A sea of changes await cruise passengers this year

Quantum of the Seas

Royal Caribbean worked with O3B, a company that brings Wi-Fi to developing countries, to launch fast, cheap Internet access on Quantum of the Seas. (Jonathan Atkin / PR Newswire)

By Dave Jones

Cruises Royal Caribbean International Mamma Mia! (musical) Dining and Drinking Lifestyle and Leisure Blue Man Group

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 night time, 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.

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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.

Happy Sailing!

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Royal Caribbean tests Internet capability by offering free WiFi

Royal Caribbean International has given away Internet access for the past couple of weeks on its newest ship, Quantum of the Seas.

The ship is one of three to be rigged for communications with the O3b mid-level satellite network, that provides for greater bandwidth and communications speeds.

The debut of a new, faster Internet service on Royal Caribbean International ships is only weeks away.

Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. Chairman Richard Fain said in a conference call with Wall Street analysts on Thursday that the system is now in testing on Oasis of the Seas, and full rollout is expected in early summer.

Provider O3B is using a series of mid-orbit satellites for the service, rather than one geostationary satellite orbiting at 22,000 miles. That means signals travel shorter distances, increasing speeds.

Fain said that the change will give Oasis “more Internet bandwidth than every other cruise ship of every other cruise line in the world combined.”

The service is initially targeted for Oasis of the Seas and the upcoming Quantum-class ships.

Internet service with speeds closer to those on land will help Royal Caribbean attract Millennial generation cruisers (ages 14-34) in particular, Fain said.

Royal Caribbean President Michael Bayley said guests were encouraged to use as much Internet capacity as they wanted or needed at no charge during recent cruises.

“On Quantum, because we have so much bandwidth, over the past three weeks we’ve given out free WiFi. I mean free, free, free all the time,” Bayley told a group of travel agents on Freedom of the Seas over the weekend.

Royal Caribbean officials said the experiment was a kind of “stress test” to see just how much demand the system can handle.

“So we’ve been monitoring the consumption of bandwidth when we let everybody have free bandwidth — the crew, the guests, everybody — and we’ve only used a fraction of it,” Bayley said.

The standard charge on most Royal Caribbean ships for Internet access is 65 cents a minute.

Cruise line officials said it is unlikely that Internet access will become free on ships equipped with O3b. The current working model is to charge like many land resorts a fee of $10 to $15 a day for unlimited access, Royal Caribbean spokesman Harry Liu said.

There will be a premium package for large-bandwidth usage like streaming video, and Bayley said the line is exploring what it can do with such applications.

“Soon we’re going to start speaking more about this capability,” Bayley told the agents. “Because of the scale and size of this bandwidth, we could do streaming videos. It’s genuinely as good as being in a city somewhere in the United States. It is better than that.”

When Facebook gives way to face time

By Tom Stieghorst
*InsightTeens talk to each other on a cruise. My wife made that observation on a recent cruise we took with our two daughters.

I instantly knew what she meant. It wasn’t just that they were conversing, but that they were doing it without the constant reference to a mobile device, seemingly grafted to their hands.

It is very refreshing to see teens talking to each other unaided by devices. Call it one of the unintended benefits of a cruise vacation.

Internet access on a cruise is expensive. As the father of a teen, I say great. It provides me with an excuse to just say no to connecting online. I told my two girls on the cruise they could have the scrap minutes at the end of the cruise after I had used most of my package for work.*TomStieghorst

Once, telecommunications were so difficult at sea that disconnecting was a universal experience for cruise passengers. That has gone away as connections got more reliable and prices for service came down.

So adults can no longer hide from the office, take a break from clients or escape from everyday interactions by taking a cruise. That has its upsides, of course, but not a few of us would willingly trade them away.

As parents, however, one of the worries we have with our teens is whether they will squander the chance to see the world and experience new things because they’re glued to their phones 24/7.

Like the time a few years ago when I drove through Rocky Mountain National Park only to find my daughters’ eyes feasting on a 2- by 3-inch screen instead of the 12,000-foot vistas and overlooks.

My kids make friends with other kids from all over the world on a cruise. My older daughter spent the cruise comparing lives with new friends from England. My younger daughter is still in touch (via social media, of course) with a group from California she met last year on a Holland America cruise.

I like to think that one reason for that is that they are out of touch with old friends long enough to make new ones. Of course, the minute we make the dock, they’re eagerly scanning the waterfront for an Internet cafe.

So far cruise lines have focused on improving Internet quality, rather than reducing the price of a profitable service. But Royal Caribbean International is about to up the ante with the imminent debut of O3B on Allure of the Seas, which promises “land-like” connection speeds.

For now, access is expensive enough that I can keep my kids off the grid on a cruise. I hope it stays that way. Call me old-fashioned, but there should be some place where face-to-face communication thrives, and if it is on a ship, so much the better for cruising.