When you book a cruise entitled ‘Svalbard, Greenland, Iceland - The Ultimate Fjord and National Park Expedition’, that is what you expect to get and that is where you expect to be taken.
Sadly, our first and last Hurtigruten cruise didn’t quite work out that way, thanks in a large part to negligence on the part of Hurtigruten.
We know there are some ardent Hurtigruten fans out there who will not hear one word said against the company, so if you’re one of those, don’t bother reading any further. One only has to read some of the abuse that some more objective passengers are subjected to via the Hurtigruten Insiders posts on Facebook, to realise that some people do not wish to read opposing views, such is the world we now seem to live in. Choice-supportive bias or post-purchase rationalisation is the kind of human nature prevalent among some Hurtigruten fans.
We never set out on this journey to be disappointed, after all, who does? We spent a huge amount of money and expected top class service in return. Sadly, Hurtigruten failed on so many fronts. Below is our account of what we experienced. We hope that this will serve as a cautionary tale and helps fellow travellers as they try to make expensive decisions about cruise companies and ships for precious holidays.
The major failings as far as we were concerned came from the head office, rather than from the staff on the ship itself. Hurtigruten directors Daniel Skjeldam and Karin Strand have a lot to answer for in terms of their business planning and there are serious regulatory compliance issues to be concerned about. Hurtigruten obviously invest a great deal in PR and have tried to grab the headlines with the launch of this ship however, there are some fundamental details that they have overlooked. The manner in which the company have dealt with their subsequent disappointed customers should serve as a lesson in how not to manage a crisis. Afterall, it is well known in business that 96% of dissatisfied customers won’t complain but will tell between 9-15 people about their experience and around 13% of dissatisfied customers tell more than 20 people. 91% of those dissatisfied customers will simply leave and never come back. TDR Capital should take note.
This is an account of our experience.
Expulsion from Greenlandic waters
The number one complaint on our voyage was that Hurtigruten failed to register the new ship’s number with the Greenlandic / Danish authorities so we entered Greenlandic waters illegally on day 3 of our cruise, after leaving Svalbard. Therefore, after only 24 hours in the Greenland National Park, we were ordered to leave Greenland’s territorial waters and sail into international waters, until the issue had been resolved. This message was delivered to passengers via a written statement read out during an emergency meeting called by the Captain. He explained that because we did not have an ice pilot on board, we were being sent into international waters and needed to arrange to collect an ice pilot at the nearest town, Ittoqqortoormiit, south of the national park boarder.
Before the Captain’s emergency announcement, we had been told that we were going to land at Ella Ø and we would see the famous Keiser Franz Josef Fjord on our way. We were also due to visit Alpefjord after leaving Ella Ø and make our way down to Ittoqqortoormiit on day 9. Instead, we watched all the places we should have seen pass us by from a distance of 24 miles away. We missed three of the four days in the national park. And yet, in Hurtigruten’s response to us, and in the ship’s log, they celebrate that we spent a day sailing through ice flows in international waters, instead of within the Northeast Greenland National Park. Big difference and not what people booked and paid for.
Hurtigruten wanted to cover up this huge mistake from the beginning and tried to mislead passengers starting the evening following the Captain’s emergency announcement. The Expedition Leader, Tomasz Zadrozny briefed passengers about the revised itinerary by trying to imply that the changes to the itinerary were outside of the control of Hurtigruten. During his presentation on the evening of 31st July, Tomasz said that they were pleased that the ice pilot would be joining the ship as it turned out that the ice had been too bad to have been able to land on the island of Ella Ø the day before. Tomasz displayed a picture of the ice conditions, several passengers immediately noticed that the Sentinel satellite image that they were showing us was 2 days out of date, taken on 29th July. Passengers questioned why they were using out of date imagery to explain the situation we were in. They were told that the computers were struggling to download the up-to-date images. Following the presentation, some passengers were able to contact relatives via WhatsApp and, within 5 minutes, received the latest satellite images from the Sentinel satellite for 31st July. The images showed that the ice was completely gone and the fjords were clear. Afterall, we happened to be visiting Greenland during the fasting melting period that the country has ever experienced.
The Captain never showed his face again and left the Expedition Leader to face the angry passengers. Tomasz continued to protest that they had no idea why they were required to pick up an ice pilot when they had never needed one before. Passengers presented him with findings from the Danish Maritime Authority; that vessels carrying over 250 passengers have required an ice pilot since 2016. Tomasz protested that the Captain had ice pilot qualifications however simple research showed that Captains require 180 days of Greenland waters experience in 5 years to comply with regulations. As Hurtigruten do not spend enough time with any one of their fleet in Greenlandic waters, let alone one Captain continually sailing there, there would be little to no chance that any of their Captains would have enough experience to satisfy the Danish Maritime Authority’s requirements.
Another aspect of Tomasz’ presentation on 31st July was an explanation about the boundary of the national park. The fact of the matter was and still remains, we were taken out of the national park yet Tomasz tried to insist that it made no difference as the scenery was still the same! Many passengers found this particularly insulting and the atmosphere on board ship turned decidedly negative. Many passengers were understandably angry and expressed their anger during passenger briefings.
Hurtigruten’s strategy seemed to be to deliberately try to mislead passengers as to the reasons for the changed itinerary and then tried to convince us that the changed itinerary made no difference to our experience. Some passengers fell for it, there were many ardent Hurtigruten fans who did not wish for anything to spoil their holiday so many became angry towards those passengers who were more objective and had minds to find out the truth for themselves. During one passenger briefing, racist comments were being hurled at one gentleman who questioned what he was being told and the whole atmosphere turned ugly.
It was only during the last night of our voyage that a senior officer told us the truth, we did not have an ice pilot on board because Hurtigruten head office had failed to register the ship in advance to enter Greenlandic waters. Since we returned home, there are a number of legal cases being pursued. Hurtigruten are attempting to cover up their mistake and have, in a letter to those passengers who have complained, tried to blame the Danish Maritime Authority for reneging on an agreement that Hurtigruten were granted an exemption, yet they refuse to provide proof that an exemption ever existed in the first instance. This explanation does not align with either the Captain's announcement or with the Expedition leader's version in the days that followed. Their handling of this situation has spread nothing but anger and distrust. One member of staff described the problem as being a Norwegian one, where Norwegian’s do not like to admit mistakes. I would like to think that such people would not wish to ruin the international reputation of a long standing company for the sake of Norwegian pride.
There were several children on board this ship, many of whom were there for the educational value that was promised. The Hurtigruten Young Explorers Program was advertised with the voyage. Parents had even received confirmation of their enrolment from the Hurtigruten Paris office and an email describing what would be available for the children.
When children joined the ship, they learned that the Young Explorer’s program did not exist. It was explained by Laura, one of the Expedition staff, that the company had not yet created the program for the Arctic region, it was only available for the Antarctic and Coastal Voyages. As the Expedition staff were only just learning what passenger’s expectations were, they tried to pull together a couple of activities throughout the voyage. The first so called ‘activity’ was a 20 minute birthday party for one of the children onboard the ship where the child was given a birthday cake that he was allergic to and therefore couldn’t eat.
The second activity on 2nd August was a rope tying session where the children went along to learn how to tie sailor’s knots. Also invited to the session to teach the children knot tying techniques was a fellow passenger, a 25 year old male travelling alone. He was not on board as a member of staff and his attitude towards children had already caused some passengers a great deal of concern. He had been spending a lot of time hanging around the areas where the children congregated, and some parents were extremely worried about the amount of interest he was showing in young girls, even giving them massages!
This man, his capacity as a passenger, did not have to supply Hurtigruten with a Criminal Records Certificate (Politiattest) and yet the Hurtigruten staff saw him fit to be allowed to work with children. This negligent attitude raises questions over the extent of background checks undertaken by Hurtigruten for any of the staff working with children on their voyages? Why was this man allowed to work with children?
The boarding procedure at Longyearbyen was nothing short of chaotic and in breach of the regulations that Hurtigruten claim they follow - there was no security present whatsoever. We boarded the ship at the ludicrous time of 1am when most of the previous passengers were trying to disembark. There was luggage all over the pier and a group of mostly Chinese passengers were trying to get off the ship. We were amazed to realise that disembarking passengers were all mixed in with embarking passengers.
We had no help with our luggage and had to drag it up the gangway ourselves. At the top of the gangway, the airport style x-ray security scanner was not working and there was a long queue at the desk on deck 4. We had read that we could check in on any level to avoid queues, so we immediately took the elevator to deck 7. We’d gained access to the ship without providing any paperwork or being required to show any ID and were free to roam wherever we wished. We got out of the lift with all our luggage and found an abandoned desk, so back into the elevator we went with all our luggage to try to check in on deck 9. There was nobody around on deck 9 so we dragged all or luggage back into the lift and went back down to deck 7 to try again. We met a lady at the desk on deck 7 who said she would help us check in. We gave her our passports and she tried to get onto the computer. After 10 minutes of trying to get the computer to work and giggling like a child at us when she tried to take our photos with the web cam, she finally announced that the computers were all down so she returned our passports to us and asked us to go down to deck 6 and check in at the main reception desk.
We dragged all our luggage back into the lift and out again at deck 6. The main reception desk was also abandoned, there was not a member of staff in sight. It was as though it had been a surprise that we had arrived, Hurtigruten were clearly not expecting us, even though we had landed in Svalbard on a flight that Hurtigruten had arranged. Eventually, the night-time cleaner passed us and told us that everyone was sleeping, and she would try to help us. She went to find another member of staff who eventually came and tried to check us in. The computers were still down so she could not print off our cruise cards. She took our passports and the night-time cleaner took us to one of our rooms, with no one to assist us with the bags that we had been dragging around all over the ship. By this time, it was gone 2am and we were desperate for some refreshments. She opened our first suite, where we had to wait for someone to arrive with our cruise cards before we could go and discover our second suite and seek some refreshments, after travelling for more than 24 hours to get there. When we walked into our first suite, we discovered that the twin beds we had pre-ordered were not made up. The bed was king sized with a king-sized topper over it, so more chaos ensued with trying to separate the beds ourselves with the help of the night cleaner, who had to go in search of single sized bed toppers. We eventually accessed our second suite at nearly 3am, which was also not prepared as a twin room. Because we were told that there were no more single toppers on the ship, we were forced to leave the bed as a king size and were forced to share a bed for the duration of our holiday.
At 3am, we tried to find a welcome drink or something to eat. We went up to the explorer lounge which was packed full of mostly Chinese passengers asleep on the loungers, still waiting to disembark. It was total chaos. There were no staff around, no welcome drinks, no food and one of the most unwelcome beginnings to our holiday.
Through all the chaos of getting onto the ship, it was blatantly obvious that Hurtigruten had no handle on the security of the ship. Bearing in mind the standard practice of owning and carrying firearms on Svalbard, there were ample opportunities for anyone to enter the ship and cause chaos. There was also no security around the luggage of disembarking passengers, with all of the suitcases sat on the pier, the opportunities for theft were evident.
We note with interest that Hurtigruten are expected to comply with ISPS regulations, where all luggage is subject to x-ray/metal detector inspection upon arrival and this is advertised on their website. This did not happen and therefore this is an issue of further non-compliance with regulations.
When we eventually received our cruise cards, we were shocked to see how much personal data was printed on them and the security risk that represented, especially for child passengers. Full names, dates of birth, passport numbers and nationality, as well as cabin numbers meant that anyone who found a lost card would have everything they require to steal someone’s identity.
At the time of our first expedition landing, we were also shocked to see full names and cabin numbers for all passengers displayed on the walls and being photographed by other passengers for boat groups. This was totally unnecessary and did not require full name disclosure against cabin numbers. The Personal Data Act, including the GDPR, entered into force in Norway on 20 July 2018, it seems Hurtigruten are not fully compliant with this legislation. Due to the unwanted attention of certain passengers, parents with children did not wish for any other passengers to know which cabins children were in especially. Displaying full names and cabin numbers was a breach of passenger’s privacy.
I do not recall Hurtigruten ever seeking our permission for the use and distribution of electronic images. As this was one of MS Roald Amundsen’s first cruises, there were many marketing and PR agents on board as well as numerous journalists invited to join the cruise. There were photographs being taken on deck and we occasionally were asked if we could have our photographs taken but no information was given as to how the pictures would be used and how they will be distributed. Children were also photographed without parental permission being sought. A child is not old enough to grant permission and understand the implications of data privacy and therefore permission must always be sought from a parent or guardian.
Only four weeks prior to this trip, we had been contacted by our travel agent and told that we needed to complete a mandatory medical form as we were travelling to North East Greenland National Park. Several passengers had a nightmare in the weeks leading up to our departure. Many passengers spent hours trying to get the issue of the medical forms resolved as GPs in the UK are being advised by the British Medical Association to not sign these forms. The whole experience of obtaining the medical forms was immensely stressful for us as a family and spoilt the last few weeks of build up to our holiday in that we were unable to really look forward to it. Obtaining the forms also incurred a great deal of expense for several passengers. Some of us had to pay £110 each to have our Doctors sign them whilst others paid a £45 fee. When we boarded the ship in such chaotic circumstances, no one asked us for our medical forms and at no point during the voyage were we ever asked to produce them. It was a total waste of time and energy and money to obtain them as we clearly did not require them.
Double booking and misleading brochures
One of the many lessons learned on our first and last cruise with Hurtigruten was how misleading their brochures can be in terms of the lengths of their trips and we think this is immoral. This voyage was billed as a 12 day cruise and yet, we did not board the ship until 1am on day 2. The ‘cruise’ itinerary started in Oslo, this turned out to be a charade. All the passengers were transiting through Oslo airport so many of us assumed that there would be some meet and greet by Hurtigruten at Oslo airport. We naïvely assumed that Hurtigruten might in some way offer us some refreshments at the airport or perhaps access to a lounge or assistance of some kind, during our 5 hour wait. Afterall, we were only 15 minutes’ drive from the Hurtigruten head office!! Sadly, no, our first encounter with any member of Hurtigruten staff was with the night cleaner on Day 2 of our so-called 12 Day holiday.
We also discovered upon reading the brochure again on our return that the cruise preceding ours, had their itinerary end on 27th July and yet ours began on 26th July. It is immoral to have described ours as a 12 day holiday and theirs as a six day itinerary and overlap the two groups of passengers. Hurtigruten effectively had 1000 passengers booked on this ship for a 24-hour period. The group before us had not even got off the ship when we were trying to get on.
Ship set sail not fully equipped
Like many passengers, we booked this trip not knowing that we would be sailing on one of the first trips this ship would undertake, so delayed were Hurtigruten in launching the ship. There have been some patronising comments made on the Hurtigruten Insiders Facebook group that we should have expected teething problems. This is total rubbish, there were no ‘teething discounts’ offered, and no compensation subsequently offered for the lack of services promised and therefore forming part of a contract.
One of the passengers we met had booked themselves into a suite especially as room service is supposed to be inclusive for suite passengers. They had medical conditions that made getting to early breakfasts difficult. On the first day, passengers were told that room service was not available on the ship as Hurtigruten had allowed the ship to set sail without providing trays and food coverings. This was also true for the ‘show cooking’ equipment. The food and beverage manager had to deal with many angry passengers who all felt like they’d been misled.
Another scam that Hurtigruten are not being truthful about in their documentation is with regard to à la carte dining. It is simply not true that suite guests can dine in the Lindstrøm à la carte restaurant “any day they wish”, as described in the literature. The Food & Beverage Manager told passengers that they do not have enough tables for all of the suite guests and therefore they could only dine in the Lindstrom every other day. He also said that the menu only changes every 28 days and therefore, he would expect that later on in the cruise, guests would get bored of the same menu and perhaps more tables would become available. Families who were booked into two suites were assigned different dining days. There were days that we requested to dine in the Lindstrom as we did not want to participate in the chaos of the Aune restaurant and yet we were turned away just as the Captain and the management team were being shown to their seats. The many journalists also did not seem to have a problem getting a table whenever they wished. As for the Aune restaurant, it really was chaos, I have seen better organised school canteens!
Poorly trained and prepared expedition staff
One of the key selling points of the cruise was to provide access to knowledgeable expedition staff who would provide lectures on a variety of topics. There were huge variations in the professionalism and standard of qualifications of the staff involved. Wayne and Karen were fantastic and obviously extremely knowledgeable and qualified to be onboard as experience Marine Biologists. Many of the others such as the ‘bird expert’ were hopeless. The bird expert’s main job seemed to be a translator for the Chinese tourists however his bird knowledge seemed extremely limited. We attended his first lecture on bird life and it was embarrassing how little he seemed to know. There were no slides prepared to help us identify the different species we were seeing and he was not readily available on deck to help identify birds.
Some of the presentations were extremely poor and out of date. Some of them were non-existent and some had to be postponed as expedition crew hurriedly cobbled something together. During one presentation, given by Dom, he presented us with a weather forecast from July 2018 where he hadn’t updated it from the previous year, another one of Dom’s presentations had to be delayed by a few hours as he didn’t seem to know that one was expected of him. Some presentations were very difficult to follow in English as accents was so strong. Many of the presentations providing details of what we were due to do the next day were rescheduled from the 5.30pm slots and held late in the evening, between 9.30-10pm. This was far too late for many passengers, especially as we were expected to be up and on a tender by 8.30am the next morning.
One evening, there was a notice on the huge screen that the clocks were going back an hour that night, only for it to have been a mistake, it had been put up a day early, so we all lost an extra hour’s sleep that night. It just seemed chaotic most of the time, with staff making up schedules on the hoof, presentations not being ready and passengers having to fit in and try to find out what was going on. Most of the daily schedules were posted after 11pm, when most passengers had already gone to bed and the daily schedule on the TV channel did not update for days.
Badly designed ship
One of the most off-putting aspects of attending a presentation in the science centre was the noise of toilets flushing overhead. The design of the science centre ceiling contains no sound proofing whatsoever and shows all exposed pipe works and plumbing for the cabins overhead. During one presentation by Dom, it was so bad he could not be heard and was forced to make a joke to cover up the embarrassment, joking that the passengers must have been flushing cocaine down the toilet. Not an appropriate joke for the younger members of the audience especially.
When we boarded the ship, we expected announcements to be made in additional languages and it was obvious that there was a large German and Chinese contingent amongst the passengers. During many of the lectures, we had to sit through extremely off-putting and tedious translations being done sentence-by-sentence as none of the materials were available in advance. There was a whole rack of in-ear translation headsets for passengers however none of them were ever used as the Expedition staff had not coordinated themselves to deliver the material simultaneously and avoid sentence-by-sentence translation.
Surely the Expedition staff knew the subjects they would be expected to present on, within their own areas of expertise and should therefore have come prepared on-board with scripts to be translated by the linguists. Everything seemed to be being done on the fly and last minute in an uncoordinated manner.
Equipment not ready or available
One of the exciting features of the Science Centre that we were all looking forward to was having the chance to use the underwater drones and see them working. The walk around tour of the ship by Wayne, published on the Hurtigruten website and across social media showed the drones. As it transpired, none of the Expedition staff had ever used the drones before and they needed to test out how to get them going. Despite our continual asking, the drones were only taken out on Friday 2nd August. The film crew, the travel blogger and his girlfriend took out a boat and spent one hour trying to figure out how to launch them and get the footage working. None of the passengers ever had the chance to see the drones, see the footage or enjoy this feature of the science centre. We were obviously on the ‘experimental cruise’ as they sorted out all their teething problems and tried to figure out how the equipment worked. This should have all been accomplished before a paying passenger ever set foot onboard.
Staff ratios – some of the worst in the industry
The best staff on the boat were the cleaning and waitering staff who were exemplary in their approach to work and care of passengers. What was noticeable however was how much they are being exploited and how short staffed they were across the ship. We understand that Hurtigruten is running this ship on a passenger crew ratio of 1:0.24. Whereas Silversea, Celebrity, Seven Seas, Seabourn, Viking, Norwegian, Holland America, Princess, Costa, Royal Caribbean and even Disney are operating on much better ratios. This was extremely evident throughout the ship. Waitering staff were having to work as cleaners. Some decks had only one cleaner to service the cabins each day whereas other decks had two. Cleaners were also having to work on helping with landings at the expedition launch. On the day we handed back our boots, waiters were even having to scrub boots. Because the ship is so short staffed, there are areas that are not being cleaned. Some passenger’s decks at the back of the ship were never cleaned for the duration of the voyage, yet they were covered in soot particles, presumably from the engines. We had to stop using the outdoor gym as our hands and clothes were completely black after using it, again presumably from the engine soot. It certainly didn’t look like we were travelling on the ‘world’s greenest ship’.
Aside from the host of problems listed above, the ship had many other teething problems which were not resolved whilst we were on board. There was a noticeable problem with the sewage system, resulting in a foul smell within our bathroom and throughout the corridors of deck 7. There was even a huge crack in the glass ceiling above the atrium.
The three lifts in the main lobby were continually breaking down, especially when boat groups were called. At one point all three lifts were out of service at the same time. If there were 5 or more passengers in the lift at the same time, the lift would not usually work, even though the maximum capacity of the lifts was 18 persons.
The air conditioning in our cabin was not working properly and when facing the sun especially, the cabin became unbearably hot. We tried to adjust the temperature on the wall however it made no difference. We had no choice but sleep with the balcony door open.
On one of our many days at sea, some passengers decided to use the ship’s running track on the roof to get some exercise. It was during this time that some of the passengers in the explorer lounge began to look concerned as the sound of running on the roof reverberated through the ceiling. Some of the passengers were most upset about the sound of running on the running track. There clearly is not sufficient sound insulation within the ship if runners cannot use the running track without disturbing other passengers below.
Another problem within the cabins was the tannoy system, crucial for passenger announcements and boat boarding groups etc. We were told to leave our TV on channel one and we would get any announcements within our cabin. Unfortunately, the system does not function properly as the TV is not designed to be left on and continually goes into standby mode. Once it is in standby mode, no announcements are broadcast into your cabin. We reported it and the advice we were given was to continually check to see if the little standby light was on and if so, to turn the TV back on! It was utterly ridiculous.
Another passenger we met had paid a huge amount extra for a jacuzzi suite to help ease her arthritis pain. When she checked into her cabin she discovered that the jacuzzi was empty and had not worked since the ship was launched. Yet, a journalist had been assigned a cabin with a fully functioning jacuzzi. This passenger had to spend 5 days with the inconvenience of engineers coming in and out of her room constantly trying to fix the jacuzzi, they had to liaise with the ship yard in Norway and consult the manual to try to figure out how to fix the broken clip. Upon arriving home, Hurtigruten have failed to offer any refund for the days it was not working.
Adventure is just bad planning
The last day of the cruise involved a landing at Stykkishólmur, a small town in northern Iceland. We had attended a presentation the evening before when the Expedition team told us about the various museums and shops that we could visit, including the Eider Museum, which the town is very famous for.
As we came ashore it became obvious that the town was very quiet. We went into the tourist information office next to the harbour and discovered that it was Commerce Day; a public holiday in Iceland, always celebrated on the first Monday in August. This holiday is also called Tradesmen's Day or the Holiday of the Merchants so, as such, all the stores and museums are closed.
This was just the final straw in a catalogue of failings from Hurtigruten in their planning department. To arrive in Iceland on a public holiday when everything is shut was the proverbial nail in the coffin.
If you choose to book an expedition voyage on this ship be warned, you will not be on an expedition, you will be on an adventure. As the ship’s namesake Roald Amundsen said himself “Adventure is just bad planning” and we could not have expressed it more perfectly ourselves. Read Less