Douglas Ward comments on cruising, the ships, and the cruise experience.
UPDATE: Nov 2022
I was recently in Doha, shortly before FIFA’s World Cup took place. I was attending the naming ceremony of MSC World Europa, and the first time a new MSC cruise ship had not been named by Sophia Loren. Instead, it was named by Sheika Hind bint Hamad Al Thani. The stunning event was organised in conjunction with the opening of Doha’s new 24,000 square meters Grand Cruise Terminal. This is divided into two terminals plus a central area with departure and arrival halls, duty-free shop, and specially designed waiting areas for guests and staff, among other facilities. The entire facade of the building, which can accommodate two large resort ships simultaneously, incorporates 1154 arches of traditional Arab architecture, which is simply stunning.
UPDATE: Oct 2022
It seems the word is slowly lifting COVID-19 testing requirements for many cruise passengers. While this appears to be a good thing, it still pays for passengers to be careful. The lifting of restrictions by some cruise lines in light of the FDA announcement in the United States that COVID testing is no longer required means that people are less cautious.
Meanwhile, it is good to note that the cruise industry is moving ahead, and getting schedules in place for 2023. Also, it is interesting to note that hotel companies are getting in on the act, with new entrants keen on getting into the cruise business. This is certainly a positive for passengers, and leads to more choice.
In November, football’s World Cup will take place in Doha (Qatar), and a new, beautifully designed, dedicated cruise terminal is taking shape, with an opening expected to coincide with the games. Several cruise ships have been chartered for the event, which is expected to put this small country on the world stage.
UPDATE: Sep 2022
While I understand that cruise lines are anxious to achieve some kind of profitability in order to pay down debts incurred during 2020/2021, it is a shame that cruisegoers are suffering as a result. Clearly the cruise industry is discriminating against many people by not producing printed brochures. It appears that many people are simply not able to access online information. I have been receiving comments from former passengers who simply find it too difficult to access or use the online world, and don’t want to look at mobile phone screens. Printed brochures allow people to look at their leisure, in good light conditions. I, for one, urge cruise lines to reconsider the loss of goodwill, and bring back some kind of personal service and contact.
In their quest for revenue (particularly for investors), cruise companies are using their marketing skills and discounts to entice passengers to book their cruises as soon as possible. This is all fine and dandy, as long as air travel is not directly involved. In other words, cruising closer to home is the preferred option for many people. As COVID appears to be less of a threat to most people, the cruise lines have relaxed (or in some cases, completely done away with) their vaccination requirements, it appears that cruising will rebound quickly, with so much pent-up demand. I, for one, am hopeful that it will all become easier as we head into a new season. See you aboard, somewhere!
UPDATE: Aug 2022
With the relaxation of rules for pre-cruise Covid testing by several cruise lines, it would appear to be that things are heading towards normality (well, the new normality). However, while this is true of domestic sailings, the uncertainty of airlift in various countries remains a challenge for many travellers, together with the ever-changing rules regarding pre-flight tests. This has certainly led to many potential passengers not wanting to go through all the various (annoying) procedures, and, instead, staying closer to home. One thing is certain – if you plan to cruise, be mindful of the fact that flexibility is key. Meanwhile, stay healthy, and carry on!
UPDATE: Jun 2022
I was pleased to learn that AIDA Cruises has successfully tested marine biofuel aboard AIDAprima this month, when it became the first cruise ship to be able to do so. The ship, built in Japan by Mitsubishi, has a 12 volt dual fuel motor capable of providing power in port. This is indeed a first, and is welcome news for the cruise industry, which always appears to be under attack from the media.
UPDATE: May 2022
I recently sailed aboard Ponant’s new Le Commandant Charcot (the largest ship in the Ponant fleet). This is a hybrid ice-breaker with first-rate cuisine by Alain Ducasse, famed chef of the Hotel de Paris in Monte Carlo. The ship itself (measuring a little over 31,000 gross tons) is spacious and has excellent up-to-the-minute design features. It’s really a mix of expedition, fine cuisine, and high comfort factor, with a range of accommodation to suit different personal comfort levels, including an excellent detox juice bar.
ALL INCLUSIVE vs NOT ALL INCLUSIVE
So many cruise passengers are confused by the term “All Inclusive”. What this really means is that drinks (whether alcoholic or not) are included in the cruise fare. However, it’s the cruise line that chooses the drink brands – not you. This is clearly not acceptable for discriminating passengers who don’t want to be told what brands they can and can’t have. Even worse, is that so-called premium brands cost extra – so what’s the point of “All Inclusive” when all is clearly not inclusive?
What some passengers think is that All Inclusive makes it easier, because they don’t have to sign for drinks, which makes it appear convenient. However, with the advent of the “medallion” or electronic wrist band now being introduced by many major players, the potential of not knowing how much you are being charged for any drinks you sign for. So, you could swipe your wrist band or touch a purchase point with your “medallion” and not know just how much you are being charged for that premium brand drink you thought was included!
I am often asked whether “All Inclusive” includes spa treatments. The answer is a resounding NO! There are also other items that are simply not included, such as laundry and dry cleaning, or optional excursions (unless stated as included). So, there you have it.
SHORE EXCURSIONS (the new jargon)
Cruise companies are getting more involved these days regarding shore excursions, and the marketing people are coming up with all kinds of phrases like “Total Personal Immersion”. Exploration is another buzzword used in conjunction with shore excursions and onboard destination presentations. It’s all a bit of a rehash of what used to be done many many years ago aboard ships that operated long voyages, such as Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth 2 (QE2) in the 1970s. showing destinations and “connecting with the locals” in socially responsible ways. There’s just more hype today, and, thankfully, in-cabin televisions that can dedicate one or more channels to shore excursions, including overnight stays and emphasis on overland tours (gosh, we did those in the 1970s, too).
Also, speaking of long voyages, I have been getting questions from passengers about around-the-world cruises regarding luggage and storage space. In former days, ships like Queen Elizabeth 2 had massive baggage rooms where you could store your luggage. It would be taken from you by the room steward, until it was needed again at the end of the voyage. However, none of today’s ships has such a room, which means that you either have to store your luggage under the bed (if there is space), or left open to view in your cabin. It’s important, therefore, to make sure that you buy a cabin with enough space for a voyage lasting 90 days or more, and, in this regard, the larger the ship, the more cabin space you should be able to find.
50 Remarkable Years. Pure Magic!
On 21 July 2016, I celebrated 50 years in the cruise industry, aboard the Russian nuclear-powered 132-passenger icebreaker 50 Years of Victory. I was on an expedition voyage to the North Pole – something I had always wanted to do, but had not been able to achieve previously. The ship – an incredible piece of machinery – is able to operate with paying passengers (expedition participants) only during the short summer months (June, July, and August) because, for the rest of the year, it is at work keeping the seaways clear of ice, as well as rescuing lesser qualified icebreakers. The voyages are organised by Quark Expeditions and Poseidon Expeditions, who charter the ship.
It certainly was a historic voyage for me, and a wonderful way to celebrate my 5oth year of cruising. It was also the ultimate digital detox, because there was no internet connection, or e-mail connectivity (just like in 1965)! There was also 24 hours of daylight, and a real sense of camaraderie among the participants. We also saw polar bears on three separate occasions, and the ship stopped so that we could see close by, without disturbing them.
My first voyage, which I joined on 21 July 1965, was a transatlantic crossing aboard?RMS Queen Elizabeth (the original) from Southampton to New York. I was hooked, and have never looked back. My first book (Berlitz Handbook to Cruising) was published some 20 years later, in 1985. And the rest is history!
It was enjoyable to take a look at the “remastered” Queen Mary 2 (QM2), and I must say that the extensive work carried out – in the technical department, the accommodation and the public spaces – has resulted in a much refreshed ship. A true ocean liner, QM2 now feels more like the ship it should be. There are several changes, but one thing that has remained is the traditional feel of an ocean liner.
Now with a newly installed Verandah Grill, Queen Mary 2 has the same extra-tariff dining venue than smaller half-sisters Queen Elizabeth and Queen Victoria (both of which are cruise ships pretending to be ocean liners), with menu items chosen to show the art of haute cuisine.
One thing that is immediately apparent as soon as you walk aboard is the carpeting (the carpet now has underlay on all the stairs and foyers, and throughout the public rooms), something that has been noticeably missing ever since the ship debuted in 2004.
Kings Court – the large casual self-serve eatery – has been redesigned and completely refreshed and is now a far more comfortable large bistro-style venue. The expansive food court will,?I am certain, become a favourite haunt for many passengers.
Some 35 new cabins were added in a new upper deck section (and discreetly so without altering the profile of the ship), including 15 quite spacious solo-occupancy cabins similar in design to those retro-fitted aboard Queen Elizabeth and Queen Victoria.
JUST A THOUGHT
I saw a cruise line advertisement recently. It said Every Corner of the World for every Bucket List. I did find it amusing, because I was under the impression that our world – the earth – was round (well, almost round although it is slightly flattened at the poles). Still, perhaps the marketing bods just hadn’t learned that yet or perhaps they come from Cornerbrook (Newfoundland). Or, perhaps it’s a cube, after all. Rubik would know!
Wait a moment, though. There are seven continents on Earth (I know that, because I’ve cruised them all), but only six faces on Rubik’s Cube. Now that’s magic (that’s the original name for Rubik’s Cube – the Magic Cube)!
I am often asked, during interviews (I seem to have spent a lot of time this year doing those), whether I have ever missed a ship. Well, I have. I also receive many letters from passengers regarding the utter frustration in trying to get to and from their chosen cruise ships as efficiently and smoothly as possible because the cruise line sent them on circuitous flights with idiotic connections.
When all goes well, travel can be wonderful. Travel, however, doesn’t always work as you want it to, and so I thought I would share some of my own experiences. I have only missed joining a ship three times in the 32 years of my role as author of the Berlitz Cruising and Cruise Ships guidebook.
Missed Ships: The first time
The first time was in the summer of 1988. It was due to a fire on an Amtrak train between New York and Baltimore, where I was due to embark aboard a Celebrity Cruises ship (ss Meridian) in the early days of the company, for a one-week cruise to Bermuda.
Missed Ships: The second time
On 10 December I was due to fly on British Airways from London to Johannesburg (a night flight leaving London at 20:10), with a connecting flight (at 11:10 the following morning) to Port Elizabeth (South Africa), where I was due to board the small expedition vessel Bremen, which was due to depart at 17:00 (many passengers had, apparently done an overnight trip to stay and experience a wildlife lodge for a spot of big game animal watching).
Unfortunately, my flight to Johannesburg was delayed by 3 hours. When I arrived in Johannesburg (at 12:30pm), my connecting flight had long gone. British Airways kindly rebooked me on another flight, leaving at 13:05. However, I had to first collect my one checked in bag, then go through immigration and customs, and re-check my bag onto the new flight, then go to the Domestic Terminal (and through security again). Well, that didn’t work, and so I missed my flight. After another scramble, British Airways then tried to rebook me on the next flight (15:45), which would arrive at 17:25, although the flight was full (and the ship was due to leave at 17:00). Somehow, British Airways managed to find me a seat on the flight, and I duly checked in and sent my luggage on its way.
After managing to contact the ship, the pilot and captain very kindly agreed to delay departure until 18:00, at which time the ship had to leave in order to get to the next port (Mossel Bay) on time. So, guess what? The rebooked flight was delayed by 45 minutes, and so I missed the ship anyway! Now I was in Port Elizabeth, with no ship just a suitcase.
So, I decided to head south to Mossel Bay by car and booked a hotel along the way. The ship, meanwhile, was encountering some bad weather, including some rather choppy sea conditions. When it arrived in Mossel Bay the next day, the port pilot had great difficulty getting aboard. When he did so, he advised the captain that it would not be wise to attempt to get into the tiny harbour to berth the ship alongside (the pier is just big enough for the 8,672-gt, 111.5-meter-long Bremen. Needless to say, the port call was abandoned, and the pilot faced extremely dangerous conditions when he tried to decamp to the pilot boat it took over 45 minutes to do so. Afterwards, the ship headed for Cape Town.
I was informed of the aborted port call, and decided that, in the circumstances, the only thing to do would be to carry on by extending the car rental, in order to get to Cape Town, which meant a very long journey ahead. I also had to find another hotel somewhere, Cape Town being the destination of choice.
From Port Elizabeth to Cape Town is a road distance of over 500 miles (12,950 km) along the Garden Route. This encompassed some really beautiful scenery and greenery (it’s amazing how much trees, flora and fauna change during the journey). I did see a few wildebeests along the way, and scores of ostriches came to see me as my car headed south, on Sunday.
Eventually, I arrived in a very windy Cape Town before the ship and even made it in time to check in to my hotel and go for dinner (at the Five Flies). But I did get to board the ship the following day, before flying back to the UK. The moral of the story is, if you are flying long distance to get to your chosen cruise ship, try to go one day ahead (I didn’t have the luxury of time to do that). It saves a lot of frustration, money, and time!
Missed Ships: The third time
Another time was more recent. In November 2015 I was due to fly from London to Las Palmas, but via Madrid because no direct flights were available. I was in plenty of time at Heathrow, and duly checked in one piece of luggage. However, the first flight was delayed by 55 minutes. But there was no possibility of getting to my connecting flight, because it would leave before my delayed flight could make it in time for me to reach the connection in Madrid (the connecting time was one hour, and I would need to go through immigration and a further security checkpoint). The next flight from Madrid to Las Palmas was at 21:00. It was a two hour flight. But the ship sailed at 21:00. So, again, there was no possibility of joining it.
The next day was a day at sea, and the day after that the ship was in Agadir (Morocco). But there were no flights to Agadir for several days. So, I had no choice but to cancel the London-Madrid-Las Palmas flights with Iberia, and the ship. But then, getting my one piece of luggage back took another four hours! In all, I spent 7 hour at Heathrow. I then had to call for another car (private hire taxi) to come and take me home a two hour journey from home to Heathrow Airport. It was, to say the least, a complete waste of a day, and I had nothing to show for it except two taxi fares (four hours in total), and a missed ship.
I sincerely hope your travel days are better, and that you allow for any delay when travelling with connecting flights, and consider some alternatives – particularly when flying internationally.