As I sat at my computer yesterday, I started thinking about how much the internet has changed the way we learn about, book, enjoy, and share our cruising experience. I have to think that the information age has certainly required cruise lines to ” up their game” in order to keep the quality of the product at a high level. As consumers we have so much more information with which to make our decision.
Cruise Quality Elevated by the Information Age
With so many outlets where people can share their experience with a particular cruise line, what used to be “word of mouth” and information shared among acquaintances, now is easily be put in writing for all the world to see on websites like Cruise Critic, Cruise Line Fans, Cruise Mates and here at Cruise Talk. While I’ve learned to read these posting with a certain amount of perspective, the fact that both negatives and positives can reach a broad audience very quickly, has upped the game for the cruise industry.
The level of accommodations and amenities has certainly improved over the last 20 years. When I compare my slightly upgraded, but very basic room on the Rotterdam in 1993 to my basic room on the Equinox in 2010, it is like to going from third to first class. Our “upgraded” Rotterdam room only held a queen size bed, two small port holes, and armoire and a tiny bathroom. The Equinox room had a king size bed, sofa, flat screen TV, larger bathroom, vanity area, extensive storage space and a balcony.
I remember the brochures that my father used to pick up for our cruises in the 70’s that featured stylized pictures of the largest rooms. He would always warn us that our cabin would look nothing like that. Often the the pictures were taken with a nearly fish-eye type lens which allowed the photographer to fit the entire room in the image, but also distorted the the image making it appear larger. Today, with so much image sharing on the internet, consumers would likely not accept such minimalistic accommodations. In the information age, even the odd room with a pole running through it or some other kind of weird lay out or obstruction gets exposed via the internet.
So too are grave customer service errors, safety, and poor food quality exposed on the internet. While a few negative reports of problems in a sea of good reviews won’t damage a cruise line reputation, consistently bad reviews particularly in one area of the cruise experience, have often resulted in swift corrective action and responses to the issue from the lines themselves. The most recent example of a massive response was the response of several cruise lines regarding the their own safety and muster drill procedures after the Concordia Disasters. One of the first details reported in the Concordia disaster was that passengers who had embarked at ports other than the main port of embarkation had not yet participated in a safety drill. Many people, including this blogger, wanted to see an industry wide response to the issue. The SOLAS standard has always been for passengers to participate in a safety drill with in 24 hour of embarkation. Several cruise lines made press releases that about their own policy of always conducting the drill before the ship leaves the embarkation port, and then the Cruise Line International Associations released a policy that will now be followed by all members that includes all passengers participating in a muster/safety drill before they depart their embarkation port.
Cruise Talk took a look back at how we used to book our cruises and learn about them and compare them to how we complete that process now in this age of information.
20 Years Ago
As recently as just 20 years ago, like most people, we still booked cruises the old fashioned way. My husband worked with a travel agent to make all the arrangements for our honeymoon cruise to Alaska on the Holland America Rotterdam. We had little information available to us on different cruise lines other than previous experience, word of mouth, and travel agent recommendations. My previous experience with Holland America and the prevailing word that Holland America offered one of the best products, led us in that direction. Even though we suspected that most other cruisers would be in the 70-90 year old range, we decided to choose Holland America because of its superior reputation. To book the cruise, my husband visited a travel agent, looked through printed brochures and selected the best room available for honeymooners. Since the Rotterdam of that time was an older vessel, it only had a few rooms that didn’t have unmovable twin beds. With his only guide being the help of the travel agent and the printed brochure he selected one of the few rooms with a queen size bed. The travel brochure gave us the information we needed on the dress codes, so we knew what to pack. We had no on board or excursions plans until the cruise was well under way. During our first day we spent a good deal of time exploring the interesting public spaces of the ship because the brochure had not really prepared us for what we would find on the ship. We also didn’t book any excursions until the second or third day of the cruise. We might have gotten some shore excursion information in our cruise documents, but I seem to remember my husband going down to the excursion office to learn more about what was available and to make his selection. Years later we at Cruise Talk selected that excursion, the Mendenhall Glacier Helicopter Flight and Landing, as the best excursion of all time. Over all, that cruise was one of our favorites. We enjoyed incredible service and a fabulous itinerary even though we went into the experience with only a basic knowledge of what to expect from the cruise.
10 Years Later
Our anniversary cruise in 2003 marked our return to cruising. At the time we booked the cruise we were living in a small guest house while we built our current home. Because of our temporary living situation we only had dial up internet. Consequently most of my cruise research was done on the phone with a travel agent. I did look briefly for my choices of lines, ships, itinerary and pricing online. I then called a two local travel agents and asked them to get ma pricing on the cruises. Again, most of my decision making was made upon the recommendations of the travel agent and word of mouth. Once I had booked with the travel agent, he then gave me the names of a couple of cruise review sites, including one of the largest, Cruise Critic, with extensive pictures and information on the ship on which we would be traveling. As you can imagine I didn’t do a lot of research because I only had dial up internet service, but did learn a bit more about the ship and the cruise line.
The cruise turned out to be even better than we expected, possibly because I had no idea what to expect. We had all of our basic information such as itinerary, dress codes and ship board policies but hadn’t even looked into things like excursions, which nights were formal, menus, wine lists, or secret extras. We simply booked the excursions on board and went with the flow on everything else. We were also able to remain completely disconnected from the outside world. I don’t think we turned on a TV news show and we certainly didn’t have any internet service.
Over the Last 9 Years
Over the last nine years, the amount of information on the internet and the amount of people using it has exploded. I found myself spending more and more time in the cruise related internet chat rooms sharing cruise information with others. I also used cruise line’s web sites more and more to compare prices and itineraries and to select my cruise. However, I still make a phone call to my travel agent, one that I started using after online recommendations, to book my cruises.
Cruise Selection, Excursions, and Pre-Cruise Arrangements
In preparation for my San Diego to Hawaii RT cruise on the Celebrity Infinity, I spent much time planning what we were going to do on each of the Hawaiian Island. The cruise line offered some wonderful coach excursions, but I couldn’t see how bringing along a 7 and 9 year old would be a good fit. Instead, I found members in cruise related online chat rooms who lived in Hawaii who could give me details from the perspective of a local. I utilized the internet to locate car companies from which to rent. As a result, I found many family friendly touring options including a visit to Poipu Beach, Pearl Harbor, Diamond Head, Volcanoes National Park, and a wonderful family friendly snorkeling private tour in Kona. I researched the best time to go to Pearl Harbor to visit the Arizona memorial and I even found a great little place to dine in Hilo. After the cruise I looked online for pictures of that restaurant and Thurston’s lava tube which I had neglected to photograph. This cruise, possibly because of the fantastic itinerary – round trip from San Deigo to Hawaii, and possibly because it was our first with our children, is one of the most memorable cruises that we have taken. Perhaps though, what made it so enjoyable was that I had researched many of my options and made choices which best fit my family’s needs.
In subsequent years, the internet played an even more important role in our preparations. One of our biggest decisions was choosing between a large Mariner class ship, with all its bells and whistles, and the the Celebrity Summit with its more intimate atmosphere. Both ships had two week plus trans-Atlantic cruises leaving from Barcelona on close to the same day. I prepared an elaborate presentation on my lap top connected to the big screen TV for my family. It featured information gathered online about both ships, details about the perspective state rooms, and pros and con’s for both ships. We ultimately chose the slightly more intimate Celebrity Summit for its more intimate atmosphere and Family Veranda state room. The details gathered from my web surfing provided us the data we needed to make an informed decision.
I also utilized the internet to plan for our three day pre-cruise stay in Barcelona and Rome. Wanting to stay with-in a certain budget and struggling to find a hotel that would accommodate a family of 4, we chose the alternative accommodation of a vacation rental apartment. This process too involved presenting the details of our options to my family via the lap top connected to the big screen TV. I located several internet based web sites that specialize in vacation apartment rentals in Barcelona. Ultimately, for our Barcelona stay, we choose a Vacation Rental By Owner listing that had a excellent location for walking tours. For our stay in Rome we chose a Rentals In Rome apartment located in the heart of historic Rome for our stay in the eternal city.
Ship Board Policies and Issues
Sharing information on the internet has also better prepared me as a vacationer for changes and improvements on the cruise lines. I have kept in touch with the ever evolving and seemingly ever more relaxed dress code policies. Also as Celebrity has introduced larger ships, I was able to get a feel for how that change would effect my over all cruise experience. Sharing information from trusted sources on the internet chat rooms quelled some of my fears that the large size and capacity would loose some of the charm we had experienced on previous cruises. Again, when Celebrity introduced Select dining with flexible seating and time, I was convinced that this change would adversely affect the over all dining experience. However, it was again the sharing of information with trusted members that quelled my fears.
I’ve also gotten some pretty solid advice from others via the internet regarding resolving issues that have come up on our cruises. We had an overextended wine steward on our first cruise with Celebrity and it was with the advice of those on some of the chat rooms that I learned to speak to either the Cellar Master or Maitre’d on the first day of the cruise. It is also how I learned to meet with the dining room staff to arrange for a table for 4 for my family. Finally on the advice of these friends, I decided to give select dining a try when late seating was moved out to 8:45. I’ve also gotten great advice on room selection and excursion advice. Often people post pictures of particular rooms to show how the drawing of the ship doesn’t quite fit the actual lay-out. Some will have larger balconies for the same price as the standard size. The internet has made that type of information available to the general public.
Staying In Touch
One of the most recent innovations has been the additions of computer centers and wifi on board cruise ships. The ability to stay connected to life and home has advantages and disadvantages. We can send e-mails and notes back and forth to our family at home. At Cruise Talk we are able to offer a real time daily blog to our readers about our cruise experience. Much like the hand written journals that my mother used to write when we traveled abroad, the daily blog posts serve as keepsake preserving the often forgotten details of the trip. My husband also runs a part time internet based business and the ability to log on and resolve small issues certainly relieves some of his worries about being gone for so long. In addition, he can also keep up with any emergency situations that could occur at his full time job. However, the down side of that communication link is that when we go away we don’t completely escape the outside world. There used to be a time when a cruise was a complete escape from the outside world. I remember when we got back from several cruises in the 1970’s it was usually from our cab driver, while going to the airport, that we got caught up on the news of the world. With the internet now at their fingertips, cruisers can worry about the same things on their cruise that they worry about on when they are at home.
Overall, I would say that the information provided to me as a cruiser has improved my over all cruise experience. I love being able to visit the cruise chat rooms and get information and opinions from other cruisers. I also like being able to research and price potential cruises over the internet. However, I do still make a phone call and talk in person with my travel agent. I have found that in addition to the welcome aboard gifts and on board credits that come with booking through a travel agent, the knowledge of an experienced travel agent puts the finishing touch on my cruise selection decisions.