There comes a time when you just have to “move on up”
I was a latecomer to cruising – I took my first in 2013 on the Carnival Magic, got hooked, and went crazy booking more cruises for the next few years. I achieved Platinum status quickly and have enjoyed the perks that go with it: priority boarding and tendering, less waiting at guest services, free laundry, etc.
But regardless of loyalty status, cruising makes it possible to visit many more places in a limited period of time, since you don’t waste time in a plane or on a train or in a car or checking in and out of hotels. Your floating hotel simply transports you to your next stop while you sleep. And not only your transportation cost, but also your dining and entertainment expenses are for the most part rolled up into the cruise fare, making for a lower per-day cost than with most land based vacations.
I like the ships, the food, the activities and most of all the service. Carnival’s crew and staff have gone above and beyond for me on numerous occasions. And the price has been right. I’ve never come away from a cruise feeling as if I didn’t get my money’s worth. I’ve met many wonderful people from all walks of life and made lifelong friends on Carnival ships.
So why am I now seriously considering “jumping ship” and trying out a different cruise line?
It’s not the stupid economy
Contrary to what you might think, it’s not because of the much-discussed cost-cutting measures Carnival has invoked recently – no more chocolates on your pillow at night, disappearance of tablecloths in the main dining room, declining food quality and other common complaints on the forums and Facebook groups.
Personally, I never ate the chocolates, frequently got tangled in the tablecloths, and although I admit the new menus are generally less appealing, that helps me shift my focus from food to fun activities – which means staying healthier and gaining less weight on a cruise.
And the changes that have occurred in the wake of a new CEO haven’t all been bad. When I first started cruising, I was paying by the minute for Internet access that was barely usable, often racking up a $200 bill. Now most of the ships provide a fast, fairly reliable connection at a lower price. For someone like me, who needs to stay in touch with work and home while I’m gone, that’s a big plus.
The reason for my wandering eye really boils down to one thing. It brings to mind the old real estate mantra: It’s all about location, location, location. Or in this case it’s more precisely about itinerary, itinerary, itinerary.
Simply, I’ve sailed to and from most of the ports Carnival offers, except for Australia and Hawaii (both of which are longer duration cruises than I’m not able to do, due to work and family obligations). I want to go somewhere new (in 10-12 or fewer days). Don’t get me wrong – I love the islands and I love Alaska, but after several times at each port, I have a hankering to broaden my horizons.
Speaking of Horizon …
For the past several months, I’ve pinned my future cruising hopes on Carnival’s newest ship, the Horizon, which is scheduled to launch in early 2018. Horizon is the second of the Vista class of ships, built by Fincantieri shipyards in Italy near Venice. Last year, her sister ship, the Vista, spent the summer and early fall in Europe, offering some amazing itineraries in the Mediterranean.
I was on the 10-day final Med cruise from Athens to Barcelona in October, before Vista crossed the Atlantic to New York and then went on to settle in her home port of Miami. I had a wonderful time in Greece, Malta, Naples, Rome, and Livorno.
Although I’d been to Europe multiple times, I had never cruised there before. It was like getting a taste of a delicious new dessert, only to be told the chef could only prepare it once every couple of years. But I was willing to wait. After all, Horizon was just over the horizon.
The hope of many Carnival loyalists, based on poll questions asked by Carnival’s brand ambassador, John Heald, on his Facebook page, was that Horizon might do a different European itinerary. Both the British Isles and a northern route from Copenhagen to St. Petersburg were mentioned. There was also speculation about a northern transatlantic crossing with a stop in Reykjavik, Iceland.
But even if Horizon did the same sailings as Vista, I had a backup plan (I thought). I could do the maiden voyage from the northern Adriatic and fly into Venice a couple of days early to spend some time in that city full of history and art. Thousands of other people like me anxiously awaited the announcement and the opening of Horizon’s inaugural bookings, which finally arrived last week. And hundreds (at least) were left disappointed.
The first voyage from the shipyards around the boot of Italy to Barcelona will be a “deadhead” sailing – no passengers, just crew (and maybe some VIPs). So my dreams of Venice evaporated in the Mediterranean sun. Then there will be a 13 day sailing that visits mostly the same ports as Vista, followed by only four short round-trip Med cruises from Spain that leave out my favorite port from last year (Malta). Finally, the TA’s ports – most of them in Spain – don’t appeal to me, which I guess is good because it’s 14 days long so I couldn’t do it anyway.
Good things come to those who wait – but the waiting is the hardest part
The silver lining in this cloud is that there is still a glimmer of hope farther on down the road (or should I say “farther out at sea”). Carnival has plans to build the first of two “megaships” – 180,000 gross ton behemoths – to be delivered in 2020.
This is exciting not because it signals a new class of ship to compete with the likes of Royal Caribbean’s Oasis and newer classes, but more so because of where the “big girls” will be built: in Finland by Meyer Turku. This, one hopes, portends an inaugural season in the Baltic. Even if it’s a shortened one like Horizon’s Med season, it will be a chance to get on board with a wonderful new itinerary. Visions of St. Petersburg are already dancing in my head.
But – and it’s a big but – 2020 is still three years away. At my age, time goes by quickly but also, at my age a lot could happen in three years. My health and other circumstances could change drastically. Do I have time to wait around for Carnival? Do I keep sailing those same old itineraries in the meantime? Or is it time to hoist my sails and venture into uncharted (for me) waters?
There are a lot of other fish – and a lot of other cruise lines – in the sea.
Anchors aWeighing the options
The Horizon let-down feels like one of those times when not getting what you want turns out to be the kick in the pants that you need to motivate you to get out and seek bigger and better things.
It’s easy for us to get stuck doing things one way because that’s what we’re familiar with, but it’s also good to get out of our comfort zones now and then. Sure, there are some logical reasons that I’ve cruised only with Carnival: lower fares, the perks I’ve earned by attaining a higher loyalty level, the close-knit group of friends who mostly stick with Carnival for those reasons.
However, when I really examine them, even those reasons start to fall apart. Carnival’s prices have been slowly going up over the last three years, and now when I peruse the web sites of some of the other lines, I find cruises that are the same or less expensive for comparable itineraries. And now at least one line – MSC – has instituted a loyalty matching program so I can get some credit for all those Carnival sailings and not have to start at the bottom.
As for my BCFFs (Best Cruise Friends Forever), the sad truth is that it’s getting harder for us to all get together on a cruise. Each of us has our own schedules, and much as we’d like to sail together, life keeps getting in the way.
Additionally, many of the “the gang” are in different circumstances than I am; most of those to whom I feel closest are retired and have spouses who love cruising as much as they do. Consequently, they’re doing more and more of those lengthy cruises that I’m unable to do. So it seems lately we’re passing like ships in the night.
It makes me feel a little sad as I see them all booking the Horizon transatlantic and know I can’t be there with them, but this is how life is and always has been. People come together and touch one another’s lives – sometimes profoundly – and then move on in different directions. And that’s okay. We all have the memories and our own individual adventures ahead.
And some of them, too, are starting to feel limited by Carnival’s itineraries and talking of possibly “stepping out” to partake of what other lines have to offer.
It’s not a marriage; it’s a business relationship
And yet, a really good business relationship transcends the impersonal exchange of money for goods and/or services. Good companies value your business, and do what they can to keep you coming back. And Carnival’s customer service has, in my experience, been superb.
Their former head CD and now brand ambassador John Heald has given the company a public face and persona in a way no one at any other cruise line (and at few businesses of any kind) has done. Staff at CLL Support, Guest Admin Services, and online community management have gone out of their ways to help with my problems or special requests. Crew members, from cabin stewards to wait staff to captains of the ships, have become my personal friends. My personal vacation planner (PVP) almost feels like part of the family.
It’s not easy to leave all that behind and take a gamble on some other cruise line. But then, I’ve found in many decades of living that it’s usually the chances you didn’t take that you end up regretting.
Sometimes, no matter how much you love someone, you grow apart. Your interests diverge. You’re no longer the perfect fit you used to be. That applies to company loyalties, too.
Carnival is basically a Caribbean cruise line that caters to a lower-income (than other lines) U.S. demographic. They do some European cruises for the purely practical reason that it’s good to stay near the ship builders for the first few “real” (passenger-loaded) sailings in case major problems are revealed that need fixing.
However, they don’t make as much money in Europe. Cost of operations is higher, and the Americans on those cruises are often first-timers to the other side of the pond and not prepared for the value added tax (VAT), air fares, and other factors that bump up the cost of the cruise. That means they spend less on board (which is Carnival’s bread and butter) and even sometimes remove the gratuities from their accounts because they’ve heard tipping isn’t standard in Europe.
Fact is: CCL has other cruise lines with dedicated European itineraries that make money for them. If you really want to do Europe, it’s probably best to consider spending a little more and looking at some of those. Princess and HAL have some wonderful itineraries in the Med, British Isles and northern Europe. Cunard has some great, shorter transatlantics for those who can’t be away for 13 or 14 days. There are a lot of options out there even within the Carnival Corporation family.
The next step
Will booking with another line feel a little like “cheating?” Probably. But hey – how can I credibly champion Carnival and proclaim that they’re the best if I have no personal basis for comparison? And I have a feeling that when I come back – and I’m sure I will, for cruises out of the U.S – they’ll be waiting to welcome me with open arms. Because that’s the kind of friendly, fun people they are.
And moving from the emotional to the practical level, I’m not eager to navigate my way through the learning curve of getting acquainted with other lines’ web sites and booking practices and customer policies and ways of doing things. I know my way around Carnival like the back of my hand. I know their nomenclature and their rules and the layouts of their ships and how it all works, from booking to boarding to debarkation. I’m sure the first time on another line, I’ll feel like a fish out of water, or a sailor who’s lost his sea legs.
But you know what? That’s not going to stop me. Because I want to explore strange new countries, to seek out new lives and new (to me) civilizations, to boldly go where I haven’t gone before. Anybody want to join me?