Berlitz Cruising & Cruise Ships 2017 (Berlitz Cruise Guide) (2016)
How We Evaluate the Ships
Their facilities count, of course, but just as important are the factors and standards relating to food, service, staff, and hospitality. This section explains how the points system works.
I have been evaluating and rating cruise ships and the onboard product professionally since 1980. In addition, I receive regular reports from my small team of trained assessors. The ratings are conducted with total objectivity, from a set of predetermined criteria, using a modus operandi designed to work across the entire spectrum of oceangoing cruise ships, in all segments of the marketplace.
There really is no ‘best cruise line in the world’ or ‘best cruise ship’ - only the ship and cruise that is right for you. After all, it’s the overall enjoyment of a cruise as a vacation that’s really important. Therefore, different criteria are applied to ships of different sizes, styles, and market segments throughout the world (vacationers of different nationalities are looking for different things).
Britannia Restaurant aboard Queen Elizabeth.
The evaluation and rating of cruise ships is about as contrary to soccer as you can get. In soccer, the goalposts are always in the same place. But with cruise ships, they keep changing as the industry evolves and matures.
This section includes 270 oceangoing cruise ships in service (or due to enter service) and chosen by the author for inclusion when this book was completed. Almost all except the newest ships have been carefully evaluated, taking into account around 400 separate items based on personal cruises, visits, and revisits to ships. In the scoring room, these are channeled into 20 major areas, each with a possible 100 points. The maximum possible score for any ship is therefore 2,000 points.
For user-friendliness, scores are further channeled into five main sections: Ship, Accommodation, Food, Service, and Cruise Operation.
Cruise lines, ship owners, and operators should note that the ratings may be adjusted annually as a result of increased competition, the introduction of newer ships with better facilities, and other market- or passenger-driven factors.
The ratings more reflect the standards of the cruise product delivered to passengers (the software: the dining experience, the service, and the hospitality aspects of the cruise), and less the physical plant (the hardware). Thus, although a ship may be the latest, most stunning vessel in the world in terms of design and decor, if the ‘software’ and onboard product delivery are not so good, the scores and ratings will reflect these aspects more clearly.
The stars beside the name of the ship at the top of each page relate directly to the ‘Overall Rating.’ The highest number of stars awarded is five stars (★★★★★), and the lowest is one star. This system is universally recognized throughout the global hospitality industry. A plus (+) indicates that a ship deserves just that little bit more than the number of stars attained. However, I must emphasize that it is the number of points achieved rather than the number of stars attained that perhaps is more meaningful to anyone comparing ships.
The star system
★★★★★+ 1,851-2,000 points
★★★★★ 1,701-1,850 points
★★★★+ 1,551-1,700 points
★★★★ 1,401-1,550 points
★★★+ 1,251-1,400 points
★★★ 1,101-1,250 points
★★+ 951-1,100 points
★★ 801-950 points
★+ 651-800 points
★ 501-650 points
What the ratings mean
1,851-2,000 points ★★★★★+
You can expect an outstanding, top-class cruise experience - it doesn’t get any better than this. It should be truly memorable, and with the highest attention to detail, finesse, and personal service - how important you are made to feel is critical. The decor must be elegant and tasteful, measured by restraint and not flashiness, with fresh flowers and other decorative touches in abundance. The layout of the public rooms might well follow feng shui principles.
Balinese day beds on Europa 2.
Any ship with this rating must be just about unsurpassable in the cruise industry, and it has to be very, very special, with service and hospitality levels to match. There must be the very highest-quality surroundings, comfort, and service levels, the finest and freshest quality foods, including all breads and rolls baked on board. Highly creative menus, regional cuisine, and dining alternatives should provide maximum choice and variety, and special orders will be part of the dining ritual.
Dining room meals (particularly dinners) are expected to be memorable affairs, correctly served on the finest china, with a choice of wines of suitable character and vintage available, and served in the correct-sized sommelier glasses of the highest quality (Reidel or Schott).
The service staff will take pleasure in providing you with the ultimate personal, yet unobtrusive, attention with the utmost of finesse, and the word ‘no’ should not be in their vocabulary. This is the very best of the best in terms of refined, unstructured living at sea, but it is seriously expensive.
1,701-1,850 points ★★★★★
You can expect a truly excellent, memorable cruise experience, with the finesse and attention to detail commensurate with the amount of money paid. The service and hospitality levels will be extremely high from all levels of officers and staff, with strong emphasis on fine hospitality training - all service personnel members must make you feel important.
The food will be commensurate with the high level expected from what is virtually the best possible at sea, with service that should be very attentive yet unobtrusive. The cuisine should be memorable, with ample taste. Special orders should never be a problem. There must be a varied selection of wines, which should be served in glasses of the correct size.
Entertainment is expected to be of prime quality and variety. Again, the word ‘no’ should not be in the vocabulary of any member of staff aboard a ship with this rating. Few things will cost extra once you are on board, and brochures should be more ‘truthful’ than those for ships with a lower rating.
Douglas Ward at work.
1,551-1,700 points ★★★★+
You should expect to have a high-quality cruise experience that will be quite memorable, and just a little short of being excellent in all aspects. Perhaps the personal service and attention to detail could be slightly better, but, nonetheless, this should prove to be a fine all-round cruise experience, in a setting that is extremely clean and comfortable, with few lines anywhere, a caring attitude from service personnel, and a good standard of entertainment that appeals to a mainstream market.
The cuisine and service will be carefully balanced, with mostly fresh ingredients and varied menus that should appeal to almost anyone, all served on high-quality china.
This should prove to be an extremely well-rounded cruise experience, probably in a ship that is new or almost new. There will probably be fewer ‘extra-cost’ items than ships with a slightly lower rating.
1,401-1,550 points ★★★★
You should expect to have a very good quality all-round cruise experience, most probably aboard a modern, highly comfortable ship that will provide a good range of facilities and services. The food and service will be quite decent overall, although decidedly not as ‘gourmet’ and fanciful as the brochures with the always-smiling faces might have you believe.
The service on board will be well-organized, if a little robotic and impersonal at times, and only as good as the cruise line’s training program allows. You may notice a lot of things cost extra once you are on board, although the typically vague brochure tells you that the things are ‘available’ or are an ‘option.’ However, you should have a good time, and your bank account will be only moderately damaged.
1,251-1,400 points ★★★+
You should expect to have a decent-quality cruise experience, aboard a ship where the service levels should be good, but perhaps without the finesse that could be expected from a more upscale environment. The crew aboard any ship achieving this score should reflect a positive attitude with regard to hospitality, and a willingness to accommodate your needs, up to a point. Staff training will probably be in need of more attention to detail and flexibility.
Food and service levels in the dining venues should be reasonably good, although special or unusual orders might prove more difficult to accommodate. There will probably be a number of extra-cost items you thought were included in the price of your cruise - although the brochure typically is vague and states that the things are ‘available’ or are an ‘option.’
1,101-1,250 points ★★★
You can expect a reasonably decent, middle-of-the-road cruise experience, with a moderate amount of space and quality in furnishings, fixtures, and fittings. The cabins are likely to be a little on the small side. The food and service levels will be quite acceptable, although not at all memorable, and somewhat inflexible with regard to special orders, as almost everything is standardized.
The level of hospitality will be moderate but little more, and the entertainment will probably be weak. This is a good option, however, for those looking for the reasonable comforts of home without pretentious attitudes, and little damage to their bank statement.
951-1,100 points ★★+
You should expect an average cruise experience in terms of accommodation (typically with cabins that are dimensionally challenged), the quality of the ship’s facilities, food, wine list, service, and hospitality levels, in surroundings that are unpretentious. In particular, the food and its service might be disappointing.
There will be little flexibility in the levels of service, hospitality, and staff training and supervision, which will be no better than poor in comparison with that of ships of a higher rating. Thus, the overall experience will be commensurate with the small amount of money you paid for the cruise.
801-950 points ★★
You should expect to have a cruise experience of modest quality aboard a ship that is probably in need of more attention to maintenance and service levels, not to mention hospitality. The food may be quite lacking in taste, homogenized, and of low quality, and service is likely to be mediocre at best. Staff training is likely to be minimal, and turnover may be high. The ‘end-of-pier’ entertainment could well leave you wanting to read a good book.
651-800 points ★+
You can expect to have only the most basic cruise experience, with little or no attention to detail, from a poorly trained staff that is probably paid low wages and to whom you are just another body. The ship will, in many cases, probably be in need of much maintenance and upgrading, and will probably have few facilities. Dismal entertainment is also likely. On the other hand, the price of a cruise is probably alluringly low.
501-650 points ★
You can expect to have a cruise experience that is the absolute bottom of the barrel, with almost nothing in terms of hospitality or finesse. You can forget about attention to detail - there won’t be any. This will be the kind of experience that would equal a stay in the most basic motel on land, with few facilities, a poorly trained, uncaring staff, and a ship that needs better maintenance.
The low cost of a cruise aboard a ship with this rating should provide a strong clue to the complete absence of any quality. This will be particularly evident in the areas of food, service, and entertainment. You might remember this cruise, but for all the wrong reasons.
Distribution of points
These are the percentage of the total points available that are allocated to each of the main areas evaluated:
The ship: 25 percent
Accommodation: 10 percent
Cuisine: 20 percent
Service: 20 percent
Entertainment: 5 percent
The cruise experience: 20 percent
These last two categories may be combined for boutique ships, tall ships, and expedition ships.
Hardware/maintenance/safety. This score reflects the general profile and condition of the ship (hardware), its age and maintenance, exterior paint, decking and caulking, swimming pool and surrounds, deck furniture, shore tenders, lifeboats, and other safety items. It also reflects interior cleanliness (public restrooms, elevators, floor coverings, wall coverings, stairways, passageways, and doorways), food preparation areas, refrigerators, garbage handling, compacting, incineration, and waste-disposal facilities.
Outdoor facilities/space. This score reflects the overall space per passenger on open decks, crowding, swimming pools/whirlpools and their surrounds, lido deck areas, number and type of deck lounge chairs (with or without cushioned pads) and other deck furniture, sports facilities, shower enclosures and changing facilities, towels, and quiet (no music) areas.
Interior facilities/space/flow. This score reflects the use of common interior public spaces, including enclosed promenades; passenger flow and congestion points; ceiling height; lobby, stairways and passenger hallways; elevators; public restrooms and facilities; signage, lighting, air conditioning and ventilation; and degree of comfort and density.
Decor/furnishings/artwork. This score reflects the overall interior decor (decoration and colors); hard and soft furnishings; paneling; carpeting (color, pattern, and practicality); chairs (comfort); ceilings and treatments; artwork (paintings, sculptures, and atrium centerpieces); and lighting.
Spa/fitness facilities. This score reflects health spa, wellness center, and fitness facilities: location, accessibility, and sound levels; lighting and flooring materials; fitness machines and other equipment; fitness programs; sports facilities and equipment; indoor pools; hot tubs; grand baths; hydrotherapy pools; saunas and steam rooms; treatment rooms; changing facilities; jogging and walking tracks; and open promenades.
Balcony cabins at the aft (back) of Costa Serena.
Cabins: suites and cabins. This score reflects the design and layout of all suite- and deluxe grade cabins, private balconies (whether full floor-to-ceiling partition or part partitions. Also beds/berths, cabinetry, and other fittings; hanging and drawer space, and bedside tables; vanity unit, bathroom facilities, cabinets, and toiletries storage; lighting, air conditioning, and ventilation; audio-visual facilities; artwork; insulation, noise and vibration. Suites should not be so designated unless the sleeping room is completely separated from the living area.
Also, soft furnishings, cabin service directory, interactive TV; paper, postcards, and personalized stationery; telephone directory; laundry lists; tea- and coffee-making equipment; flowers; fruit; bathroom personal amenities kits, bathrobes, slippers, and the size and quality of towels.
In addition, we have taken into account the usefulness of the information directory.
The Persian Garden spa aboard Celebrity Solstice.
Celebrity Cruises/Quentin Bacon
Cruise lines put maximum emphasis on promising passengers how good their food will be, often to the point of being unable to deliver what is promised. There are, of course, at least as many different tastes as there are passengers. The standard market cruise lines cater to a wide range of tastes, while the more exclusive cruise lines can offer better-quality food, mostly cooked individually to your taste. As in any good restaurant, you generally get what you pay for.
Dining venues/cuisine. This score reflects the physical structure of dining rooms, layout and seating (alcoves and individual chairs), and waiter stations; lighting and ambience; table setups; linen, china, and cutlery quality and condition; and table centerpieces (flowers). It also reflects menus, food quality, presentation, food combinations, culinary creativity, appeal, taste, texture, freshness, color, balance; garnishes and decorations; appetizers, soups, pastas, tableside cooking (if any); fresh fruit and cakes; the wine list (and connoisseur wine list), price range, and wine service. Specialty dining venues are also checked for menu variety, food and service quality, decor, seating, and noise levels. China, cutlery and glassware are also included.
Informal eateries/buffets. This score reflects the hardware (hot and cold display units, sneeze guards, ‘active’ stations, tongs, ice containers ladles, and serving utensils); buffet displays (most are disappointing and institutionalized); trays, plates, and setups; correct food temperatures; food labeling; breakfast, luncheon, deck buffets, and late-night snacks; decorative elements; and staff service and communication.
Quality of ingredients. This score reflects the quality of ingredients, taste, consistency, and portion size; grades of meat, fish, and fowl; and the price paid by the cruise line for food per passenger per day. It is the quality of ingredients that most dictates the presentation of the finished product, as well as its taste.
Tea/coffee/bar snacks. This score reflects the quality and variety of teas and coffees available, including afternoon teas/coffees and their presentation; whether mugs or cups and saucers are presented; whether milk is served in the correct open containers or in sealed packets; whether self-service or served. The quality of such items as cakes, scones, and pastries, as well as bar/lounge snacks, hot and cold canapés, and hors d’oeuvres also forms part of this section.
Dining room. This score reflects staff professionalism: the maître d’hôtel, under managers, section headwaiters, waiters and assistant waiters (busboys), and sommeliers and wine waiters; place settings, cutlery, and glasses; and proper service (serving, taking from the correct side), communication skills, attitude, flair, uniform, appearance, and finesse. Waiters should note whether passengers are right- or left-handed and, when tables are assigned, make sure that cutlery and glasses are placed on the side of preference.
Bars. This score reflects the lighting and ambience; seating, noise levels; communication skills; the staff’s attitude, personality, flair, and service finesse; correct use of glasses (and correct size of glasses).
Cabins. This score reflects the cleaning and housekeeping staff, butlers (for penthouse and suite passengers), cabin stewards/stewardesses and their supervisory staff, attention to detail and cleanliness, linen and bathrobe changes, and language and communication skills.
Open decks. This score reflects the service for beverages and food items; placement and replacement of towels on deck lounge chairs, towel supply, emptying of used towel bins; and general tidiness of all associated deck equipment.
The score reflects the overall entertainment program. The entertainment has to appeal to passengers of many ages and types. Included is the physical plant (stage/bandstand) of the main show lounge; technical support, lighting, set/backdrop design; all sound and light systems; pre-recorded tracks and special effects; large-scale production shows (including story, plot, content, cohesion, costumes, quality, choreography, and vocal content); variety shows; cabaret acts; and bands and solo musicians.
Note that aboard specialist ships such as those offering expedition cruises, or tall ships (sailing ships such as Sea Cloud), where entertainment as such is not a feature, it is the lecture program, library, free movies on demand, videos and CDs, and use of watersports toys such as jet skis, windsurfers, kayaks, and snorkeling gear (items that the large resort ships usually charge extra for), etc., that are included in the evaluations under Entertainment.
The cruise experience
Activities program. This score reflects the daytime activities and events. It includes the cruise director and staff (visibility, availability, and professionalism), participation games, special-interest programs, port and shopping lecturers, and mind-enrichment lecturers. Also any watersports equipment, instruction, staff supervision, marina or side-retractable water sports platforms, and enclosed swimming area.
Movies/television programming. This score reflects movies screened in theaters and on poolside screens, picture and sound quality; videos on the in-cabin system; other programming, including the in-cabin infotainment system; content, and audio channels.
Hospitality standard. This score reflects the level of hospitality and professionalism of officers, middle management, supervisors, cruise staff, and crew; social contact, appearance, and dress codes or uniforms; motivation; and communication skills.
Overall product delivery. This score reflects the quality of the overall cruise as a vacation - what the brochure states and promises (real or implied), and the onboard hospitality and services.
Notes on the rating results
Cruise ship evaluations and ratings have become ever more complex. Although a ship may be the newest, with all the latest facilities possible, it is the onboard food and service that often disappoint, as well as standing in lines and signing up for activities. It’s about delivering a cohesive, consistent onboard product.
Cruise companies say that food quality is a trade-off against lower prices. However, this implies a downward spiral that affects the food quality as well as the service, the quality of personnel, the crew training, safety, and maintenance.
In the final analysis, it is the little things that add to points lost on the great scorecard.