Megaships are great, right? They've got more restaurant choices than the old midsize ships, more entertainment choices, more activities, spas with fancier treatments, and all sorts of new bells and whistles.
But they've also got more people. Lots more people. If a ship has twelve decks, maybe three of those decks will be devoted to public areas. The rest have cabins, so for every three decks of expanded public options, you get nine times as many additional people to fill 'em up.
That's fine for the most part -- the cruise lines are adept at designing public areas so that passengers fan out rather than congregating in one spot -- but what about those signature amenities that the lines tout in the TV and print ads, and that everybody wants to try while they're aboard? I'm talking about that amazing specialty restaurant, that incredible new spa treatment, or that totally can't-miss shore excursion, the one you'll remember for the rest of your life?
They fill up faster than you can say "velvet rope," that's what happens.
Increased competition for The Big Draw is one of the downsides to cruise ship supersizing, turning ordinary cruisers into track stars as they sprint from the gangway straight to the spa, restaurant, or shore excursions desk as soon as they. You may have to wait in line there, but hey, you snooze you lose, babe.
Or do you?
Increasingly, cruise lines are creating high-tech pre-booking systems to cut the queues on embarkation day, letting you take care of the details before you board.
Shore excursions were the first to get this kind of attention, and today Carnival, Celebrity, Costa, Crystal, Disney, Holland America, NCL, Princess, Radisson Seven Seas, Royal Caribbean, and Silversea all let guests pre-book or pre-reserve, mostly online and sometimes via phone, fax, or mail. Excursions are listed on the lines' websites, along with descriptions, durations, and usually prices.
Pre-booking is a particularly good idea for more adventurous excursions, which often accommodate only a limited number of participants.
Cruise line policies vary regarding cancellations. If you cancel far in advance, you'll usually get a full refund. If you cancel closer to tour day you may be able to switch to another tour or get an onboard credit. Cancel within 24 hours of arrival to the port, though, and you'll almost always have to eat the cost of the tour, since cruise lines need to finalize their reservations with shoreside tour operators at least a day ahead.
Systems for prebooking shore excursions are relatively straightforward -- if your ship is in port, you're free to take an excursion. Systems for prebooking spa appointments, however, are far more complex, since they must take into account whether your appointment will fall while you're at sea or on land and whether you're already scheduled to be at a meal or on a tour at that time.
Princess Cruises (tel. 800-PRINCESS; www.princess.com) implemented the first spa pre-booking system in 2004 aboard its megaships Caribbean Princess and Sapphire Princess. Luxury operator Silversea Cruises (tel. 800/722-9955; www.silversea.com) also allows prebooking of spa appointments on all of its ships through the new "My Voyage" feature on its website. At Cunard (tel. 800/728-6273; www.cunard.com), the Queen Mary 2's Canyon Ranch Spa accepts pre-cruise reservations, but only for guests in the top class suites and past Canyon Ranch customers. The rich get all the perks, huh?
Three cruise lines do not a trend make, but spa pre-booking may soon become the industry-wide standard. According to inside sources, Steiner Leisure Ltd. (www.steinerleisure.com), the British company that staffs and operates nearly every cruise ship spa, is currently working on a reservations system. Still in the development stage, the system -- code-named SilverSpa -- will allow booked passengers to reserve their spa appointments pre-cruise through the cruise lines' own websites. Sources say the system is getting closer to reality, with a first shipboard trial scheduled for sometime in the second quarter of 2005. If all goes well, SilverSpa would be extended to 20 to 25 ships within eight to twelve months.
What's next? Maybe pre-booking for those specialty restaurants, which typically seat 100 or fewer guests and often book up fast. Crystal Cruises (tel. 866/446-6625; www.crystalcruises.com) already has such a system in place, and Radisson Seven Seas is reportedly working on one.
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