For years, certain aspects of cruise holidays have been far from smooth sailing: the long queues at port before boarding, the sub-zero cabin temperatures from constant air conditioning, and the inevitable loss of a passenger’s keycard – meaning a long wait at customer services.

But most of these issues have now been resolved due to cruise liners’ recent adoption of technology. Personalised apps make for a more seamless service and cabins themselves have been transformed using tech to create a more comfortable passenger experience. Some cruise lines use technology to their advantage even before passengers step on board. Celebrity Cruises, for instance, launched its virtual experience platform, The Wonderverse, in December 2022. This online experience allows prospective passengers to explore a realistic digital recreation of Celebrity’s newest ship, Celebrity Beyond, in detail before they book – the ultimate ‘try before you buy’.

“More and more cruise lines see the benefits of building excitement to the cruise,” says Peter Whittle, CEO and co-founder of the cruise industry mobile app and video streaming platform, CruiseAppy. “I think the virtual reality tours of the ships as recently launched by Celebrity Cruises is an interesting development, taking education by video to the next level,” he adds. “I see more of this being rolled out.”

But the adoption of tech by the cruise industry is not limited to only appealing to younger guests. “We’ve found there is a consumer expectation to engage guests in the tech they are accustomed to using – and it isn’t specific to a younger audience,” says Jay Schneider, chief product innovation officer at Royal Caribbean. “Since 2021, while coming out of the pause, we’ve seen people of all ages become more digitally savvy. By innovating with tech, we’re addressing the consumer in front of us,” Schneider adds.

Whittle agrees that the move towards tech is about moving with the times, “most age groups are now used to using mobile apps in most parts of their lives,” he says. “Some cruisers still like the tradition of the daily programme of events left on their bed for the following day, but this is becoming less of a demand as the benefits of real-time updates – the ability to ask questions of the on-board team or book in real-time – outweigh carrying a piece of paper around.

“Younger age cruisers just expect this level of tech as de facto now,” he adds. “So, it is key in attracting ‘new to cruise’ markets, but also benefits the existing core cruiser base.”

Personalised apps for every passenger

Most major cruise lines now have apps that allow passengers to check in before arrival – usually scanning their passport information and uploading a ‘selfie’ for verification – which minimises queues at ports.

On these apps, passengers can also book excursions, plan on-board activities, make table reservations and complete their compulsory muster training. Princess Cruises’ and MSC’s apps also include on-site navigation, where guests can find their way around the ship and track friends and family’s locations.

These functions might not be new, but apps are becoming smarter and offering a more personalised service. MSC’s app, MSC for Me, has evolved since it launched in 2017. “We now offer a more bespoke experience for our guests,” says Luca Pronzati, chief business innovation officer at MSC Cruises. “We have designed what we see as ‘a handshake’ to collect the guest’s preferences and interests so then we can define a tailored profile that better matches their needs and expectations,” he adds.

Through monitoring guests’ usage of the app, they can offer personalised promotions on drinks packages or shore excursions that match their profiles. “This one-to-one engagement strategy is designed to make our guests feel very special and well looked-after,” Pronzari says. He acknowledges that, at the same time, it encourages passengers to book on-board services.

Royal Caribbean has also seen the benefit of monitoring passengers’ requests. “On board, we track and study the queries raised to guest services to identify any common issues,” says Schneider. “The objective here is to develop a longer-term solution and put it in place.”

Royal Caribbean has also developed an app for its crew. The Stateroom App tells an attendant if all the guests in a stateroom are off the ship, meaning the room is free to be made up with the least interruption to guests. Royal Caribbean is currently working on incorporating a ‘chat to guest services’ function to its app, which would mean that guests wouldn’t have to queue at the customer services desk. Virgin Voyages has already added this feature to its Sailor App.

Virgin’s app is shaking things up – literally. When a passenger shakes the app, a button appears which, when pressed, alerts the crew to bring them a bottle of Moët & Chandon Impérial. That’s not all. The app’s ‘virtual queue’ function means they don’t have to wait in line for dinner – the app will ping when their table is ready. If a passenger doesn’t fancy dining out, they can order food straight to their cabin with the ‘ship eats’ function.

“Sustainability has been and will always be a key driver for innovation with technology.”
Jay Schneider

Wearable technology Virgin Voyages’ ‘shake for champagne’ app function is only possible due to wearable technology. Passengers are given a wristband –The Band – which allows the crew to track their location. The Band also serves as a room key and can be used for contactless payments.

The Band is similar to Royal Caribbean’s WOW bands, which come equipped with RFID chips that enable passengers to unlock stateroom doors, make purchases and access lounges on six of its ships.

Perhaps the most advanced of this wearable tech is Princess Cruises’ Ocean Medallion technology. The Medallion – a coin-sized device that can be worn as a bracelet, necklace, or kept in your pocket – contains a microchip that can be traced by sensors throughout the ship, allowing waiters to find passengers, as well as allowing passengers to locate friends and family.

“The benefits of real-time updates – the ability to ask questions of the on-board team and book in real-time – outweigh carrying a piece of paper around.”
Peter Whittle

The chip also stores information from each passenger, which means crew can give a more personalised service: greeting passengers by name, predicting their order, and knowing about any food allergies without having to ask. The Medallion also works as a form of contactless payment. One of the most innovative functions of the Medallion, however, is the keyless entry. A passenger’s cabin door unlocks as they approach it and gives them a personalised greeting.

Building technology for a better future

Once inside their cabin, passengers can use technology to optimise their comfort. On Celebrity Cruises, for instance, passengers can use their smartphones to control the TV, lighting, temperature and window shades. They can even set a bedtime and morning routine, to ease them in and out of sleep.

Technology has also been used to transform cabin space. Celebrity Edge staterooms have a feature called ‘infinite veranda’. This is a wall-to-ceiling window that, at the push of a button, slides down and makes a guest feel like they are sitting on the water’s edge.

On Virgin Voyages, all suites are clever cabins, with mood lighting that automatically reflects the time of day, based on where the ship is in the world (think gold and purple sunsets on Caribbean waters). There are also in-room tablets that allow passengers to adjust the room’s lighting. Cabins also feature sensors that detect when someone has left the room, triggering the cabin to go into energy saver mode. Blinds are automatically closed and air conditioning is adjusted, allowing the ship to conserve energy.

Royal Caribbean has incorporated a similar ‘eco mode’ to its next ship, Icon of the Seas. “The concept of eco mode is a common practice in land-based hotels and resorts but we wanted to revisit it […] and make it better,” says Schneider. “The new eco mode on board Icon will more acutely balance energy efficiency with the guest experience.”

“Sustainability has been and will always be a key driver for innovation with technology,” Schneider adds. In 2021, Royal Caribbean launched its Destination Net Zero initiative to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050.

As part of this initiative, Icon of the Seas will feature fuel cell technology, enabling the ship to run off battery cells while in port and helping to decrease overall emissions. “Each new ship we create is more efficient than the last and this will continue as we make further advancements in ship technology,” Schneider says.

Looking to the future, Whittle predicts that smaller cruise lines will be upping their game in the technology sphere in order to compete. “Although most of the major cruise lines have started to implement mobile app functionality options for their passengers,” he says, “with over 180 cruise lines in the world, these opportunities are still to be harnessed for many of the more niche lines – which I think we will see in the next couple of years.”