Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Different Ship,Same Shit (Mostly)

The Costa website states "a Costa cruise fulfils every wish." We knew from our last Costa cruise experience that that was unlikely to be true. Indeed, it was not.

It was our hope that a newer cruise ship, presumably different crew, different stops, and a shorter itinerary would make this cruise better than our disastrous one with Costa last year on the Costa Magica (see older blog posts from 2015). Indeed this cruise was better than last year’s cruise, but in many ways it was infuriating, mediocre, and has cemented our decision to never, ever, ever cruise again. Some of the reason it was better was because we mitigated potential negative experiences this year by doing things like going from a view cabin to a mini-suite, choosing a shorter itinerary (7 nights instead of 11), having a cabin with a deck where we could relax away from the loud crowd, and eating almost every single meal on board in our room using room service. Certainly, we have visited many interesting ports of call over the past two years, but the cruise experience itself just isn't for us. We have determined that we aren't cruise people.

Upper Management
First of all, we'd like to commend Neil Palomba, the president of Costa, and Ruben Perez, the SVP for North America for stepping in to hear our concerns and then give us a cruise credit, which we could spend on another cruise to give Costa Crociere a chance to make things right. The fact that they stood behind their brand and were willing to put their money where their mouth is is commendable. We would have preferred a refund in cash, but this was the next best thing and it was better than what was offered by lower management: silence and nothing. The business model of this company seems to have many problems. One of them appears to be that the lower management are not empowered to fix problems that customers are experiencing, before they become huge, loud, social media polluting nightmares that upper management then has to step in and deal with (if they choose- Neil Palomba first became aware of our issue from a tweet on Twitter about half a year after our cruise, he immediately jumped on it and gave us his email address to send our account to).

This year, just as we did last year, we chose this cruise for its itinerary. To travel through the Balearic Islands, being able to catch one of the biggest names in contemporary music on Ibiza (the cruise actually didn't depart from Ibiza until 3:00 AM, allowing us to go to a late ending concert), to see the ruins of Pompeii on an excursion from Naples, and to finally see Monaco on our last port call on an excursion from Savona were amazing experiences.

We would not change the itinerary of this cruise at all. Naturally, more time ashore would have been great, but that wouldn't be possible with so many ports of call and there was enough time in all of the ports to do something, and in the case of Ibiza it was more than enough time to do what we planned on doing. We were glad to only have one at sea day this time as we did not like being on the ship much at all. Picking 7 nights instead of 11 was much better for us. One week on the Costa Fascinosa felt like way longer than one week to us; it was more than enough.

This was our itinerary on the Costa Fascinosa:

July 31Barcelona (Spain)-7:30 PM (leave)
Aug 1Ibiza (Spain)9:00 AM (arrive)-
2Ibiza (Spain)-3:00 AM
2Palma De Mallorca (Spain)9:00 AM6:30 PM
4Palermo (Sicily)9:00 AM6:00 PM
5Naples (Italy)7:30 AM2:00 PM
6Savona (Italy)9:00 AM5:00 PM
7Barcelona (Spain)2:00 PM-

The Ship Itself
The Costa Fascinosa was in better condition than the Costa Magica, no doubt owing to its younger age. The ships are about the same size. There were amenities on the Costa Fascinosa that were not on the Costa Magica, such as different pay restaurants (ie. not included in the amount you paid for the cruise, you pay extra to eat there), a Samsara Spa, and a tiny castle on top of the ship for children to retreat to.

However, in other ways, the ships bear a striking resemblance. The decorations are so gaudy (apologies to Gaudi, we really like his work) that they make you think that you could be an employed interior designer with a stable full of corporate clients who would admire your style compared to whoever decorated the Costa fleet. There were giant fake jewels housing lights (they were obviously plastic and not real diamonds). The dining room that we were assigned to and ate in twice, was like dining in the seventh circle of hell. We say this, because the lights that lit up most of the dining room were all red light bulbs with the odd white light. The dining room had a dim sort glow, perhaps to hide what the food actually looked like. There were green Plexiglas accents in the dining room and then some white slabs of fake marble. We guessed that the designer was going for the colours of the Italian flag, but in reality the melange was simply ugly.
Never seen light fixtures like this before, where can I order some?
We'll place an order for 10,000 red light bulbs please.
The pictures that decorate the corridors on the passenger decks, leading to cabins, look absolutely bizarre. You'll see in some of our other blog posts that we took pictures of ourselves trying to mimic these strange pictures and situations like violent kisses from men to swooning women and women that seem to be drugged and passing out in the embrace of men. Weird.

This woman cannot consent. That's obvious (this was in our bathroom).

I'm going to kiss you and you better enjoy it, toots.
The adults only pool was filled with loud and canon balling children. There was little enforcement of the ship's rules. This was not a surprise to us after our last Costa cruise experience. The main pool area was loud, packed, and again there were weird loud dance or aerobics lessons happening in Italian (we're talking a noise level similar to the concert we went to on Ibiza that we wore earplugs for the duration of). It would be impossible to relax under circumstances like that, at least for us.

Hmm a clearly visible sign that this is an adults only pool and it's full of children (including one jumping in). I guess rules aren't made to be followed by everyone.

Our Cabin
The Costa website states "ideal for spending time together: Spectacular sunsets, starry nights and warm embraces . . . all in cosy surroundings and with a host of exciting discoveries to be made."

Yes, you better like the person you're sharing a cabin with (we do!), because when you're cruising, you'll be stuck with them a lot, especially if you don't want to venture outside of your cabin much to the din happening on the passenger decks.

The website goes on to state "[a]ll our cabins, both internal and external, provide all the comforts, tasteful furnishings and quality that feature on all Costa ships." This is simply not true, unless people with a much worse sense of comfort, taste, and quality are judging these cabins on all of these Costa ships than us.

The Costa Fascinosa was launched in 2011 and is therefore newer than the Costa Magica (launched 2003) by many years. The room that we booked was a mini suite with a large balcony going around a corner, instead of the ocean view room without a balcony that we had last year. The room was in much better repair than our one last year (it was literally falling to pieces including a broken shower stand, broken towel rack, chips out of the counter and toilet, paint or stains on the walls, overflowing drains, half of the lights burnt out, flickering light in hall, grease on the walls, and seal around the window coming out, brown stains on pillows). But the cabin was about the same size and had no couch for us to sit on when eating off of the little table when we had room service, so we had to use the foot of the bed (there was only one chair and a little stool). The bed was quite uncomfortable and was created by pushing two twin beds together. We had one thin pillow each (which were thankfully clean, however). The sheets were rough. We only noticed this so poignantly, because we came straight from the five star W Barcelona onto this ship.

Our balcony was enormous compared to the other balconies we saw when looking at the ship while in port and you could see its size when reviewing the ship’s plans (the agent who helped April pick out the room when booking, reviewed the plans and what was available and suggested this mini suite because of its unusually large balcony and because it was not too close to passenger decks- we thank him). We did enjoy some time sitting or standing out on the balcony, especially to take gorgeous pictures of the sunrise, sunset, arriving in port, or leaving port), but it was generally either too hot or windy to sit out there. Nevertheless, having somewhere to escape to out of the room, but not onto the rest of the ship with the other occupants was a great relief. It was much quieter on our deck than it was on any of the passenger decks.
We captured many beautiful sunrises, sunsets, and port panoramas using our huge private deck.
With regard to noise level in the cabin, this was better than our cabin in the Costa Magica. However, we could hear thumping music late at night from a bar or discotheque above us. And of course, there were often idiots who yelled and ran through the halls in the middle of the night coming back to their cabins from carousing.

Room Service
The room service menu was slightly less limited than the menu last year. Also, the food was slightly better than last year, as well. The bread was less stale and the ingredients seemed a little better/fresher. And the “cake of the day” was not the same every day of the cruise (like last year on the Costa Fascinosa where it was the same stale plain sponge cake every day for 12 days). We had about five different kinds of cake in the cruise of seven days. The fruit salad, as before, was pretty much the best thing on offer with melons and pineapple (though sometimes they seemed to put core of the pineapple in). If it had not been for room service, we don't know what we would have done, it wasn't just that the dining room experience took forever, it was that we found the dining room food largely inedible (much lower quality or edibility than the room service menu). Perhaps the key to the room service being better than the dining room food is that they were preparing simple items like salads, sandwiches, and simple desserts. Simple done well is better than "fancy" done badly any day.

Ordering room service via the interactive TV was an improvement over having to call directly (after they fixed our remote control). With respect to timeliness, we only had to call down once to inform them that we had requested an order via the TV system (because we had still not received it).  They claimed that they had only just received the order (even though we had ordered 30-40 minutes earlier). Face saving seems to continue to be a problem for Costa. Perhaps it is cultural. We don't know.

Nevertheless, there are some areas of improvement needed for the food ordering system. For example, we did not know that one could order prune juice until the last night, as it was an option on the TV, but not on the door hanging cards that we were using to order breakfast previously (our cabin steward would leave us a breakfast order card every evening).

Another irregularity is that there is no consistency. For example, when ordering tea with milk one is served hot milk sometimes, cold milk (which is preferable) other times. Sometimes milk was provided in glasses as if we'd drink it alone as a beverage and not add it to tea. It was strange.
There were a few occasions when items were forgotten or added. This generally improved through the duration of the cruise (and was better than our last cruise too).

Another improvement over our last cruise, was that all of the teapots we received and the coffee pots too had lids instead of just saran wrap like on the Costa Magica. Nevertheless, the water for the tea and the coffee were never hot enough leading to a disappointing morning caffeine experience (hot or not it would have been for tea as the tea bags provided were dreadful).

Sugar in juice: Despite the crew denying that they added sugar to orange and grapefruit juice, it was evident that sugar was being added from the presence of sugar crystals in our glasses. Also, when we asked for no sugar to be added to the grapefruit juice and orange juice, there was a clear taste difference.  There were times when the "fresh squeezed orange juice" tasted like Tang. Other times it tasted much more like actual orange juice (though not grove stand good).

Sugar crystals can clearly be seen in the empty orange juice glasses)
Dining Room
"The art of seduction includes good food." -Costa website under "Cruise for Two" section.

We didn't like the dining room experience, being seated near to loud tables of strangers and having to wait for various set courses that took forever to come because sometimes people would show up to dinner late or take forever to eat and everyone was more or less in it together (so if you finished half an hour before another table, they'd tell you the other course wasn't ready yet and you'd just have to sit there staring at each other--good thing we enjoy the sight of one another). But perhaps this is more of a complaint on cruising itself.

Room service was our salvation this cruise. We ate every meal on the ship in our room except for two very, very disappointing dinners in the dining room (the food was shockingly bad and tasted like it was out of a can or frozen and then reheated in a microwave). And indeed it generally all was frozen except for the terrible "salads," the bread, and the odd entree like the weird tomato, onion, and under-cooked potato dish with bread crumbs on it that April ordered and then couldn't eat due to its disgusting taste and under-cooked/overcooked nature. The seafood sometimes tasted fishy and then we couldn't eat that either because we didn't want a repeat of April's food poisoning on board the Costa Magica last year. Neither of us contracted food borne illness this year (or Norwalk virus so the ship must be kept relatively clean).

The only non-frozen item on the menu on this night was inedible.
Costa claims that its main restaurants are traditional dining or that they serve traditional food (and are fit for seduction and "good"). We of course aren't experts on Italian cuisine or really any cuisine, but what we witnessed and tasted really didn't seem to be traditional. It was just gross (and did not put us in the mood). We enjoyed the room service more than anything we had in the dining room. Why is that? We think the key is that simple done well is better than "fancy" done badly any day. Also, the materials they were using in the room service menu didn't have to be frozen, so they were made from fresh items or perhaps some canned tuna, but that's definitely all right for a tuna sandwich. The room service dishes were better than the weird dishes we had in the dining room where the pasta tasted previously canned or the deep fried items were hot on the outside and cold in the middle as if they were previously made and then microwaved. We think that a simpler menu that could be prepared from more fresh ingredients would be better and that passengers would like it much more. Not to mention, it would be healthier. But perhaps serious cost cutting is happening with all of this frozen and pre-prepared food. We have no doubt that the chefs on board have next to no autonomy, just like the other staff. And that is a real shame, because bad food is really hard to bear for days on end when you're trapped on a ship for large parts of every day.

The Costa website also states "[f]ood on Costa ships is inspired by the Mediterranean and the art of Italian cooking. Candle lit dinners, open air buffets and delicious meals at any time: every menu is rich and varied to satisfy even the most refined tastebuds [sic]." Right, well, if we were freaking out about the food, we can't imagine what Gordon Ramsey would have had to say about it. What a shame!

We did not try any of the pay restaurants and by the end of our second Costa cruise, we finally understood why they're there. We think that they're trying to railroad people into paying extra for decent, edible food which might perhaps be made with items that weren't previously frozen or canned. Perhaps this could be compared to the stones blocking the streets in Pompeii that had openings only big enough for the wheels of the carts owned by the original Mafiosi (who were more than happy to rent their wagons out to those who wanted to pass that point). In any event, if the food was that shocking in a "traditional" dining room, we can't imagine what their take on "deluxe dining" would be and we're happy we didn't waste money finding out (we have no doubt that we would have been disappointed).

The Crew
As we were in a mini-suite, on our first day, a bowl of fruit, spumante, and canapes were brought to our room. As we don't drink alcohol, we asked for an alternative to the spumante. The room service attendant who brought it to us said he would ask, as he removed the bottle of spumante. After a while, we didn't hear anything, so we called customer service. Customer service said they would look into it. After a further time, the customer service agent called back and indicated that it would not be possible to have an alternative to alcohol, as room service would not accommodate us. It made what is supposed to be a welcoming and appreciative gesture by Costa into an insulting experience for us. When pressed on whether this was reasonable were we to have medical or religious reasons for refusing alcohol, the customer service agent suggested that it was reasonable not to accommodate. We asked her to inform Celine, Guest Services Manager, of the issue. The next day, we received a phone call from Celine with apologies and informing us that we would be receiving sparkling water, however our case would be an exception, and Costa policy would continue to not accommodate non-drinkers. This will be one of the things that we will be bringing to the attention of Neil Palomba, the president of Costa, and Ruben Perez, the SVP for North America. We doubt they're trying to offend non-drinkers, but non accommodating such a huge group of people with something simple and cheap like a bottle of sparkling water or perhaps sparking fruit juice seems crazy and insensitive to us.

As mentioned above, we called on Celine, the Customer Service Manager on board the Costa Fascinosa. Like a ghost of the past, Bill emerged on Celine's radar again (she was the customer service manager last year on our cruise on the Costa Magica). She remembered us (how could you forget a couple who had almost everything possible go wrong on their first cruise and let customer service know about it). We didn't have to go to Celine often on this cruise, and in fact, we only saw her in person once. However, knowing she was on board, we felt like we were in good hands, and we knew there was at least someone who knew what customer service meant. She is an excellent customer service manager, although as we stated last year, Costa doesn't empower customer service on board the ships to rectify many problems that customer experience leading to bigger problems later for the company. This is a problem with their business model that they might want to look into.

Our servers at dinner were very nice and we especially appreciated our server, WiWan. For the toast, normally carried out with some cheap swill at the formal night, our server offered us 7-Up as we had refused the alcohol. We appreciated WiWan accommodating us without hesitation (we didn't even ask for an accommodating, she did it automatically which we were stunned and touched by) unlike our experience when we first arrived on the ship and were not offered and then refused an alternative to the welcoming bottle of sparkling wine (even though all we wanted was a bottle of sparkling water. This was eventually rectified).

We couldn't help but notice that like the Costa Magica, the Costa Fascinosa has a serious lack of diversity in leadership positions and among the officers. While it has slightly more diversity than the Costa Magica, there isn't much. It's easy to see how this system starts though when you look at the advertisements for the "Little Captain Program" that children can participate in (for a price) where they pretend to be a captain for the day, along with little uniforms and a picture with the captain. In the ads there are only little boys shown. We were disgusted. And sex isn't the only lack of diversity that we're referring to either.
The officer's table at formal night was very homogeneous.
The "Little Captains Program" seems to only be open to little boys. Why?
The "closed account" and drink bill fight on the last morning: This was by far the most infuriating experience we had onboard the Costa Fasinosa that involve staff. As we mentioned in our previous post, on the morning of disembarking in Barcelona, we received our account in our mail slot and discovered that we had some of our credit left to spend from our onboard credit, so when we vacated our room and had to wait to leave the ship, we went to the bar to spend the credit. We sat down in the bar area and found an electric outlet to plug in the computer. We planned on working on our blog to kill time. No one came to serve us for a very long time, so April got up and went to the bar, only to have a waitress come back to the table with her to take our order. We ordered two sodas and a bottle of sparkling water, which came to just under the amount we had left as our credit. The waitress took April’s Costa Card and went to get the drinks.

The waitress returned with the beverages and informed us that we had to pay cash. We told her that we had a remaining onboard credit on our card. She told us that our account had been closed. We told her that Raymond, our English host, had informed us the day before that we would still be able to order food and drink on our Costa Card until we had completely disembarked. She said “no” and repeated that our account was closed and we would have to pay cash. We then asked to discuss the matter with her manager. She replied that he was busy, but we could go to the bar if we wanted to discuss the matter with him. We were settled at our table and informed her that the manager could come to us, as we were the customers. Keep in mind, that this was all over the tidy sum of 10.18 Euros in beverages (we weren’t drinking Moet). She became rude and combative, but finally stormed off to get the manager.

After more than 10 minutes, the manager and the waitress came to our table. The manager repeated what the waitress had told us and said that we had closed our account—which we had most certainly not—especially with a credit remaining (why would we throw away more than $15.00 Canadian?). We had to explain the exact same thing over again—that which we were told yesterday about our account. The manager then went away and returned with a copy of our account and said that he saw that there was a credit left, but that we had closed the account and had to pay cash. We repeated that we could not have closed the account as it had been done in the middle of the night when we were sleeping. The circular argument was beginning to become infuriating. We told him that this was dishonest, as no one had told us that our credit would be summarily terminated. We told him to take the drinks back, because we wouldn’t be paying for them (we hadn't touched them) and asked him to contact Raymond or Celine, the Guest Service Manager.

After a long time, the manager returned and told us that our 10.18 Euro bill would be reversed and we could “enjoy” our now tepid soft drinks. Gee thanks, Costa. Perhaps if lower level staff were empowered to deal with small customer problems like this, this 40 minute shouting matching over a 10.18 Euro bill, which we had a credit to cover and then some (they even acknowledged that we had the credit!) would never have occurred. What a nice way to end our cruise. It only served to reinforce our decision to almost never leave our cabin throughout the entire voyage. It has also cemented our resolve to never cruise again. Ever!

Was 10.18 Euro in drinks which we had a credit to more than cover worth the staff pissing us off even more?
Costa Excursions
This cruise, we signed up to go on two Costa Excursion, Pompeii and Monaco, instead of four. Last time we had three in Morocco and one to Monaco that was cancelled at the last minute.

Our excursion to Pompeii was during our port call at Naples. We met in a theatre, received our stickers, and then walked down to the exit from the ship and went to meet at our appointed bus. We were on the English tour. We were handed audio guides.

Naturally, the excursion started with a visit to somewhere that sells something when we reached Pompeii. This time a cameo factory (in Morocco is was usually argan oil places or carpet or souvenir stores). This stop was good though because we could buy a bottle of water and go to the bathroom before touring the site.

We quickly moved on to the site of Pompeii. The tour left on time (different from our experience with some Costa Excursions), the guide spoke excellent English and he was both full of facts and really funny. The guide took us to enough sites within Pompeii to see as much as we could in the couple of hours that we had there, but not so many sites that we felt rushed or overwhelmed. We found it a perfect introduction to Pompeii and the taste of ancient history that we had been craving on this trip. We had both always dreamed of going to Pompeii and we were very happy with this excursion. The audio guide was an improvement over the Costa Excursions last year, as we could hear the guide perfectly even when we were at the very back of the group.

After the tour of the site, we stopped at a place where we could go to the bathroom, have a drink or a snack, and then walked back to the bus together. The excursion was organized, prompt, and fun. This was the best Costa Excursion we had ever had.
We saw Pompeii, a shared dream.
The second Costa Excursion was supposed to be to Monaco during our port call at Savona. We received a letter at our door the afternoon before we were supposed to go on the excursion the next morning. It told us to call the excursion office between 4:00-6:00 PM. We knew this couldn't be a good sign. The last time we received a note like that, our tour to Monaco was cancelled (last year). We figured that our tour of Monaco this cruise would be cancelled as well.

The tour was indeed cancelled. Bill finally was allowed to speak with the manager after two attempts where he was told by the service agent that there was nothing that could be done. After describing the situation to the tour manager (and describing how we were outraged at the same thing happening to us just like the year before), Geraldo, a creative solution was negotiated whereby we would be able to take the French tour with a 30% discount. We were both satisfied with this solution as we can both understand a good deal of French and in any event, we were just looking for a way to get to Monaco where we would be guaranteed not being left behind by the cruise ship if the tour ran late.

However, this issue speaks to one of the biggest problems on this ship, the line staff are not taught to put the customer first and do not think outside of the box to find creative solutions to problems or perhaps they are not empowered or permitted (there does seem to be a real lack of autonomy on the ship) to resolve minor problems with customers. When the default response is “no” it only infuriates customers. In this case, if Bill had taken the cancellation at face value we would have never seen Monaco, which was of utmost importance (it was one of the main reasons that we chose the itinerary of this cruise and the cruise last year- we had both always wanted to see Monaco). The tour agent didn't say "sorry, we didn't have enough people to justify an English tour, but we could get you to Monaco on another tour" right off the bat nor "we're sorry, but we know from your CRM record that this was important to you, so we will run a private tour at a loss for you," instead it was "there is nothing we can do." Well, there was something they could do, but we had to fight for it. No one wants to fight on their vacation (not even recovering lawyers)-- especially with people whose primary job is supposed to be make magic moments for passengers.

On our negotiated Monaco tour, our guide spoke Italian and French to the mixed group, but she could also speak English and when we asked for clarification when we didn't quite get something in French, she was able to confirm for us what we needed in English. We understood most of the French and some of the Italian and the tour was informative on the bus and then we were left with free time in both Monaco-Ville, Monaco and Monte Carlo. The tour was a little late leaving, but that was because the ship was late getting into the port. Unlike previous Costa Excursions, the late departure was not the fault of the excursion. The tour arrived back in time for us to embark  for our departure to Barcelona. We were really pleased with our long awaited visit to Monaco (we almost couldn't believe that it actually happened).

We finally made it Monaco! Thank you, Geraldo.
All in all, we'd say the excursions were better this time, but we wouldn't be saying this if the tour manager, Geraldo, had not saved our Monaco experience by putting us on the French/Italian tour. It was his ability to think outside the box that saved our experience. Too bad the tour manager on the Costa Magica last year, Francesco, was an discourteous jerk with no creative customer service bone in his body (when he changed the time of one of our tours last year he told us that he could do whatever he wanted in pretty much the most arrogant tone we had ever heard used by someone in customer service).

This cruise aboard the Costa Fascinosa was better than our last cruise on the Costa Magica, but we would never repeat the experience. It's not just that we don't like being trapped on a cruise ship, unable to go out and find our own food and drinks and that we're unable to come and go as we please, it's also that the cabins aren't that comfortable, the food is almost all inedible, and the staff are not empowered to serve customers properly. This ship was better than the last ship which was literally falling to pieces, but it's not just the ship itself that makes the experience, it's the food, the excursions, and the people. Costa has some serious problems with its business model and staffing pyramid that it would have to figure out in order to make their cruises more appealing to the North American/Northern European market, But we do thank Neil Palomba, the president of Costa, and Ruben Perez, the SVP for North America for showing that Costa isn't a complete write-off when it comes to customer service and allowing us to have a less horrible cruise experience with the cruise credit that they gave us based on our last Costa nightmare of a cruise. Nonetheless, we are happy to end the chapter of cruises in our lives.

No comments:

Post a Comment