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A cruise too far


On August 10th, 2005 my family (husband and two teenage daughters) began our first ever cruise on Norwegian’s brand new Jewel.  Though the majority of the trip was fantastic and beyond our expectations, a couple of incidents happened that darkened the happy memories of this experience to the extreme point that, while we will take cruises in the future, it will not be with any Star line.

Our first week on the cruise was marred only by one incident that could be considered bad business and an inability to ensure sufficient passenger health and safety.  Having stopped in Gibraltar, we decided to take a local taxi (tours were not provided by the ship) to the top of the rock.  Once there our oldest daughter was bitten by one of the monkeys.  It was not a bad bite but concerned me because the skin was broken and these were wild monkeys.  Once back at the ship, we went to the medical clinic but found it closed so went to the customer service desk to ask where we could get some hydrogen peroxide.  She called down to medical and spoke with the nurse who said to send us down.  Although the clinic was closed and she would not look at our daughter’s bite, she would give us some hydrogen peroxide.  We were about to turn to go down to the clinic when the receptionist said that the nurse wanted to make sure we were aware we would be charged a $100 dollars for the peroxide.  Considering a large bottle of hydrogen peroxide is .44 cents at the exchange nearest us and the average mark up is about 3 times this would make the cost of the bottle approximately a bit over .14 cents.  That would make it more then 714% mark-up.  Not the worst thing to do to your customers but there is nothing like taking advantage of your customers being reliant upon your ship.  Unfortunately, this reliance was to prove to be misplaced later in the cruise.

Wanting to make the most of our time in each port visit and not wanting to have to waste time trying to figure out where to go and how to get there, we booked ship tours at each stop.  This proved wonderful in some places and simply satisfactory in others but whether we thoroughly enjoyed the city or cities we visited we were aware that the tour was set up nicely and showed or provided everything that was stated in the advertisements: until the last visit at Almeria, Spain.  Here the ship was only due to be in port at 1:00 pm and leave at 6:00 pm.  Having such a short time, we booked the 3 ½ hour City Highlights tour.  The description of the tour in the literature passengers received described “ancient civilizations” and a visit to the Alcazaba Palace.   It noted that free time would be allowed in the city and based the tour as a level 2 in difficulty.  Not easy, but definitely not hard to endure.  Though there had been some problems getting tours going at the beginning of the cruise (to be expected and understood on a new ship), they had apparently been worked out and the individuals on this tour were taken care of and on the bus in good time, leaving all happy and ready for a wonderful day.  Unfortunately the tour we received was nothing like the description.  To accurately portray this tour to passengers it should have read something more to the effect of: 

CITY LOWLIFES AND MOTORWAY TOUR

Approximate Duration: 3 torturous hours     Level 6

Your visit to Almeria will begin with a rush hour traffic bus ride back and forth in front of your cruise ship with a quick mention of an old train station marking the halfway point.  After once again passing your cruise ship you will be driven down a motorway for approximately five miles in order for the tour guide to mention to those in the front of the bus that there is an old bridge that can barely be seen out behind and between a couple mountains to your far left.  After completing your motorway tour you will be dropped off on the opposite side of the city as your ship is docked.  As the culture dictates shops closing at 2:00pm on Saturdays, there will be no need to provide you with free time in the city and instead we will have a forced march, with the temperature hovering in the nineties and ninety-two percent humidity, through some disgusting areas with hoodlums yelling at you.  Though they will be speaking a foreign language, you will be left in no doubt that their words are not pleasant. 

As your tour guide will care nothing about the individuals in the group and we will not monitor to ensure all that sign up are in good physical shape, we are happy to inform you that you will be provided with the task of making sure that none of the many senior citizens in the groups fall out.  Please do not expect the tour guide to slow down any regardless of the groups conditions or health as we want to ensure you have as long of a march as possible.  After about a mile of marching and running to try to keep up with your tour guide, you will enter a square where the residents are currently celebrating so that drunk men can hide behind trees to take pictures of your teenage daughters, only to run off when you look at them. 

This time will lead to another march through more rough streets before coming to a couple of buildings in which you are told are closed so you can not enter, but don’t the facades look interesting?  From here you go towards the ruins that you have been noticing all day, on top of a mountain.  The group will start climbing, with the tour guide reassuring elderly individuals who appear to be ready to pass out that the group is only going a bit further.  Eventually, you will reach the top of this mountain and the tour guide will actually give you a few minutes break to get some water. 

When you have finally had enough of the tour and inform the tour guide that you and your family will make your own way back to the ship which you can see in the distance, your tour guide will inform you that it is much more complicated to get back to the ship then it looks and since the shops are all closed anyway, why leave the group?  At this point the guide will ask you if you think this is any fun for him?  After all, do you not realize that walking in this heat is also dangerous for him?  Here the guide will also explain to you that this is the first cruise line to dock in the afternoon.  Every other ship has docked in the morning and been gone by one in the afternoon, well before the main heat of the day.  Having reassured you, the guide will then tell the group that the bus is to meet everyone at the bottom of the mountain and proceed to lead the way down. 

Only we have arranged a surprise for you at this point.  Rather then the bus being at the bottom of the mountain, the guide will continue on down the street towards the ship and walk you straight to the street that is across from the ship.  When he says the bus will be meeting the group down to the right and you ask why the group can not simply enter the pedestrian entrance a few feet away, he will argue with you in front of everyone and insist that no people have been allowed through this entrance since 9/11.  This will be a surprise to you as you will have seen some of the individuals that are on the ship with you come through those exact gates when you were taking your exciting bus tour earlier that day.  From here the guide will turn to the right and begin walking, and walking, and walking.  He will then get to a certain point, look to his left and realize he has walked too far.  The entire group will then turn and walk their way back again so that the tour bus can pick everyone up and drive you to the other side of the street where you will arrive back at the ship with plenty of time to spare.  Once off the bus please ask one of our members how the pedestrians are arriving back to the ship so that they can inform you that everyone is coming through the very gate that no individual has been allowed through since 9/11.  To please you we have decided to not use this gate though for it would have eliminated a couple of miles of forced marching in extreme heat and a bus ride across the street.  

It is easy to see that the tour was not a pleasant one.  The only site explored was that of the old castle (which would have been the only thing worth seeing, if not for the temperatures), and were put in danger not only by the extreme walking in such heat but by the civilians who were aggressive and abusive.  The heat was ridiculous and not given any consideration.  Nor were the elderly individuals who were with us.  A number of them were sweating professedly and either extremely red or very pale.  Having been in the military for a number of years, part of this time spent in the desert where heat stroke and heat exhaustion are well-trained for, and doing a stint as a fireman, my husband has had plenty of experience at looking for the danger signs.  After the first couple of blocks he spent his time worrying about the large number of elderly individuals that were showing signs of heat problems as well as trying to ensure everyone was safe from the aggressive behavior of civilians roaring around us on motorbikes or on foot. 

Upon returning to the ship, we, and others, went straight to the receptionist desk and asked to speak to the excursions manager.  He was very polite in listening to everything those of us who had waited for him had to say.  We not only explained our terrible time but stressed the health hazards of the day and our concerns of the elderly individuals of the group, suggesting maybe sending pitchers of iced water and plates of cold fresh fruit to the cabins to ensure re-hydration.  Having guaranteed us he would make sure the elderly were taken care of and that he would look into the complaints, he assured us we, and everyone else on the tour, would hear from him later that evening.  We stood to leave and turned to find another large group of sweaty and obviously angry individuals standing behind us.  They wanted to talk to the excursion manager.  They had been in one of the other buses on this same tour and had the same complaints.  I had to laugh at horror on the excursion manager’s face, but he was still polite and sat back down to listen.  We went to the elevator and while going up to our floor hear someone say something about the waste of their money for their tour.  I asked what bus number they were on and two different groups replied.  We were on bus 10, the second group to talk to the manager was bus 12, and here were bus 8 and 9. 

Later that same night my husband could not relax because he was worried about the elderly that had been looking poorly when they went to their rooms.  As we were aware of some that were on their own we were concerned that if they had a problem there would be nobody to help them.  At about 9:00 pm we went down and asked to speak to the manager again.  At this point we were told that he was busy and that no, nothing had been done to check on these individuals yet.  Angry, we began to leave when we heard some others in the lobby discussing the day.  We stopped to talk to them and my husband noticed the ship’s nurse walk by.  He went to talk to her to ask what had been done to ensure these individuals health and safety.  She knew of nothing that had been done.  After he explained to her what he had seen and his experience, she replied that he simply did not understand how the body worked in this environment rather then the Mojave Desert where most of his training had taken place and that such aggressive sweating was not a problem in Spain.  She went on to enlighten him to the fact that he was not used to this type of sweating because people did not sweat in places like the Mojave Desert.  At this point he had to come back to me as an expert.  Not as a medical expert, but as a Mojave resident for 21 years.  I had to confirm that not only do people sweat in the Mojave Desert, but they sweat there all year long!  My entire family still lives there and assures me that this does still occur. 

After our earlier experience with the nurse, this did little to ensure us of her competence.  I did take the time to go over and try to talk to her a bit more and was told that she did not have the right to make sure these people were okay because if she called them or went to their rooms she would have to charge them and that was up to them, not her.  The reasoning of charging customers that the ship’s tour had put into harms way was also not a comforting one.  At this point she informed me that the passenger’s health was not the ship’s responsibility and walked away.  Aware of her incompetence, I am thinking this might really be the best thing for the passengers!

Finally tired of the whole thing and the waste of our vacation time, I asked one of the receptionists if I could speak to the Captain.  I could not.  But I could talk to the Assistant Hotel Director, the excursions manager (a different one from earlier in the day), and another individual whose position I was never clear on.  They were all helpful and explained that they would contact us in the morning to tell us how the payment for the excursions would be handled.  At this point I explained to them that money was not the immediate issue, rather the health and safety of the other passengers.  They said they understood with the manager admitting that he had been down at the dock earlier and been concerned when he saw the color of some of the elderly individuals getting off the tour busses.  When asked why he did not do anything to help them, there was no answer.  The Assistant Hotel Director went on to explain that as it was so late in the evening, they could not now contact the passengers, but that they would early in the morning. 

The contact she spoke of was only in the form of a letter in which the tour director refused to take responsibility for any of the conditions the passengers were submitted to.  Though I have to agree with him that it is not the ship’s or the tour excursions desk’s fault that there was a trash strike, I do believe this information should have been supplied to passengers with the offer of canceling the tour.  He also states that they can not be responsible for the stores being closed.  This is also correct, but this is information that is available to the cruise line and should have been offered to the passengers.  We were on vacation and obviously expected at least a few moments to shop for souvenirs.  This should be anticipated by cruise personnel, not treated as if it is a rare occurrence and they could not be expected to think of this.  On the information supplied by the ship in the Freestyle Daily it stated that most of the shops would be closed so obviously the ship was aware of this when planning the tours but decided to make no mention of it at that time. 

The final complaint addressed in the letter was that of the excessive walking, while no mention is made of the heat, which was a major contributing factor in the entire fiasco.  Reviewing the brochure we picked up at the castle (on top of the mountain), my husband noticed that they are typically closed between 2:00 pm and 5:00 pm during summer months.  This is because it is too hot and dangerous to climb up that mountain.  They actually had to make special arrangements to stay open during this time.  Also note that shops in this area close every day at 2:00 pm for siesta.  This is because it is dangerous to be out in that heat.  If it is hazardous to the people that live there and are used to the environment, how much more so for individuals who are not used to that type of weather.  I am 37 years old and walk three miles a day, every day, yet I had a horrible time trying to handle the walk.  Our teenage daughters were miserable, as was my military husband who routinely runs miles, just for fun.  If we were this wretched, how awful could it have been for the mature members of our group? 

The letter also noted that we would receive a 50% refund for the tour.  This meant we only had to pay $24.50 each for the day of torture.  Not satisfied with this I went down and talked with the excursions manager again.  After a long talk he agreed that we would get our entire money back for that tour but that he would not give it back to the rest of the group.  He noted that there had been two hundred and seventeen people on that tour and yet only around fifty had complained so obviously a large number of people had a great time.  I explained that in business it should be understood that only a small amount of dissatisfied individuals will complain, typically in the range of two percent.  The rest will quietly go away and tell their friends and relatives about their horrible experience.  As he had twenty-five percent of his group complaining, this should tell him that something horrible had happened and the least the ship should do is give full refunds to everyone who had been subjected to this tour. 

When on cruise the military routinely sends a group of individuals ahead to each port of call to “scope out the land” and ensure the safety of the rest of the ship.  As this is a cruise ship in which people pay an exceptional amount of money for, and for a number this will be a once in a lifetime event, it is the ship’s responsibility not only to ensure the health and safety of the passengers, but also the enjoyment.  This should include a group that at least checks out tours before they offer them to their passengers.  I noted this to Mike and was informed that this was the first time the cruise line had used this port of call, let alone this tour service, but no, they had not done any checking on the company but had rather relied upon their descriptions and honesty.  As previously mentioned, according to the tour guide this was the first time a ship had docked in the afternoon.  They were gone by 1:00 pm when the main heat of the day occurs.  This would have been easy for an advance group to discern.  

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