Going on a cruise used to be as simple as booking a ticket and making a few choices about what to do. Guests often waited until they boarded to book shore excursions and spa treatments.
But the menu of cruise activities has expanded, as have the number of things that can be prearranged from shore.
Today, cruise lines are trying to make it as easy as possible to plan and book onboard activities in advance of departure. The proliferation of options has grown hand-in-hand with the technological capabilities that make selecting cruise activities easy.
The latest example comes from Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. (RCCL), which has retooled its planning function so guests can book everything from specialty dining reservations to beverage packages from the comfort of their couch.
“We been focused on letting our guests hit the ground running on day one, whereas in the past, sometimes day one was spent figuring out what you were going to do,” said Jeff DeKorte, vice president for Web and digital media at RCCL.
RCCL’s new tool, Cruise Planner, replaces an 8-year-old pre-cruise planning module that was increasingly outdated.
The old system had none of the new e-commerce functions, such as shopping carts and wish lists, things that consumers increasingly take for granted when buying things online.
“Every time you bought a new product during the session, you had to enter your credit card again,” DeKorte said. “It was very difficult.”
One of the big improvements in Cruise Planner is the ability to migrate between digital platforms without losing data. So, for example, someone might start researching shore excursions in the morning on their mobile phone, continue at lunch on their desktop PC, and finish after dinner on a tablet while watching TV.
Tablet functionality, which barely existed on the old platform, is now robust, DeKorte said. He hopes that moms that typically do a lot of the cruise planning can now share the load.
“Our vision was to create a product where … the family could lean back on the couch and literally she could hand the tablet to the kids and say, ‘You guys figure out what you want to do, watch the videos, look at the shore excursions, [select] swim with the dolphins and add it to the calendar or the wish list.’
“And then mom can come back later and she can organize,” DeKorte said.
Travel agents can use the tool to the extent that they do pre-cruise planning for clients, either as a service or for a fee.
“It really depends on the agency and the level of service they’re providing to their guests,” DeKorte said. “For those agents who choose not to provide that service to the guests, there’s a much easier tool for them to direct the guest to use.”
As the list of things to prearrange before a cruise grows longer, it threatens to take some of the serendipity out of a cruise vacation. Simply showing up at the ship without a sheet of activities selected in advance seems like a throwback to a simpler time.
But DeKorte said tools like Cruise Planner are meant to provide options, not become a burdensome requirement. “The beautiful thing is for guests who want to take their vacation one day at a time like that, they certainly can,” he said.
At least one other line is also making moves to make pre-cruise planning easier.
Norwegian Cruise Line recently opened its specialty restaurants to reservations 90 days before departure, up from 45 days previously. Guests can also book entertainment options such as Blue Man Group or Cirque Dreams on the Norwegian Epic, Breakaway and Getaway through their MyNCL accounts.
Spa treatments on the Norwegian Epic can now also be booked in advance. Vanessa Picariello, a spokeswoman for Norwegian, said the spa preregistration may be extended to other ships, but that Norwegian still doesn’t have a timetable for when that might happen.
Follow Tom Stieghorst on Twitter @tstravelweekly.