New ships: Next year, Royal Caribbean's 160,000-ton Freedom of the Seas will arrive in May, dethroning the Queen Mary 2 as the world's largest ship. The Freedom's stats are staggering — up to 4,370 passengers and 1,360 crew aboard — but the big splash will be its aquatic amenities.
Besides the Freedom, five new ships will make their debut. The 2,400-passenger Pride of Hawaii, Norwegian Cruise Line's third and largest U.S.-flagged ship to sail around the Hawaiian archipelago, arrives in April. Princess Cruises launches its 3,100-passenger Crown Princess. Other new ships: Holland America Line's 1,918-passenger Noordam, Costa Cruises' 3,000-passenger Costa Concordia and MSC Cruises' 2,568-passenger MSC Musica.
Don't expect bargains on Freedom of the Seas because it is commanding a premium as the first in a new class of ship and for its amenities.
But because the Pride of Hawaii will be the third ship doing seven-night Hawaiian island cruises, its entry may soften prices there, likely on the older Pride of Aloha.
In the budget category, the vivid orange easyCruiseOne ship brightened up the Caribbean last month with its no-frills sailings for the winter. Intended for budget-minded travelers in their 20s and 30s, it definitely tacks a different course from other cruise ships. The 170-passenger ship is minimalist; it has small, basic cabins, and everything from housekeeping to food and drink costs extra. The ship spends more time in ports, sailing late to allow time to enjoy island nightlife.
The flexible weeklong itinerary lets passengers embark or leave the ship at any port as long as they stay aboard two nights. It sails from Barbados to St. Vincent, Martinique, Grenada and St. Lucia, offering fares as low as $48 per cabin per night. The catch: Airfares from Los Angeles to the southern Caribbean aren't cheap.
Rising prices: Just because there will be more ships, vacationers shouldn't expect fares to be lower, said Mike Driscoll, editor of the trade publication Cruise Week. Fares, which already rose 8% to 9% this year, are expected to rise again next year.
Most of the cabins on the new ships have balconies and command higher prices. Driscoll cautions that although good buys on fares continue in the market, onboard spending raises the overall cruise price considerably, adding 30% or more to costs.
Cruise lines have reported strong bookings into 2006, but it's too early to tell whether fewer vacationers will sail next summer and fall because of this year's devastating storm season, which put some ports out of commission. (Weather forecasters predict another active hurricane season in 2006.)
New Orleans, devastated by Hurricane Katrina, won't have regular cruises again until fall. Mobile, Ala., is without cruises until late March. And three Carnival Cruise Lines ships — the Ecstasy, Holiday and Sensation — are out of service until March, under a government charter to assist in the relief efforts along the Louisiana-Mississippi-Alabama coasts.
Then came Hurricane Wilma, which tore up the Yucatán coast of Mexico and put Cozumel, one of the most popular ports in the Caribbean, out of action. Three cruise-ship piers were lost or sustained heavy damage; though the port has reopened, it can handle only four or five ship visits a day.
Cruise lines are adjusting itineraries into 2006, sometimes substituting other ports for Cozumel. Ships calling there must anchor and ferry passengers ashore in tenders, and that is expected to continue because rebuilding the piers may take more than a year.
New ports: More ships will sail from New York next year, a new port will open in the Caribbean and South America heats up with exotic new itineraries between Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires by a small luxury ship.
New York, a rising star in homeports, will open a new terminal in Brooklyn. In January, NCL moves a second ship to New York year-round; the Norwegian Spirit will join the Norwegian Dawn.
Two lines will introduce their new ships with seasonal sailings from New York to the Caribbean. In February, Holland America's Noordam arrives for the spring and will return in the fall. The Crown Princess will sail from New York from summer into fall.
Grand Turk Island joins the lineup of cruise destinations with the opening of a port built by Carnival Corp. Part of the Turks and Caicos Islands, between the Bahamas and the Dominican Republic, Grand Turk is known for pristine beaches and good diving and snorkeling. Ships start calling in February.
South America is getting popular, attracting more lines this winter. Among them is the SeaDream Yacht Club. The 110-passenger SeaDream I will sail on the Latin American Riviera from Rio de Janeiro to Buenos Aires. Calling it a "sexy, exotic itinerary for active travelers," President Larry Pimentel listed such unusual ports as Buzios and Porto Belo in Brazil.
Mary Lu Abbott welcomes comments but cannot respond individually to letters. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.