The Tales and Review from our Vacation
…A critique of the March 5, 2017 Sailing (not) to the Western Caribbean…
I’ll begin by saying this is one of the most difficult reviews I’ve ever composed. The time the review covers spans about 10 days with preluding injections outside of that window of service.
I started cruising about 17 years ago, and have cruised every few years since, generally on Carnival, but I’ve also enjoyed the services of Royal Caribbean. I’m familiar with the ins and outs, what to expect, what not to expect, and the general nature of unpredictability that cruising can bring; (unexpected weather, altered excursions, delays at port, etc. etc.). I cite this because these are all things I kept reminding myself of as what was our vacation evolved into a giant cluster of miss-handlings by Carnival Cruise.
Enter autumn 2016 – I’ve sold my partner on coming on a cruise for our first vacation together, my first vacation in 6 years and his in over a decade. The amazing food, changing ethnic tastes and flavors every day, fantastic drinks, comfortable cabins, spectacular shore excursions where you can taste the flavor of so many countries in the span of seven days – you name it. The stuff cruises are made of. I handed him the laptop and said pick the cruise of your dreams; and there we had it, one week at sea, off the grid, sailing the Western Caribbean on the Carnival Splendor visiting Cozumel, Belize, Honduras, and Grand Cayman.
Carnival’s idea of an inside sales rep is what they call a PVP or Personal Vacation Planer. Of course, I understand the concept of sales and commissions, but I also understand the concept of relationship building to bring the consumer back for future sales. After we booked our cruise we never again heard from our PVP, automated advertising ex-mails excluded. We even registered my partner for Carnival’s VIFP program and encountered an error associating his new number with our trip, and when asking for help, we never got a call or e-mail back from this individual. Frankly, the only thing I felt he was indeed good for was allowing for a reduced deposit. (We like to book early, then pay in full with holiday and year-end bonuses). Disappointment aside, I remembered how amazing the Carnival team was and just figured we’d get it done at check in or on-bard the ship.
Fast forward to 5 days before departure. I received an e-mail from Carnival stating that there has been a mechanical issue on the ship which affected the ships maximum cruise speed. They did not provide details, except that the current cruise was to be cut short so the vessel could return to Miami in time, and more details would be provided by ‘Friday at 6:00PM’.
Living in a cold and snow-prone region, I always leave and arrive in the port city early to ensure I’m ready on time. To add a fun twist to the vacation, we chose to take Amtrak into Miami. (We both love trains, and really wanted to avoid the stress and rushing of air travel; We had the vacation time to take, so it became a bit of a novelty for us to travel this way.
Approximately 7:30 Friday night the e-mail arrives and my heart sank. The mechanical issues were identified and our itinerary had been changed. We were now going to visit Nassau, Bahamas, and Freeport, Bahamas, sail around the Bahama Islands a few days and come home. Now me, a former airline employee, and my partner a live event manager, we certainly understand that ‘things’ happen. Carnival offered us a 50% refund on the cruise, and 50% off our next cruise (of equal or lesser value, of course) and each $100 on board credit.
Exit Mushroom Cloud of anger and disappointment; Enter Optimistic Outlook of 7 days in the Atlantic visiting places much warmer than home.
We arrive in Miami, overnight in an amazing Air B&B in Coconut Grove, enjoy a wonderful dinner and glass of wine for the evening and take Miami’s metro into the city and slowly make our way onto the ship the following morning.
Now remember back how we like to ‘book early’. Since Carnival offered guests 100% refunds and offered to even refund their airfare, we (correctly) assumed that there would be a handful of cancellations, it couldn’t hurt to call and see if there was perhaps a slightly upgraded room available now. – Speaking to a wonderfully pleasant Donna Mae in guest services: “Unfortunately we won’t know this until the day of departure, check in at the terminal when you arrive’
Upon arrival, we remained positive and optimistic; as were most of the other guests. It’s not what we ‘wanted’ but hey; worse things could have happened and we were all there to have fun. As instructed, we approached a wonderful ‘Miss Marilyn’ at the terminal counter, who repeated what Donna Mae said “Unfortunately we won’t know until departure time. When you get on board, check with Guest Services”. Okay – we can do that. On board we go, disheartened but still excited and ready to have some fun.
Embarkation, Great People, Riddled with Continuous Disappointment
Without question, the only saving grace of this cruise vacation was indeed the people. Even the staff, crew, performers and officers were genuinely nice and apologetic for the whole disaster that was (sadly) just starting to form. Nevertheless, we met, mingled, befriended, drank and were merry with our new, now Bahamian-bound friends.
Houston – we have our first problem!
As one might suspect, cruises book out in advance, often over a year in advance – for good reason! There are a lot of moving components to put together – yet another component of gratefulness that we had a (broken) ship to get on, and not just be told the entire vacation was canceled. The problem is with less than a week to plan, the shore excursion team was tightly limited on what they could arrange for available excursions with their vendors at our first port of call. So, imagine – Three Thousand some odd cruise passengers, and a very limited number of excursions. This cruise was originally scheduled for four different ports of call with only 2 days at sea, so saying the on-board crew was ill-prepared for all these passengers with virtually nothing to do is an understatement.
Dangerous Excursion = #EpicFail
We are both very well-traveled both domestically and abroad, so we absolutely understand the uncontrollable inevitable. Be it by flying, driving or cruise ship, all are affected by weather and in extreme conditions, there are times plans need to be adjusted because of that. While attempting to make the best our two days in Nassau, we managed to purchase a couple of excursions – the first went off without a hitch; spending the day at a private beach. Now, being a global traveler, one reason I would never actually book a cruise The Bahamas in late Winter is because I know the water is less than appealing for those of us looking for the warm, turquoise waters offered in the Western Caribbean this time of year… Digressing… our first excursion was a relaxing day off the (broken) ship.
Our second excursion was a bit of a different story, however. As a cold front came through, the winds and seas picked up, so much in fact the very same excursion before ours was cancelled due to sea conditions. In a desperate attempt to not lose revenue, they chose to not cancel ours and we ventured out to sea.
- What was scheduled to be a two-reef snorkel was reduced to one
- While sitting on the second deck of the catamaran, we were getting splashed with the ocean spray due to the seas being so rough;
- Perhaps most frightening, a small boy was trying to get back on the boat when it was over taken by waves and the boats ladder came crashing down on his head. As a personal testament, I attempted to snorkel in the cool waters, but became fatigued and unable to remain within a safe distance from the boat.
- The boat’s first mate became violently sea-sick and was unable to perform his duties.
- For the sake of safety, this excursion should have been canceled and refunded at the time when our experienced snorkelers (experienced defined by those with diving licenses and/or came equipped with their own professional equipment) came aboard as they were unable to safely participate.
Several of us took to guest services and the shore excursion desk to express our grievences, only to be told that we’d have to wait for a decision from the excursion provider as to whether to get our money back.
- Fast forward 3 days, we received a 50% refund on the excursion. Although grateful for what the excursion staff could negotiate for us, we were left wondering why we paid $32.50 each for a 3-mile boat ride.
What’s that out my window?
Honesty, I’m not sure! The deck and dining area windows were
so filthy with dirt and sea salt we couldn’t see through them. Now, of course – We are at sea, and that is to be expcted after a day or two at sea. The disheartening part of this was that while at port, there were three other ships docked, and we watched each of them get cleaned and power washed each day. As can be seen in the photo, our view was nothing more than smeared sea salt – Just disappointing!
So here is where I applaud the guest service folks on the ship itself. Look…. Things happen! We get it… and there you were, faced with 3,000 pissed off, displaced, unhappy campers, who regardless of your companies offering of 50% off are still somewhere they didn’t want to be! From the representation at the guest services counter, to the (mostly) amazing bar staff, to the housekeeping team – BRAVO. Never did I feel disrespected or unappreciated. I commend and applaud each one of you… in fact a few very special ones I felt deserved extra special recognition:
- Yada – Our morning bartender on Lido deck from Thailand. You were welcoming, happy, and pleasant every morning. You put time and ‘love’ into our Bloody Mary’s hand-crafting them with extra horseradish and spice. On a personal note, you also provided wonderful travel advice for us to come visit Thailand!
- Karen at the excursions desk. You saw and felt our fury and disappointment with the lack of excursions offered. We know how hard you worked while we were eńroute to our two stops to open new excursions and went to bat for us when we had safety concerns on the bad ones. To top it all off… after we disembarked, you spotted us in downtown Miami, and even made it a point to say hello and chat with us. For this we are grateful and thank you!
- Our waiter Alex. Although we only used the dining room once, that’s all it took for you to see us and remember us by name for the rest of the cruise. No matter where we were we’d hear a “Hello Chris and Adam” and you were there. Bravo!
All this said, coming from guests who not only are experienced cruisers, but professionally we are service providers and involved in live entertainment coordination, there were many shortcomings on behalf of Carnival as a company. I can’t complete this review with at the very least citing these in hopes other guests won’t be subject to similar failures.
- The guest services desk was dreadfully understaffed, often boasting a 60+ minute wait with only 1 or two positions staffed. Although that staffing may be ‘normal’ on a ‘normal’ sailing, this was not that at all. We feel Carnival should have overstaffed their guest counter and even placed guest service reps in the Deck 3 Lobby area to help answer and expedite guest concerns. There were on board concerns we just opted not to discuss because the lines were so long. We even caught a photo at times when the guest services desk was completely unstaffed!
- Miss-information: We purchased the Carnival Cheers beverage pass which includes your first 15 drinks per day in the price. One the second night of the cruise, we learned that you will not be served at all above and beyond the 15 drinks. Now, I understand everyone is different, and perhaps for younger sping-breakers who get out of bed at 3 or 4 in the afternoon this may be a ‘safety’ policy; however, for grown, mature adults who wake up at 5am, enjoy their coffee and a morning 4-ounce mimosa or bloody Mary, it’s very easy to use the allotted 15 drinks by dinner time. I took our concerns to Zulphia at Guest Services who advised it was the discretion of the bartender, then later to the bar director who stated it was ‘Captain’s Orders’ to enforce a 15 drink maximum for this particular sailing.
- My humble feedback is – I would have spent and enjoyed more had I just paid for my watered down sugary drinks – Most states in the US provide laws for overserving – and it places onus on the BARTENDER to watch for queues of when a guest may have had too much; to my knowledge no locality has ever enacted a maximum rule that punishes the entire population. We were so taken back by this audacious miscommunicated guideline, I’ve already sought legal counsel regarding the rights we should dispute the cost of the pass with VISA due to the inconsistent, unjust and ill-communicated policy.
On Board Services
On day two, we came back to an amazing surprise in our door! One of us has a birthday this month, and to our surprise our cabin team dropped us a $50 gift card for a Spa treatment to celebrate.
- We Opted for a mani/pedi and barber services. The Mani/Pedi were great and well-done, exactly what we asked for.
- Prior to our barber appointment, we specifically asked ‘Do you have a licensed barber on board” the Spa desk quickly assured us there was and we booked a men’s shave (priced at $95); the service was to include a trim, face shaving and two hot-towel treatments. Living in the city, we visit the barber almost weekly for a face shave with hot towels, generally you can expect to pay $20-$30 plus a 50% tip for a one-hour service. (We live and use this service in Boston mostly, however after checking with friends in Miami they pay a similar amount).
- The spa professional was NOT a licensed barber, the spa professional did NOT use a blade. In fact, the spa professional did nothing more than a hot towel, some department store shave cream and a mass-produced Gillette dual edge razor and was completely uneven on both sides of our face (Photos Attached).
Again, we understand the employees on board are highly limited as to what they can and can’t do but this is an audaciously overpriced, falsely promised, misrepresentation of professional services which absolutely cannot be overlooked and like many other failed services on board, should be refunded promptly.
What we all love about cruises – the Food!
Well, love it or hate it, you can’t cruise without gaining a few pounds, right? This was also true for this cruise; however, it comes with a bit of both good and bad critiquing!
- The dining room – I always opt for ‘Your time” dining to not be stuck to a schedule – it’s vacation after all right? We only opted for the traditional dining option twice.
- First night on board. We were split 50/50 on dinner itself. The food… not horrible, clearly heat-lamp heated for far too long. My memory seems to recall food being much fresher on past cruises.
- The second night we dined in, we were placed with mixed company at a general table due to lack of seating in the main dining room. Here we enjoyed an interesting dinner with folks from all around. One thing stuck out more than anything. This elder woman, a seasoned cruiser for sure (as noted by her diamond status on-board expense card) started gabbing with us. Remember how, during embarkation we were inquisitive as to available room upgrades? Well, as she so informed us, instead of offering concessions to the inconvenienced passengers, Carnival reached out to all their Florida-residing Diamond and Platinum guests and offered them the rooms that were cancelled due to the changed itinerary. That was nothing shy of a dagger to the heart of our hopes of good guest service.
- The Buffets – Oh, the buffets. Where you come, and watch the cattle herd in and forage until they just can’t hold anymore. There was a day in my younger years I would be one of those doing just that but not this time. Not because I was full, but because the food was ill-prepared and lacked any type of creativity. Traditionally when I’ve cruised I’ve enjoyed bountiful buffets of food from all different cultures and countries around the world. This time, we were literally presented with LEFT OVER UNUSED HOT DOGS FROM THE PREVIOUS DAY, SEASONED THEN TOLD TO BELIEVE THEY WERE BREAKFAST SAUSAGE. (See photos) I can’t make this stuff up folks. I stuck with the omelet my way, and the one consistent Tandoor Indian food bar to play it safe.
- 24-hour dining on a ship, right? Nope! Not the Splendor. There were several hours the buffets, burger bites and pizza stand were all closed, leaving us with soft-serve ice creams as the only option. This was truly the biggest disappointment of the on-board experience
- Pinnacle Steak House – The Saving Grace
- We just couldn’t handle the lack of good food one more day so we opted to treat ourselves to the premium steak house. While the service was a bit lack-luster
and rushed, the food was indeed to die for and we enjoyed every morsel. My only minor critique to this is that we wanted to enjoy dinner with our friends but were told there was no room for them at the time of reservation. To our surprise there were only a few couples dining and the room was relatively empty. As I noted, we also were rushed at the onset of dinner. Within 2
minutes of receiving a wine list, we were asked four times what we wanted to eat and drink. Not what we had in mind for a relaxing meal, but as I mentioned the quality and taste overcame all!
On Board Entertainment
Obviously, everyone ‘cruises’ for different reasons, some for the international flare of the excursions, some for the relaxing time in the sun, some for the on-board fun. Generally, ‘Days at sea’ are absolutely packed to the gills with events and functions to entertain. On this sailing, however, it was more like they kept the original on-board itinerary and zero additional thought into the concept that we were visiting undesirable ports with excursions we didn’t really want to participate in and offered virtually no on-board entertainment options. In my guest/customer service mind, I would have thought Carnival would have over-staffed this sailing with additional team members to offer constant on board entertainment – Not so much the case.
Finally: The Ship and It’s Maintenance
The saving grace on this ship was the comradery of the guests commiserating about the comical barrage of problems we’d had. There were great laughs to be had wit
h friends. Some good games of cards, some amazing laughs with new friends and lots of new friendships! All this aside we can’t help expressing some co
ncern about the care and maintenance Carnival performs on its vessels.
Earlier we discussed how we were the only ship in port that wasn’t clean, or being cleaned. Although cosmetic, we were the only vessel in port missing decal letters identifyin
g it! Of graver concern was the ‘maintenance’ issue the ship was undergoing that miss-routed us to begin with and landed us in their maintenance port in Freeport, Bahamas for two days.
Guests had good giggles, but valid concerns that the hot tubs that were working were more like ‘mild’ tubs and the jets were firing cold water. We confirmed this claim in the aft-right tub. The aft-left tub was ice cold and unusable for the first couple nights of the cruise. Small things such as flickering light bulbs were noted and joked about by guests but these are the things that go a long way in showing pride in ownership and develops rapport and patronage from guests.
As we disembark and begin traveling home, we must sit and think back about just how comical this ‘vacation’ was. We are forever grateful for the Carnival staff on board who gave it everything they had to keep us happy. There were many mishaps that were just out of their control. Overall, we were still away from work, away from the cold and drinking overly sweetened cocktails.
As we are grateful to have met so many new friends and have so many more vacations to spend with them! Hind side being 20/20, I’ve never been so happy to get off a ship, and I’ve never been so eager that I snuck into the premium line just to escape, but it is what it is. If I had to grade the entire experience, based on what we wanted to do vs. what we did, the food, drinks, and friends, I’d have to give it a D+ or weak C- at very best thanks to the amazing people and Carnival team members.
We have already started planning our next vacation and we are anxious to receive the small refund Carnival did offer.
Happy travels, and may you always find some fun and relaxation in your vacation, no matter how comical it may be!