DESTINATIONS GREAT BUT HAL SERVICE CONTINUES TO SINK ON RECENT EURODAM TRANSLATIC
A recent Transatlantic Cruise on the Eurodam showed the dip in service continues on HAL ships while HAL keeps trying to hold prices down. For the second year in a row it was hard not to notice the reduction in service, but this time it was much worse. When you drop $20,000 on a vacation you notice both the big things and the small stuff.
GETTING THERE: The HAL prices for air fare from a large Midwestern city to Amsterdam and then back from New York were hard to beat…but the crazy connections and long layovers killed us! Next time I will book air travel myself. Never again flying from US to Canada for a four hour layover then an Air Canada flight to Frankfort with a 5-hour layover for a 45-minute flight to Amsterdam on a packed Lufthansa flight! It was like HAL was punishing us for spending $20,000 with them. We were in transit for 26-hours. Getting home was almost as bad.
HAL did do a nice job making the airport transfer and getting us to the downtown Amsterdam hotel. The van driver was very funny even if some of his prepared speech was far from accurate. However HAL planning left a lot to be desired. The Eurodam was not docking in Amsterdam. The every five-year "Sail In" had the Amsterdam harbor choked with sailboats and concert barges. There was no room for cruise ships. The Eurodam was docked at an industrial area 15 miles out of town. EMBARKATION: The embarkation started off poorly. Heavy traffic on clogged Amsterdam streets, with people trying to get downtown for the "Sail In", meant a two-hour wait for hundreds of Eurodam passengers at the hotel. The ship sailed at 8pm but we were stuck in the industrial district at 2pm. We passed a chocolate factory near where the ship was docked, causing my wife to ask if they had tours (and hopefully samples) since we were arriving six hours before departure with nothing to do. (They didn't.)
Once at the ship I saw something I have never seen in 10 years of cruising with HAL…LONG LINES! In fact there were huge lines! There were singers doing four-part harmony entertaining the passengers. However it did not make up for the fact that HAL did not serve the complimentary ice tea, lemonade and water for the waiting passengers. If you wanted a beverage you had to buy it.
STATEROOM AND CABIN SERVICE: We had a Deluxe Suite, mid-ship near the Neptune Lounge. When entering the room we noticed the comp bottle of Champaign was not iced. Directly below was the glass cabinet. On the face of one cabinet door was a nasty smudge and dirt that was about four inches long. It remained as part of a fixture to the suite for the next 17 days.
We called and asked for ice for both the bottle of bubbly and the ice bucket. 45-minutes later I went to the Neptune Lounge and got it myself. For the next three days we got ice and laundry bags ourselves. When you are paying for a top level suite, you expect at least average service, we never received it. While almost all passengers got their complimentary NY Times synopsis newsletter in the morning, ours and six other suites were getting the "afternoon" paper.
The truly amazing thing was it was three days before we met our room stewards! The only close attention we got from the head steward was on the next to last day when he appeared to be sticking close to us possibly for the handoff of the extra tip envelope. It wasn't coming. In fact my wife went to our concierge and filled out a form to have two days of tips for the room stewards deducted from our credit card.
WATER, WATER EVERYWHERE: Our room stewards were also marking us down for drinking bottled water on a regular basis. In fact we were moving the bottles to a shelf above the mini bar to get them out of the way. We had collected six large bottles when I went to the concierge and found out that we were getting charged for the water we not drinking. I then brought her to the room and showed her the bottled water collection we were amassing. She said she would take care of it. The next day the "water lady" arrived to give us our seventh and eighth bottle of water.
SPINNING THE FACTS! During an "Ask the Captain" event in the main showroom, the last question had nothing to do seagoing. It was, "Is it true that the room stewards have had the number of rooms they are responsible for increase from 10 to 24?" The captain hemmed and hawed and finally said "Yes." But the Cruise Director immediately jumped in and said there were two room stewards now and this should make things more efficient. It was spinning at its worst, because long term customers know that there used to be a Room Steward and Ast. Room Steward serving 10 cabins. Perhaps a more honest answer would be that to keep prices from rising, HAL made a few non-safety cuts while trying to hold fares down. SPEAKING OF THE CONCIERGE SERVICE: The special Concierge Service for Penthouse and Deluxe Suite customers (HAL calls us guests, but we are in reality "paying customers.") was hit and miss at best and often involved apologies from the HAL staff.
Several times we had the staff reserve tables for dinner. Twice they said they did it when we arrived for dinner there was no record of the reservation. Another good one was the next to last day at about 2pm when I went to exchange $60 Canadian to U.S. I was told money exchanging had closed at noon. I was stuck with extra money because HAL cancelled two of our four Canadian port-of-calls due to the approaching Hurricane Earl.
I asked when the "guests" had been notified of the noon stoppage of money exchange. I was told it was in the daily program. I asked to be shown the notification. She could not find it in the program. She then said it was in the Daily Program four days earlier. I went to my room and got that program and there was no notice of a cut off for money exchange. I asked why it wasn't mentioned several times in different daily programs to remind guests. She then called the pursers office and later said the money could be exchanged the next morning.
The next morning when I tried to exchange the currency, I was told it could not be done.
NEPTUNE LOUNGE: The interior Neptune Lounge on Deck 7 is nice with a large screen television, sofas, a conference table, complimentary beverages and snacks, plus the two staff members running the concierge service from 7am to 8pm. There is also a waiter from the Pinnacle providing the food and beverages. What always amazes me is the number of people who pay top dollar for deluxe suites with large verandas but spend time hanging out in an interior area with no view. Me…I take a couple of plates of food back to my cabin to enjoy the view and the fresh air.
FOOD: MAIN DINING ROOM: The food in the main dining room (The Rembrandt) for 18 days more often than not was very good, compared to past cruises. One exception was the Caesar salads. Nightly the lettuce didn't seem just "tired" but almost asleep. The service was another story! Doing "open dining" ourselves and another couple tried different areas of the dining room and found that the service was very bad or in the one case there was excellent service but the waiters had no personalities. We settled for most of our cruise with two waiters who often got orders mixed but were very entertaining. They actually both got envelopes from us on the last night. On our first night Chef Ruddy (all the way from Seattle) made two different "recommendations" on the printed menus for the same course. Five nights before the end of the cruise they handed out "farewell" menus, making us ask who was leaving and how, since we were at sea until the final day due to Hurricane Earl. The wait staff said the menus were a mistake. You had better odds hitting it big at the roulette table in the casino than getting a soup spoon during dinner. THE PINNACLE was the big disappointment. The dinner food was no better than the food quality in the main dining room and service was unbelievably poor. To start with the old signature starter at the Pinnacle, the Clam Chowder is now missing for a second year, replaced by a Lobster bisque that tastes like it is right out of a can, was served cold and is the same bisque that is served in the main dining room. (Why pay more?) The staff even admitted that customers continue to complain about the missing Chowder, but the folks in Seattle along with Chef Ruddy do not seem to care. My guess would be $$$$$. My steak was over seared making it hard to eat. However my wife's lamb was perfect. Perhaps the biggest disappoint at dinner was the Crème Brule. Over the years this has been my wife and mine favorite. I should have known something was up with the wait staff was pushing the Vanilla Soufflé. The sugar on the Crème Brule was over heated…you had to pound on it to break through. Once you did it was not worth the effort.
THE EXCEPTION…was breakfast …the food was excellent every day. The problem again was service. You never had a waiter. Instead you had four or five and they never knew what the other was doing. While the food was always great, on a daily basis your order was never right. Items you didn't ask for were included and some days your main dish was missing. It was not unusual to ask for a breakfast tea and to get the tea bag but never get the hot water. The last day of the cruise our breakfast in the Pinnacle never happened. We received water, juice even a muffin…but for over 20 minutes no one ever took our order despite our repeated requests. We finally had to walk out. Our best meal of the trip came during our day in St. John's Newfoundland at a local diner 10 miles south of town we stopped at while touring in a rental car. THE PROBLEM: It was easy to determine one of the main reasons for service problems. It is the continued drop in English Comprehension! Waiters did not know the meaning of "extra" or "hold." One waiter tried to tell us someone was a "Unich" when he meant "unique." It has gotten very hard to hold a conversation with many of the ship's service personnel.
The other problem: Much of the day to day specials are clearly controlled by the "boys in Seattle" leaving the ship staff with little room for creativity. The day after Hurricane Earl passed the ship one might think a Hurricane would be the drink of the day. It wasn't even informally added as a waiter suggested drink. ENTERTAINMENT: The normal "kids doing the song and dance" was atypical. Some of the kids were better than others. The sets were pretty impressive. For the second time I have been on the HAL ship the house band did not have any brass. The leader did play a sax, clarinet and flute…but no one was on board with a trumpet, flugelhorn or trombone.
The Neptunes trio playing in the Ocean Bar was actually better than your average Neptune group. They would get into some nice jazz rifts when no one was on the dance floor.
The piano bar guy, Michael, was way over the top…his style was that of someone that Saturday Night Live used to lampoon. For the first time I have been on a transatlantic cruise where there were not any music contests in the piano bar. Michael was somewhat defiant when he said, "I don't do contests!" The piano bar contests do help draw people to the room and sells more beverages for the cruise ship.
THE HEADLINERS: The entertainers brought on board were the typical magicians, comics producing a few laughs and musicians playing odd instruments. MOVIES: HAL no longer has a contract with Swank, the large movie distribution company and it shows. The Eurodam featured some movies that were over 20-years-old. There were only two movies that could were remotely close to being able to carry the "recent" label. I intentionally did not rent any movies for six weeks prior to this cruise thinking I would see several movies on the ship that were just reaching the video stores or NetFlix. I was wrong…another example of HAL squeezing a nickel.
STAFF: Jason, the CD, is tops! This is the second time in two years I have enjoyed Jason's work on a cruise, he was most recently on the Westerdam (see 10-09 review "What a Difference a Year Makes" by Strode Wallace) before moving to the Eurodam. Jason also is perhaps the best I have seen in taming the type-A personalities involved in the killer trivia contests.
With one exception, his staff was also top notch. Elizabeth and Paul were very passenger friendly, plus fun to talk with. The exception was DJ Matt. This guy acted as if he was being bothered every time he put on an event by himself. He also completely blew off passengers trying to ask him a question. FAILING TO PLAY TO THEIR AUDIENCE! I have seen this before on other cruise ships but it is really noticeable on HAL ships, when the staff fails to recognize and factor in the age of their customers. I have been on HAL ships where the AVERAGE age of passengers was 68. On this cruise it was 60-years-old according to a staff member…meaning there were plenty of people in their upper 70s and 80s. When they hold contests such as "name that tune" they need to include gimme stuff that older people will recognize. Two examples were TV theme songs and Broadway Musicals…each time out of 15 or 20 questions none were from the 60s or 50s. To a young entertainment staff something from 1980 is ancient…but to an 80-year-old passenger…it is something they have never heard of. The staff should throw in a "Perry Mason." "Bonanza" or "Jack Benny Program" theme on TV trivia and perhaps something older than Grease when doing Broadway tunes. I mention this only because when they hold these contests, older passengers pack the venue and leave disappointed.
The same can be said for the shows. During a show featuring the dancers and singers, the audience burst into applause during a poor version of Rodgers and Hart's Bewitched, Bothers and Bewilder." Why? Because it was the first song they recognized and for a number of them it was a favorite from over 50-years ago! HAL needs to remember the older ages of their long time good paying customers while Carnival does not.
LIBRARY: We found that the library on the Eurodam had a good selection of books and was well run, with self check out at night. This was a plus when we picked up extra sea days while avoiding Hurricane Earl. DESITINATIONS: The best part of this cruise and the main reason we booked it was for the destinations.
EDINBURGH: The overnight stop in Edinburgh fell on a Saturday. During the month of August the City of Edinburgh is full of festivals including a book festival, the comedy festival and for one night two performances of the Military Tattoo, an event of marching bands. HAL was selling grossing overpriced packages for the Tattoo that included bus transportation from the dock in Queen's Ferry. Total package per person with HAL $100. We shared a cab into town with another couple for 5-pounds a person. Tickets for the Tattoo outside of Edinburgh Castle were going for as little of $27-pounds, more than half of the price with the HAL package.
We went to 7:00 and 9:00 shows at the Comedy Festival being held at the Edinburgh University., skipping the Tattoo under the belief that over 20 minutes of bagpipes turns an event from entertainment into a punishment. KIRKWALL ORKNEY ISLANDS: We had arranged well in advance for a private tour by the small company, "Wild about Orkney." It was a great move. We got an archeologist who has lived in the Orkney's doing research for over 30 years. The five hour trip was fantastic. He also introduced us to Orkney ice cream, made in Kirkwall with milk from Orkney dairies. The ice cream was so good we made a second stop for more before returning to the ship. The van for three couples was very comfortable.
THE FAROE ISLANDS: This stop was also a treat. We hired a cab with another couple and saw a lot at a reasonable price. Perhaps the best treat was the scenic cruising leaving the port featuring breathtaking seascapes and views.
ICELAND: Iceland is bankrupt and you quickly find out that super inflation has hit Reykjavik. Rent-a-cars and taxi tours are all unbelievably expensive. Even McDonalds closed all of stores and pulled out of Iceland. Food costs were so high they could not maintain a menu with reasonable prices.
We shared a cab for five hours with another couple we were able to tour per person cheaper than the HAL prearranged tours. Renting a car was a losing proposition. You broke even or maybe saved from a ship's tour but the very high price of gasoline made it too expensive, unless you share with another couple. GREENLAND: The day of cruising in and out of fog in southern sounds of Greenland was fantastic. The fog hid the whales, but made some interesting views of mountains and icebergs. The views we saw of the Faroe Islands and Greenland made the choice of an expensive deluxe veranda suite worth it.
We stopped in the small town of Qaqortoq (pop 3,200) for six hours on a Sunday. No town in Greenland is connected to another town by a road. There were taxis in town, but on a Sunday they were busy taking people to and from church. The weather in late August was unseasonally mild with temperatures around 52-degrees instead of 38-degrees. Not much English was spoken in town with the exception of the two grocery stores where the clerks could say, "No liquor on Sunday" to passengers tired of the high price of a drinks on the Eurodam who wanted to sneak some spirits aboard.
The highlight of the day was the ship inviting all the children in town along with one parent aboard for a free lunch of hamburgers, fries, hotdogs and pizza. The day before while cruising in fjords and sounds, the ship sent a rescue boat to a small village of 200 with 10 pizzas and some dry goods. NEWFOUNDLAND: Overall we found Newfoundland a treat.
St. Anthony (3,200 pop) was a the first stop in northern Newfoundland. You need to arrange for a rent a car if you ever dock there. The local Chevrolet dealership is a 10 minute walk for the dock. The city does not have a center, but is stretched out along the main road. A drive to coves and bays and many small villages was fun. We saved the lighthouse, located near the dock for last and it gave us some of the best views of the day.
St. John's, the capital of Newfoundland was a surprise. It was like being in a small San Francisco. The city has many hills and brightly painted Victorian row houses. It was beautiful. We shared a rent a car with some friends and hit all the spots that the HAL tour busses hit, plus much more.
After going north of town in the morning, we headed south along the Irish ring road in the afternoon with our final destination being The Town of Ferryland. We had perhaps our best meal of the entire trip when we stopped at the Riverside Inn, just north of Ferryland in the Town of Cape Broyle. The chowder was better than anything we were served of the Eurodam. The diner's specialty was a plate of French fries hand cut that day, smothered in brown gravy, crispy ground beef and peas. The waitress said that the people at our table who ordered it would not want to share and she was right. Back at the wharf the arrival of the Eurodam was a big enough deal that passengers were interviewed by CBC radio on how they liked St. John's. A large crowd of on lookers lined the street when the ship departed at 9pm.
Everybody liked St. John's.
DODGING A HURRICANE! The ship's captain did such a good job hiding from Hurricane Earl and we missed any of the effects from a hurricane. We also missed two ports of call in Nova Scotia.
While hiding along the US coast near Portland the captain announced that we should experience winds gusting up to 50mph and 9-15feet high seas beginning at 3am and lastly for three or four hours.
The crew did an outstanding job tying things down in preparation of the storm. I stayed up and was disappointed when nothing happened, not even any rain. PLUSES: Ian who hosted travel Q&As before we arrived at different ports of call did something that you don't see very often on a cruise ship. Sure he pitched the ship's tours, but he also told passengers how to use public transit and even mentioned where the taxis and rent-a-car offices were.
Perhaps the best part of the cruise was at the very beginning during embarkation when we unexpectedly ran into a couple who we cruised with two years ago on the Noordam during a transatlantic crossing from Rome to Florida. (see 10-8 review "The Good and the Dead" by John H) It was great fun spending time with them. Unfortunately we all agreed we would not be in a hurry to book another cruise on HAL.
BAD SEND OFF: You would think the one thing HAL would want to do is make our last hours on the ship and getting home as pleasant as possible, hoping for some return business. This did not happen.
We had a HAL arranged 1pm flight that was not home but instead to Philadelphia where there was another long layover before a final flight home, despite many direct flights out of New York. We received a letter in our stateroom the day before telling us we were in a debarkation group for 7am. YIKES! Six hours before for a flight out of an airport 45 minutes away. I was able to get that changed to 9am.
Then the waiting began…3 hours at La Guardia. Then a twin prop commuter plane that bounced around for 45 minutes at 10,000 feet. Then there was another 2 ½ hour wait in Philly for a commuter jet home. Our last day with HAL did not leave a pleasant taste.