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Video: Is crossing the Atlantic by ship expensive?

  • What is a Transatlantic cruise like on the Queen Mary 2?
  • How long does a Transatlantic crossing take on a cruise liner?
  • Is a Transatlantic crossing by ship cheaper than flying?

Settle back, dear reader, for I shall take you on a journey which will answer all of these frequently-asked questions.

Travelling across the Atlantic as a commercial passenger has actually been a possibility since soon after explorers like Columbus ‘discovered’ the Americas. Then there were three hundred years of unpredictable and arduous voyages under sail, until 1838, when Brunel’s paddle-wheel steamship, the Great Western, was launched.

Walter, Joseph; The SS ‘Great Western’; The British Postal Museum

I’m not sure how much of an upgrade it was in terms of comfort, but it began well over a hundred years of increasingly bigger and faster ships. The glorious age of transatlantic travel only died out in the second half of the twentieth century, when the public decided that they preferred to be cooped up in a jet airliner for a few hours over being wined and dined on a ship for several days.

The market always tends to choose convenience over quality.

Now there’s only one transatlantic ocean liner left: Cunard’s Queen Mary 2, which was launched in 2004 to replace the Queen Elizabeth 2. It sails for most of the year from Southampton in England to New York and back again, and it’s gorgeous.

Queen Mary 2

But in terms of getting across the Atlantic, is it still an alternative to flying? Or is it just a curiosity?

The passengers that I spoke to on board were a mixture. There were people who were just doing the trip and then flying home as a holiday. There were people who’d added a week to their holiday to do the journey one way in style. And there were people who were only going one way, for an extended stay or permanently, who liked the idea of an unlimited baggage allowance.

It’s the classy way to emigrate.

If you’ve been on a cruise ship before, you’ll know what to expect. It’s seven days wandering around a luxury hotel. It couldn’t be more different to seven hours cramped up in a British Airways seat.

The Queen Mary 2’s operators, Cunard, take great pains to point out that the ship is a cruise liner, not a cruise ship. But the differences are largely technical – for example, a cruise liner might have to do its route out of the holiday season, so it’s designed to withstand rougher weather. It also needs to maintain a decent speed, so it will be faster than the holiday cruise ships. As a passenger, you wouldn’t really notice these technicalities.

What you might notice is that the Queen Mary 2 is extremely well geared up for on-board entertainment. All cruise ships have loads of entertainment of course, but they’re usually empty during the daytime, as their guests leave the ship and wander around that day’s port destination. On the cruise liner, you can’t get off, so the ship has to cater for guests looking for something to do 24/7.

So while all the modern cruise ships have a big theatre, for example, the Queen Mary 2 has two of them, one of which is dedicated to daily lectures by guest speakers. The 150 seats are usually full for these.

It also has a particularly large gym, and the biggest spa area I’ve seen on any ship. It looks like it was fitted out by the same people who did the Aqua Sana spas you find at Center Parcs – pretty cool.

Queen Mary 2 spa

Overall, I’d say that in terms of facilities, service and clientele, the Queen Mary 2 probably ranks alongside upper-mid-range lines like Celebrity.

Cunard has done a fantastic job of playing on its history. You can’t turn a corner on the Queen Mary 2 without finding displays of memorabilia, or museum-style boards recounting the glamour days of Transatlantic liners. I probably spent hours reading these, and almost certainly missed a few. I loved it, and the traditional decor really gives you a sense of occasion.

Of course, if you have got the time to add a week on to your holiday across the Atlantic, the other thing to consider is the cost. Cunard operates the ship like a hotel, on a per-room basis, so the journey is effectively nearly twice the price for solo travellers. But if you can share a cabin as a couple or as a family, things become more interesting. You can get a cabin for two from well under £2000, which is a lot, but not that much more than you’d have to pay for your two airfares. That means you’re getting seven days in an all-inclusive luxury hotel for just a few hundred pounds extra!

So, you wouldn’t exactly associate the term ‘bargain’ with a Transatlantic crossing on the Queen Mary 2, but do the maths.

The fare I quoted is for the cheapest cabins on the ship. You can pay several times that, just as you can if you don’t want to travel in cattle class on a plane. But I figured that on a Transatlantic voyage, there wasn’t much advantage in having a room with a big window or private balcony, as you’re not exactly going to be gazing out of your cabin over the sort of romantic destinations you get on a holiday cruise. It’s just sea, sea and more sea.

Lovely, but go up on deck if you want to gaze at that.

Queen Mary 2 inside cabin

So here’s my lowest-cost inside cabin. With no windows, if you’re an irregular sleeper it’s amusing to guess what the time is when you wake up. Is it 5am? 8am? 11am? You won’t have a clue. I quite enjoyed it.

The cabin is comfortable and has a TV, a serviceable bathroom, and like the rest of the ship, it’s kept spotlessly clean, day and night. The room service is impeccable. Honestly, you won’t get service like you get on the Queen Mary 2 in many hotels on land costing hundreds of pounds a night.

Other than that, the lowest-cost inside cabin guests get the same amenities as the passengers in most of the rest of the ship (apart from a few people in some upper-class areas). There’s a choice of restaurants, from the self-serve buffet to the beautiful main formal dining room, and and a handful of smaller venues. Choose wherever you like.

I’ve paid over £50 a head for meals which aren’t as good as those you get all-included every night on the Queen Mary 2, and in restaurants which aren’t as posh either. Or you can get room service, if you’re insane – it’s free.

Queen Mary 2 Dining Room

The ship has a couple of formal nights on each voyage, where you’re expected to dress up for dinner in formal wear. If you don’t fancy that, or haven’t got room to bring that sort of gear along, you’ll have to eat dinner elsewhere, not in the main dining room, but that’s no hardship. On other nights, the evening dress code is just ‘smart’, which just means no shorts or T-shirts.

As for your fellow passengers, well, they’re the type of people you’d expect to meet at a fairly posh resort, but that means they’re invariably polite and well-behaved. I liked them. On my voyage, it seemed to mainly be a mix of British and Americans, with a few Aussie, Chinese, French and German passengers making up the numbers. Most seemed to be in their 60s or 70s, but there were a few younger people too, although almost no kids. You can keep yourself to yourself quite easily, or you can join others at dinner, at entertainment events or at the bars.

It makes a lot of sense

There are all sorts of reasons why people might not want to cross the Atlantic in a floating first-class hotel, most notably if they have a fixed amount of holiday time and want to spend it all at the destination. I understand that – you just want get the journey over with.

But as I sit here in a lounge bar, with piano music playing and a beer to hand, sea travel really does seem to make a lot of sense for anyone who can add seven days to their holiday. Even in the twenty-first century.

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