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Sunday, November 6, 2011

Cruise Review: RCCL Liberty of the Seas. Bottom line: BAD beyond belief.

We take a break from our regularly scheduled programming to bring you a cruise review of RCCL Royal Caribbean's "Liberty of the Seas". This review is also published on Cruise Critic:
As our first RCCL cruise in 2010 on "Freedom of the Seas" was such glorious fun that I blogged about it extenisvely on this blog, with tons of photos & links, we booked a second RCCL cruise, with every intention of booking a third while onboard. This one, however, was such a major disappointment- and so upsetting, due to unbelievably bad customer service, that it repeatedly left me in tears- that we sent a 9-page letter(!) to the CEO, Adam Goldstein, to which we received an insulting and abysmal response: 2 ridiculous "discount certificates" we'd have to add thousands of dollars to in order to redeem- something that is definitely NOT happening! RCCL's patronizing Customer Service rep told me they're handing these useless certificates out now like candy, so our experience is obviously not unique, and the line is pbviously in deep trouble. As our travel agent wasn't able to get RCCL's corporate management to take any responsibility for their abysmal service either, I am now publishing my review.

As readers of this blog know, we are in the hospitality business, owning the Elkhorn Inn & Theatre in West Virginia for the last 9+ years, so we know a bit about what it takes to create an excellent customer service experience. Our week on RCCL's "Freedom of the Seas" in 2010 was wonderful thanks to truly exceptional customer service at all levels. As this cruise coincided with our 6th wedding anniversary, I added RCCL's $142.00 "Anniversary Package" as a surprise for my husband; it was a surprise, all right, but not a good one. RCCL totally messed it up, leaving me in tears, and Guest Relations was snarky and nasty about it, as they were about everything throught this entire cruise. Over the course of the week we received numerous, long-winded messages on our stateroom phone from a variety of "Guest Services" personnel, each one insisting that we were wrong and they were right, and that RCCL was in no way responsible for anything. Finally, and way too late for it to have any meaning, we were grudgingly offered a dinner at Portofino- food only(!)- at which the waitress, who we have to assume meant well, told me "I can see that you were beautiful when you were young". As I was 51 at the time and not exactly an ancient crone, I was so stunned by her comment that I sat there with a stupid smile on my face as tears filled my eyes. I said nothing, but my husband looked at her and said "She's still beautiful". This was my grand, romantic anniversary cruise dinner. I can't recall what we ate... (After our letter to the CEO, RCCL refunded my $142. This was the beginning and end of what they did to recify a week-long nightmare).
RCCL didn't bother to invite us to the "Welcome Back" cocktail party for Crown & Anchor Society Members, and the response by Ms. Guest Relations to our query as to why, was to simply shrug her shoulders at me. When I told Ms. Guest Relations that after our wonderful experience last year we were sadly disappointed this year, she cut me off mid-sentence, sarcastically saying, with a smirk, in front of other guests: "Then you won't take another cruise, right"? Stunned by her nastiness, I said, "No, we'll just cruise with another company".
This week-long customer service fiasco colored our entire cruise- and not in a good way. During our week on the Liberty we met with numerous other guests, most of whom were complaining about the terrible service. This is an awful way to meet and "bond" with other passengers! We were actually told by other guests- who spoke Spanish- that "the service is better if you speak Spanish". This is absolutely unacceptable.
From the moment we embarked in Miami, RCCL staff began telling us that the Liberty was going into dry dock the minute our cruise was over. This was news to us, and we truly didn't know what this meant at the time, but we heard this at least once a day, sometimes several times a day. We learned- the hard way- that a "pre-dry-dock cruise" is a recipe for disaster: the ship will be in terrible disrepair and the crew won't give a hoot about anything or anyone. BOTTOM LINE: DO NOT TAKE A PRE-DRY-DOCK CRUISE! One crew member even told a group of us that the staff "hated dry dock" because "2 weeks without tourists we don't make any money". As the ship was obviously in need of serious repairs (non-working elevators, non-flushing toilets and urinals in flooded men's rooms, catching my shoe in a raised stair-edging in the piano bar and flying forward down the stairs (one waiter tried to help by pulling at my foot while I lay face-down on the stairs, until I finally begged him to stop before he broke my ankle, at which point I managed to pull my foot out of my shoe and then my shoe out of the stair edging), and, finally, the flashing "strobe" light in our stateroom ), it was obvious that the ship was definitely in need of repair, but also that the crew couldn't have cared less about the guests on this voyage. The smiling and helpful crew on our previous RCCL cruise- who one and all truly seemed to be "into" their jobs and having a good time at them- had been replaced by sour-faced staffers muttering to each other in the hallways, cursing at the top of their lungs in the bar (see below), and being only superficially-and barely- nice to guests when required. They were busily packing up long before we disembarked; it started during our dinner on our last evening at sea, when, as the photo kiosk reminded us that evening (as we unsuccessfully tried to purchase photos), as far as RCCL was concerned, our cruise was already over.
Security personnel who do not understand English are a Serious and dangerous problem. So serious that it dawned on us that perhaps the RCCL Security man we tried unsuccessfully to communicate with when re-embarking the ship in Grand Cayman was pretending not to understand us- also a totally unacceptable situation. On our previous RCCL cruise we had the pleasure of dealing with Israeli security personnel; he was charming and fluent in English, as well as being a total professional, and by his very presence and manner made us feel both safe and secure. The security personnel on this cruise made us feel neither, a rather alarming experience.
My husband wound up spending basically our entire first day at sea (and the only day we had to enjoy the sun, as it turned out) running around the ship making and then cancelling reservations, a frustrating waste of basically an entire day, because the Salon refused to rebook a hair appointment so that we could attend a wine dinner we had booked. Given that we spent well over $1000 in the spa and salon during our trip on both men's and women's services, we felt this was absolutely wrong- and the icing on the cake was that I was the ONLY person in the salon during my two appointments! It never dawned on me that the staff wouldn't work with us to reschedule appointments so we could attend additional events (and spend additional money).
Because the evening events on this cruise were apparently designed around early diners, there were numerous events aboard ship that we had hoped to enjoy that we couldn't- basically every night. Another disapppointment. A cruise should be a vacation with multiple opportunities to enjoy what the ship has to offer at appropriate and convenient times for both families and adults, not a rush-around, cattle-car experience from hell.
My husband encountered a men's restroom with its floor filled with water (and, presumably, urine) from an overflowing, clogged urinal, as well as several out-of-order men's room toilets. Had we encountered anything like that on our first RCCL cruise we would never have booked another. This total lack of necessary service was interestingly counterpointed by overzealous pool and bar staff who repeatedly removed full or half-empty drinks from our tables. Close your eyes for one minute or turn away for a moment to talk to someone and your drink was gone. Yes, they were replaced upon our asking at the bars, but this was both annoying and embarrassing.
We never received either toiletries or "turn down" chocolates in our stateroom during this entire cruise. This was inexplicable, as the attendant's cart on which both the toiletries and chocolates were displayed sat outside our stateroom day after day. Finally, on the last day, I gave our Stateroom Attendant a note, asking if there was a reason we had never received either. In response, I received a phone call from yet another "Guest Relations" staffer while my husband was resting. I asked her to please respond in writing, as my husband was resting and it was not a good time for me to take a call. Naturally, I never received either a response or an explanation. Some days we got four towels, some days only two, leaving an empty rack. To say the stateroom service was odd is an understatement.
But yes, we still tipped, idiots that we obviously are.
From Day One of our cruise we were bombarded by requests to tip, starting with a letter to that effect on our bed the first night! On our previous RCCL cruise we didn't receive a note on our bed about tipping until mid-way through the cruise, and considering the extraordinarily poor service we received on this cruise, this angered us. Having read in a tourism B-2-B publication about issues with RCCL guests not tipping, I now understand why.
The excursions we booked on our previous RCCL cruise were wonderful- the absolute highlights of our vacation. This time RCCL destroyed most of them.
Our excellent first tour to Mayan ruins in Costa Maya, Mexico was spoiled by "Rita", the RCCL Excursion Manager, and other members of the RCCL staff, who stood by the ship clapping and yelling at our group to "hurry up" as we were walking back to board the ship. Rita also made sure we knew, the second we got off the tour bus, that we couldn't stop to buy anything else, but had to "run" back to the ship as fast as possible; it was like being on a 5th grade class trip, but a cruise is not a 5th grade class trip, nor is it a military exercise. If we want to be herded like cattle, bossed around like sheep, and reprimanded like unruly children, we don't need to spend many thousands of dollars for the privilege and plan for it all year long. (To add to the insult, there were trolleys available- we saw them sitting by the ship, with drivers!- that could have taken us from the tour bus right to the ship, had RCCL really needed us back in such a hurry. To top it off, after boarding, we got to listen to repeated pagings for guests who were still not aboard, making it clear that the patronizing clapping and rushing of our group was not necessary).
Our second excursion, tubing and ziplining in Belize, would have been grand, except that the ziplining portion was so overcrowded that we not only spent most of our time waiting on line, but the sour-faced, overtaxed ziplining staff literally pushed us off the platforms before the previous zipper had arrived safely at the next platform! Amazingly and fortunately, no one was hurt, but several came close to being hurt, including my husband, and frankly, that's nuts. And all because it was overcrowded and rushed.
I booked our third excursion, to the Playa Mia resort in Cozumel for the "Mexican Cuisine Workshop and Tasting", specifically because this was the only excursion available in any of the ports that offered the opportunity to JetSki. After the class- which was enjoyable- we were told by the Playa Mia staff that the JetSkis were no longer available, and that they were "surprised" that RCCL still had it listed on their website. As we saw Sea Doos in Grand Cayman and one was even on display on the Liberty, but we weren't able to do it anywhere, we were very disappointed.
Our final excursion, to go snorkeling and to Stingray City in Grand Cayman was an RCCL-caused fiasco from the beginning, owing to an hour-plus delay by the tenders, as RCCL allowed the first one to leave the ship half-filled, leaving us sitting in a half-filled tender for an hour. When we finally got to the pier we were ordered- and I do mean ordered- by the tour personnel to "run after the man in the yellow hat" as our tour was leaving without us! Our group did just that, only to be told to run back to the man who'd told us to run in the first place. Then we were herded onto a bus that didn't have enough seating for everyone in our group, and were ordered to "move over and make room" for a family of 5 people, which was impossible. Some of our group were then put onto another bus, and by the time we got on the road for our 10am departure tour, it was after 12 noon. Due to RCCL's mismanagement, our snorkeling wound up being 15 ghastly minutes in water so stupefyingly overcrowded with tourists that all we did was bump into other snorkelers. Unlike on other such snorkeling excursions, we had no guide, no food to help draw in the fish, no nothing. I'm an experienced snorkeler, and I saw literally nothing, and spent my 15 minutes constantly bumping into other snorkelers, for a truly miserable and scary experience. Having looked forward to snorkeling in Grand Cayman for two years we were deeply disappointed. The boat was filled to capacity with VERY sour-faced cruisers- not one smile among any of them. We were then taken to Stingray City, which wound up being the highlight of our trip, and it was extremely enjoyable, marred only by being ridiculously overcrowded, with people constantly bumping into each other. We paid $30 for the CD of photos taken of us with the stingrays, and when we got back to the ship we met other cruisers who had been on another RCCL Stingray City excursion and had been asked for $50 for the CD and thus didn't buy it; they were quite upset. This is absolutely unacceptable.
It was to "Rita", the lead RCCL Excursion staff member, that I went when I had a problem. Bad idea. Her response was another "RCCL Customer Service Shrug".
One small thing doesn't matter. 20 "small" things, coupled with a number of big things, however, becomes a Very big thing, and ruins a vacation.
The last night of the cruise, however, took the prize for ugly:
As we sat at the Casino Bar on our last night at sea, we were joined at the bar by approx 10 RCCL staff members, whose every other word- literally- was "f*ck". At no time did the bartender do or say anything to remind them that they were sitting next to guests, and since we recognized several staffers, we knew that they were aware that they were sitting with paying cruise guests and simply didn't care- and wanted us to be Very aware of that fact. We thus got to listen to them cursing and swearing and having a grand and foul-mouthed time of it until the bar finally shut down. It was quite the experience.
Having been told by staff that the casino closed when it was empty (which we already knew wasn't true, as it was literally closed down on us one night as we were playing the slot machines), we watched the casino close down despite having two tables completely filled with active, playing gamblers! (On our cruise last year the casino was open all night and was a lot of fun; on this one it was never open all night, and evidently nothing else was either, for late at night the ship felt sad and empty, silent and devoid of people).
RCCL's final touch was the morning of our departure, when we stupidly thought to have a last, elegant breakfast of Eggs Benedict in the dining room as we had done on our previous RCCL cruise. Instead, we were herded through three almost-empty dining rooms and shoved into a corner at a table with 3 other guests, after which we were trapped in by 6 more, and then fed a pitiful Denny's diner breakfast. We could get neither Eggs Benedict nor a Bloody Mary- nor much of anything else. Mid-breakfast I had to walk around the half-deserted dining rooms to try to find a waiter in order to request Tabasco sauce. Even Denny's doesn't have service that bad. This is our last memory of a vacation that was deeply disappointing from start to finish.
There were several good things, and several people who did provide excellent customer service: Vintages, the wine bar, had an excellent head sommelier who made us welcome & happily surprised us with ashtrays! We had an excellent time participating in Chefmakers "Cooking Around the World" event; the instructor chef, Michael Gusman, was excellent, the service was superb, and we not only learned a lot, we enjoyed splendid food in wonderful company. The Acupuncturist, Timothy Schlenk, at the Spa, was excellent, and extremely helpful to both my husband and I, and perhaps the most valuable thing we took from this cruise. The Spa's "Couples Massage" was also excellent- truly one of The best massages we've ever had. And the Shopping Desk Manager was Truly helpful, and the ONLY member of the RCCL staff on this cruise whose attitude and abilities reminded us of the stellar service we received on our RCCL cruise last year.
Another "small thing" concerns selling drinking water- at $3.50 a bottle!- to cruisers, when, in our opinion, drinking water must be GIVEN to cruisers leaving a ship in tropical ports where drinking water is not a luxury. Drinking water is a total and absolute medical necessity in the tropics, especially for people not accustomed to living in the tropics. This was Especially upsetting in Labadee on our last RCCL cruise, as Labadee had no potable water. It was angering to find this policy still in place on this RCCL cruise, especially after we learned of at least 2 people who had passed out and collapsed. Cruisers are often older people, and people unaccustomed to living in the tropics; not providing them with drinking water in the tropics is dangerous, as well as ethically wrong.
After disembarking from the Liberty, and when we were finally seated in a cafe in Florida, my husband turned to me and said, "NOW it feels like we're on vacation!" That said it all, and what it said broke my heart.
Bottom line: We will cruise again, and are looking forward to it, as we know how great it can be, but not with RCCL, a company that is obviously in serious trouble, as 300 emails in my inbox daily touting their "bargain" cruises ("one week cruise for $385!") can attest to.

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