Queen Mary 2 Transatlantic Crossing Review: What It's Like to Sail This Classic Journey
For North Americans, there aren't many journeys more mythic than a transatlantic crossing on an ocean liner.
After all, the modern societies of both Canada and the United States expanded from the endpoints of countless westward boat trips. And generations grew up on Hollywoodized tales of ocean liners that hold the life-changing powers of a magic wand. In a movie, anybody who takes a passenger ship across the sea is forever transformed, as demonstrated by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in 1937's Shall We Dance, Bette Davis in 1942's Now, Voyager, and Barbara Stanwyck in 1941's The Lady Eve. Marilyn Monroe fell for her diamond mine magnate aboard a liner in 1953's Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Let's not even dwell on the fateful trip taken by Kate and Leo in 1997.
Liners can possess power in real life, too. For example, it was aboard the original Queen Mary that one of the most eligible bachelors in modern history, Cary Grant, met his wife, Betsy Drake, in 1947. That's magic.
Back in Fred and Ginger's day, there were dozens of liners to choose from, all flitting back and forth between the United States and other lands across the sea. Travelers had their favorite lines the way modern tourists favor one airline over another.
Now, there's just a single liner left: Cunard's Queen Mary 2, in service since 2004. If you want to take one of the greatest journeys available to commercial travelers, there's only one choice.
In 2024, Queen Mary 2 marks her 20th anniversary as the world's only ocean liner. The ship's specialized design enables it to slice through open waters with a smooth prowess that Caribbean-bound, square-bottomed Carnival cruise tubs could never manage.
When the QM2 debuted in 2004, it was the largest passenger ship in the world, at 1,132 feet in length. But a lot has changed since then. Today, it's not even in the top 30. Now the Queen Mary 2's main distinction for travelers is its role as the sole representative of a centuries-long tradition. The magic is why you book a trip across the sea instead of flying—that, and maybe the dream of landing your own Cary Grant on the journey.
Frommer's joined a transatlantic crossing from Southampton, England, to New York City (pictured above), a distance of 3,418 miles if we had flown instead, to see how such a leisurely mode of travel is holding up in an age when so many of our other traditions are spinning out of control.
Queen Mary 2 schedule
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Cunard's preceding Queen Mary, the one that transported a firmament of Hollywood stars and World War II troops before jet airplanes began shouldering our transatlantic travel duties, sailed for 31 years, from 1936 to 1967. The first Queen Elizabeth sailed for 28 years (1940–1968), and its successor, Queen Elizabeth 2, operated for 39 years (1969–2008). So if her ancestor ships are any guide, Queen Mary 2 still has many years of service left in her.
This was my third transatlantic crossing on the Queen Mary 2. My first took place soon after the ship began sailing in 2004, and my second came about 10 years later. The span of that experience affords me a rare perspective on how the journey has aged and changed (as we all have) over the decades.
My latest sailing, which departed in mid-August, came 4 years to the week after HBO's Let Them All Talk filmed with Meryl Streep aboard, a sure sign that the vessel still holds a special place in the zeitgeist. QM2's continued popularity was evident on my voyage, because the ship was nearly sold out with midsummer travelers.
My trip began in Southampton, a crucial port town on the southern coast of England where, as buffs of nautical history and catastrophe know, Titanic last touched England in April 1912. As soon as I stepped off the gangway into the thick-hulled grande dame that QM2 is, a contingent of classically outfitted crew members were on hand to greet me and remind me that this exercise in slow travel would consciously revel in the style of years past.
Although some departures slip off to other ports here and there, the purest form of the QM2's transatlantic crossing takes 7 days and 7 nights (for me, Friday to Friday). The ship is actually capable of barreling across the same distance in about half the time. But Cunard Line, founded in the steamship age of 1840 but now owned by the publicly traded Carnival Corporation, has priorities other than speed. On a modern Cunard vacation, the leisurely pace is central to the appeal. You come aboard to relax, not race. There are no ports of call between departure and arrival, just a blissfully clear calendar of days spent at sea.
Whereas many mass-appeal cruise lines entice passengers with gimmicks like go-kart tracks and Johnny Rockets burger joints, Cunard steers the QM2 with dignified, bespoke flourishes that suit its British heritage. Many of the QM2's departures are categorized as Event Voyages, embellished with programming built around themes like literature and West End theater. On my journey, artists from the English National Ballet were on board to host popular workshops and special performances over the course of the journey—above, in the Grand Lobby, you can see the angel's wings made of toe shoes that signified the theme.
Even on unthemed crossings, Cunard books an assortment of expert speakers more appropriate to a university mixer than a hula party. Twenty years ago, speakers on my crossing included Hollywood journalist Army Archerd, who had a column in Variety for half a century. This year, the roster included presentations by an expert on mystery novels and by one of Nelson Mandela's bodyguards. The slate is always interesting, and unlike the parades and DJs favored by other major cruise lines, the QM2's entertainment favors intellectual edification, including bridge tournaments, watercolor art classes, ballroom dancing lessons, and only a single evening of karaoke.
It's delightfully civilized. And although the day's schedule is packed with things to do if you're a joiner, rarely do you feel as if you're missing anything if you just want to detach and turn pages sedately on a sofa.
While most cruise ships have converted their lending libraries to more lucrative uses, the QM2 considers itself more of a courtly mode of transportation than a floating circus. So the ship proudly maintains a current, well-curated library on Deck 8. A library might seem like a minor detail, but it speaks loudly (ssh!) about how this ocean liner encourages guests to travel.
On other cruises, as soon as you board you're competing for port excursion slots or tickets to shows. But on the QM2, guests first make sure their reading material is set. Even before we left Southampton, regular guests of the QM2—you'll be surprised at how many of your fellow passengers take this journey frequently instead of flying, and in fact, the real habitués would gather to mingle—were already selecting books (two titles at a time).
The New York Times once called this ship "a floating distillation of English inclinations and values," but that might be a little misleading because the line's founder was born in Canada, the ship was built in France, and the crew hails from around the globe. But the same Times journalist also wrote, "a crossing is an interior as much as exterior voyage," a phrase that captures the experience more aptly.
There will be cocktails, and many of them, well-made and proper. On this ship, just like with the major cruises, an add-on drinks package can pretty much double the price of your trip if that's the way you choose to go.
But unlike on the big cruises, travelers who prefer to find a peaceful nook and chill out won't be treated as invisible or eventually chased away by a party. The QM2 aims to be more like a floating sitting room, the casino much more reminiscent of James Bond than the Vegas Strip.
This is why the average age of your fellow passenger tends to be over 50—but even that is a broad generality. On my crossing this summer, there were plenty of people who were still of working age, there was a decent representation of ethnic diversity, and even a surprising number of families with children (granted, the kids behaved like the type who already knew which fork to use first at a dinner party).
Although the cabins have been refreshed over the years, their comfortable style hasn't changed much in the 10 years since I was last aboard. Everything was in excellent condition, with just a very few small spots of rust on sea-facing surfaces where you'd naturally expect a few signs of wear and tear after 20 years. The twin beds could be joined into a double, and I had a sofa, a desk, and a bathroom with a shower—all very nice. Additionally, Cunard cabins have one unique amenity that gives away the utter Britishness of the brand: electric tea kettles with tea and biscuits that are replenished by the steward.
Newer cruise ships might have perks like interactive TVs and plenty of power outlets at arm's length—these cabins don't. You'll just have to plug your devices in at your desk, the way I assume Charles Dickens did when he sailed with Cunard in 1842.
Your cabin might also have halting Wi-Fi connectivity, depending on how the ship's metal structure plays with the signal. Cunard's recently announced partnership with Starlink delivers a wonderfully strong connection, but you might have to venture to a common area to get access. Honestly, though, having nonstop internet connection when you're 1,000 miles from land is, objectively, a modern miracle, and the fact that the fastest Wi-Fi subscription is priced at just $20 a day is even more impressive. Not long ago, it cost that much for an hour.
At least when shipboard Wi-Fi was more expensive, we had less incentive to waste our money on mindless screen-scrolling. When you're aboard something as rare and as stylized as an ocean liner, you should probably savor the sensation of being far from the chaos of life on land. But it's nice to know that technology has advanced to the point where you can quiet your anxieties by checking your security cameras back home from the middle of the Sargasso Sea.
All told, my cabin had enough space (a little under 200 square feet) to feel ample, and soft goods were fresh. It didn't feel 20 years old.
This stateroom is classified as a Sheltered Balcony, which means that instead of a glass-fronted balcony, I had a private sitting area in front of a cutout through the hull. It may seem unusual, but the design protects the cabin's glass doors in bad weather. Remember that the QM2 entered service in 2004, a period when ships were not yet lined from prow to stern with glassy verandas—not that any ocean liner could ever be if it intends to deflect high waves. There are glass-fronted balcony cabins on the QM2's higher decks (about 250 square feet), as well as outward-facing units with a window but no balcony at all (about 180 square feet). There are also inside cabins that look much the same—more than 200 of them with prices as low as $699 per person for the week, meals included.
The biggest cabin classes are Britannia and Britannia Club. Most passengers are in this class, and for them, meals can be taken in the biggest restaurant, which has the same name. Cunard may take many cues from the past, but it's not completely old-fashioned: In the years since the ship's launch, dining on the Queen Mary 2 has changed, and strict seating times are one tradition from the past that no longer endures. You don't have to dine in the same place every night (unless you want to book in advance a spot at one of the speciality restaurants, which incur a surcharge), or eat at the same prescribed time, and you definitely won't have to share tables with strangers.
The QM2 also has two suite-level classes with their own dining rooms (Queens Grill and Princess Grill) for those who want to spend more for exclusive spaces.
The Commodore Club at the front of Deck 9 is one of the best hideaways on the ship, and the sooner you know about this area, the happier you'll be.
Although it's atmospheric to have a martini (or many) here during the day or night, be warned that after dark you won't be able to look out the windows because the light from the lounge reflects up into the bridge and makes it hard for the crew to see. That quirk is compensated somewhat by the fact that at designated daytime hours you're invited to go upstairs and watch (from behind glass) the navigational activities on the bridge.
Even after the third or fourth days at sea, my fellow passengers were still excitedly reporting the new discoveries of private sitting spaces they had found.
This was one of mine, part of a long row of quiet nooks near the waterline on Decks 2 and 3 forward. The waves never got angry once over the course of my 7-day journey (and the seas were even calmer during my July trip in 2014), but on occasions when the ocean does happen to be roiling, such as in the colder months, these seats are an ideal spot to watch the intensity from a safe, stable place.
When I'm off the Queen Mary 2, I think about these seats a lot. By contrast, when I think of the many mega cruise ships I've been on, I can't think of a single nook that made me feel calm enough to make me miss it after the cruise was over.
There's a pool at the stern, too, but over three transatlantic journeys I've taken on the QM2, the North Atlantic weather has never once been warm enough for me to take a dip. I got a day pass for the spa (which is slated for renovation in late 2023) and soaked in that indoor pool instead.
The Britishness of Cunard cannot be suppressed at teatime. Afternoon tea is served each day in the Queens Room (serenaded by the harpist in the background, above), and this daily ritual—finger sandwiches, clotted cream—is popular enough to be one of the few things you have to compete for while on board. Seats fill up, so it's wise to get there at least a half hour ahead on the days you want to have tea.
When you imagine the deck of a transatlantic ocean liner, isn't this what you picture? All that's missing is Kay Francis or William Powell leaning over the rail. This is the promenade that encircles Deck 7, lined with teakwood loungers of a design that has barely shifted since the turn of the last century (cushions are kept in the wooden boxes, behind).
This is where you can walk laps around the circumference of the ship when your legs get restless. Even in summer, it can be cold and windy in the middle of the ocean, so be sure to pack warm clothing, even if you don't think you'll need it. You probably will.
One of the many grown-up pleasures of the Queen Mary 2 is formal night. Held at least twice during every transatlantic crossing, the special dress code is eagerly observed by the majority of passengers, who are asked not to hang around public spaces unless they're dressed up. The extra outfits and shoes add some heft to a packing checklist and usually force passengers to bring their larger luggage, but it's worth it to share in the sense of vintage pomp that has dignified the ocean liner social scene since it began. (If men don't have a tux, a few are available for rental in the shops, but they go fast, so it's better to bring your own or a nice suit.)
The ship gives passengers plenty of occasions to parade in their finery, including during regular after-dinner dancing sessions with a live band in the Queens Room (above), held underneath mounted relics given to Cunard by the actual Queen Mary in the 1930s. There are very few traditions in travel that call for a tuxedo, and fewer still that give fans of ballroom dancing the floor.
Behind this room there's a soundproofed disco, but its use is sporadic, depending on the age composition of the passenger list.
The majority of passengers eat in a couple of free restaurants for all three meals: assisted by a server in the main, multilevel dining room; or self-served in the excellent Kings Court buffet. At both, you may eat when you want, and with whom you want, provided the restaurants are open. Cunard is unusual among cruise ship lines in that it doesn't charge passengers extra to order from room service, a perk that appeals to anyone who forgot to pack a gown for Formal Night.
For lunch and dinner, the Golden Lion pub (pictured above) has special Cunard-brewed beers on tap along with some easy pub fare. A few nights a week, a section of the Kings Court is rethemed (culinarily speaking) for either Indian or Asian food from the central kitchen, depending on the night. On those evenings, reservations at the venue must be made as a specialty restaurant with a surcharge (in the $30 range, in line with other cruise ships). There's also Steakhouse at The Verandah, another specialty restaurant, with a wide view at the back of the ship.
On my voyage, the Web-based reservation system for specialty meals had trouble meeting the demands placed on it (losing bookings made weeks before, for instance), but the crew was so well-trained that staffers were always able to solve issues without a fuss.
Interestingly, the Queen Mary 2 has two theatrical spaces. One is used for standard performances (cruise ship–style jukebox revues, comics, and the like) and one typically alternates between a lecture hall and a planetarium (pictured above)—a dome is lowered and guests sit in the middle to watch astronomy-themed movies.
Many major cruise lines have shifted guest information delivery to apps, but Cunard remains resolutely throwback, printing daily schedules that are delivered nightly to each cabin, the way all cruise ships used to do things.
There are plenty of diversions on the docket. Just so you can get a sense of the density and type of optional activities programmed daily, here's the full schedule for a single day during my crossing in August 2023. More than any other details I share, this is probably what will confirm for you whether you'd embrace the mellowness of a QM2 voyage or find yourself bouncing off the luxuriously finished surfaces.
One of the more sublime details of a transatlantic crossing is the way everyone tracks the ship's progress across the miles. Every day at noon, the captain announces the weather, ship's location, and trip progress, which you can also track via a special channel on your stateroom's television. Cunard makes sure to mark the spot where the Titanic sank, adding a macabre twist to the navigation. (If the info wasn't available, people would keep asking.)
Is the crossing on the Queen Mary 2 rough? Of my three voyages so far, only one had a couple days of what I'd call rough seas, and even then, the ship pressed through them so well I never spilled a single drop of champagne. Two times out of three, though, the waters were mostly as calm as a pond.
Because the ship keeps crossing through time zones, we were instructed to move our clocks back an hour on five nights out of seven. That near-daily habit meant our westbound voyage enjoyed a series of 25-hour days. If you sail eastbound, though, from North America to the United Kingdom, you'll keep losing an hour, and many of your days will be just 23 hours long. That's why I prefer to go westward on the QM2 rather than east: You get more time for your money.
Some regular passengers choose to cross the Atlantic on the Queen Mary 2 because they have pets that they don't want to subject to the stress of airline travel. The ship's kennel, located on the top deck, has regular open hours when passengers are permitted to visit the animals.
The scene is a bit like when Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers walked dogs on the top deck of an ocean liner in 1937's Shall We Dance—minus the formal wear, Gershwin music, and dashing repartee. There is actually plenty of room to dance up there, though, and the QM2 does have a cute fake fire hydrant for photos.
Although the journey had taken a week, there's nothing quite like connecting two points on the globe through surface travel instead of airplanes. The transition from England to Big Apple may be jarring and draining when it happens over 6 hours in the sky, but when the trip takes 6 days over the sea, the transition is gradual and feels natural. Plus, you save a fortune by skipping international checked baggage fees.
It's an epic, martini-drenched, cuff link–adorned odyssey that has unfolded nearly 400 times—the ship's 400th crossing takes place in August 2024—and the voyage still deserves a special place on even the shortest lists of dream trips.