by Lynn Holliday
December 26, 2004
The purpose of this review is both to provide details with respect to our very long and stressful trip from Toronto on Sunday December 26 to embark the Carnival Destiny at San Juan for a 10 p.m. departure and then to provide our feedback regarding the ship and the cruise experience itself.
Before I get into that rather long and unwieldy story, I would like to say that the Cruise itself was very enjoyable and relaxing. Our cabin (an aft corner with L shaped balcony) was exactly what we hoped it would be.
Overall, everything went well for us once onboard the ship.
Getting onboard the ship, however, was quite the test of endurance and perseverance for all of us.....
In advance, I apologize for the length of this review.. But, frankly, it was LONG day and we were in transit from 6:30 a.m. until 9:55 p.m. in our endeavour to board our ship for what was intended to be a relaxing family vacation.
We arrived at the American Airlines check-in around 7 a.m. Check-in and security went smoothly and we made our way directly to the gate to wait for our flight. We were scheduled to depart at 9:36 a.m. on AA #1561 to arrive Miami at 12:57 p.m.
All of our air arrangements for the cruise were made directly with Air Transat Cruise Vacations. Although I am aware that I could have found less expensive tickets from Toronto to San Juan, we felt it best to let Air Transit and Carnival make the arrangements since they would then bear full responsibility for getting us onboard the ship. I'm sure that passengers who make their own travel arrangements are "on their own" and not Carnival's responsibility if something goes awry with the arrangements along the way.
Sadly, things went very awry with OUR arrangements on departure day and Carnival provided us with no assistance whatsoever.
As we waited for our first flight of the day, we heard the gate agents many times call for volunteers to give up seats because the flight (on American Airlines) was oversold. Specifically they were looking for 8 seats and initially offered a US $250 travel voucher, meal voucher, and seats on the next available flight. Eventually they got the 8 seats they needed and began to board the aircraft. At this point I would guess we were 45 minutes late with boarding. I was somewhat concerned about our connection in Miami but not overly so since our connection was not too tight.
When the plane was pushed back from the gate, the cockpit announced that we would be going for de-icing (unsurprising since it was snowing lightly) before take-off. We proceeded to de-icing and probably spent about 20 minutes in total for this process.
The first really unusual event of the day occurred immediately following de-icing. For context, I will tell you that I am not truly a frequent flyer but I do generally fly 4-10 times a year with my children. In every one of those flights, I can remember the plane coming to a complete stop before going into the take-off roll. I am not certain what goes on up in the cockpit during this stop, but I've always assumed there are a few final pre-flight checks that happen at this point and usually I'm aware of increased sound from the engines as presumably the throttles are opened while brakes hold the plane stationary. In this particular flight, we literally came from de-icing onto the runway and accelerated into the take-off. In other words, we hit the runway running and then accelerated from there with no pause whatsoever. .
Now, I will fill in a bit of context here. My son Ryan is a certified computer technician and is experienced in building computers, networks, and websites. One of his major hobbies is to use flying simulation software and he has made some investments in this in terms of software and hardware. Of course this doesn't qualify him to fly anything "real", but it does mean that he has more than a rudimentary understanding of the process since to take-off, fly, and land even a virtual aircraft does require some skill and knowledge of the procedure.
In any event, at about the point in time where I would guess we were about a second from lift-off, there was a distinct change in the sound from the engines, the flaps came up, brakes came on, and it was instantly clear that the pilot(s) were now engaged in STOPPING the aircraft. When the aircraft (an MD-80 that Ryan commented "would be better employed with cargo" as he was rather surprised to find this aging aircraft servicing a busy route like Toronto - Miami) came to a stop at the end of the runway, the cockpit announcement indicated that only one of the two generators was functioning and that we could not leave the ground without 2 sources of electrical power. Therefore, it was back to the terminal for us.
While the plane taxied back to the gate, Ryan said, "Well, Mom, you've just experienced a Rejected Take Off". Only much later did I realize how unusual an event this is. Speaking with all of the frequent flyers in our office, many of whom have logged over 1,000 flights, I encountered no one who has experienced a RTO. Just as well that as it was occurring, I did not realize quite what a rare event it is to reject a take off.
By this time, I was becoming rather concerned about the possibility of missing our connection (AA 1099) in Miami and asked Ryan whether he thought this could be repaired or would we and our luggage be deplaned. His answer was, "There is another generator they can use, on the tail, but it requires fuel to run it. If they want to use it, they're going to need to add fuel before we can take off". Oh, to be a smug "I know everything" almost 17 year old! But sure enough, after about a 10 minute delay at the gate, the Cockpit announcement was to the effect that we would be able to proceed using this aircraft with a change of paperwork and the addition of 3,500 lbs of jet fuel. I hardly wanted to look at Ryan's "told ya so" expression, but in fact he was absolutely right.
By the time we took off, I would guess we were almost 2 hours behind schedule, more or less.
Lift-off this time was without incident and the flight proceeded normally to Miami. When we were about 2 hours into the flight, an announcement was made indicating that American had arranged for connecting passengers to be protected on later flights. For passengers connecting to San Juan, as we were, we were informed that arrangements had been made for us to be on the 3:38 p.m. flight and the gate number was provided. We were also advised that someone from American Airlines would meet the flight to provide additional direction.
Our seats were almost at the very rear of the aircraft and by the time we deplaned at Miami, there were no AA personnel anywhere to be found. We ran with our hand luggage to the nearest Departures board to see if there was indeed a 3:38 p.m. flight and that the gate information we had been provided in the announcement was correct. It was, so we headed off in that direction since we were about 1 hour until take-off of this flight.
Arriving at the gate for AA 2279, along with several other cruise passengers (cruising with various cruise lines, predominantly Princess), we were informed by the gate agent that he had heard nothing about our situation, had no record of our names, and that flight AA 2279 was oversold. Various among us (myself included) pointed out that our missed connection was due to technical problems and a rejected take-off in Toronto and that AA personnel onboard our aircraft had absolutely confirmed that we would fly on AA 2279. He didn't even look up or make eye contact during any of this time. Eventually 2 of us insisted that a supervisor be called. I did hear him page a supervisor, but no supervisor ever showed up.
When it became clear that this gentleman was not going to look at us or necessarily listen to us, I decided it was time to call Carnival. I remembered seeing a toll-free number in their booklet. Indeed, there was reference to calling this number "if you encounter the unexpected" so that their customer service people could assist.
I called the Carnival toll free number using a payphone about 30' from the gate agent's desk. The Carnival representative who came on the line listened to my story of where we were and how we had got there, asked for my booking number which I gave, and then asked me to confirm that I was physically in Miami airport at the gate of a flight soon to depart for San Juan. I confirmed all of this, whereupon this customer service representative said, "Ms. Holliday, frankly if you are at the gate then you are already better positioned than I am to deal with this. You're there and I'm not. I suggest that you go back to the gate agent and absolutely insist that you be issued a boarding pass for this flight".
With some surprise, I said, "Then what you are telling me, is there is nothing you can do to help and I'm on my own?" "I'm afraid that is just about the case", came the response. Another passenger from the Toronto flight who was also looking for assistance with this connection got pretty much the same response from Princess, or so I gather. There were also some RCI passengers from our flight trying to organize a new connection to San Juan but eventually I lost track of them and don't know how much assistance RCI provided to them.
After speaking with Carnival and being told they couldn't help, I decided not to waste time on the phone. By now, the boarding of flight AA 2279 was well underway and we didn't have boarding passes for it. Back to the gate agent I went and reiterated that we needed to be onboard this aircraft in order to connect with our ship. Again, the agent did not even look at me, but eventually just indicated to all of the cruise passengers who were waiting at his desk, "the aircraft is filled, I can issue no more boarding passes. There is another flight leaving for San Juan at 5:04 p.m. and I suggest you try to get on that." We watched as the door to the jetway closed and realized there was nothing further we could do at this gate.
Back to the departures board we went, only to discover we were about to have another geographic expedition to yet another terminal of the Miami Airport. Upon arrival at the appropriate gate, this time for AA 1299 departing 5:04 for 8:37 p.m. arrival in San Juan, we were again informed by the gate agent that the flight was full, that our names were nowhere to be found on the passenger list, and that she was doubtful she would be able to obtain seats for us. A second agent working at the same gate suggested to several passengers that they could be wait-listed for the 5:04 p.m. departure but issued boarding passes for the 7:36 p.m. flight .
It occurred to me at that point that if I accepted a boarding pass for a flight that arrived too late (11 p.m.) to connect with Destiny, American Airlines might feel they had done all they could while Carnival might feel we had made a poor decision and thus taken the responsibility for getting us to our ship out of their hands by our bad decision-making. With boarding of flight AA1299 already underway, I decided to leave Ryan at the gate agent's desk while again I tried to call Carnival from a pay phone.
This time when I got a customer service representative, I explained my situation, and indicated that we were standing at the gate of a flight leaving Miami for San Juan that would be the last flight to arrive in San Juan in time for us to embark the ship prior to its scheduled 10 p.m. departure. This service representative, at my request, located a supervisor (or manager?) by the name of Gloria. Gloria listened to the truncated version of the story and indicated that if I could give her 10 minutes, she had several telephone numbers of American Airlines managers and supervisors on the ground at Miami Airport she could contact to get an authorization for the necessary boarding passes. Since I did not have a way for her to call me, we agreed that I would call her back in 10 minutes.
Exactly 10 minutes later I called Gloria. At that time, she informed me that she had left voice messages on a variety of phone lines including cell phones, but not one person had returned her call. Therefore, she had nothing to offer me in the way of assistance. She said, "remind the gate agent that cruise passengers are supposed to get priority, go back and make your best flight, and do everything you can to get on board that aircraft before it goes. Otherwise, I imagine there will need to be a plan to charter a plane and get to St. Thomas to meet the ship while it is in port there". Since it was quite clear that again there was to be no help from Carnival, I decided to get off the phone and back to the gate agent as boarding of this flight was already well underway.
By this time I had been "in travel mode" since 6:30 in the morning and it was 4:40 in the afternoon. We had not been fed any meal on the Toronto-Miami flight and had been so busy running around the Miami airport trying to get a connection that we had not managed to connect with food or drink. I was certainly not willing to entertain the idea that we would either spend the night in Miami at an airport hotel, or in San Juan at an airport hotel, and then be AGAIN back in airports the following day looking for a ship in St. Thomas when we should already be snug in our cabins and sleeping soundly on that same ship.
Back to the gate agent I went and this time I was quite clear. "Carnival has informed me that absolutely you should give priority to cruise passengers. There are many of us here who are trying to get to San Juan and board ships that depart at 10 p.m. This aircraft that is leaving is the last one arriving prior to 10 p.m. (8:37 p.m.) and even then it will be tight. I'm sure that Carnival's agreement with American Airlines is that AA is to do everything necessary to get Carnival passengers onboard the ship before it sails. There will be no mistaking, when Carnival reviews today's events, that our missed connection was due to American's equipment malfunction in Toronto and then a domino effect from there. I am begging you .. I don't care if you put me in the lavatory and strap my children onto each wing, but we absolutely need to board this aircraft if we are to reach our ship in San Juan before its departure time. " All the time I was saying this, the gate agent was issuing boarding passes to waiting passengers who presumably were ticketed but not yet issued seats on AA 1299.
At about 4:55 p.m., the gate agent handed me 3 boarding passes. Ryan, Lisa and I were all over the aircraft (I was in the very back row, Ryan much further forward, and Lisa somewhere in the middle of the aircraft) but we were ON it! For the first time since our rejected take-off, I breathed a sigh of relief. Still, I remained somewhat concerned that Carnival probably did not know we had made it onto this flight at the very last minute, we had no way of knowing whether our luggage had also made it onto the flight (or had gone on the earlier one, or was going on a later one), and whether we could get our luggage, out of the terminal, transfer to the port, and embark before 10 p.m. was by no means a sure thing. But I did know for sure that being in the air at that point was MUCH better than not being in the air!
Once we arrived at the San Juan airport, things smoothed out somewhat. Our luggage had made it onto #1299 so we were able to claim it. And, for the first time, we saw a Carnival rep who pointed us in the direction for the terminal to pier transfer bus. Check-in went quite smoothly (since there were many agents but hardly any passengers to check in at that time of night) and we stepped onboard the ship just a few minutes before 10 p.m., stressed, exhausted, and starving.
Now to talk about the ship and the cruise itself.
We thought Destiny was a beautiful ship. Yes, it is a bit "Vegas-like" and there's no question it is absolutely huge .... but we found everything to be in good repair, nicely put together, and very attractive overall. Although sometimes there was a long walk between one point and another, with our frequent visits to the pizzeria and the ice cream machines, we needed the exercise!
All of the ports of call were terrific. We did most of our souvenir shopping in St. Thomas.Dominica, the only port we'd never visited previously, proved to be absolutely gorgeous and definitely deserves it's "nature island" title (I highly recommend the aerial tram in the rainforest). We had a wonderful day in Barbados as well, with highlights for my 17 and 12 year old being Harrison's Caves and the Wildlife Reserve where there is no separation between humans and animals, including the charming Barbados Green Monkeys. Aruba we know like the back of our hand (this was visit #14 for us, and usually we are there for weeks, not just for a day), so we spent the day at the beach. The opportunity to be in Aruba for New Year's Eve was my #1 reason for booking our cruise on Destiny. We had dinner off the ship at David's Place in Barbados (right on the water, gorgeous!) and at Amazonia (Brazilian BBQ at Palm Beach) in Aruba, and it was a nice change from the dining room fare.
The food on a couple of nights in the main dining room was a little disappointing, but not in a way that was really note-worthy. It actually was about on a par with the RCI cruise we did at the end of 2000, but not as good as our experience with Holland America the previous year. All 3 of us agreed that The Sun & Sea restaurant buffet at lunch was pretty awful, but the Grill, the New York Deli, and the Pizza stand (all separate from the main buffet) were just fine so we certainly never went short of food. The breakfast buffet at the same Sun & Sea restaurant was quite alright every day ... we could not figure out how breakfast could be good and lunches consistently so bad. Go figure. The soft serve frozen yogurt and ice cream machines were very problematic, mostly because we couldn't seem to stop our feet from trekking to these machines repeatedly. One afternoon my slim 12 year old daughter consumed 7 ice cream cones, a record, and I'm reasonably sure that she is hoping we'll install a soft serve machine in our home sometime soon.
The shows each night were entertaining and varied enough and the cruise director, Jorge, is absolutely a hoot. I gather he was previously a stand-up comedian for Carnival before he became Cruise Director, and it showed.
Disembarkation on Destiny was extremely slow and cumbersome, which was not unexpected, so we decided not to let it frustrate us. We had read a great deal about the subject on various on-line cruise reviews. The problem originates with Carnival's decision when their ships are designed not to provide access to/from the ship via the Jetways that are available at virtually all ports. Instead, embarkation and disembarkation is via a gang plank on the crew deck (zero deck) which means that you enter and exit the ship via the least impressive, smallest, and most crowded location possible. The rationale for this completely eludes me.
I'm not aware of any other cruise line that does this. The others all utilize the available Jetways and embarkation/disembarkation is normally via the main deck which makes for a wonderful first impression since this is always a beautiful area (usually an atrium) on these ships with plenty of space to handle the number of inbound or outbound passengers. Having the passengers embark and dissembark via a skinny gangplank onto the crew deck represents a major design flaw on Carnival's part. This is the least impressive and least spacious location they could have selected. At least we were aware of this issue prior to booking and therefore psyched up for it. It does make the disembarkation process needlessly and painfully slow.
I wonder why Carnival designs their ships in such a way that cruise terminal Jetways cannot be used? They need to get with the program on this one!
Our Millenium Cruise on the 'old' Holland America Westerdam still remains our cruising highlight (and I know that my son is eyeing the "new" Westerdam with considerable interest) .... but this cruise onboard Destiny was a good runner-up. We were especially pleased by the service levels in the dining room and with our cabin steward (Oliver). Oliver always had a warm smile and genuinely friendly greeting for us and he kept our cabin impeccably from the first day to the last.
The dining room menu had its shortcomings sometimes, and some of the dishes that seemed overly complicated were not especially well-executed by the kitchen. It might be worth considering less complex dishes but doing a better job with them. Nonetheless, any shortcomings were compensated by the very capable and friendly serviced we received each time we dined in the Galaxy Restaurant. Everyone seemed genuinely to want to please (not just going through the motions) and we felt they enjoyed what they do.
Although I recall having paid quite a lot for our RCI cruise back in December 2000, I would rank Enchantment at the back of the pack, at least for our family. The food on board never impressed us and the service, while professional, didn't seem especially caring. I felt that Carnival delivered quite reasonable value for the money paid and with a few tweaks here and there could probably achieve exceptional value. We plan to cruise again in 12-24 months and Carnival would be on my list of itineraries and ships to examine.