My partner and I just returned from a May 2011 transatlantic crossing on the QM II from Hamburg to New York with a stop at Southampton. This was our second crossing on the QM II, and overall, we were disappointed. Here are some things we learned.
A huge number of (mostly German) people take the two-night trip from Hamburg to Southampton (1800 on our trip). This transformed the QM II into a mostly German-speaking ship for those two nights, which was no problem, but having announcements and menus first in German and then English did change the feel of the trip.
Someone told us that Germany is now the third largest market for cruisers after the US and UK. Cunard appears to be going after this market aggressively.
We had hoped to upgrade our interior cabin to an exterior room as we'd done once before, but because the ship was fully booked from Hamburg to Southampton and our cabin was already assigned, we could not change it without an added fee. Had we booked originally from Southampton to NYC, I suspect we could have.
The general quality of the food and service seems to have slipped since we sailed on the QM II four years ago. We spoke with others who had also sailed on the QM II before, and they all agreed. Bed linens were torn and frayed, glasses had to be sent back because they were not clean, and service in the dining rooms seemed unusually slow. (Once we skipped breakfast, because it took so long to arrive.)
Because the crossing came at the end of a five-week trip, we opted not to pack formal wear. Between Southampton and NYC, FOUR out of the seven nights were formal, so for those, we ended up dining in the Kings Court (what other lines call the Ledo Deck). There are four sections to Kings Court, each with a theme—Italian, Oriental, Carvery, and General. At dinner, they charge $10/person extra on all but one of the four sections, so your choice if you're not allowed in the main dining room is severely limited. We ended up mainly in the Italian section which had a buffet that was less than 18 paces long including set-up, etc., and the food selection was minimal and mostly bad. Think lasagne that's sat for several hours in a warming tray. This experience made us feel as if we were booked in Steerage Class—not even the middle class Britannia Restaurant, and certainly not in the already-restricted upper-class Princess Grill.
Lesson #1: If you want to dress up in evening gowns and tuxes (or dark suits), you can have the full dining experience on the QM II. If not, they really are not interested in serving you.
Lesson #2: To make extra money, the QM II seems to be headed in the direction of the airlines: Charge extra for whatever you can get away with—e.g., sections of Kings Court.
The entertainment on the QM II was generally superior to that on the Holland America's Eurodam, on which we had sailed to Europe. One of the three lecturers was extremely interesting; the only one on the HAM trip was not. And the Cunard Dancers were excellent. Their precision reminded me of Bob Fosse's choreography. After checking out the ones on HAL, we skipped their shows entirely.
Like ice cream? Holland America had a real ice cream stand that was open most of the time—perhaps even 24/7 (I don't remember.). The QM II had only a couple of soft-serve machines, a cheap alternative.
The staff on the QM II are trained, I suspect, to be stand-off-ish (part of the upper-crust atmosphere?), while the mostly Indonesian crew on the HAL trip were universally friendly and fun.
The QM II docked on the Hudson River at 34th Street, not Brooklyn as originally advertised. Try getting a cab from there on a rainy day!
Overall, I'd say that if you want to pretend that you're part of the long-gone smart set along with Noel Coward, Marlene Dietrich, and Winston Churchill, and if you're willing to schlepp an extra suitcase or two to indulge the fantasy, it might be worth the extra money to sail the QM II. If you simply want to cross the Atlantic by water, not air, and don't care about the fantasy, you can do better.