Cruise passengers’ glowing reviews at the end of a cruise might be legitimate and heartfelt, but that same passenger may give quite a different report a few days later in an online chat room. It’s sad but true: We remember the negative more than the positive. 

The travel agents that spoke with Cruise Industry News for this article said, overall, former passengers universally praised cruising, however …



Word of Mouth


Some travel agents said they heard complaints about crew onboard NCL America’s Hawaii cruises. The passengers said some crew members were unaccommodating and failed to wow them. In some cases, this caused those passengers to lose confidence in Norwegian’s products – even those with more international crew.

The service complaints flew directly in the face of the industry’s biggest strong point: excellent customer service.

“They have really taken a bad rap for the entire product, whereas it was really only a Hawaii-product problem,” said Dick Knorpp, director of sales at Cruise Village International in Maryland. “Unfortunately, a lot of the comment on the Hawaii product carried over to their Caribbean product, which wasn’t getting the same negative feedback.”

Carolyn Harper, the cruise specialist at Altour’s Desert Travel in Las Vegas, said West Coast customers were very excited about Hawaiian cruising, but were ultimately disappointed by lackluster service.

That said, many passengers love Freestyle-inspired cruising. Open dining has been a big hit for NCL.

Joan McCarty, owner of Specialty Travel Inc. in St. Petersburg, said some people aren’t happy unless they have something to complain about. McCarty said cruise chat rooms were full of concern when Royal Caribbean International purchased Celebrity Cruises. The worry was that under Royal Caribbean, Celebrity’s food quality would degrade.

“The food is much better than it was 24 years ago when I started doing this,” McCarty said. Some people just can’t be pleased. “They’ve got to have something to bitch about. If they don’t have something to bitch about, they’re not happy.”

Embarkation/Disembarkation

The biggest gripe from passengers is the most obvious: there is only one way on and off the ship, which means queuing up in a line.

"More, it’s getting on than getting off because people are eager to start their vacation, and they’re in that zigzag line all day,” said Bye. “The getting on is where we hear people say they have to wait forever.”

It’s easy to complain about the embarkations process, but doing something about the seemingly unavoidable bottleneck is much harder.

Attempts to put entertainment in the lines don’t really work, said Pickett. “It just creates more noise, really.”

Staggered and open disembarkation has helped, said Rudicil. Rather than waiting with everyone else to rush off the ship at once, passengers can leave at their leisure, or at least in smaller groups.

“It’s getting better on a lot of cruise lines, but not all,” she said.

Rich Skinner, co-owner of Cruise Holidays of Woodinville, Washington, said: “It really is the chink in the armor. They look like refugees … their little bag in their arm, trying to get their color coded tag.”

Skinner said he hoped innovative technology can someday improve the process.

Surprise Bills

What both travel agents and passengers don’t appreciate is the move toward more onboard revenue. Low ticket prices deprive agents of their commissions, while billing for ice cream and specialty coffee often pad an unwelcome bill at the end of a cruise.

More and more, Knorpp said, customers “feel they are being nickel and dimed onboard.” The bar drinks are more expensive and the reason ticket prices are low is clear, the push is for onboard spending.

Accumulated gratuities, spa bills and other onboard add-ons are something agents should warn passengers about, Rudicil said.

"The big bill at the end of the cruise always knocks a hole in the sail. There are so many more venues on these ships,” she said. “We used to say: ‘It’s all inclusive except for the alcohol; go have a ball;’ now, not so much.”

Pickett and others pointed out that: “If a customer starts to complain about additional charges, it’s time to move them up to the luxury lines where it is all inclusive.”

Agents Matter

So are agents still important in the age of internet booking? It seems so, because many would-be passengers are still in the dark about cruising.

Despite all the lines’ branding, many people still think cruises are homogenous – that all lines are the same, said Evan Eggers, president of Surecruise.com.

“The biggest complaint we hear is that they were advised by somebody to go on a line not right for their vacation personality,” Eggers said, stressing that the worst thing that can happen is for a couple seeking an intimate 100-passenger-type cruise to get on a 3,000-passenger ship.

Furthermore, many people think cruises only go to the Caribbean.

Bye said almost every day someone calls and is shocked to learn cruise ships go to South America, Asia, the South Pacific, Africa and Antarctica.

Excerpted from Cruise Industry News Quarterly Magazine: Summer 2008