Carley D. Thornell | Special to USA TODAY
Dan and Jennie Sullivan are avid cruisers who honeymooned on a massive Caribbean ocean liner. But now that the Methuen, Massachusetts, the couple is pregnant with their first child – and social distancing is a not-so-distant memory – they’re thinking twice about crowds, and taking a second look at smaller vessels.
They’re not alone.
Small ship ocean cruising is riding a wave of U.S. travelers ready to get back out on the high seas on lower-capacity ships.
“We’re seeing a massive group of our past passengers coming back,” said UnCruise Adventures founder and CEO Capt. Dan Blanchard. “But we’re also seeing a mix of people who used to cruise in the traditional form on your large lines, like Carnival, who during the pandemic changed their behavior.”
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Bookings from passengers new to UnCruise in the first half of 2022 are already at 71% of the total number of cruisers new to the brand in all of 2021.
Travelers’ perception of safety isn’t ungrounded, Blanchard said. With a capacity of just 22 to 88 people on UnCruise ships – instead of thousands – passengers “feel more assured,” he said.
WindStar Cruises, which also runs lower-capacity sailings, said it too is seeing a record number of travelers new to the brand, which president Chris Prelog attributed largely to safety measures like vaccination requirements.
WindStar also refitted its entire fleet – three sailing yachts and three all-suite motor yachts – with hospital-grade HEPA filters and ultraviolet germicidal irradiation.
Rather than inquiring about itineraries, one of the first questions we are receiving on the phones is “What are your health protocols?” Prelog said.
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How is small-ship cruising different from large-scale cruising?
The recent transformation of WindStar’s three all-suite, 312-passenger yachts is also proving particularly prescient. The lengthening projects have increased the amount of outdoor public spaces, one of which includes a barbecue restaurant for al fresco dining. Another new tapas concept brings the total number of dining options onboard each of the refreshed yachts to four, giving travelers “more choice and value” with WindStar’s all-inclusive meal plan, Prelog said.
While all-inclusive cruising isn’t new, record inflation is. The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization’s international prices index shows that amidst soaring costs of living, food prices increased 33.6% from March 2021 to March 2022. Comprehensive small ship cruise pricing may ultimately sweep the unpredictability of prices on a plan-it-yourself vacation out with the tides, said Prelog.
“Rental car costs, food and gas prices, Uber and Lyft rides, when you factor all of these things in, small ship cruising is truly a fantastic way of traveling without worrying about those things,” Prelog added.
Large-scale ocean cruising’s newer pricing structures feel like “nickel and diming,” said Jennie Sullivan, and the addition of specialty restaurants that aren’t part of all-inclusive rates have left her with a bad taste in her mouth.
“You’ll end up spending $100 or so on those dinners, which really adds up,” she said. Previously, “the minute you stepped on ship, you didn’t worry about paying for anything – it was like you were truly on vacation.”
On WindStar’s all-suite yachts, guests can choose any restaurant for any meal as part of the standard cruise price – and, unlike many large ocean vessels, each stateroom has a water view. An all-inclusive eight-day European vacation with WindStar starts at $2,199 and features meals, alcoholic beverages and Wi-Fi.
At UnCruise, relationships with local suppliers help tamp down food prices, said Blanchard. The other part of the cost-control equation is the inherent nature of a small ship journey – his itineraries use a lot less fuel.
“A large cruise ship will travel about 1,600 to 2,000 miles per week in Alaska,” he said. “Ours travel between 350 and 500, because our goal is presenting an adventure experience where you get off the ship, not just continually cruise.”
That’s no surprise for Steve Jermanok, co-founder of boutique travel agency ActiveTravels. More so than ever, his customers are asking for immersive, experiential journeys, he said. But their other request is for “seamless” travel, and an all-inclusive trip is one of the easiest ways for Jermanok to accommodate.
UnCruise Adventurers will have more options thanks to recent and upcoming christenings from Emerald Cruises. The line, renowned for its river journeys, is now embarking on all-inclusive oceangoing tours aboard 100-passenger Azzurra, which hit the seas this spring. An identical sister ship, the Sakura, will be introduced in 2023.