Author Archives: eighteenknots

Planning Ahead

We were comparing cruise notes with some of our friends yesterday in our weekly virtual happy hour (these are strange times, indeed), and some of us have a cruise coming up in 204 days over Christmas and New Year’s. Our final payment is due in 84 days, in August. This would be our eleventh Christmas cruise, one of the longest, and the most expensive, by far.

I’ve never been this close to a final payment without knowing whether we were actually going to sail. I’ve never been this close to a final payment where my wife and I were both a bit ambivalent on whether we’re going. We’re both in a high-risk group for COVID-19 so it’s a bit stressful. My wife is the “hide under the bed until it’s perfectly safe” type, and I’m the “whatever happens, happens” type, so there will be interesting discussions to come.

I’m sure that if Norwegian cancels the cruise, it will be after final payment, so we’re going to have a lot of money invested before we find out if we’re really going to go.

Our cruise after the Christmas cruise is 348 days from now, from Galveston to the Panama Canal. This is a bucket-list cruise for me, and I’m actually concerned about a go/no-go on that one.

The cruise industry was hammered by COVID-19. I think time is showing that much of the original reaction to the virus was blown out of proportion, but a cruise ship is one of the few places on earth that any disease can spread rapidly.

It’s not the close quarters, although that doesn’t help. It’s the people.

My biggest concern is not the crew or the infrastructure or the updated safety and health procedures. It’s the other passengers.

A system is only as secure as its weakest part – and when you see the behavior of people during quarantine, and the behavior I’ve seen on my past cruises, I really doubt that everyone traveling on any cruise will actually follow the guidelines that are put in place.

As a stockholder, my fear is that some idiot will manage to travel sick, infect others onboard and that will be the end of cruising for good.

As a passenger, my fear is that some idiot will infect me.

If you wanted to start a cruise line today, unlike Sir Richard Branson (who managed to launch a cruise line in probably the worst possible year ever), I would not target millennials. I would target the traditional cruise audience – the ones who gave cruising a bad name – namely, the old farts, like me. They might actually follow the rules.

You can’t just make a cruise experience expensive to attempt to filter out the idiots. Watch any of the Below Deck charter boat “reality shows”. Travel in the Haven on Norwegian. Travel in the MSC Yacht Club. There are rich idiots everywhere, and many of them are very self-centered – which is a major issue.

I would have more liberal cancellation policies or just include basic insurance in the fare. One of the reasons people cruise sick is because they can’t afford to not go. Either they will lose their money (didn’t buy insurance) or they will lose their vacation (their jobs or managers or vacation policy are inflexible.)

I would include everything in the fare. If people start their journey by figuring out how to smuggle things onboard (like liquor), they are not in a mindset to follow rules.

I would go back to smaller ships. (It’s interesting that Norwegian’s next class of ships – Project Leonardo – will hold less passengers than their current Breakaway Plus class.) This would be a cruise line for people who enjoy traveling at sea, not visiting a floating resort. The smaller the crowd, the lower the likelihood that someone is sick.

I would try to avoid the over-commercialized ports (Nassau, Cozumel, St Thomas come to mind.) They have big ships calling there all the time, they’re very commercial, and many who have been on multiple cruises have been there multiple times. Plus, you want to avoid places where everyone else is going.

I would want to sail a series of routes, rather than the same route every week. For scheduling, I’m sure the same port every day of each week is the simplest, but it means that people start traveling for the ship, not the ports. (I’m pretty sure that traveling for the ship is what gave us megaships with slides and pools and go-karts and all the other toys that drive up the prices, take up space and are then not used by many of the passengers.)

I hope to sail again soon. We will see if the Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line actually starts sailing in July, and when the river cruises resume. Those are the test cases, since everyone else is looking at August or beyond.

I hope even more people realize that cruising is a wonderful way to spend a vacation. I hope they also realize you’re sharing space with a lot of other people, so we need to consider others and not just our own needs. (This, of course, seems an important lesson for people everywhere these days, not just people on cruises.)

Still Here, Still Stuck At Home

So, this has been a bad year – for everyone, but especially for the travel industry. I broke my foot and ankle in January, so we canceled our February anniversary cruise – our first on Royal Caribbean – and by the time we started considering a replacement, we were on lockdown. I’m still annoyed I wasn’t able to write about my first Royal Caribbean cruise.

The cruise industry has been vilified as the grand source of COVID-19, which is just ridiculous. If the virus originated in China (it did), it’s highly unlikely it traveled the world on a cruise ship. It took an international flight.

I will admit that any communicable disease will spread on a cruise ship. It will also spread in an airport, on a train, in a all-inclusive resort or a theme park. However, you can close an airport. You can close a theme park, even if you wait until after it’s obvious you should close down. A ship can be days away from port when the decision is made to end the cruise. There are still cruise ships who haven’t been able to port.

So, we’re waiting to see when cruises will begin again, especially since the date keeps moving. Carnival moved their restart date to August 1st earlier this week, so I won’t be surprised if the other majors do, as well.

My other concern is the amount of regulation that is forced on the industry by a government which is now power-crazed since it discovered it could make everyone stay home. If you can wipe out half the restaurant industry, why not sink all the cruise ships?

I’m beginning to think we may not make our Christmas cruise this year, which would suck because it’s a great itinerary, it’s Christmas and New Year’s in one cruise and we have a bunch of friends traveling with us. It would also break a twelve-year tradition. However, I’m really not sure anyone will be cruising by then, and I’m not really sure Norwegian will still be operating, at all. (Yes, I’m a pessimist, but there are multiple investor reports saying dump the cruise line stocks.)

Truth be told, I’m actually a bit concerned about our Panama Canal partial transit and that isn’t until May of 2021.

While I was having my personal pity party, I saw someone on social media saying the cruise lines shouldn’t get government assistance – when everyone else, including dead people are – because they “don’t hire Americans.”

That’s when I stopped and thought about the real victims of the “blame cruises” movement – the travel agents, call center people, back office teams, all the onboard staff and pretty much everyone in an Alaska port who just lost their entire 2020 season.

I’m a travel agent. Sure, I haven’t booked anyone but myself (and one was the anniversary cruise that was canceled – I’m glad I sold myself insurance), but I have the credentials. If anyone wants to book a cruise, I’m happy to help. There are certainly some deals out there.

The saddest part of all of this has been the stream of emails from all the cruise lines to their travel agents, which basically say, “Don’t panic!” However, if cruise sales is your primary business, you have to panic – you can’t sell something that doesn’t currently operate. Even with commissions held constant through 2021, you won’t earn anything if you’re not selling. If you’re in the travel industry in Alaska, you have to make enough from May to September to get you through the entire year. So, if you don’t make anything this summer, you’re going to be hurting until Summer of 2021.

So, the next time someone says cruise lines don’t hire Americans, just remember there may not be a high percentage of Americans onboard, but there are a lot onshore.

The Captain Theory

A Captain of a cruise ship is actually a senior manager of a line of business. Each ship has a profit and loss statement, many levels of middle managers and hundreds of staff. At the top, is the Captain.

The Captain usually has a Staff Captain (second in command) who runs the engineering (making the ship run) and a Hotel Director who runs the hotel (making the passengers happy.) The Captain is also responsible for the safe navigation of the ship.

That said, I have found there are two types of Captains on cruise ships – there are brand ambassadors who focus on the customers, and those like we had this week who are invisible to the customers and manage the staff and drive the ship.

This week, we finished a cruise on the MSC Divina, where we rarely saw the Captain. Most of the senior staff were invisible. It was not our best cruise. I can’t tell you the Captain’s name without going to look it up.

Also this week, USA Today announced the ten best cruise ships for families. The winner was MSC Seaside. We sailed on the Seaside in May. Captain DiPalma was at all the functions. He seemed to be everywhere. He recognized me at the second function we attended together. He came to the Cruise Critic Meet & Greet to offer a toast. We’re friends on Facebook now.

The ship is a reflection of the Captain. Captain DiPalma runs a happy ship. I believe that is one reason why MSC Seaside beat Disney and why MSC Divina is not anywhere on the list.

Many people always ask who the Cruise Director or Hotel Director on a ship is before they travel. You might also look at the top. The Captain is where the ship begins.

MSC Divina Summary

We were on MSC Divina for Christmas, with calls in San Juan, Tortola, St Maarten and Nassau. This was our second MSC cruise, having sailed on MSC Seaside in May. I started doing daily posts, and I still have my random notes, but the overall impression is more important than the daily details. This was a good cruise badly marred by missed expectations.

MSC Divina is a beautiful ship. The layout is a bit quirky but it is easy to get around. There are four elevator banks where many mega ships only have two. There are lots of bars, and they are spaced where the music from one doesn’t interfere with the music from the next. The buffet is large, with good selections. It is a large ship, and it will feel crowded. The customers will be much more European than other lines, and much more multi-lingual. If you’re used to hearing only English, this can be an issue.

We were in the Yacht Club (YC), which is MSC’s “ship within a ship” concept. When you look at MSC cruise ships and procedures, they borrow heavily from other lines. They’re building big ships like Royal, they were pricing like Carnival and the Yacht Club sounds a lot like Norwegian’s Haven. We have been in the Haven on four ships in three classes (Jewel, Epic and Breakaway class.) Yacht Club is not the Haven. It’s not even close.

I’ve asked some more experienced MSC cruisers for their thoughts on Facebook, and it doesn’t sound like it was us. It sounds like we may not have understood how MSC operates butI believe that is incumbent on them to explain as they enter a new market. I did get the tired “you’re American” excuse, but that’s my point – MSC wants to succeed in the US market, so treating us all like Europeans is going to fail. It did this week.

One common explanation of the service is that all MSC ships are run as individual business units, so there can be “inconsistencies”. I was told Yacht Club on other ships was better than on Divina. That is a lesson I wish I had known before the cruise. I am not interested in spending money and then find out, “Oh, that’s the bad ship.” This is enough to prevent me sailing in the Yacht Club in the future. Anything that may or may not be worth the money is not worth the risk.

Another common comment is that the service is “European”, not “American”, with the implication that Americans are very needy, demand constant attention, and all eat at McDonalds. Basically, we have no class. I’ve been to Europe. I know how service worked in Europe. This service was not to that level. Furthermore, if I am told that my needs will be met, then someone asking me within a few minutes of my arrival if I would like a drink is not unreasonable.

The reality for me is that Europeans are very defensive about “their” cruise line, and all complaints are reflected back on the speaker. “You Americans don’t understand.” “Americans are so high maintenance.” “Americans are too touchy-feely.” If Europeans want to spend twice the fare for worse service, that is their prerogative, but don’t tell me I’m needy just because I expect a drink in less than a half-hour in a bar that only serves five percent of the ship. All that place has is drinks. Where is mine?

Each evening, we would go into the Top Sail lounge (reserved for Yacht Club guests), find a table, and watch as butlers would serve other tables. After ten or fifteen minutes (or more), one would eventually ask if we wanted something. It should not be incumbent on me to go find someone to ask for service. If I go to the bar to get my own drink, magically appearing and offering to carry it to my table is not helpful. So, how does this work? Why did others get constant service?

When I finally went to the bar one night, a butler magically appeared and said she would bring the drinks to our table. That is half-assed service. Perhaps that is European service, but then tell me, “It’s like Panchos. You have to get everything yourself, but we’ll bring refills.”

One person on Facebook said that he would order drinks at the bar, and a butler would bring it to him. I finally started just sitting at the bar in the morning for coffee. If that’s the system, then somebody needs to say, up front, “Just order what you’d like at the bar, and we’ll bring it to you.” Otherwise, if I see a lounge with an empty bar, people sitting at tables with drinks, and waiters (“butlers”) wandering, I’m going to assume table service.

The interesting part of just sitting at the bar was watching the interactions of the bar staff and the butlers. The butlers who may fawn over customers can be rude to the bartenders. Caste system?

I was sitting at the bar one morning, finishing a double espresso, and one of the butlers noticed, and said, “Would you like another?” I said, “Yes”, and she turned and barked “Double espresso” to the bartender – who was standing in front of me. He brewed a double espresso, took it to her and she brought it to me — four seats down the bar. How is this any better service than I could have gotten on my own? Where is the true value add?

Some on Facebook said they always smiled, and they got good service. This implies that we are not friendly. Yes, we did smile. We did say, “Hello.” I tend to say “Howdy” to anyone I pass, just because I’ve had too many family members attend Texas A&M. Now, did we spend hours discussing the staffs’ wants and dreams? No, and I shouldn’t have to do so for a basic level of service. Nobody on the staff knew our names. We had to ask our “dedicated” butler twice for extra towels. We didn’t even see him until the second day and he said they were short-handed and he was doing extra cabins. This is not my problem.

In retrospect, that first meeting should have prepared me for the week. If the first thing you are told is basically, “Expect poor service”, it will come true.

On arrival in the room, Virginia noticed what looked like a bloodstain on one of the pillowcases. She mentioned it to the room steward who was suitably horrified and replaced it – with another stained pillowcase. Who is bleeding in the laundry? Who is doing quality control?

Muster Drill was more organized than on MSC Seaside, but still completely unorganized. We did manage to sign in this time, but then we were asked where our life jackets were. We haven’t had to bring life jackets to a drill in ten years or more. I asked if I should go get them, since Virginia’s back was bothering her, and was told, “If anyone asks, just tell them you haven’t been to the room yet.” We were not the only ones without life jackets, but it did mean we couldn’t giggle and take selfies putting them on while the emergency information was being reviewed. If MSC ever has an emergency, it will be catastrophic. If the staff can’t handle a crowd in a drill, how will they handle a crisis?

San Juan (our first port call) was a debacle because we arrived late, and it was an evening call to begin with. The Cruise Director let everybody off the ship at once and then they had to try to get the excursions people off – and that blocked the doors so thoroughly that YC (“priority”) passengers could not get out. Again, crowd control. While we were standing in a crew corridor looking at the mobs of humanity, the port was closed when a Celebrity ship arrived. We almost missed a 7:30pm dinner reservation at a restaurant five minutes from port. We arrived in port at 4pm.

If you are going to sell priority embarkation and disembarkation as a perk, then those people need to go first. You don’t call the entire ship at once, especially when you’re late coming into port and people were freaking out about making it to their excursions. This was not a Yacht Club issue, I think it was a Cruise Director issue.

For Tortola and St Maarten, we had MSC-booked excursions, so we met by the concierge desk and were lead in groups to our excursions. It’s nice but I can find my excursion. I heard one man complaining about having to wait for the butler when he could have been outside at his tour already.

We had a junior butler see us coming back in St Maarten and he did escort us around the lines and onto the ship, past the hordes. It was a short port day and everyone was getting on at once. That was helpful. Our “dedicated” butler was nowhere in sight. However, there was a dedicated gangway for YC, so we could have found it ourselves.

In Nassau, we walked over to Senor Frogs for lunch. As the conga line wandered by, a bartender squirted sour mix from a ketchup bottle in my mouth, and our waiter was trying to avoid everyone since he was on roller skates carrying a tray of drinks, I realized what had been missing all week: fun. The Yacht Club was not fun, it was formal – but unwritten formal. It was the formal like having your grandkids at your Mom’s house, and watching constantly to make sure they don’t break anything. I hate formal. The Yacht Club is a bunch of Europeans pretending to be royalty. That is not me. I like butlers and service and high tea, but I don’t need to pretend to be upper class on vacation. I need to relax.

The food In the Yacht Club private restaurant is decent but the menu is very limited. While it changes each day, it is generally “meat in sauce”, “fish in sauce”, “risotto or pasta”, and “vegetarian.” It can get old quickly. We did have the restaurant manager preparing pasta every evening as a “special”, but if you’re on a low-carb diet, it’s really not the best thing to eat (it was delicious.) The lunch and dinner menus were very similar.

One day, I really didn’t want generic meat in sauce for lunch again – plus we were by the pool, in gale-force winds. My wife noticed a butler clearing pizza from a table, so we asked if we could just have pizza delivered to the One Pool lounge. We were told “no.” That is a word I did not expect to hear in an area where all my needs are met. Someone else had pizza, why not us?

We asked another butler later in the lounge (to see if it was policy or just a lazy butler), and he said, if one got it, everyone would want it (can’t you make more pizza?), it’s a lounge, not for eating (but they serve snacks), management didn’t want it (blame someone off the ship.)

At that point, YC completely failed at its mission. I wanted something easily accessible, I asked for something, they said “No.”

We got our Voyagers Club Diamond gift (drawstring backpacks) but never got our chocolate ships. We asked the room steward who said they were only for certain guests. We said “we are those guests” and he said he would ask the butler. (How did he not know we were Diamond guests? Somebody brought us backpacks as “thank you gifts.”)

The butler blamed the cruise consultant. The butler brought us another set of backpacks with the explanation that the cruise consultant missed some people on the list and others had not received it either. The ships then arrived at 8:10am on debarkation day.

We needed cash the last morning, so I went to ask the concierge if there was an ATM active on board. I had the question half-out when her phone rang, and she started what sounded like a personal call and walked into the office and closed the door. There was no backup at the desk.

This was not even bad service. It was negative service. This was “you are not important to me at all.” We were not made to “feel special.” We had a good cruise ruined by missed expectations.

  • I expect to meet my “dedicated” butler before day two.
  • I expect “dedicated butler” means a person will check in on you and see if everything is going well, and if you need anything.
  • I expect “priority disembarkation” means “first” or at least “after organized excursions.”
  • I expect to walk into a lounge and have someone come to take an order – especially if they are delivering drinks to a table next to me.
  • I expect to have a question answered if I have started the conversation. I don’t mind having the question interrupted, but I don’t expect to have it replaced by another conversation.
  • I expect reasonable requests will be met.
  • I expect some joy on a Christmas cruise.

We stopped at one of the bars one night on the way back from dinner, since the couple playing were doing Beatles songs. We sat at the bar, ordered drinks, and the bartender looked at my card and said, “Hey! My name is Kevin, too!” and gave me an exploding fist-bump. That may have been the first time someone used my name all week. Also, he was friendly – and having fun. What’s wrong with the Yacht Club staff?

Our last night on the ship, we went to the Butcher’s Cut (the specialty steakhouse) for dinner, since we get a free dinner as one of our Diamond perks. Virginia looked at the wine list and couldn’t find the Pinot Noir we had been drinking. She does not like most wine, so finding one she liked had been a minor miracle. She asked the waiter if they had it, showed him the photo of the label, and he said, “I’ll get it for you.” He went to the Yacht Club restaurant, got a bottle, and served us. That is the level of service I expected all week in the Yacht Club.

The Yacht Club was a huge disappointment and personally I think a complete waste of money. We had a better cruise on MSC Seaside in the Fantastica experience because we didn’t have many expectations and those were met or exceeded – with the exception of the sharps container issues. We have been in the Haven on Norwegian and the Yacht Club is not even close. This Yacht Club staff couldn’t meet basic Norwegian crew standards.

Was it bad? No, we’re still alive, we’re fed, we’re rested. Was it good? No, the service wasn’t anywhere near the level of expectation or even my level of tolerance. Was it worth the money? No. Do I recommend it for Americans? No. Do I recommend it for anyone who wants excellent service? No.

MSC Divina – Day 2

Wow. This breakfast order did not look like this much on the card. Room service breakfast was served on time and everything was correct. It was tasty, as well. The salmon was on toast (not a bagel?) and there weren’t capers, but it was good and I usually don’t like salmon – except on a bagel. The meat tray was ham, turkey, salami and mortadella. The Egg McMuffin knock-off had a real poached egg and Hollandaise. Virginia said it was tasty but it needs to be served hotter than room service. The coffee was good.

The Cruise Critic Meet & Greet was fun but not very informative. We were a couple of minutes late, but people were milling about so I don’t think we missed anything. The free drink choices were Prosecco, non-alcoholic fruit punch or a vodka Martini. Day drinking at its finest.

Our cruise director ran the meeting – unlike the MSC Seaside, the Captain did not attend. Like the Seaside, the host spoke and did not introduce any of the other staff that attended. We then took a group photo, Virginia was asked to cut the cake (MSC always has a cake) and after everyone was served, the staff filed out.

So, no introductions, no little cards with contact info, just booze and cake.

We took most of the afternoon off since it was a sea day but windy enough to cancel a lot of outdoor events.

I did have a shave in the spa and managed to tour much of it trying to find the check-in desk. We will have to spend time there later since it is included with the Yacht Club.

This was the first formal (“elegant”) night so we had photos with the Captain. So, we now know he exists.

Portraits with the Captain were in the bar which is our muster station, so we knew how to get there.

We were early so we sat in the bar to listen to the music (Christmas songs, including “Christmas Time is Here”). The waitress came by with a tray of Prosecco, non-alcoholic fruit punch and Rum Sours. I had never heard of a Rum Sour. It was good. Virginia hated it.

After a minute, I realized everyone was being offered drinks. We were not in the Yacht Club. We were not asked for a card. We were given … free drinks. This was a first on any cruise and this is our 21st.

The formal night menu in Le Muse was disappointing – the entrees were two vegetarian selections and two seafood. The escargot appetizer was decent but I’ve had better (at Le Bistro, for example.) Virginia and I both had filets. I had Crepes Suzette for dessert because it’s not like you see that on a menu many places these days. It was excellent and saved the meal.

We stopped by the room to change and someone had delivered a box of macrons. To diabetics. Things are looking up.

Back to the Top Sail lounge for late night (for us, anyway.) Different singer, same pronunciations. Smooth jazz is not a way to keep people involved and if you have a singer performing with a prerecorded track, it’s watching professional karaoke.

The room service menu is really limited. We finally ordered pizza for a late-night snack. Room service options is one place Carnival kicks other lines’ asses. All you offer is three sandwiches or a couple of salads? Yes, I know we could go to the buffet, but on Seaside, the buffet after about 10pm was sandwiches and pizza.

Having the buffet open 22 hours a day is an MSC selling point. Having decent selections 22 hours a day would be even better.

The concierge handled our pizza order. The concierge this afternoon got my shave appointment. The one this morning told us how to traverse the ship most efficiently. So far, the concierge has been more useful than the butler, which is the same as the Norwegian Haven.

Time to see how the pizza is. My order was wrong but it looks good. It’s pizza, how bad can it be? (It was very tasty.)

We lose an hour tonight. Curse you, time zones!

MSC Divina – Day 1

I am behind on this and I’m not journaling as I was on the MSC Seaside, but this is our first time in the Yacht Club, and I hate long reviews, so I’ll write as we go. Edits as I’m corrected or remember more.

So, weirdness first. I’m writing this in the Top Sail lounge, the exclusive Yacht Club bar, it’s 9:15pm and there are a dozen people in here, at most. This I do not understand.

I’m getting ahead of myself.

Embarkation was smooth but we’re in the Yacht Club. That said, Miami cab drivers suck. Our cab driver would not take us to the pre-board tent for the Yacht Club and the cops directing traffic don’t want to admit there are two ways onto the ship. While it’s not directly MSC’s fault, if you tell your highest-paying guests they have a private doorway, you have to tell the ground staff there are two doors.

After I yelled at the cab driver, and Virginia and I both gave a lady cop death looks, we just got out in the middle of the street by the White Tent.

After that, embarkation was easy – although we didn’t have a private line for security, we just cut around most of the line and then went to the VIP room. It’s designed for people to wait, but we got to the port late for us, so there was no real waiting. We were lead onto the ship, showed how to use our door cards for priority elevator access (hit or miss), and lead to the Top Sail lounge.

After greetings, we went to our room. Deluxe Suite 15021 is just down the hall from the lounge, between the lounge and the exit to the elevators.

There are four banks of elevators. This is a much better design than Norweigan’s Breakaway class and MSC Seaside which have two. Why? People need to go up and down. A lot. Advantage, Divina.

The private restaurant is aft and all the cabins are forward. If you don’t mind walking on deck, you can get there on 15. If it looks like the sky is about to open and you’re in thirty knot winds, you have to go down, across and up. We would use deck seven to go across because there are lots of public areas on seven.

There are no room 17s or deck seventeen because 17 is an unlucky number for Italians. I have to find out why. 13 is unlucky because it was the number of people at the Last Supper. Italians probably also count the caterers.

Le Muse, the Yacht Club private restaurant is nice, it’s just on the opposite end of the ship from the cabins. The menu is a bit limited, but the food is tasty and the waiters are attentive. I do see how Americans who have no been beyond the borders might freak out because most of the choices at lunch were Continental. The classic menu has a filet but I could see getting tired of steak every day if you don’t know what any of the other dishes are.

Muster was chaotic but better than MSC Seaside. We managed to get signed in this time but we didn’t have our life jackets – and this is the first cruise since 2010 that they were required. Virginia was having back issues, so instead of going back to the room, we just said we hadn’t been to the room yet.

Muster on MSC is pointless. All is does is make people find their muster station once, which I suppose is useful information but nobody pays attention to anything else, and since it’s in four or five languages, it takes forever. So, we watched people take cell photos of each other in their life jackets, and then everyone left. If MSC ever has an emergency, people are dying.

This bothers me. I’m sure that the drill meets SOLAS requirements and I watch the video and read the info sheets, but they need a better system if they are trying to actually teach people what to do in an emergency.

Most of the afternoon was in the Top Sail lounge, watching the sail away. As it’s forward, it’s a great view. Plus, there weren’t many people there.

Dinner was back in Le Muse, the Yacht Club private restaurant. I had risotto which was amazing. It was “I think I’m going to cry” good. It was the kind of good that would make a Keto sister cheat.

We stopped by the lounge on the way back to the room and listened to the singer for way longer than we planned. All the singers we’ve heard have been good, but I’m pretty sure are English as a Second Language because they are singing syllables and not words, so every once in a while, it’s “What did she say?”

While I’m typing this, I heard “Just the Two of Us.” While I remember “we can make it if we try”, apparently some think it’s “we can Mack it if we try.” Who is Mack?

The first night was a woman with an acoustic who managed to do “Here Comes the Sun”, “Bad Moon Rising” and “Wish You Were Here” (Pink Floyd by request) in one set. That will be hard to beat.

We went to bed when we realized we had to be functional by 10am for the Cruise Critic Meet & Greet. Since it takes us forever to get out of the room in the morning, we need some leeway.

Virginia put out a card for room service breakfast.

As I was falling asleep, I realized I had not been asked for my card for anything since we boarded. We had drinks in the bar, wine with dinner and more drinks and except for opening the cabin door (and powering the lights), nobody had asked to see my card.

We did have photos taken but it’s not an automated system yet, so they don’t take your card or cabin number. The photos are on the wall. The ones that have you in them are yours. I thought Virginia was going to ask how to tell which photos were hers, but she caught herself.

The wind is up and it’s a very bumpy cruise. Otherwise, a good first day.

Side notes: the butlers are not fawning over us. I’m a bit relieved since I don’t like hovering but I’m wondering about some of the reviews we saw.

One of our pillowcases seemed to have a spot on it. No big deal. It looked like blood. Now it’s a big deal. Virginia told the room steward who showed the proper amount of horror and quickly replaced it. Later that night, there was another one. So, either someone is marking pillow cases with nail polish or there’s a hemophiliac in Laundry.

The Sharps container was requested and immediately brought to the room when we arrived so the Seaside Sharps chase was averted. Guest Services called on day two to make we had received it.

The minibar was restocked with sodas I will drink since it’s included with the room.

This us our first cruise trying to limit carbs. That removes virtually every “island” drink. The struggle is real.

Confusion

Apparently, there is such a thing as too many cruises scheduled. This may not be the first time we’ve had this many cruises scheduled, and we have twenty under our belts, but I know it is the first time with this many cruises on this many lines. I’m getting confused.

When we decided to branch out from Norwegian, we did so with a vengeance. We now have four cruises on four lines in the next two years. After a certain point, keeping all the ports and ships straight is difficult, even with TripIt.

This year’s Christmas cruise is on the MSC Divina, in the Yacht Club. This will be our first non-Norwegian Christmas cruise ever (it’s our 11th Christmas cruise.) This was the year we finally price-compared and discovered Norwegian is very proud of their product. While staying loyal and being Platinum Plus are great, MSC status-matched us to Diamond level in their program and the Yacht Club was not much more expensive than a Norwegian balcony. Consider that for a second. A ship within a ship, with private bar, restaurant, pool, butler and concierge was only slightly more than an aft balcony. So, time to switch.

This cruise would create all sorts of planning because it was supposed to be our first MSC cruise. However, as some of you remember, we went on the MSC Seaside at the beginning of the summer to protect our status-matched Diamond (then Black) status, so now it’s our second MSC cruise and we’re not that panicked about it. (We probably should be.)

This will be our first cruise on the Divina, and our first in the Yacht Club. Even though we are in the Yacht Club, we received an invitation to upgrade. The lowest-priced choice was an Executive suite, which has a panoramic view. I’m pretty sure this means ocean-view or window. I’m not sure balcony people would give up a balcony for a bit more space.

Our second scheduled cruise is our third anniversary cruise (third cruise for one of our anniversaries), and our first cruise on Royal Caribbean. We really didn’t mean to make a tradition of anniversary cruises, but we had a vow renewal by the Captain for our 15th, and went with friends for their anniversary last year, since their anniversary is on Valentine’s Day (very romantic) and ours is on February 11 (it was a Friday), so when our 20th was approaching, we decided to try something new by sailing Royal Caribbean (going to ports we’ve visited many times.)

Never get married in February. It’s so close to Christmas that planning cruises for both tend to get intertwined. If the two cruises were on the same line, I’d be completely lost by now, instead of just confused. It also means your final payment is due just about the time you’re buying Christmas presents. Sorry, family.

We will be sailing on the Liberty of the Seas, departing out of Galveston, which means we can drive to the port. We saw the ship once, when we were taking a dolphin cruise around Galveston. The dolphins like surfing by the large ships. Galveston is the closest port to us, so we can drive pretty easily. The hotels are expensive, but not much worse than Miami, and the driving costs are enough less than flying to cover it. Plus, you don’t have to fly.

The only problem with Galveston is that most of the cruises from there go to the same Western Caribbean destinations: a port in Jamaica, Grand Cayman and Cozumel. Sometimes, Costa Maya. They are all fun ports, but we’re really going to see what Royal is like.

Christmas 2020 is already planned because we got invited to join some of our friends on their Christmas cruise. (Since we joined them on their Anniversary cruise last year and everyone survived, we thought it would work.) This will be on the Norwegian Pearl, which is thankfully not a megaship, and a ship we have sailed and enjoyed before. (I prefer her sister ship, the Norwegian Jade, but I will take any of the Jewel class over most other Norwegian ships.) It’s also a two-week cruise over Christmas and New Year’s, which is great for vacation, and also means we will see some islands we don’t get to visit often. Here’s hoping the itinerary doesn’t get changed in the meantime.

In May 2021, we’re going to do a partial transit of the Panama Canal on the Carnival Radiance. This is the third time we’ve scheduled a Panama Canal voyage, but I think we may actually make it this time. It’s a partial transit, so we round-trip from Galveston (one plus), and it also means you skip all the ports on the west coast of Mexico (a major plus, since Virginia has no interest and to me, those ports just add days that I don’t want to spend vacation on.)

Here’s why I think we’ll actually go this time:

  • It’s a partial transit. We will traverse the Gatun Locks to get into Gatun Lake, but that’s it. So, we’re not going from sea to shining sea, but we’re doing a 90-foot change in altitude while going through the lock. As a bonus, we’ll sail back through the lock that evening.
  • It’s much cheaper than other Canal trips we’ve booked. Part of this is because it’s a partial transit, but mostly this is because it’s on Carnival. Even with the spa balcony we booked, it’s still much cheaper than the least-expensive Norwegian transit we had ever booked.
  • Carnival Radiance will be almost a new ship. The Carnival Victory is going into dry dock this year and emerging as the Carnival Radiance.
  • We sail from Galveston. For some reason, the eight hours of so of round-trip driving time on I-45 is much less stressful than flying to Florida.

Now, we just have to double-check the excursions, to make sure all our ports are covered.

Planning Ahead – Comparing Prices

It’s been a busy few weeks around here, so please excuse the lack of posts (and follow on Facebook for other information), but I finally stopped to take a breath and realized how many cruises we have planned. I think it may be a record for us – four cruises on four cruise lines in the next couple of years (yes, we plan ahead…. a lot.)

Christmas 2019 is our first sailing on the MSC Divina. It was supposed to be our first sailing on MSC, but we had to go earlier to preserve our Black Diamond status. (See our MSC Seaside journey.) We are in the Yacht Club, their ship within a ship, because even though it is expensive, it was pretty much the same as a Norwegian balcony. (Yes, I think Norwegian is a wee bit overpriced lately.) It will be interesting to compare the Yacht Club service to the Haven on Norwegian.

February 2020 is our 20th wedding anniversary and we decided it was time to try Royal Caribbean, so we’re off on the Liberty of the Seas. This is our first Royal Caribbean sailing, and it’s sailing from Galveston, so we can just drive to the port. The itinerary is the “standard” Western Caribbean, so we’re not really going for the ports, we’re going for the ship. We will be in Cozumel for our anniversary, so I will be broke when I return.

Christmas 2020 is back to Norwegian and 14 days on the Norwegian Pearl. This should be a fun cruise, since we’ve done a similar Southern Caribbean itinerary before, and we’re sailing with friends. Plus, who doesn’t like Christmas and New Years on the same ship?

Then, in May 2021 – which may be the furthest out we’ve ever had a cruise booked (we can’t even check in online for over a year) – is a partial transit of the Panama Canal on the Carnival Radiance. This is a bucket list item for me, and our second Carnival Cruise. It will be an “almost new” ship experience, as the Carnival Victory is going into drydock and coming out as the Carnival Radiance in 2020.

I wondered about the differentials in cost between the lines – we could never find a Royal Caribbean cruise where I was willing to pay what seemed a premium – so I thought I would look at the per-day pricing. After all, a cruise ship is a floating hotel, so a cabin is just a room. How much does your room cost?

CruiseEmbarkDestinationLengthCabin Rate Per DayTotal Price Per DayNotesHoliday
MSC DivinaMiamiWestern Caribbean7 days$575$660Yacht ClubChristmas
Liberty of the SeasGalvestonWestern Caribbean7 days$408$378Balcony
Norwegian PearlMiamiSouthern Caribbean14 days$521$619Handicap BalconyChristmas + New Year’s
Carnival RadianceGalvestonPanama Canal9 days$278$394Handicap Spa Balcony

All these numbers are for two people. To try to get close to “apples to apples”, I excluded all the extra charges I could (we usually pre-pay gratuities and accept insurance) and any discounts, and used the base “cabin” fee from the invoice. I should note the Canal cruise has really high port fees. The total column is what we paid for the two of us, divided by the number of nights.

We know that MSC is trying to grow their US market, and their prices have gone up recently, but the Yacht Club over Christmas this year is about the same as Norwegian’s balcony over Christmas next year. (We’re actually in the Yacht Club because the price was not that much more than the price for a Norwegian balcony this year.) Perhaps Norwegian is a bit proud of their product? (This is why we have four cruises on four different cruise lines, instead of four Norwegian cruises.)

Hurricanes and Contracts

I’m writing this because it’s happening again. Hurricane Dorian is in the Atlantic heading towards Florida the Carolinas. PortMiami is on alert. Cruises are being rescheduled. Ports are being changed. So, the torches and pitchforks are coming out on the cruise line discussion groups.
Hurricane Season is June until November each year in the Atlantic. Many cruisers may not know there’s an actual season, and that it happens every year. These are the people who just think cruises seem to be cheaper this time of year.
Hurricanes are the cruise lines’ worst nightmare. One hurricane can disrupt multiple ships and can close ports long after they’re gone (look at the ports damaged by Irma and Maria in 2017, many of which are still rebuilding). While the cruise lines scramble to reroute ships, they get to deal with thousands of outraged passengers.
Why are they outraged? Not only because their cruise was delayed or rerouted. It because they assume they’re getting refunds because their cruise is delayed or rerouted. This is the time of year when people finally read their cruise contracts. Unfortunately, it’s usually after they’ve been told their cruise was changed or canceled.
I already talked about cruise insurance. Just get it. It’s important. It’s really important during hurricane season. However, much like reading a cruise contract, you need to know what your policy covers. Here’s why: cruise lines hate canceling cruises. It’s much easier to reschedule or reroute it, because then it sailed. So, if they reroute you, there’s no claim – unless your policy covers it. If the new route skips the only port you really wanted to visit (why didn’t you just go there?), there’s no claim – unless your policy covers it. If you decide not to go, it’s not covered unless you have a cancel for any reason policy.
So, read your policy.
If you want to know why you need cruise insurance, and understand what it covers, read your cruise contract. Then, when you’re incensed at your cruise line of choice, read another line’s. There’re probably very similar. Here’s an example, with some [embedded comments]:
[Cruise Line] may change the duration and/or itinerary of the cruise at any time. [This isn’t even in the fine print. This one sentence is really all you need to know. However, a lawyer wrote it, so let’s continue.] The Vessel shall be entitled to leave and enter ports with or without pilots or tugs, to tow and assist other vessels in any circumstances, to return to or enter any port at the Master’s discretion and for any purpose, and to deviate in any direction or for any purpose from the direct or usual course, and to omit or change any or all port calls, arrival or departure times, with or without notice, for any reason whatsoever, including but not limited to safety, security, adverse weather, hurricanes, tornadoes, strikes, tides, hostilities, civil unrest, port closings, emergency debarkations of Guests or crew, late air, sea, car or motor coach departures or arrivals, mechanical breakdowns, US or foreign governmental advisories or travel warnings, all such deviations being considered as forming part of and included in the proposed voyage. [In case you didn’t understand the short version, this was the long one. This is still not fine print.] Except as provided in Clause 7(c) with regard to early termination of a voyage, [Cruise Line] shall have no liability for any compensation or other damages in such circumstances for any change in itinerary, ports of call, ports of embarkation and debarkation, and/or or duration of the cruise, other than as provided by [Cruise Line]’s change of itinerary policy at the time Guest or his agent acknowledges receipt and acceptance of the terms and conditions of the cruise ticket contract. [Basically, “no refunds.” You acknowledged receipt when you blindly clicked through on the website. You don’t read software licenses either, do you?] [Cruise Line]’s change of itinerary policy can be found at on [Cruise Line]’s Website or at [Cruise Line]’s FAQ page. [Actually, the link fails, but it really can’t say much to undo everything here.]
That’s only one clause in the contract! (Clause 7C says the only time there’s a refund is if the cruise is completely canceled. Leaving late, coming back early, going to different ports? That’s not canceled.)
However, if you don’t read (and understand) the contract, and your seven-day Eastern Caribbean cruise becomes a six-day Western Caribbean cruise, or your Christmas cruise doesn’t go to any of the originally scheduled ports, you really don’t have much ground to stand on. You signed the contract when you ordered the cruise. Well, you clicked through.
If you don’t agree to the contract, don’t cruise that line. However, again, all the cruise lines have contracts that say pretty much the same thing.
I’m not saying don’t complain. I’m saying two things. First, when you’re bitching about your changed cruise, take a minute to remember our Caribbean friends. You had a vacation trip that wasn’t what you planned. They may have lost their house and their livelihood. Get some perspective.
I’m also saying when you complain on social media about the cruise line that “done you wrong”, don’t be surprised by the amount of people that have no sympathy.
Those are the people that read the cruise contract. Probably after their cruise was rescheduled last year.