Planning a Trip to Europe: Transportation-Choosing a Transatlantic Cruise

This article has been modified from one of the chapters in my book Travel Back to Your Roots which is available on Amazon. The book describes how to begin genealogy for your immigrant ancestors, how to research and find records in Europe,  and how to achieve your end goal of traveling to Europe to visit their birthplace and even meet long lost cousins!  I did it and want to show others that it isn’t impossible, even if you did not inherit any information about your ancestors.

Three Sets of Cousins Mark and Donna Found and Then  Met in Sweden and Poland in 2014 and 2016

Planning a Trip to Europe: Transportation

Choosing a Transatlantic Cruise

Traveling to Europe doesn’t have to be expensive, and the internet allows you to be your own travel agent. For those who are not tech savvy, an agent might be an option, but they typically will provide mainstream and obvious options. Independent travelers will find less expensive alternatives online that will make the trip more customized.

The ideal travel months for inexpensive European travel are just before and after summer vacation months. The prices and weather are likely more favorable, and the traveler has fewer people with whom to compete. Also, many European hotels do not have air-conditioning, and some that do will not allow the guest to control the settings. The popular areas around the Mediterranean in July and August are crowded, warm, and come with premium prices. Also, August is historically the month when many Europeans travel and you will have stiff competition.

You have two options to get to Europe: a round trip flight or a one-way transatlantic cruise with a one-way flight. If you have a flexible schedule and have three to four weeks for your trip, consider booking a transatlantic cruise for your journey to or from Europe.

Cruising to Europe

Transatlantic cruises sail to and from Europe and are known as “repositioning cruises.” The ships travel to and from their winter bases, usually in the Caribbean. The only cruise line that travels year-round to and from Europe is Cunard. They attempt to maintain more traditional cruising standards, regularly sail to and from Southampton, England, and New York, and their trips are about seven days.

Transatlantic cruises have been our preferred mode of travel, and they have several advantages.

  • A transatlantic cruise is often less expensive than a flight to or from Europe. They are also one of the least expensive cruises you will experience. Your fellow passengers tend to be very experienced cruisers who are often fascinating people. These cruises have very few children on board as the experience is oriented towards mature, active adults. Transatlantic and Transpacific cruises are gaining in popularity and are always fully booked.
  • While the ocean conditions can’t be guaranteed or predicted, our experience has been that the weather has been very good and the trip across the Atlantic very smooth. The pool areas were busy but not crowded, and passengers can enjoy the outside features of the ship on most days.
  • The cruise lines make an effort to entertain with special events as the trip takes anywhere from eleven to sixteen days. Some of their most loyal customers are on board, and the atmosphere is very relaxed and a bit more sophisticated. Many people enjoy socializing with their fellow travelers because of the many days at sea.
  • If taking the spring trip, you arrive in Europe with your biological clock adjusted as the time change is gradual. You “lose” the five to six hours on a spring TA, but that is just a small fraction of the time on the ship. A spring trip also features more daylight time in April or May.
  • Some people prefer a fall trip as they enjoy gaining the five to six hours during the cruise. Some feel the weather is better in the autumn, but that factor is very unpredictable. The daylight hours are significantly reduced in the fall, and the traveler also must deal with the possibility of hurricane season impacting the front end of their trip. We left right before Super Storm Sandy on our first fall transatlantic and have since come to prefer spring cruises.

Which cruise line?

We prefer a mainstream cruise line and have learned to choose the itinerary and price that matches our travel goals. Royal Caribbean, NCL, Holland, Celebrity, and Princess are the most popular cruise lines for transatlantics. Carnival does not sail in Europe, so you will only find a Carnival transatlantic if a new ship is making its maiden voyage across the Atlantic or if the ship is returning for a refurbishing. Maiden voyages on any cruise line may sound exciting, but it is sometimes the case that the construction crew is onboard finishing up with projects during the crossing. The crew is also learning the ship, and the passengers have to show extraordinary patience at times.

There are also some European cruise companies that do transatlantics crossings. Since they hail from Europe, the onboard culture is more specific to their country of origin. The menus might be different, and the announcements are provided in several languages. Many of your fellow passengers will be from Europe and may not speak English. Also, many of these lines travel between Europe and a Caribbean island, so the additional airfare might make these sailings more expensive. I think this would be an exciting way to travel, but it may not be the best choice for those new to cruising.

Cruise Prices

The best prices for transatlantic cruises are often found when the sailing is first posted, about eighteen months before the sailing. No one can predict if the prices will go down, but diligence pays off. Some people hope for a last minute booking, but this is an important trip. It isn’t worth saving a hundred dollars while you worry about the possibility of a fully booked ship. Waiting until thirty days before a sailing often results in a sold out cruise. Also, your airfare back to the states will likely be much higher if booked during this late stage.

What type of cabin?

The first cabins that fill up tend to be the most expensive ones such as the suites and penthouses. Some very experienced (and wealthier) cruisers insist upon a particular cabin type and wouldn’t be happy with anything less. Other people will tell you that they would NEVER cruise in anything less than a balcony cabin. My first transatlantic was in a balcony cabin, and I discovered that we rarely used it. A transatlantic cruise is NOT a Caribbean cruise with eighty-degree mornings. We are happy in an inside or oceanview cabin but are elated when we snag free upgrades in the months just before the sailing.

 

The cruise lines each have their own names or labels for their cabin categories and divide them into general types: inside, ocean view, balcony, suites, and penthouses. All provide a bed(s), bathroom and storage. All of your meals and most of the entertainment are included in the price. Most ships now offer specialty dining options that come with an additional fee.

Inside cabins offer no windows or portholes and are generally smaller than many other types. Some are very small with no sitting area while others have a couch and coffee table.

Inside Cabin

An ocean view cabin has a window or a porthole, and some have an obstructed view. Obstructed view cabins with just a small lifeboat outside the window can offer a pretty decent view while other obstructed views have a film on the window allowing only muted light to come through.

A balcony can be the same size as an inside or oceanview, but is usually a bit larger and has a small balcony with two chairs. The suites and penthouses offer a variety of details and perks that are best described on the line’s website. NCL offers “The Haven” which is an exclusive area for Haven only guests, sort of like an exclusive resort on a ship.

Balcony Cabin

There is no “ideal cabin,” but many people like to book mid-ship and away from the noisier areas of the ship. Look for a cabin on a deck that has cabins above it and hopefully below it. Some passengers complain about the early morning noise from chairs scraping against the flooring on the pool deck above them. It is very easy to see what is above or below you if you examine and compare the decks near yours. Also look for any empty spaces which might mean the crew work area is near your room, and the banging of carts and doors might be bothersome. Check out the reviews to find out if late evening entertainment such as the karaoke lounge carries off-tune voices to your cabin until after midnight.

Some cruise sites review specific cabins. Try searching your ship name and cabin number, and you will usually be lead to a site that offers information. A very helpful site is “cruisedeckplans.com” offering deck plans that can be transposed onto your deck, so you have an exact idea of what is above and below your cabin. Some of these sites will also show you a diagram of your room type and photos. You might also find a video review on youtube.com.

What do you do on all those sea days?

Friends we met with every day on our 2016 TA

Some people may wonder how you spend your day on a transatlantic cruise, especially with many days at sea. Most transatlantic cruisers will tell you that these are often their favorite days. Here is how a day at sea goes for us:

7 AM (I’m an early riser)- I quietly grab my thermal coffee mug and slip on an outfit and my seapass key lanyard and a book or my Kindle. I find a restaurant or buffet serving coffee and retreat to a covered solarium or another quiet area, and I stretch out on a lounger to watch the sunrise as I sip my coffee. Many early risers use the fitness centers, the running track, and promenade deck for walking. Fitness classes usually take place between 7-9 A.M.

8 AM- Back in the cabin, my dear husband wakes up and is ready to go to breakfast. We have learned to eat mostly fruit and protein for breakfasts. No farmer breakfasts for us. I don’t want to spend the next few months attempting to shed the added pounds.

9 AM- My husband and I usually don’t share the same activities in the morning, so we go our separate ways. We always check the daily schedule the night before to see what is going on.  We may attend a lecture, cooking demonstrations, exercise, or just read a book. Most cruises have many enjoyable activities or games in the morning hours.

12 PM – We meet for lunch and often join up with a person we met through the roll call on Cruise Critic.

1 PM- 4 PM- We love to attend dance classes, exercise or relax at the pool. Many people on transatlantics play cards and trivia games. We always bring our favorite card games along.

4 PM- 6 PM is rest time and preparation for dinner. Most cruise lines don’t require a tux or even a suit for men nor formal gowns and cocktail dresses for the ladies. You will find some people who love to dress up, but most people dress in resort casual for dinner. The recently reduced luggage allowances have probably contributed to this trend, and most everyone appreciates this more relaxed dress code.

6 PM- 7:30 Dinner at the main dining room or a specialty restaurant. Many ships offer several options for dining in specialty restaurants, and some are complimentary while others can cost up to $30 per person.

7:30- 11:00 PM will depend on what is offered. Most ships have at least one main theater with production numbers, featured singers or dancers, comediennes, aerial artists, jugglers, etc. and the alert passenger should read the ship’s newsletter to plan. We usually go to a show followed by ballroom or contemporary dancing. You can sit in the lounges and listen to entertainers, go to the casino or take a dip in the pool or hot tub.

You are on a cruise to enjoy yourself, so you can fill it up with activities or sleep in your cabin and order room service. Your choice!

Which Itinerary?

You will be overwhelmed by the choices as you peruse the travel websites. Try to narrow it down by considering where you want to end up in Europe. If you intend to visit family in Sweden, then a sailing that ends in the Baltics or England might be your best choice. Visiting in Spain or Italy makes a Mediterranean cruise a good choice. Don’t let that consideration limit you as flights within Europe are inexpensive and very convenient.

Your goal should be to find a cruise that has an exciting itinerary. Some ships spend a lot of time in Caribbean ports before or after the crossing, and I try to avoid those. They might be among the least expensive, so don’t rule them out. We are not huge fans of the Caribbean after traveling there for several cruises. Note that some itineraries list cities like Paris or London for stops, but they are far away from the port. You will travel a few hours on a bus to get there and then spend only three to four hours at this major destination.

At the Pier in Helsingborg, Sweden

Look for stops that have interesting tours and sites near the port itself. Check out books written for European cruising. Rick Steves has two books that would be helpful, one about the Mediterranean ports and the other for the Northern European and Baltic ports’ sailings.

Ships tend to travel in early to late April for Mediterranean destinations and mid-April to early May for the Baltics in the spring. The fall transatlantics follow a similar pattern, with the Mediterranean cruise ships returning in mid- October to mid- November.

When they return to the Caribbean in the fall, some ships take more exciting routes back and visit Norway, Ireland, Iceland, Newfoundland and the northeastern states. Those are much sought after cruises and tend to cost more than a traditional route.

Prices for a transatlantic cruise vary from several hundred dollars to the sky is the limit. Remember, any cruise is better than a day at work or home. My last cruise cost $479 plus tips for 14 nights leaving from Tampa and featured the ports of Key West, Madeira (Funchal, Portugal), Malaga, Cartagena and Barcelona, Spain. Fabulous! The ship experience featured a nicely maintained inside cabin, fantastic food, entertainment and an enjoyable group of passengers. We also enjoyed the best captain at sea, Captain Marek Slaby, a dashing and charismatic Polish captain who shook the hand of every passenger as they disembarked in Barcelona.

Our next cruise will be a 13-day crossing leaving from Florida with stops in the Azores (an island part of Portugal), Brest and LeHavre (France), and Portland and Southampton England. We are taking the bus from LeHavre to Paris for the day. The cabin is a large oceanview for $529pp. That means 13 days of no cooking, no cleaning−just relaxation and fun.

Transatlantic newbies often are concerned about the weather and the waves. No one can predict this aspect of your trip, but the captain can take a different route to avoid impending storms. Ships on the Atlantic generally travel in a “lane” which has been pre-plotted. You often see other vessels from a distance when on the Atlantic Ocean. It has been my good fortune to have smooth sailings across the Atlantic with just a few bumpy days here and there. The only time I have ever felt squeamish was not because of feeling “seasick,” but was the consequence of eating a fabulous “Guy Fieri” burger and fries on a Carnival cruise in the Eastern Caribbean and one case of real seasickness just off the Pacific northwest coast.

Walking in Helsingborg, Sweden

The Final Decision

So, how do you make the final decision on which cruise to book? Use several travel websites that allow you to search without giving your phone number or email to the wonderful world of travel agents. An excellent site to check is “Vacationstogo.com.” They provide a listing of what is available from all the major cruise lines. The traditional sites for travel (Expedia, Travelocity, etc.) are also helpful and sometimes run promotions. Once you narrow it down, start to check out the individual cruise line sites.

Should you use a travel agent?

Some people insist that it is best to book with a travel agent and these folks insist they get many lucrative incentives, such as onboard credit and reduced rates. My personal preference is to book directly with the cruise line UNLESS some reputable agent offers incentives I can’t refuse. Only you can determine if it is worth it.

There are benefits to booking a cruise directly with the cruise line. The biggest factor is that you can control the booking yourself. In the world of cruising, you can ask for the lower fare if it drops before your final payment is due. So, if the cruise price suddenly is reduced by hundreds of dollars, you call and ask for that lower price. If you book through an agent, he or she has to handle this request. All communication with the cruise line about any details for a cruise goes through your agent.

We had a price reduction once, and our agent (from an online cruise company) didn’t return our call for a few days, and by then the rate had increased. His apologies didn’t make the fare decrease a reality for us, nor did he do anything to make up for his delay.

I look at the decision to use an agent or booking it through the cruise line in a logical way. Agents who book suites that cost $6,000 and up have some room in their profits to provide several hundreds of dollars in perks. I’m not sure any agent is willing to give me a $300 OBC (onboard credit) when my cruise only cost $479. You will see that is what logically happens anytime onboard credit (OBC) is offered. An inside cabin may be granted $25 OBC while the suites get up to $500 OBC.

The issue of where to seek out information about travel is an obvious one. You may read an article in the travel section of a newspaper or magazine written by an accomplished traveler. They usually don’t disclose that the trip is WAY out of the average person’s price tag, but you will see hints. In the world of cruising, there are upscale and luxury cruise lines and then mainstream cruise lines. Silversea and Regent would be two of the top lines, and that is a whole different world of travel than the one in which I live.

Even the mainstream lines such as NCL and Royal Caribbean have their pecking order of cabins. For example, NCL has Haven suites which are probably one of the most luxurious ways of cruising. I’ve attended parties in the Owners’ Haven suite, so I’ve seen this world up close. Your butler sets up your bar next to the grand piano which overlooks your private hot tub and spa area. The foyer is larger than most of the regular cabins. Only the Haven passengers have private access to this world, and the rest of us riff-raff are kept at a distance. The cost of a top Haven suite on a transatlantic would be more than I have paid for my last ten cruises altogether.

Seek out advice from people who aren’t going to steer you into the world of luxury cruising unless that is what you want and can afford. You will meet some who insist they are claustrophobic and could never stay in an inside cabin. I wonder if they sleep with their eyes open or closed? Between a third and a half of your fellow passengers are staying in an inside cabin, often right across the hall from a lovely suite. Try to keep your eyes open for a great deal to upgrade to a balcony, but unless you are a reclusive person who wants to live on your tiny balcony or stay in your cabin all day, balconies are a comparative luxury and not necessary. Others say that once you had a balcony, you won’t be happy with anything else. I’ve had several balconies and even one penthouse with a balcony so large I could have hosted a dance party. We have “downsized” now that I’m a more experienced cruiser. I prefer taking a big trip or two every year rather than every other year!

Some people think that booking a last minute cruise is the best way to get a deal. I’m not sure how to define last minute, but I would guess that any time after the final payment is due (60-90 days before sailing) is “last minute.” Before 9/11, a Florida resident could keep their bags packed and walk up to the ship to see if they had a cabin available, but those days are gone. Still, there are great last minute deals, but you need to be diligent and lucky.

I’ve followed the history of a number of cruises where a passenger can score a very reasonable deal called a guarantee. The problem is that you will have no idea of the location of your cabin until sometime before sailing. Most cabins are just fine but there are a few clunkers on every ship, and you are taking your chances. We had one guaranteed cabin on a last minute cruise that turned out to be fantastic. The cruise line consultant reminded me that this wasn’t a prison ship when I was fretting before agreeing to the guaranteed cabin. On the other hand, you could also be assigned the cabin that experiences the grinding noise of the anchor at 6 AM on port days, or it might be the cabin under the pool deck and you are treated to the screech of dragging deck chairs in the early morning hours.

Waiting until the last minute can result in disappointment with a sold out ship. It can happen as most cruise lines have an algorithm that determines when they need to unload the cabins at a discount. No mere mortal has this secret information. Another negative in waiting is that your last minute one-way airfare to get you to Europe or back home will likely be much more expensive if booked in the last weeks before the sailing.

Part of the cruise experience is planning and enjoying the process of researching and learning about all the opportunities in the ports. You also might find that the best deals on hotels and tours are sold out if you wait too long. We have booked only one last minute cruise on our only Carnival cruise to the Eastern Caribbean. We discovered that the only dining time was at 8:30 and it couldn’t/wouldn’t be changed, even though we tried. The 8:30 seating was horrible because most who were assigned late seating were no-shows. We ate alone each evening until another group invited us to their table. Last minute planning adds stress and might result in a less than perfect travel experience.

The Best Advice is on the Internet!

If you google “cruises,” you will be “Google bombed” with ads and cruise and travel agencies. Don’t start here. Seek out the advice of those who are experienced cruisers and travelers. You may find a travel agent who is very experienced and has been to the cities you are going to and can give you great information. It has been my experience that most travel agents truly don’t have much experience in European travel and might tell you that they “book their clients there,” but I want to communicate with people who have personally been to my destination and can speak from experience. Online agents may have limited or no travel experience and have nothing other than what is in their script to offer as advice.

These are just a few golden sites I use for research on all aspects of cruising and traveling.

Cruise Critic

Cruise Critic is the most popular cruise advice website in the world, and I swear some people live on it twenty-four hours a day. The best parts of the site are the message boards and the review boards. Here, each cruise line has a link where anyone interested can post a question for another member to answer. Some folks are lurkers, but they are welcome too. This board is about sharing the inside information about all aspects of cruising.

Cruise Critic offers reviews of specific ships, cabins, and ports, and you can search to find other’s experiences and opinions. You will see photos and detailed summaries from each sailing. The reader needs to be very discerning when reading all of these opinions. One person will give the sailing five stars while another person on the same trip will complain about every aspect of the cruise. I look for reviews that provide objective details. So, if a trip was “wonderful” or “horrible,” I want to know specifics. A one-paragraph praise report is as useless as a detailing of every injustice that happened to a passenger. You will learn that some people are just crabby and demanding. Certain words will tip you off: the food was inedible, all the crew members were rude, etc.

You will learn to filter through the reviews to find a common theme or complaint that makes you take note. For example, we recently sailed to the western Caribbean on a new ship to get that “behemoth ship experience.” We discovered that the ship’s capacity doubled, and while they added maybe one more deck of public rooms, twice as many people were crunched together in the public spaces. The pool deck was just slightly larger than a ship half its size. A relatively small pool, slides, a kiddie pool, the spa, and fitness center, and the buffet all were included on this deck making it the most “scrunched” pool deck I have ever seen. Many reviews repeated this observation, but you will also find people who did not seem at all bothered by this design. Bottom line: we joined the “not a fan of large ships” club. That said, if the price is right, I would consider a future sailing on this ship.

Joining a Cruise Critic “roll call” is one of the smartest moves you can make. Roll calls are started by passengers soon after the cruise line posts the sailing. These savvy folks chat back and forth for a year or more, getting to know one another and planning special events. Roll calls are not as popular on shorter sailings (a week or less) but can provide a familiar group of friends to socialize with on your cruise. The members often arrange “meet and mingle” events, lunches, cabin crawls, slot pulls, card games, sail away parties, etc. to add some unique opportunities for socializing.

One of the most fun Cruise Critic activities is a cabin crawl. Different passengers volunteer their cabins to be viewed by other Cruise Critics so that everyone has a chance to “crawl through the ships” to check out as many cabin categories as possible. We have been invited to the Haven suites and then additional parties (sailing under the Golden Gate Bridge on a Panama Canal cruise and sail away parties) because of the cabin crawl experience. Other passengers get a chance to learn about the details of other cabin categories, an experience not available any other way.

There are many other advantages of being on a roll call. Many of the Cruise Critics are very savvy travelers, and some of them volunteer to arrange private excursions at the various ports. These excursions are usually booked through top tour companies and are often much less expensive than the ship’s excursions and more “intimate.” Ship excursions often are on large buses, and while they claim certain advantages, most experienced cruisers strongly recommend the private tours. I’ve been disappointed with almost all of the ship excursions I have ever booked (guide’s English was poor, no wildlife was seen on the rainforest canopy tour because it WASN’T in the REAL rainforest! etc.)  On the other hand, I have never been disappointed with a private or independent tour, especially those recommended and arranged by the Cruise Critic groups.

Cruise Critic message boards also provide information and advice on most ports of call and also the best hotels and transportation arrangements before and after the cruise. So, if one of your ports will be Copenhagen, you can look forward to the accurate and excellent advice from “The Danish Viking” who is a kind and knowledgeable travel expert from this city.  Message boards list every aspect of cruising except transatlantic cruising which needs its own board!

The next post will discuss air transportation to and within Europe.

This post was based on experience travels to England, Spain, France, Germany, Poland, Austria, Sweden, Luxembourg, Iceland, Belgium, and Denmark.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s