Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Cruise to disappointment

     3 disclaimers before I start my bitching.  1. It has been 20 years since my last cruise.  2.  I sometimes know too much about the food business to be easily satisfied 3. This is all my opinion, I claim no insider information or special knowledge.

     Everyone was telling us how good a deal Cruising was and that the bad economy had even made the pricing better.  The 2nd most popular opinion we heard was that the food on the ships was plentiful and great.  So my expectations were set early on, and I only expected 2 things, great food, and a bargain vacation.  How sad that I ended up with neither.

     With Danny headed off to college this year, we wanted to have a more special spring vacation. We waited until we heard back from Molly that she couldn't join us, and then started to look into cruises.  We didn't do much research, shame on us, but we had a lot going on at work, school, Scouts, Senior Bash Committee and the Golf Tournament so we took our chances. 
If all of our friends are to be believed, there must be a vast difference in the quality of some cruises versus others.  We picked a bad one.  The cruise line and ship will go unnamed here except to say, it was a "Circus" that we were "Destined" to be a part of.  We booked about 2 months out from the actual cruise, and right away the bargains started to disappear.  We quickly found out that the rates offered for the room are based on the whole family staying in the same room, with no doors to close between them.   I wouldn't even consider this as an option, with a libido like mine, so the first upgrade was to get 2 rooms.  I was fine putting the kids anywhere else on ship, but my wife insisted on connecting rooms (With a maternal instinct like hers, my plan wasn't even an option.), so the 2nd upgrade was the connecting rooms on a higher deck.  Of course that meant that we lost a balcony and now were in an interior room, with no windows.  Our base package jumped immediately from $300 per person to $500 per person, so $2,000 was spent pretty quickly.  We booked the airfare and even took the kids out of school a few day prior to the break to get a deal, but that still was $352 per person, so add another $1400 on to the trip (actually add $1500 after baggage fees).  Still a bargain at this point I suppose, but I'd like to stop hemorrhaging money soon.  We decided to fly in the day prior to the cruise to avoid delay and hassles, so we should include the $150 that the hotel would have cost, if I didn't use points.  Now onto the ship.....

     I thought the boarding process went pretty smoothly, except for the oddity of not being able to get into your room immediately.  I thought the delay was so that the luggage could be distributed, but that happened later in the day, so I really don't get why they make you wait a few hours to get into your rooms.  We had a buffet lunch up on the Lido deck, and the food was so unremarkable I can't now tell you what was on the first buffet we had.  I do know that the 2 drinks we chose off from a waiters tray cost $8 each, as did every alcoholic drink on board it seemed.  The alcohol billed will be added up later.  We finally got into our rooms and were able to get settled and we all went off to explore different areas of the ship. The rooms we had were adequate, small as expected, but they were fine.  Our room unfortunately was right next to a crew passageway, so early each morning the heavy steel door would be open and shut loudly as they made their way through the ship.  This was not conducive to our plan of sleeping in late while on vacation. During the day, we racked up some more charges, money for the arcade, unlimited soda for each kid, add $44.28 to the total (incidentally that is probably our annual budget for the soda we drink at home), more drinks at the bar, and some small shopping.  We chose the late dining option, so at 8:00 we headed to the dining room and I, in particular, was excited about the great meal we were about to enjoy......

     The dinner started well enough, with our Indian waiter, Samson, introducing himself and presenting the "wine deal".  We chose 3 bottles for the cruise (add $90), and then we opened our menus. The choices were extremely limited, but we all found things that we thought we would like, and then ordered them.  I was optimistic, right up until they served me my shrimp cocktail.  On my last cruise, they had put large shrimp up on the buffets each night, and those were likely 16/20 in size.  What I got served at dinner were 5 limp small shrimp in a dish, that were more like 31/40's.  Not a great way to start my gourmet dining experience. 
The waiters bidding us farewell on the last night.
I immediately pulled our server aside to complain, but it wasn't in his power or the Maitre D's to change the quality of the food. The entrees came and the portions were extremely small, but as everyone told me later, you can ask for more of them.  I never did order more than one entree at any meal, it seemed weird, you really have to wait until you get your first ones to see what the food and portions are like to do it, and I had no desire to be waiting for my 2nd entree while my family ate their desserts, but in fairness, this apparently is an option.  The dessert choices were again very limited, although later in the cruise, I found a chocolate lava cake with a molten center that was pretty good. All in all, the first night, I left dinner feeling very disappointed with the food and somewhat depressed that I was now stuck on a ship with bad food for 5 days.  Yikes.

     I have always been taught to complain if the service or product that you purchased is not right, and that a good business will find a way to make it right, so I did try and complain on the cruise.  After complaining in the dining room to the people with no power to fix anything, I went to the guest services area and spent the better part of a half hour trying to fix something.  I actually stopped a total of 3 times while on board, and they were great at documenting my gripes, but not at addressing any of them.  Managers were too busy to see me on 2 occasions, but promised to call me later (we never connected). 

One time I was told that it was too close to the departure time to see the manager.  I was a little surprised to  find out that the guest services manager apparently has to help cast off the lines on the ship too, but admittedly pretty impressed with the degree of cross training that goes on aboard ship.  I did find out a very interesting fact about cruising out of the US and having the first stop at another US port.  You can escape the ship at the first port (I did offer to do just that), but there is a $300 fee per person to get off in the US port.  You can avoid the fee if you wait until you leave the US, but then you are in a foreign country with your family trying to get home.  The conspiracy theorist in me wonders who lobbied for that rule, and if it wasn't intended to do exactly what it did in my case, keep me hostage until the end of the cruise.  So, in spite of the time and effort spent complaining (and I am an expert), nothing was ever offered, no discount or refund, except that they would document it or that they could talk to the Maitre D' (Would you like to be mugged at a different table Mr. Yarger?, No thanks, I'm comfortable here).  It was at this point that I realized that I really needed to accept what it was that I had purchased, and to try and look at the positive side of it especially for my family's sake.  I did vow to do 2 things though, blog about it to try and help others, and to go to the Casino frequently to relieve my stress. It did work. 

     I'll finish on the food with the fact that I never had a decent meal on board.  The breakfast items were comparable to those free breakfasts that you get in a hotel in the am, cheap bacon, pre-cooked sausage, scrambled eggs in a bag, and frozen pastries popped out of boxes and placed on silver trays (ooh how elegant).
  On "lobster night" I got a 3-4 oz tail propped up on it's shell, and I would have ordered another one or two, but honestly the first one was so bland, it wasn't worth it. I did rotate through the restaurants like some women go through shoes.  The pizza was inedible, the Chinese food was OK, the grill served over-cooked hamburgers, the NY deli served small sandwiches with bad pickles (how do you screw up a pickle?), and the "gourmet" dining room on board was a joke.  We ate breakfast there one morning, and it was the same food served on the buffet with a few minor changes, same bacon and sausage, same pastries, but they will do a bad eggs Benedict for you if you order it.  I had high hopes for that one as it was described as having gourmet cooks or something like that.  Don't get your hopes up.  I read a review of the food on our ship, after the fact, and the cruise line reviewer gave it a 5 out of 10.  I think he was being generous. If I haven't been clear by now, the food sucked, period.

     The trip we booked had 2 ports of call, Key West, and Cozumel.  I'll include the meal costs from there as the arrival times were set at times to make most people miss lunch and/or dinner, so I think it is legitimate.  My son and I toured the Mayan ruins of Tulum, but were forced to eat at a "recommended" Mexican restaurant at the site.  No menus were available, but our taco plates and a shared dish cost us $38. I'm no expert on pricing of food in Mexico, but last year in Mexico I got a bucket of 8 Corona's hand delivered to me on a beach for 10 bucks, and the tacos cost 60 cents each.  Again, the conspiracy theorist in me noticed that the owner of the restaurant paid the tour guide a visit on the bus prior to us all leaving.  Interesting. My wife and son went to swim with dolphins and their meal was included.  I did notice that all the excursions booked through the cruise lines were slightly more expensive than if you did it yourself (shouldn't it be the other way around), and that you really need to be aware of all of the expenses, ahead of time.  The Dolphinaris outing is a perfect example.  For $129 a piece you can swim with the Dolphins, but not get any good pictures of it unless you pay through the nose for them.  We got 3 pictures for $99, but you can spend a lot more there to remember your visit.  The staff was overly aggressive at trying to upgrade the package.  I'm not giving them the satisfaction of posting one of the pics here, but there is a reason they have the dolphins "kiss" your kids, who wouldn't want that picture?
     One of the other oddities aboard ship is the "tipping" set up.  We ended up paying $270 in total tips for the trip, but after the fact, I found out you can avoid it, by paying your own tips, which we did anyway. I don't know who the $160 that we were billed went to, but I comped the waiter and room cleaner guy (I think his name was Rhum Stuart) another $50 each.  We tipped the good waiters at the bars, but there were few of them, so next time I would go immediately to the guest services area and have all tipping removed and do it at your discretion.  The rooms really don't take long to clean, so they make animals out of towels to place on your bed to entertain you. 

They are nice and all, but not really worth $40 a day.  I have to give kudos to our Indian waiter Samson, who did an excellent job both entertaining us and serving us on the cruise.  Even after all my bitching, he was cordial and friendly, and attentive.  After getting bad wine glasses the first night, he chased down a pair of nice red wine glasses for us for the rest of the cruise.  He taught several tricks to my son, and even after he received his gratuity, he sat down with us and shared a fair amount about his life in India and while aboard ship.  That was nice.  There is no way of saying the next part without sounding a little racist or xenophobic, so I'll just go ahead anyway.  The majority of the ship's personnel is made up of people who do not speak English as their first language.  This can be pretty interesting, Nolan for example learned a lot from a girl name Sonia, from Macedonia.  At other times, however, it can be work to communicate your needs to some staff.  Several times while at the roulette table I was unsure of whether I was receiving instruction or whether my dealer was trying to make small talk with me.  I had a few issues communicating with bartenders also, trying to communicate words like ice, double, tall, gin, tonic, and lime.  Not huge issues overall, but something to be aware of. 

     I had a variety of other complaints as well, but I think I will finish and total here.  I do have a comment about the amount of ship space and time dedicated to taking and hawking pictures to you.   Too much, and too expensive, for something anyone with a decent camera can do.  When I added up all the expenses on board, off board during the cruise, and pre-paid, the total for our family of four was around $6,000 or $1500 per person.  That's a lot of money to pay to be held captive on a ship with bad food.  2 things made it bearable.  First, the kids described it as their best vacation ever (they have low standards).  Second, I took $2,300 from the roulette table that wasn't mine to start with.  We spent the rest of the vacation at Deerfield Beach, near Boca Raton, and I was able to finally get some good food and reasonable drinks.  The last picture below is me out with my beautiful wife, content, well fed, happy, and with the right combination of tall, double, gin, ice, and lime in my hand (add contented sigh here).


Joel T Johnson said...

Glad I read this. We are thinking of a cruise some time in the future. I will be careful to research not let your disappointing cruise go to waste! Very entertaining, for us readers anyway.

Anonymous said...

I have two comments: Firstly, the cruise sucked most likely because I wasn't with you guys. ;]

Secondly, that last picture of you and Mom is a GREAT one! Love it!