During the first week of January, while most of us are recovering from Christmas and/or shivering round the fireside, a handful of Britain’s favourite cruise liners slip quietly away from the dockside in Southampton. There are no bands or bunting to mark these departures – such frivolities are frowned upon by the authorities these days. But the passengers settling into their cabins are unpacking rather more luggage than usual, and with good reason. They are off on a world cruise.
Similar scenes will be taking place in Miami and Fort Lauderdale, as the big American cruise liners set sail on three-month journeys to the sun. The urge to escape winter in the northern hemisphere is, it seems, as strong as ever.
But hang on a minute – something’s wrong. Many of those “world” cruises are not actually going to circumnavigate the globe at all. They will still bring you home in April with a healthy suntan and a camera full of memories, but British-based cruise lines are increasingly abandoning full world cruises in favour of in-depth explorations of areas like the Far East.
Quite why this is the case is none too clear. Half-hearted explanations include the complicated logistics of making travel arrangements for people who want to do only part of the cruise, or the worries of dispatching vessels on two-week crossings of the Pacific Ocean – where repair facilities are sparse if anything should go wrong. The huge cost of using the Panama Canal might also be a factor.
One cruise line told me airily: “Everyone who wants to go on a world cruise has already done it.” But that’s rubbish. There are still plenty of people who want to sail all the way around the globe.
The Americans heralded the change a few years ago, with safety-conscious “world cruises” that skillfully avoided any potential trouble spots. For example, there were itineraries that left Florida for the Caribbean, rounded South America, crossed the Pacific to Australasia, returned to Hawaii via some colourful eastern destination like Japan, then headed into San Francisco or back to Florida by way of the Panama Canal.
British-based cruise lines like Cunard, P&O Cruises, Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines and Saga have stuck with the more traditional circumnavigation until now – but there are big changes in the air. If you had wanted to go on a round-the-world cruise this year you would have been spoilt for choice, but both Saga and Fred Olsen have replaced their “world” cruises with what they ingenuously call “worldwide” cruises.
If you can splash the cash, a full global voyage is still the dream holiday on everyone’s bucket list. Happily, Cunard and P&O Cruises will still oblige. But their planners must have the same worries as everyone else about costs, possible international developments, and the sheer logistics of managing a ship on the other side of the globe. One can’t help wondering how long it will be before they too switch to “world” cruises that aren’t.
Perhaps one pointer comes from Oceania Cruises, who have boldly experimented with six-month round-the-world cruises with much success. Their cruise takes a highly attractive itinerary, taking in some of the most fascinating sights on the planet, but avoids Australasia and that long Pacific run.
An enviable trip, I’m sure. However, I’d prefer the great adventure of circumnavigating the globe – and I think perhaps you might, too. But how would you enjoy spending three, or even six, months in the same surroundings and with the same people? My next blog looks at how to plan for a world cruise, how to make the most of it … and how to survive!
More about Robin
Robin Mead, a travel writer for 40 years, has written more than 30 travel guide books as well as contributing to newspapers and magazines all over the world. He has also been a hotel inspector, and for the past 12 years he has worked as a lecturer on board cruise ships in the winter. He says his great loves are the sun, the sea, posh hotels, Sussex (where he lives), the Channel Islands and … ghost stories! Robin writes for Silver Travel Advisor about world cruises.