Cruise Critic reports September bookings trended 60% above August levels, and Editor-in-Chief Colleen McDaniel said: 'It is feeling again like the same momentum we had in July before the Delta variant put the brakes on shopper confidence.

‘We have seen notable improvements across all the key metrics we look at for shopping and confidence. Booking times have decreased dramatically and there is real intent to get away before the end of the year, with December seeing the highest increase in bookings of any month in the US.

Different views in UK and Australia

The UK didn’t see the same challenges in August as the US, McDaniel noted, and has maintained a ‘healthy trajectory for recovery.’ She added that search time frames continue to be short, with nearly 40% of all searches starting in the fourth quarter.

And, in Australia, with the news that international travel is set to restart from mid-December, Cruise Critic has seen a ‘sharp rise in clicks and searches for Q1 2022.’

More tolerance for stricter protocols

This new-found confidence is borne out in Cruise Critic’s Delta variant survey conducted in early September, where respondents were even more tolerant of changing (stricter) protocols if it means they can get back on the ships (and feel safe).

McDaniel presented survey highlights at Seatrade Cruise Global last week.

Key takeaways of the emailed survey, which had 5,400 responses, include ‘no significant shifts in sentiment, maybe a point or two here and there on questions about keeping a booked cruise, one’s desire to cruise, etc. but nothing that indicates people are any more hesitant to book and sail on a cruise than last month.’

 The biggest shift observed was in mask and testing tolerance, McDaniel said.

‘I’m fine with both masks and testing — the safer the better’ went from 59.4% in August to 68.7% in September, a 9.3% increase, indicating more tolerance of changing protocols.

‘I’m OK with testing, but I won’t wear a mask’ shifted from 25.5% in August to 17.2% in September, a 7.3% decrease, indicating people are becoming more accepting of wearing a mask on a cruise.

Booking is high

Sixty-six percent of respondents have a cruise booked and, of those, 92% plan to sail in the next year. Eight percent were reconsidering their plans.

Intent to cruise remains strong

Eighty-three percent of respondents are confident they’ll again book a cruise; more than a quarter said they would book a cruise a year or more out. Eighty-nine percent said they won’t be ready to sail for at least seven months.

Cruisers who haven’t yet booked are more open to exotic destinations than those who have booked.

Longer cruises

Contrary to early pandemic indications that people would lean toward short cruises, the survey found 41% are interested in sailings of six to nine days and 38% in sailings of 10 to 14 days. McDaniel said this jibes with anecdotal information from on board and Cruise Critic forums: ‘People are ready to travel, and they don’t want short trips.’

Destination tops considerations

Top considerations for book a cruise are destination (nearly 70%) followed by price (just over 60%) and desire for a flexible cancellation policy (50%). Thirty percent of respondents want a drive-to homeport while just under 30% desire a smaller ship.

Close-to-home destinations remain popular

The Caribbean/Bahamas/Bermuda topped the survey for the destination of their next booked cruise, with a 49% share, followed by Europe (ocean) with 15% and North America, 13%. Other destinations came in at a 5% or smaller sliver. As McDaniel noted: ‘Exotics are low on the list.’

Some 87% of respondents said they’ll be sailing with adults on their next cruise — not surprising considering many lines’ capacity limits for unvaccinated children.

Confidence in destinations is shaky

McDaniel said 34% of people who have cruises booked aren’t sure they will take shore excursions. The 56% who plan to do so said they’ll book through the cruise line and an additional 10% with an independent excursion provider while 8% don’t plan to take tours.

Important aspects of the next cruise

Survey respondents were asked to rank, in order, the importance of 11 aspects of their next cruise. Answers, in order: itinerary, price, ship, safety policies and protocols, cabins/suites, shore excursion offerings, restaurant, entertainment options (shows, daytime activities, etc.), adult-only areas on board, bar and lounge options, kids’ clubs and family offerings.

Online booking emerges

The Cruise Critic survey found that more than half of respondents’ bookings were made online — a departure from pre-pandemic surveys/user testing by the site, which overwhelmingly favored the phone. Of the online bookings, 30% were directly with the cruise line, 14% with a local travel agent’s site and 7% with a large travel company’s site, such as Expedia.