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Transatlantic Cruises: The Only Way to Cross

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Crossing the Atlantic Ocean by ship is a travel bucket list item for many. A transatlantic crossing remains a great way to go, even more than 170 years after crossings were first offered as regular passenger trips.

The late John Maxtone-Graham lovingly outlined why he preferred the romance of crossings over now more common cruising in his classic book about the golden age of transatlantic cruise travel, The Only Way to Cross, which highlighted the unique aspects of ocean liner travel on the Atlantic. Though air travel has supplanted ocean liners as the most popular way to cross the Atlantic, a transatlantic cruise remains “the only way to cross” for some.

The allure and romance of a transatlantic crossing is undeniable. With few or no ports of call leading to many sea days during a typical crossing, lucky passengers enjoy the freedom of time and so much more. Plus, the ships typically add more programs and events for the additional days at sea, with those onboard doing as much — or as little — as they desire.

First Crossings

Until the advent of commercial air travel, taking an ocean liner across the Atlantic was the only way to travel between the United States and Europe — making a crossing a means of transportation. The first ship to offer regular transatlantic passenger service was Cunard’s Britannia, which took 13 days to cross the Atlantic (between Liverpool and Boston) starting in 1840. At the time, mail and newspapers took up to six weeks to make their way across the Atlantic.

Within a year of the Britannia’s first scheduled crossing, three Cunard sister ships also offered weekly transatlantic service and kept to a timetable. Of an early sailing on the Britannia, Charles Dickens said that his cabin was an “utterly impracticable, thoroughly hopeless, a profoundly preposterous box.” Thankfully, cabins and the entire transatlantic crossing experience would greatly improve in years to follow — and it’s still the case on modern ocean liners today.

From 1946 until 1967, Cunard’s original art deco Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth typically took just five days to cover the 3,150 nautical miles of the crossing. Then, in 1969, the elegant Queen Elizabeth 2 continued Cunard’s tradition of regular crossings in style. Currently, Cunard’s Queen Mary 2 (remastered in 2016), which originally set sail in 2004, offers a return to a more gracious age of travel and transatlantic crossings. Passenger lists for Cunard’s transatlantic crossings over the years have included Winston and Clementine Churchill, Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, Elizabeth Taylor and other esteemed guests. 

Today, most cruise lines offer transatlantic voyages between Europe and North America sometime during the year, most occuring ‘repositioning’ cruises to shift a ship between Europe and Caribbean cruise itineraries — and beyond. Transatlantic repositioning cruises typically occur in the spring (North America eastbound to Europe) and fall (back from Europe westward to North America). In addition to added offerings onboard, some crossings feature specific special themes and events — like Cunard’s annual Transatlantic Fashion Week crossings and their Insights program, with regular talks on contemporary issues by well-known celebrities, personalities, and experts on every crossing.

These crossings with widely varied lines, ships and ports of embarkation and debarkation can often be quite affordable and those in the know often choose to cross the Atlantic one-way or round-trip by cruise ship instead of airplane. Many travelers also choose to extend their stay in North America or Europe (or both) before or after a transatlantic cruise.

Iconic Cunard is the only cruise line offering regular year-round transatlantic cruises and it’s still between Southampton and New York on most voyages. And, today’s crossings are better than ever onboard Queen Mary 2 — as celebrities and notables like Francis Ford Coppola, Uma Thurman, Terrence Howard, Ed Sheeran and many others can attest.

Cross in Style

Transatlantic crossings have evolved from getting across the ocean as fast as possible to getting away from everyday life. Today’s cabins are much more comfortable for time at sea — the bathrooms are larger, there are spas and gyms, and many more ways to pass the time, be pampered and eat well. For instance, Cunard makes even more of an occasion with crossings, including formal nights and “dressing” for dinner.

Along with making dining an extra-special affair in varied restaurants during a crossing, Cunard’s Queen Mary 2 now features its famed afternoon tea presented by white-gloved waiters, planetarium shows in the only planetarium at sea, world-class entertainment, live music and dancing, lots of sports and fitness offerings that go way beyond a game of shuffleboard, the soothing full-service Canyon Ranch SpaClub, the only kennels at sea, the aforementioned Cunard Insights program, and a library with more than 8,000 books and magazines. Dickens would love learning that the Queen Mary 2’s cabin options are among the best at sea, including “Queens Grill” options with spacious suites, butler service, access to exclusive dining rooms and more.

Cunard’s options for transatlantic cruises include a classic seven- or eight-night crossing eastward or westward between Southampton and New York, roundtrip crossings either back-to-back or with an extended stay in Europe or North America, calls in Hamburg, Germany, that extend a classic crossing, and Cunard’s Grand Voyages that feature two transatlantic crossings. 

“We immigrated to the United States in 1954, when I was only five years old.” says Micky Arison, Chairman of the Board of Carnival Corporation & plc (parent company of Cunard and nine other cruise lines). “We came to the United States on Cunard’s Mauritania. A crossing is a unique bucket list experience, but don’t be surprised if you’re going to want to do it again.”

Given all of these allures, it’s no wonder that a transatlantic crossing remains “the only way to cross” the Atlantic in style. 

Experience the luxury and romance of a transatlantic cruise. Call 800-750-5386 and let your AAA Travel Agent help plan your journey.

(AAA Traveler Spring 2018)

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