Monday, June 2, 2014

Dissecting Online Reviews

Are online consumer opinion sites worth anything?   Not really.

 I found this posting as a "draft" from a few years back.   We had been on the Monarch of the Seas for a three-day cruise.   My ultimate conclusion about cruises (after taking a seven-day trip on the Hubris of the Seas) was that they are overpriced and not really all that much fun.

I am not a big fan of cruises, as you know.   But I was amazed at some of the "opinions" offered that seemed, well, kind of ridiculous.   Perhaps they were reverse-shills by the cruise line (offer criticisms so bizarre that they discredit all criticisms?

When I went on an Epinions site to see how other people liked it, I was surprised how petulent some of the reviewers were.

We planned on motoring our own boat on this same trip, a few years ago.  But at 28 feet, crossing the Gulf stream and going 200 miles to the Bahamas seemed a little scary, even though a lot of friends of ours have done it.

Royal Caribbean uses their oldest boats for these three-day cruises - the ones they are getting ready to retire.  The Monarch of the Seas was the oldest boat in their fleet at the time, and has since been retired and replaced with the next-oldest boat in the fleet.   That is how they can offer $299 cruises.

After the cruise, I went online and posted a fairly neutral and what I thought was a fair review.  What I thought was odd, were the number of bizarre reviews, where people complained about the oddest things.

Anyway, here was my dissection of the reviews.

The newest review was two years old and it seems that a lot must have changed at Royal Caribbean - for the better - since some of these reviewers wrote their reviews.  We had just returned from a three-day cruise from Port Canaveral, to Nassau, Bahamas, to Coco Cay, Bahamas and then back to Port Canaveral.

I can say that nearly all of the negative things mentioned have either been corrected or perhaps were a bit overblown.

The Monarch of the Seas was launched in 1991 and has been refit since then.  It is an older boat, but well-maintained (Note:  Now since retired).  As an older boat, there are relatively few balcony rooms, but for a short cruise like this - where  most of the daylight time is spent in port, I am not sure a balcony is really necessary.  For a longer cruise, I would definitely get one, though.

I have some specific comments on some negative remarks in earlier reviews:
"The guests, all of us, were herded into the the boarding building like cattle, refused information and stood/sat/laid there like stranded travelers. This lasted three hours. We started boarding 4 hours late.   Once on, the ship smelled like chlorine and no one would explain what happened. The ship, continued to smell the whole time. No one knew why despite questioning."
I would suspect you arrived after an outbreak of the dreaded Norovirus, which plagued many cruise ships several years ago.  Read the book "Cruise Ship Confidential" which is a narrative by a Carnival employee about his experiences "below decks".  Once an outbreak like that occurs, they have to spend hours sanitizing the ship - every hand goes around with buckets of Clorox and water, wiping down every surface on the ship.  They do take your health seriously, and the Norovirus was giving the cruise business a big black eye.

I have to say that the ship today was very vigilant about sanitation - there were sanitizing stations everywhere and signs encouraging people to wash frequently.  Many doors opened automatically, eliminating the need to touch surfaces.  I was pleasantly surprised to see most children embracing the sanitizing stations - these are apparently plentiful in schools these days, and kids love them.  We avoided touching surfaces, if possible, just to be safe, and we washed our hands often and had no problems.

Others, of course, were less careful.   That is how these Norovirus outbreaks occur.

The Port Canaveral facilities, by the way, are very new, clean, and well organized.  We arrived by car, parked in the garage ($15 a day, under cover) took our own bags with us (rather than checking them) and about an hour later, we were in our stateroom.  The line for security took about 30 minutes, but everyone was in good humor.  The x-ray machine broke down just as we arrived, but they immediately switched over to the backup machine without delaying the line even a minute.  Check-in was painless and quick, but we did get our SeaPass in order online, a week before arriving, which made things much faster.
"On the day of departure, we were made to exit our cabins by 8:00 a.m. and we then told to report to any public area of the ship and wait for our flight to be called. Two and a half hours later we were herded to a bus, dropped at the airport and had to wait another four and a half hours for our 3:00 p.m. flight out (again poor scheduling on the part of Royal Caribbean). There must be a better way to end the cruise than in this manner."
If you pack your own bags and don't mind carrying them yourself, you can just walk off the ship in the morning, get in your car and leave.  If you set up your SeaPass to bill to your credit card, all your bar charges and extra charges will be done automatically and there is no need to stand in line at the service desk.  An itemized bill was sent to our stateroom the night before and was accurate (yes, I save receipts).

From the time we left the stateroom to the time we drove off the property was about 20 minutes.

If you are taking a shuttle bus to the airport, then you will likely have to wait longer for your fellow passengers and for the bus to leave.  That is the nature of the beast.  If you want to arrange your own transportation (flight, etc.) you can do so and arrive by taxi and depart by taxi, and thus keep your own schedule with less herding.

By the way, the reason they need you out of your cabin and packed so early is that they have to clean all of the cabins and have them ready for new customers, that very same afternoon.  Cruise ships don't sit in port for days on end, they flip them around in hours.  
"The ship that was clearly outdated (built in 1991,) was overcrowded and smelled of urine. That's right, you heard me. It was so disgusting. The pools were old and looked of fungus. We all had decided upon booking our cruise that each couple would go for a standard state room without a porthole (who looks out a small window anyway, and we won't be in our cabin much anyway. The room was as small as a shoebox! We tried to upgrade the next day to a larger room, but it seemed as though everyone else that had a standard room had the same idea, and all the suites were taken. We should have acted FAST"
As with anything else, it pays to do research first.  I checked out the Complete guide to cruising & cruise ships 2010 from my local library before booking the cruise.  Ships of this age have few balcony rooms and they are booked long before the voyage.  Upgrades are offered first to "diamond" members, so there is little chance that a first-timer will get an upgraded cabin.

Ship's cabins are small, period.  You are on a boat.  You cannot expect them to be the size of a hotel room on shore - that is not realistic.  You can view pictures of the cabin, as well as layouts, on the Royal Caribbean website - which I did.  It was, to me, larger than expected.  If you travel in Europe or especially Japan, you would be pleasantly surprised at the size of the rooms.  By the way, the author above booked the cheapest room possible - what did she expect?

As for odd smells, I did not notice any, other than the first night when perhaps there was some slight diesel smell on the upper decks.  Definitely not 'urine' and I didn't notice any 'fungus' in the pools.  Perhaps the pools have been remodeled since her voyage? (Maybe they confused Chlorox or Ammonia cleaners for "urine" smell?)

"First, we were charged a full fare for our 11 month old daughter (and told that is the only way Royal Carribean did it) and given a 2 person room that was not big enough to put an extra cot, crib, etc in, which the reservation agent told us they certainly could do. We never met the room attendant, and he did not clean the room well - trash that was on our closet floor when we got there was still there when we left. The customer service people on the ship were not helpful at all - questions would be answered with "there's pamphlets over there" and point to a stack of brochures and leaflets. On one occasion I told them the literature did not mention shuffleboard and I wanted to know where the game was. They told me they no longer had shuffleboard on this ship.

 I found out 2 days later during a walk of the ship that they did. I asked a different agent which programs would be best for my 11 month old daughter. They told me that they didn't have a program for her, that the programs started at age 3. Turns out they do have one, but I missed 2 days of activities by the time I found out about it. When I asked them about this their response was - oh, well I don't know about those programs - you should have asked the people that work with the kids. Small children are also not allowed in any of the pools which limits activities even more. Next: great food and buffets at any time - not on this ship. The pizza/burger place is always open, but the pizza is awful and I didn't go on a cruise to eat burgers.

Midnight buffets? Only on 1 night and that is by the pool with all the drunk revelers - if you wanted a quiet sit down, you had better have eaten earlier. Our waiter in the formal dining room all but ignored us (probably because we were not ordering copious amounts of alcohol like his other tables) and service was slow. The one highlight to it all was our assistant waiter who actually exceeded our expectations. Andreas from Lithuania was remarkable. As for ambiance: the pool deck smelled like cat urine and when you first enter the buffet room it smells like the sewer backed up. I haven mentioned the 7am cabin departure on the last day - you have to have all your bags packed and in the hall by midnight.
I'll leave you with a couple positives - quality of food in the buffet was ok, but it was great in the formal dining room (DON'T get on a second service however since dining is a 3 hour event and you will miss all the evening activities - insist on a first meal service). The rock climbing wall was a blast, and the comedian was very funny"

Yes, the comedian was funny, although we only caught his act on the in-room TV as we dined late and missed most of the shows.  But taking an 11-month baby on a cruise?  (who the hell takes an 11-month old baby on a cruise for chrissakes?)   I would suggest against it.  A friend of mine recently came to visit with a very young baby, and she had a horrible time.  Traveling with children that age is just a bad idea, period.

The ship had a lot of youth programs and minders to watch your kids while you and the misses go out and get snockered and perhaps re-live the wedding night.  The children are all given wrist bands and there are special programs and even a teen-and-tween disco for them.  I  hate kids, personally, which is why I liked this aspect of the voyage - I rarely saw them.  But I would suggest that you wait until a kid is at least 6 or 7 before taking them on a cruise.  It is like taking a baby to Disney world - they aren't going to appreciate or remember any of it, and in fact, will likely be very unhappy and cry a lot.

I am not sure why you say the buffet was no good and then say it was of good quality, that the wait service stank, but that you liked your waiter.  The buffet is not my cup of tea - people milling about for food.  The food there was mediocre at best, but with the way the cruise was laid out, only one meal (lunch on Saturday) was really required there.

I do agree that the food is not "all the time" although you can get room service at any time of the day (some charges apply after midnight).  My biggest gripe there was the food and the alcohol were often at opposite ends of the ship, or so it seemed.  Want an hors d'ouvres with your martini?  Ain't happening.  Want a cheese tray with your wine?  Ain't happening.  Want a pretzel with your beer?  Ain't happening.  Food is at POINT A and alcohol is at POINT B, and this encourages drinking on an empty stomach, which  is a bad idea.

Customer service was OK, but if you ask a person for information that they don't have, or perhaps if they don't understand your question, they give vague, evasive answers, instead of saying "I don't know".  I spent a LOT OF TIME before the voyage researching everything and reading up on things, so I wouldn't be in the situation of being constantly bewildered, and this helped.

But in ANY customer service situation, you have to remember that if the person you are asking is not empowered to help you, they can't help you, no matter what you say to them.
"So, off to the buffet (think really bad Denny's) for the first of many meals here. BLECH. This is a meat lovers paradise but if you’re a vegetarian like me, there’s so little to choose from and finding out what does and doesn’t have meat products in it is impossible. The few foods that were labeled had names but no ingredients and time after time no one serving knew what they were preparing. The tables were dirty and sticky, the food and drinks were serve-yourself, and the few attendants on duty were not in a hurry to end their personal conversations between themselves and help us. Thinking that this would be our only meal here I did my best to figure out if the mashed potatoes were made with milk or chicken broth (never did find out) or if the potato salad had bacon in it. Ok, I know they don’t get a lot of vegetarians, but what about people with food allergies? A simple label with ingredients would be great"
They must have read your review!  There were at least two vegetarian options on the dinner menu every night (marked) and one of them was Indian every night.  A spicy Vindaloo?  Hardly.  The food was good, but not very spicy, which I expected (having read reviews and being realistic that my food tastes are not the norm in America).  Food service was excellent and prompt.  And if you require a special diet, as our neighbors at an adjacent table did (strict Kosher) they will try to accommodate you, although their food came wrapped in plastic.

The food to me, was a pleasant surprise, in the dinning room.  The service was great and we bought the Diamond wine package, and had a bottle of wine every night and a bottle of champagne with breakfast.  OK, so it was Korbel, but still, it was OK for making Mimosas.

Room Service is always an option if you don't want to get into the lunch Darwinism of the buffet line - and many people opted for that, judging by the number of trays in the hall after lunch.  Room service is free.
"We went back to our cabin, and after being on board for nearly three hours, there was still no sign of our luggage. A quick call to the customer service desk inquiring about our luggage yielded no results. I spoke to a young woman who sounded aloof and unconcerned about my concerns. Our luggage finally arrived minutes before dinner so that we could quickly change into our dining clothes. A couple we dined with wasn't so lucky; they didn't receive their luggage until midnight.
While we paid for and expected a three day cruise, what we really got was a two day cruise. The first day of the cruise was completely wasted time. None of the shops, casino, or other activities were available until well after we'd left port. The only open venues were the lounges. This made for an awful lot of drunken passengers by the time evening rolled around. At dinner, a woman seated next to us was slovenly drunk. After dinner, I witnessed two separate couples who were obviously intoxicated having screaming matches. Still later, we had to walk carefully through a hallway to avoid a large amount of vomit on the floor. In another hallway, we had to walk carefully yet again to avoid a young woman who couldn't seem to pick herself up from the floor" 
These are some valid complaints.  We brought our luggage on board specifically because of this Epinions complaint.  Our cabin was on deck 3 and the boat loads on deck 4, so carrying our suitcase (a vintage leather suitcase that does not have wheels on it, thank you) was no big chore.  Some suitcases were already in front of cabins when we arrived, others did not arrive until later in the evening - it takes time to load luggage for 2000 passengers or more.

Similarly, we ordered a water package ($48 for 12 bottles, it did come in handy, particularly for shore excursions) and it did not arrive until 9PM, and only after two phone calls.  I realized later on why the staff was lackadaisical about my concerns - they have a lot to do and they WILL get to it, but only in due course.

If you can carry on your luggage (it is only a 3-day cruise!) I recommend doing so.

Your comment about alcohol being served with NO FOOD is valid, too.  If you are going to serve drinks, you should offer small food items - not a buffet or anything, but some sort of hors d-ovres, chips, or something.  Only the Viking lounge offered anything - hurricane glasses with trail mix, which would be a bummer if you have nut allergies.

It pisses me off when people treat alcohol like heroin - roping off areas of consumption as if they were opium dens.  A glass of wine is more enjoyable when served with food.  A cocktail is fun when served with hors d'ouvres.  Beer tastes better with some salty snacks.  Royal Caribbean seems to think that we should consume alcohol on an empty stomach and then go eat two hours later.  It is a bad idea.

On the third night, we got the right idea, ordered a cheese tray sent to our room and a bottle of wine and enjoyed a nice wine-and-cheese before dinner.  Too bad they can't do that in the bar or on deck!

We did not see any drunken passengers on-board or the scenes of debauchery you mentioned.  In fact, I suspect they pace the service such that it is hard to get too plastered.  Whether it is a line at a bar or a wait for a service person, it forces you to pace out your drinking.

As for the venues, the casino and duty-free shops cannot open until you are three miles off shore.  They have no control over that.
"In July, my wife and I went on the Monarch, and to begin with, they lost our luggage when we debarked. To make matters even worse, they only offer $300 for lost luggage and in order to get that you'd probably spend that much on long distance phone calls."
Again, for a three-day cruise, it is not that hard to carry your bags to your room and avoid these kind of hassles.  Like with the airlines, your ticket limits the amount they have to reimburse you for lost luggage.  There are a few of these style complaints here on this board (one person saying they had a coach bag worth $600).  So know this beforehand.  And realistically, is your luggage really worth more than $300?  Mine isn't.

And who pays for long distance phone calls anymore?   Everyone has unlimited long distance these days!
"The first unpleasant experience occurred when we went to our room for the first time and tried to board the elevators that we were rudely told were for luggage only. This was the first of many such comments that rubbed me the wrong way."
The cargo elevator is for luggage, and immediately after leaving port, they are very busy loading luggage.  Avoid the elevators, if possible, unless you are handicapped. We got great exercise on the trip using the stairs, and also walking the deck.
"Later that evening after we assembled in our Muster Stations (station # 10 is inside one of the lounges, and it was much more comfortable than standing in the south Florida humidity with a life-jacket around your neck)"
Life-jackets are not required for lifeboat drill.  And by the way, please be sure to show up on time.  They won't dismiss everyone until EVERYONE shows up.  So if you think you are being cute by staying in your cabin and avoiding the drill, think again - you are just pissing off 2000 people.  Show up and get it over with, it is International Law.
"One last thing I wish to comment about before wrapping this up was our fellow passengers aboard the ship. There may not be a way to describe this without offending some people, but the overall “class” of the clients aboard this Royal Caribbean cruise wasn’t quite what I expected. Given, I was on spring break..."
I would never, ever go on a spring break cruise, as it would be rowdy - unless I was a rowdy college kid myself.  A lot of people go on a cruise to have fun (as odd as that might seem) and you can't ask them to stop going "Yahoo!" because you don't like it.  There are plenty of different activities on the ship for people of all temperaments.  Yes, some sartorial choices seemed quite odd, but then again, that's America for you.

So my take on the cruise?  Time on the beach at Atlantis and Coco Cay were fun - warm Caribbean sun and lots of cold beer and relaxing.  The ship was interesting - it is a boat, not a hotel, and the cabins are not going to be huge.

Of course, one could simply fly to the Bahamas and stay at a beach resort, for a lot less money.

* * * 

The three-day cruise was OK.   Our 7-day cruise was much less fun, as we were crowded onto a ship with over 6,000 people (!!!) and it was more like a cattle car.  And it becomes a game, trying to get your money's worth on a cruise, which is hardly a relaxing way to spend a vacation.

But frankly, the "solution" to the problems with cruising is not to whine and complain about them, but just don't go if you don't like the experience.

Some folks go on multiple cruises every years - dozens of them, over a lifetime, which often cost thousands of dollars apiece.   These are the people who complain and whine the loudest - as to them, going on vacation is all about spending money and then complaining for a refund.

We may go on a repositioning cruise next year - which crosses the Atlantic during the change of seasons, from Florida to the Mediterranean.   It is not for the faint of heart!   Seven days at sea with no sign of land!

But it is funny, these "online reviews" sometimes seem ridiclous.  People bring infants on a cruise and wonder why they are not having a good time.  

I guess it is the same old thing - unrealistic expectations.   People want something-for-nothing and expect a $199 cruise to have Filet Mignon every night and champagne served free of charge in their rooms every evening.

Yes, there are cruises that do that.   They charge a lot more than $199.