Solving Problems, Part 2: On Board

| May 2, 2005

Part 1

In Part 1, we talked about safeguards and procedures to follow in taking care of pre-cruise business, including booking, documentation and so on. Now I want to move on to on-board situations.

But first, there are just a couple of more pre-cruise business items to cover.

When you inspect cruise line brochures, you need to look past the glossy pictures and glowing descriptions, and concentrate on the "dry facts" normally placed in the back of the brochures. These outline the obligations of the cruise line, and your rights as a passenger.

It's also important to read and understand the descriptions of the penalties you face if you have to cancel the cruise before sailing. Reading these sections of the brochure may not enhance the glamour and excitement of planning your vacation, but this is important information to know if things go wrong.

For the sake of public relations, the cruise lines will occasionally make exceptions to the "rules" in their brochures and contracts. But in most cases they will stick closely to the responsibilities laid out by them in these documents.

When Problems Arise On Board

Rule #1: If you have a problem onboard, try to have it remedied onboard, and as soon as possible. Take your problem immediately to the people who can do something about it. If possible, those people will want to remedy the problem as soon as they can.

If you don't act -- if you just carry your problem in your mind for the duration of your cruise without attempting to resolve it, you bear some responsibility for the negative impact it will have on your vacation.

Cabin Problems

If you encounter a problem in your cabin the first day, and it's minor, ask your cabin steward to deal with it first. The Guest Relations desk is often swamped the first day, and you may find a less-than-welcoming attitude if you call or go there to have the problem dealt with. If the problem is minor but the cabin steward can't remedy it, wait until the next morning before trying Guest Relations. If it's something you consider a serious problem, go to the Guest Relations desk to report it, but show some patience to those manning the counters. Being calm and even pleasant will get a more sympathetic ear than banging your fists on the counter.

If by the next day you have been unable to get the problem corrected, or on its way to resolution, ask to speak to the Guest Relations Manager. If you can't do so immediately, leave a note explaining the problem and what you've already done to try and fix it.

It's likely that at this point, your problem will have been resolved. But if it hasn't been, keep climbing up the ladder; ask for a meeting with the Hotel Manager. He or she is ultimately responsible for all issues having to do with the ship's public and private areas for passengers.

If you can't resolve your cabin issue while onboard, keep notes that you can refer to after the cruise, to bring the unresolved problem to the attention of the cruise line's home office. Detail whom you spoke to, and what attempts were made to address the problem. Though in severe circumstances it may be difficult, try to contain your emotions and deal with the issue in a businesslike manner.

Dinner Seating Arrangements

When you booked your cruise, your travel agent should have asked for your preferred dinner seating requests -- early or late seating, and the size of table you prefer. If you are traveling with others, the agent should have cross-referenced your reservations and those of your travel mates with the cruise line.

Even if you're told your preferred dining arrangements were confirmed by the cruise line, check once you're onboard to make certain. If they aren't, ask Guest Relations where to find the Maitre d' or Restaurant Manager. These people will do their utmost to assist in correcting any errors.

In the case of "traditional assigned dining times," you could find yourself seated next to passengers with whom you have little in common. If this could negatively impact your cruise experience, ask the Maitre d' for a change of tables. Maybe this will make you feel like you aren't a nice person, but taking no action will leave you uncomfortable during what should be one of the most enjoyable aspects of your cruise.

Service Issues

The vast majority of staffers onboard will do their utmost to make your cruise the best vacation you ever had. But these are still human beings, and some are better at their jobs than others. And like all of us, some have off-days (or weeks) where they might struggle to do their cruise line jobs properly.

There's a broad cross-section of individual preferences for the type of service we enjoy. Some people want a strict server/guest relationship: They want food and drink delivered efficiently, without any interaction with their servers. Others prefer a more social relationship with their servers. They want the servers not only to serve them efficiently, but also to socialize with them. It's not easy for those who serve passengers to determine quickly which category their guests fall into. I am often amazed at what a good job most crew members do at judging and reacting to those situations.

Admittedly, there are times where these talents fail them, or when the servers are simply not capable of keeping up with the demands of their jobs. In these cases, there are things you can do to alleviate the situation. The biggest mistake a passenger can make, if they are unhappy with a server, is to do nothing. I understand our natural reaction in the interest of being a nice person is to say nothing, and suffer through. That is a mistake I've made myself!

I recommend speaking up if you are unhappy with your service. First discuss the problem diplomatically with the people who are serving you. If it's a cabin steward, let him or her know what would make your experience better. If it's a dining room waiting team, let them know what's bothering you, and suggest what they can do to ease the problem.

If the problems continue, speak to their supervisors. In the case of cabin stewards, that would be the Head Housekeeper. For dining room staff, it's the Maitre d' or Restaurant Manager. For bar servers, it's the Bar Manager.

Clearly the cruise lines, their staff and the passengers want everyone to have an ideal vacation. Each party, including you, has to bear some responsibility to make that happen.

Itinerary Changes

When you select a cruise, the itinerary weighs heavily as a factor. However, there are times when a ship can't get to its scheduled port of call. Sea conditions and resulting safety concerns for the ship, passengers and crew is always a determining factor when the cruise line decides to change a port schedule.

Some ports can be trouble spots for schedule changes on an ongoing basis. Any ports where the water isn't deep enough for cruise ships to dock at a pier always pose some risk. In those cases, the ship has to anchor away from the pier and transport passengers by tender boats. If sea conditions are too rough to run the tenders safely, the port visit will be cancelled. For example, this is a fairly common occurrence with ships calling at Grand Cayman. But it can happen in any port where the ship must sit at anchor in the bay and tender passengers.

Occasionally, weather and sea conditions can cause a port visit cancellation even if the ship is expected to dock at a pier. During hurricane season, for example, it's not unusual for ships to change ports of call -- or completely change their itineraries -- to avoid storms.

Hurricane season in the Caribbean runs from June through November. If you book a cruise during this time, you are taking the chance (and responsibility to understand) that there may be changes to the itinerary.

While I've been concentrating on the Caribbean, itinerary changes can occur on any itinerary, anywhere in the world, because of weather and safety concerns, or even political unrest.

On occasion, mechanical problems can cause delays and changes to scheduled itineraries. These breakdowns are unplanned, and with rare exception they do not occur due to shoddy maintenance. No cruise line is going to purposely avoid necessary maintenance on revenue-producing ships that cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

Cruise contracts cover the bases for these eventualities by stating they may "for any reason" change their itinerary without notice. This notifies the passenger before sailing that the ship may not be going where it is scheduled to go.

While the cruise lines intend to follow scheduled itineraries, their contracts put the onus of dealing with changes on the passenger. Though you may consider this unfair, the cruise line contracts tell passengers: "When you get on this ship, you are agreeing to let us take you anywhere we decide to."

If your cruise itinerary is changed, and you feel the change was unjustified, you can appeal to the cruise line's home office. Initially, you should take your complaint to your travel agent and ask them to carry your grievance to the cruise line. The key in any dispute is getting the ear of someone in a position to resolve it. A travel agent, through long-term business relationships with the cruise line, should be able to access that person more easily than you can.

A travel agent can also try to resolve your problem without some of the emotions unhappy passengers might display in making their argument.

Ask your travel agent to copy you on any written communications with the cruise line.

If the attempts by your travel agent prove unsatisfactory, it's time to step forward and represent yourself.

In Part 3, we'll give some hints on how to represent yourself effectively, and we'll discuss more of the little things that can go wrong, and how to deal with them.

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