April 2015 - Zuiderdam to Europe - Mediterranean
This was our first cruise ship experience, and we won't be traveling on Holland America any time soon.
At the outset I should note we've got years of travel experience internationally - from our first trip from the US to Mainland China in 1984. We're very familiar how the hospitality industry SHOULD work. HAL is the kind of organization that stinks from the head down, with policies and employee attitudes that are clearly reflective of senior management.
The first overall issue with HAL is their attitude towards "Customer Service". There is none. We had emails with HAL months before the cruise that guaranteed certain amenities to be provided. One example was the "VIP Package". An in-cabin bottle of wine, flowers, and other amenities that were never received. When we inquired with the front desk about it (including their reviewing the email we received), they refused to act on it saying only "they would need a response from their head office (which of course is closed on US weekends and holidays). I've never heard of customer service people that weren't empowered by management to take action on behalf of the customer.
This ship itself is at the end of its useful life. We had plumbing and water issues, elevators stalled for no reason, and huge rusted areas inside the ship were visible when ceiling panels were removed to fix some problem during the cruise. Judging from the long lines at the front desk and other passenger comments, these issues were endemic to many of the passengers. We ourselves experienced all of these issues (on deck 6 in a highly upgraded "Signature Suite" cabin). The Zuiderdam had just left drydock, where apparently the primary concern was building more expensive cabins at the back of the ship. The captain made a big deal about this "$39M upgrade", but it was largely spent in an attempt to jam MORE suckers into higher-end cabins, instead of items that it is sorely in need of fixing. The tender boat dock was covered in rust, and the handrail was almost rusted through! (See photos)
The air conditioning on the ship is useless as well, and complaints about it are routinely ignored. And our decrepit balcony furniture (one chair too unsafe to sit in) showed how inattentive to the ship's maintenance the company is. A photo attached shows the slopping of paint around the outside, on our "luxury balcony" - a bad job apparently supervised and approved by worse management. If this is the quality of care and maintenance on the OUTSIDE, VISIBLE part of the ship, what's going on in the kitchens and engine room??
We are at the younger end of the cruising crowd, and were able to organize non-HAL shore excursions everywhere. In most cases the same experience as those who purchased the HAL excursions, but 2/3 less cost. Sadly however like the airlines, the cruise experience is filled with sneaky tricks that HAL uses to charge you for what you might think is included.
One egregious example is the "$50 per day drink package". The fine print on this little gem excludes all branded wine and many beers, as their is a "maximum drink price" of $7 for inclusion in the package. Essentially the passengers who drink themselves into a stupor on lousy beer at the buffet can get hammered, and the upscale passenger in the dining room gets hosed. Get a reduction in the price of the cruise and pass on the drink package is our recommendation. And while the cruise lines will not allow off-ship wine onboard, you can load up on soft drinks at nearly every port at half the price or less.
And on arrival into Citvitavececchia, we were told by the destinations specialist (who never would tell anyone her real name) that "there are almost no taxis and the train station is a dangerous walk and not recommended" - all in an attempt to sell us transport into Rome at twice the price of the competition
I again note that we've attempted to discuss these issues with the so-called onboard management. They refuse to come out of their offices for ANYONE - we saw passengers angry at minibar charges and other billing errors demand to see a manager and refused. Over the years we've had our share of hotel difficulties, and have never been refused the step of speaking to management, who were almost always able to correct the issue.
Much of the staff (mostly indonesian and filipino) were polite and responsive, but did not exude any particular happiness or enthusiasm for their jobs. We had one barman at the Lido Pool deck who never smiled, rarely greeted anyone, and never proffered a hello or thank you. Perhaps someone that should be in the kitchen instead of serving the public directly.
The main dining room was very will run, and the food generally interesting and tasty. It's a difficult task to feed some 2000 passengers a cruise dining experience everyday, but we were generally satisfied with their result. The waiters here went the extra mile to ingratiate themselves with the passengers. The portions we found very reasonable size, and we didn't experience the cruise ship "bloat" that many have. Of course with the average cruise ship passenger moving "downscale" from the past, we would guess several hundred preferred the fast-food but all-you-can-eat environment of the Lido Grill (aka "hillbilly") deck. If dining room staff were a little more aggressive in discouraging passengers who don't even own any "smart casual" dress from the dining room, it would be more pleasant for everyone.
We don't see the reason that the ship can't have a 7/11 type store onboard for passengers to get bottled soft drinks and other amenities. The bottled water in the rooms was marked at $3.50 a bottle! While the tap water seemed perfectly fine to drink, this seemed another petty attempt to slug us for a few more bucks (and the $3.50 doesn't apply to the drink package!)
The Zuiderdam is a technology joke, which I would suspect is a major stumbling block for marketing to younger people. The in-house TV system was just crap, with bad pictures on the world's cheapest cabin-installed TV's. And while we had a DVD player included, it wasn't connected properly and the DVD's (get them at the front desk) were mostly scratched, unplayable, and useless. Satellite TV was available and that was fine, but the biggest issue these cruise lines need to face up to is internet access. It's currently an overpriced, gouge-you-for-dollars joke. I routinely ran speed tests on the connection and it was about 1/3 the speed of when I was using an analog MODEM. And at $249 for 10 days of connectivity (which quits after an hour and requires a complex rebooting to restart), someone's getting filthy rich on this gouge. The internet provider Harris Corp claims that HAL isn't providing enough bandwidth for the demand (no kidding), but clearly the bandwidth is available to meet the demand. And it's not like these issues aren't well known - with so many tourists shooting photos on their iPhones, these devices are set to sync to the cloud when connected and most don't know they should or ever CAN disable this feature. The result is a completely unusable system.
We understand other cruise companies are doing better (as are the airlines, where I routinely can get an over-the-ocean satellite connection at 2MB+ along with all my fellow passengers). But HAL will drive away potential passengers with this major shortcoming. The internet is no longer a "luxury", but a mainstream requirement. Many of the passengers who were loathe to be raped by HAL for this service on-board could be seen jamming cafes around the ports with their devices, trying to just get a bit of communication.