This review is written from the perspective of long-time cruisers on “mainstream” lines who decided to try a “luxury” line cruise aboard Crystal Serenity. The question with which we’d always wrestled was, “Is it worth it?”
While the answer obviously depends in large part on how much you can and want to pay. However, for those who can spend the money, the question is whether they should. We would say “definitely yes” on luxury lines – we’re less enthusiastic about Crystal.
A pure dollar per dollar comparison doesn’t really work. If you compare the cheapest Crystal cabin (ocean view) with a similar cabin on a mainstream line, you’re better off financially on the mainstream line even with all of the Crystal all-inclusives. Ditto suite to suite. However, the cheapest Crystal vs. a suite on a mainstream line is more comparable. In the end, there are many reasons that a Crystal cruise is “worth” the extra cost – you have to decide if these things are important to you.
Embarkation involved several steps/stops. At the first, we showed out cruise ticket and passport. That led to security. Then a stop for your picture. Then a final stop to get your cabin card. While we’re used to “one stop shopping” when all the above is done at the same time, the Crystal process was fairly quick. By the time we arrived at our cabin, our bags were already there!
Cabins weren’t ready until 3:00 but they invited passengersto the main dining room for lunch (vs. the buffet restaurant on most cruise lines). There were plenty of tables, service was exemplary, food was tasty, and, when you’re given a glass of soda or wine without signing for anything, you start to realize what all-inclusive means.
We splurged for a Penthouse suite. The cabin is nicely decorated, in great condition, and very modern. However, compared to mainstream lines, the cabin is small. There is a very small sitting room, a makeup area (nice for ladies but somewhat a waste of space), a walk-in closet, and a bath with Jacuzzi tub, separate shower and two sinks with marble aplenty. We found the size fine for two – if you have a third person, it would be crowded. The balcony had two chairs with ottomans. We never heard noise from above. They give you large sizes of bath amenities and the towels were superb!
The PH butler was exceptional – he made our cruise. Pleasant, responsive – willing to do things we hadn’t even thought about. There was a mini-bar that was stocked with whatever we requested and exceptional hors d’hoeuvres were always available.
MDR food was uniformly very good – better quality and more choices than MDR on mainstream lines but not quite as good as their specialty restaurants. There were plenty of delicious options every night and we never had a bad meal. Desserts were a tad disappointing. Our dinner at Silk Road was a highlight in terms of food and service. Prego was fine but no better than the best of the MDR. Service throughout was excellent – we’re fast eaters and we never waited for any course to be served. There was a quiet efficiency (speed, lack of “clatter” of dishes, lack of confusion) to the service that was very nice. Dinner was uniformly a pleasant experience.
We didn't attend all of the shows, but those we did see were quite good. The production numbers were definitely a huge notch above most mainstream lines. There was always plenty of seating. The "secondary" entertainment (other venues) wasn't really to our tastes and the timing was skewed late, but that's simply a matter of personal preference.
As mentioned above, a huge plus was not having to pull out our cruise card and sign for something every five minutes. There is a certain serenity (no pun intended) in being able to order a soda or cappuccino or glass of wine or ice cream or bottled water, etc. without pain. The first (and only) time I used my key card was making a gift shop purchase. Yes, you’re paying for it in the long run, but the “price” of the freedom and flexibility counts for a lot in our book.
Another plus was the fact that Crystal wasn’t trying to take more of your money at every pass. No “inches of gold” or “T-shirt sales” or spa pitches or “bingo, bingo bingo,” or art auction or . . . If you like those things, you’ll be disappointed with Crystal but not having the constant pressure to buy, buy, buy was an unexpected joy.
Along those lines was the lack of constant announcements. Crystal treats you like adults – they put the information you need in the daily bulletin and trust you to read it. Basically, the “noise level” is much lower, which for us at least led to a more enjoyable and relaxing vacation.
However, not all was perfect, and there were several areas where Crystal did not live up to our expectations. The first was shore excursions. Of the five we took, the average grade would be a C+. On the plus side, the wine tasting with Dewey Markham in Bordeaux was simply outstanding and the Douro river cruise in Porto was very good thanks to an excellent guide.
Among the other tours, one left 30 minutes late due to “traffic” (on a Saturday morning) even though none of the other buses was late. On the next tour, our first (unscheduled) stop was 30 minutes at the airport restrooms. The Crystal escort was always the last one on the bus and a stop for "coffee" was completely disorganized. Two passengers became so frustrated with the delays that they took a cab back to the ship. The Crystal escort was constantly the last person on the bus -- invariably arrived 10 minutes after all the passengers were aboard, without apology. Our final tour to fishing villages was mismanaged in terms of time (we spent more than an hour at a sardine factory) with a guide who was silent 75% of the tour.
We discussed this with Crystal shore excursion personnel. Our concerns were met with versions of “we can’t control the guides” or “every guide does things differently.” Wrong. Crystal ultimately bears responsibility for its tours and especially its Crystal hosts. We were told someone would follow up with us – no one ever did. In the end, Crystal’s indifference was surprising and telling.
The worst experience came near the end of the cruise. All passengers disembarking in Lisbon had to clear Portuguese customs on the ship. The event was an unmitigated disaster. Timing was 4-7 pm, meaning everyone with early dinner came around 4. Over 1000 people had to go through customs and there were only two officials. The event was held in a small room and the line outside was literally longer than half the length of the ship. The crowd soon overwhelmed the air conditioning making it unbearably hot. Passengers stood in line for 75 minutes. There were no chairs. No one brought water or food. We showed up at 4:15 and finished at 5:30; we missed the final sail-away and had to sprint in order to make dinner on time -- not exactly a relaxing last evening.
We understand that certain aspects of customs are beyond the ship’s control. However, Crystal did absolutely nothing to ameliorate the situation, such as handing out numbers with assigned times, handing out water, moving the event to a larger venue, etc. There was no senior officer present and there was no apology to the passengers. Bottom line: we've "pre-cleared" customs before and this was the most mismanaged event on any cruise we’ve taken.
On departure, we’d arranged a private car through the ship’s concierge. We arrived 15 minutes before our assigned time only to be told we were “late." The concierge showed up a short time later and assured us we were definitely not late. Not a great way to depart.
In the end, there were many great things about Crystal. We loved the all-inclusive approach and the lack of constantly being hit up for activities and dollars. And for the most part, the crew was incredibly professional and personable -- their experience shows. If you can afford it, an “all-inclusive” line is a real pleasure and, in our view, definitely "worth it." But, too many things didn’t go well on this cruise and at times there seemed to be an attitude of “we don’t really care” that we found unsatisfying.
While we will definitely try a luxury line again, it probably won’t be Crystal.