New ships, expanded technology and pop culture phenomena are some of the factors making 2014 an alluring year for a vacation at sea.
January through March is known as "wave season" -- when cruise lines roll out perks and promotions to entice travelers. But don't fret if you're not ready to plunk down your credit card. Experts are predicting more year-round savings at sea.
The traditional wave season booking window can be a great time to snag a deal such as 2-for-1 fares, on-board credits and suite upgrades, according to online cruise guide Cruise Critic, but it doesn't always reflect rock-bottom pricing.
Cruise Critic Editor-in-Chief Carolyn Spencer Brown says that she's expecting this year to bring "especially competitive pricing" in the Caribbean, because of an influx of ships plying those waters. And if Alaska is on your cruising bucket list, she says now is a great time to book and take advantage of discounts for travel in April or May.
"The first tip for saving money is not to primarily focus on saving money," Spencer Brown says. Good value comes from not only getting the right price but also in finding the right trip for your vacation needs and preferences.
To that end, Christine Duffy, president of Cruise Lines International Association, says online research is fine, but ultimately working with a trained agent will get you the best prices because cruises are "much more complicated than booking a flight from point A to point B." Agents familiar with all the options can help with cabin selection, shore excursions and even packaging airfare to get the lowest price.
Follow your preferred cruise line on social media to keep up with flash sales and seasonal specials.
Once you're on board, amazing add-ons can boost your experience, but they usually come with a hefty price tag. Check to see if your cruise line offers any advance-purchase deals for dining, alcohol or spa treatments. And "keep an eye out for specials advertised in the daily program," Spencer Brown advises, as those can be big money savers.
Stick to a set budget for a la carte purchases for a vacation free of financial surprise and use the on-screen feature on your cabin TV to track your daily spending. "Be sure to resolve any concerns before the final day," Spencer Brown says.
Cruising in 2014 is a far cry from the lazy stereotypes of bygone years; today's cruiser can plan on zip lining and skydiving between meals shared with "The Cat in the Hat" or a favorite musician. Pop culture has invaded the oceans.
Here are five things cruise lines are doing to lure new and repeat cruisers:
Creating exotic and intimate experiences
Cruise ships are getting a warm welcome in Asia, where Cruise Lines International Association says 3.7 million passengers per year are expected by 2017. From the wilderness of the Russian Far East to ports in Myanmar and Malaysia, there's an emphasis on taking passengers to places far off the beaten path. Singapore, Hong Kong, Thailand and Japan are also beckoning cruise ships.
What's more, exotic destinations can also equal top cruising value, according to Spencer Brown.
"Destinations like Japan, Norway and Australia offer exceptional value for money, as exploring them by land tends to be extremely expensive, but traveling by cruise ship costs much less and is often more convenient," she says.
The Cruise Critic editor also flags the Panama Canal as a hot spot; it turns 100 this year, with a new visitors' center ready to welcome cruise passengers.
The rivers of the world are also commanding more attention, with tailored itineraries and smaller, luxury vessels attracting globetrotters. River cruising is the fastest-growing segment of the cruise industry, says Duffy, with eight of the 17 new ships due out in 2014 destined for river journeys.
Offering shorter -- and longer -- voyages
To attract first-timers wary of an entire week at sea, cruise lines are offering more weekend-length cruises.
At the same time, lines have realized that sometimes, the typical shore excursion doesn't allow enough time to revel in all that a port has to offer, so itineraries have changed. For example, Norwegian and Royal Caribbean spend more than a day in Bermuda, Carnival ships stop overnight in Nassau, Bahamas, and a Seabourn sails with a three-day stopover in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Connectivity is at an all-time high on the high seas, with bow-to-stern Wi-Fi and less expensive communication services than in years past. Cruise lines have spent millions revamping their wireless infrastructures, increasing bandwidth for faster connection speeds and even offering perks such as 500 minutes of free Wi-Fi that's given to concierge-level cruisers aboard Regent Seven Seas Cruises. These are especially appealing to the social media-loving millennial crowd, who can't wait to share their vacation experiences via Twitter and Instagram.
Harnessing the power of pop culture
The "wow" factor of cruising is still strong, with ships constantly trying to outdo each other, not only with bigger and better berths but also with unique activities and elite celebrity associations. This year marks the debut of "Seuss at Sea," a family program on Carnival Cruise Lines, featuring Dr. Seuss-themed fun including "Green Eggs and Ham" breakfasts, costume parades and character events.
Adults will have no problem finding their pop culture fix afloat, thanks to programs such as "Dancing With the Stars at Sea" competitions on Holland America, which will lead to a complimentary seven-day "champions cruise" for 15 finalists and their guests in December. For the less competitive, every Holland America cruise offers free dance classes based on routines from the hit TV show.
Rolling out new ships
Every year brings new vessels designed to convince landlubbers of the advantages of a journey at sea. While this year brings fewer "mega ships" than in the past, innovation remains in the forefront on ships of all sizes.
Here is a handful of this year's newcomers:
• Quantum of the Seas: This Royal Caribbean ship gets the "wow factor" award, with a skydiving simulator, bumper cars, an aerial viewing pod and inside cabins with "virtual balconies" thanks to giant LCD screens showing an ocean view.
• Norwegian Getaway: The Broadway musical "Legally Blonde" will be on board as well as the line's signature special-effects magic show. Miami pop artist David "Lebo" Le Batard was commissioned for the ship's impressive hull art, which features a whimsical mermaid.
• Costa Diadema: Diadema is Italian for tiara, and this ship will be the largest and most modern built for Costa Cruises. Set to launch in late 2014, it will hold more than 3,700 passengers and feature public areas that resemble a beachfront resort.
• Avalon Waterways' Illumination: This is one of three Avalon Suite Ships coming out in 2014; each features two decks of panorama suites with wall-to-wall windows, complimentary Wi-Fi and alfresco dining options.
• Viking Cruises Longships: Fourteen of these will launch from Avignon, France. Each will hold fewer than 200 passengers and offer five cabin sizes, including massive 445-square-foot Explorer Suites with balconies off the bedrooms and living rooms.
• Regal Princess: An adults-only pool, a glass-enclosed "SeaWalk" extending 128 feet over the water and balconies for all outside cabins are among the highlights on this 3,560-passenger vessel.
• Pearl Mist: All 108 staterooms have private balconies on this new luxury ship being built for Pearl Seas Cruises. What's more, a dozen of the cabins were built for solo travelers.