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Royal Caribbean Cruise to Alaska
June 29th, 2008 by Jessica

As I mentioned before in the Disney Wonder post, the cruise to Alaska June 4-13 was supposed to be our first cruise. Lucky for us, it wasn’t, or I would NEVER go on another cruise. Thank goodness for Disney.

I try not to be a negative person, really. I’ve learned over the years that it’s better to stay positive and look for the bright side of things. However, after all the crappy things that happened to us on our Royal Caribbean cruise to Alaska, there’s nothing much positive to say about it.

I’m guessing right about now, you’re asking yourself the obvious question, “Oh my – what happened?” Let me try to express it in words, if that’s even possible.

Pre-Cruise Days in Vancouver

We flew into Vancouver, BC on Wednesday, June 4th. Upon arriving, we received two of our three pieces of luggage. The one missing was my clothing luggage. (Lesson #1 – Always split clothes between suitcases. Don’t pack them all in one.) Alaska Airlines took down the information and said most likely we would see the suitcase that night. They would drop it off to the hotel downtown for us. We moved on through Canadian customs and decided not to worry about it.

We made it through customs without much difficulty, and rented a car. We decided to splurge on a convertible Mustang, and upgraded to a GT from the rental agency. We had no problems with Budget car rental, and our Mustang was SWEET. However, the weather in Vancouver had another idea. It rained the entire first day and the entire second day of our vacation.

By the morning after we flew in, we did not have any luggage. Alaska Airlines told me that they couldn’t find it. They said it was a rare occurrence and they had no idea where it was.

Alaska Airlines in Vancouver does not track luggage when it comes off the plane. They do not scan it, they do not write it down, they do not take its picture… They just put it on the conveyor and assume it gets to you.

In this day and age with the availability of cheap scanning technology, this whole scenario was just disgusting to me. The representative said it was unlikely that we would receive the luggage before we departed on our cruise on Saturday morning. This was on Thursday morning.

Let me back up for a moment. We checked into the Hyatt Regency in Vancouver on Wednesday night. This is a top of the class hotel. The hotel was clean, the rooms were spacious and comfortable, and you can’t beat the location. It was a very nice hotel, thank goodness! I would recommend staying there in a heartbeat.

We spent Thursday on Vancouver Island and drove around the island, then went to Butchart Gardens. It was raining of course, but Butchart provided complimentary umbrellas and it was still very pretty. By the way, Butchart is about the only reason to go to Vancouver Island. If you really, really like gardens, then I recommend it. Otherwise, save yourself the 95-minute ferry ride and $85 each way, and just enjoy time in mainland Vancouver.

By the early afternoon on Thursday, Alaska Airlines still had not found my luggage, and I had been wearing the same clothes since Wednesday morning. We decided it was time to start shopping. We went to every mall we could find on Vancouver Island and in Vancouver, trying to rebuild my wardrobe. I have a hard time finding clothes as it is, but finding them in a foreign country where all the store names are different and most stuff is in French is a FPITA (yes, you heard me right, a FPITA).

By Friday morning, Alaska told me not to expect my luggage. We continued shopping. This was NOT how I wanted to spend my 3 days pre-cruise in Vancouver. I absolutely HATE shopping. And I mean, I really hate shopping. We endured through endless malls and thanks to the friendly people in Vancouver, found our way around to enough stores to manage half a wardrobe… $600 CAD later plus conversion charges.

Friday afternoon my luggage showed up in our room. We didn’t have enough time to return everything, and frankly couldn’t even remember where we had gone to buy it all. We decided to deal with it later.

By that time, the sun was shining, so we hopped in the convertible Mustang and threw the top down as fast as we could. We quickly drove it down to Stanley Park, which is absolutely beautiful. My sister and her family had flown in Friday morning, so we met up with them at the park and took my nieces Rachel and Ashley for a drive through the park. Then it was off to dinner and preparation for embarkation the next morning. The drives through Stanley park turned out to be one of the biggest highlights of the trip for us.

Embarkation Day

Saturday morning, June 7th we set out for embarkation on Royal Caribbean’s Serenade of the Seas. We thought the cruise left from the beautiful, convenient Canada Place but no… It does not. It leaves from Ballantyne pier, which is this nasty smelly shipyard warehouse about 20 minutes from downtown Vancouver.
I swear, Royal Caribbean is just too cheap to dock their crappy ships at the good places. More on this later. This should have been our first clue.

We arrived at the pier on a bus full of Royal Caribbean guests, where upon arrival they give you a number and tell you to sit down in a plastic chair in the terminal. They don’t tell you how long you’ll be sitting there. They just tell you to sit down and wait. We were there for about a half an hour before they called our number. Then, we got in line to go through security. This didn’t take too long, maybe about 15 minutes or so. We managed to make our way through the security checkpoint, and then the real fun began.

After security, you walk into this giant cold stinky warehouse where Royal Caribbean clearly couldn’t figure out how to define the waiting lines. They had a few of those rope things to help get people standing in the right place, but then they just sort of stopped, and people made their own lines. They had a thousand people in this warehouse, easily, and about 100 of them were properly lined up.

We waited about an hour to check in with Royal Caribbean to get on the ship. The check-in desks were these plastic kiosk things with paper banners on top. It reminded me of a temporary check-in for a technical conference in a crappy hotel. This should have been another clue. The clerk checking us in (note I say clerk, not representative or customer service specialist) was cordial but not very speedy.

I noticed on the counter there were a couple of copies of a paper explaining that the previous cruise had a minor outbreak of the Norovirus, and to wash your hands excessively. Andrew mentioned that it was probably a standard paper that they have to provide by law or something. Oh, how it was NOT. No, this was actually a serious situation.

By now, we’re about 2 hours into the check-in process, and making our way up the escalator to what we thought would be the entrance to the ship. Oh, no. No. No. This was the entrance to the waiting area for US Customs. Again we were given a number upon entrance and asked to sit down and wait. They weren’t calling numbers or colors in order either, so we had no idea how long we were supposed to wait. We took our seats and waited.

About 30 minutes later, our number/color combo was called. We made our way into the line to wait for US Customs. Don’t even get me started on these people. I’m sure what I would say would only get me in trouble. Let’s just say that the “individual” who checked our passports had a very bad cold, and he literally sneezed on my passport twice. He didn’t even wipe his nose. And they wonder why the cruise passengers are carrying so many germs? it was DISGUSTING.

Finally, we’re getting on the ship! Go left? Ok, go left. This doesn’t look like the ship. This is another waiting room. Another Royal Caribbean clerk told us to have a seat. She didn’t tell us why, or what to listen for. We eventually figured out that they were calling number/color combinations that matched the ones that you were going through US Customs with. Again, we sat down waited.

We met up with my sister and her family here, who were going through the boarding process just before us (they arrived earlier by limo). She had talked to some of the Royal Caribbean staff members who said that there had been a Norovirus outbreak on three out of the last five sailings of the Serenade of the Seas, and the CDC wouldn’t allow passengers to board the ship until it was bleached from forward to aft, port to starboard. I showed her the paper I grabbed way back at check-in time, which confirmed the story.

About 45 minutes or so later, our number was finally called. We were finally getting on the ship, some 3 hours or so after we had arrived at the pier. I was hungry, tired, and ticked off.

We got on the ship after waiting in a massive line of people having to get their picture taken twice. Once was for the ship’s records, and once was the start of our “wonderful relaxing vacation at sea.” Maybe I should have bought that souvenir photo, because the expression on my face said it all! I was NOT at all happy to be there.

Even though we were hours late getting on the ship, we couldn’t go to our state rooms. They said the state rooms would be ready about 4:30 or so. We wrestled our carry-on luggage all over the ship. They wouldn’t let us take the staircase because the handrails were not disinfected yet. They wanted us to take the elevator, and there is no way in hell you could get on one, because every single one that stopped on any floor you were on was full. Eventually I told the staff to screw off and went up the staircase anyway, yelling back to them that I promised not to touch anything.

I had cooled off enough by the time our state rooms were supposedly ready… Partly because there was no seating in the Windjammer cafe so we had to sit outside on the deck in the shade. It’s COLD out there. Again, I was determined to have a good time on this vacation, so although we had been through missing luggage, shopping hell, constant rain, horrendous embarkation and crappy service up to this point… I tried very hard to change my attitude and be positive about the rest of the trip.

We finally got to see our room, 7088, at about 4:30pm. The room was small as all cruise ship cabins are, but we found that all of our luggage fit (even with the extra clothes). The balcony was really nice. The bathroom was tiny but I found that the shower was sufficient, even as big as I am. I really didn’t think I would fit in the shower, but I did. It was ok. The only problem was, we didn’t have toilet paper, towels, cups or glasses, or a remote control for the TV. As it turns out, the stateroom attendants were really far behind. It wasn’t until several hours later that we finally got toilet paper. It was the next day before we got a remote control. It was three days later that we finally got a room service menu, after requesting it several times.

Food on the Ship

The dinners on this ship were supposedly all dressy. Even their “casual” dinner suggested slacks and blouses or dresses for women, which is what I call “work wear.” Unfortunately, by the time 6pm rolled around, we still didn’t have our luggage. This means we went to the first night’s dinner in whatever we had been stinking up all day long. I of course, having just went through shopping hell, was quite concerned about my luggage again. We had seen Andrew’s in the stacks down the hallway but did not see mine anywhere. It didn’t arrive until after dinner.

The dinner started off okay, but I thought the food was mediocre. About halfway through, I found small black hairs on my steak. I lost my appetite, and sent the food back. Again, I was determined to consider it a fluke and continue friendly conversation with my sister and her family. The next night, I ordered the turkey cutlets. There were small rib bones in my turkey. I sent the food back.

I asked for a salad without the dressing. They brought me a salad covered with dressing. I asked him if he could please bring me one without dressing. He explained that no, all the food was prepared in bulk and they couldn’t accommodate special orders. I should have asked him why he took my order, knowing full well that I asked for it without dressing, but I just didn’t have it in me.

Now, I understand the bulk food thing… But, you’d think they could prepare basic things without the dressings or sauces for kids and picky eaters, or people on a diet who don’t want their Caesar covered in ranch. Disney brought me anything I asked for, in any manner in which I asked for it. Royal shoved whatever they had in front of you… hair, bones, dressing and all. In all fairness, the rest of the table generally seemed to think their food was fine. So if you’re not picky, and you’ll eat just about anything, then it probably won’t be an issue for you.

I’ve already dragged on for so long in this story that it’s hard to keep going. By this point, I was so incredibly frustrated by the vacation that it was really hard for me to stay positive. I think it was around this time that I finally broke down into a loud sobbing fit in our stateroom, because I just couldn’t take it any more. I just wanted to go home.

About the only saving grace on this ship for me was the onboard casino. They had a quarter pusher machine that accepted quarters and distributed quarters – AND large denomination bills like $20’s and $50’s! I won a few hundred dollars from this machine over the course of our stay on the ship. It was awesome!

Optional Excursions

Let’s talk about the excursions. We spent $1300 on optional excursions, and here is what we got.

Icy Strait Point

In Icy Strait Point, Andrew took the Ziprider zipline adventure. Andrew enjoyed his zipline ride although he said it took too long (about 2 hours) for just 90 seconds on the ride. I went to a culinary class with my sister and niece Rachel called the Wild Alaska Culinary Extravaganza. We got to watch a 21-pound white king salmon prepared and a 35-pound halibut filleted, then we all got to prepare them outside on a community grill. It was a pretty neat show all together, except for this truly annoying 17-year old sitting next to me who wanted to be the star of it all. She was incredibly attention-deprived and wanted everyone in the room to know about it.

Afterwards, we met up to take the Forest & Nature Tram tour along the beach. It was a cheap tour and we enjoyed the scenery, although after a while it got sort of boring. You can only see so many trees and waterfalls before you’re ready to go back to the ship and find something to eat. You take the open-air tram a few miles and then stop for a few minutes, then come back the same way you went to get there. The tour crew set up a spotting scope at the end of the road so people could see a nest of bald eagles which was kind of cool.

Hubbard Glacier

These few hours at Hubbard were one of the highlights of the trip for us as well. This isn’t actually a port of call, but it is considered a destination for this particular cruise. The cruise ship navigates through a narrow passage and right up to the front of Hubbard Glacier. We were truly amazed at how close you get to this glacier. They say our cruise happened to get closer than most, because the ice fields were behaving that day. We pulled up to within 1/2 a mile of the glacier and the captain did a 520 degree turn in circles over about a 2-hour period. No matter where you were on the ship, you always had a fantastic view.

The glacier was calving (chunks were falling off into the ocean) on a very massive scale. I had heard that you were lucky to see one or two calvings, but we must have seen 30 of them. We got some excellent photos and Andrew got really good video of it.

Skagway

The next port was Skagway, where Andrew and I went on the White Pass & Yukon Route railroad trip up the mountain together. The scenery was really cool and it was neat to go on a train, which I haven’t done much in my life. On the way up, we were on the side facing the mountain, while an Asian tourist group sat on the “good” side of the train. They explained that it doesn’t matter where you sit because at the top, we would all do the “shuffle” where you get up, flip the seat over, and switch sides with whomever was sitting across the aisle from you.

Unfortunately these Asian tourists either did not speak English or chose to ignore the instructions, because getting them to switch seats with us was quite a challenge. We flipped our seat, and I offered it to them. They just looked at me. I said, “Here you go, we need to switch seats now.” They again looked at me, then looked at each other. Andrew chimed in and tried to explain what was happening. Finally somebody behind them told them in their native language what was going on. They seemed very unhappy that they were being asked to move. Too bad, I say! Everyone else had moved, and I really wanted to see the views from a decent seat.

After that adventure was over, we tried to get back on the ship to grab some food. There wasn’t enough time to get on because the line was moving way too slow. We tried to go into town for food but it was too far to walk, and our next tour was assembling. We ended up grabbing candy bars and soda at the snack hut by the train depot, and that was all we got to eat in the 8 hours we were off the ship. (Lesson #2 – Schedule at least 2 hours between excursions, not 1 hour as the cruise line suggests.)

We embarked on the Eagle Preserve Float & Lynn Fjord Cruise. This was another trip that was a highlight of the vacation. A small boat took us up Lynn Fjord to Haines where a bus then took us north to the river launch. Our tour guides were very nice, real people – they truly wanted everyone to have a good time. They were knowledgeable about the environment and the landscape, as well as the wildlife. We got to view dozens of bald eagles close-up and in their natural habitat surrounding the river we were floating down. The crew had water boots for us to wear, hot chocolate and tea, sandwiches and fruit, and even extra gear to borrow like hats, gloves and binoculars.

We got back to Skagway and literally had to RUN to get back to the ship. We were the last people on, at about 8:02pm (sailing was at 8:00pm). While it seemed like they might have waiting for us, I think truly they just happened to be running a few minutes late. I believe they would have left us there in Skagway. (Lesson #3 – ALWAYS carry your passport and credit cards on shore. Just in case.)

Juneau

Royal Caribbean decided to tender the boat in Juneau although they had told us we would be at port. We arrived in Juneau early and of the five ports available, only one was in use. Our ship dropped anchor a few hundred yards off shore. Slowly throughout the day, the rest of the ports filled up. I believe Royal Caribbean is just too cheap to rent the port, and tendering to shore is another FPITA. (Yup, I said it again, this is truly a FPITA.)

Andrew signed up for Alaska Canopy Adventures Canopy Zipline Tour in Juneau and my niece Ashley signed up with him. She is 15 years old. The two of them waited in the theater to be called to get in line for the tender. It’s another one of those — come down here and wait, and eventually we will call your time slot, then follow the leader to go get in line to get on a boat to be shuttled to shore — type things. I hate that way of managing time.

Anyway, back to the zipline tour. Andrew and Ashley were tendered to shore and had the first excusion time for the tour. They got to shore and went to find the guide to sign in. Once they got there, they asked Andrew if he was her father. No, of course not. The guide wouldn’t let Ashley sign in unless her parent or guardian was present to sign the waiver.

WHAT?? WHAT THE F*(#@%*( ?!?! ARE YOU SERIOUS???

Royal Caribbean let my 15-year old niece off the ship on a tender boat with a man who was not her parent or guardian, without asking any questions whatsoever… but they wouldn’t let her go on the zipline tour unless her mother… my sister… was there to sign the waiver.

Let’s just say, I’m glad my sister is a determined woman. Royal Caribbean staff had to call her stateroom and alert her of the situation. She had to push her way through the tender line to make it to shore, sign the paper, then tender back to the ship to finish getting my younger niece ready for their excursion. Needless to say, she was NOT happy at all. I was NOT happy either.

Aside from that, Ashley and Andrew had a fantastic time on the zipline canopy tour. Andrew got some great pictures and video of the two of them. They enjoyed it tremendously, and would recommend the tour. At least something good came out of it for them!

In the meantime, I joined my brother-in-law Joe and my nephew Cole on a Photo Safari by Land and Sea. After tendering ashore, we took a bus to Mendenhall Glacier. There, we went on a nature walk where the guide described tips for depth of field, framing and point of view. He helped people with their cameras to learn how to take better pictures. It was actually a pretty neat tour for the novice photographer. The Glacier was dirty and ugly, so I chose instead to take pictures of the trees and people. Then we bussed down to another port and then got on this pontoon float boat thing… Sorry I have no idea what it was called. It was inflatable on the bottom but solid floor inside, with a pointed front you could go out on with space for about 3 people. The sides were just zipped up plastic that they zipped down whenever we stopped.

I have a Canon XSi 12mp prosumer camera with image stabilization, and I certainly could not get very good shots from that boat. I’m not the best photographer in the world, but I have to admit I do think I’m pretty good. The guide was pretty knowledgeable but the boat was shaking so incredibly that there is NO WAY you could take photos of the whales. We saw about 15 appearances of a few different whales, but I really have nothing worthwhile to show for it. We got much better pictures from the side of the cruise ship. The tour was interesting and a good waste of time in Juneau, but at 5 hours in length we had zero time to do any shopping. It was also very expensive at almost $200 per person. I don’t think it was worth it.

Debarkation

I’ve talked at length about the time in Vancouver, embarkation, and the excursions we went on. The rest of the trip basically involved debarkation and one final night in Vancouver.

“Royal Caribbean kindly requests that you vacate your state room by 8:00am on the morning of debarkation.” This means you have to get out of your room and go sit in a lobby somewhere. They don’t serve breakfast in the dining room, so you have to get it at the Windjammer cafe with the other 2,500 passengers before 7:30am. As you can image, this SUCKS. The food sucked anyway, but having no food at all because they are too busy to refill the buffet sucks even more.

We took our stuff and went to find a place to sit. Once again. Royal Caribbean assigns you a color and a number and tells you to sit there, without any expectation on when you might be called or any knowledge of their structured chaos. They also do not have any services open, so you can’t get any food or drinks, and there is nothing to do but sit there. We were called at about 9:45am, 1hour and 45 minutes after we were kicked out of our state room.

Debarkation went okay I guess. We were cattle-prodded into that stinky warehouse at Ballentyne pier again to locate our luggage. We found it quickly and tried to exit the warehouse, but the Royal Caribbean crew seemed very confused as to where our bus was and where we should go next. They moved us outside into the cold and told us to wait there until they could find our bus. We stood there with another group of angry people for about 30-40 minutes.

During that time, we found happiness in bashing Royal Carribean with the other groups of people who apparently had as crappy of a time on their vacation as we had. We spoke to nobody who had ever cruised before who actually enjoyed this cruise. Those couples who we spoke to that had never cruised seemed to think this was the norm for cruises, as they weren’t expecting anything to be that great. We politely informed them that our Disney cruise was NOT like this. Royal Caribbean simply sucks ass. (Pardon my language, but they do. Really.)

Eventually the staff figured out where our bus was and had us cart all of our luggage to the luggage truck. They herded us onto a bus, where a man tried to take my carry-on and stow it. I nearly bit his hands off at this point, and refused to let him stow my carry-on after what had happened to our luggage so far. This turned out to be a good idea, because by the time we got back to the hotel, the luggage truck was no longer with us. Once again, we had no luggage except the one carry-on suitcase.

Last Night in Vancouver

Our luggage arrived a few hours later and was brought to our hotel room. I called up United Airlines and begged them to sell me two tickets to go home to Phoenix that night. It was Saturday afternoon, and we scheduled our flight out on Sunday evening because we had heard horror stories about disembarking cruise ships. I’m glad we had done that, but I really just wanted to go home. Even Andrew at this point just wanted to go home. We didn’t want to be stuck in Vancouver another night.

United airlines said that Royal Caribbean had booked us on some special rate fare and they were unable to change our tickets. I offered to buy new tickets but he said no flights were available. We would just have to wait until the morning.

Royal Caribbean had booked our transfer to the airport on a generic bus line. They suggested we go to the airport on the 12:30pm bus, as our flight was at 3:00pm. We decided to check out of the hotel and take the 9:00am bus to the airport. It’s a damn good thing, too, because we didn’t get to the airport until about 11:00am. We had to wait until 12:00pm to check in, because United doesn’t allow you to check in more than three hours prior to your flight. We found a seat (which was hard to do as they were all taken, we had to wait for someone to vacate and snatch it up) and waited.

At about 11:40am, I suggested we get in the long line for check-in. I knew it would take more than 20 minutes to get to the front of it. I was right, it took us about 45 minutes. When we go to the front, we learned that our flight connecting in Denver had been delayed for three hours and was scheduled to depart at 6:00pm. The United representative was excellent to us. He realized that if we took that flight to Denver, there were no flights going to Phoenix after that so we could not get home. He searched and searched until he found a way to ticket us through San Francisco on a flight scheduled to leave at 1:20pm (in 20 minutes) but was delayed, so we had a change. The connecting flight departed from San Francisco just 25 minutes after we landed, so we “might” make it. We approved the flight to San Francisco and headed toward US Customs.

Going through customs this time wasn’t so bad. I am glad that Vancouver offers free luggage carts, because it made things a lot easier. The US Customs officers were rude and unfriendly, as they were on the way to embark the cruise ship… At least we got through. We made it to the gate and discovered the flight was delayed 2 hours. We looked around for a while and grabbed lunch, then sat and waited.

By the time we got to San Francisco, our connecting flight was delayed for mechanical reasons. We barely made it to the gate in time for the original departure, but they waited another 25 minutes before boarding us. We did get home that Sunday night, but it was long overdue.

Final Thoughts

This cruise vacation topped out at over $8,000 for us. It was about $7,000 more than it was worth. We had a few good times, like driving the convertible Mustang GT through Stanley Park, playing on the “self-leveling pool tables” and photographing Hubbard Glacier. Andrew like the zipline tours and it was really nice to see my sister and her family. Otherwise, the trip was plagued by a “comedy of errors” as Andrew so nicely puts it.

In summary, Royal Caribbean royally sucks.

Disney Cruise Line, on the other hand, was incredible. We haven’t given up hope on cruises.

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© 2013 Jessica M. Green