrades to come – or announcements of brand-new private beach areas in the works.

Your guide to cruise line private islands: See what each offers

3. Theme cruises are hot

Theme cruises have been around for a while, but as cruise lines have realized the appeal of these sailings to first-time cruisers, the number of special interest cruises is now unprecedented. New special-interest voyages are popping up all the time to tie in with some of the most popular movies, TV shows and musical acts.

Sixthman announced a new Broadway cruise for 2020, while TV fans are going gaga for “The Golden Girls” and “Below Deck” theme sailings. A new LGBTQ charter company, Vacaya, debuted in 2019 with plans to open cruising to all members of the queer community in 2020 and beyond.

Other theme cruises have been around for years and are so successful that they’re already sold out for next year. Theme sailings as diverse as Chris Jericho’s wrestling cruise, the “Star Trek” cruise, the ’80s cruise and the Outlaw Country cruise are already sold out for 2020 – and 2021 dates will likely be announced soon. We predict several new ones will be announced in 2020.

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4. Suite life gets sweeter on more cruise lines

Certain cruise lines – think Cunard, Norwegian, Royal Caribbean and MSC Cruises – have long lured passengers to book ever-more-expensive suites with exclusive spaces and other perks, such as inclusions, priority everything (embarkation, tendering, theater seating, etc.) and staff dedicated to taking care of every need. (On Royal Caribbean, the service is supposedly so magical, your butler is actually called a genie.)

Now, for the first time, we’re seeing the rest of the lines – specifically Carnival’s different cruise brands – getting in on the action. Princess has added its first-ever mega-suites, with enormous balconies offering perfect views of the sea and Movies Under the Stars, alfresco spa treatments and dining, and a telescope for stargazing. On Vista-class ships, Carnival recently expanded exclusive Havana Pool access for its Havana passengers to 24/7. On 2020’s Mardi Gras, Carnival will offer its first suite class, called Excel, with an exclusive area, the VIP-only Loft 19 which will feature a pool, bar and extra-fee cabanas.

Expect to see more perks, amenities and spaces dedicated to suite passengers going forward, as cruise lines announce details of their newest ships.

5. You can pay to be a VIP

Cruise lines recognize that not all cruisers can afford the suite life, but many people are prepared to pay for extra perks that give them a taste of those VIP privileges. Carnival was the first with its Faster to the Fun (FTTF) program, which offers priority embarkation and tender service, plus early or late disembarkation. It has since been followed by Holland America, Norwegian and Royal Caribbean adding programs that wrap priority embarkation into a grouping of perks, such as exclusive dining and special access to attractions.

We expect that these programs will grow and get more expensive and that lines like Princess and Celebrity will soon follow suit with their own pay-for-perks offers.

6. Modern food and beverage trends come to cruise ships

Cruise lines have never been early adapters when it comes to modern food trends, long holding on to banquet dining, assigned seating and dress codes. Yet cruise lines are now picking up the pace and embracing modern dining concepts, both to lure younger cruisers onboard and to keep up with new cruise lines entering the market.

New cruise line Virgin Voyages is leading the pack, ditching the traditional main dining room and buffet for a Korean barbecue restaurant, a grab-and-go venue with food carts and a drag brunch. Carnival’s new Mardi Gras will have a globally inspired Street Eats, set up as alfresco kiosks, plus an onboard outpost of Shaq’s Big Chicken restaurant to capitalize on American’s love affair with the fast-food chicken sandwich. Tapas-style venues, such as Norwegian’s Food Republic and MSC Cruises’ HOLA! Tapas Bar, are embracing the small plates trend.

On the heels of Oceania expanding plant-based menus fleet- and venue-wide, Virgin Voyages is also introducing an all-vegan/vegetarian restaurant onboard. For those who may eat meat but not drink, lines like Princess and Cunard are offering zero-proof cocktails for travelers who want sophisticated craft cocktails without the booze, rather than virgin coladas and calorific smoothies.

Even luxury line Silversea is embracing the authentic food trend, a la Anthony Bourdain, and offering its S.A.L.T. program of hyperlocal culinary tours with real food (e.g., eating chicken butts at a night market in Malaysia).

What’s next? A keto/paleo restaurant or detox bar featuring kombucha and kefir? All our crystal ball shows is that you can expect new ships and refurbs to continue to bring onboard dining in line with modern trends.

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7. Food and drink on demand, anywhere onboard

Pairing modern technology with the long-held cruiser love of room service, cruise lines are testing the waters of food and drink on demand, anytime and anywhere. Because sometimes you just don’t want to leave that sun lounger when hunger calls.

By the end of 2019, Carnival will offer pizza delivered almost anywhere onboard to all its ships; just download the line’s Hub app and access the Pizza Anywhere function. Princess offers drink and pizza delivery through its OceanMedallion technology, though service areas can be limited, and now Royal Caribbean is trialing food-on-demand-anywhere functionality via its app on one ship. Virgin Voyages will launch with a “Shake for Champagne” service on its app, so you barely have to move a muscle to offer a celebratory toast to your vacation.

We predict that in the coming months Royal Caribbean will roll out its food-on-demand service fleetwide and Norwegian Cruise Line will jump on the trend, as well. If the initial trials are successful, we expect cruise lines will expand these services to more food and drink items and more shipboard locations – and add or increase delivery fees as well.

Tip: Get the most out of your cruise beverage package by using it for these 8 drinks

8. Gaming culture comes to cruise ships

Cruise ships are maxed out on outdoor fun with rock walls, ropes courses, ziplines, surfing, go-kart tracks, water slides and more. Now, they’re turning their fun focus inward and embracing kids’ and adults’ love of gaming culture.

Virtual-reality gaming is now almost a given on the newest mega-ships. Norwegian has the Galaxy Pavilion with a simulated roller-coaster ride, virtual-reality maze where you can shoot virtual rabbits and escape rooms that incorporate high-tech and VR elements. Royal Caribbean has the Sky Pad, where you bounce on a bungee trampoline while wearing a VR headset, and is introducing a virtual-reality playground in 2020 on Odyssey of the Seas. MSC Cruises has a race car simulator, and Princess is even debuting a new high-tech musical show, set within a virtual-gaming world. Laser tag is now available on several cruise lines.

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Might Nintendo be the next cruise line partner, or will Fortnite dance challenges take over the pool deck? Or, will the next high-tech onboard game be something we can’t even imagine yet? Whatever the future holds, we expect this focus on gaming culture will continue to play out in the cruise industry.

9. Cruise lines get creative in light of overtourism fears

Overtourism is the new travel buzzword, and cruise lines are seeking creative ways to spread out their passengers and to offer a better experience in popular ports and compelling new destinations for frequent travelers.

In Alaska, where popular ports like Juneau can host seven ships on the same day, Norwegian is building a new dock at Icy Strait Point and the port is adding a new gondola ride to make that lesser-visited destination a viable alternative to the traditional Alaska itinerary stops. Holland America, meanwhile, is experimenting with itineraries that include the Inian Islands for something uncrowded and different.

In Europe, cruise lines are experimenting with using nearby Tarragona as a substitute for docking directly in busy Barcelona. Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) signed an agreement with Dubrovnik to implement a plan in 2020 that would better distribute cruise ship arrivals throughout the week and each day to avoid overburdening the walled city with tourists.

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Throughout the world, cruise lines are extending their seasons in destinations like Alaska, the Baltic and the Mediterranean to offer more sailings and, hopefully, spread out cruisers over the course of months.

While many destinations, such as Venice and Amsterdam, have not yet found an ideal solution to overcrowding, we’re confident that in 2020 and beyond, we will hear more about the ways cruise lines will partner with destinations to offer wow-factor itineraries to the places cruisers want to go, while protecting popular port cities.

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10. Expedition cruises are trendy, with new ships on the rise

Move over, couch potatoes. A major trend in cruising is a rise in ships that seek out adventure over suntans, exploring remote locations and offering active onshore pursuits. The expedition niche of the cruise industry has been growing, and 2020 might just be the year of cruise adventures.

Longtime purveyors of rugged cruising, such as Hurtigruten, Lindblad and Quark Expeditions, are all rolling out new-builds in 2020. Look for expedition-focused features such as ice-strengthened hulls, environmentally friendly features like hybrid-battery propulsion, Zodiac hangars and mudrooms.

Adventure and luxury are now going together like caviar and Champagne, as upscale lines like Crystal, Ponant and Silversea unveil new high-end expedition ships (including Crystal’s first-ever foray into this space). Butlers, fine dining by celebrity chefs and lavish suites are now firmly fixed in the world of naturalists, binoculars and heavy-duty parkas and boots.

As travelers continue to seek out authentic experiences and off-the-beaten-path locales, no matter the price, we predict that the explosion of expedition ships we’ve been seeing will continue – at least, until there’s pushback from the remote destinations they serve.

Expedition cruises:  What to expect from these more adventure-oriented sailings