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The Good, Bad and Ugly of Cruising

In a perfect world, Norwalk virus doesn’t exist. Neither do bedbugs. Bad weather is a mere figment of the imagination, and seasickness? Not a chance.

Unfortunately, these are all things that can – and do – happen aboard cruise ships, and to the millions of passengers who set sail each year. So it comes as somewhat of a surprise that for the most part, travel agents say they receive very few complaints when their customers return home after a cruise. It could be that the passengers who do have a beef  take it directly to the cruise lines, but by and large, cruising seems to leave people very satisfied.

 “We actually hardly get any feedback,” said Ellen Trott, vice president of the Coral Springs, Florida-based Coral Beach Travel. “If we don’t hear from them, we know that they likely had a good experience.” And with 40 percent of Coral Beach’s business made of repeaters, she’s likely not far off the mark. “If we do get complaints from people we’ve put on cruises, it’s usually more hotel-related than cruise related.”

As for Pat Theberge, president of  Massachusetts-based Cruise Vacations, the complaints he gets usually center around one thing: the “nickel and diming,” as he says, that happens on cruise ships these days.

“These are passengers who remember 15 years ago when cruising was not necessarily more inclusive, but when there wasn’t so much salesmanship going on,” he said.

The good parts? “It’s just a great vacation, comparatively speaking, on costs,” Theberge said. Passengers also, he noted, like the convenience of being able to unpack just once, even though several ports of call are on the itinerary.

Passengers really seem to like Norwegian Cruise Line’s freestyle dining concept, Theberge said, as well as the personal choice program aboard Princess ships. It’s a trend that will likely gain momentum, he added.

Another pro: today’s imaginative itineraries. “My clientele for the most part is Caribbean-ed out,” Theberge said, adding that some of his clients have been booking cruises with him for the better part of two decades. “A lot of my customers have been there, done that, so they’re looking for different places to go,” he said.

Of course, the Caribbean is still a major draw for first-time cruisers, but at least in Theberge’s experience, the region also has its drawbacks, even for a virgin cruiser. “I get more complaints about the islands themselves rather than the boats they got there on,” he said.

Travel agent Libby Shields knows her clients – mostly aged 35 and up – are satisfied with cruising because of the high number of repeat passengers. She, like most others, said it’s rare to get negative feedback on the cruise itself, though there is one complaint that crops up every now and again. “The biggest complaint that I get is about snoring,” she said, adding that she puts singles together (same sex, of course) in staterooms based on similar interests and age.

For Ross Spalding, senior vice president of Internet marketing for Cruise Value Center, he only has to look at sales figures to know that cruising leaves customers very satisfied – with relatively few drawbacks in relation to strong positives. “I would say that 2005 is likely going to turn out to be the best year for us,” he said. “This year we’re going to sell cruises to 80,000 passengers. It’s hard to see any drawbacks in that.”

Susan Zoller, president and CEO of Tampa-based Cruise World, said her seven-year-old agency gets about 10 complaint letters per year – a very small percentage based on the thousands of passengers she puts on ships throughout the course of a year. Like Theberge, onboard spending is one thing that she hears about from her passengers.

Even so, no matter what happens, most situations can be diffused with great customer service, Zoller said. “People end up realizing that a really big plus for cruising is that it still, dollar for dollar, presents such a great value for passengers,” she said.

Safety is one of the biggest pluses that Trott’s clients like about cruising. “They feel secure on a cruise,” she said. “That, and of course, good prices.”

Excerpt from the Cruise Industry News Quarterly Magazine: Summer 2005

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