After taking eight previous 7-day cruises, all aboard Carnival and Royal Caribbean, we decided to give the Western Caribbean a try with Holland American on March 4th, 2012. To understate it; it was a very poor cruise experience. But instead of writing an emotion clouded rant I'll simply pass along the problems we experienced in a fact sheet format.
Problem: The Captain
1. During the first moments aboard ship while attending the mandatory life boat drill two occupants from one cabin did not appear for roll call as required. Over the PA system for all aboard to hear Captain identified the occupants by name and cabin number, and then proceeded to publically dress them down for "inconveniencing all of the passengers and the crew". It was beyond surprising; simply shocking.
Solution: Conduct yourself in a manner commensurate with the dignity of a ship's captain.
2. As problems continued with our cruise throughout the week customer service reps repeatedly informed us that nobody aboard the vessel had the authority to make any concession or refund of any kind "either partial or complete" and that such authority resided only with the corporate office.
Solution: The captain and his command staff have absolute authority over a multi-million dollar vessel and the lives of over a thousand persons. If between them they truly don't have the authority to refund the cost of a latte then the captain should speak with the corporate office and get it.
3. Captain encouraged all passengers to complete their cruise satisfaction survey and he assured everyone over the public address system that he "would personally read each and every comment." So we simply left the captain a note in the comments section indicating we were dissatisfied and that there was not enough space to articulate our concerns. We left our email address and asked that he send us an email address where we might be able to forward our comments in a more complete manner. Haven't heard from him.
Solution: Don't tell people you read these things if you really don't.......creates the appearance of being a liar.
Problem: General Condition of the Ship
Unlike my previous experiences aboard beautiful ships with elegant appointments, the MS Ryndam was tacky and poorly maintained.
1. The lido poolside deck chairs were ripped, soiled, and stained. Here's a shot of one. Note the staff has rolled up a towel and ever so carefully placed it on the chair so it is all ready to go for the first passenger of the morning. Even in this small photograph it is possible to see the stains and tears.
2. The elevators were in a state of poor repair. One aft elevator shuddered and screeched with every trip. Inside they were filthy, scratched and marred, and with brass finishes worn off in numerous large sections. The problem was not confined to a single elevator but to the entire bank both fore and aft. The general problem created by inadequate maintenance was pervasive. In other words, it wasn't confined to the elevators. The carpeting in the elevator lobbies was stained and terrible looking on every floor I visited. Some carpeted areas had permanent large yellowish brown stain bands dividing them. Each day a new rug was placed in each elevator interior denoting the current day of the week. This is actually very helpful as the days seem to melt together at sea and it is easy to lose track. Of course, it would be much nicer if those rugs were not stained and aesthetically contrary. Do you think you would find these images at a land based luxury resort or even on another cruise ship?
3. The self-service laundry ground to a halt. Two of the three dryers on our floor were out of service. So we went to the deck above to use their dryer and the place was packed. I guess everyone else had the same idea. Plus, half of the dryers on that floor were also out of service! To do laundry we bought quarters from a beautiful front desk staffer from Belgium. We waited for service while she made idle chit chat with two attractive young men she was encouraging to visit her in Belgium, the "land of 300 beers." Once she finally attended to us she gave us only $5 in quarters instead of the $7 we had paid for. I guess she was better at counting beers than change. This is the short version - I could have spent far more time documenting the state of disrepair.
Solution: Spend a little money to maintain the ship.
1. One entire wall of our cabin was sprayed with a glistening sticky substance. It appeared as though a carbonated beverage had been shaken and discharged across the wall. It was difficult to photograph but I tried. It was also difficult to understand why this was would not have been cleaned between occupants. It certainly was not difficult to see. But it was even more difficult to understand why, after reporting it immediately, I had to go out and find a room steward myself 48 hours later to wipe it down. Two full days was about my limit for looking at it. We had two pillow cases that were heavily stained with disgusting yellowish brown stains in multiple places. We had another two pillow cases riddled with holes. We had a white bath mat with a black stain larger than your hand. We had a full length mirror that opened from a closet door that was covered with the hand prints of a small child. Our room was very cold, so cold we incrementally turned the thermostat all the way to max over a period of six hours before visiting the front desk to report the problem. Customer Service rep Carola Swinkles responded by bringing a thermometer down to our cabin to show us the temperature was fine. Yes, I know......I understand that I'm not freezing anymore......not the point. The point is that the thermostat is operating at the full high setting in order to achieve comfort. She didn't see the problem. But she did see that an extra blanket was delivered to our room. That blanket was encrusted on both sides with numerous large stains and a material that looked like dried vomit. We had to take it back to her. We'd rather take our chances with the cold. My only regret is that I didn't take photos of that truly sickening blanket. I have no idea how any service person could bring that to a room. But it was only the first day and I didn't realize it was to become part of a pattern.
Solution: Clean the cabin between occupants. Remove from service items that are permanently soiled or heavily worn. Take something less than two days to clean up your mistakes. Take some
pride in what you do.
Problem: Food Services
On our previous cruises the food was superb. Simply stated; they were eating vacations. But not on the Ryndam. There was a MUCH smaller food selection at the Lido buffet including both the warm foods and the salad bar than I have experienced on other cruise lines. The quality of the food was also significantly lower and included cold mashed potatoes, cold vegetables, tough flank steak, and mushy lasagna noodles. They had a prime rib that was a wonderful flavor filled cut of meat but was served cold. The service was often poor and there was a lack of attention to detail evident at virtually every meal. Food preparation personnel and table staff seemed incapable of smiling.
1. Every meal included some mystery foods. Inexplicably, they just couldn't be bothered with labeling dishes as is typical at buffets the world over. The words, "what's that?" echoed through the buffet line constantly.
Solution: Make some labels, customers really appreciate it.
Seating was difficult. We found as many as twelve consecutive tables dirty at a time. In this series of photos you can see that every table is occupied or dirty in both directions and a gentleman is standing with a plate full of food looking for a place to sit. Yet, on the opposite side of the ship there is plenty of available seating -- but it is reserved for officers and staff! We heard others comment that it was difficult to determine who the customer was, and I must agree with them. And this problem was not simply a one-time occurrence. It was so persistent that it was actually quite easy to bring my camera to a meal and photograph it! We were very disappointed with the ongoing inconveniences created by the lack of customer service and we were frankly shocked that it would occur on a cruise ship where our previous experiences had not just been uniformly positive, but impressive. On the Ryndam they just don't clean tables very often. Lamb was served in the Lido buffet one evening and someone took their plate out by the pool. Here are the distinctive remains of leg of lamb I photographed over three hours after the buffet closed. These problems were made worse by the fact they are so simple to correct if someone, anyone, would get in touch with customer service basics. And just to be perfectly clear about the timeline: the photo of the vast open seating in the staff area was taken within 60 seconds of the sequence showing the lack of passenger seating.
Solution: Bus dirty tables more quickly. Ask your table staff to smile and engage customers like they care. Briefly move your "staff only" sign if it is necessary to allow your customers, many of whom are elderly, to sit down promptly. Or alternatively, keep up with demand. It's not an open event like a New York sidewalk cafe' where it is inevitable you will be occasionally overwhelmed.............you know who is coming to dinner.
2. This is literally so sickening that it remains hard to write about it. With that said, I have to defend Holland America insofar as this type of problem occurs from time to time in self-service food areas and I do not hold them responsible for the occurrence. I do hold them fully accountable for how they dealt with the situation once they were informed.
As previously described, food service in the Lido buffet was disappointing. So we tried the food self-service island near the pool. It had Mexican food and we built two plates. After eating some of the food we found a disintegrated Kleenex in our food that contained something that had been removed from someone's mouth. It appeared to be chewed up olives. Unlike toilet tissue that is made to disintegrate when it gets wet, a Kleenex does not. Hence, for it to get this deteriorated it had to be in the food for a long time. To reiterate, as disgusting as this situation was I don't hold Holland America directly responsible for the occurrence. We took the plate to the front desk and reported it then took the plate to our room to photograph it. I assumed the front desk would immediately notify food services to shut down and clean the self-service island. However, I never saw any such action taken, nor did anyone attempt to further clarify where on the island we may have picked up the foreign material. As far as I could tell food service continued on that island per usual. Front desk staffer Carola Swinkles and another gentleman came to our cabin and viewed the plate. I also summarized for that gentleman the many other problems we had encountered on the trip. I was utterly astounded that this customer service representative had not even a simple "my apologies" to offer. Ms. Swinkles later referred to him as "a little stiff ." Wow, what an understatement.
Problem: Room Service
On Wednesday evening we ordered a six pack of Bud Light from room service. It seemed pretty simple at first. Until we later received a return call from room service informing us that there was no more Bud Light aboard the ship and that they had checked with the bars. They requested that we accept an alternate beer, which we did, although you would think for $24 dollars you could have the beer you want..... especially when it is just a simple domestic. The alternate (Coors Light) was eventually delivered and the receipt even had Bud Light crossed out and Coors Light written in. Yes, they must surely be out of Bud Light. Sure seemed like an unusual logistical oversight however. Going out to sea for a week with the hopes of selling alcohol but not bringing the alcohol you need with you to make sales is, well, pretty bad business. We became so suspicious that this could even occur that we shot up the elevator and found plenty of Bud Light at the first bar we came to. Maybe room service personnel couldn't find any Bud Light on board the Ryndam but we were able to find it in about two minutes. They eventually exchanged it for us after we visited the front desk.
Solution: For an automatically charged 15% gratuity require your staff to care a little more. And maybe use some common sense..........out of Bud Light, really.
Problem: Crow's Nest Lounge
1. We visited the beautiful Crow's Nest Lounge every day. It had a spectacular view and was beautifully designed and furnished. But it was cold. Upon entering one day we were told by other passengers where the coldest areas in the lounge were so we could avoid them. Another day we noted an elderly woman who had brought a blanket and wrapped herself in it so she could continue to socialize with her group. On another day we returned to our room for a jacket before heading to the lounge. Other common areas on this ship were also cold particularly the bar areas on the 8th deck. We overheard numerous comments including one who said he "would have brought my winter jacket if I had known how cold it would be."
Solution: It may be an older ship but it just can't be uncomfortable. Listen to your customers like we did and fix the HVAC system to create a more comfortable environment.
2. Terrible service in the Crow's Nest. There is just no other way to describe it. It was never busy, in fact it was virtually empty most of the time including evenings. Yet we repeatedly sat for over an hour without being offered another drink. We spent about 90 minutes in the lounge one afternoon and had one drink each. Then we returned almost three hours later to find our empty glasses still at our old table and the empty martini glasses of the people we sat next to also still at their table. Other glassware was also left sitting at two other tables but I'm uncertain how long it was there. During the next hour (of our second visit to the lounge) only one of the above mentioned tables was cleared, and one of them was entering its fourth hour without being cleared. At one point a bar staffer straightened up the chairs around a dirty table but did not pick up the glassware. We were amazed.
Solution: No need for extra staff here, there were plenty of people (as many as four) sometimes around the virtually empty bar but none of them were working either to clean tables or serve customers over extended periods of time. And neither were they friendly and engaging. They primarily talked among themselves. But this problem hardly needs a solution compared to the next one.
3. One day one of the bar staff who had seen us repeatedly finally came over and very aggressively chatted us up for about 10 minutes. It seemed slightly odd and out of character given that he had scarcely uttered a word for the many hours we were in his lounge even though it would have been easy to do so since the place was empty. Then, after this one-time flurry of chatter he asked that we make sure to write his name on our cruise satisfaction survey and even asked that we include the name of his co-worker (Don) an individual that I could not identify and that never provided me any service! He went so far as to write their names for me to help me remember to write about them on my survey. I've included a scan of his note in his own hand writing. Then, after the surveys were distributed he actually confronted us directly while in the Crow's Nest and asked if we remembered to write his name down and if so, specifically what we had said about him. It was very uncomfortable, a totally pathetic attempt to manipulate the survey results, and a sorry substitute for genuine quality service. In a virtually empty bar he had more than ample opportunity to impress us with actual good service. If he had capitalized on that opportunity I would have gladly included him in my survey. Sadly, this epitomized the overall lack of quality service and shows that there is problem on this ship with corporate culture.
Solution: Sadly, you need to fire some people.
Problem: Jeopardizing Passenger Safety
This issue is highlighted in red because it is a very serious issue, far more serious than poor room service. This issue directly jeopardized the safety of a passenger and should never have occurred. Because of its seriousness perhaps it would have been appropriate to list it first. In fairness to Holland America it is an issue unlikely to affect many passengers. However, in fairness to potential future passengers on the MS Ryndam it is a narrative well worth your consideration if you are an older customer, which many aboard the Ryndam were. And it should be stated up front that the error in judgment I'm about to describe should never happen in any setting where caring people are entrusted with customer service, but certainly never at sea where the environment imposes some strict limitations upon the type and speed of medical services.
Because of our repeated service problems we made many trips to the front desk. On one trip we observed an elderly couple at the desk ahead of us. We would later learn they were both 90 years old. The sweet elderly woman explained to front desk staff that she was dependent upon an oxygen machine and that she was unable to get it operating correctly. Specifically, it would not power up. The front desk staff asked her if she had plugged it in. That seems a little insulting, but perhaps it needed to be clarified. Her husband explained that they know how to plug things in and stated that was not the problem. At that point, the front desk personnel were essentially done with this couple. They told them they would send an extension cord to their room (which had already been deemed unnecessary) and dismissed them. We returned to our cabin very concerned for the welfare. In fact, we were so concerned that we went to their cabin ourselves to render assistance. We had (very fortunately) overheard their room number. The couple had an oxygen extractor that removes oxygen from the ambient air and concentrates it for use by seriously chronically ill pulmonary and cardiac patients. It was not a simple oxygen cylinder that may be familiar to many.
I have been a fire department paramedic for 29 years and I am familiar with both the oxygen device and the woman's medical condition. She had been diagnosed with congestive heart failure and pulmonary edema, a condition that causes fluid accumulation in the lungs as the result of progressive heart failure. The oxygen extractor can be obtained by prescription only and she was medically dependent upon both that device and a number of medications. I was able to start the machine for her and reestablish the flow of necessary oxygen.
The following day we checked on her and she did not look well. She was again unable to get her oxygen device to work and spent a miserable sleepless night experiencing breathing difficulty. While speaking with her I also learned that she had forgotten to bring an essential medication. It is a medication I have personally administered many times throughout my career and consequently understand very well. This patient was short of breath with fluid accumulating in both her lungs and extremities. I knew she could not wait a week to have this medication so I went to the front desk, reported the problem and requested the ship's physician. Their first response was to inform me that there would be a $95 charge to contact the physician. I said fine, put it on my bill if you have to but this isn't a billing problem right now it's a medical problem.
One of the two physicians aboard ship came to the elderly couple's cabin and provided the woman with good quality care and reassured her that the medication she needed was aboard the ship and would be provided for her. I was in her cabin the entire time observing. By this point in the cruise I had little confidence that anything assured by Holland America personnel, even their physician, would actually take place. So the next morning while in port I purchased the woman's medication from a pharmacy myself. It turned out to be unnecessary. She was indeed provided the medication as promised. I continued to check on her and assisted her two additional times with her oxygen device before the end of the cruise. I gave her my cabin number so she could call me if she had another problem with the oxygen device at night.
Here's the take away on this incident. There are very few people in the 90's riding cruise ships around the Caribbean. Kudos to this couple for giving us all a lesson in living life to its fullest. But when a passenger this elderly comes to the front desk and presents herself as chronically ill an unable to activate a medical device upon which she is dependent this should be recognized by medical lay persons at the front desk as a situation requiring follow-up by a physician. It is not someone you offer an extension cord to and then dismiss. This was a grievous error in common sense, it unnecessarily jeopardized the health and well-being of a passenger, and it directly resulted in a miserable 24 hours for this woman and the progression of her medical condition.
The fact she did receive treatment and medication from the physician proves my assessment. Had I not intervened it is unknown how miserable or sick she would have become before Holland America's customer service staff made the call for a physician that should have been made from the outset.
My experience with Holland America suggests that nobody at the corporate level is likely to review or confirm the circumstances of this narrative. However, should they want to, this couple was in cabin xxx the week of March 4th, 2012 and the ship's medical log will confirm a physician visit to that cabin one night, and another physician visit the following morning when she was provided medication.
Solution: Make sure common sense is common among front desk staff. I would add "you're welcome" if anyone from Holland America had said "thank you" for the time and effort I spent caring for their customer.
Problem: Corporate Office
I never would have expected it, but this cruise got so bad that we decided there was no hope of enjoying the experience so we discussed catching a flight home from the next port of call. I asked the front desk if Holland America would provide any assistance with the purchase of airline tickets. They said they would discuss it with the corporate office and let us know. I thought that meant they would discuss it soon so we could book flights out of port the following day. But they didn't get any word back from the corporate office until after the following day's port call was concluded and we were back aboard ship. And then all they offered to do was not charge us for any of the remaining days we would not be on the ship!! Unbelievable.
Solution: The corporate office should provide the same level of internal customer service to ship personnel that they hope will be provided for passengers. It's called setting a good example.
Before this experience was finally over we were provided some concessions. In my opinion they were entirely inadequate. But in fairness to Holland America I will include them and each reader can judge the adequacy for themselves.
1. No cabin charge for any days we were not in our cabin if we flew home. They were quick to point that their policy permits them to charge us for these days. Of course, everyone knows that when a customer service rep is reviewing corporate policy with you.......you're in a place that will not result in your satisfaction.
2. One free laundry.........which we didn't use.
3. One free dinner for two in a shipboard restaurant. We appreciated this offer but politely declined it assuming the service there would be no better than on the rest of the ship and hence, probably not worth it.
Was this vacation a complete disaster? No, it wasn't. We had a wonderful time in four beautiful ports of call and managed to even squeak out some pleasure aboard the ship. But the collective effects of the service problems and conditions aboard this ship was extensive. We met people on the ship who had three adjoining cabins, one that was reportedly without a working toilet for several days. We met passengers who expressed disappoint in the food, the service, the entertainment, and the temperature aboard ship. The problems that plagued us seemed evident to others as well. Most importantly, I could not find a single passenger that felt satisfied with the value of their experience aboard the MS Ryndam compared to its cost.
However, there was one thing at sea that even Holland America couldn't spoil for us.....................