Broadway shows run through dress rehearsals. New restaurants have “soft launches.” These run-throughs allow organizers to work out any kinks before their doors open to the public. What a bummer that the Port of New Orleans didn’t have the same luxury before Saturday’s departure of Royal Caribbean 137,308-ton, 3,114-passenger Voyager of the Seas.
Nothing — and we mean nothing — was easy in the Big Easy Saturday as passengers checking in to board the largest ship ever to homeport in New Orleans faced serious delays. Queues of nearly four hours at the city’s newly renovated Julia Street Terminal. Conflicting instructions from port staff. Lines that snaked into the street. Luggage delivery late into the night.
It was, says Cruise Critic member Thuman Vance, who has been on 25 cruises, her “absolute worst” embarkation experience. More than a dozen other frequent cruisers we talked to echoed the same sentiments.
As a result of the challenges, the ship departed New Orleans 2.5 hours late and some passengers didn’t receive their luggage until after 10 p.m.
“It was a perfect storm,” said Robert Jumonville, the port’s director of cruise and tourism. “We had a brand-new ship, [totally remodeled] terminal, new embarkation crew, new stevedoring crew. All that combined to slow down operations.” There were also mechanical issues (escalator malfunctions), and the wildly popular Helen Brett jewelry show, held at the adjacent convention center, snarled traffic on nearby streets. Disembarkation delays — Voyager was concluding a 12-night repositioning cruise — didn’t help either, and setbacks in getting the luggage off the ship had a carry-over effect.
“There were such great plans in place and great backup plans,” Royal Caribbean spokesman Harrison Liu said. “But it wasn’t to our level and expectations.”
Other factors also contributed to a frustrating day: The absence of cruise line representatives at the airport baggage claim directing passengers to buses for their ride to the ship. Forgotten transfers for a batch of international passengers who spent the night at a local Marriott. Travelers stuck sitting on buses for 30 minutes a mere 100 feet from the terminal entrance because there wasn’t enough room in the driveway for the buses to pull up.
Porters erroneously told some passengers to hand over even medium-sized luggage because it wouldn’t fit through the detectors at the security screening posts. At 5 p.m., when the ship was scheduled to leave the dock, at least 45 carts brimming with hundreds of pieces of luggage were still sitting on the dock. Some passengers reported needing to track down their luggage at bedtime because it hadn’t materialized yet.
Before Voyager, the largest ship to sail from New Orleans was the 102,000-ton, 2,758-passenger Carnival Triumph. Chris Bonura, Communications Manager for the Port of New Orleans, said the embarkation quagmire stemmed mostly from first-day kinks — and not really the influx of passengers. “Can we use more space?” asked Jumonville. “Of course we can, but what we have is absolutely adequate.”
“We definitely learned where some of our needs still remain,” Liu said. “When the ship returns here on [November 19], guests will notice a huge difference.” Jumonville and Bonura concurred. “We have a big conference call with RCI to discuss the shortcomings, failures and successes, and get everything ironed out,” said Jumonville. “We apologize to passengers who were inconvenienced, and we’re working on fixing it,” added Bonura.
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