Interview by Everett Potter
Can’t decide between Celebrity and Royal Caribbean? Thinking about the Baltic but not sure who cruises those waters best? Then do what legions of cruise-goers have done for nearly three decades and ask Douglas Ward, arguably the world’s most knowledgeable cruise writer. It would be hard to imagine any writer who has experienced as much at sea or is more exacting. Ward, the author of the Berlitz Complete Guide to Cruising and Cruise Ships, now in its 28th year of publication, sails the high seas with an eagle eye and an elaborate point system that he uses to rate the world’s cruise ships. He determines a ship’s maximum possible score of 2,000 points by a systematic allocation of points based on its general profile and condition, its food, its accommodation, its service, and the quality of the cruise operation. The highest rated cruise ship? Hapag-Lloyd’s MS Europa, which came in with 1,852 points out a possible 2,000.
Ward’s first job at sea was as a leader of a small jazz and dance band in first class aboard Cunard Line’s Queen Elizabeth, then the world’s largest passenger ship (83,629 tons). Over a period of 17 years, and in various roles, he worked for nine different cruise companies, lastly as cruise director. He is the president of the Maritime Evaluations Group, an American company that, since 1980, has published a professional yearly report on the grading of cruise ships. He sees his role as similar to that of a restaurant critic for the Michelin Guide. The British-born Ward spends about nine months of the year at sea. I caught up with him recently.
EP: How have cruise ships changed since you began writing about the cruise industry?
DW: In the 28 years since I started the Berlitz Complete Guide to Cruising and Cruise Ships, ships have changed in size, shape, profile, look, and in many technical aspects. Today the ships are vibration-free due to the “pod propulsion” system. They have international crews instead of single nationality crews, more dining venue options and open-seating dining. There are more family-friendly ships, specialist expedition ships, sail-cruise ships, and riverships. The cruise industry continues to grow, with more new ships on order, and more niche operators as well as the major players.
EP: How does a ship go from good to great in your book? What is it that you’re looking for?
DW: Its operators would need to spend more on food and use better quality ingredients. I also look at service, training, and passenger communication skills. Evaluations take into account over 400 separate items, so it’s a very objective system and nothing to do with what I like. Many of these items are listed in the 2013 edition of my book, on pages 192-199.
EP: The largest ships afloat strike me as floating cities, and their shapes resemble cargo ships more than the streamlined liners of the past. Do you think the big ships will just keep on getting bigger? Or is there any counter movement to smaller vessels?
DW: It’s all about the economies of scale, but I do think that, logistically, we’ve reached the maximum with the two Oasis of the Seas-class of ships (225,062 tons and 5,400 passengers). There’s more call now for ships of less than 1,000 passengers. However, it’s more expensive to build the smaller ships, and the operating costs are higher. As for shape, I think that the Disney Cruise Line ships have a profile that is a nice mix of art deco, ocean liner, and contemporary.
EP: Do you think people travel because of the ship or because of the itinerary?
DW: People cruise mostly because of the itinerary and the dates available. For example, the Caribbean and The Bahamas are year-round;Alaska and the Mediterranean are seasonal.
EP: What is the most underrated cruise ship itinerary?
DW: The Norwegian fjords and the Chilean fjords. I would also add some of the river cruise itineraries.
EP: And the most overrated itinerary?
DW: The Caribbean, especially Miami, San Juan, St. Thomas, and Nassau. Although this is always good for a first cruise, particularly when it’s cold at home.
EP: When you’re not on the high seas, where do you find your center of gravity?
DW: Home is in the south of England – near the sea, of course!
EP: If money were no object, what would be your perfect cruise – the itinerary and the ship?
DW: While my wife and I enjoy the large resort ships, we prefer the smaller ships for more personal service and, generally, better food. As for itineraries, ask me today and I might say the Antarctic Peninsula. Ask me tomorrow and I might say Papua New Guinea. I personally always enjoy the Mediterranean region and Southeast Asia. Now, if money is no object, then it has to be an around-the-world cruise or any multiple-month-long cruise that includes a transatlantic crossing. I love days at sea, with no ports in sight.
The print edition of the 2013 Berlitz Complete Guide to Cruising & Cruise Ships is $24.99.The eBook 2013 Berlitz Guide to Cruising & Cruise Ships ($24.99), is available now from Amazon and Apple. The Berlitz Cruise Ships app for the iPhone and iPad ($9.99) is available now from Apple. To purchase all three of them, click here.