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 hardcore 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) isn’t without risks. Cruise ships are just hotels that happen to float, and, like hotels, they’re not always ready for prime time when they first go into operation.
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Sometimes, they’re not ready at all, as early bookers of the first ship from Explora Journeys learned the hard way in July 2023. The startup luxury line canceled the maiden voyage of the 922-passenger Explora 1 after a last-minute construction hiccup. The shipyard building the vessel needed to make a last-minute fix before the ship would be ready to sail.
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 Explora 1 (originally scheduled to debut July 17, now delayed until at least Aug. 1) are relatively rare. The latest new ship from MSC Cruises, MSC Euribia, emerged from the Chantiers de l’Atlantique shipyard in St. Nazaire, France, right on time in June. New vessels from Silversea Cruises and Norwegian Cruise Line scheduled to debut in August also appear on track for on-time arrivals.
Still, delays do happen, and they’ve been happening a bit more in the last few years, mostly due to supply chain issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic that left many shipyards behind schedule in their shipbuilding. Perhaps the most striking example was the 33-month delay in the launch of The Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection‘s first vessel, Evrima. It was originally scheduled to debut in February 2020 but was delayed eight times, with its first sailing not taking place until October 2022.
The Evrima delay was the result of more than just pandemic-related supply chain issues. Bigger troubles at the shipyard where the vessel originally was under construction also played a role.
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Hurtigruten’s Roald Amundsen, a groundbreaking new expedition-style vessel, was also massively delayed in recent years. This ship, designed to operate on battery power for short periods while in sensitive parts of the Arctic and Antarctica, finally launched in 2019.
It’s often these 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 Explora Journeys and The 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 recently delayed Explora 1, passengers on the canceled maiden voyage were offered not just a full refund but also a credit for an entire future cruise.
That sounds generous, for sure. 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 Explora Journeys, which only has one relatively small vessel in operation 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 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 get into a groove until they’ve had a few weeks on board. (When Royal Caribbean’s Wonder of the Seas debuted in 2022, it didn’t even offer full performances of two of its headliner shows, the AquaTheater’s “inTENse” and the mainstage “The Effectors II.”)
Additionally, 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 TVs that don’t work to sinks that have their hot and cold water piping reversed.
You may also 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 in recent years 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 as 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 was eventually stripped away to make for a smoother ride.
Computer-assisted design and improvements in stabilization technology mean that today’s ships usually don’t suffer from such snafus. (Don’t worry, there will have been plenty of sea trials for your ship before any passengers ever get on board.)
Still, new ships often 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 might 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 Scenic Luxury Cruises‘ new Scenic Eclipse in 2019 — 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. All of this was after the ship’s debut had already been delayed by a year due to construction issues. Even after a year of delays, the vessel still wasn’t 100% ready when it finally began sailing.
By contrast, a new Princess Cruises ship, Sky Princess, which debuted just a few weeks after Scenic Eclipse, looked about as finished as I’ve ever seen a new ship when I saw it in advance of its maiden voyage. That said, even Sky Princess had one area (a top-of-the-ship escape room called Phantom Bridge) that wasn’t ready. Construction for that area continued for a couple of additional months.
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 expertise to the process that makes for a relatively smooth startup. At brands as diverse as Norwegian Cruise Line and Viking, I often see the same bartenders, restaurant servers and room stewards at the unveiling of each new ship. They 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, service deficiencies are often 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 easier for 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 set on booking 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 Oasis of the Seas. 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 on 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 many 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 flyer for many years, I regularly book tickets to maiden voyages using miles that can be canceled at the last minute with no penalty in case issues arise.
If you don’t have access to that sort of perk, you might 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, not yours. That said, I generally dislike booking flights through a cruise line. Cruise line air departments are notorious for coming up with less-than-ideal routings and often use bulk tickets that might be tough to upgrade. Plus, they don’t always accrue points for elite status such as United premier qualifying points or American elite qualifying dollars.
Additionally, if you book an early sailing of a new ship, 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 your boss has already approved.
Finally, you should be careful to set expectations for an early voyage of a ship at a realistic level. As noted above, not every venue on a new vessel may be running well or running at all. If your heart is set on seeing a specific headline show or trying a highly touted attraction, you might be disappointed if it’s not quite ready for passengers.
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