When Is an Inaugural Not an Inaugural?

August 8, 2008
Sailing on an inaugural cruise -- generally defined as the first revenue cruise of a ship's maiden season -- is a unique experience. There are often special events and souvenir logo items up for grabs. For some cruise passengers, the thrill alone of breaking in the cabins, new innovations and sparkly new barware is enough to justify footing the higher fare that often accompanies these special voyages. And let's not forget that new ship smell!

Well, even if you've snagged that "first" sailing, it's important to keep in mind that someone's probably already slept in "your" bed or sipped cosmos from "your" martini glass. That's because most cruise lines do sail a series of "pre-inaugurals": preview cruises that are generally invite-only affairs for travel agents, members of the media and extremely loyal customers -- read: top of the past-passenger program tier. (Our Trendwatch: Maiden Voyages goes into more detail about what constitutes an inaugural cruise and what it is really like to sail on one.)

But: What happens when you book an inaugural cruise just to find out a few months down the road that one of the pre-inaugurals is suddenly on sale -- to the general public? Is your cruise still "special" -- or have you been robbed? These are the questions some Celebrity Solstice passengers are asking after finding out the cruise line has chartered one of several pre-inaugurals occurring in November -- a two-night voyage departing November 21 -- to a travel agent that has opened the cabins for booking.

On one hand, World Travel Holdings' special charter is great in that it gives anyone willing to pay their way the chance to sail on the ship before pretty much anyone else. Also: "The charter works well from a timing standpoint," Celebrity spokeswoman Elizabeth Jakeway tells us. "It doesn't disrupt any of our guests' vacation plans, with the inaugural season still kicking off as scheduled November 23."

But on the other, folks who already paid a premium for what they thought would be the first revenue cruise are mighty unhappy with this turn of events. "Regardless of the 'merits' of being on an inaugural cruise," posts cruzmaven, "if you are paying a premium to be on what is advertised as the 'inaugural' cruise, that sailing should be the first sailing with paying customers. Short 'shakedown' sailings with TA's and invited guests are one thing. A sailing with paying customers is something else."

Although this is the first instance we know of where a pre-inaugural cruise has been chartered for third-party sale, it's not the first time a so-called inaugural cruise was usurped by the addition of earlier revenue cruises. Royal Caribbean finished construction on its Independence of the Seas two weeks ahead of schedule and added additional sailings; passengers booked on the "old" inaugural were offered the chance to move to the earlier cruise. An early launch created a similar situation for passengers on Azamara Quest.

Interestingly, the date of Celebrity Solstice's inaugural was also moved up several weeks -- and Celebrity did give already booked passengers the option to switch to the earliest sailing for a true inaugural experience. But because this pre-inaugural is being sold by a third party through a charter, it seems cruisers won't be given that option this time.

We want to know: Do you think it's a great idea for Joe or Jane Cruiser to be able to buy their way onto a pre-inaugural? Is it simply a bad hand being dealt those who've already booked the "real" inaugural? Be sure to vote in our poll and post your opinion!

--by Melissa Baldwin, Managing Editor