It all started as the grand experiment: the discerning travelers would return to the scene of their first cruise ship suite experience, and travel in a Royal Suite on a Celebrity cruise ship. We’re just back from that cruise and the verdict is in: the Royal Suite was not royal, and either we’ve changed, or Celebrity cruises has faced the recession by short-changing their highest paying per-person-per-day cruisers (we say that because the only suites larger are the two penthouses which seem to mostly be occupied by multiples whose cost-per-day can be kept down by sleeping on pull-out couches and sharing a bathroom!).
The experiment needs a bit of background: after our first suite experience, we were convinced that this was the only way to travel, thus took another Celebrity cruise in the same category suite as well as two Regent cruises and one on Silversea. Both of these last two are billed as “six-star” luxury cruise lines and are all-suite accommodation (although the term suite covers a lot of ground). We also sailed aboard the Cunard Queen Mary 2 in a Queen’s Grill suite last year, a singular experience if ever there was one.
We first need to say that we had a wonderful time on our vacation, the staff on the ship (especially in the dining room) adding considerably to that favorable experience. However, as the “suite experience” goes, it failed the test of discerning travel. When is a suite not a suite? When it lacks the suite experience.
This was our third Celebrity Royal Suite experience. At just under 540 square feet with a living room, dining room, bathroom with double sink, Jacuzzi tub and stand-up shower, as well as a 195 square foot verandah, as cruise ship accommodations go, these should be luxurious. Well, that depends on how much you pay – and we paid a lot.
All of the suite experiences we had on luxury lines (Silversea and Regent, as well as the Queens Grill suite on Cunard) were terrific – but as anyone who knows anything about cruising recognizes, they are very expensive in relative terms. For example, aboard a Silversea ship for a comparable cruise in a comparable suite we paid almost double the cost of the Celebrity. Silversea is however, all inclusive, but does that justify the price? How much can you possibly drink in a week or two? At this stage, we think the Silversea price is justified. But you need the rest of the story.
We boarded the Celebrity Summit in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Unlike on the more exclusive lines, there are inevitable line-ups. Although there is a dedicated line for suite guests, there is a wait nonetheless. Last year when we boarded the Silversea Silver Spirit in Barbados, we were warmly greeted by staff and directed immediately to the ship where the check-in procedures took place. At Celebrity we were perfunctorily directed by a pointing finger wagged by a young man who looked to be fourteen years old. He directed us to stand behind an older woman who had decided to take the opportunity to have every single question about the cruise answered. Hmm…
Then we were directed to get our keys from the maître d’ next door who informed us that as suite guests we could dine “for free” that evening in the specialty restaurant of our choice. We chose our restaurant and our time and were promptly told we could not be thus accommodated. So, we opted out. (Later, our butler was able to procure a reservation at one of them – and not our first choice – after considerable haggling as he told it). But specialty dining is another story.
We boarded to find ourselves greeted by a tray of drinks and little else. (Oh, for the Cunard, Silversea or Regent greeting where they take your hand luggage and show you to you suite with a smile!). We found the staircase and made it to our suite on our own. When our butler found us, we were delighted to find that he was the same one we had had on the Celebrity Century almost five years ago in our first suite experience – so we expected to have exactly the same service. Well, things seem to have changed.
First, there was the water. We asked to have the expected carafe of ice water alongside the ice bucket on the suite bar only to be told that Celebrity had discontinued that service. There was now a large bottle of water (for purchase) in the suite refrigerator. When asked why this had been done (other than the obvious money grab), he told us that it had been done for health reasons. What nonsense! What’s the difference between the stainless steel carafe of water and the stainless steel bucket of ice beside it? Or for that matter, the communal jug from which ice water is continually poured during dinner? And what about their “save the waves” environmental program? Bottled water? Which reminds us: there is no recycling bin in the suite.
The cruise line web site indicates a number of impressive amenities in the suites. Frette linens, Bulgari bath products etc. However, a significant number of the expected (and listed amenities) failed to materialize: second hair dryer, slippers, “pillow menu”, reserved theater seating, tote bag (come on people, a flimsy grocery bag is not a tote), and our personal bug-bear – there was no luggage valet service (presumably on offer for everyone aboard). When we asked, we were told that it was in selected ports only – and we were further told that there was such an indication on the web site. With respect, we beg to differ, as this screen capture from their web site indicates. In any case, they did send us up a bottle of wine to compensate. Nice, but not what was on offer.
We then went out to our verandah where we intended to spend a lot of time. But the cushions were missing from the lounge chairs. When asked, the butler informed us that the cruise line had removed them during the refit in January since they were considered (by someone) to be a fire hazard. So, for two days we sat on loungers that were designed to be topped with comfy cushions until we could stand it no longer. Guest relations promptly sent up the cabin attendant with cushions that are evidently now provided only on request. If we had not been in the same suite previously, we would not have known that they were missing: we would only have known that Celebrity had the most uncomfortable lounge chairs known to man. Evidently were not the first guests to complain either.
There were two burned out light bulbs in the suite and one of the sinks in the bathroom lacked a stopper. Since these were not major inconveniences, we decided to see if anyone noticed during the eight days. No one did. It was often difficult to get service in a bar, and the debarkation process was chaos. Part of what sets the six-star cruise lines apart from others whose bread and butter is not their highest-paying customers is the attention to detail – details that you expect not to be overlooked.
There were other parts of the cruise that now lead us to believe that the recession has taken a toll on service and amenities – but that’s a story for another post.
The bottom line is this for us: when seeking a six-star suite experience, cruise on a six-star ship. Suites on the other lines appear to be simply larger staterooms. Pity.