Faster (and sometimes) free Wi-Fi. More opportunities to dine outdoors. Smarter, hipper entertainment.
Those are just some of the improvements you'll find at sea in 2015. Along with getting bigger, ships are getting better, ushering in a new era of cruise ship as resort.
The insistence on formal attire and assigned seatings for dining has faded on some cruise lines. Today, you're more likely to pack khakis than a tux or a ball gown, and meals are often on your schedule, not the ship's.
The biggest change for the plugged-in passenger (and who isn't connected these days?) is improved Internet access. At sea, access has been slow, expensive and not always reliable. Its sluggishness has kept travelers from uploading pictures efficiently (ouch, if you're joined at the hip with, say, Instagram) and streaming videos.
Royal Caribbean worked with O3B, a company that brings Wi-Fi to developing countries, to launch faster, cheaper Internet access on Quantum of the Seas when it debuted in November, and the cruise line is rolling it out to Oasis of the Seas and Allure of the Seas. The line also worked with Harris CapRock in 2013 to improve the digital speed on the rest of the fleet as well as its Celebrity Cruises and Azamara Club Cruises brands.
In the spring, Viking Cruises launches the Viking Star with complimentary Wi-Fi. Although a few lines have offered free Wi-Fi as a bonus for frequent cruisers or a benefit in certain suites, this oceangoing line will offer it to everyone. (Maybe hotels will take notice?) These developments should have a ripple effect throughout the industry.
As for a different kind of consumption, cruise lines are increasingly letting passengers enjoy outdoor dining. Most ships have long offered casual dining by the pool but, come nighttime, most options have been indoors, a missed opportunity for those who want to enjoy balmy evenings in the Mediterranean or the Caribbean.
In the last couple of years, Crystal Cruises has added outdoor dining venues to ships that were in dry dock, and Norwegian Cruise Line is offering open-air tables as part of the Ocean Blue restaurant. Viking also is creating open-air options.
Entertainment is changing too. On some ships, the curtain is coming down on variety shows. Stage shows on large cruise ships are more often defined by partnerships with land-based production companies. Norwegian, for instance, is working with Blue Man Group and Burn the Floor (ballroom dancing with a Broadway flair). Norwegian also has partnered with the Grammy Awards and offers performances by Grammy winners and nominees on some journeys.
You'll find abbreviated versions of Broadway musicals too: Norwegian offers "Legally Blonde" on Norwegian Getaway and "Rock of Ages" on Norwegian Breakaway; the line plans to launch "Priscilla: Queen of the Desert" in October on Norwegian Epic. Royal Caribbean stages "Chicago" on Allure of the Seas, "Cats" on Oasis of the Seas and "Mamma Mia!" on Quantum of the Seas; it will launch "We Will Rock You" on Anthem of the Seas in April.
As perhaps the ultimate in improvements, you now have a greater number of cabin choices. In days past, you could specify inside, outside, balcony or a suite. Nowadays, Norwegian, Royal Caribbean and Cunard offer special "studio" cabins for single travelers who previously would have been assessed a single supplement for a solo spot.
If you're in a lower-category cabin where space can be snug, some cruise lines are using technology to create a more open feeling. Disney Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean have LED screens designed to look like windows that show a view from the bridge so you can see what's going on outside.
Cruise Tip of the Week
Check on newest amenities before you book
If you've fallen in love with a cruise line's newest features — say, the skydiving simulator or robot bartenders on Royal Caribbean or the Guy Fieri-branded burger bar on Carnival — be sure to confirm before you book that your ship has the latest and greatest. Sometimes — but not always — lines retroactively add the most popular new features to older vessels. Check before you pay your deposit.