When a cruise company offers rock-bottom prices, you have to wonder why it was necessary to do so. Has the brand lost popularity among its clientele, or did the line use the lure of a bargain to attract first-timers who will become repeat customers? For the first Alaska cruise of the season, our 11th with HAL, we paid less than what the competition was charging and less than we paid on the Alaska run in 2007. Canadians like us made up two-thirds of the passenger complement.
However, it’s pretty much a law of economics: you pay less, you get less. In this case, ‘less’ meant, first of all, slicing the food budget, reducing variety and quality in The Lido restaurant and cutting portion sizes in the dining room. One night I ordered scallops and got two – two! – with a teaspoonful of sauce. Staff size also appeared to have been reduced in the food and beverage areas, which slowed down the service.
The entertainment was just not good enough. Some of the lounge singers, while enthusiastic, suffered from off-key delivery. We felt embarrassed for the talented song-and-dance troupe having to perform such poorly conceived material. There was one shining exception: the classical duo Adagio which was outstanding. Day-time activities seemed largely geared to raising more revenue for Holland America. The Cruise Director – no doubt otherwise competent – was one of those people who needed us to remind her constantly that we were having fun.
Any Alaska cruise with great weather is, though, a success, and this one had great weather. The ports are always interesting, though excursion bargains are rare. Any cruise with HAL’s Indonesian and Filipino service crew will give you a smile: there may be fewer of them but their attitude is undiminished. First-timer cruisers have no way to notice the cutbacks. Cabins are still well designed, and, salty windows aside, the ship was spotless; the line’s traditional positives have not been lost. But it was easy to get the impression that HAL is struggling to stay afloat. Two of its ships are being re-branded in Australia; how many more will vanish? Or is this cruise line, which works hard to appeal to multi-generation families, on the verge of a new era of success?