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Archive for October, 2006

New Caribbean, Grand Turk style

Posted by Anita Dunham-Potter On October - 30 - 2006

While the Turks and Caicos island group has become a hot luxury spot with million-dollar homes and exclusive resorts on the island of Providenciales (also called “Provo”), Grand Turk has been little known outside the circle of diving aficionados who come to explore the third-largest coral reef system in the world. That relative obscurity changed with the opening of Carnival Corporation’s new $50 million port facility, Grand Turk Cruise Center, earlier this year.

Once just a barren strip of sand, the 13-acre complex has been planted with lush vegetation. The terminal is laid out like a mall, and the pier can accommodate two 100,000-ton-plus ships per day. This year alone the center will welcome some 175,000 passengers on 120 ship calls from nine different cruise lines. Carnival Corporation says that figure will rise to 320,000 passengers on 180 ships calls in 2007.

The cruise center has its own beach, pool, shops and restaurants where passengers can shop, tan and tour to their hearts’ content, just a stone’s throw from the ship. Passengers can lounge on the white sand beach for free in one of the 1,100 chairs or loungers or, at extra cost, they can have one of the comfy cabanas. The center’s focal point is the huge, winding swimming pool, which has a swim-up bar, umbrellas and several hundred lounge chairs. Next to the pool is a huge Margaritaville restaurant, one of a chain of restaurants and bars owned by singer Jimmy Buffet, where you can grab a Red Stripe beer or the ubiquitous margarita. Duty-free shops include major Caribbean retailers like Little Switzerland. A separate area features craft huts, an Internet center and restrooms with changing facilities and lockers.

Passengers seem to love the new terminal. On my Crown Princess cruise, guests raved about the facilities and appreciated the island ambiance. “It’s like a private island experience,” remarked one passenger.

“Consumer response to the new call at Grand Turk has been nothing short of phenomenal,” says Carnival president and CEO, Bob Dickinson.

Old Turk

The cruise center is a nice, controlled Caribbean experience, but to get a real sense of the island’s unspoiled beauty you need to venture away from the terminal and the crowds. Grand Turk is a tiny island with just 3,700 residents, and much of it reminds me of the “old” Caribbean. Pristine beaches, dusty roads, salt ponds and grazing cows are the main attractions, though the island claims two historic visits: Christopher Columbus may have made his first New World landfall here in 1492, and astronaut John Glenn certainly splashed down in Grand Turk’s lovely turquoise waters in 1962, after he became the first American to orbit Earth.

From the cruise center, it is a five-minute taxi ride into Cockburn Town, the island’s largest town. A walk along Duke Street, the town’s main drag, offers just one rustic hotel, one lively bar and two shops selling island mosaic art and conch shells. There is also a post office and a small red-and-white church. If you’re in the mood to check out the local fare, be sure to try the conch burger at the Birdcage Restaurant, which is part of the Osprey Hotel. Around the island there are other charming spots like the old Majesty’s Prison and Lighthouse Park, which has a working lighthouse dating back to 1852. If you visit the lighthouse from December through April, you might spot migrating humpback whales.

Of the many shore excursions available, snorkeling and diving are at the top of the list. (The island’s barrier reef is 2.5 miles long.) There is also a terrific excursion to Gibbs Cay that allows customers to swim with stingrays. There are also kayak tours, beach breaks and a dune-buggy safari. A convenient hop-on, hop-off bus tour operates on a continuous loop around the island, enabling travelers to visit the lighthouse and prison.

Grand Turk is a great place to spend a day. I hope it can keep a measure of its pristine charm.

For more information visit: the Grand Turk Cruise Center official Web site and the
Turks and Caicos Tourism Web site.

Filled Under Destinations

Bumped in the Baltic

Posted by Anita Dunham-Potter On October - 23 - 2006

Last winter, Rosemary and Ken Spencer booked their seven-day Baltic cruise with MSC Cruises through their local travel agent in Oshawa, Ontario. Rosemary called it “the cruise of a lifetime” and a chance to spend some quality time with her 86-year-old mother, who lives in England. But in late March, two months before sailing and two weeks after Rosemary had made the final payment, her travel agent called with some shocking news: The Spencers had been bumped off the ship to make room for a charter group.

Bumped by MSC Cruises

When Rosemary first visited her travel agent to book her Baltic trip, she had never heard of MSC Cruises. That’s not surprising. MSC Cruises is not a household name in North America, though it has a presence in the Caribbean during the winter season. But MSC Cruises is well known in Europe, where it is a fast-rising star in the cruise industry. The cruise line is a division of Mediterranean Shipping Company (MSC), the world’s largest privately owned shipping company, which operates a fleet of more than 300 cargo ships. The cruise line, which had a modest fleet of three ships in 2001, now has nine ships and expects to add two more by 2010.

The travel agent liked MSC Cruises for the Spencers’ trip. It had the ports they wanted to visit and the schedule they specified — all at a good price. But Rosemary wanted reassurance. Her travel plans included a month-long visit with her mother in England, and those plans involved independent air arrangements and special tours that could accommodate her mother. The cruise would be the capstone of the trip and Rosemary, who had heard that cruises were sometimes canceled, wanted to be certain this one was a go. Her agent said of course it was.

So you can imagine Rosemary’s reaction some months later when her agent called to report that the Spencers had been bumped off the cruise — along with all the other passengers — because a large business group had chartered the ship. There was compensation, of course. The Spencers got their cruise fares back, and they were given the option to book another cruise at a 25 percent discount. Their travel agent even threw in $150 worth of dining certificates to a local restaurant. Still, Rosemary was enraged. She had invested time and money planning the trip, and there were no other cruise dates that would work for the family.

“I was gob-smacked,” Rosemary says. “After all, I paid for the cruise. Isn’t that a legally binding contract?”

It’s not right, but it’s legal

The short answer is no. No federal or state laws prohibit a cruise line from dumping passengers to take on a charter group; such matters are governed exclusively by the cruise line’s own contract of carriage.MSC Cruises’ Passenger Contract states: “Before the Voyage begins, the Company has the right to cancel the Voyage for any reason without notice. The Company shall refund the full amount of the Fare received, and the Company shall have no further liability whatsoever.”

There it is, in the fine print: The cruise line can do pretty much whatever it wants.

Even some members of the legal profession see it this way. Thomas Dickerson, a judge in Westchester County, N.Y., and the author of “Travel Law,” says, “The unpleasant reality is that the cruise vessel’s responsibilities and your rights as an injured passenger are governed not by modern, consumer-oriented common and statutory law, but by 19th-century legal principals, the purpose of which is to insulate the maritime industry from the legitimate claims of passengers.”

Travel agents aren’t happy with the situation, either. Kathryn Sudeikis, past president of the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA), says bumping is a huge issue for the cruise industry. “The position of the travel agent community is it is totally wrong for this to happen; it’s not acceptable,” she says.

“We know it’s going to cost us”

I called Richard Sasso, president of MSC Cruises’ North America Division, to ask about the Spencers’ cruise. Sasso is a cruise industry veteran of 35 years — first with Celebrity Cruises and now MSC — and he was both candid and unapologetic about the bumping situation.

Sasso said MSC Cruise’s policies and procedures are standard industry practice; he even cited Carnival Cruise Line’s decision to charter ships to the Federal Emergency Management Agency after Hurricane Katrina. When I suggested that MSC might have bumped the passengers of an undersold sailing in favor of a more profitable charter opportunity, he said, “That’s business.”
He conceded that when passengers get bumped, “It’s going to cost us something.”

In fact, Sasso considers MSC Cruises’ compensation to be generous. “When this happens, we offer the standard 25 percent off a future cruise with no restrictions,” he says, pointing out that this is more than is required under the contract of carriage. “If you look at our cruise contract verbatim, it’s: ‘Sorry, you don’t get anything.’ Twenty five years ago, if a situation like this happened, it was: ‘Sorry. Here’s your money back,’ and that was it. Today, we have a matrix of what to do in situations like this that did not exist 25 years ago.”

Sudeikis agrees that MSC Cruises’ offer was generous, but argues that generosity should be the benchmark in every case of bumping, because the passengers lose the cruise through no fault of their own. She also found the timing of the cancellation, just two months before sailing, to be disturbing.

Generous or no, the Spencers refused MSC Cruises’ offer because they believed the situation to be highly unfair. In fact, Rosemary feels so strongly about the injustice that she created a Web site called Cruise Bumping, which documents her battle with MSC Cruises and asks for support. In the end, the Spencers spent their month in England with Rosemary’s mother as planned, then took their booked flights to Copenhagen without her. After a tour of the city, they hopped on a train to Stockholm. “I highly recommend the train,” Rosemary says, adding that she wouldn’t touch MSC Cruises again, not even with a barge pole.

After reviewing the Spencers’ case, Sasso said, “Unfortunately, you’re going to have a few that take it to the extreme. … We think our compensation offer is fair.”

What do I think? I think it’s wrong to dump passengers from a cruise only two months from departure simply because a better deal came along. Yes, “That’s business,” but it’s the kind of anti-consumer business that deserves exposure for its injustice.

Filled Under Ombudsman

Bugs in your luggage! 5 tips

Posted by Anita Dunham-Potter On October - 16 - 2006

Ah, yes, that unexpected and most unwelcome “take-home gift”: bugs in your luggage.

Hotels, cruise lines and airlines don’t like to talk about these little creatures. But no matter how well kept a hotel, cruise ship or airplane appears to be, there are always some bugs that manage to beat the extermination system. Bedbugs, especially, seem to be making a comeback, but roaches, ants, spiders, beetles — even snakes — can escape Housekeeping’s best efforts. If you travel enough you may unwittingly be carrying some little stowaways in your luggage. I have had to deal with my share of “lug bugs,” and let me tell you: They can cause more trouble than you can imagine once you get them home.

Creepy-crawly stowaways

At the peak of my traveling days as a flight attendant, I was spending about 160 nights a year in hotels. Most of the time the hotels were first-rate, and I never thought for a moment that they could harbor creatures that felt the need to travel with me. And yet on one occasion at a fine hotel in North Carolina, I watched in horror as three roaches crawled into my briefcase. On another occasion, I dealt with “Roachzilla” in New York City (fortunately, the 3-inch-long creepy-crawly didn’t make it into my luggage). On two different cruise vacations, I encountered creatures that I cannot even name.

Dealing with an uninvited houseguest

My husband and I once noticed a critter in our home that we had never seen before. My husband dealt with (splat!) the creature, then put it into a plastic bag so we could show it to the exterminator. When he examined it the next day, the exterminator had just three words: “It’s not local.”

When we told him we’d recently been on a cruise and had stayed at hotels in the Caribbean, he laughed. Anyone who does any amount of traveling, especially to warm, humid climates, may unknowingly bring bugs home in their luggage, he told us. The critters like to hide in the folds of your clothes and in the dark corners of your suitcase. The problem is that they can then infest your house when you get home. He suggested the following tips to keep these lug bugs at bay:

* Keep your luggage off the floor and on a luggage rack.

* Keep your luggage closed — and zipped — at all times.

* Keep food out of your suitcase, or at least keep it in tightly sealed containers.

* Throw away all cardboard boxes as soon as you get home. Bugs love to lay eggs in corrugated boxes.

* If you travel for long periods, especially to warm, humid places, you may need to “debug” your luggage after you’ve unpacked. The trick is to wrap your suitcase in a plastic garbage bag and leave the bag on for two weeks. If any bugs have infested your luggage, they (and their eggs and offspring) will be extinguished from the lack of oxygen.

Right now I have three suitcases in plastic bags from recent trips to the Caribbean. I don’t take anything for granted anymore.

So, next time you are on a trip, take this advice, and maybe you won’t get stuck with the “lug bug” — and a $200 exterminator bill!

Filled Under Advice

What’s not to like about Carnival?

Posted by Anita Dunham-Potter On October - 9 - 2006

Think the “Fun Ships” are beneath you? Think again.

Certainly, Carnival Cruise Lines (CCL) has a reputation for less-than-classy cruising. “Booze cruise!” laughed one friend when I said I was heading out on a four-day Carnival cruise to the Bahamas. “Trailer-park cruising,” sniffed another. Well, I hadn’t been on a Carnival ship in seven years, so I decided it was time to see for myself whether CCL’s “Animal House” reputation would withstand scrutiny.

My ship was the 2,200-passenger Sensation, a 13-year-old ship that had recently provided emergency housing in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. After its charter with the Federal Emergency Management Agency expired, the Sensation underwent a multimillion dollar refurbishment that added a nine-hole miniature golf course, expanded the kid’s Camp Carnival center, upgraded the spa and gym area, and put fantastic new bedding and flat-panel TVs in the suites.

Despite the refurbishments, the ship feels dated. Launched in 1993, at a time when Carnival was intent on changing the stuffy image of cruising, the Sensation is one of Carnival’s first big Fun Ships, and it is a floating Las Vegas of neon, neon and more neon. Purple dominates the décor, and the carpets are awash in vivid zigs and zags. I can only imagine the effect in rough seas. The ship is also showing some wear and tear in areas like the elevators, but it is clean and well maintained.

The Carnival crowd and the Carnival atmosphere

It’s clear that Carnival attracts a wide range of passengers. On my mid-September cruise from Port Canaveral, Fla., to the Bahamas, every demographic imaginable was on board — retirees, young couples, singles, families, gays and a lot of military personnel. Many were there because the price was right. In fact, one longtime Carnival cruiser I met had scored a $169 fare at the last minute. “These guys really know how to put on a great cruise,” he told me. “They offer the best value in cruising — by far.”

I heard the same thing over and over from passengers who were more than satisfied with the time they were having. Groups of family and friends seemed to have the best time of all. The only unhappy people I saw were a bunch of disappointed Steelers fans gathered in the Polo Lounge for ESPN’s “Monday Night Football.” I was one of them. Good thing we were on a Fun Ship, so we could scream and yell and drown our sorrows together.

It’s true. There’s something about a Carnival cruise that brings out your inner extrovert. The choice of social activities and group attractions is endless: miniature golf, spa treatments, gym, three pools, movies, karaoke, a busy children’s program with an energetic staff — you name it, it’s on board. But it’s the passenger-participation spectacles that provide the most memorable moments. The best was the poolside “Hairy Chest Contest,” in which fur-ball rivals competed to get audience approval (and to cop a feel from the curvy, bikini-clad judge). There was more people-watching on Formal Night, when passengers trotted out fashions that ranged from elegant evening gowns to eye-popping spandex.

There are places on the ship for the occasional introvert, too, including plenty of nooks and crannies for curling up with a good book or surfing the Internet. The aft pool offered a quiet place to get some sun and to escape the thumping music heard in many of the ship’s public spaces. I really enjoyed my penthouse balcony for quiet reading, though the bistro chairs were way too small and I had to drag my room chairs out to get comfortable. Still, I counted myself lucky. The Sensation is an older ship, and balconies are scarce — only 54 of the Sensation’s 1,026 staterooms have a balcony.

Dinner and a show

Where Carnival really shines is in the dining, especially in the main dining rooms at dinner. Each night I ordered dishes designed by Carnival’s French master chef Georges Blanc, a selection that included lobster, chateaubriand and an exotic lavender soufflé — all perfectly prepared. I paired them with some excellent French and American chardonnays chosen (at extra charge) from the wine list put together by Carnival’s president and CEO, Bob Dickinson. Dickinson is a wine connoisseur, and Carnival has the largest selection of vintage wines at sea. If you like the selection, you can join Carnival’s Presidential Wine Club, and have wine sent to your home every month.

Lest you think the dining room is too “Oo la la” for you, I should mention that the Fun Ship atmosphere enters here, too. After supervising a magnificent gourmet feast, the immaculately dressed maitre d’ and waiters entertained diners with a multinational version of “O Sole Mio” complete with lighters in the air and an occasional “Yee haw!”

The Seaview Restaurant, Sensation’s buffet venue, paled in comparison to the main dining room, but its offerings for breakfast, lunch and dinner were fairly good. There were late-night buffets, too, but they were a far cry from the spectacular spreads and over-the-top dessert tables offered on longer Carnival cruises.

Other dining options on the ship include the poolside Lido Grill, a 24-hour pizzeria, an awesome New York-style deli (the Reuben sandwich is to die for), an Asian specialty area serving sushi, and (for an additional charge) a patisserie serving coffees and desserts. If Bridget Jones were keeping a diary of the food and drink consumed on the Sensation it would read, “Alcohol units: tons; Calories: gazillions.”

Things really get hopping at night on the Sensation. Traditional entertainment can be found in the ship’s main theater, the Fantasia Lounge, where glittering stage productions are always well attended. In addition to the big shows, guests have a wide range of entertainment options to choose from, including:

* Pre-dinner dancing in the Fantasia Lounge with the ship’s orchestra.
* Live calypso music in the sea air on the Lido Deck.
* Karaoke and lots of silly fun in the Plaza Lounge.
* Dancing in the Michelangelo Lounge, the Kaleidoscope Disco, and The Mirage Bar (Motown music).
* A midnight R-rated comedy show.

Are you in a more mellow mood? Then head for the Touch of Class bar, where Colin tickles the ivories. But if the electronic chatter of slot machines is more your style, then head straight for the casino, where there is always plenty of action.

“Animal House”?

Was it “Animal House”? No, it wasn’t.

Yes, I did see a lot of drinking over the four days I spent on the Sensation, but I didn’t see anyone throwing up and nobody fell overboard. Instead what I saw was people letting it all hang out: enjoying silly contests, line dancing, dirty jokes, team games, conga lines and way too much food. “Fun Ship” about says it all.

The only thing that wasn’t fun about this cruise was disembarkation, which became a fiasco when a cluster of overly anxious passengers refused to follow directions. Result: mass chaos in the hallways and stairways trying to get off the ship. Fortunately, it didn’t last more than 45 minutes.

All in all, the Sensation is a very affordable cruise that offers excellent food, terrific service, good staterooms and over-the-top entertainment. To those who turn up their noses at Carnival, I have to say: “I’d go again in a heartbeat.”

So, there.

Filled Under Ombudsman, Reviews

Cruise blues: how to complain

Posted by Anita Dunham-Potter On October - 2 - 2006

You’ve just returned home from a disappointing experience on your cruise vacation. Maybe the soup was cold or your hall mates were rowdy. Maybe bad weather knocked out your favorite port call. You tried to solve the problem on the ship, but you didn’t get anywhere. What do you do now?

You put your complaint in writing, that’s what.

A letter can go a long way in voicing your dissatisfaction with your cruise. A letter makes your complaint official and pretty much requires a response from the cruise line. It’s your best shot at resolution, so you need to make a good case. Here’s how to do it.

Get organized

The first key to achieving satisfactory results is getting organized. Here are some key points:

* Calm down. For many people, this is the hard part. But if you don’t put anger and disappointment aside, you will just end up ranting or whining — and that won’t get you anywhere.

* Make notes. Write down exactly what happened (“Just the facts, Ma’am.”). Include a record of each attempt to remedy the situation, along with the names and positions of those you have dealt with, if you know them.

* Gather documents. Copy any receipts, incident reports, photographs, witness statements or other documents that explain and support your case. Never send original documents, only photocopies.

* Put away the poison pen. You have to strike the right tone. You don’t have to suck up, but you mustn’t indulge in name-calling and derogatory commentary. You’re trying to resolve an problem, not start a new one. The correct tone conveys respect for the company and an expectation that the matter can be resolved.

Keep it simple

Alan Wilson, editor and publisher of Cruise News Daily, says it’s important to keep the letter brief, clear and concise. “Don’t go into a whole laundry list of issues,” he counsels. “Highlight the one or two main issues but don’t write a 12- page letter of every issue you may have.”

Here are some composition helpers:

* Type your letter.
* Give your reservation number.
* Keep the narrative of events in chronological order, but explain all the details.
* Specify how you would like the issue resolved; offer solutions.
* At the end, give a brief summary and a cordial sign off.

When you finish the letter, sleep on it and then reread it in the morning. Better yet, have someone else read it.

Most importantly, don’t be belligerent.

“Don’t even hint at threatening legal action or adverse publicity,” Wilson says. “If you do, the cruise line will be a lot less willing to help you and more interested in giving you exactly what you deserve under the cruise contract — which usually is nothing.”

To whom it may concern

Some people don’t agree with me, but I firmly believe you should address serious complaint letters to people as high in the chain of command as possible. Why? Because if the letter is very important to you, it should be important to the company’s management, too. Cruise lines are in a service business, and their executives sometimes need to be reminded that their business rises and falls with customer satisfaction. So, never address your letter to the anonymous “Customer Service Department.” Instead, direct it to the manager of customer relations, director, vice president – or even to the president of the cruise line. I am not deluded. I don’t think every letter is being read by the big cheeses, but on more than one occasion, I have been pleasantly surprised.

Resolution takes time

Don’t expect an immediate reply to your letter. The average response time is between 30 and 60 days (shocking, but true).

“They don’t just sit down and write a reply,” Wilson explains. “They research what you’ve told them and usually wait to reply until they know that some action has taken place on what you’ve reported.”

But what if you’ve calmed down, gotten organized, written a good letter, waited patiently and still aren’t getting anywhere?

Sadly, it’s often only dogged persistence or the timely threat of legal action that finally yields results. Or public exposure in online columns such as this one. Thanks to the Internet, there is now a great deal of help for customers wishing to take a stand against a company. Recently, I helped Carol and Arnie Rudoff, a couple from Arizona, settle an issue with Princess Cruises after they had gotten nowhere for five months. It took third-party intervention, but in the end, Princess did the right thing.

So, if you aren’t getting anywhere with your cruise complaint, e-mail me. I’ll do my best to find out why you aren’t getting the response you deserve.

Helpful links

Customer Service Report (CSR), Christopher Elliott’s Web site has addresses and e-mail listings for major travel companies.

Microsoft Word travel complaint templates are a great resource for helping you compose a professional letter.

Filled Under Advice