Group cruises: The ultimate guide
By Julie Peasgood | 18 Feb 2020
Julie Peasgood reveals why group cruises are an ideal alternative to land-based holidays.
Whether you’re planning a multi-gen family trip or arranging a special holiday for your club or association, group cruises make superb getaways – and it’s no surprise this is one of the fastest growing travel trends.
First of all, group cruises are remarkably easy for group travel organisers (GTOs) to plan. There’s no agonising over where to go, what to eat, whether everyone’s room is OK and if the coach can park. Everything can be pre-arranged and sorted before you step on board – and no matter how many places are on the itinerary, you only have to unpack once.
As well as an array of awe-inspiring destinations worldwide, cruises also offer a breathtaking variety of gourmet food to suit all tastes; special diets are well catered for with menus specially tailored to individual needs, and service is always prompt and plentiful.
You can relax on board and enjoy swimming, sunbathing and the spa, or take advantage of the many activities on offer: everything from lectures and line dancing to craft classes and choirs, quizzes and cookery demos.
And there’s fabulous entertainment, too, from West End-style cabaret, string quartets and classical pianists to tribute acts, conjurers, comedians and more. Simply embark the ship and it’s all there – waiting for your group to enjoy.
Secure a superb deal
Most cruise lines classify a group as a minimum of 15 to 20 guests or more, and attractive incentives are offered for booking in numbers. The groups market in cruising is actually very competitive so it’s possible to negotiate favourable buying terms with the cruise line itself, or the travel company selling the holiday.
Do consider consulting a specialist cruise travel agent, as they will be well versed in what discounts or extras you may qualify for and can create bespoke packages. It’s also worth noting that all-inclusive cruises deliver great value (and with all drinks included, there’s never any awkwardness about whose round it is).
There are specific added benefits for group bookings, such as discounts on fares (from five per cent upwards) and/or one free cabin for every 12, 15 or 20 cabins purchased. This ratio is reduced for luxury lines and smaller ships, where it may be possible to secure a complimentary cabin for a group of just 10 passengers, letting GTOs choose between occupying the cabin themselves or spreading the saving throughout the group.
Other block booking perks can include an onboard spend allowance, free drink packages, pre-paid gratuities, selected complimentary or discounted excursions, a special welcome cocktail party, free photos, preferential dining options, complimentary parking at your port of embarkation and special rates for any single passengers travelling within your party.
Incentives vary hugely between cruise lines so always ask what’s on offer, and have a meeting with your cruise contact to discuss in detail what the particular requirements are for your group. And of course it’s always helpful to speak with other GTOs for their advice and recommendations.
And if your group really enjoys the cruise, the majority of lines also offer a loyalty discount scheme for travelling on any future group cruises – and of course some very tempting deals if you’re able to commit to another cruise whilst you’re still on board the ship.
Check out your choices
The cruising demographic has changed quite radically over the last few years. Cruising used to be thought of as being for the more mature age group and carrying a hefty price tag, but it’s now becoming increasingly popular for all ages and budgets. Anyone can enjoy a cruise, and the demographic has shifted as a younger market are beginning to catch the cruise bug.
Steve Williams, director of sales for MSC Cruises, recognises just how crucial it is to cater for different ages and interests, as they could all be part of the same group travelling together: “As the trend for multi-generational holidays continues to grow, it’s more important than ever to ensure that the offering for groups is tailored and authentic.
“MSC Cruises can cater to groups of all sizes, so whether you’re celebrating a milestone birthday, your big day or simply want to share your holiday experience with the whole family, you can shape your onboard experience to meet your needs.”
Ellie Fulcher, sales manager for Fred. Olsen Groups & Affinity, makes an interesting point regarding travelling en masse: “Group holidays are not usually a principal holiday, but a secondary one taken with a club, association or society. So, they need to suit the timeframe, budget and differing needs of a wide range of people.”
Rob Stapley, senior cruise product manager at Titan Travel, has some valuable advice concerning cruise and tour holidays: “If you’re looking to add a land element at the beginning or end of your cruise, it’s best to liaise with an escorted tour operator, such as Titan.
“Cruise and tour holidays are a really valuable option for those who are looking for a more in-depth travel experience. Customers get the benefits of cruising, but with the additional bonus of spending extra time exploring on land. It gives them a chance to see iconic sights – the Terracotta Warriors in Xi’an, for example, or the majestic Canadian Rockies – and to really get
a feel for the local culture.
“On Titan’s cruise and tour holidays, a friendly, experienced and knowledgeable tour manager looks after all the logistics, reconfirming tickets and working out timings. When there’s time at leisure, they can recommend places to eat or nearby sights to see. And if the unexpected happens, as it can do, they’ll look after all arrangements to ensure the holiday continues as seamlessly as possible.”
Coach v Cruise
You can expect your cruise holiday to be a very similar price to a land-based getaway. If for instance you compare a one-week cruise to a more traditional coach holiday of the same length, the cruise may even work out cheaper on a per night basis, taking into account what a cruise package includes.
Coach holiday offers you and your group accommodation, transport, one or more destinations (probably less than a cruise holiday) hotel facilities (usually more limited than a cruise ship offers), and either full or half board.
A cruise, on the other hand, offers you a floating hotel, transport, multiple destinations, entertainment, use of extensive onboard facilities and all meals. That means breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea, a five-course à la carte dinner, midnight buffet, room service menu, unlimited tea & coffee – and sometimes soft drinks and alcohol too.
New to group cruises?
Remember you don’t have to do everything as a group if you don’t want to. On sea days it can work well to designate a daily meet up venue as appropriate, so you can enjoy the cruise experience individually or as a couple, and then swap stories later with everyone else over a coffee, cocktail or dinner. You’ll probably want to be exploring together as a group when you’re in port, though again it’s totally up to you how you structure things and what works best for you.
Ideal first-time group holiday destinations might be a two-day taster cruise or a short sailing to find out if your group enjoys the experience, without committing for too long or spending too much.
Fred. Olsen’s Group Sales Manager, Ellie Fulcher, has some excellent recommendations for groups who are new to cruise: “Short cruises in Europe we recommend are our five- to seven-night cruises to places like the French Rivers, Belgium and the Netherlands, the Scottish Lochs, Ireland, the Norwegian Fjords (we are the only line that offer the fjords in five nights from Newcastle, however we also offer seven, eight and nine nights to Norway).
Other seven- to 10-night sailings that may be of interest are the German and Swedish Waterways, Iceland and around the British Isles.”
For repeat cruise groups
Options for more experienced cruisers might include trying something further afield, such as a sector of a world cruise, Russia (a firm favourite for groups on a Baltic cruise) or an exotic fly-cruise. And if your group fancies the idea of fly-cruising you can keep costs down by choosing a budget airline and by travelling short haul. Also check out expedition cruises to places like Greenland, where you can see whales, glaciers and Santa’s mailbox, or the Midnight Sun or polar bears in Norway’s Spitsbergen.
There are also themed group cruises if the idea appeals – everything from jazz, comedy, bridge and wine cruises to arts and crafts, gardening, golf and photography are available.
Another idea would be to venture into river cruising, which is growing in popularity year-on-year. There isn’t the wealth of restaurants, entertainment and amenities on board river ships as there is on ocean-going vessels, but river cruises dock in the heart of a destination, so no buses or tenders are required to visit the sights.
The ships are also more intimate, making them easier to navigate your way around, and no one in your gathering need worry about seasickness as river cruises are noted for being incredibly smooth and tranquil. Plus, there is often the opportunity to stay late or even overnight in a port of call, allowing you to experience the evening in a destination, providing a different and exciting perspective.
Cruise lines which offer more
A lot of cruise lines cater for booking in bulk, but the key names that rate well for group cruises are Emerald Waterways MSC Cruises, Scenic, Seabourn, Norwegian Cruise Line, Holland America Line and Oceania Cruises.
MSC Cruises has made cruising as a group even more effortless by introducing some new technology. Director of Sales, Steve Williams, explains: “Guests can take advantage of a number of new MSC for Me features including guest-to-guest chat via the MSC for Me app, which makes travelling in a big group much easier given that it can be used without wifi.”
Award winning tour operator and river cruise line Titan include an exclusive drinks party during many of their cruises, hosted by their tour managers and often attended by the captain or ship’s officers. They also offer one particular feature that is a game changer for many guests – their VIP door-to-door transfer service. The good news is this service is available to every customer on any Titan tour and that includes those on group bookings.
One of the issues with group travel is passengers may have different flight times and departure airports. Titan is able to provide departures from regional airports where possible, along with the complimentary transfer service that collects travellers from their homes and delivers them to their departure airport or cruise port. And their chauffeur-driven cars are also waiting when travellers arrive back in the UK. This gives GTOs peace of mind; not just that their group will make it to the ship on time, but that everyone will get safely home too – and at no extra cost.
Rob Stapley, senior cruise product manager at Titan Travel, has more advice for groups: “Choose a cruise that comes with some land excursions included. This can take some pressure off the group leader to have some shore trips that are already planned and paid for. Titan includes a number of inclusive excursions as standard on its river cruises, along with the usual optional excursions (which can provide guests the flexibility to enjoy some time away from the group if they want it).”
Emerald Waterways, one of the top river cruise brands, has a very tempting offer for groups. David Winterton, director of marketing and global brand curator, says: “Whether you are celebrating a special occasion or are just friends coming together, Emerald Waterways has the perfect selection of river cruises to suit your group’s every need. We understand how complex it can be organising group travel, so let us do the hard work for you.
“When you choose Emerald Waterways for a group adventure, you’ll benefit from our exclusive group offers including free travel for every 10th guest (for parties of 10 or more), £100 per person discount, plus you have the choice of a Premium Drinks Package with unlimited onboard drinks or €250 per cabin to spend on board – all included in our award-winning Emerald itinerary packages.”
AmaWaterways is another luxury river cruise coxmpany, with AmaMagna (the only modern river vessel to be double width) making her debut on the Danube last year. Ama has a very successful programme of wine-themed cruises, with 67 departures across all itineraries in 2020 and a dedicated wine host on board. They also have a very comprehensive excursion programme, with up to four inclusive excursions in every port, taking in activities like hiking and cycling – ideal if GTOs have targets to be as active as possible.
Last but not least, Fred. Olsen are also one of the market leaders in the group cruises field with a specialist group sales team and offers cabins for sole occupancy with reduced supplements.
“The groups we attract are very varied,” adds Ellie Fulcher, “and start from as few as 10 guests right up to a full ship. We pride ourselves on being very flexible and accommodating to all different types of groups, including those with solo travellers; every group has some travellers that will require their own cabin. Every single quote is tailor made, subject to the group’s individual requirements, offering a choice of value-added benefits and
free cruise places for group leaders.”
Fred. Olsen allows passengers to secure cruise travel insurance from any provider, as long as it covers medical repatriation, helicopter evacuation etc, in addition to the standard travel policy inclusions.
Taking a group cruise is the perfect way to create great camaraderie. There is truly something for everyone, with a dazzling amount on offer – both on board and on shore.
For more cruise inspiration read our complete guide to Antarctica cruises or complete guide to expedition cruises.