Are Refurbished Cruise Ships Returning to Service Too Soon?

May 27, 2011
(11:45 a.m. EDT) -- Are refurbished ships re-entering service before they're ready? In May alone, three lines have delayed ships' return to service after dry-docks. More problematic still, final enhancements were completed on the first public sailing with paid passengers in the midst of what some described as a construction site.

Grand Princess, which emerged from an extensive 24-day makeover earlier this month, failed to make a smooth return to service. Pia1913, who reported live on Cruise Critic's Princess forum from the first post-refurb cruise (May 6), said that the Crown Grill (alternative steakhouse) and ClubOne5 (new top-ship disco) were not open when she boarded. Pia's cabin was also missing its chair, and her balcony, which had the proper furniture, was filthy.

Jan44134, also onboard, was blunt. "The ship wasn't ready for us," she posted on the boards, adding that the cruise departed from Fort Lauderdale more than 12 hours late. "The inconveniences ranged from extremely minor to very significant (one deck with no hot water, one cabin with NO water)," she added.

Princess spokeswoman Karen Candy confirmed that work continued on the ship's new disco and that the Crown Grill wasn't open until Day 3. "There was also some general clean-up taking place on this first cruise," said Candy. She added that there was no blanket compensation given to passengers, but "for those directly impacted by any post dry dock issues, we're working with them on an individual basis."

Cruise Critic's Carolyn Spencer Brown, currently onboard Grand Princess' May 21 sailing, said the ship's nearly running at full tilt -- but there are still issues. ClubOne5 is only just open and, as of Wednesday, most balconies have not yet received the teak-like flooring. Despite the unfinished works, "This feels by and large like a regular Princess cruise," she told us. To add intrigue, Brown was told by a Grand Princess staffer that fares were purposely priced low for both the transatlantic (May 6, and the follow-up seven-nighter along the west coast of France/Spain/ Portugal because it anticipated that the ship wouldn't be ready. Brown reports: "Where Princess has gone wrong, again according to source, is that it hasn't marketed the cruises in a way as to let passengers know that they're getting these great fares (and we paid for ours and it was a fantastic deal) because there will be inconveniences."

Princess isn't the only line whose major refurb projects are under passenger scrutiny.

The May 1 Bermuda cruise on Holland American's Veendam, the first after the ship's April dry-dock, was delayed by 24 hours. The delay meant that HAL had to put up some 1,700 passengers at hotels in Manhattan, the embarkation port. In a letter to Cruise Critic, Rose70, who was on the late-departing cruise, wrote of "much, pounding, sanding, painting, soldering, and electrical wiring that occurred during the cruise" to the "annoyance of the guests." In addition to hotel accommodations, the line offered a 25 percent future cruise credit for the trouble. Those who didn't take the hotel, were given $150 in onboard credit per person.

Finally, British line P&O Cruises, perhaps wary of bringing its newest addition, Adonia, into service too soon, delayed the ship's departure. The delay bought the line some extra work time, but a travel agent event scheduled for last week was canceled. The line declined to say what caused the initial delay, but Adonia's christening ceremony went off without a hitch on Saturday as planned.

These latest episodes are far from the only examples of ships returning to service before being fully serviceable. Azamara Club Cruises infamously launched its first vessel, Azamara Journey, while extensive work continued on the pool, cabins and public spaces (and vast quantities of garbage still awaited disposal from the pool deck). "There were three days during the trip that in the afternoon I could not stay in my stateroom because it was occupied by four to five workmen; cords to their tools plugged into my vanity while they put up balcony partitions," wrote Joanne Jones via e-mail at the time. "While standing on one of the decks, I just barely missed being hit by a large bag of trash that was hurled down from the deck above where again, work was being done." At least Journey's toilets worked. In late 2009, Thomson Dream -- the 20-plus-year-old Costa Europa that was refashioned for British line Thomson Cruises -- suffered a series of plumbing breakdowns on its first sailing. Readers called the smell appalling, with member Dickson writing that "all through the cruise on various decks you would find buckets catching dirty water coming from ceilings and large heavy duty blowers attempting to dry carpets."

But the most notorious incident involved the now-retired Queen Elizabeth II, whose ill-fated 1994 world cruise has become legendary. Though QE2's $45 million dry-dock was not nearly finished when the ship set off on its 108-day post-refurb voyage, British authorities gave the all clear to sail from Southampton to New York with passengers in tow. Work continued during the transatlantic sailing, and travelers were shocked to find unfinished cabins, exposed wiring, "detritus that had blocked stairs and passageways" (as one New York Times piece put it) and infamous erupting toilets. When QE2 arrived in New York, US Coast Guard inspectors found fire safety issues, and the ship was forcibly anchored for some 24 hours while fixes were made. Cunard chief executive John Olsen stepped down following the debacle, which in addition to blackening Cunard's reputation, cost the line millions in payouts. Is there a takeaway from all these incidents? As with brand-new ships, passengers should be wary of sailing on the first cruise after extensive dry-docks. Lines' perhaps overly ambitious dry-dock schedules, which literally require grueling, round-the-clock work to finish on time, can mean that refurbishments are completed with passengers onboard.

--by Dan Askin, News Editor