Each fall when the Berlitz Cruising and Cruise Ships guidebook is published, cruise line marketing departments hold their collective breaths until they see how many stars and points their ships have received from author Douglas Ward, dubbed “The World’s Foremost Authority on Cruising” and whose 2014 edition is the 29th in the series.
An extra star from Ward, or deletion of a star from a ship’s ratings, can have something of the effect of a top chef gaining or losing a Michelin star. Ward, who takes 15-20 cruises a year and spends much of the rest of the time checking out ships in port and making shipyard visits, is known for his objectivity, attention to detail, and no-nonsense writing style.
You won’t find fluff, puff or snark in these 752 pages — just loads of unbiased, useful information about 285 cruise ships around the world, as well as cruising in general.
He rates ships based on a number of criteria, including the ship’s facilities, decor and maintenance; the cabins; the cuisine; the service; the entertainment; and the overall cruise experience.
To illustrate his approach and attention to detail, Ward cites what he calls the “oatmeal factor” — oatmeal being a staple of most cruise ship breakfast offerings — and how various cruise ships provide passengers with such a basic item. As he told me in an interview, “Oatmeal is rather bland on its own, so most people add other items to make it more palatable. It’s always interesting to see the reaction of staff and how they deal with the request (for additional condiments) — or not. Most of the more upscale ships do try hard, but some of the standard market ships have a ‘What you see is what you get’ attitude.”
Winning Ward’s highest number of points this year — two 5-star+ vessels from the same company, German-based Hapag-Lloyd Cruises — are the Europa and Europa 2. The Europa 2, which launched earlier this year, edged out its sister ship Europa — which had held the top spot for the past 13 years — by just nine points, scoring 1860 out of a possible 2,000.
Ward describes the Europa 2 as “a beautiful ship with an incredible amount of space per passenger,” also citing the high quality of the cuisine and “the attentive, friendly, unobtrusive personal service.” (I can vouch for Ward’s assessment, since I was lucky enough to be aboard the Europa 2 in the Mediterranean this past summer.)
But Ward also stresses that “There really is no ‘best cruise line in the world’ or ‘best cruise ship’ — only the ship and cruise that is right for you.” He can certainly point you in the right direction, though.
Ward told me he thinks the top three lines appealing to baby boomers starts with Hapag-Lloyd Cruises, “because the human contact and service is as good as it gets — way above the rest — whichever ship you choose.” (My note: Europa 2 is much more casual than Europa, and is making a push to appeal to English speakers, being completely bi-lingual — right down to the talking elevators, which announce the decks in both German and English.)
Next, he singles out Celebrity cruises, noting their “large ships, plenty of entertainment options, very good food, and (mostly unobtrusive) service…It all adds up to a fine experience if you like lots of people around you.” (Of Ward’s ten top-rated large resort ships, five of them belong to Celebrity, though the three top-rated in that category are all Cunard “Queens” — Mary 2 (Grill Class), Elizabeth and Victoria.)
Third, he mentions Crystal Cruises, “because of the wide range of life-enriching lecture programs, excellent food and service, plenty of activities (though quieter than Celebrity ships), and the ‘all-inclusive’ aspect means you don’t have to sign for anything, except spa treatments.”
As for cruise lines that might not appeal to boomers, he mentions Carnival (“unless you really like to party — boomers tell me they want something more relaxing” ) and Saga cruises, because most passengers will be well over age 70.
In general, small ships fared well in this edition, which fits in with the trend among boomers trending toward smaller ships. Eleven out of the 12 top-rated 5-star+ships (including Europa and Europa 2) are small or boutique-size vessels. Seabourn — like Crystal a luxury line — scored six of the top 20-rated ships in the combined small and boutique ships categories.
Besides ship ratings, the Berlitz Guide dispenses reams of great practical cruising advice, ranging from comparing the cruise lines to each other in many categories (including best facilities for seniors and people with mobility problems), offering tips on buying cruise travel insurance, choosing the right cabin, cruising for solo travelers, river cruising (the ship reviews stick to ocean- and sea-going vessels), cargo ship cruising, cruising for families and honeymooners, and much more.
As you might expect for the highest-rated ships, most fall on the expensive side. As usual, Ward states the case succinctly: “My motto is always: buy cheap, get cheap,” he told me. “Pay more, get more. Simple!”
The good news for boomers on a budget, though, as Ward points out, is there’s a “right” cruise ship for everyone. Whether you cruise in luxury or in modest circumstances, you can still see the world and “receive excellent overall value,” he says, “if you choose the right ship for the right reasons.”
The Berlitz Guide is a great place to start your research. And a great resource for cruise line execs and marketers to look for places to improve their product — or congratulate themselves on their successes.
Last Week’s Travel Quiz
In a recent survey of U.S. travelers, which two hotel amenities and services topped the list as most important to consumers?
A. Free breakfast and personal care items
B. Free parking and free in-room Wi-Fi
C. Spa and mini-bar
D. Business center and free lobby Wi-Fi
The answer is B: Free parking and free in-room Wi-Fi
Congrats to reader Ed Sehon for pronouncing that one a “no-brainer.” For coming up with the right answer, Ed will win free parking in his own home for a year! (I can’t promise free Wi-Fi, though.)