Meet the expert: Kathy Taylor gives us the lowdown on cruising for 2024!
Chalkmarks: Cruise ship leaving Madeira, Portugal, December 2023

How often do you think about taking a cruise?

This year’s Roman Empire? It’s cruising. More than 35 million people will set sail this year. That’s a record. It’s almost four-times the population of London. Plus, there will be 14 new ships launching throughout 2024. Already we’ve seen the largest ever – the $2 billion Icon of the Seas by Royal Caribbean – which can carry almost 8,000 people. Icon is Las Vegas on the sea. It not only hits a maritime milestone, it sets a new hotel benchmark. Rumour has it, Icon will eventually home port in Europe. It’s time to talk to an expert.

Chalkmarks: Kathy Taylor owner of Cruise Lowdown, February 2024
Kathy Taylor owner of cruise and travel magazine Cruise Lowdown

Let’s anchor: We’re meeting Kathy Taylor from Cruise Lowdown. We’re on land overlooking the River Thames, sitting beside the Golden Hinde, which Sir Francis Drake sailed in when he circumnavigated the world in 1577. It’s almost 450 years later, and today’s globetrotting sailor Kathy is telling us how she and husband John crossed from Southampton to the Caribbean islands on their first ever cruise on board P&O’s Aurora in 2003. Since then she’s been on 40 cruises. She set up Cruise Lowdown in 2019 and also writes for Sail Away Magazine. We start by asking Kathy: Why is everyone cruising?

Mega ships, with mega attractions are attracting mega passenger numbers!

What’s created this cruise boom? “Everyone was cooped up during the pandemic, and when travel reopened the airports were horrendous – but on a ship you unpack once and you can see lots of different places. They’re good value for money – you have all your meals, some will include drinks. Plus, many people now don’t want to fly, and no-fly cruises are popular (this is where your trip starts and ends at the same port). They’re also good for getting a taste of a destination which you can go back to another time.”

Riding the wave: “The ships we’re seeing launched this year were ordered before the pandemic, because a ship takes around seven years to build, so the cruise companies knew the market was growing. A lot of things have come together at the same time.”

Cutting edge: “Many ships are looking for the next big thing. With Royal Caribbean it’s been size, as we’ve seen with Icon of the Seas in January, and in 2021 Carnival introduced the first rollercoaster at sea. There are still traditional ships that offer white-gloved afternoon tea and a sprung-floor ballroom but they’ll still have a nightclub and a range of activities. Also, the idea that cruises are for old people is over. The PR and cruise ads are aimed at younger people and families.”

Who’s booking? “There’s lots of people discovering ships who would previously have booked a three-or-four-star-inclusive holiday on land. Whereas before someone might have flown to Spain for two weeks in the sun, they can fly to Barcelona, say, spend a few days exploring the city, and then board a cruise ship and see lots of other places, and they still get that holiday experience. They unpack once, relax, and it’s all included. They get a full programme of activities and entertainment – and you can do as much or as little as you like. A good five-star holiday is comparable and often more expensive.”

What’s their first impression? “Most who cruise for the first time say they never realised the food would be so good and that there’s so much to do. We’ve stayed in a hotel in Tenerife a few times, and in the evenings the entertainment was low key but on board ship, there are big production shows, musicians, piano players and they’ll bring on celebs – and by comparison hotel entertainment is quite amateurish. Ships are also offering wider inclusive food-packages.”

Ahoy sailor!

What ships are launching in 2024? “A total of 14 cruise ships are launching this year. We’ve already seen Icon of the Seas which launched in Miami in January. Others include Sun Princess by Princess Cruises which is due to launch later in February. Cunard’s Queen Anne, is their first in more than a decade, and will depart from Southampton in May. Then, there’s the Royal Caribbean’s Utopia of the Seas, which is due in July. And, Disney Treasure which is due to begin sailing in December.”

What are the personalities of the ships? “Cunard is more formal than others. You’ll be dressing up most nights and they can be quite strict. You can dress causal, but for those black-tie evenings you won’t get to eat in the main dining room. Virgin is interesting – it offers voyages, not cruises because Richard Branson doesn’t like the word cruise. He also has a galley not a buffet. Virgin doesn’t say balcony but sea terrace and they call the atrium the roundabout. They want to be different. The best thing about Virgin is they have 20-plus restaurants which are all included in the price and you don’t pay more – unless you want a bottle of Moet, that’ll be extra. But the food on Virgin is fabulous. The cabins are reminiscent of Ikea and that’s because it was created by British designer Tom Dixon who worked with Ikea. Other areas are contemporary chic. Virgin shows are more alternative, they offer drag-queen breakfasts and the entertainment is less traditional. And then, there is everything in between. For American ships, think Disney, Virgin, Princess, Celebrity, Royal Caribbean and Carnival and for British ships there are Cunard and P&O Cruises, Fred Olsen, which has a world segment and that means they offer sailings around Africa, Asia and South America. Also there’s Ambassador Cruise Line and Marella Cruises. And for premium, high-luxury cruises there’s Saga and Viking Cruises.”

What are the most iconic routes? “Cunard’s Queen Mary 2 is built like a proper transatlantic liner with sleek lines for the choppy seas, and crosses from Southampton to New York. Greece is a popular route, Croatia too sailing from Split, and also those around the Med. Another iconic trip is to Alaska. Only a few cruise ships are authorised to go into the national park Glacier Bay while some go near it but don’t do the full thing. Alaska to Hawaii is a big bucket list route for many cruisers. Norwegian Fjords and the Northern Lights are well liked routes plus southeast Asia itineraries are growing.”

Let’s dive deeper!

Where can we sail from in the UK? “Southampton is the main port. A few leave from Liverpool, Portsmouth and Dover, and it’s mainly the small premium ships and yachts that go out of London or Tilbury.”

What if you’re travelling alone? “There are lots of options for solo cruising – with ships offering more single cabins that may no longer attract a single supplement (where a single traveller pays the same or more than the price of two people sharing). The ship will help you meet others and often sit single travellers together at meal times. There are often Facebook groups, set up before sailings, where people can meet each other. Plus, being on ship is a safe bet if you’re solo. If you’re travelling alone in a city and you’re worried about going out at night or being in the wrong part of town, you can get back on board where it safe, and enjoy all the late-night entertainment knowing your cabin is nearby.”

Real balcony or virtual? “John and I have stayed in an inside cabin with no balcony and we didn’t miss it. We turned on the TV and watched the sunrise from the Bridge. With a balcony, you get that bit of extra space but if you’re sailing in the winter when it’s cold, and the sea is choppy, it’s nice to be inside. But again, if you go to Alaska you’ll probably want a balcony, but then you’ll be out on deck much of the time for the full 360-degree view. An inside cabin is more affordable so we recommend you try it and get out on deck more often.”

Best way to book? “You can book direct with a cruise line online, but also check with a specialist cruise agent as they often have deals with extras included. Also, you’ll find great bargains on Black Friday and out of season, such as the start of the year, when the cruise companies are selling for the year ahead.”

Read more about Kathy on cruising at Cruise Lowdown.