I admit it, I pretty much hate to fly. I have flown and I may again, but the last time I was on a plane was over 10 years ago. I just don’t like them and they frighten me. About the time I decided this I also decided I was by no means willing to give up my desire to travel. The idea of GroundedTraveler started out years ago as seeing the world without airplanes. In this time I have seen much of Europe on the train. I am however an American by birth. Due to this I have crossed the Atlantic 3 times by ship. Even if I do begin to fly again traveling by ship will still be one of my favorite ways to cross the seas.
Cruises used to be the only way to get from the America’s to Europe and not as uncommon for travelers. Now they are more of a rarity, which is a true shame. Following are my experiences and what to expect if you do make the jump to doing a transatlantic cruise.
The first questions I get on this are usually:
- “Really? You really came by boat?” And of course the answer is YES.
- Second how long it takes. My trip was 6 days from Sunday afternoon until the following Saturday morning.
- Is it expensive? The route I took, yes-ish. See below for more.
- Does the boat move much? Yes, you know you are on a boat. We never saw storms on my trips, but the ship is huge and has stabilizers so even the old guys with canes had no problem staying upright.
What I actually did:
I used Cunard, which is the modern descendant of the White Star Line of Titanic Fame. I used them because they do regular runs every few weeks between New York and Southhampton. They are a more classic liner style and really play up the high-class of it all. Not really the best choice for backpackers, but if you have a suit and like that kind of thing, well worth a try. These ships are BIG and built for the high ocean.
I took one of the last voyages of the Queen Elizabeth 2 (QE2) from New York to Southhampton, England and then the Queen Mary 2(QM2) back. My last trip was also on the QM2. I miss the QE2, while the QM2 is a nice ship and still well worth the trip, the QE2 felt more like a liner and less like a floating hotel.
Yes the cruise will take you the better part of a week. If you have two weeks of vacation and just want to spend it “seeing stuff”, then maybe a transatlantic cruise isn’t your thing. All three times that I took the ship were between jobs or job and school, where I could dictate my timing. This was perfect for me. I could easily add a few weeks as noone was expecting me anywhere. As for seasonal timing, I always went in the summer. I hear the north Atlantic is cold and stormy in the winter.
The trip lasts for 6 nights and conveniently there are 6 time zones between New York and London. So, essentially no jet lag. You just wake up a slightly different time each day and deal with it slower than a mad rush on the airplane completely dehydrated and exhausted.
What you get with an airplane ticket:
- Means of transport
- Bag of peanuts if you are lucky
What you get with a cruise:
- Means of transport
- 5 nights of accommodation
- 5 days of food (although drinks other than water are extra)
- 5 nights of entertainment, talks, pools, various other activities
- No jet lag
- Time to relax and read books or jog
- Opportunities to talk to people you would never ordinarily meet
- Awesome stories to tell
So yes if you compare a straight plane ticket and a cruise, the cruise will seem more expensive. However if you add the food and the accommodation for near a week, it is not such a big difference. Expect to spend a fair bit on drinks unless you don’t go out in the evening.
Tip: Make sure you go with someone else. The single person in a cabin fee is a killer. It also helps meeting people.
Tip: There are laundry facilities including ironing boards. If you are heading onward traveling, do laundry on the last day.
As I’ve said a few times, my prime reason for travel is to meet people. This is why I love slower methods, it lets you get a chance to develop friendships and get to know people better. The ship is a wonderful place to meet a ton of different type of people. Especially if you normally travel in a certain way, it is really awesome to meet the different kind of people that would go on a ship. And because you are isolated for 6 days, people have time to talk.
In general I would say the crowd is older, although that isn’t 100%. On each cruise I met people my own age traveling due to one reason or another. The late night bar/dance club is a good place to meet these. There are families as well. I don’t have kids so I didn’t really notice, but I think there was child care and activities provided so you could go to dinner together. Don’t discount the older travelers though, as young guy I still had some great conversations with some old guys.
On my first trip over, at my dinner table of 8 as a master’s student I was the least educated person at my table. On that cruise I ended up trading movie tips with an Ex-VP of one of the US Broadcasters and hearing stories of living in Tehran from a woman’s perspective from an ambassador’s wife at midnight snack. On my last trip I hung out with a night club manager and heard stories from that and was included in his great generosity in buying rounds.
Tips for meeting people:
- When they ask you what kind of table you want for dinner (they are assigned) get the biggest one available. More people to talk to.
- At the free seating meals, look for a table with just one person and ask if they have space. More interesting that eating alone.
- I find the first easy question is “Where are you from?” followed by “Where are you going?”
- Seek out your dinner companions as well, they often meet others and can widen your group.
Each class of cabin has an assigned dining room. You pick how big a table you want to be at and either the late or early seating. Definitely go for the bigger tables, meet the neat people. I learned about wine one bottle at a time from my table mates. Dinner is a multi-course affair and takes several hours, but leaves time for conversation.
The food is amazing in my non-foodie opinion. This was the first time I’ve ever had gourmet food in multiple courses. I found myself asking my neighbors what some words meant. (Vongole = clams) I am totally not a foodie except for dessert, but I really enjoyed the dinners. Enough choices even for a fairly picky eater and really a grand experience for someone who usually puts on the really-clean t-shirt to dress up.
Breakfast and Lunch are buffet affairs with the various options available shifting during the week. At dinner on the Queen Mary 2, the lunch areas are converted into special places that you can go instead of the normal dining room for dinner, which required reservations. I never did any of these as I liked the people at my table, and if I remember correctly these special things costed. You can also order from a menu food in your room if you don’t feel (or in my own case couldn’t dress for) the main dining room.
Tip: Bring a suit/tux (or equivalent for women), the dinners are formal. One trip I couldn’t do a few dinners because I didn’t have a black jacket.
I am not easily queasy and had no problems. The ships are huge and built for the ocean. The QM2 has these wings that stick out under the water and move up and down to counteract the roll. This said I’ve also not been in a storm.
- Look at the horizon not at something in the ship, the perspective helps. Fresh air too.
- Ginger helps. If they have it, Ginger Beer is a non-alcoholic soda with more ginger in it.
- If you do need something ask at the service desk. I had to ask each day, but they gave me the anti-seasickness pills that helped me sleep.
- Large amounts of time to think
- Interesting people that are willing to talk and share
- Not rushing from here to there to see the next thing on the list.
- Experience not sights or stuff
The ship is a unique form of slow travel for me. I feel more like the travelers of old somehow. Sitting on the deck at night is a very calm almost surreal time. I just enjoy the time that I cannot speed up or change and am forced to enjoy it as it comes.
It is unlike a lot of the slower travel in that is costs more per day than other options, but I feel it is well worth it. Even if I do go flying again, I will still look for the ship option on my travels.
I have not tried the other companies, but I know that most cruise lines will do repositioning cruises between seasons as the ships move back and forth between the Med and Caribbean. This can be a cheaper option, although maybe without the class. See the post at Vagabondquest for more on that option.