Cruise ships and their photographers: It can be fun to use them!

The “boarding portrait”: More than a bit on the tacky side, but as you can see, on that occasion we did buy it!

If you have ever been on a cruise then you know what we’re talking about: cruise lines hire photographers to take photos of practically everything and everybody.  Opinions on these photographers seem to fall into one of two camps:

  • Those who love them and step into camera range at every opportunity;
  • Those who loathe them and wish they would just go away.

But even within these two groups, the extent to which cruisers buy the photos varies considerably.  Some of those who love to have their picture taken never actually buy them; at the same time there are those who complain but who do buy the pictures.

We can still remember our very first encounter with a cruise-line photographer.  We had just checked into our cruise aboard the Carnival Triumph with our then ten-year-old son.  We had our key cards in hand and were about to walk across the gangway to board, but before we were ‘permitted’ to do so, we (and everyone else in the line) had to stop  behind a life preserver emblazoned with the ship’s name and the Carnival logos to have our picture taken.  We had just flown from Toronto and looked a bit dazed – as did everyone else getting their boarding photo taken.  At that point we had no idea where, or if, we would ever see that photo.  It wasn’t long, however, before we learned about the photo gallery on board cruise ships.  No, these are not galleries of professional, artistic photographs for our viewing pleasure.  These galleries have portable, foldable walls that come out every evening to display all of the photos that the onboard photographers have taken that day – and some of them are a sight to see!

Oh so tacky: the roving dining room photographer provides us with a reminder of our Christmas dinner on Holland America’s Zuiderdam. But we bought again!

As that first cruise progressed we found ourselves accosted by photographers in all manner of locations.  Over the years we’ve learned that cruise ship photographers will inevitably take your picture in the following places and at the following times:

  • When you are boarding on the first day.
  • At the end of the gangway every single solitary time you disembark at a port (this happens much less in Europe we might add, all the time in the Caribbean).
  • Sometimes at the end of the pier with the ship in the background when you arrive in a port (this is a newer incarnation).
  • On your way to and/or from dinner on formal nights.  They will offer atrium and/or grand staircase backgrounds or those weird phony ones like in front of the Titanic staircase. On these nights the photographers will inevitably tell you how to stand, where to put your arms etc. and some of this looks very odd.  We often argue with them;  we usually win, but it isn’t easy and they have told us that they are instructed to do this.
  • During dinner with or without your dining companions in the shot.
A prime example of a fake background on semi-formal night aboard the Celebrity Century where we celebrated our 20th wedding anniversary a few years ago.

Some time the next day, these will all appear on the walls of the ship’s photo gallery.  You can buy them or ditch them – it’s up to you.  Ten cruises later, and we’re here to tell you that you need to take control of your photo experience on board – and we’re delighted to be able to tell you that as you become more discerning in your travel choices and graduate to the high-end cruise lines, there will no longer be any photographers.  That being said, it can be a lot of fun if you take control of the experience.

Based on our personal experiences on a variety of cruise lines (Carnival, thankfully only once, Holland American we believe three times, several times on Celebrity – all of that before Regent and Silversea who have wisely ditched their photographers), we have some advice for making the best use of the service.

  • Think of this as an opportunity for that really nice, formal family or individual portrait.  Put yourself in front of every photographer whose backdrop you like on formal nights.  You don’t have to pay a sitting fee as you would if you did this with a photographer at home.  Then when you see the ones you like the next day, you simply buy them.  We recommend waiting until the end of the cruise before making a final decision, unless you are convinced that you want the one from the first night.  These are usually 8 X 10’s and cost around $20.00 each.
  • Buy only the photos you really love or think are very fun!
  • Especially if you have children or it’s a special occasion, take advantage of the opportunity for a group photo somewhere fun – like at the end of the gangway in the Bahamas or Jamaica.  Work the cost into your on-board budget in advance if you need to.
  • Just say no – and be firm – if you do not want your photo taken, especially at the end of the gangway at every port.  This is the place where it becomes tired fastest in our view.  Do you really want your photo with a very large, stuffed lobster?  Last winter as we walked along the pier from the Silver Spirit (which wisely does not employ these photographers) in St. Martin we were accosted by a ship’s photographer – from an NCL ship that was on the other side of the pier.  We demurred, he insisted.  We said no, he cajoled.  We then pointed to the Silversea ship and he let us go.  Be very firm.
  • When you are really sick of the whole idea, switch to an ultra-luxury line.  No one will ever accost you again!
A family portrait aboard Cunard’s Queen Mary 2 last summer. It’s the only way for the three of us to get a professional portrait since we live on a different continent than our son. A great opportunity when we’re all dressed up.
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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.

Choosing a cruise: A discerning guide to getting it right!

The "fun ships" were on the agenda in the early days. Art & Ian going ashore in the Caribbean from the Carnival Triumph (back in the day).

We’re about to embark on cruise number eleven.  Eleven! In the winter of 1999 when we made a decision that our family vacation would be on a cruise ship, little did we know that we’d be hooked.  And little did we know that we’d become (if you’ll pardon the expression) cruise whores.  You see, over the years we have not been happily loyal; rather we’ve been happily jumping from one cruise line to another, every once in a while returning to an earlier favorite – but moving ever up the cruise food chain so to speak.

But, what exactly motivates a discerning traveler in making a decision about which cruise to choose?  There are lots of different reasons to choose one cruise over another, and the truth is that the priority you place on one over the other can and will change as you become more discerning in your travel planning.  The most important factors are the following:

  • Amenities
  • Itinerary
  • Price
  • Overall experience

…come along with us as we share a few stories of how these factors played into our decisions over the years.

Let’s start with amenities.  Back in 1999 we were traveling with a 10-year old.  We began our search for the perfect cruise by chatting with our travel agent.  Rule number one for cruising: Always, always, always use a travel agent.  We’ve extolled the virtue of our travel agent before, but it’s so important when you’re planning a cruise.  They have access to information that you don’t have and can be your go-between through the planning process.  They can also hold a booking for you while you decide on flights, hotels etc.  Back to the plan for the first cruise.

A young Ian poses in the (little) verandah stateroom aboard the Carnival Triumph.

“Well,” Alan our travel agent said to us at the time,” I’m going to recommend Carnival.  Now, if it were just the two of you, I would never recommend them to you.  But with a kid…”  So, Carnival it was.  A week-long Caribbean voyage on a sparkly, new ship with a recommended children’s program seemed like a good way to get our feet wet (!).  Sparkly it certainly was!  The glitz, glitter and all that neon were a bit jarring, but fun.  Ian loved the children’s program and we immensely enjoyed our verandah stateroom with the third berth.  It was tight, but we didn’t know that it could be any bigger.  Oh, how times change.

Alan was right – as he always was.  It was not a cruise that we would have gone on just the two of us.  Drunken spring breakers spent the full week on the deck, never once making it to the dining room.  Oh well, it meant that dining was a relaxing event with lots of staff to cater to our every whim.  But, would we ever go back on a Carnival cruise?  You couldn’t pay us!  All that neon, glitz and partiers are not our style.  So, amenities in the form of a great children’s program led us to begin our cruising life, but amenities as a priority decision-factor has changed over the years.

So, then there’s itinerary.  Where is the ship going?  Probably the time that this issue was most important to us was when we decided to spend our 20th wedding anniversary on a Mediterranean cruise.  So, we began by searching for a great Mediterranean itinerary.

Art & Ian celebrate our sail-away in our Queen's Grill suite aboard the Queen Mary 2.

We’d been on Holland America in the intervening years, but Celebrity was offering really interesting cruises starting in Barcelona.  So, in the end, the itinerary that would take us from Barcelona to Marseille, Monte Carlo, several stops in Italy, Corsica and Northern Africa entranced us sufficiently that we booked our celebration aboard the Celebrity Century. And we decided to treat ourselves to a Royal Suite.   As we’ve mentioned before – once you go up to a suite, there’s no going back! And so to the discussion of price…

Discerning travelers are always looking for value.  That means that we’re judicious about how we spend our money.  This means that price is not the guiding principle for us in choosing a cruise.  And perhaps you might consider putting it a bit further down your priority list as well.  Hear us out.

Your enjoyment of a cruise will never be based on its price.  Obviously, we all have to stay within our budgets, but we assure you that you’re playing Russian roulette with your holiday money if all you go on is price (that is of course unless you plan to eat and drink yourself into a stupor  so that you don’t notice anything else– in which case you could do that on your own couch in our view).  We’ve been listening and observing through the years, and we have concluded that it is safe to say that not every cruise line is for everyone.

Recently, a colleague of Art’s returned from a family cruise aboard a line that we have always avoided.  Knowing ourselves the way we do, it seems that we were right to do so.  The colleague complained that it was so laid back and casual that people even dined (in the main dining room) wearing T-shirts and ball caps.  If that’s your style, go for it – but we would not enjoy that, and neither did she.  So, you really do need to do some research – and travel agents are the best place to start.

And this brings us to the all-encompassing decision-making factor: the overall experience.  Lately, this has been our guiding principle.  What kind of ‘experience’ do we want?  We clearly chose last summer’s trans-Atlantic crossing on Cunard’s Queen Mary 2 because we wanted to experience the traditional voyage on a ship purpose-built for these kinds of crossings – we didn’t want to be on a re-positioning cruise.  Several years earlier, we chose a Holland America holiday cruise when we wanted to spend Christmas at sea en famille.  At that time, the overall experience we were seeking was Christmas at sea some place warm.  They did not disappoint!

Clearly, we do enjoy a bit of dress-up. We pose on the Queen Mary 2.

It’s hard to categorize the kinds of experiences that you want, but here are a few questions you might ask yourself before you spend your hard-earned money on the cruise of a lifetime:

  • Do you like to get dressed up once in a while, or do you prefer to wear your baseball cap to dinner?
  • Is the ship the destination for you, or are the ports more important?
  • Do you like to be surrounded by (other people’s) children, or  do you prefer the company of adults?
  • Do you need to have a place to retreat to (like your own verandah), or do you always prefer to be around other people?
  • Do you like quiet evening entertainment, or must you have a full-on, Broadway-type show?
  • Do you like glitzy extravagance, or does your personal style run more to the elegant?

Once you have answered these questions for yourself, you can take your answers to your travel agent and you’ve begun a discerning journey to a memorable (in a good way, we hope) cruise vacation.

Our own answers to these questions led us to our upcoming Puerto Rico to New York via Bermuda cruise with a revisit to a Royal suite.  We’ll let you know how that goes!

Stonehenge: Mystical or just mysterious?

Stonehenge on a dull morning in July

It had always been on Art’s list of places to see before you die.  It was on mine as well, I’ll admit, but it wasn’t as high up on the priority list. Always the opportunist, though, when I noticed that it was possible to take a side trip to Stonehenge on the way from London to board the Queen Mary 2 in Southampton, I decided that it was now or never.  And so we made the pilgrimage to Stonehenge.

As we drove through the countryside from London, our driver waxed rapturously about the “feeling” of standing there near the stones of unknown origin (make no mistake, despite what you’ve read, no one really knows why they were placed there.  Indeed, the Druid connection has actually been disproven, information that came as a surprise to me and that alien theory – the scholars don’t believe it!).  The fact that the stones were brought somehow from far afield is, however, impressive.  The driver called it eerie, unusual and unique; so we were ready to be wowed.

We parked in the designated parking lot across the road from the stone circle which is widely enclosed by a chain-link fence.  We then walked to the entrance which led to an underground pedestrian walkway (actually under the road) so that no cars came close to the site.  After picking up our audio-self-tour headsets (a necessity if you really want to learn anything at all), we made our way to the first stop on the audio-tour.  It was early in the day  (highly recommended) so that there were few others around.  This is the best way to experience these places in my opinion.  By the time we were leaving about an hour later, the place was really filling up (that was 11 am).

So we did the tour around the circle.  And we waited for the “feeling.”  I’m sorry to say that the tour was very interesting, but to tell you the truth, we were all (wife, husband, 22-year-old son) underwhelmed by the experience.  We never really did feel the mysticism and we were very surprised at how small the stones really are.  I’m not sure what we expected, but this wasn’t it.  That said, I wouldn’t have wanted to miss the experience.

Discerning travelers that we are, we booked this private tour/transfer through the online service London Tool-Kit which I used twice on this trip.  It’s an aggregator for a wide variety of service providers.  Paid for in advance, the private tour began at our hotel in London and took the detour to Stonehenge on the Salisbury plain on the way to Southampton.  The drive to Stonehenge (almost 90 miles west of London) takes just under 2 hours.  The drive from Stonehenge to the cruise terminal in Southampton was an hour.

With the tourists milling about, you can get a better sense of the size.