How Cruise Lines Are Adapting to Meet the Changing Preferences of U.S. Travelers

January 2024 saw the launch of Icon of the Seas, the world’s largest cruise ship with 20 decks, seven pools and a maximum capacity of 7,600 passengers. But that’s just the start. Coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic, cruising has returned to its rightful place as a major player in the global tourism industry and is growing at a fast clip. In fact, from 2024–2028, 34 new ships are in CLIA’s orderbook, adding 17% capacity to the market. That’s over 110,000 extra beds to fill on every embarkation day. This translates to the industry needing to source 8 million incremental passengers over the next four years. So, where are all these guests coming from? It’s time to say “all aboard” to the never-cruised-before segment.

Last month in Miami during the Seatrade Cruise Global conference, MMGY Global, in partnership with Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) and Travelzoo, released the U.S. edition of its landmark study titled Shore to Ship: Attracting the Next Wave of Cruisers.

What does this group want? Not surprisingly, the vast majority say relaxation is the primary driver to book a cruise. However, a growing percentage are also looking for diverse and enriching experiences such as cultural exploration, adventure activities and comprehensive wellness programs. These findings point to an American market ready for more personalized cruise offerings that cater to specific interests and preferences across age groups.

Where do they want to go? Not too far. Most new-to-cruise Americans (63%) would be interested in taking a close-to-home Caribbean cruise rather than testing their sea legs in Hawaii (48%) or the Mediterranean (40%).

Who do they want to go with? A strong preference among potential cruisers (61%) is to travel with a spouse or partner. However, many indicated they are single (unmarried, widowed, divorced or separated) and would travel alone if experiences appeal to them. This increase in solo demand has yielded many major cruise lines to add more single-person cabins, eliminating the need to pay a single supplement.

Is it worth the money? Yes. Most of those polled (64%) think a cruise vacation provides good value for money. This, though, is a new perception. In fact, only 36% cite price as a current concern, whereas 60% noted it as a past reason for not booking. The “unpack once, everything included” message has its appeal today. Of course everyone wants a good deal, so when asked what would make cruises more appealing, the top responses were promotions/discounts (52%) followed by information on health and safety standards (39%), extended time to explore destinations (37%) and a variety of destination offerings (36%).

Perhaps most interestingly, a majority of prospective cruisers are actually willing to pay more for travel services that demonstrate environmental responsibility, reflecting a growing consumer trend toward sustainable travel choices. Note: many of the new ships will be built with greener fuel systems and other modernizations for less environmental impact.
What’s caused this shift in mindset? It might be word of mouth or seeing engaging photos in social feeds. Not surprisingly, friends and family are overwhelmingly the most influential information sources for potential cruisers when researching travel options (58%), while destination websites (34%), travel review websites (29%) and online travel agencies (29%) are the next most popular.

Is this the hottest topic? Yes, because it’s a big audience to crack. Not coincidentally, “How to Attract the New-to-Cruise Passenger” was a hot panel at Seatrade. AFAR’s deputy editor Michelle Baran hosted the executive discussion, which mirrored many of the above findings and noted some other indicators that may move the needle with the never-cruised segment, such as: ensuring good internet service is included, having different products with personal spaces for a variety of audiences (i.e., ship-within-a-ship offerings), providing something for everyone on big resort-style ships targeted at families while also maintaining small luxury ship products for mature audiences, and offering an abundance of casual dining options (set times and formal nights are a thing of the past).

The bottom line is the cruise industry is proactively preparing for an increase in ship inventory to satisfy growing worldwide demand. If you haven’t sailed, it’s time to get on board.