My partner and I have cruised with several holiday companies before, both separately and together, so this is a reasonable and comparative review of our Thomson Celebration experience. Our intention here is to be fair and honest, explaining why certain aspects of the holiday were good and why others were appallingly bad … and ultimately why, taken as a whole, we would never consider buying another Thomson cruise package again.
Everything that disappointed us during our holiday was entirely within Thomson’s control, which means they failed to meet our expectations on many occasions due to blatant incompetence, poor management, an inconsiderate attitude and a driven desire to put profit over customer satisfaction.
The Holiday Booking Experience
We booked our April 2015 cruise through a local Thomson travel-agent within six weeks of our departure date. We were informed we could pay extra there and then to book our seats on the airplane, but that we could also do it ourselves online from 14 days of departure. We weren’t bothered about getting premier extra-space seats, so chose to wait and do it ourselves later. This was a mistake!
When we went online at the 14 day stage there weren’t any seats left where we could sit together. So, we were destined to undertake a 9 hour flight sat apart. We feel the booking agent failed to explain adequately that this could even happen, and she seemed rather more keen to stress we could pay for extra baggage allowance, travel insurance and extra leg-room, if we wanted.
When we talked about the ship and cabin-type we wanted, we stressed we wanted to have a window or port-hole (an outside cabin), a cabin with a double bed (or twin beds that could be pushed together) and that we wanted to be on an upper deck away from the ship engines. Past experience has taught us inside cabins can be claustrophobic and lower deck cabins too close to the engines can be very noisy. The travel-agent explained we could pay substantially more for a balcony cabin, if we wanted, but as that wasn’t necessary for us, she booked us an outside cabin on deck 1 or 2 (she explained the actual cabin would be designated once we boarded the ship). This sounded fine – so we booked it. Another mistake!
When we eventually boarded the ship, we were indeed given an outside cabin on deck 1, which we had assumed was the top deck. It wasn’t. It turned out the ship’s top-deck was deck 9. The one we were booked on was actually the bottom deck above the engines. Furthermore, we had been given a cabin with twin-beds that were on opposite sides of the cabin, bolted down (so unmovable). We feel the travel-agent seriously let us down on this as she clearly didn’t know what the layout was of this Thomson ship and consequently we ended up on a deck and with separate beds, both elements being things we had stressed we didn’t want.
We weren’t the only ones to be severely disappointed about this … the reception area on the ship was swamped with hoards of disgruntled passengers that felt they had been sold something other than what they were getting, including a couple on their honeymoon that (like us) had actually been designated twin beds. Reception proved to be completely unhelpful, with some staff only just able to speak English. We were told by one of the reception staff that only about 10% of all requests made at the Thomson travel-agent booking stage were ever met … so bare that in mind if you make any special requests to Thomson before you leave for your holiday. We spoke to one passenger also at the Reception Desk who had paid an additional £1,000 for a balcony cabin, only to be given an outside cabin with no balcony – so even paying for the extras clearly doesn’t always prove fruitful.
The Flight to Barbados
We were lucky to be on one of Thomson’s new 787 Dreamliner aircraft for the long haul flight. Despite the general monotony of such a long flight, this trip was actually bearable thanks to relatively comfortable seats, complimentary drinks, a decent meal (for me at least) and excellent in-flight entertainment via head-seat LCD displays.
BUT .. my partner is vegan and we had booked a special vegan diet for the flight with Thomson and double-checked this requirement was recorded and confirmed on our booking E-ticket. When an ordinary meal was served to my partner, he explained it should be a vegan meal. The flight attendant investigated and returned some minutes later, somewhat embarrassed, saying there had been an error and there was no vegan meal on the airplane. He was then given an apple, a plum and a dry bread roll (there was no soya spread on board either). By pure chance, the cabin crew’s own meals were suitable for vegan and one of them consequently gave up their own dinner so my partner wouldn’t have to go nine hours without eating.
This error by Thomson is quite unforgivable, but it pales into insignificance when all the other errors are stacked alongside it.
The embarkation process was extremely poor. We were effectively corralled from the airport shuttle coaches into an open warehouse at the port side and then left to queue in twisting rows until a member of staff was free at the makeshift front desks. This process seemed to take forever and needs improving, particularly as most of us had just endured a very long day and a long flight. Eventually, we were issued with our ship boarding pass and were then left to our own devices to find our cabin. There was no one to show you your way, so most new passengers spent their first hour on board walking aimlessly up and down corridors deep in the heart of the ship.
The first impressions of our cabin (after the disappointment of finding it on the bottom deck) was that it was clean and of an adequate but not spacious size, but it looked ‘tired’. We were already aware the Thomson Celebration was an old ship (first launched in 1983). The Thomson website says this ship’s cabins have ‘a smart, contemporary edge’, which is stretching the truth somewhat. The laminated surfaces in our cabin (813) were worn and cracked, small sections were missing or otherwise needed replacing and the pop-up sink plug didn’t work. Other than that, it had everything we needed, including a flat-screen TV and a kettle with an adequate daily supply of tea, coffee and milk.
Unfortunately, the TV was fairly useless, because the only channels available were SKY News and one other channel that occasionally showed films in English. One of the first things we wanted to do was plug in and charge our electric toothbrush into the socket in the shower-room, and the socket fell out of its fixing as soon as we tried. By this stage, we had just about given up complaining. Our expectations were lowering by the minute.
The port-hole was at sea level and so far into the ship bulkhead that we had to climb onto a shelf above the bed to see anything out of it. We have already mentioned about the twin beds … while these appeared clean, they were also fixed into their position, so they could not be converted into a double bed (as some of the Thomson literature and promotional material suggest).
There was a safe in the room – which you had to pay extra for, if you wanted to use it – but no fridge (as a diabetic carrying insulin that needs to be refrigerated, this was again very disappointing). There was a also a mini-bar of water, alcohol and chocolates. It rather surprised us that everything that made-up the mini-bar was charged as an extra, even though we had pre-paid for the optional all-inclusive drinks package at over £330 each. Clearly, if we wanted a drink, we would have to ascend 6 decks to get to one of the bars or pay extra on top of the drinks package fee if we wanted to use the mini-bar. The drinks and brands were the same, so we cannot understand why Thomson choose to charge for this convenience, other than to profit from it.
The Celebration Ship itself
The ship is old and was last partly refurbished in 2013 (mostly the public areas, not all cabins). It is small by comparison to many others sailing around the MED and Caribbean, but at face-value, its amenities seemed adequate for the 1,250 passenger capacity. In reality, Thomson’s bad management often means the ship is artificially reduced in size, because passengers find areas are closed off so they can be painted and/or varnished, which causes a shortage of sunbeds or drinking tables while everyone scrambles to find themselves a place.
The small size of the ship does allow passengers to get to know one another much easier. We often found ourselves sat with people we had met a couple of times before and this made conversation easy and the atmosphere on-board quite sociable. Unfortunately, this close proximity and limited space also meant tempers and arguments sometimes erupted once large amounts of alcohol had been consumed. We witnessed at least one alcohol-fuelled near-brawl by passengers in Liberties on deck 6 one evening, reminding us that this was far from a 5-star cruise.
The Dining Experience
With four restaurants the ship offered a wide variety of cuisine, though two had a cover charge (so these were not really part of the all-inclusive facilities). We tended to use either the self-service Lido buffet-style restaurant or The Meridian, which is waiter-service. The ship also offered food and snacks throughout the day and evening and more than enough variety to satisfy anyone’s palate … unless, that is, you happen to be vegan.
Since coming off the ship, my vegan partner has said he is probably the only passenger to have lost weight as a result of going on this cruise. His experience of the dining amenities was extremely disappointing. During the first two days he discovered almost all of the dishes on offer were made with meat or fish or included cream, eggs or other dairy or animal ingredients. He was therefore resigned to fruit, salad greens, rice or chips. Most of the pasta dishes had cream or other dairy or animal ingredients and the soups always had cream added. Although the ship carried soya milk (which had to be asked for), it didn’t have any soya spread for bread rolls at night or for toast in the morning and no soya meat substitutes of any kind for alternative recipes.
The language barrier also made life difficult for my partner, because the mostly Filipino waiters and servers only had a command of tourist English. Asking what the ingredients were in each dish proved completely pointless, because they would simply point to the card in front of each dish that said “Lasagne” or “Stroganof” or whatever the meal happened to be. By the fourth day, my partner decided to try and talk to Reception to see if the head chef could prepare and make available at least one vegan dish for evening meals. The disappointing result of this meant a somewhat strange and largely inedible concoction of dishes became available (one each evening).
These were invariably boiled rice or pasta based with a few rare exceptions. For example … spinach, mushrooms and sliced fried garlic combined together as a main meal and a bizarre baked dessert made up of sweet corn and flour. Given the number of chefs on the ship … these offerings seemed to lack any skilled knowledge about creating special-request dishes. What they prepared always seemed borne from panic and desperation with no consideration for presentation or taste.
So, if you are vegan or have a dairy or other allergy … don’t expect a gourmet experience on Thomson Celebration. Actually, we advise taking 14 days worth of packed lunches, just to sustain you during the trip.
The Drinks Package
Like most cruises, there are no cash transactions allowed on the Thomson Celebration. At embarkation guests register a credit card, which is then linked to your boarding-card. This card is then used to buy everything you need on-board, whether it’s a drink from one of the bars or a hair-cut in the salon. Past experience has taught us the bar-bill can come as quite a shock at the end of a cruise, because drinks are always sold at premium prices and not many people maintain a running check on what is being spent as the days roll by.
Although we are not big drinkers, we figured the 6-day transatlantic section of the trip (without being able to go ashore) might be costly, because we would have to use the ship’s bars for all refreshments during the day and night. The Drinks Package cost us a further £678 (£339 each), but seemed reasonable, given the circumstances. Not all branded wines, spirits or cocktails are included in the drinks package, but there was more than enough variety on offer to satisfy our needs.
We had some suspicions about the quality of some drinks at one bar in particular (outside on deck 6), where some liqueurs seemed exceptionally thin. I am familiar with the taste and viscosity of Mallibu, for example, and my partner has 23yrs experience as a bar and restaurant manager, so he also knows when a particular drink doesn’t look or taste as it should. Maybe it was the heat of the Caribbean, maybe the Mallibu (like the gin) had been affected by other unknown factors … or maybe someone was watering bottles down or passing-off original quality liqueur for a substandard brand at this particular bar. We also witnessed staff at this bar regularly pouring short measures from virtually empty bottles, without changing the bottle beforehand (a practice that is illegal in the UK leisure trade).
We really only have one major complaint about how the Drinks Package facility was operated by Thomson, which we believe means we ended up paying for some of those who had not purchased a Drinks Package.
When anyone approaches a bar or asks a waiter for a drink, they present their boarding-card so the price of the drink can be recorded on their account. Those with a Drinks Package are not charged (unless it’s a premium chargeable drink), while others will find the cost on their account at the end of the cruise. We found it strange that – as a couple – we always ordered two drinks, but we were only ever asked for one boarding card to record the order. By day three, we became aware this was happening with everyone. As guests got to know one another, they started to form some large groups, particularly at the bars during the evenings. Some were ordering 2 drinks at a time for people in their party – but the bar-staff only asked for a single boarding-card from the person getting the round of drinks in. It quickly became apparent that many in the “group” of friends were on a pay-as-you-go regime … and were consequently getting their drinks “free” through Drinks Package passengers.
So, one couple in a two-berth cabin would have two Drinks Package cards and each would use them to buy two drinks on each card … one for themselves and one for a “friend” (without a Drinks Package card).
We reported this to the Reception staff … but the situation never changed, even up to and including the last day of our cruise. We believe this almost certainly creates an inflated Drinks Package price, because some of those like us that had it are clearly subsidizing some that don’t.
Thomson could easily rectify this by insisting on a “one drink – one card number” rule and save honest customers a small fortune by slashing the Drinks Package cost.
The Thomson Celebration has enough sunbeds for all 1,250 passengers … unfortunately, this doesn’t mean we always had a sunbed available when we wanted one. Thomson managed to obstruct hundreds of paying guests from this pleasure by undertaking a maintenance schedule during the most ridiculous times of day and on days when they knew sunbeds would be at premium demand.
The (presumably routine) painting of railings and maintenance of deck timbers meant Thomson chose to close off one of the decks (sundeck 8) for almost the entire cruise, which meant all the sunbeds on that deck were stacked and unavailable. This wasn’t a huge problem while the ship was touring the Caribbean islands, because some passengers were off the ship on excursions or out roaming around the tourist areas. However, during the six days we were crossing the Atlantic, all passengers were on board – and that meant we all wanted to relax on a sunbed, if only we could all find one.
Once the first deck had been completed, everyone sighed in relief … but this was short lived, because then more than half of another deck was shut off (deck 6). This occurred during the daytime. Passengers already settled at tables or on sunbeds were unceremoniously evicted from their positions, told to move to another part of the deck, sunbeds were stacked and ropes were quickly tied to cordon off the area. Thomson now had hundreds of unhappy customers scrambling for complaint forms, again!!!
It is fair to say that we only ever had a sunbed in the sun for perhaps two hours a day, mostly towards the end of each day when other passengers were going back to their cabins to prepare for their evening meal. We may well have got more sunbathing done in our home town of Blackpool than on this cruise.
The entertainment on board was an odd mix of some excellent and highly professional theatre and deck-stage shows, combined with random and very basic Butlin’s style game shows and quizzes lending themselves more to a local pub than a cruise ship. Part of the attraction for us for this cruise was the “Motown and Soul” theme, which had been used to promote it. Roy G Hemmings (once of The Drifters) and his band and backing singers were on the ship and they put on three superb nights of Motown entertainment.
Unfortunately, these were just about the only “Motown and Soul” entertainment evenings we had. Passengers were sufficiently disappointed to start a petition that went around the ship … when it was handed in, it transpired that some of the entertainment staff didn’t even know this was meant to be a themed cruise.
What became very apparent very quickly was that the entertainment staff (mostly English) worked their socks off to try to keep everyone happy and occupied during the long days and nights of the transatlantic crossing. I cannot fault their efforts or their talents, but I do feel Thomson let us (and therefore them) down by not making the so-called Motown theme more prominent.
As on many other cruising ships, the cabin staff were mostly Filipino and were the hardest working and the friendliest of all staff on-board. No matter what time of day or night we went back to our cabin, our cabin-steward was always there on the corridor with a friendly smile asking if we had enjoyed our day or evening. Our beds were always made during the day, the cabin cleaned or tidied and our beds turned down at night usually with chocolates placed on our pillows. Thomson need to recognize the value of these staff members much more and reward them, because they rarely seemed to get any free time (other than to sleep) and were not apparently permitted on the upper decks.
Our last day on the cruise was expensive. Our Thomson flight wasn’t due to leave until 8pm in the evening, but the letter pushed under our cabin door the day before told us we were expected to vacate our cabin at 8am on departure day (our suitcases had to be packed and left for collection outside the cabin by 3am). So, we spent some hours trying to organize ourselves, keeping back some shorts for the daytime heat and a change of clothes for the flight and unhappily facing having to carry all remaining bags and possessions around with us for 12 hours.
Reception explained that we could keep our cabin (or be issued with an alternative one) until 4pm on the last day… but it would cost us an extra £35 for the privilege. We resorted to paying the extra for the convenience (to be honest, we were by now getting used to Thomson fleecing us for more money at every opportunity). We also wanted to enjoy the “80s disco” in Liberties Lounge that evening without thinking about having to get up before 8am the next day to vacate our cabin, but as it turned out – the 80s disco was cancelled on the night in favor of allowing a member of staff (who was leaving the ship) to sing his favorite songs on stage. It was only after guests’ complained that anything was done to stop him singing and get the disco night reinstated.
The flight home was just about the worst flight we have ever taken and a complete contrast to the outbound flight. The airplane was a standard 737 (not the nice shiny new Dreamliner that brought us out). During the four hour flight there were no meals served, no complimentary drinks and no entertainment systems operating. There was only one trolley service of drinks, tea, coffee or sandwiches throughout the uncomfortable flight – all charged – and nothing suitable for my vegan partner. Although this was a much shorter flight (4 hours from Tennerife) than our outward journey, it felt ten times longer.
The impression we got was that Thomson had received our money, the holiday was over – and they just wanted to honor their obligation to get us home quickly and cheaply by offering as little as possible.
In recent years, many people have opted to try cruising as a holiday. Unfortunately, Thomson seems to be trying to reduce the cost of these so-called luxury holidays and are putting profit over and above meeting the expectations of their customers. I would place the Thomson Celebration Transatlantic Moments cruise in the standard 3-star holiday bracket, according to our experience with other companies and other cruise ships. The ship is too old and too small and needs scrapping. The add-on costs are excessive and relentless. The cuisine variety is good, but only for those that do not have any special dietary requirements. Thomson’s management, maintenance and operational systems on-board need a complete rethink. Reception staff on-board need to be fluent in English and need the power to rectify problems on-the-spot, not just offer a complaint form to be handed in after the holiday is over (by which time the holiday is ruined).
Neither I nor my partner would consider going on another Thomson holiday, based on this experience … we therefore could not recommend them or the Thomson Celebration ship to others. This was a very disappointing and expensive holiday (costing £3,000+ for two of us), occasionally enjoyed only because of some of the staff and the people we shared it with. We feel Thomson let us down from the moment of booking this holiday right up to and including our flight home. Read Less