18 Ways Cruises Have Evolved in the Past 40 Years

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View of Royal Caribbean Cruise ship
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HIGH LIVING ON THE HIGH SEAS

Over the past four decades, cruise ships have seriously stepped up their game. Not only have ships dramatically expanded in size, the onboard entertainment options have multiplied and become vastly more sophisticated (Skydiving, anyone?), the accommodations, particularly at the luxury end of the scale, are now on par with some of the world's top hotels and homes. Cheapism reached out to cruise industry experts to discuss some of the changes that have taken place on these elaborate floating cities, which have evolved far beyond buffets and casinos.

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Cruise ship in Antarctica
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OUT-OF-THE-ORDINARY DESTINATIONS

A Caribbean cruise is classic for a reason: Ships have been sailing to tried-and-true ports such as St. Thomas and San Juan for decades, says Chris Gray Faust, managing editor of Cruise Critic. But thanks to improved ship technology, expedition cruise ships are now visiting corners of the globe that were not visited in years past. "Regions such as Antarctica or far-flung locales such as Easter Island," said Gray Faust. "In addition, river cruising has opened up sailing on Europe and Asia's most spectacular waterways. You can now see the world by sea, visiting every continent and ticking off that bucket list."
Royal Caribbean cruise bar with robot bartender
Photo credit: Royal Caribbean International/facebook.com

BARS WITH ROBOTS

Human bartenders have practically become quaint as many ships seek to wow and entertaining guests with robotic servers. Royal Caribbean's Harmony of the Seas is one such example, where guests can type their order into one of the bar's tablets and watch as a robotic arm matches the liquors and serves up the completed drink.
View of water slides on top of a cruise ship
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MULTIPLYING ONBOARD ENTERTAINMENT OPTIONS

Years ago, cruises were primarily about rest and relaxation, with little exertion beyond shuffleboard and ping pong. "Now cruise ships are full-fledged floating resorts," said Gray Faust of Cruise Critic. "You can still hang by the pool with a book and a drink, of course, but that's one of many activity options that you'll be able to choose."
Man using a ropes course on Royal Caribbean Cruise
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ROPES COURSES, SLIDES AND OTHER INNOVATIVE FEATURES

As Gray Faust mentioned, entertainment has dramatically expanded on ships. And in the process, the options offered have become more over-the-top with each passing year. On Royal Caribbean's Harmony of the Seas, for instance, there's a 10-story slide that propels riders down the mouth of an angler fish. On the Norwegian Getaway and Breakaway, exercise options include a ropes course complete with ladders, beams, and climbing nets above a mini-golf course, which is part of each ship's sports complex. The course includes a plank that stretches 8 feet over the ocean beyond the ship's edge.
Gourmet meal on a cruise ship
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GOURMET AND CELEBRITY CHEF CUISINE

As guests' palates have become increasingly sophisticated, the culinary offerings of cruise lines have kept pace, said David Yeskel, a travel journalist known as The Cruise Guru. "Holland America Line's esteemed group of Culinary Council chefs create dishes for all dining venues aboard the line's fleet of mid-size ships; luxury operator Seabourn has partnered with Michelin-starred chef Thomas Keller to feature his cuisine onboard its intimate vessels; Crystal Cruises has long touted its association with Japanese uber-chef Nobu Matsuhisa to delight its luxury-seeking patrons with dishes like his signature Black Cod Miso; and in a further focus of its raison d' etre, Oceania Cruises has established a niche as the unofficial foodie cruise line."
Cruise docked at an island
Photo credit: Joel Carillet/istockphoto

PRIVATE ISLANDS

In the late 1970s, one cruise line made the bold move of purchasing its own private island, and that has since been emulated by nearly every major ocean cruise company, says Thomas Faddegon of Cruiseline.com, who has written about the evolution of cruising. "In 1977, Norwegian purchased Great Stirrup Cay, a small island in the Bahamas, from the Belcher Oil Company and developed it into a private island paradise for their cruise passengers," said Faddegon. Today everyone from Carnival, to Disney, Royal Caribbean and Holland America have their own private islands, resorts that are the size of a town complete with shopping outlets, restaurants and more.
Women lounging in a spa
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SPAS, HEALTH AND WELLNESS — OH MY

Spa junkies everywhere now have an excuse to cruise. Spa and wellness offerings onboard the top ships are about far more than paltry massages. Famed Canyon Ranch has brought its spa offerings to cruise ships such as Celebrity's Solstice-class ships where the offerings expand beyond the physical spa space to include AquaClass spa cabins, and an AquaSpa Café and Blue – two dining venues focused on healthy options like smoothies and salads. Viking's LivNordic spas, meanwhile, are managed by Oslo, Norway-based Raison d'Etre. Inspired by Nordic traditions, the space features hot and cold therapies designed to stimulate the circulatory system.
People docking at a cruise port
Photo credit: Joel Carillet/istockphoto

INCREASED AFFORDABILITY

As cruise lines and ships have multiplied, the price of cruising has decreased. "Cruising is a much more affordable vacation option than it used to be, thanks in part to competition between the major cruise companies," said Alanna Smith, editor at TravelPirates. "The same stateroom that might have cost $1,200 for seven nights 20 years ago can cost as low as $450 today."
Woman snorkeling with orange fish around her
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EXTENDED TIME IN PORT

For those looking for meaningful travel experiences, the hours spent in port often didn't seem enough time to really explore in the past, said Cruise Critic's Gray Faust. But that's no longer the case. "Many cruise lines are now spending longer time in port — sometimes overnight — so travelers can take advantage of local food, activities, and even nightlife," he said.
Young woman using her laptop on the deck of a cruise ship
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MORE WAYS TO STAY IN TOUCH

Less than a decade ago, going on a cruise meant that you'd be out of touch with work, friends, and family for the length of your sailing. Internet prices were charged on a per minute basis, and rates were extremely high. But just like airplanes, cruise ships have improved the connectivity. "Cruise lines have invested in their onboard technology to meet the needs of travelers who want to keep in touch and share their fun vacation — without breaking the bank," said Gray Faust. Tiered pricing packages, many geared toward allowing for social media posting, give passengers more choice at lower costs.
Kids playing in a cruise water park
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KIDS CLUBS

As multi-generational travel has become a significant market, cruise programs have expanded to accommodate that demographic mix. "And while Disney Cruise Line may be top-of-mind when considering how kids' activities have evolved aboard cruise ships over the years, rival Carnival Cruise Line actually carries more children than any industry competitor — and caters to them skillfully," said Yeskel, The Cruise Guru. "With 26 ships in its fleet, Carnival's five age-tiered programs, including Camp Ocean for the little ones and Club O2 for teens, keep the fun coming while giving parents a welcome break."
People gathered on a cruise ship listening to speakers
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INCREASED FOCUS ON SAFETY

Once just as much an excuse for a photo op as a legitimate safety exercise, the obligatory muster drill aboard ships, where passengers are instructed what to do during an emergency, including procedures for abandoning ship, is now taken much more seriously by the cruise lines, Yeskel said. "Especially since the Costa Concordia sinking," he said. "Attendance is taken at these drills, and if you're not present, you may be escorted off the vessel, before the cruise even begins."
Older couple dressed informally on a cruise ship smiling at camera
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LESS FORMALITY

Back in the day, cruising was considered a very formal, sometimes even stuffy way to travel. Formal nights were a must, and restaurants had strict dress codes. "Today, formal nights are usually optional or non-existent, and dress codes have certainly relaxed," said Gray Faust of Cruise Critic. "For those who enjoy dressing up for a romantic night out or a family photo shoot, those options are still available. But for travelers who like to stay casual, there's no need to pack a suit and tie onboard a majority of lines."

Theater production on Norwegian Cruise Line
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BIGGER, BETTER THEATRICAL PRODUCTIONS

As onboard entertainment has significantly improved, so to have the shows being offered while cruising. "Today, you can find full Broadway productions like 'Rock of Ages' and 'Jersey Boys,' Cirque du Soleil performances, ice skating shows, movies under the stars, BBC Earth productions sound tracked by a live orchestra, and more," Gray Faust said.
Woman standing in front of a huge cruise ship
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THE SIZE RACE

Over the past four decades, the size of ships has increased from an average 29,000 to 134,000 gross tons. "That's nearly a five-times increase in ship size," said Jeremy Camosse, creator of the site The Muster Station. "This trend has been captained, in large part, by Royal Caribbean. The introduction of their Oasis Class ships changed the game, and they've had a monopoly on the 'massive ship market' for almost a decade."
View of top of cruise ship at night
Photo credit: Norwegian Cruise Line/facebook.com

FOCUS ON MILLENNIAL CRUISERS

Cruises have started actively targeting millennial travelers by offering special themed cruises, says Smith, editor at TravelPirates. "Recent entries into this list include comic-con cruises, drag queen weeks, and electronic music dance parties."
Group of young children from Phillipines
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EXPERIENTIAL SHORE EXCURSIONS

As travelers have become more seasoned, they're collecting experiences via more-satisfying cultural and people-to-people opportunities in ports, rather than collecting things via shopping, says Yeskel, The Cruise Guru. "Then there's the relatively new phenomenon of 'voluntourism' excursions, where guests can give back and provide needed expertise in a local community via social impact activities like teaching English or helping out in a factory," said Yeskel. "This trend was pioneered by Carnival Corporation's now-defunct Fathom cruise brand, but now lives on aboard Princess Cruises' ships."
Cruise ship with neon lights at night
Photo credit: Royal Caribbean International/facebook.com

MORE, MORE, MORE — JUST MORE

In case all of these experts have not already made it abundantly clear, cruise life has evolved to include a dizzying variety of onboard entertainment, food, drinks, and luxe accommodations. An avid cruiser for years now, journalist Brooke Niemeyer, who has written about her love of cruising for the insurance website Policygenius, says she was awed by her most recent Carnival Cruise from New York City to the Caribbean. "As I drove up to the pier, I couldn't believe the size of the Horizon — Carnival's newest ship — and that's saying something because it was in New York and everything is big here. And when I got on board, everything was more — more elaborate decor, more food, more drinks, and more things to do. You could spend a week never getting off the ship and never run out of things to do."

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