Gay men and lesbians have been passengers on cruise ships since the first commercial cruise line began, more than 100 years ago. Since then, the popularity of cruising among LGBT travelers has only grown.
According to a 2015 survey by Community Marketing Inc., a research firm specializing in the LGBT travel market, 16 percent of LGBT travelers took a cruise in the previous year. That compares to estimates of 5 percent or less of the general population.
The difference between the early days of cruise travel and now is that today's LGBT cruise passengers have more freedom to be open about their sexuality. Whereas a same-sex couple would've raised more than just a few eyebrows simply for holding hands along the Promenade Deck, now entire ships are charterd by LGBT passengers. Cruise lines couldn't be happier about the progress, today seeking out LGBT cruisers as a particular market niche.
As to exactly why LGBT cruisers seem to hit the high seas in greater numbers than their straight counterparts, there's no definitive answer. It is likely a combination of factors, including that a cottage industry of all-gay chartered cruises was created more than 30 years ago, exposing an entire community to the pleasures of an oceangoing vacation.
One might also wonder: Are there any particular differences between straight and gay sea-goers? Any differences between the cruise experiences designed for a mainstream crowd versus LGBT? Not really. At the most basic level, LGBT travelers board cruise ships for the same reasons as everyone else. However, when choosing the perfect cruise, they have a few different options to consider, such as specialty tour groups and full-ship gay charters, and they need to be sensitive to the gay friendliness of cruise destinations.
The concept of an exclusive, all-gay chartered cruise on a major cruise line was a groundbreaking concept when RSVP Vacations organized its first such cruise, a 1986 voyage with 750 guests. Today, nearly every major cruise line has hosted all-gay sailings. All the big players actively engage with tour operators like RSVP Vacations to charter their newest and largest ships.
An all-gay cruise differs from a standard cruise on a few important fronts. Obviously, the fact that nearly all of the passengers are gay is the most significant factor. This can be very appealing for passengers worried about homophobia when they're spending money to relax, or those who simply enjoy the idea of being with fellow voyagers of a familiar community.
As is common with any chartered cruise, the tour operators also plan entertainment, events and excursion that are unique to their particular cruise. It is very common to have top Broadway performers, comedians and drag queens as part of the line-up on all-gay cruises. The special programming is also why the price of all-gay cruises is often significantly higher than a standard cruise.
The major tour operators of all-gay chartered cruises include Atlantis Events, Brand G Vacations, Source Events, Olivia and VACAYA (a newer company run by former Atlantis and RSVP Vacations executives). Most all-gay charters are dominated by male passengers, with the exception of Olivia, which specializes in cruises for lesbians.
Check out our roundup of Gay and Lesbian Charter Cruises.
Gay Groups on Straight Cruises
Gay group cruises are a popular alternative to the all-gay cruises. For these cruises, tour operators will organize LGBT groups on standard cruises. The size of these groups can range from a few couples to hundreds of passengers.
Similar to the all-gay cruises, participants are ensured they will be among at least some other LGBT cruisers. In addition, the tour operator will usually include some specialized amenities, such as private "welcome aboard" cocktail parties, group dining arrangements and special shore excursions. The tour operator might even include an onboard host to help facilitate group activities and socializing.
With larger groups, the tour operator will typically include some unique entertainment just for the group participants. For the most part, however, the cruise experience for passengers opting to go with a group is similar to that of the rest of the passengers on the ship. This is also why the price of the gay-group tours are only slightly higher -- or in some cases slightly less, in the case of agent discounts -- than standard cruise pricing.
Popular organizers of gay group cruises include Pied Piper Travel, Aquafest and Al and Chuck Travel.
Gay-Friendly Cruise Lines
LGBT travelers considering a standard cruise generally can be assured a welcoming experience.
As previously noted, the cruise industry has become more aware, accepting and welcoming of its LGBT passengers. Nearly every major cruise line has a nondiscrimination policy that includes sexual orientation.
Cruises lines such as Carnival, Disney and Royal Caribbean have even received perfect ratings on the Human Right Campaign's Corporate Equality Index, a national benchmarking survey and report on corporate policies and practices related to LGBT employees, investors and customers.
Royal Caribbean has been particularly proactive in its efforts to attract LGBT customers. It was the first cruise line to appoint an openly gay Diversity Executive and produced a groundbreaking commercial promoting its wedding services featuring a same-sex couple. In addition, Royal Caribbean's sister cruise line Celebrity has been a major sponsor of Pride celebrations in Miami, Boston, Atlanta, San Francisco and Washington, D.C.
Major cruise lines commonly host organized LGBT social events at the beginning of each cruise to help these niche passengers fully enjoy their vacations, no different, really, than hosting a singles mixer or a bridge tournament. These socials are typically cocktail receptions held in one of the ship's bars or lounges. Notice of such events is usually posted in the daily cruise calendar. Check with the concierge desk if in doubt.
It is important to note that in some cases an LGBT social might be listed as a "Friends of Dorothy" meeting. This coded reference to the LGBT community is a holdover from the days when homophobia was more common and LGBT passengers were more protective of their privacy.
Check out our list of Top 10 Cruise Lines for Gay and Lesbian Travelers.
LGBT Family Cruises
LGBT family travel is increasing in popularity as a growing number of gay men and lesbians throw their hats into the parenting ring.
Fellow parents might not be at all surprised that Community Marketing's research has discovered that among most LGBT parents the idea of "family friendly" is more important than "LGBT friendly" when deciding travel plans. Luckily for them, cruise travel can offer both. Many of the top family-friendly cruise lines also rate among the top LGBT friendly.
Founded in 2003, R Family Vacations specializes in LGBT family travel and organizes a few group cruises each year.
Check out our picks for Best Cruises for Kids.
From beautiful Caribbean islands to historic European cities, cruise lines specifically pick their ports of call because they are generally safe and welcoming places that cruise passengers want to explore.
Many of these ports of call, such as Key West, Puerto Vallarta, Ibiza and Sydney, are especially welcoming of LGBT travelers. It is very common for the all-gay charters and the LGBT groups to plan cruises to these destinations.
On the other side of that cruise coin, some ports of call are notably hostile, at least for LGBT travelers. There is real danger of violence or legal prosecution not faced by mainstream passengers. This is particularly true among parts of the Caribbean, Middle East, Russia, and Southern and Southeast Asia.
It is crucial that LGBT travelers be aware of the local laws and customs at all the stops along their given itineraries. The U.S State Department provides important country specific information that includes LGBT policies and safety concerns on its website.
Cruise Critic Community
One of the best ways to learn about LGBT cruising is from other LGBT cruisers. In addition to the many reviews of cruise lines and ports of call that can be found on the website, Cruise Critic has forums for sharing and soliciting advice. The Gay & Lesbian Cruisers forum has a wealth of useful firsthand information and a very active community of participants happy to share their knowledge and personal experiences.
Part of the Gay & Lesbian Cruisers forum includes an area for posting a "Roll Call" announcement. This is a way of finding other LGBT travelers on your cruise prior to sailing. With a sea of options to suit all tastes, it's not so much a matter of deciding whether or not to take the plunge, but rather of charting just the right course of ship, ports and style.