Wednesday, October 10, 2012

I Am Not A "Cruise" Person

I'm still delaying on my holiday photos, in part because they're either not ready yet or still hiding on one of my myriad memory cards, but I oughtn't let this blog fall into any semblance of disuse (not with a very nice offer potential for actual readership on the line). So I suppose I might as well fill in for another previously alluded-to reference regarding: me and cruise lines. I promise this one will contain actual advice on service improvements, rather than just several paragraphs of me taking the piss out of yet another industry.

So as previously referenced, I'm not a "cruise" person. I suspected as much from the start; I've always traveled independently, and I suspected I would find tour groups and prepackaged packages overly restricting. However, I also needed to get from Anchorage, AK to Prince Rupert, BC (or Vancouver, there's a ferry) and I needed to do it without flying because no one should ever fly out of an American airport; I'm sure a cursory search for "TSA molestation" or "airport nude scanner" or perhaps "TSA lawsuit" would already cover everything I would say on the matter were it not for pending litigation of my very own.

So a simple cruise from Anchorage (strictly speaking, either Whittier or Seward) to somewhere on the west coast of Canada couldn't be particularly bad; transportation, plus hotel, with meals included is always a plus and I'm not required to participate in the guided tours of this particular square foot of Alaska after all.

Then I actually tried booking the cruise. A clash of personality between me and whatever demographic the cruise lines cater to began as soon as I began searching websites and placing information-gathering phone calls.

First and foremost, cruise lines seem to market themselves exclusively to couples and groups; to a cruise line, solo travelers are at most an afterthought and at worst, actively unwelcome. (For example, Princess and Holland America set aside rooms that solo travelers are outright barred from booking even though they already have to buy two tickets to travel anyway.) Obviously, I've discussed the fraud of "per person, assuming double occupancy" already so there's no need to rehash that at length.

The other thing I discovered at this very early stage was that cruise lines base not just their marketing materials and itineraries, but their advice, FAQs, and salesperson training on the assumption that riding on the cruise ship is a holiday in and of itself. I don't mean they have itineraries that stop in ports of call; that's to be expected. I mean, when I was on the phone with a Princess reservation agent, trying to locate alternatives to a specific sold-out sailing from Whittier to Vancouver, the agent offered me a room on a north-bound trip from Vancouver to Whittier; I had to explain (rather slowly) that I was actually traveling from Whittier to Vancouver, not trying to book a holiday centered around being on a ship at some point on the Alaskan Inside Passage, where minor concerns like direction and destination didn't matter. And I lost track of the number of cruise line agents who, having located the sailings from Whittier to Vancouver, asked me if I needed to book a flight from Vancouver to Whittier in order to get on the boat.

Honestly, I should have known cruising wasn't for me when I discovered that the average cruise line website offers "ship name" and "cruise duration" as standard search refinement options, but destination is buried in the "advanced" options. (Yes, I know there's usually something called "destination" up front, but that only narrows it down to what approximate part of the planet you're planning to travel within; when you book reservations on ScotRail, you're asked to provide specific origin and destination stations, not offered a handful of general regions on the assumption that you haven't yet decided on the exact details of where you're going.)

So as previously mentioned, I ultimately declined to book travel on a cruise ship due to the fortuitous discovery of the Alaska Marine Highway System, which offered the exact itinerary I needed at a much lower price, without the arrogant assumption that I left home for the sole purpose of spending time on board.

But I didn't say that I had no experience with a cruise.

Because, you see, while I didn't book travel on a cruise ship, I did book a cruisetour, which is basically the exact same thing but on land.

So why did I book a cruisetour when I already knew for a fact that I prefer independent travel, and didn't even have the excuse of no-other-transportation?

Well, it was cheap.

I'd never been to Alaska before, so I decided to take the sampler tour for my first trip and come back to spend more time elsewhere once I knew where to go. To that end, I decided to fly into Anchorage (from an American airport, BIG mistake!), travel to Denali by train (Alaska being big on scenery but a bit short on roads), explore Denali National Park, then travel by train to Fairbanks (partly for the sake of exploration and partly so I can claim to have been farther north in America than anyone I know) before returning to Anchorage and continuing to Whittier.

As I began to research and plan my trip, I discovered that the Alaska Railroad fare in first class from Anchorage to Fairbanks with a stopover in Denali was $350, while Princess Lodges (a subsidiary of Princess which operates several Alaskan hotels and the rail/motorcoach tours that take cruise passengers to them) offered the exact same train fare and two nights at a reasonably high-class hotel in Denali for $368. The hotel I'd be staying at, Princess Lodge Denali, was $300/night if booked a la carte; assuming I'd have to pay a $350 train fare anyway, I was getting it for $9/night. I was convinced that this package wasn't too prepackaged (after all, the itinerary had nothing but the rail travel segments bisected by the single sentence "day at leisure in Denali"), and so I decided to book it, wondering what the catch was to make it so cheap.

It turned out, the catch was I had to travel with cruise passengers.

No, seriously, if you have no objection to traveling with cruise passengers, then there was no catch at all. Princess Tours owns private railcars for their tour passengers and needed those railcars to carry previous cruise passengers north from Denali, the limitations of the railroad meant a car carried into Denali had to be carried out of Anchorage, but there was no ship in that day to fill the Anchorage to Denali segment or the hotel rooms for that night, so they offered me the "anything's better than deadheading" fare. I get a cheap trip; they get some revenue from a wagon that had to run anyway and a hotel room that exists whether it's occupied or not.

But the actual catch was, I had to travel with cruise passengers, and, that I had to travel with a cruise company.

It turned out, I was the only person to take Princess up on their "anything's better than deadheading" offer and it wasn't worth crewing a car just for me, so when I arrived at the station, I learned I had been consolidated into a Holland America-owned car, filled with passengers fresh off (or waiting to board) a Holland America ship, a group consisting entirely of elderly people. (Plus one family with annoying children.)

Now I was well aware that the sorts of people who book cruises (and cruisetours) tend to differ from those with a strong preference for independent travel, but I hadn't realised until I actually took this trip just how much hand-holding cruise passengers need and cruise companies expect their passengers to need. After a less-than-perfect but quite tolerable start (the crew introduced themselves, and asked how many people were just off a cruise ship and how many people were about to board a cruise ship; I was the only one to answer neither, followed by an extremely mediocre and very expensive breakfast), we ultimately reached Talkeetna.

At Talkeetna, we had to make a longish stop (probably about 20 minutes) for reasons probably relating to the regular-service Alaska Railroad train the cruise carriages were trailing behind. At Talkeetna, our cruise section also boarded some additional passengers, meaning that the doors were opened and the stairs were lowered. I waited for the crew member to open the stairs so I could step off, only to be told I wasn't allowed off the train because he was worried I'd get left behind when the train departed.

Now I'm no stranger to train travel; you could certainly say I like to travel by train. I've done it quite extensively. And when the train makes a long stop for servicing or any other reason, I always step off. I have stepped off my train in San Jose and Sioux Lookout, Winona and Winnipeg, Denver and Davis, and I have never been Duffilled— not even at Domodossola. The staffer refused to listen to reason but ultimately conceded he couldn't stop me from stepping off, as long as he didn't formally give permission.

I stepped off and walked up and down for a few minutes, at which point the crew member insisted I get back on, as he was increasingly worried I'd get lost and/or confused and the train would leave without me. All while I was standing about three meters from it. I pointed out that the engineer typically signals "all aboard" by sounding the train whistle; he refused to listen and demanded I board immediately. I stepped back on the train, and we proceeded to sit in the station for another 15 minutes before the whistle sounded and we departed. When I pointed out to the staffer that the engineer did, in fact, sound the all aboard just like every other engineer on every other train on the entire continent, the crew member honestly told me he had never noticed that before.

Once we arrived in Denali and I got settled in at the lodge, I began planning the following day; after all, there were only so many trails I'd be able to walk and I wanted to find the best ones. That's when I learned several things about the lodge itself.

First and foremost, the property is fairly small; 650 rooms and a dozen-odd buildings fairly clustered together. Yet, the property has a shuttle van that drives around and around for the purpose of shuttling visitors between buildings. When I got off the bus, the driver told me to wait for the shuttle to take me to my room, which couldn't have been more than 20 meters away! I suppose elderly people with too much luggage might have trouble walking that far, but the "take the shuttle" mentality was so ingrained into staff training that a young fit bloke like myself was directed to ride in a van rather than simply walk.

The second thing I noticed was that the lodge appeared, at first sight, to be a "resort" rather than a hotel. The next thing I noticed was that its resort-full appearance was completely deceptive. I have fond memories of staying in a resort from when I was little; between two pools and extensive hiking trails, ponds and wild berry bushes, vast open spaces, afternoon tea, and constantly-rotating activities, one could take half a holiday just on the property itself. Princess Lodge Denali was basically the same as that, except with all of the activities and amenities of the previous sentence removed and replaced with overpriced restaurants selling mediocre food and overpriced gift shops selling worthless tat.

And then I reached the main building itself. The check-in desk was located at the far wall and occupied half the width of the lobby. The other half was occupied by the "Tour Desk," where cheery-mannered clerks offered for sale a wide range of tours at prices between $120 and $600— tours which the same clerks candidly admitted were all available for free from the Park Service. (Strictly speaking, the Park Service charged a $10 park entry fee for some tours, but that's still nowhere near $600.)

I'm not sure what struck me more; that Princess was charging several hundred dollars for a "tour" that anybody could take for free, or that they were happy to admit that the tour was available for free, secure in the knowledge that the majority of their clientele would rather pay a small fortune than have to think for themselves for a day.

But the one little incident that I will quote whenever anybody asks me why I hate cruising occurred the day I left the resort. Everyone bound for Fairbanks got on board a bus to take us to the rail depot. The bus arrived in front of the depot. The driver turned off the engine, opened the door, and stepped out. And I was unable to disembark, because the aisle in front of me was blocked by some idiot who wouldn't get off the bus until the driver got back on and told him that we had arrived at the depot and it was time to leave.

That, to me, is the quintessential cruise passenger— someone so helpless that he can't acknowledge the blazingly obvious until a cheerful uniformed escort explicitly tells him about it. And that's why I'm glad I didn't book any more cruise-related anything on that trip.

And yet.

The ferry from Whittier to Juneau and then on to Prince Rupert had all the obvious advantages over a cruise. It was cheaper. It didn't even think of trying to quote "per person, assuming double occupancy" fares. The two-day layover gave me enough time to be in Juneau properly while a cruise line's 6-8 hour stop wouldn't. Because the ferry is primarily a form of transportation, most of the passengers were native Alaskans; whilst waiting to get my room key in Juneau, I learned that the person in the queue ahead of me was actually an Alaska state senator returning home to his district. Being taken directly to Prince Rupert rather than having to make my way from Vancouver was very convenient. And had I taken the cruise ship, I would never have stopped in Yakutat, a town so tiny that it doesn't have mobile service and the ferry's cafeteria is their most popular restaurant.

But a cruise ship has certain advantages not available on the ferry. Being so small, and intended primarily for transportation, the ferry lacks many of the amenities a cruise ship has to offer. Perhaps the most readily noticeable is that ferry food is extremely boring and having to eat it for days on end starts to become unpleasant to the point of near-sickening; one ferry has been outfitted with a proper restaurant and I wasn't on it. I make a point of always having a selection of video games and half a season of Doctor Who on my laptop at all times in case of a Level 6 Boredom Emergency, and the ferry was known to provoke a couple; yes, it's very scenic in parts, but you can only stare at scenery for so long and there's basically nothing else to do on board.

Next time I book a holiday like this may be awhile; I got lucky this time, but I normally can't afford long trips and if I can afford another one soon, Egypt is not going to visit itself. However, someday I will be able to book another trip across America and Canada, and when I do, I will be taking a cruise ship southbound. (If only because I will be taking the ferry northbound, I mean it when I warn you never to fly out of an American airport.)

It's a real pity there's no middle ground "best of both worlds" option; a luxury ferry fitted like a cruise ship with the all the amenities, but without the hand-holding and prepackaging and assumption that riding on it is your entire holiday.

There are so many cruise companies with so many ships; one of them could readily devote one ship to a ferry-like Alaska service, running between Whittier and Vancouver, but selling intermediate tickets between ports of call. I suspect that the cruise companies would object to doing this simply because I suspect that most of their revenue comes from selling prepackaged tours of the cruise's ports of call which the cruise-hating demographic just wouldn't buy, and because true cruise passengers who need their hands held through every step of a trip are more profitable overall because, obviously enough, it's easier to fleece your customers if they happen to be sheep.

However, it's an untapped market and if I had a ship handy, I would try to fill it. In fact, there are several places on the planet where a ship with cruise-like amenities and a ferry-like attitude might be very profitable; obviously, the Alaskan inside passage is the prime example since they already run a ferry to serve that market to say nothing of cruises, but trans-Atlantic journeys might be another given the horrors of flying out of American airports. Currently, the trans-Atlantic passage market is served only by Cunard, and I have problems with them, primarily relating to the fact that their dress code is incompatible with my baggage limits.

Even leaving aside the idea of ships that offer passage without the cruise attitude, there is the other matter of solo travelers. I haven't exactly conducted thorough market research studies, but unless you have, I'm not willing to believe that people who travel solo are substantially less likely to book cruises than those who travel as couples or in groups— that the small handful of single rooms on one particular ship sell out extremely quickly tends to suggest that solo travelers are quite willing to book on the existing crop of cruises. Yes, solo travelers represent only about 10% of cruise line bookings, but that's sort of expected when every cruise line jumps through hoops to make solo travelers unwelcome. When your policy is "solo travelers must pay double, and even then are accepted only in Designated Solo Rooms, and can't get most of the special fares and promotions," then it's surprising they even got 10%.

Cruise lines claim they need to drive away solo travelers because a solo traveler occupying a double room deprives them of the onboard spending that a second person would have made. This is, of course, absolute nonsense; if they divided some of the double rooms into two single rooms with adjoining door (or perhaps even collapsable wall), the cruise line would fit just as many people for the same space and wouldn't have to drive away any market share.

Plus, when was the last time a couple racked up a massive bar tab buying drinks for people who clearly weren't interested in them? How much money do you think Hubby would have lost in the casino if Wifey hadn't dragged him away after the first round? The first cruise line that opens up to solo travelers might well see total onboard spending increase substantially.

As for me, I would definitely book a cruise ticket for my next trip if I can do it without paying double. After all, if they drop their assumptions about how I travel, the "per person" fare on the cruise is actually cheaper than the ferry, and when my holiday consists of a six-week adventure across two of the world's largest countries, every penny counts!

After all, I'd book another Alaskan cruisetour if it's cheap enough; a cheap cruise is much better than a more expensive ferry.

If no cruise company offers equitable fares to solo travelers, I may have to raise money to start a cruise line of my own!

Vital stats:

Holiday: Over
Date: Today
Current Mood: Thoughtful
Sleep Status: Yes
Word of the Day: Defenestrate
Total Cost: $7,000 USD and $2,500 CAD
Trains: 11
Planes: 1
Automobiles: 2
Fun: 67.4 Parties
A Moose: No
Finances: Shambles
Health: 17 Hitpoints
Level: Confound Delivery

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