by Jonathan Jay Gibian
January 3, 2004
Sailing on the same cruise ship for the second time can be the most interesting of experiences or most boring. My partner and I experienced both aboard Celebrity Cruise Inc.'s GTS Infinity on its Jan. 4, 2004, Panama Canal sailing from San Diego to Fort Lauderdale.
Our first time aboard Infinity was in January 2003. That cruise achieved infamy when the ship's port engine failed en route from Fort Lauderdale to San Diego, and the cruise ended abruptly in Acapulco. Chaos ensued, due mainly to incompetent Celebrity staffers who were led by befuddled executives from Miami. Indeed, Celebrity's procedures could easily have passed as a Monty Python parody of modern business practices. (See my review of that cruise for details).
Nevertheless, GTS (Gas Turbine Ship) Infinity has twice seduced us and we've even booked a third trip aboard the ship for January 2005! But it is not Celebrity we find attractive, as much as it is the itineraries Infinity offers, and the magnificent vessel itself.
We've found Panama Canal transits well neigh irresistible, mainly because of the Canal's uniquely rich history, sights and sounds -- and also because nearly half of Infinity's 14-day cruise is spent at sea.
We've grown tired of Caribbean ports in general. Many are filthy, most are packed with other tourists, and some sport rather high crime rates. So we now seek itineraries offering many at-sea days.
The Infinity, itself, is a giant gem, with the functional and wonderfully inviting deck plan shared by Celebrity's Millennium-class ships (Constellation, Summit, Millennium and Infinity). The differences among these ships are mainly the names of public areas, interior colors, and the selection of (usually startlingly poor) works of art.
But what we (and many others we met during the cruise) found so completely unacceptable was the thoughtless and uncaring "guest relations" offered by Celebrity. I'll go into more detail as this review progresses, but it has now become apparent to us that Celebrity does not offer the same attention to passenger satisfaction as do other lines. And since I've detailed such shortcomings in other reviews, as well as reading of similar incidents in other people's Celebrity experiences, I find it remarkable that Celebrity's executives choose to make no changes.
Enough generalities; let's get to the specifics of our adventures during Infinity's January 3, 2004, Panama Canal journey.
After a wonderful New Year's Eve in Chicago, we left about noon January 1 and drove, non-stop, to Fort Lauderdale. Although that might sound to some a horrific journey, it was rather pleasant. Granted, it's a chancy trip that time of year, but we encountered no snow or ice, and just two brief rain showers. We took turns driving and arrived in Fort Lauderdale mid-afternoon Jan. 2.
The plan was to leave the car garaged at a friend's home in nearby Delray Beach and then fly to San Diego on Jan. 3, stay overnight, and board Infinity at mid-day Jan. 4. We then would have the car at our disposal when the cruise ended in Fort Lauderdale. That was the plan. It worked well.
We've found arriving at least one day prior to a sailing the best way to cruise. Such an arrangement effectively eliminates much of the stress involved in hurrying from home and then flying, sometimes across the nation (while all the time hoping to avoid weather, security or other delays), to arrive in time to board the ship.
One more pre-cruise note: If you ever find yourself in San Diego wishing an extraordinary meal, I highly recommend the restaurant at the Islandia Hyatt Hotel -- the restaurant is cleverly named the Islandia. I take a moment to mention it because of its good service, magnificently prepared food and unusual surroundings. That dining experience put us in a superb state of mind for the start of our voyage aboard Infinity.
A first-time cruiser approaching the port by automobile could be excused for initially mistaking the ship for a large office building. You look, and then you look again, but it's only with a conscious effort that you realize what you are gazing at is a sea-going vessel! The Infinity really is a miracle of physics and engineering. It is the final expression of thousands of design, financing, and manufacturing decisions. To approach it is an experience of awe and wonder.
Boarding her was swift and pleasant. We arrived by taxi at the pier about 11 a.m. and, after only a short wait, were allowed on the ship. . A white-gloved crewman, although seemingly bored with his turnaround day duties, cordially escorted us to our aft-facing cabin.
I find the first couple of hours aboard a cruise ship enjoyable, albeit hectic. First there's the task of meeting our room steward and informing him of the specific arrangements we desire.
Then there's the trip to the purser's desk (on Celebrity it's euphemistically entitled Guest Relations) to make sure any discounts have been correctly entered on our account and to inquire as to where the maitre d' is holding court. And, of course, there's the visit to the specialty restaurant to make reservations -- usually for the second formal night of the cruise.
All three trips, I've found, are important and an integral part of the excitement of the journey's beginning. All too often appropriate billing credits (such as those for early booking or submitting frequent traveler coupons) don't make their way to one's account and those types of situations are best resolved before the ship sails.
The maitre d' meeting is essential: I want to know what table we've been assigned and where it is located. My "cruise tips" list provides more details about table location and specialty restaurant reservations.
When we entered the cabin we found a white formal envelope on the bed. Inside it was a card announcing Celebrity wished to extend to us a $100 shipboard credit as a "Bon Voyage Gift" with "thoughts for a wonderful cruise."
We were not just pleased with the shipboard credit; we were flabbergasted that Celebrity would make the gesture. We had previously found Celebrity most wanting in its guest relations and, therefore, we were enormously impressed by the gesture. It turned out we were just enormously naïve.
Following the aborted January 2003 cruise -- and after numerous telephone calls and exchanges of snail mail and e-mail with Celebrity officials obviously not a bit interested in us -- we had received a call in July (Yes, July! And isn't that, in itself, a powerful communication?) from Terri Montenegro, Celebrity's director of passenger relations. She offered us a $150 shipboard credit as partial compensation for "the significant problems" we encountered at the end of the 2003 cruise.
However, when I arrived at the guest relations desk on this cruise to verify the credits that should have been on our account, I was rather impatiently told the $100 credit announcement contained in that white envelope wasn't really a Bon Voyage gift as the card said, but, rather, merely a "partial receipt" of the $150 credit awarded to us six months previously.
Well, I countered, a card offering a "Bon Voyage gift" is obviously not a receipt. Even more preposterous, I said, was the assertion that the card was a "partial receipt." What's the other part? But my comment served only to cue the peevish response delivered in a patronizing tone of voice that the gift wasn't really a gift, and she was so sorry I misunderstood.
Now I would have thought any major company -- especially a cruise line whose "product" is supposed to be an extraordinarily pleasant experience -- would be careful in addressing the concerns of an upset repeat customer. No, not Celebrity, for despite escalating the matter to the purser herself, I was repeatedly -- and with increasing impatience -- told it really didn't matter what the note said, it was just a receipt and not a gift.
I decided to surrender and shut up since I didn't want to become yet more upset before the ship had even left the pier.
I proceeded to the computer room to sign up for an in-cabin Internet connection for our laptop. During the previous year's trip on Infinity we were given two-weeks of Internet cabin access for $100. Apparently Celebrity saw another enticing way to annoy its customers, since this year the charge was nearly $400, along with a 50-cent-a-minute surcharge for time over a set minimum.
When we noted the significant price discrepancy, we were told this year Celebrity had contracted with a vendor to supply the service. We took the service, but did so muttering to ourselves -- along with several other passengers in the room who were also obviously not pleased with the hefty price increase.
Shortly after the appointed time, Infinity left San Diego. If you ever sail to or from San Diego during winter, bring along a jacket or sweater. Given the possibility of chilly nighttime conditions, coupled with the wind on the ship's decks and room balconies, you will be glad you did.
During the months preceding the cruise I had developed e-mail relationships with several people I either met on the various cruise boards or who contacted me after reading my reviews.
Such co-passengers on this adventure were Linda and her husband, Chris, from London, England; Margaret, a retired teacher, her former principal, Eric, and his partner, Peter, who accompanied her from Seattle, Wash.; Elizabeth, a restaurant owner from Topeka, Kansas, whom we had met on the 2003 cruise, and her mother-in-law, Penny; and two airline flight attendants, Ryan and Rueben, with whom I had started corresponding after they requested my cruise tips.
We met Margaret, Peter and Eric the first day at sea, and subsequently enjoyed having Linda and Chris, along with Reuben and Ryan, as our tablemates each night at dinner.
It marked the first time we had developed acquaintances during the pre-cruise period and continued the relationships during the cruise. We found it very enjoyable.
Our first stop was Cabo san Lucas -- our fourth visit to the city. We recommend the snorkeling excursion and we've heard good things about the whale watching boat trip. Other than that, we've found the stop unremarkable.
Next was Acapulco - a port that, for us, has some unpleasant memories stemming from the aborted 2003 cruise. Our previous visits to some local restaurants had been somewhat unrewarding, so we elected this year to remain on the ship for our meals.
We did, however, hire a taxi driver who, after we rejected his repeated offer of a $200 sightseeing trip, took us to an Acapulco shopping area at which we suspect some of the merchants were either his relatives or paid him a commission. In either case, we quickly were "assigned" a polite and enterprising teenager who had all the makings of a budding entrepreneur. He continuingly urged us to buy certain items from his "uncle" or "cousin," while assuring us of each item's great value. We purchased several unusual gifts and the afternoon turned into an enjoyable mini-adventure.
Infinity, I should note, provides several activities on port days for passengers wishing to remain on the ship. I, however, am quite content to remain on our balcony and doze amid the port's sounds.
During our stops at the various ports, I observed Celebrity had not significantly altered or improved security. Watching what passes for "security" always brought to mind a "Pink Panther" movie. Crewmembers assigned to X-raying packages brought onboard by returning passengers often were so busy joking and chatting with their friends that they didn't even look at their screens.
Crewmembers assigned to the metal detectors frequently ignored warning buzzers! I watched in amazement as passengers who dutifully stopped at the sound of a buzzer were told to proceed to the elevators. I found this practice to be particularly upsetting in this post-September 11th era. And, yes, I had written to Celebrity about this after our previous cruise. I received no response.
The next stop was Puntarenas, Costa Rica -- one of our favorite shopping ports. At the end of the pier are dozens of huts manned by local merchants offering items ranging from the tacky to the artistic. We usually purchase numerous wonderfully fashioned wooden boxes, puzzle boxes and other handcrafted items to take home as gifts. The prices are reasonable, but beware: the merchants expect passengers to haggle. You seldom will get a real bargain, but if you don't haggle you certainly will pay too much.
The ship also stopped in Huatulco. Although this stop eliminated one of the at-sea days we had enjoyed the previous year, Huatulco proved very enjoyable. It's a new Mexican port stop with a new pier and it is as yet unspoiled by the waves of tourists likely to arrive in the future.
Next came the Canal. If you haven't yet made the transit, do so, for it is arguably the most enjoyable of Caribbean itineraries. I've detailed Canal transits in my previous reviews, so I won't repeat myself.
As I mentioned, we had an aft-facing cabin. one of six on the extreme port and starboard sides of Celebrity's Millennium-class ships in the FV category. These cabins, or staterooms as Celebrity likes to call its cabins, have the largest balconies we've seen this side of owner's or penthouse suites, with each easily capable of holding a couple dozen people.
During the Canal transit we hosted a gathering for all of the acquaintances I previously mentioned, along with some other people we had met. Our transit this year was during a sunny day, but it was not quite as hot as some of our previous Canal crossings, with temperatures only near 90.
After the Canal we had an at-sea day before arriving at Orangestad, Aruba. This is also one of our favorite stops, although a highly commercialized one. We usually rent a four-wheel -drive car and tour the island at our leisure instead of joining one of the ship's excursions.
We learned a valuable lesson this time. I had made an Internet reservation in early December with an Aruba-based car rental company we had used on two previous cruises. It wasn't until we had left San Diego that I realized I had never received a confirmation. So I sent them an e-mail and shortly before we got to the Canal I received a short, terse note saying they had never received my reservation. And that note didn't even include an offer to make another reservation for us.
Rental car reservations at most Caribbean ports are not absolutely necessary, since there are so many rental agencies. Aruba is no exception; we were able to easily obtain a four-wheel car from a company with an office near the cruise port terminal. But henceforth I will be certain to confirm well before the cruise any reservations we have made.
Celebrity's food service continues to be good -- but that's about it. We've had a greater variety of food, and food of higher quality, on other cruise lines. That is particularly striking since Celebrity, at one time, was widely praised for both its superior service and food quality.
Infinity's crew was noticeably better trained this year, with nearly everyone from cleaners to shop keepers pleasantly greeting passengers they encountered. The sole exceptions were, amazingly, the people assigned to the "Guest Relations" desk -- which is, more accurately, the "Guest Frustration" desk. On at least three occasions we passed the desk while passengers were complaining about some issues. In each case, the staffer just looked annoyed or bored.
General ship's services were generally mediocre -- for example, in the buffet restaurant we daily observed groups of servers laughing and talking with one another while they waited to escort passengers to tables. At the same time, a few feet from the gaggle of servers, a dozen or more passengers waited in line at the ice cream counter where a beleaguered server worked by himself. Only once did we see a manager direct one of those idle servers to assist.
The nightly shows this year were even worse than last year's entertainment. And while a show critique is a subjective matter, we talked with other passengers who noted the same thing: Celebrity must be saving money by booking second-rate acts.
We also found the ship's casino, Fortunes, no better than in the past. As noted in previous reviews, casinos aboard other lines are usually very busy places, with lots of folks enjoying themselves well into the early morning hours. Fortunes, however, aboard both Summit and Infinity, was usually deserted by 1 a.m. most nights and closed shortly thereafter. The slot machine payoffs are, for the most part, meager and sometimes non-existent.
On the positive side: Celebrity keeps its ships spotlessly clean. Crewmembers can be seen daily polishing and disinfecting public areas, such as stair rails and elevator interiors. And cabin stewards are always eager to meet passenger requests.
Celebrity now offers its passengers a choice in tipping: either tip in cash at the end of the cruise, as has been the routine, or authorize the tips to be deducted from the credit card you were required to post at the beginning of the trip. We elected to pay by cash at the end of the cruise, finding that procedure to be much more personal, giving us the opportunity to voice our appreciation individually to each crewmember we are rewarding.
The ship has added some "extras," such as providing cold washcloths during the day in the pool area and offering glasses of Champagne as people initially board. Nice gestures.
THE END GAME
I've read several reviews in which passengers grumbled about debarkation procedures and I have always viewed such complaints with a bit of irritation -- when you are trying to move a couple thousand people off a ship at the same time you are preparing to board a couple thousand other folks, delays are inevitable. We've viewed the procedures -- which usually are inexplicably altered from one year to the next - as annoying, but unavoidable. This year, however, was an eye opener.
We had received orange disembarkation tickets. people are always instructed to debark by ticket color to avoid pier overcrowding and to make the porters' jobs a bit easier. So, after leaving our cabin, we assembled with approximately 150 other passengers in one of the lounges waiting for our color to be called.
After more than an hour of standing and hearing all sorts of colors called, I asked the Celebrity staffer assigned to that lounge area (she was one of the dancers from the shows) when orange might be called. She said she had no idea, but if we wanted to go to the dock our baggage probably wasn't there yet, but we could go. We went.
Not only, as we suspected, were our bags there, but the dock was not crowded and we were among only a few orange passengers picking up luggage. We were out-the-door of the terminal area within 15 minutes after leaving the ship.
We've heard some reports that Celebrity plans to install airport-type baggage carousels to help speed debarkation. We certainly hope so, since debarkation is, on any cruise line, somewhat of a hassle.
So, by now you might be asking, if they found so many things to complain about, why are they booking a third cruise aboard Infinity? It's a good question with several answers:
Aside from Celebrity's horrible guest relations, the company provides a nice cruise aboard a beautiful ship that offers outstanding itineraries. And, even more importantly, several people with whom we've previously sailed have also booked the January 2005 South American Infinity cruise, so.
If you are contemplating a Celebrity cruise you will not be disappointed aboard the Infinity -- especially if you are a first-time cruiser. However, Celebrity, during its heyday, when it enjoyed a deserved sterling reputation, used to employ the advertising slogan "Exceeding Expectations." They have since wisely discontinued using the slogan as they unwisely discontinued practicing it.
That sums up the highlights of our January 2004 cruise. In essence, we enjoy sailing on the Infinity, but we continue to be puzzled by Celebrity's amazingly poor customer relations.
As I mentioned at the start, sailing on the same cruise ship more than once presents an unusual situation. On one hand, one misses the sense of exciting exploration that's inherent upon boarding a ship for the first time. However, repeat sailings allow for a substantial degree of pleasure that arises from encountering a comfortably familiar environment and associated routine.
A FINAL THOUGHT
After having read what I've written, I can almost hear Celebrity's staunchest fans bitterly chastising me for being so critical. But my reviews are just that -- criticisms based upon what we've experienced during a specific cruise..
I am also mindful my reviews are read not only by first-timers, but also by cruisers of varying experience who are curious about a specific ship's performance. Therefore, I admittedly emphasize negative aspects since they have the greatest impact on one's enjoyment.
If you wish to read my previous reviews of our experiences aboard the Summit and Infinity and cannot find them, please send me an e-mail (email@example.com) and I'll send them to you. If you also wish a copy of my Cruise Tips -- which are primarily designed for those new to cruising -- also send me a request.