After spending more than 5,500 days at sea working for eight different cruise lines, Douglas Ward knows his ships. Since 1985, however, he’s been playing the role of passenger, rigorously assessing vessels for the Berlitz Complete Guide to Cruising & Cruise Ships, ‘the world’s foremost authority on cruising’. Here, he gives Cruise Passenger‘s Alarna Haigh an insider view.

What is the highest-ranking ship in the new guide?

Presently, Hapag-Lloyd Cruises’ 450-passenger Europa. It has the only three-Michelin-star chef restaurant at sea (Restaurant Dieter Müller); the hospitality factor of the crew is extremely high; and a well-groomed staff is trained in the art of service. It’s the little things, like loose tea only; linen coasters for drinks; silver covers on glasses for room service; a choice of olive oils in the Italian restaurant; an array of personal toiletry amenities; soft wool blankets on deck; free large-format colour newspapers every day; a travel briefcase for each passenger; bicycles for passengers to use at no charge; and private cruise-flights for long-distance voyages. Naturally, there is no charge for shuttle buses when needed in ports.

What ships have dropped standards since last year?

A number of the large resort ships, mostly belonging to the major cruise lines, have cut costs and quality by reducing the personal toiletry amenities, removing things such as free postcards, replacing live flowers with fakes and so on. As for food, some have reduced menu selections [and] portions, introduced lower quality cuts of meat, provided fewer green vegetables and reduced the strength of the ‘free’ coffee. Some ships have removed trays for self-serve buffets (so you can’t carry as much). Although first-time cruise-goers don’t notice, repeat cruise-goers do.

What are five trends you can identify for cruising in 2011?

I have noticed an increase in: multigenerational family (and single-parent) cruising; passengers who want child-free ships; niche operations, such as expedition cruises; passengers who simply want ‘cheap and cheerful, drinks-inclusive’ cruises that provide perceived good value; the number of cruise companies and ships for language-specific markets (such as German, Italian, Portuguese or Spanish). Mini-trends include the push towards totally smoke-free ship interiors, healthier food venues and the growth in long, extended voyages.

What’s the first thing you notice when you’re on a ship?

Within five minutes, I know the operating standard passengers receive. It’s called professionalism and experience. I also receive letters and emails from over 3,000 passengers each year – and they keep me very well informed. So take the chocolate away from the pillow or start charging for postcards and I will know within 24 hours!  The most I need is about three or four days per ship. I have no favourites – that’s why the evaluations and ratings are totally objective.

What annoys and pleases you most about a ship?

If I take a personal cruise with my wife, perhaps the most annoying [thing is] unnecessary announcements, often repeated. Perhaps the most pleasing thing is being at sea rather than in port, because cruise ships come alive most when they are at sea. It’s quite difficult to find the level of service and hospitality found aboard the higher rated ships [in land-based accommodation].

How do you go about comparing so many vessels?

It’s about experience, dedication and real, hard work – I have not had a decent personal holiday for years! No-one would be stupid enough to do what I do but I still enjoy it all – except for the hassles of getting to and from the ships. Airports, taxis, timing, lost luggage [and] impersonal airline service can be frustrating even to a hardened traveller like me.

Three things are necessary for this job: honesty, integrity and experience. I have earned the respect of the cruise lines over the 26 years I have been writing the book. They know they can’t ‘buy’ me. Even when they know I am aboard, they know well enough to leave me alone. If I need something,
I can always ask for it.

What’s your favourite activity at sea?

If I have any spare time, I like to read or talk to other passengers and have an occasional massage. I typically manage to visit between 30 and 60 ships, and sail aboard 20 to 30 of them – sometimes my wife is able to join me. But my wife and I always try to spend Christmas at home, on land, each year.

Do you get invited on board the ships or do you pay to go?

Under the terms of my contract, I am not at liberty to disclose such details. Like all passengers, however, I spend a lot of my personal money on gratuities, flights, trains, taxis and other travel arrangements – plus replacing or repairing luggage!

Do you sail incognito?

Partly incognito and partly known, because it’s easier to discuss things with the hotel manager or other key management. The cruise lines accept the ratings as fair and objective, and find them useful for internal comparative purposes as well as for competitive marketing purposes.

What is the worst cruise ship you’ve ever been on?

Some things must remain secret! Actually, under the terms of my contract, I am not permitted to state the worst-ever cruise ship I have experienced. But there have been several – most of which have now gone to ‘the beach’ (scrapyard). Remember, though, that I [cruise on] many ships that have poor-quality food and service.

Do you plan to visit Australia or New Zealand in the near future?

Yes – this year.