12 Tips For Choosing and Making the Most of a Transatlantic Cruise Crossing
This article will provide you with the tips and advice you need to decide if a Transatlantic Cruise / Crossing is for you, and help you to make the most of the experience. It is based on my Atlantic Crossing experiences, and from talking to cruise passengers and seeing what the most asked about topics are in the cruise forums.
A Transatlantic trip is a crossing, and not a cruise! It’s about the journey itself.
Purists will insist that you should never call a transatlantic crossing a “transatlantic cruise”. Especially if you are undertaking one of the scheduled crossings that Cunard run on their magnificent Queen Mary 2. A cruise is when you sail between many ports and is more about the destinations, while a crossing is where the journey itself is the whole experience. It is about being at sea for a week on a ship, and the wonderful possibilities that it provides and enables.
Cunard is the only cruise line that maintains a regular scheduled crossing of the Atlantic. Before the age of the jet liner, there were many ships plying the route between New York and Europe. Competition was fierce, especially to provide the fastest crossing. The ships were segregated between the plush and luxurious palaces that were First Class, and the more functional and inexpensive 3rd Class areas.
These Tips and advice are based on my experiences of crossing the Atlantic a number of times.
I have been on a number of Transatlantic Crossings and the experiences have informed these top tips for people considering undertaking one. I have crossed the Atlantic on the iconic Queen Elizabeth 2, the stunning Queen Mary 2 and also the P&O Cruise Ship Arcadia. I have more crossings booked, as I believe they are the most wonderful and special journeys available to travellers today. At the end of this article, you will find links to more about crossings on those specific ships and other cruise tip related articles.
# 1: Should you chose a Crossing on Cunard Queen Mary 2, or a repositioning cruise on another (or your favourite) cruise line?
You absolutely should go on a Cunard Crossing. It is the only real remaining classic journey from the era of crossings. Cunard are the only cruise line that has a proper “ocean liner” designed ship versus a cruise ship, the Queen Mary 2, which was designed for the rigours of the north Atlantic. It is designed to cut through the Atlantic ocean waves, it has a very strong hull and is designed to be very stable even in the Atlantic. It is also the only surviving scheduled Transatlantic service between Europe and New York. The whole ship, the entertainment and the schedule is geared for having people at sea for a week. They know what and how to keep people occupied, engaged and entertained. It is a classic journey that you will cherish and talk about. There is a vast range of stateroom grades and prices, and you can do a crossing from a few hundred dollars per person right up to about $40000 per person.
Repositioning cruises tend to be very affordable, and run at the start and end of the European Summer which is when many companies move their ships to warmer routes, usually the Caribbean. They tend to have a week cruising either in Europe or the Caribbean and then a week crossing the Atlantic. It is not crossing the north Atlantic and so tends to be smooth sailing, even though they are cruise style ship designs. They lack the heritage, history and are not as geared for the back-to-back days at sea.
#2: Will I get bored with all those days at sea?
A crossing will be between 6 and 8 days. Crossings have been getting longer, as the cost of fuel is so huge that Cunard and other cruise lines find it is more cost effective and profitable to go slower. In the hey day of crossings, you could cross in just over 4 days – today you will take about double that. All of those days will be at sea. But, you will not get bored. You are more likely to get frustrated that you cannot do everything that you want to do.
Especially if you go on a Cunard crossing, you will struggle to do everything you want to do. The daily program will have a multitude of options at every hour of the day, and most of the night. There will be speakers, usually famous names from politics, entertainment, writers and adventurers. There will be shows and theatre plays. There will be classes, on everything from learning to play bridge, to fencing and dancing. There will be competitions, quizzes, sports and bingo. There will be behind the scenes tours to go on, including touring the massive kitchens. I really recommend you go on these. If your ship offers one of the big 3 hour ones, that they often charge for, then do this too as gives a huge insight into the complexity of running the ship. (You can find out more about why, and the sort of things you will see, in my article about “Behind the Scenes Tour On Cunard Queen Elizabeth”). There will be movies, some in 3-D, and planetarium shows. There will be exhibitions and displays by chefs, florists and other departments. The challenge usually is trying to make choices on what to do, remembering you are also supposed to be relaxing.
If you are on Cunard, I strongly recommend that you go to the Afternoon Tea at least once in the crossing. Held at 3.30pm, in the Queens Room, this is a tradition, a ritual and a must do. (Read more in my article “Cunard and Twinings Afternoon Tea”)
#3: Will I get seasick?
Some worry that with the unpredictability of the north Atlantic, there is a strong chance of being seasick. It is very, very unlikely. There are a few key things to consider:
- Scheduled Crossings take place in the summer months, when the sea is much less likely to be rough. For much of the summer months it will be flat and very calm indeed.
- Cunard’s Queen Mary 2 is a huge ship and has been built to be very stable, even in rougher seas. I have crossed on the Queen Elizabeth 2 in winter with up to 40 and 50 foot waves and it did get rough, but crossing on the QM2 it is incredibly stable even when things got choppy.
- If you are concerned, then:
- Book a stateroom that is mid-ship and lower down, as this will have the least amount of movement if the ship does move about.
- Take some over-the-counter medicine as a fall back with you, eat ginger or use one of the wrist band devices. You are unlikely to need it. The worst case scenario is an amazing, though costly at about $100, jab that you can get at the on-board medical centre if you do get ill. You sleep for some hours after it, but then feel as right as rain for the rest of the trip.
#4: When is the best – and worst – time to go?
Following on from the point above if looking at a Cunard Crossing, it really depends on what you are looking for. If you are worried about the weather and seas, go in the middle of the European/ North America Summer. It is the most costly time though as a result. You will usually find the best fares are for any winter crossings, such as around Christmas time when the QM2 usually crosses the Atlantic to run a Christmas/ New Year Caribbean cruise before returning to Southampton for the start of the World Cruise in January. This crossing is usually less popular and discounted more, as it will be cold and people worry about rough seas.
If doing a repositioning crossing, then you will have to go in either September/ October or March/ April when ships are moved. Personally, I think the latter option is best as you fly to the Caribbean and get that over and done with, usually with a daytime flight, have warm cruising for a week and then usually you have good warm weather for most of the crossing, other than the last few days based on what Europe Spring is up to!
#5: Which is the best route to go, from Southampton to New York or the other way?
I have done both, and if have a choice would prefer to do Southampton to New York. Firstly, as you have 25 hour days for 5 of the days, as you change the clocks day-by-day so by the time you arrive in New York you are on USA East Coast time. That means longer to enjoy yourself. You have short days coming the other way. Secondly, you have the special experience of getting up and seeing the Statue of Liberty and Lower Manhattan as an event on the last day. Southampton docks cannot match that. Unfortunately, the ship now docks in Brooklyn and not in New York but you still pass the Statue.
#6: Will I have to dress up day and night?
Evenings you will. Daytimes just what you would wear when heading out to the shops, or popping round to friends.
The evenings: If on a Cunard Crossing, then you will find that you will have formal or semi-formal dress codes every night, other than the 1st and last night. I advise people who do not want to embrace evening dressing up to look at repositioning crossings, choosing a cruise line that has a more relaxed evening dress code. On Cunard the evenings are a major part of the journey and the experience. They enforce the code, although you can not follow the code by having room service or eating in the Kings Court (lido style restaurant). But almost all passengers will be in the dress code as it is about making the most of the experience and the glamour.
Formal means black tie for men, and evening dress for the ladies. Semi-formal means jacket and tie for gents, and cocktail dress or trouser suit for the ladies. Jeans are not allowed. On the first and last night, gents need to wear jacket but no tie and ladies a dress, skirt or trousers. People do dress up and get stuck in.
Daytime dress: This is one of the questions I get asked the most! On our first Crossing we took smart trousers and long sleeved shirts. Not needed! We wore t-shirts, polo shirts and jeans, jumpers and fleeces – and the ladies the equivalent of jeans, comfortable trousers or dresses. The best guide is for things you will feel comfortable strolling the decks in. Shorts are hardly ever seen, as even when hot the decks will not be sun bathing weather.
When packing, remember that you will be flying back one way (unless you doing a back-to-back) and so check the weight limit before you go too mad packing all those clothes!
#7: What if I fall ill?
There is a very extensive medical facility on-board with doctors and nurses, that can cope with everyday illnesses and injuries through to serious incidents and illness. It has a cost to use, and is broadly what private health care costs in the UK. They even have a high dependency room (i.e. As close to intensive care as you can get), they can take x-rays, have a massive pharmacy and can treat almost everything. The main approach is to stabilise patients until they can be evacuated off if needed, there are some days on a Crossing when it is impossible to evacuate passengers or crew. This is once the ship is too far for even helicopters to hop from oil rig to oil rig to reach the ship. But they have all the means to stabilise patients, and can deal with everyday illnesses just as your GP can do.
#8: How do I get the best fare?
I have a whole article on how to get the best cruise fare, and this applies to Transatlantic Crossings too. Click here to read my article called “How to get the best cruise deals”. Fares range a huge amount both by stateroom, as mentioned from a few hundred dollars to almost $40,000 per person, and by time of the year. It is important to decide what type of cabin you will be comfortable with when at sea so much.
Sign up for the email newsletters and always use a cruise agent that is familiar with Cunard, or the cruise line you are using, and the specific ships to help you chose the right cabin in the right part of the ship for your preferences and budget. They will also ensure you get the best deal, may be able to get you extra on-board credit and upgrades. I never book direct online when cruising or crossing. Agents still get the best deal and benefits.
#9: What cabin should I choose?
A lot of people feel the need to have a cabin with a window or balcony as they worry they will spend more time in their cabin than on a cruise with lots of port stops. I am not sure you will, and so go for the style and type you usually prefer. I like having a balcony personally, but we almost never use it to sit out on as not the weather to really suit that. But it is a personal preference. Go with your usual preference, or you may end up spending more than you need to.
Should you go Queens Grill, Princess Grill or Britannia Class?
On Cunard there are 3 broad classes of cabins which determine which restaurant you eat in. Queens Grill, which is like the idea of “first class” on a plane; Princess Grill which would be “business” and Britannia , which is more economy. Saying that, unlike economy on planes, Britannia is plush, with a magnificent dining room and incredible menus and food. There are various perks associated with the Grills, but if you want to go “Grills” as the Crossing is a once in a lifetime or special event trip, it is important to know that the perks are not the value of the fare difference. The main difference is the size and location of your stateroom. They are bigger, may have a bath and separate shower, and be in better and quieter parts of the ship. You do get to eat in the specific and relevant Grills dining room, which has a set and a la carte menu and more ability to order off menu.
As mentioned earlier, if you worry about the chance of feeling seasick then use that to drive your cabin choice. Go on a lower deck and in the middle of the ship. These will tend to be the window cabins in Britannia if on the Queen Mary 2.
#10: How do I get the best table?
Many people worry about their table, as the meals are so much a part of the transatlantic experience.
If you are in Britannia on Cunard, or in the main dining room on other cruise lines, request a table for 8. This means you are more likely to have a chance of clicking with at least some of your table mates. They will only be your table companions for dinner, as for breakfast and lunch you will be put at the nearest empty seats.
In Queens Grill and Princess Grill, there does seem to usually be a correlation to the level of cabin you have, and if you are a regular traveller, on how good your table location is. My tip is to check the table as soon as you are on-board and chat to the Maitre D’e if you have any issues, as they may be able to do some shuffling about. In these restaurants, I would always recommend you (1) request a table for the number of people you are travelling with, as you sit at same table for all meals and (2) request any specific table or location at the time of booking.
#11: What about tipping and service?
Most cruise lines are moving to adding gratuities onto your on-board account. This is the case with Cunard for example. I would still consider building into your budget and having some US Dollars to tip your waiters and stateroom attendant. They work incredibly hard for months on end, and make sure they do the best to make your trip amazing. Some people recommend actually tipping at the start of the crossing to set the tone and ensure that your service is enhanced and ensured. I have not done this, but many people swear by it.
One thing that all staff will really appreciate is you filling in the staff recognition cards. On Cunard this is the White Star Service Awards cards. These are used to reward staff and used for evaluations, promotions and helping to ensure repeat contracts. They are really important and valued. Again consider doing this during the trip, not just at the end.
#12: What about getting answers to all the questions I have, or will have?
Use the cruise message boards to get answers, advice and to make contact with people who are going to be on the same crossing as you. The one I find the best, most friendly and most responsive are the ones on Cruise Critic. They have them by cruise line and by interest group. The Cunard one is very active and helpful: click here to read the Cunard Board. You can also email me, or contact me by Twitter, and I will try and help too. I can then add to these tips!
I love Transatlantic Crossings. They are the most magical and wonderful travel experiences available to us today. I hope you enjoy yours as much as I do mine. Please ask questions and add your comments and tips to help other travellers.
Tips for Travellers related cruise tips posts
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