Does your vision of a cruise entail donning an evening gown or tux and joining a human cattle herd on a forced march as soon as the dinner bell is rung? Many cruise lines are trying to attract first-time passengers by ensuring that those days are over.
It wasn't until about 20 years ago, when Windstar introduced its "Casual Elegance" experience, promoting dinners with no dress code, that cruise lines began to become more flexible with dining requirements on board. The idea spilled over to Seabourn shortly after, and called attention to the strong market for cruises with more lenient rules.
Now, it's difficult to find one cruise line where some form of freedom of choice isn't being promoted, whether it's the option of having dinner or breakfast delivered to your cabin, as is being offered on Seabourn, Celebrity Cruises and Crystal Cruises; or earlier embarkation, which Holland America offers.
But the biggest push in relaxed cruising is coming from Norwegian Cruise Line. You've seen the ads. So what exactly is Freestyle Cruising?
The Freestyle Cruising concept is characterized by no fixed dining times, no formal dress codes, up to 10 different restaurants, flexible disembarkation and muliple bars, theaters, activities and entertainment options.
It can be broken down into five parts:
1. The centerpiece of Freestyle Cruising is Freestyle Dining, which allows guests to eat in a different restaurant every night of the week, if they wish. You can pick a time that suits you and choose different dinner companions each night, at a table seating up to 10 people.
2. Unlike other lines that may have a formal or semiformal dress code each evening, Freestyle Attire designates "resort casual" as the dress code throughout the fleet.
3. Freestyle Service upgrades the service ratio onboard NCL ships to one crew member for every passenger, comparable to the best land-based resorts.
4. Freestyle Disembarkation means guests can depart the ship at their leisure, rather than waiting for their designated debarkation times.
5. The Freestyle Lifestyle and Enrichment Programs provide a multitude of activities for every personality type, including "175 activities for Type A. 900 deck chairs for Type B," as the line likes to say.
NCL even offers a wide choice of gateway cities where you can board your ship. Vessels sail from nine mainland-U.S. homeports: Boston, Philadelphia, Charleston, New York, Miami, New Orleans, Houston, Los Angeles and Seattle. Destinations include the Caribbean, Bermuda, the Bahamas, Canada, New England, the Mexican Riviera, Alaska and even seasonal transatlantic crossings to Europe.
There are 11 ships sailing under the NCL banner, including four built especially for Freestyle Cruising. Many have raised the bar for innovative design. Among the pioneering amenities you'll find is a new bar concept called "Bar Central"—three watering holes, each with a distinct personality. You can wet your whistle at the martini bar, the champagne-and-wine bar, or the beer-and-whisky pub. Technological enhancements include an in-cabin interactive system called Freestyle iTV, which allows the user to order movies and room service, book shore excursions and send e-mail.
Freestyle Cruising is available on the company's three NCL America ships: the Pride of Aloha, Pride of Hawaii and Pride of America, the only U.S.-flagged, American-crewed ocean-going cruise ships in service. These vessels offer passengers the unique opportunity to sail the Hawaiian Islands year-round, with roundtrip sailings departing from Honolulu and Maui.
And Freestyle Cruising is affordable: Prices for a seven-day cruise to the western Caribbean from Houston start at just $379 per person, based on double occupancy. What are you waiting for?
Flexible onboard dining options Are a big selling point
NCL's advertising blitz for Freestyle Cruising and its new agent support tools make it a good time to pitch cruises
There's a reason why the cruise industry brings $1.4 billion into the U.S. economy and why agents claim it's the easiest form of travel to sell: There are so many choices and so much demand. The Norwegian Star touting the Freestyle Cruising message
New ports of call are popping up all over the world, new vessels are being built, on-ship activities keep getting more creative and restrictions on dining and dress are being lifted. The trend toward more relaxed cruising could be the most significant, since cruise industry representatives often attribute set schedules and a lack of dining alternatives as the main barriers to attracting new passengers.
Crystal Cruises and other luxury lines are now offering customizable shore excursions. For example, passengers can visit an art gallery or schedule a cooking lesson. These boutique experiences fit the need in today's society to customize everything from jeans to coffee.
But it's Norwegian Cruise Line that coined the term "Freestyle Cruising" when the line introduced the concept in May 2000. NCL recently re-introduced it with the line's first national media campaign in 10 years. The company estimates it will spend $100 million on the campaign in its first year, with messages to both prospective clients and agents.
Online Tools: NCL's web site has a newly reconfigured section for travel agents where they can plan itineraries, order marketing materials and design and personalize e-mails and flyers. Agents also have access to new photography to help in their client marketing.
Features to be introduced soon include a booking engine with a side-by-side package comparison tool listing multiple pricing options, including packages. Agents will also be able to book connecting cabins and group space online, add existing individual reservations to group reservations and quickly locate clients' Latitudes information.
New Ships: NCL's next ship to enter service will be the Norwegian Pearl. Although all the details have yet to be announced, we do know that the Pearl will set sail with the cruise industry's first onboard bowling alley. And NCL has announced an order for its largest ships yet: up to three post-Panamax ships under the project name "F-3." Registering 150,000 tons with 4,200 berths, these will be the third generation of vessels constructed specifically for Freestyle Cruising, and the first too big to fit through the Panama Canal. The first F3 is scheduled to make its debut in the fourth quarter of 2009.
Target Clients: Although Freestyle Cruising is targeted at first-time or "reluctant" cruisers, agents should not overlook its appeal to others. It may be of particular appeal to multi-generational groups, such as family reunions.
Commissions: NCL's commissions begin at 10 percent and rise in tiers based on productivity.
For more information and details on NCL's commission structure, agents should contact an NCL business development representative at 800-327-7030.
Dining: As flexible dining is a hallmark of unstructured cruising, here we discuss options on eight lines.
Carnival Cruise Lines: Total Choice Dining offers four assigned seatings for dinner in two main dining rooms, with reservations-only alternative dining in the upper-deck supper club for steak and seafood. Casual dining is available in the buffet restaurant, which in-cludes Asian fare, a deli and a 24-hour pizzeria. Visit www.carnival.com.
Celebrity Cruises: Dinner is served with two assigned seatings in the main dining room. Michel Roux is an upscale, reservations-only alternative restaurant (varies by ship). Casual dining options include a Sushi Cafe.Visit www.celebrity.com.
Crystal Cruises: Dinner is served with two assigned seatings in the main dining room. Alternative dining is available in two reservations-only restaurants, featuring Italian and Asian menus designed by celebrity chefs like Wolfgang Puck. Visit www.crystalcruises.com.
Cunard Line: Dining room assignments are made according to cabin category. Alternative dining is available in the reservations-only Todd English restaurant, The Kings Court for Asian cuisine, or the Chef's Galley, where chefs do Food Network-style presentations. Visit www.cunard.com.
Holland America Line: Dinner is served with four assigned seatings in the main dining room. Alternative dining is available in the upscale, reservations-only Pinnacle Grill featuring Pacific Northwest specialties. Casual dinners are served in the Lido Restaurant. Visit www.hollandamerica.com.
Norwegian Cruise Line: Freestyle Dining offers a choice of up to 10 restaurants. Choices vary by ship and may include French, steakhouse and 1950s diner. Visit www.ncl.com.
Princess Cruises: Personal Choice Dining includes two assigned seatings of Traditional Dining or Anytime Dining, which has open seating. Casual options include the 24-hour Horizon Court; up-scale, reservations-only restaurants vary by ship and include Crown Grill (steak and seafood). Visit www.princess.com.
Royal Caribbean: Dinner is served with two assigned seatings in the main dining room. Multiple dining venues vary by ship and may include Sorrento's Pizza and Johnny Rockets. Upscale reservations-only restaurants include Portofino (Italian) and Chops Grille (steak and seafood). Visit www.royalcaribbean.com. —MTS and JP