On this Baltic cruise Crystal continued to live up to its high quality reputation but the jury is still out on whether going all inclusive has caused a decrease in the level of service. We could not decide. The staff was still very friendly but they did not make any attempt to learn our names or drink preferences as they did on a previous cruise. However, this was an unusual cruise with only one sea day and the rest of the time it was a new port every day so there was not the same opportunity for the crew to learn about the passengers.
One aspect of the all inclusive policy that we liked is that room service provided two bottles of alcohol of our choice for use in the cabin. But what if you are a non-drinker? No refund is given in that case which does not seem fair. We also wondered what would happen to the remaining liquor when we left. On disembarkation day we overheard a debate between room stewards on the type of booze they liked best as they cleaned the vacated cabins. It was clear to us that at least some of the left over liquor would be consumed by the crew. Perhaps this was some compensation for the extra tips they did not get under the all inclusive policy.
Everything else went very smoothly except the Dining by Reservation (DBR) system. As we noted in another review of the Symphony, Crystal maitre d staff apparently do not like the DBR system and generally try to dump all the DBR people into the last sitting making sure DBR does not work the way it should. Princess manages their equivalent option much better.
We took several Crystal shore excursions which were generally good. We enjoyed a visit to Unique Lapland in Helsinki which recreated winter in a huge refrigerated building; the dog sledding was really fun. The Vasa museum in Stockholm was also excellent. The St. Petersburg tours were also good but the crowds were huge making it hard to get around the main sights. The Russian immigration routine and the fact you needed a visa if you were not on an organized tour were also problems. There were seven cruise ships in town when we were at St. Petersburg and that meant that the Hermitage and Peterhof were both packed. There is no getting away from the fact that a cruise ship will land a thousand or more tourists a day in a given city all of them wanting to see the same places at the same time. The more cruise ships in a particular port the worse the overcrowding. This is a fundamental problem that is going to get worse as cruising gets more popular.
Another strange thing that we observed on the excursions was that tipping the guides was much less common than it was before. On past cruises pretty much everyone tipped the tour guides but on this cruise we started to notice, and others confirmed, that many did not tip at all. Is this a consequence of the all inclusive policy? Maybe we should not have been tipping?
We did not like the step backwards that Crystal has taken to hold their emergency muster in an auditorium rather than at the actual life boats you would be expected to go to, as they did on past cruises. With increasing safety concerns for cruise ships and given the mass panic youd expect in an auditorium in case of a fire or ship listing to one side, this a dumb move. Having the passengers on deck at their stations also lets them see that they are not being abandoned by the ships officer which unfortunately has happened in previous accidents. Except for this and DBR we were generally pleased with our experience on Crystal.