This voyage was a first for us. Though my wife and I (in our 70s) had been on two river cruises in Europe, we had never been on a Caribbean cruise or an Alaskan cruise or any other kind of blue-water voyage. We decided to celebrate our 52nd anniversary with a Transatlantic crossing on the Queen Mary 2, followed by a few days in London. AAA was very helpful in getting all the pieces together for us.
I apologize if the following narrative seems tedious. The experienced traveler should stop reading right here, but I will address the things that we (being rather inexperienced) wished we had known beforehand.
Since we were starting from New Mexico, we decided against a cross-country flight and boarding the ship all on the same day. That turned out to be a wise choice. The last hop from Dulles to JFK was a late-afternoon disaster, with air traffic delays that kept us in the aircraft on the Dulles ramp for nearly three hours before takeoff. The transfer from Dulles to the nearby Holiday Inn Express was a short ride. We were ready for a late dinner but found that there were no restaurants within walking distance. It took a cab ride to get us to a very nice Italian restaurant, so the evening was saved. Next time we will be more careful to check local amenities.
On departure day morning we found two other couples at the hotel that were boarding the Queen Mary 2, so we agreed to share the expenses of a van. The problem was that the other couples had higher-class accommodations on the ship and had a 12:30 pm boarding time while our scheduled boarding time was 2:30 pm for a 5:00 pm departure. We weren't sure about how welcome we would be for a two-hour-early arrival.
The van left us off right in front of the departure hall. I didn't feel like lugging three bags through the hall so gave them over to the yellow-vested baggage handlers. They wouldn't tell us what a proper tip would be, so I gave them five dollars. Maybe too much, but it was worth the convenience.
There were many passengers arriving at the same time, but the lines were fast-moving and there were attendants at every turn to give guidance. Check-in was unexpectedly quick and efficient and no questions were raised about our early arrival. In our Deck 5 stateroom we found a bottle of iced bon voyage champagne courtesy of the ship and a tray of canapés from AAA. We enjoyed all of it as a pleasant, leisurely lunch on our stateroom's sheltered balcony, and our bags appeared at our door not long after our arrival.
We quickly noticed that there was a duvet on the bed. What a horrid invention! You are either too hot or too cold. We notified the cabin attendant that we wanted sheets and a light blanket instead of the duvet. The response was quick and we were happy.
We chose early seating for dinners in the Britannia Restaurant, with a table for six. (Breakfast and lunch are on an open seating basis at the Britannia). The second couple at our table was a most delightful pair, but older and more experienced than we were (69 past cruises!), and interesting conversationalists. The third couple never showed up at our table. We split breakfasts and lunches between the Britannia and the buffets at the Kings Court on Deck 7, all of which provided very satisfactory meals.
We had expected a relaxing time on the five full days at sea to Southampton. Not so. There were just too many activities to chose from; educational lectures, planetarium shows, movies, concerts, plays and nightly production numbers. Sometimes hard choices had to be made. It was all so inviting. Though the seas were fairly calm, the consistent overcast and light rain was a discouragement to outdoor activities. We didn't see more than two hours of bright sky throughout the trip, and never saw full sunshine until approaching Southampton. I had wondered how I would fare on the open sea, given that I am susceptible to motion sickness. I never had a chance to find out. Ship pitch could sometimes be detected by carefully watching the horizon at the bow. Ship roll was completely undetectable throughout the voyage.
I had always wondered how they handled the time difference between New York and London. Their approach was very straightforward. They moved the ship's clock forward one hour every evening except the last one before arrival in Southampton. That gave us zero jet lag at the cost of too short days.
Many of the dinners and most of the social activities (e.g., captain's welcome reception) were formal. I was able to rent a tuxedo and all the accessories on the ship. It was pricey ($180) but better than buying an outfit that I might never use again.
No cash changes hands once on the ship. All transactions are done with the room key card that also serves as an expense card. Halfway through the voyage we received an interim statement that showed that we had a $400 nonrefundable ship's credit on our account. I must have overlooked that credit when we booked the trip, but now we had rather a large amount that had to be spent in the remaining two days. I immediately booked a lunch and two dinners at the extra-cost Todd English Restaurant. Very elegant; very pleasant!
We had no UK sterling money when we boarded, and we reckoned that it would not be a good idea to arrive in England without local currency. There was a money machine on the ship for changing U.S. paper currency into pounds sterling. Luckily we had a stash of cash to convert to enough sterling to get us to London. There are no provisions for using a credit card on the ship to buy sterling. (We used our Visa card at ATM machines in London to obtain more cash; no problem whatsoever.)
We had no plan for how to get from Southampton to London but again; Cunard was there with the answer. Once on the ship, one can make arrangements for a bus to London airports and London Victoria Station.
Debarkation took rather a long time because departures are coordinated with onward travel arrangements. Debarkation itself was quick and painless because passports and entry papers were checked on the ship several days before arrival. The main task was to pick up our bags in the baggage area and take them to the bus queues right outside the departure hall door. No porter was needed because free baggage carts were conveniently available.
The ride to London was long; over two hours. A trip to the bathroom in the baggage hall just before boarding the bus turned out to be a very good idea. We then stayed three nights at the St. James Court Crowne Plaza Hotel before flying back home. The property was quaint rather than elegant, but the location was ideal; just a short walk to Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey and Victoria Station.
In summary, we found every aspect of the voyage to be a new wonder. Service, food, stateroom, entertainment; all up to our highest expectations. Maybe the experienced traveler could be more critical. We found nothing to complain about. Oh well, maybe one little complaint. There are four banks of elevators on the ship, and we were forever exiting the elevator with no clue as to which way was port and which way was starboard. There are no room number directories in the elevator foyers. We would just pick a direction to find our stateroom hall, and at first we were wrong half the time. Looks like we need another trip on the Queen Mary 2 to sharpen our sense of direction.