There’s nothing quite like the thrill of being on the maiden voyage of a new cruise ship. The crew is excited. Passengers are excited. It’s almost always a festive affair, often with lots of extra pizazz like fireworks over the ship and deck-top parties with free-flowing Champagne. Plus, you might spot a celebrity or two — or at least the top executives of the line.
Among hard-core cruise fans, it also can bring the ultimate in bragging rights, even years later.
Still, booking a maiden voyage (or any of the first few sailings of a brand-new ship really), isn’t without risks. Cruise ships are just hotels that happen to float and, just like hotels, they’re not always ready for prime time when they first go into operation.
Sometimes, they’re not ready at all, as early bookers of the new Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection’s first vessel learned the hard way just a few weeks ago. The line canceled not just the maiden voyage of the 298-passenger Evrima, but 13 more early sailings with just a few months’ notice, citing delays in the ship’s construction. Passengers were left scrambling to make alternative plans.
So, before you sign up for an early sailing on the next hot new vessel, here are a few things to consider:
The sailing might be canceled
The good news is that shipyard delays of the sort that pushed back the debut of the Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection vessel (originally due in February, now coming in June) are relatively rare. The first new Princess Cruises ship in nearly three years, Sky Princess, emerged from the Fincantieri shipyard in Monfalcone, Italy, right on time in October. New vessels from Norwegian Cruise Line and Carnival Cruise Line scheduled to debut in November and December, respectively, also are on track for on-time arrivals.
Major new ships over the past year from Celebrity Cruises, Royal Caribbean, Holland America and MSC Cruises also debuted as scheduled.
Still, delays do happen, and they’ve been happening a bit more in the last couple years as the rapid growth of the cruise industry results in backups at some shipyards. Perhaps the most striking example is the postponed arrival of the 228-passenger Scenic Eclipse, the first oceangoing vessel from luxury purveyor Scenic Luxury Cruises & Tours. It originally was scheduled to debut in August 2018 but was delayed three times: first to this past January, then April, then August.
Also massively-delayed over the past year was Hurtigruten’s Roald Amundsen, a groundbreaking new expedition-style vessel designed to operate on battery power for short periods while in sensitive parts of the Arctic and Antarctica.
As in the above cases, it’s often first-of-a-kind “prototype” ships that hit snags during construction — something to keep in mind if you’re thinking of booking a vessel that’s being touted as particularly groundbreaking. It also seems to happen more often with the ships of new entrants into cruising, such as Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection. Not that it never happens to the major players of the cruise industry. In 2016, Holland America postponed the debut of a new ship, Koningsdam, by six weeks to make last-minute changes to its design.
If it’s canceled, it can be tough to reschedule
If you’re unfortunate enough to be on an early sailing of a vessel that’s canceled due to shipyard delays, you’ll usually be offered a full refund plus some sort of “we’re so sorry” bonus. In the case of the Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection cancellations, passengers were offered a 30% discount on booking a future cruise if booked before Oct. 31. Passengers who rebook after that date will receive a lesser discount. Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection also has promised to reimburse airfare and hotel change fees that passengers rack up as they rearrange their travel dates.
That all sounds great. But it isn’t always easy using future cruise credits. Finding space on a later sailing that works with your schedule, assuming you want a similar itinerary and a similar type of cabin, is often a challenge. This is particularly true with a startup line like Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection, which only has one small vessel in its reservation system for now (and thus not a lot of inventory).
Not everything will work right
It’s not uncommon for some lines to take delivery of a ship on a Thursday and put it into regular revenue service on a Friday. Other lines will build in a few days for a nonrevenue “shakedown cruise” with employees and invited guests — a sort of test sailing designed to work out the kinks before paying customers arrive. Either way, you can’t always expect everything to be running smoothly on the first few voyages of a vessel.
Often, restaurants will seem a bit disorganized on early sailings, since the kitchen staff and servers are just becoming familiar with their new spaces. Or the performances in the showrooms will seem a bit off. The cast of big showroom productions will rehearse as a group for weeks on land before joining a new ship. But they can’t really get into a groove until they’ve had a few weeks on board.
In addition, every ship emerges from the shipyard with a punch list of hundreds or even thousands of little things that need to be fixed. As a longtime cruise writer, I’ve sailed on dozens of maiden voyages over the years, and I’ve encountered everything from cabin phones and televisions that don’t work to sinks that have their hot and cold water piping reversed.
You also may find that technology-based features such as shipboard internet are still being fine-tuned. Ditto for shipboard provisioning. I have been on early sailings of two new ships this year where the onboard sushi bar ran out of edamame, of all things, by the midpoint of the voyage. It’s not the end of the world, but it’s typical of the sort of little errors that happen on new ships.
The good news is, passenger ships generally no longer need a “breaking in” period to work out stability issues like they did years ago. Ship historians will regale you with tales of not-so-stable, turn-of-the-20th-century vessels such as Germany’s 1913-built SS Imperator, which had so much heavy marble on board that it rolled mercilessly in rough seas. The marble eventually was stripped away to make for a smoother ride. But computer-assisted design and improvements in stabilization technology means that today’s ships usually don’t suffer from such snafus. (Don’t worry, there will have been plenty of sea trials before any passengers ever get on board.)
Still, new ships often will sail with at least a few workers from the shipyard on board for the first few days or weeks to knock out the punch lists. On the positive side, most items are quickly resolved.
Some venues may not be open
Sometimes the punch list items are biggies. Like entire areas of the ship that aren’t quite done.
When I sailed on the long-delayed Scenic Eclipse in September — more than two weeks after the first paying passengers boarded — the main outdoor lounge area still was under construction. The ship’s casual buffet, the Yacht Club, had just opened the day before I arrived, and the main pool wasn’t open. Despite a year of delays, the vessel still wasn’t 100% ready.
By contrast, the new Sky Princess, which departed in October on its maiden voyage, looked about as finished as I’ve ever seen a new ship when I saw it in advance of the sailing. But even Sky Princess has one area (a top-of-the-ship escape room called Phantom Bridge), that isn’t ready. The line says it’ll debut in December.
Some of the crew is still learning
The biggest cruise lines typically have a core team of managers and staff that open every new vessel, bringing an expertise to the process that makes for a relatively smooth startup. At brands as diverse as Norwegian Cruise Line and Viking Cruises, I often see the same bartenders, restaurant servers and room stewards at the unveiling of each new ship. They just jump from one new vessel to the next.
Still, even the most experienced crew will have a learning curve with a new vessel, particularly if it’s a first-of-a-kind prototype where restaurants, bars, lounges and related back-of-the-house areas aren’t in the same place as they were on the last new ship. Service sometimes can be spotty while they get up to speed.
In my experience, deficiencies in service often are most noticeable on new ships operated by smaller and startup lines that don’t have a large fleet of existing ships from which they can pull seasoned staff.
On the positive side, cruise lines sometimes purposely undersell early voyages of a new vessel to make it a little easier on the crew while they find their footing. This can mean you’ll find more space around the pool deck and have an easier time getting a seat at the shows on a just-out-of-the-yard ship.
A few tips if you do book a new ship
Despite all the above, I can’t blame you if you’re still not hot on the idea of signing on for one of the early sailings of a new vessel. I admit, I love being on the maiden voyage of a new ship, even if everything isn’t quite shipshape. My life list of sailings includes the inaugural voyages of such iconic vessels as Cunard’s Queen Mary 2 and Royal Caribbean’s groundbreaking Oasis of the Seas, and when I look back at those trips, I don’t think about the little things that went wrong in the dining room. I think about the distinctive experience instead.
Sailing on a maiden voyage, or even an early sailing of a new ship, is a chance to be at the front lines as cruising history is being made.
That said, before signing up for an early voyage of a new ship, there are a few things you can do to minimize the chance of heartache:
For starters, don’t tie the cruise into a bigger trip that includes lots of other travel arrangements with hotels, airlines, tours, car services and private guides. That way, if the cruise is canceled at the last minute, you won’t find yourself scrambling to unwind a bunch of other elements of your trip.
You also should try to book your flights to the ship in a way that can be reversed on short notice. As a United Premier 1K for many years, I’ve been able to book tickets to maiden voyages that can be canceled at the last minute with no penalty. If you don’t have access to that sort of perk, you may consider booking your flights to the ship directly through the cruise line. That way, if the cruise is canceled, getting the air canceled and reimbursed is their problem. That said, I generally detest booking air through a cruise line. Cruise line air departments are notorious for coming up with less-than-ideal routings and often use bulk tickets that are tough to upgrade and don’t accrue qualifying dollars.
Finally, you should have at least an inkling of a Plan B. As noted above, cancellations of early voyages are relatively rare these days, so don’t overthink this. But, at least go into your planning understanding that there’s a small chance you may be looking for a last-minute alternative destination for those vacation days for which your boss already has given the OK.
This story was originally published on The Points Guy. Sign up for the TPG daily newsletter and wake up to unbeatable flight deals, travel industry news, and credit card bonuses that let you travel first-class to some of the world’s most incredible destinations at a fraction of the price.