Saturday, October 29, 2011

Our Last Cruise

We are going on a cruise next week, and I can already tell you, it will be the last one I go on.

I am taking a cruise on the largest cruise ship in the world, the Allure of the Seas.    Always a good idea to travel on the "largest" anything, like the Titanic or the Hindenburg.   This is for CLE credits for the Georgia Bar.  Yea, Doctors and Lawyers can go on swell vacations and then write it all off as "educational" or "client development".  It is a real scam of the tax code.  And in the past, I never went for these Hawaiian CLE conferences or whatever.   But I figured, just this once, why not?

But before we have even set foot on the boat, I can tell you that I am not likely to do so again.  And there are a number of reasons why.

As I noted in an earlier posting about cruises, the actual cost of a cruise has little or nothing to do with the stated price.  Expect to pay at least double, if not triple, the room rate before it is all said and done.  The come-on pricing on cruises is sort of the first thing that leaves a bad taste in your mouth.  This is not a "cheap floating vacation" by any means, but rather a very expensive trip.  You could sit on sandy beaches and have handsome waiters bring you cocktails in Ft. Lauderdale, for a lot less money that doing the same thing on a cruise ship.

However, we enjoyed a three-day cruise to the Bahamas, mostly because it was not a trip to the Bahamas, but a chance to sit on the beach in warm weather.    Cruise ships spend less than 12 hours in harbor in most places, so you have little time to see what the place is all about.  For example, we spent four days in our camper in St. John's, Newfoundland - and hardly explored the place.  The people arriving on the Holland American cruise ship while we were there, had hardly a few hours to see one or two tourist attractions.  You are not really traveling when cruising, just staying in a nice hotel that floats.  You are not really visiting exotic foreign locations at all - but rather parachuting into them for hours at a time.  And what you see is either a tourist trap or a t-shirt-shop.

What gets infuriating about such trips, though, is that it is hard to plan the trip or understand what is going on.  The Royal Caribbean website is layer upon layer of confusing HTML pages.  You log in, try to do something, and end up calling their 1-800 number for clarification.

For example, every time I log in, it says, "There is still time to check-in online!"  So I click the link and think to myself, "Gee, didn't I check in online last time?" and sure enough, it shows that I checked in.  So why does it keep bugging me - in alarming fonts - to complete this task?  We are told, ominously, that if we don't check-in online, it will take "hours" for us to check-in at the boat.

By the way, this is a strategy the cruise lines use to herd you like cattle.  Be sure to do X, otherwise, you'll have to deal with our horribly inefficient bureaucracy and be miserable.  Um, why not just not create miserable experiences for your guests in the first place?  Just a thought.

As I noted in my Actual Cost of a Cruise posting and related postings, there are so many "extras" you have to sign up for.  Do you want single beds or double beds?  Do you want a wine package? Water package?  Soda Package?  Fresh Air package (OK, the last is a joke).  Do you want to pre-pay your tips?  You'll get better service if you pre-pay your tips! (You will?  Are you saying the people are otherwise slackers?  And doesn't that go against the whole idea of tipping in the first place - tipping AFTER the service is done?

What time do you want to eat?  Do you want to try an extra-cost specialty restaurant?  What about a show?  Sorry, they're all booked up!

And of course, for each add-on, there is another confusing page to fill out and the vague feeling that you will not get what you asked for when you get onboard.  For example, the wine package thing - we got on the Monarch of the Seas and they say, "You didn't sign up for a wine package!" and I was damn glad I printed out the receipt on that.  But you can see how such "errors" on their part can end up getting you double- or triple-charged for services.

It is just such a freaking hassle, frankly.  And vacations should not be a freaking hassle.  Ordinarily, when I go on vacation, I go to a restaurant I want to go to, shop for food based on quality and price, and pick my wines from the wine list.  I don't have to pre-pay, pre-select, or pre-order - or figure out what time I want to have dinner, three weeks in advance.

Now, throw in a travel agent.  Since this trip was booked through the Georgia Bar, it was booked through a travel agent.  The agent is nice and tries to be helpful, but it is not clear to me what portions of the trip the agent handles and what I have to do.  Want to check-in online?  I have to do that.  Want to pre-pay the gratuity?  The Agent now handles that.  Want to order a wine package?  Back to the Royal Caribbean website.  Instead of making things EASIER, travel agents just add another layer of complexity to the deal - by putting yet another person in the loop, which as we all know, increases reliability and dependability in any human-based system.

So, we are going to stay in a floating hotel for seven days - with an occasional trip to the beach.  But what a hotel!  It has theaters and entertainment - the musical Chicago, for example (sorry, sold out!) or their great Circe Du Soleil type water spectacle (sorry, all sold out).  Or, you can eat at one of the extra-cost restaurants on the ship (Sorry, all sold out) or use "my time dining" to dine whenever you want (Sorry, available times are 5:30 or 9:45 only).

You are, of course, still free to shop in the gift shop or gamble in the Casino.  All you want.

The only saving grace will be that the room has a balcony, and room service is free.  So we can order meals and eat on the balcony and just enjoy some sun and good weather, and not be part of the feeding trough in the "all you can eat" lunch buffet.

But that drives home the angst and fear I have about the whole trip - and a vacation should not be about angst and fear.

So, we will enjoy ourselves and hope the line at check-in isn't three hours long, and that the room is properly made up in a king-sized bed and not doubles and I won't have to chase down a harried steward and ask him to change it.  And I hope I won't have to haggle with the steward over the water package we pre-ordered (like we had to, last time) or the waiter about the wine package (like we had to last time) and end up not seeing any of the shows (like last time), etc. etc. etc.

Because, if you go online, you will find plenty of websites with cruise trip horror stories, and very damned few about how great it all went.  And that is part of the problem right there.

For a lot of people, a cruise is a game - they complain about every damn thing and then ask for a discount or a credit.  Outside the cruise line terminals are huge billboards from law firms, asking you, "Did you get sick on your cruise?  Call the law firm of Dewey, Screwem and Howe!".  It is all about creating a system of arcane rules and then letting the consumers game the system so that they can feel they are getting a "deal" or something - and then regale their friends about the discounts they got.

Casinos work the same way, with their "comp'ed" rooms and meals.  And every gambler I know will bore you for hours about how they got a free plate of prime rib after blowing $200 at the blackjack table.  How can the Casinos afford this?  Volume!

Yea, right.

I'm afraid it is just another frequent-flyer miles credit card deal, all over again.  Distract you with discounts and all sorts of convoluted rules and gaming, so you don't look at the basic transaction - how much it costs and what you get.  And yea, the cruise lines all have frequent cruiser clubs, with special membership perks, like a membership lounge area.

And that is funny, right there.   On the last cruise, there was a membership lounge area, and although it was nice, it was, after all, just a lounge.  And yet the people in the "Crown and Anchor" club all flocked up there, so they could take advantage of this "upgrade" perk.  The part of the lounge not reserved for members was, tellingly, quite empty.  If you tell someone something is a special perk or bonus for the "elite status premiere members" they will flock to it, even it is just a pigsty full of shit.  People are funny that way.

And I guess that sums up cruising in a nutshell.  It is a convoluted game of arcane rules and tricks, and everyone onboard will bore you to tears about the "secret inside tip" to getting the best table, the best meal, the best drinks, or whatever.  "If you become a smart cruiser!" they chip, "You can get the best deals!"

Or, you could just not go at all, and get better deals doing something else.  Because these sorts of games are played from a stacked deck.  At best, you'll get value for your money - and think you got something extra.  But when the point of the game is playing the game, well, you've lost sight of the original goal.

And since Casinos, Cruise Lines and Frequent Flyer Miles credit cards are not about to change any of this, the only choice you have is to either waste a lot of your time trying to play a game where the house always wins - or chose not to go at all.

I suspect I will do the latter.  This will be my last cruise.  Next year, I'll get my CLE credits at Amelia Island.  It is only a short drive from here, I can bring the dog, and they have all the sandy beaches and unique restaurants you could want.  And golf.  And I'll just as much of Jamaica as I would have on a cruise ship - that is to say, none.

UPDATE:  The trip was worse than expected.   Never again!