The ‘suite experiment’: Celebrity cruises ‘royal suite’ fails the test

The Celebrity ‘royal suite” living room & dining room.

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.

Art – need we say more?

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.

The snip from the Celebrity web site – snipped after our return. No mention of “only in selected ports” here. Check it out at http://www.celebritycruises.com/onboard/singleColLanding.do?pagename=onboard_outstanding_service

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.

The chaises in the foreground. No cushions? What were they thinking?

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.

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Dressing for dinner: An eye on cruise line dress codes

The Discerning Travelers strike a pose on board a Celebrity cruise ship on a designated formal night.

Some people like a kind of laid-back beach holiday that finds them schlepping around in a T-shirt and shorts with a cold brew always at hand.  Others have to sky-dive or parasail or bungee jump every day.  We are travelers of a different stripe.  We like to drink great wine, walk for miles and miles exploring new and now-familiar cities, have new experiences, sample a new cocktail or two – and dress for dinner.

There’s something just a bit sad about how people “dine out” these days.  Just recently, we read a blog where the writer suggested that dinner is really only about the food.  Well, we respectfully disagree.  Dinner is about dining, and dining refers to a whole lot more than eating.  You can eat anywhere, including your couch.  Discerning travelers are also discerning diners.  We are interested in the whole experience.  Where we eat and the surroundings are as important as the food, and part of those surroundings focus on what you wear when you eat.  Cruises are a prime example of what, where and how one can eat.

The very first time we cruised, we were bemused by the vast number of people who chose to remain on deck in their bathing suits all day and most of the evening, leaving their deck chairs only long enough to load up their plates at the nearby buffet, returning to sit on the edge of the chair, face in their plates, chowing down through the pile of food.  (Presumably they then leave to use the facilities – but we are only guessing here).  Food for us is much more than eating, and dressing for dinner is one of the pleasures of both land and sea-based vacations.

This past weekend, we took some time to make a few decisions about what to pack for the upcoming vacation that will put us on land in Puerto Rico for a few days and then at sea  through the Caribbean, up to Bermuda and then farther up to New York.  Packing for a cruise has its special considerations as we peruse the various ‘dress codes’ that cruise lines use.

Cruise lines seem often to have a language of their own.  Every cruise line has in its FAQ’s a question that goes something like this:  What is the dress code on board?  The answer depends on the line, its brand and its target market.  Let’s look at a few.

Formal night on the Regent Seven Seas Navigator.

Some cruise lines have begun to distance themselves from the more formal evenings, which is a shame in a way, but we do recognize that there are people who don’t find it fun to get dressed up.  If, however, there is a dress code in the dining room, you’d do well to follow it, or risk the stink-eye from fellow cruisers, or worse, ejection from dinner to a more casual corner of the ship.  Some cruise lines actually refuse you entry to the dining room if you are not properly attired (God love Cunard) while others seem to turn a blind eye (although, rest assured, other passengers don’t and you’re being disrespectful of their experience).  So, if you don’t like to get dressed up, pick a different line!

Regent Seven Seas cruises that has played host to us on two vacations over the past three years is a six-star line that has gone to what they call “elegant casual” for every evening with “formal optional” nights on longer cruises.  On this kind of a cruise line, people do follow the dress code, and many cruisers who prefer the more laid-back approach of say NCL, might find the dress formal even on elegant casual nights.  Their dress code says, “Attire ranges from Casual to Formal Optional. Casual wear is appropriate for daytime onboard or ashore, and consists of resort-style outfits. Casual wear, including shorts and jeans, is not appropriate after 6:00 pm, with the exception of the final evening of the cruise.”[1]  The cruisers on Regent do take appropriateness seriously.

Patty and son, Ian, descend the central staircase on Cunard's Queen Mary 2.

Silversea, a line we have traveled on only once last winter, another six-star line, has this dress code: “Evening attire falls into three categories: casual, informal and formal. On casual evenings, open-neck shirts, slacks and sports outfits are appropriate. On informal evenings, women usually wear dresses or trouser suits; gentlemen wear jackets (tie optional). Appropriate formal evening wear for women is an evening gown or cocktail dress; men wear tuxedos, dinner jackets or dark suits. On formal nights, guests dining in La Terrazza may opt to wear casually elegant attire (dresses or trouser suits for women; jacket, tie optional for men).”[2]  Again, they take this seriously.

On Cunard last summer, formal meant formal.  Full-length formal gowns and tuxedos far outnumbered the cocktail dresses and dark suits on the Queen Mary 2, and anyone skulking around in shorts quickly departed (and were not welcome in the dining room in any case).

Next week we’ll be aboard the Celebrity Summit, our third trip on this line.  Our documents indicate that there are two formal nights on this eight night cruise and the rest are “smart casual & above” a category of dress that often baffles and leaves it open to serious interpretation.  In general, however, this means no T-shirts, jeans, shorts or flip-flops.  It means a summer dress or pants and fabulous top for women, and open-collared shirt with slacks and cool shoes for men.  A really cool, above-smart-casual man will wear a jacket as well.

Formal nights for us mean evening gown and tux.  Art always frowns when he has to pack his tux (he frowns only at the packing of it, not the wearing ), but this time he’s in luck. Celebrity has a formal-wear rental program and his tux with all the accoutrements (and he even ordered formal shoes) will be hanging in our suite when we open the closet door on Saturday afternoon.  And it will fit perfectly: we know this from past experience.  All it requires is for you to measure carefully and input the correct measurements when you pre-order online.  Patty, on the other hand, will schlep formal gowns (or in this case one formal gown with two different optional jackets for ease of packing).  A tip for formal gowns for cruises: when you’re shopping for one, always gauge its heft before you try it on.  If it’s heavy, don’t even take it into the dressing room.  Then if it passes the weight test, take a bunch in your hand and ball it up.  When you let it go, if it still has creases, leave it on the rack.  Remember, you’re not permitted an iron in your stateroom on a cruise ship.  The best you’ll be able to do is go to a communal laundry room to wait in line for an iron.  If it doesn’t pack well, don’t buy it.  Then find several different kinds of wraps – better yet jackets these days.  Wraps are cumbersome and usually look overly stuffy.

There's nothing better than the sight of a man in a tuxedo - unless it's two men in well-fitting tuxedos. Art & Ian onboard the Queen Mary 2.

The experience of dining in a wonderfully appointed dining room surrounded by people who have taken the time to look their very best for the evening is a vacation experience that everyone should have once in a while.

There's a little bit of "Gloria" in all of us!