Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Hubris of the Seas

Is the world's largest cruise ship too large?

"I thought when you went on a cruise, it was supposed to be so relaxing and they wait on you hand and foot!" a friend of mine remarked.  "Don't you just sit back in a lounge chair and they bring you tropical drinks?"

I hadn't really thought of it that way, but that really is supposed to be how a cruise should work, right?  But in reality, it is nothing like that.  And aboard the Allure of the Seas, it is anything but.  The ship is so big, and the staff so few that you have to fight to get a table, fight to get your food, fight to get a drink, and then fight with the customer service to make sure the bill is right.

Rather than being a relaxing vacation, it is more akin to struggling through a crowded shopping mall on Black Friday, trying to get the last "Tickle-Me Elmo" doll for your niece.  Bring Pepper Spray - or better yet, a taser!

And that is the ambiance of the place - a floating shopping mall, quite literally.  Stores and retail opportunities abound, and almost everything you do includes a spending opportunity.  And since everything you do involves paying using a magnetically encoded card, buying anything is a major hassle.  A waiter has to disappear with your card, run it though a machine, and then return with paper slips for you to sign.  Often, this take 15 minutes or more.  Apparently the wireless credit card terminal, so popular in Europe, is unknown to them.

Of course, this assumes that you can even find a waiter half the time.  Every time you order a drink, there is a 15% mandatory added gratuity added in.  Of course, this is not a "gratuity" if it is mandatory.  Rather, it is a commission that the wait staff works on, and the more drinks they "sell" the more money they make.  So, rather than wait on people, the wait staff tries to take as many orders as possible - often for five to ten people at a time, and then make one trip to the bar, returning with dozens of drinks at a time.  This can take 15-20 minutes or more.  It improves their efficiency and their commission rates, but it means you are not really being waited on, so much as you are being served en masse.

The magnetic cards sound like they would be easy to use and painless.  But again, since the waiter has to swipe these one at a time (and one some terminals, manually enter data!) it takes forever.  If they are serving several drink orders at once, it can take a very long time.  And as they do multiple drink orders like this, there is every opportunity for someone Else's drink order to end up on your bill, as happened to me.

So, you have to go to customer service every day and print out a list of your charges and compare it to your pocketful of receipts and invariably, there is a discrepancy.  You have to watch them like hawks, and this is not a way to have a relaxing, fun time.

And unfortunately, every aspect of cruising on Royal Caribbean is not a very relaxing or enjoyable experience.  As I noted earlier, their website is a nightmare of confusing and slow-loading HTML pages.  If you are on a group tour and/or use a travel agent, it gets even worse, as you cannot access half the data, and/or have to deal with three different customer service groups - the main one, the group one, and your travel agent.

And guess what? They play the old game of finger-pointed at each other.  "Oh, you'll have to talk to the groups section" the customer service rep coos.  So you call them and they say, "You need to talk to your travel agent!"   And of course the travel agent, who is making bubkis on this, says, "Go to the Royal Caribbean website!" - but of course, the website is problematic, so you call customer service.  Repeat ad infinitum.

After two cruises with Royal Caribbean, I have decided that cruising is not my bag. But rather than complain about it, I would rather like to offer some practical suggestions for anyone going on this boat - or indeed any other.
1. Do NOT pre-pay gratuities. There are so many restaurants on this ship, you may find, as we did, that you end up not using the main dining room at all. Tipping a head waiter, a waiter, and an assistant waiter than you never used, makes no sense at all. Since you don't know ahead of time where you will eat, tipping ahead of time makes no sense - if it ever did! Of course, if you do not pre-pay the gratuities, you don't qualify for "My Time Dining" - but that is no great loss, as you should...

2. Avoid "My Time Dining" - as another reviewer noted, it is a fiasco. You end up eating basically at about one of the same fixed times anyway, after waiting in line. And while you are waiting in line, other cruisers will cut in front of you, arguing that as "gold members" they don't have to wait, or whatever. It is unpleasant. The lines are not well marked and it is, well, very much like being in a cattle yard. The dining room was very large and noisy. The good news is, there are so many other dining choices - Samabas, the Sushi bar, and Windjammers, for example, the latter of which had far better food than the dining room and was FREE - and was far less crowded.

3. Get an OUTSIDE STATE ROOM. This was the best part of the cruise - the outside staterooms are large and comfortable (compared to say, the Monarch of the Seas inside Staterooms) and the best time we had was just sitting on our balcony, watching the ocean and enjoying a glass of wine and room service. We are boating people, not cruise people, and the outside balcony was as close as you can get to boating, other than walking the cramped promenade deck. The inside balcony staterooms are noisy, and you have a view of someone else's stateroom and central park or the aqua theater. The entire cruise, I saw barely 1 or 2 people using their inside balconies, whereas I could look over the side of the ship and see dozens of people using the outside ones. RC promotes the inside staterooms as they are harder to sell. But they are very noisy - particularly in the rear, where the aqua shows and midnight movies will force you to close your curtains all the time. BTW, the vaunted "loft" suites all face the rear and provide no great views. Save your money there and get an outside suite, if you want a suite. Better view and quieter and more private.

4. Get off the boat - even an inexpensive shore excursion can be fun. At Cozumel, we went to Playa Mia, and for $29, sat on the beach and had free drinks handed to us for several hours, and a nice, inexpensive Mexican lunch. That was what I was looking for! Labadee is the same way, although you have to pay for drinks. I did not go ashore in Jamaica, but wish I did! Many folks never leave the boat, which is akin to staying in a shopping mall for seven days. Ugh!

5. Ask your stateroom attendant to REMOVE all the mini-bar materials and return them after you leave. It was an ongoing battle with customer service over this - as they kept claiming I was using the mini-bar (bottled water) when I wasn't. I bought the bottled water package (a case of water) and wine package, and cleaned out the mini-bar, put all that junk in a drawer, and filled the fridge with water and wine. The stateroom attendant or whoever saw this and erroneously assumed we can consumed items from the mini-bar. It was a hassle, and vacations should not be a hassle.
Mini-bars are cheesy and low-rent, in my opinion. But that is just me. Really high-end hotels don't have them. But casinos and wanna-be hotels use them. And I think their revenue stream is in charging people for things they DIDN'T consumer and assuming that most people won't check or contest the charges.

Modern cruising is not about visiting exotic destinations.  Rather, it is like staying in a fancy Marriott hotel, and waking up, every other day, in a different place, with mere hours to "explore" that place.  Needless to say, you don't really get a chance to explore a foreign port, if all you have is a few hours to do so.

Kelly's take on cruises - from The Onion.

So, if spending a week locked in a hotel sounds like fun to you - then by all means, go on a cruise.  If spending a week in a shopping mall in Paramus, New Jersey is your cup ' tea, then man-o-man, is the Allure of the Seas the boat for you!  If being trapped with 6,000 pushy strangers sounds like a fun time, you will have a ball!

To me, however, it seems that you could actually go somewhere for a week, sit on a beautiful beach an be waited on, hand and foot, for a lot less money, and no chance of sea sickness.  But maybe that's just me.

Like I said, I am not a cruise person, and seven days on the "Hubris of the Seas" convinced me of this. But if you do decide to go, the five items above would be my suggestions - for what its worth! Good Luck! 

UPDATE:  Royal Carribean decided that having the two largest cruise ships wasn't enough and launched an even larger one.   Bigger is not better and in fact, is horrific.  I think the new ship is called Norovirus of the Seas.