Most cruises have a pattern: sailing, a port call, a shore excursion and then repeat. But when you're taking a ship across the ocean on a transatlantic crossing everything changes. With up to a week -- or more -- of uninterrupted time spent on the sea without stops at ports of call, it's like learning to cruise all over again.
In this case, what's intriguing about a transatlantic cruise, also known as an ocean crossing, is that the journey is far more important than the destination. Your ship is your entire vacation, not merely a means of transportation.
A transatlantic voyage offers an embarrassment of riches. On crossings, ships put on a rich menu of activities and opportunities, so many that you might need some help sorting them out. Or not. As Cruise Critic member David Mississauga puts it: "One of my favorite activities on 'sea days' is doing nothing and I have difficulty finding time to do that."
With that said, here are some transatlantic tips from those who best know this special style of travel: We talked to Cruise Critic travelers whose cumulative sea mileage would put Christopher Columbus' world-exploring voyages to shame.
Cruise lines do their best to keep their passengers occupied, and on a multiday trip at sea, they outdo themselves. Most lines make sure the schedule's packed, offering everything from whiskey tastings to yoga classes -- and that's just scratching the surface.
"One of my pleasures/routines is to sit down over breakfast, marking things I mustn't miss that day with a highlighter pen," suggests Cruise Critic member pepperrn. Others take a picture of it with their cellphone so it's always available.
"Cunard provides activities and entertainment all day long. There are always lecturers onboard. There will be music in the lounges, a few classical recitals in the theater, planetarium shows, movies and many classes … and that's just the daytime," writes Cruise Critic member 3rdGenCunarder, who has taken seven transatlantic trips on Queen Mary 2. The evening brings dancing on the largest dance floor afloat, pub quizzes, theatrical productions and more.
Indeed, the problem is finding time to fit everything in, says Cruise Critic member Whirled Peas. "Believe me, you will only be bored if you want to be bored."
With plenty of time at sea, you can expect a slightly more formal atmosphere on ships crossing the Atlantic than you'd find in the Caribbean. And, that's an important part of the experience.
"It gives people a chance to bring out the glitz and glamour, and I think that's wonderful," writes Cruise Critic member Sheltieluv. "It's refined, elegant and fun at the same time. Unless you absolutely want to do the 'formal' thing, you can definitely get by with smart casual."
If you're cruising on Cunard, in particular, you'll want to look sharp (do check dress codes before heading off to any ocean-bound cruise, whether it's a regular voyage or a repositioning cruise). The line's New York-to-London crossing typically includes two to three gala nights, and four smart casual.
Let the line guide you -- it defines gala wear as "an evening or cocktail dress or smart trouser suit for ladies and a tuxedo, dinner jacket or dark suit with appropriate neckwear for men." You can also wear formal national dress.
Smart casual nights involve more than jeans and shorts. Jackets are required for men, while women can wear cocktail dresses or "stylish separates." And it's not just at dinner. Many cruisers say the expectation is to dress well in public areas after 6 p.m.
Experienced travelers say while they enjoy the atmosphere, it's not meant to be intimidating. Indeed, it lifts the mood of the evening.
Readers love having days at sea to curl up with a book, maybe under a tartan throw on a steamer chair or tucked away in a nook on the ship. You'll either want to choose a ship with an excellent library onboard or stock up your Kindle with all those books you haven't yet gotten around to reading.
"When I did the crossing last year, it was nice to grab a coffee at breakfast time and retire to the tranquility of the library, where it was nearly always possible to find a comfortable seat with a wonderful view of whatever was ahead of the ship," reports Cruise Critic member Twigalina.
You'll find plenty of other cozy places to sit throughout the ship but the one we hear most about from Cruise Critic's well-traveled ocean cruisers, is this:
"My favorite experience of the whole trip was sitting in a deck chair reading a book and looking at the horizon. When a crew member asked, 'excuse me, Madam, would you like tea' -- it was bliss," recalls Cruise Critic member colleency.
A transatlantic crossing offers what may be the most valuable commodity in modern life: time. With no real responsibilities for a week, passengers can pick up a skill, learn something new or develop a hobby. Many cruise ships offer classes on topics as diverse as playing bridge, fencing and digital photo editing. There are usually ballroom dancing lessons and wine appreciation sessions.
"I had always wanted to learn watercolors and took the chance on our first transatlantic," writes Cruise Critic member HelloKittysMum.
Others use the time to enrich their mind and expand their worldview by attending lectures. Cruise lines typically schedule a robust line-up of speakers on crossings, featuring experts in the arts, history and world affairs. It's not uncommon to cruise with best-selling authors, former government officials, professional musicians, and award-winning actors.
"They do try to provide something for everyone," says 3rdGenCunarder.
Cruise lines know how to throw a party, and they strive to make crossings even more memorable with themed events. For example, Queen Mary 2 usually hosts a Venetian-style masquerade ball on one of its gala nights. Passengers receive information about these events before leaving home, so they can pack an appropriate outfit.
Although a masquerade ball sounds elaborate, it can be quite simple, says Cruise Critic member Skillies. "Just use a mask. Easy to pack." And if you forget, the ship even sells them.
If you don't want to dress up, that's okay, too. "Suggested attire for the themed evenings is completely optional. In my experience, many if not most passengers simply wear their usual attire appropriate for that evening's dress code," says Cruise Critic member Blue Marble.
Still, for some passengers, a ball only adds to the glamour and festivity of a transatlantic crossing.
Cruise Critic member LadyL 1 says she has attended several Roaring Twenties balls on sailings. The dress code is "very easy to comply with if you want: white silk scarf for the gent, flapper dress for the lady (if adventurous) or just long pearls and gloves and the simple black dress, with possible hair accessories," she shares. "I think it is worth joining in with the evening; it is part of the atmosphere."
One wonderful benefit to cruising across the ocean is that it's a simple way to avoid jet lag. As a ship makes its way across the Atlantic, the captain will adjust the official ship time on several occasions.
On a typical crossing, with an itinerary between London and New York there's a five-hour difference. By the time most passengers arrive, they will have effortlessly adjusted to the time zone at their destination.
For eastbound crossings from New York to London, the clock usually springs forward an hour during the day. "There's the regular noon operational update and the next thing you know its 1:08 p.m.," writes Cruise Critic member BlueRiband. "So, you'll have a short afternoon!"
For westbound voyages, the clock usually falls back an hour at midnight, which means travelers get to enjoy more time onboard, with several 25-hour days.
All these changes mean that you may need to manually update your electronic devices, if you use them as a watch or an alarm. "Satellite syncing will not happen in the middle of the Atlantic," explains MarkBearSF, a Cruise Critic member.
And of course, staff on crossings will also help you stay on the correct time.
Travel writer Larry Bleiberg is an eight-time Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Award winner, and was honored for editing the best newspaper travel section in North America. He writes a column for USA Today, and has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, BBC, Better Homes & Gardens, Delta Sky and many others.
Updated October 10, 2019