I regret that this will be a longish review, but it is focused mainly on Celebrity's new combined charter and cruise package, which seems the have been a new idea aimed at cruisers in Canada during a (VERY) long and cold winter. I first noticed an ad for the package in late January. It was an excellent package, which included the classic beverage package and gratuities for each of us. It also included a charter flight from Ottawa (and three other cities, including Hamilton and Winnipeg, I understand). The price, to put it simply, blew our minds. When I showed the ad to my wife, she said simply 'Book it!'. Two hours or so later, we were booked. Since we are Elite Captains Club members, we got an upgrade to C3, which we then upgraded to C2. We also upgraded my beverage package (I do love my scotch).
This was our first time sailing on Reflection, although we have sailed in Concierge class on Constellation and Summit and in suites in Century. We've also sailed in RC's Explorer of the Seas and the QM2. I've sailed on two other liners from the 50s/60s - Home Lines' Italia and Homeric and a whole bunch of destroyers and other ships (cruise ships are better LOL).
The cruise and the total on-board experience, including embarkation and debarkation, were everything we could have wanted. Except as noted below, the embarkation process was smooth and efficient. We were directed into a line for Elite members, and on board within about 10 minutes of arriving alongside the ship. Our cabin was ready, and we quickly proceeded to the Sunset Bar, which we figured (quite correctly) would be open at that point. We stayed there until time for the muster drill, and returned afterwards for the Cruise Critic sail-away party, which we thoroughly enjoyed, although there were fewer CC members there than we expected. We did meet Dave and Tibby, who we had met through the Board prior to leaving Ottawa.
Again, with the caveat below, debarkation was as simple and pleasant as Celebrity could possibly make it. We had to be out of our cabins by 08:00 but weren't scheduled to debark until 9:30 or so, so we went to the Opus dining room for a very pleasant breakfast. We then, as Elite members, waited in the Tuscan restaurant for our turn to debark. At 9:45 we left the ship.
Over the years, I was of the increasing opinion that the quality of food had been declining since Michael Roue left as executive chef, but the current executive chef (Steve van der Merwe) certainly seems to have resolved that concern. The food and service in the Main Dining Room (Opus) were so good that we decided to cancel our specialty restaurant reservation and eat in the MDR for every dinner. We never regretted that decision. (Our table mates, Liz and Nick, and Sue and Gary, had a little something to do with that decision, too. They were GREAT!)
We were well and ably looked after by our ever enjoyable table staff, Neven, Ana and Rade (15 hours and twenty-seven minutes of service, according to Neven who kept track LOL). Both Neven and Ana looked after me at breakfast in the Oceanview Café as well.
Although the cabin felt smaller than same category cabins on previous cruises (based on pictures from this and previous cruises, the cabin appears to be about 9 inches narrower), this was offset by the very large balcony. We had one of the 'bulge' balconies (where the ship's side bulges out starboard side aft of the bridge) and the balcony was at least 50% larger than on any ship except the Summit, where we had a suite, and on Century, where we had an aft facing suite. There also seemed to be less storage space than on other Celebrity ships.
Our cabin attendant, Allan, was excellent, always polite and helpful. As Concierge class, some minor things, such as binoculars, which should have been in our cabin, weren't, but Allan quickly resolved those issues. The location of the cabin was was perfect, in that it was just aft of the forward elevator but not close enough to hear any movement or voices, and on the tenth deck, so there were no sounds from above. On rare occasions, we could hear our (pleasant) neighbours in the cabin forward of us, but, again, never loud enough to bother us, and we never heard them at all with the balcony door closed.
We did have a bottle of bubbly in our cabin on arrival, and got several others throughout the cruise (various celebrations, etc). This is a bit of a conundrum, as we appreciate the thought, but neither of us likes champagne, and we have no way of telling the staff ahead of time that we would be quite as happy with a bottle of dry white. Oh, well, first world problems.
We did get chocolate covered strawberries twice, which we (read: my wife) loved. Our hors d'oeuvres were OK initially, but after day three all we got was saltines and three different types of cheese. Rumour had it the ship ran out hors d'oeuvres. Hmmm?
There as certainly a plenitude of bars, but their hours of operation perplexed me. I could never figure out the rationale. That being said, I never failed to find one which was open, either. The bar staff, except for a single bartender, were consistently personable, cheerful and focused on providing outstanding service. There still managed to be a few memorable bartenders, including Rolly in the Sunset Bar (one of our favourite hangouts).
There are so many places to go and things to see on this ship that were were still finding new and interesting experiences right up to the last day. One of our favourites and one not to be missed, which we only found on day 5, was the Hideaway on deck 7. If you want a nice quiet place with comfortable chairs and solitude, this is the place to go. It even has self-service coffee and tea. VERY pleasant.
We did have one consistent quibble on the ship - the dimensions of the chairs. My wife and I are well under today's average height (5'7" and 5'1" respectively with very short inseams) and the chairs all seem to be designed for much taller people (except in the Hideaway and Michael's). This means that we either had to sit well forward so that our feet could touch the deck, or sit back with our feet up in the air. Very uncomfortable. Bar stools were also difficult; although my wife had little problem, with my arthritis and ever-present cane I found it almost impossible to mount the bar stools.
We enjoyed every second of our on-board experience, and look forward to rejoining Reflection in June for an Eastern Mediterranean cruise.
AND THEN THE BAD (UNFORTUNATELY)
Celebrity's charter flight from Ottawa to Fort Lauderdale, while an excellent idea which we hope they will repeat, gets a big FAIL for the Fort Lauderdale airport experience, both coming and going.
I am not posting this to put Celebrity Cruises down or to put anyone off from travelling with Celebrity. My wife and I love Celebrity, have sailed with them half a dozen times, and will definitely sail with them again (we're already booked on another Reflection cruise, just not out of Miami). I'm posting this in hopes that someone from Celebrity will actually read this and will see what can be done about some of the pre- and post- cruise experiences over which they have control.
We were met in Ottawa Airport by two very pleasant Celebrity representatives who made themselves known, made sure everyone knew where to line up, etc. The check-in desk for Canadian North had the charter company's name and logo, so it was easy to find out where to line up, even at 04:30 in the morning.
The charter flight was excellent, with cheerful, helpful cabin staff, good food, and free booze. The plane was clean and comfortable. We loved being called 'Celebrities'!
However, upon our arrival in Fort Lauderdale, no one seemed to know what was going on. Eventually, we found a person with a Celebrity sign who told us to get our bags off the carousels. That was it - no suggestion what to do next, where to go next, how we would actually get to the ship (in Miami), or anything. A lot of suddenly very unhappy (after a such great time on Canadian North) Celebrity guests gaggled around wondering what was going on and getting increasingly frustrated and annoyed as time went on. Eventually, we found the guy with the sign again, and all he said was 'stand over there', pointing to one side of the corridor. Over 130 guests ended up shoved into a small area which, given the size of the group, blocked the throughway for other airport travellers. A very rude Fort Lauderdale airport staff member corralled us and got us out of the way, shoving us into a small area bounded by a couple of chairs and some signage. Eventually, we found someone else to ask what what was happening. That person said there were buses coming, and we would have to carry our bags to the buses (which were parked quite a ways away, which was somewhat difficult for those of us with physical disabilities). Eventually we were given a number (randomly, there was no organisation noticeable) which indicated where we would have been in line, had there been a line. We were amongst the last half dozen or so people in the third or fourth bus. Once we were on the bus, the ride to Miami was pleasant, and the actual embarkation process was as simple, pleasant and smooth as it always has been. We were in our cabin within twenty minutes of exiting the bus and enjoying the Cruise Critic sail-away party right after the muster drill.
Debarkation from the ship was, once again, quick, simple and well handled. However, things went downhill almost as soon as we got off the ship. After we got our backs from the interminable carousels (there was no indication on which of the four carousels our bags would arrive - it ended up being the last, and they are BIG), there was also no-one to give us directions on where to go from there. We made the guess that the bus would be close to where it dropped us off and, in fact, there were several there, some loading, some unloading - very confusing. One or two of them had small signs in the front window indicating they were for Celebrity guests going to Miami and Fort Lauderdale. Confusion abound: at least one couple got on the bus to Fort Lauderdale rather than the Miami airport (the bus driver was nice enough to promise to drop them off at Miami on his return trip from Fort Lauderdale) and another bus went to the wrong terminal in Fort Lauderdale. There was no-one to meet us at Fort Lauderdale, so we made our (LONG) way to the terminal. Inside, there was woman with a Celebrity sign, who led us, at a pace far faster than those of us with disabilities could possibly match, on a tour of the terminal, Not being able to keep up with her turned out to be a good thing, as she led the group who could keep up with her down the escalator to the baggage pickup area and then back up the escalator to the departures area, about where we started, before we even got to the escalator. She then either outran or abandoned us; we never saw her again.
There was no check-in counter identified for Canadian North airline, and there was no-one to tell all 137 of us where to wait. Our porter, who was rude at best, eventually became so impatient that he just dropped our bags and left us in the middle of the terminal. Eventually, we found one airport worker who THOUGHT we might be at a particular check-in counter, and that's where we lined up. He was wrong as it turned out, but at least we had some place to wait. Almost 1 1/2 hours after we arrived in the terminal, a couple of people (with no identification showing any relationship to Celebrity or Canadian North) opened up a couple of check-in counters to the right of the one at which we were lined up. It turned out they were the check in representatives for the flight. Although they had no computer support whatsoever (even our baggage tags and boarding passes were hand written), they managed to process us in fairly quick order. The facilities past security were acceptable, if small. The security staff, except for one person, was rude and impatient. Once we were on the plane to Canada, we were once again treated well and courteously by the flight and cabin crew.
I have to make a personal point here. Normally, although I have moderate arthritis in both knees, I get around quite well with a cane, and do not ask for anything special (although many Celebrity staff went way out of their way to help me with buffet meals, which I truly appreciated). However, the Fort Lauderdale departures area was so small, and there were so few chairs, I was forced to stand in one place for two hours. At the end of this time, I was in significant pain, to the point my wife wanted to get me a wheelchair. That pain is entirely the fault of the poor organisation, lack of planning and abysmal implementation that went into getting us to our plane.
In summary, ignoring the airport fiasco, the cruise was outstanding, and all Celebrity people we met on board or in Ottawa were excellent. The flight and cabin crew members for Canadian North were the best they could be. Those parts of the trip were everything we wanted and expected.
HOWEVER, virtually everyone involved in processing Celebrity's guests in Miami/Fort Lauderdale was rude, ignorant and impatient. We did meet two very helpful, if rude and crude, staff when going through customs in Miami, but they were very much the minority.
I have a couple of degrees and am a consultant on project management, which often includes process management, so I feel bound to make some recommendations. It's a quirk of being a type A personality.
The worst part of this whole process was the lack of organisation and communication over what the processes in Fort Lauderdale would be. The many upset Celebrity guests would probably not have been nearly as upset if they had known what was going on. I suggest Celebrity needs to do four things to improve this process if they want the charter experience to be a fun and enjoyable part of the Celebrity cruise experience:
1. Communicate, communicate, communicate. We received an extensive joining package on-line before leaving Ottawa, which detailed all the normal boarding procedures and processes (both of which experienced Celebrity guests knew and understood quite well) but nothing about the charter flight arrival and departure procedures. Celebrity could have included details (including, perhaps, terminal maps) describing what would happen once we arrived at the airport, and where we would need to go. Celebrity also should have had informed, knowledgeable, pleasant and OBVIOUS representatives in the airport, with sufficient people to help round up all the off-loading passengers.
2. Celebrity could make the experience far better if they had crew members or even local workers unload all the bags off the charter flight and load them on to the buses, or, even better, onto separate vehicles and taken directly to the ship. This would have meant that the passengers could have proceeded directly from the plane to the bus to the ship, and would not have spent all over an hour waiting around for their baggage and then dragging it to the buses, where it then had to be loaded on, hopefully on the same bus as the passengers. Since all baggage on the flight was, of course, going to the passengers' cabins, so long as they were properly tagged, they could have been picked up and transported directly to the ship and the cabins. Any not tagged could have been left on the jetty for tagging by the guests who forgot to do so. Since Celebrity already has a Valet service, they must have all necessary approvals to take bags through customs and security, etc, so it is definitely do-able..
3. Ensure that, when the guests being transported to the airport arrive at the airport, there is someone there to guide them, that the check-in procedure is in place and operating, and that the people assisting Celebrity's guests (which they still are at this point) are knowledgeable, helpful and mindful of peoples' limitations. Rudeness or impatience are not, or certainly should not become, hallmarks of the Celerity experience.
4. Finally, while the attitudes and behaviour of the airport staff in Fort Lauderdale are obviously not under Celebrity's control, Celebrity might want to address the way Celebrity's guests were treated by Fort Lauderdale employees with the airport's senior management; Celebrity, as part of the Royal Caribbean family, should have enough heft to make their point that this is no way to treat visitors to the City and State). That treatment certainly reflects badly on the overall Celebrity experience.