A transatlantic cruise, otherwise known as an Atlantic crossing, is one of the cheapest and best values in all of cruising -- particularly if you like a lot of days at sea.
There are two distinct types of transatlantic cruises. The first, which we dub "repositioning" voyages, takes place in spring and fall when cruise lines move their ships between seasons in Europe and in the Caribbean. Depending on the ship's speed, it generally takes between six and eight days to actually cross the Atlantic. Many lines choose to add a few ports of call, and this will stretch the length of the cruise to two weeks or more.
An entirely different option is Cunard's Queen Mary 2, a true ocean liner that crosses the Atlantic for the fun of it. The trips, which typically travel between England's Southampton and New York City, last between six and eight days, all of which are at sea.
Which one best fits you? If you love a cruise bargain, take a look at the repositioning option on mega-ships, which is generally one of the cheapest deals you'll find all year. Fares often hover at the $50 (per person, per day) level. On the other hand, Queen Mary 2's regularly scheduled Atlantic crossings are rarely on sale. The cheapest cabins tend to start at about the $100 mark and can run even higher (again, per person, per day).
Beyond budget, other qualifying factors include length of the trip. If you have vacation time to burn, repositionings make nice long getaways. Cunard's scheduled crossings can work with a weeklong holiday.
Finally, there's one more factor that's important to consider, regardless of which option you choose: Because you won't be traveling roundtrip to and from the same port of call, you'll have to factor in the price of an often-expensive one-way airline ticket.
Best Time for Transatlantic Cruises
For bargain hunters, spring and fall -- when the big ships are making their moves to their new seasonal homes -- are absolutely the best times to travel. On Queen Mary 2, which offers the scheduled crossings almost year round, the warmer months are generally better for calmer seas and more sunshine.
The exploration-minded crossing cruise combinations are typically offered in summer.
Transatlantic Cruise Lines
All lines that transfer ships between the Caribbean and the Europe offer Atlantic crossings. Among them are Royal Caribbean, Disney, MSC, Holland America, Princess, Celebrity and Norwegian. Typically, these lines schedule their repositionings in April or May (from the Caribbean to Europe) and in September through November for the return trip from Europe to the Caribbean.
Transatlantic Cruise Itineraries
Repositionings: Atlantic crossings take varying routes. If the ship is headed to the Baltic, it will likely take the northern route. Those aiming for the Mediterranean will cruise the southern route.
A traditional repositioning might depart from North America (Miami, in this case) and spends eight days at sea before visiting its first port of call at Tenerife, part of Spain's Canary Islands. The ship then takes on the characteristics of a more traditional Western Med cruise, with back-to-back calls on ports in Spain, France and Italy before ending at its seasonal homeport of Civitavecchia.
If you want more crossing and less cruise, look for trips that take less than two weeks. For example, a trip that's 12 nights long might stop at just one port of call (Portugal's island of Madeira) before winding up in Barcelona. There are seven straight days at sea upon leaving Miami, with two more between Madeira and Barcelona.
Some cruise ships simply take longer to travel the same distance. The ultra-relaxed crossings on lines like SeaDream Yacht Club and Windstar have attracted a dedicated group of "regulars" who meet up every year (or twice a year) on their repositioning voyages.
Crossings: The most time-efficient crossing of all is on one of the scheduled voyages aboard Cunard's Queen Mary 2. The quickest choice is a six-night trip, all sea days, between Southampton and New York.
Repositioning/crossing combos: If you truly want to combine a crossing with a cruise, and time (not to mention money) is no object, there's a handful of sailings, on lines ranging from Princess to Crystal, that feature the best of both. Lasting at least three weeks, these combo voyages feature lots of ports, especially more exotic places, along with the restful days at sea that a crossing provides. One that catches our eye is a 36-night "Baltic and Atlantic Exploration" sailing on Seabourn. Its calls range from Russia and Iceland to Greenland and Canada.
Transatlantic Cruise Port Highlights
Hamilton, Bermuda. The closest port to North America's east coast, Bermuda -- whether your ship is docked at the Royal Naval Dockyard (generally referred to by cruise lines as King's Wharf) or right in the heart of Hamilton -- is a multifaceted destination. British-influenced Bermuda has world-class golf, art galleries and historic attractions, such as Fort Hamilton and St. George's Holy Trinity Church. It celebrates its maritime tradition with the Bermuda Aquarium and The Bermuda Underwater Exploration Institute. There are superb water sports opportunities, from scuba to reef fishing, and gorgeous pink-sand beaches.
Ponta Delgada, Azores. In this archipelago of nine mountainous islands, closer to Europe than North America, Ponta Delgada, the primary port of call, is known for its subtropical atmosphere and lush flora and fauna, as well as its rugged volcanic beauty. Among the big draws are its small villages and its scenic beauty, but the town of Ponta Delgada, with its squares paved in black and white tiles, beautiful churches, and terrific, moderately priced seafood restaurants, is equally charming.
Madeira (Funchal), Portugal. With its lush, mountainous landscapes, Funchal (named for the huge amounts of fennel that grow wild there) reflects its Portuguese heritage. The port offers a range of activities, from walking the levadas (irrigation ditches turned hiking trails) and gentle nature hikes to shopping for local crafts and embroidery and tobogganing down the mountain in a wicker two-seat sled.
Santa Cruz de Tenerife, Canary Islands. Tenerife, a volcanic island that's the largest of the Canaries, is dominated by the gigantic 12,402-foot-high Mount Teide. A day in port isn't enough time to sample all that Tenerife has to offer, whether it's beautiful beaches or banana plantations. You can scale a snow-capped mountain, stroll aimlessly through charming villages, hike through a pine forest or play a round of golf.
Gibraltar. Gibraltar, a British Crown Colony, actually is an isthmus off the coast of Spain. As you sail through the Straits of Gibraltar from the Atlantic Ocean, you're officially entering the Mediterranean Sea. The 1,400-foot-high "rock" itself is a limestone formation, riddled with as many as 140 caves. Traveling to its summit is easy -- and offers great views -- via a cable car; at the top is a nature preserve, populated by Barbary Apes. (They're better to watch than to engage.) The old town itself feels more British than anything else, with pubs offering fish and chips. U.K. chains like Marks and Spencer have outposts there.
Transatlantic Cruise Tips
Bring entertainment. On standard repositioning cruises, lines might add some additional activities to occupy passengers on all those consecutive sea days, but there's only so much trivia, Texas Hold'em, afternoon napping and mini-golf one can handle. Think about how you'd like to while away those hours by bringing portable hobbies, such as knitting. Also stock up on reading material. Cruise lines are increasingly downplaying their libraries. You might want to load up your iPad or Kindle, or pack books you can leave behind once you've finished them.
Try new things. Because Queen Mary 2 specializes in cruises with consecutive sea days, it features genuinely unique options. On a recent crossing, the list of activities was head-spinning, with options like making movies on an iPad; learning how to use watercolors; and a series of "Insights Lectures" with topics that included "The Life and Music of Al Jolson," "Getting There Was Half The Fun: The Last Atlantic Liners" and "The Art of Rockefeller Center." The Julliard School of Jazz, the Royal Astronomical Society, and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art also have shows.
Consider your cabin type. On our first Atlantic crossing -- a September transit -- we were thrilled to be upgraded from an outside cabin to a balcony. Ironically, though, we rarely used it. Occasionally inclement weather, frisky winds and an unchanging view (seven straight days of nothing but ocean got a little old) limited its appeal. We'll take a balcony if the price is right, but more for the chance to have fresh air in the cabin from time to time. We wouldn't splurge on it.
Pack carefully. When crossing the Atlantic, the weather's unpredictable. Plan to layer up in case of cool temperatures, but definitely bring warm-weather necessities like shorts and bathing suits.
Know the dress code. You can't pop out to a shop in port if you've forgotten to pack an evening gown (or tux), though sometimes ship shops will stock formalwear.
Pack seasickness remedies. Seas can be rough; be prepared, just in case. (Ships will have Dramamine on offer, as well.)
Factor in one-way airfares. We already mentioned this one, but it's worth repeating: If you're shopping for a good deal on a crossing, make sure to consider the costs to get to and from ports of call since these aren't roundtrip sailings.
Know the timing of the direction you choose. Which direction is best? If you cruise westward, you;ll wind up with a handful of 25-hour days. Going east? You get cheated of an hour, with some 23-hour days. In either case, however, you get to avoid this negative: There's no jet lag on an Atlantic crossing!
-- By Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor in Chief