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THE INTERVIEW: How to Choose a Cruise: A Talk with Douglas Ward

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Cruise line executives tremble when the name "Douglas Ward" is mentioned. Ward is the most fearsome critic in the cruise industry, a man whose words can remove the smiles from the faces of the most unflappable ship owners.

If you’re looking for a family cruise, a romantic cruise or a well-priced Caribbean cruise, or trying to decide between Celebrity Cruises, Cunard Line or Princess Cruises, Ward is your man. The British-born Ward casts a cold but ultimately fair eye on such unsexy topics as bathroom size, buffet selections and closet space in his book, Berlitz 2007 Complete Guide to Cruising and Cruise Ships, by Douglas Ward ($24.95) . Now in its 22nd edition, the guide has exceptionally detailed reports on 269 cruise ships. Ward devised a rating system of up to 2,000 points and rates each ship in about 400 areas, including overall quality, accommodation, food, service and entertainment. The aim of this exhaustive research, leavened with wry opinion, is "to help people make intelligent choices."

These are detailed write ups indeed. Ward has a hotel inspector’s flair for discovering the little annoyances that can prove mighty frustrating during a week at sea. Of Royal Caribbean’s Monarch of the Seas, he says " you will probably be overwhelmed by the public spaces, and underwhelmed by the size of the cabins." Holland America’s Maasdam is a ship with "much use of canned fruits (good for older passengers with few teeth)." And on the Carnival Triumph, the verdict is that "getting away from people and noise is difficult."

Little escapes Ward’s eye. This is man who’ll ride in a wheelchair to see if a stateroom’s bathroom can truly accommodate a physically-challenged passenger. The best ship afloat these days? Ward says that it’s a German ship, Hapag-Lloyd Cruises’ Europa, which scored 1,858 points.

Clearly, it’s not all midnight buffets and sunbathing. Ward worked aboard cruise ships for 17 years, including a stint as a bandleader on the original Queen Elizabeth. From staterooms to kitchens, he knows ships like few in the business. Ward inspects somewhere between 40 and 60 vessels a year in shipyards, in port and at sea. He travels some 250 days a year. And he writes every day to stay on top of his fact finding, which is aided by thousands of letters and emails he receives from readers every year. When I asked him what he misses most about the old days of cruise ships, he replied, "Seeing the stars. They keep the deck lights on because they want you inside, generating revenue."

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WHERE ARE YOU NOW?

I am presently on land in the UK for two days.

WHERE HAVE YOU JUST RETURNED FROM?

Kusadasi (Turkey).

WHERE ARE YOU OFF TO NEXT?

Bergen (Norway).

HOW OFTEN DO YOU TRAVEL FOR WORK?

In a typical year (if there is such a thing) it seems that I travel almost every week between February and November.

HOW MANY DAYS ARE YOU ACTUALLY ON LAND FOR A PERIOD OF TIME?

This really depends on ship schedules and my own travel schedules, but December and January tend to be a lot less hectic for travel, although I have a lot of paperwork, reports, and ship updating to do for my book.

HOW MANY VESSELS DO YOU INSPECT PER YEAR?

That depends on the year. This year, it will probably be close to 50. I often spend just two or three days aboard many ships, because I already know them, and I’m looking at changes of operation, or refurbishment.

WHAT KINDS OF SMALL DETAILS ARE YOU LOOKING FOR THAT MIGHT ESCAPE MY NOTICE AS A PASSENGER?

I look at so many things more than 400 items for each ship — that it’s all about small details.

PERSONAL PET PEEVES ABOARD ANY CRUISE SHIP?

Overly loud music. The staff not wearing name badges correctly. The food at self-serve buffets. The announcements for revenue activities. Art auctions. Plastic flowers. Packets of preserves, butter, and other food items. Constant background music in elevators and passageways. Repetitious breakfast buffets. And lines for boarding, re-boarding, security, tenders to go ashore, and the reception desk.

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A LOT OF PEOPLE HAVE NEVER CRUISED OR SEEM RELUCTANT TO DO SO. ANY ADVICE FOR FIRST-TIME CRUISERS?

Don’t just look at price. Think about what you want out of your cruise vacation, including the itinerary, ship facilities, food, service, shopping, etc.. And seek the advice of a cruise specialist (not just an order taker), who should be able to recommend the right ship for the right reasons. There are, remember, over 70 cruise lines with ocean-going ships presently in operation. And, if you read ‘the book,’ you’ll be well prepared to find the right ship by helping your cruise specialist identify the cruise line and ship that’s right for you. Finally, choose a cabin with an outside view. In interior (no view) cabins, you won’t know what the weather is like, or how to dress.

WHAT ARE THE UP AND COMING CRUISE DESTINATIONS?

South-east Asia (India, Thailand, Indonesia, China, Japan, Vietnam), Australasia (Australia/New Zealand) and Eastern Mediterranean (Istanbul, Sochi, Yalta, Odessa, Sofia).

IS IT REALLY A DIFFERENT EXPERIENCE FOR AN AMERICAN TO SAIL ON A SHIP FROM A EUROPEAN LINE, SUCH AS HAPAG-LLOYD CRUISES, VERSUS A SHIP FROM AN AMERICAN CRUISE LINE? HOW SO?

If you want an American cruise experience, choose a cruise line based in the USA, but, for a more international cruise experience, consider choosing a European cruise line.UK-based cruise companies have ships that operate entirely in the English language, whereas Europe-based companies have ships with multi-nationality passengers and, typically, five or six languages. Hapag-Lloyd Cruises (a Germany-based cruise line) has several ships that provide either luxury or expedition/adventure travel.

WHAT DO YOU LIKE ABOUT TRAVEL?

Travel is the best education there is. It provides opportunities to see the wonders of nature, architecture, history, and to be with people of different cultures, traditions, and cuisines.

ANYTHING YOU DETEST?

Airports, waiting, lines for hostile and inflexible security personnel, dealing with lost luggage, and poor cleanliness aboard most aircraft.

IS THERE A SPECIAL PLACE YOU’D LIKE TO VISIT THAT YOU HAVE NOT BEEN YET?

The countries that I have not been to yet are all inland, so I can’t get there by cruise ship.

WHAT ARE YOUR FAVORITE CRUISE SHIPS AND WHY?

I don’t have a favorite ship (I would not disclose it anyway). I probably have at least a dozen ships that I really enjoy cruising aboard.

BEST SHIPS FOR ADVENTURE CRUISING?

Small ships that are specially equipped for expedition-style cruising go to areas inaccessible to large resort ships, such as the Arctic, the Antarctic Peninsula, and the Amazon. Among the best: Hapag-Lloyd Cruises and Quark Expeditions.

YOUR FAVORITE BAR ON BOARD ANY SHIP AND WHY?

I don’t have a favorite bar, but there are many bars and lounges that I enjoy.

WHAT CAN’T YOU LEAVE HOME WITHOUT WHEN YOU TRAVEL?

A good book. A tri-band cellphone. A camera.

DO YOU COLLECT ANY SOUVENIRS WHEN YOU TRAVEL?

No, none at all.

HOW DO YOU STAY WELL-INFORMED ABOUT THE CRUISE INDUSTRY?

Hard work, and the contacts I have built up over the past 40 years.

WHAT ARE YOU READING RIGHT NOW?

"Private Eye"

WHERE IS HOME AND HOW OFTEN ARE YOU THERE?

My wife and I live in south-central England. We can see the sea.

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