As we promised at the end of the world cruise, we are back with our final thoughts on what we personally experienced as far as changes we encountered along the way. Some were changes for the better, a few have taken place over the last couple of years, and the majority were new cutbacks. So this report is to state what we presented to the hotel director, Henk M, by his invitation, in order for him to explain or attempt to correct changes he could do (or not do) while we were in transit. So it is not only a mix of our (and close friends) observances and complaints, but an attempt to keep the HAL brand as close to what we have known and liked for many years. And what has kept us all coming back year after year. It is also an attempt to keep the "grand" in the world cruise.
With all this in mind, we realize that the entire cruise ship industry is in competition with each other, and every line has been using "the bean counters" to shave costs one way or another. It is not unique to HAL. But it doesn't mean we have to sit back and accept it all without question. And it does not only apply to the Amsterdam, as several friends traveling on the Volendam and Maasdam reported similar negative reactions to the many changes they saw taking place on those ships as well.
So, we will begin with the changes with food and food related activities.
The dinner entrees are no longer displayed in the Lido at the 5:30pm opening. Dessert displays have been missing from La Fontaine for a year now at dinnertime. The reason being that Public Health says that the displays do not hold to their quality of the brand standard.
There is little decorating on Gala nights in the dining room. The Coast Guard dictated what can and cannot be done now in the form of decorating. On the first Gala evenings, we had no chair covers, as they were deemed unsanitary. Eventually, these came back to every formal (gala) night. The waiters were probably happy not to have to put these on and off anymore. One good thing is that the helium balloons that once filled the room on select gala nights have been eliminated. A good thing because many people took these balloons to tie on their cabin doors, blocking the flow in the hallways on the passenger decks.
There is less silverware set at each place setting….only supplied upon demand. The answer to this was "standard fleet wide now". We will see this answer used frequently.
There is no Sunday-at-sea brunch set up in the center of La Fontaine dining room. Yes there is a brunch, but only served as ordered from a menu at the regular tables. Public Health discontinued this "help yourself" buffet. Maybe this is a good thing.
A new menu appeared for breakfast in the dining room, but much the same as the older one. The "upgraded" breakfasts with a charge had been added to this menu too. We still miss the jam and jelly jars that have been gone for two years now. Well, not totally gone, as they are served in the Pinnacle Grill at breakfast for the deck seven passengers. The foil packets that contain less product and are still hard to open for many folks. Funny thing is that we found these same jam jars at every high end hotel we stayed in China.
There will be no more outside deck BBQ's or Mongolian cookouts such as in the Lido and seaview Pool areas. Public Health and Coast Guard rules out using briquettes on the teak decks. All of the food offered needs sneeze guards also. Perhaps, also a good thing safety-wise.
There was no custom sandwich maker in the Lido after 2pm. Henk re-instated this crew member shortly after we asked. Also, there was no toaster at this station. One was added immediately when we asked.
The new plate ware in the dining room is thin, inexpensive, and does not hold the heat well. They break and chip easily. Their design is not compatible with the silver ware, that constantly falls into the food. The rectangular plates are awkward, and even the waiters say they do not fit well on their serving stations. Although considered "in vogue", alternatives are being looked at as soon as possible, according to Henk. By the way, the dining room manager, Philip, purchased some new soup bowls in Hong Kong, we believe. They did help maintain the heat in the hot soups, despite the fact the broth has to be heated separately in gravy bowls now. More work for the waiters.
Room service has seen many changes. The breakfast menu has been altered to fewer items. In addition, if you want a few upgraded entrees, they come with a charge now. The same applies to the lunch and dinner room service menus. There are no free hamburgers on the menu. If you want a burger, they will be delivered from the Dive In Grill for a charge. Also, there is no more potato salad served on the side. Only potato chips and/or a runny coleslaw is added with sandwiches. The tuna melt and the chef salads are no longer available through room service. Speaking of room service, they did their job well on this cruise.
There were a few changes in the bars on the ship such as the buy one, get one beverage deal. The price went from $1 to $2 for that second beverage. Last year, the folks that frequented the bars during the 7 to 8pm slot, had to fight for the drink special. They won then, and now we see that this offer has been on the daily itinerary from day one this year. See, if no one spoke up, nothing would have happened. There was no happy hour after dinner however, but that may have returned to the Crow's Nest after 9pm upon request.
Ever since the Explorations Café was added to the ship, we had been able to get regular or decaf coffee for free. Now, all the coffees have a charge to them, as do the special coffees in the dining room. These were always free in the past. Modern coffee machines replaced the older ones, so thus, the charge.
Dance hosts had been reduced to three, instead of the usual six. By popular demand, six more were added towards the end of the cruise. A rumor had circulated that all dance hosts would be eliminated on future grand voyages, but that may simply be just a rumor.
The corkage fee is very high, we think (mostly our friends think it is high, as we seldom drink wine). For the first time ever, the collection table was set up following the x-ray check upon boarding the ship in all ports. Bottles were collected, except those that were purchased while on a wine tour. In this case, only one bottle per person was allowed, we understand.
Now for the President's Club amenity of $40 per person every two weeks for a beverage allowance, it has to equal just that and nothing over that price. So if a bottle of your favorite alcohol is $70 for instance, you pay the difference. Same applies to sodas……we got 17 cans of soda, instead of the 48 cans we used to get. Yes, we were spoiled, but that was not our fault.
In the same vein, the folks that got two bottles of alcohol for booking decks six and seven, had to pay extra for their upgraded bottles. Or if the price worked out right, they got one bottle of the good stuff, instead of two.
The room key cards have a new look to them. This is simply an observance, as long as they allow you to board the ship and open your door, we are all happy. They do include your Mariner status in one corner, and may be color-coded to your status.
Even though we filled out a form for our personalized stationery before the trip, it never arrived. Reported as lost in Japan? It never did get delivered to the ship. We discovered that if we asked for it at the front desk, it would be printed and delivered to our room along with envelopes. We asked, and it was printed and delivered by 2pm that same day. This will probably not be continued on future cruises, grand or not.
Our room steward left two small HAL note tablets with two HAL pens in our room. We were told that this duplicates what we can expect to find in any nice hotel worldwide.
Newspapers, such as the NY Times or BBC, etc, are now available only at the front desk, the library, or at the dining room at breakfast time. We have always gotten the paper delivered under our door on every cruise we have taken over the years. Always, no questions asked. Now we are being told NO, absolutely no one gets a paper delivered. Well that was not exactly true, since all of the folks on deck seven got one. Of course, they deserve a paper delivery since they pay dearly for those suites. Understandable. However, we approached the problem with a solution we presented to Gerald, the Mariner Director, and Orlando, the President of HAL. Why can't the paper delivery be made part of our perks for President's Club? Orlando agreed and had Gerald authorize Henk to deliver our choice of paper from here on out. Such a fuss over saving paper, we figured, as "going green" is another thing on HAL's list of cutbacks. Saving paper means saving $$$. All of the club members we know appreciated our effort in restoring that nicety. We have to add another aspect of getting a "fresh" paper in the morning. During breakfast, we had seen many people with colds or worse, reading the papers, then returning them to the pile at the entrance. Thus contaminating the following unsuspecting guests. Who would have thought about viruses and bacteria spread in such as innocent way? With the viral infection spreading among the guests and staff on this trip, you look at everything in a different way.
The daily "good evening" cards with a special saying printed on them are no longer left on the bed at night. We only get the time change cards now. Or if there are world cruise gifts, we get a card with those. Speaking of gifts, there were way fewer of them compared to past grand voyages. Some were useful and good quality, while others were not. In the old days, we could look forward to getting a gift on every gala night. Not so anymore. Guess it is the thought that counts.
There is a new look to the Daily Navigator. It is smaller and has much less info, simplified. But not always accurate. There have been mistakes, as well, which were corrected along the way. All of the ads for ship services have been printed on a single half sheet, included in the daily paper. In addition, a Mobile Navigator has been added for those passengers that own cell phones. The daily news and all other cruise related items have been added to the phone list. It is good for those who own cell phones, although not all of us do. And the info was not always correct as well. Such as all aboard times that were listed an hour later than actually happened. This was corrected as needed.
First time we ever got a delay of laundry service notice, a few weeks into the grand voyage. Since most all grand voyages have the high number Mariner guests, most everyone gets this wonderful perk of complimentary laundry. We wondered if there was something that broke in the laundry room, or was there a shortage of crew members manning the facility? The reply indicated that there were equipment limitations, as well as a request for additional staff. With 1200 guests onboard, the volume was hard to manage in a 2 day turn around service. It went from 2 days (sometimes same day service) to 4 and 5 days of a delay. Eventually, more crew members joined the ship, and the problem went away.
No more "free" aspirins are given at the front desk, due to a company liable obligation. The cost is $1.90 for two pills. However, sea sick pills are still available for free.
There is no "live" band music at sail aways on the aft pool deck anymore. This stopped two years ago. Fleet wide standard, although may still be re-considered in the future. While we were sailing in the Mediterranean Sea, most all of the sail away parties were held either on deck three (promenade) or in the closed Lido Pool area. That was due to the fact the funnels were spewing an unusually messy soot, that stained clothing and covered the outside decks. So much so, that the soot had to be swept with brooms.
Sit and be fit exercises were discontinued, but re-instated shortly after he cruise began. Aqua aerobics and walk a mile were added sometime after Hawaii, due to popular demand.
Another explosive decision that made the folks unhappy was announcing that the Grand Dollar programs were no longer going to occur as we know it on the grand voyages. We were actually given a survey to fill out in order to help them figure out a better form of games that would "fit" the age group of the passengers. The prizes that could be purchased with the Grand Dollars would end with this cruise. Furthermore, all of the "money" earned on this trip had to be spent before this cruise ended in April, as these dollars would not be recognized if saved for the next trip in 2018. Big change.
Difficult to find Barbara H, the port lecturer, on TV with her port talks. She should have her own dedicated spot, and not cycled with shore excursion talks, or pitches for DVD sales. This will be considered if more stations are added to a new TV system. Which leads us to the condition of the TV's in our suites on the lower decks. They are long past needing replacement. We have been told that they are working on creating another channel, and we also heard that interactive TV's may be in the works for this ship. These are LONG overdue, as other ships on other lines have had these new TV's for ages now.
Gala (formal) nights have been reduced by a lot. At one time, formal nights were held 25% of the time, with semi-formal another 25%. The rest were smart casual. With the new descriptions of suggested cruise wear for dinner, it leaves a lot to be desired. The majority of world cruisers still dress appropriately, while others come with a collared golf shirt on gala night. It's "legal" and nothing can be said to any guest now, as long as they do not arrive in swimwear. No kidding.
Gala nights that involve the balls in the Queen's Lounge have been timed poorly to include all of the guests who dine at 8pm. We are just getting our entrees by 9pm, and seldom finish eating when these dances begin around the same time. For that reason, some folks eat elsewhere, or try to leave their tables halfway through the meal. These balls used to begin at 10pm. However, we were told…..the majority rules.
Evening entertainment seemed to be received well, although we did not attend all of the time. We did notice that there was only one "famous" performer this cruise, and not two. That also applies to famous lecturers and writers such as Paul Theroux, who joined us last year. We had no "head-liners" this year.
The current Port Guide Booklets we get now have outdated maps and info. For instance, recommended restaurants in some ports give directions to places that open only after 5 or 6pm, when we leave the port at 4pm. Some shops and stores have long since gone out of business, but are still in their port descriptions.
Now for the positive things we noticed. There is a brand new Orange Book in our rooms with everything we need to know while on the Amsterdam. It also includes the room service menu.
You no longer have to take a soiled (already stained) beach towel as you leave the ship on a swim/beach tour. And they are no longer available. Everyone has a new extra-long blue and white striped beach towel in your room to use anywhere you wish….on the ship or on an excursion. However, if you do not bring it back to your room, you will be charged somewhere around $25 for them. And if you like them, you can purchase one for the same price to take home with you. Much better idea, we think.
There are new chair pads for the teak lounges on the lower promenade deck, as well as new padded chairs in the Lido Pool area and the Seaview Pool area.
The Mobile Navigator is useful for those with cell phones.
The offer of 100 extra minutes for free with purchasing the 1000 minute package has returned, as long as it was bought prior to leaving on the voyage.
The new Daily Navigator is easier to read with the ads gone. It has been suggested that it would be nice to list TV movie times on that paper as well. It might appear on the Mobile Navigator in the future. Yes, it is on the TV guide, but some of the start times are approximate.
Wine packages at a reduced price were offered prior to the cruise. Towards the end of the cruise, we noticed that the beverage department was offering a good deal on a three bottle package in case people were running out of their original bottles. This may have already been an offer on past cruises, but we just noticed the ad on this one.
The food on this trip was excellent, as was the service from the most incredible crew on the Seven Seas. The same goes for the room stewards and the front desk staff, and all of the officers running this ship.
These are some things we observed.
At one time, the crew members, specifically the waiters and room stewards, were handpicked for the entire duration of the grand voyage. The only reason they had to leave was usually due to illness with a family member or themselves. They were present for the whole trip, and not coming and going like they do now. Many guests did not like having changes with their room stewards or waiters, who they got to know and love. Somehow, in the past, the contracts were up after the grand cruise was over. We were also informed that there has been problems with visas being granted for the Indonesian crew. And this might mean a possible change in the area where future crew members will be signed on. Thailand has been mentioned as one of those countries to hire new staff.
At many times during the entire grand voyage, over-the-top repair work was in progress on the lower promenade deck. Not the usual small repairs, but major work that closed the deck for the walkers. We were not alone with the feeling that the ship was being repaired for future cruises, and not the grand voyage. Several of our "deck" friends who spend the major part of their day in the teak lounges were fumigated with paint fumes, or subject to breathing dust from paint grinding. Yes, this work is necessary, but the staff needs to keep in mind that this is a grand voyage, and perhaps the work should have been completed prior to this voyage.
Grand World Voyages on the Amsterdam should have fixed seating times to make life easier for the crew. It might be considered for the next world cruise, as we are being told that it is completely sold out., and accommodating the early seating and anytime guests will pose a problem. To make all of the cruises "the same", as has been told to us, is not always the best idea on every cruise. Especially not the Grands.
The Wajang Theater was taken over by a travel group on some afternoons with a private (paid?) session for their members. That eliminated the afternoon movie on sea days that many people liked to attend. With many complaints, we think they may have compromised on this one.
The ship's photographers tended to be disruptive with their set-up in the Atrium on two levels, as well as in the La Fontaine dining room. They pretty much blocked the entry from the forward elevators with their "staging" areas. Many people had to sneak around them to go to dinner. Also during disembarking at every port, they pressured the folks into taking photos, even if they said no thanks. Are they on a quota basis?
Gratuities were raised at the end of the Panama Canal repositioning cruise. They went up $1 per person for every category.
Overall, we feel that HAL has become reactive and not proactive. These changes took place all at once, and we feel that they would address the complaints when and if they were made. Like testing the waters, so to speak. From what we heard, many of the experienced travelers did speak up and loudly.
We are in total agreement with our longtime friends who said that in the past, NO was never an answer when asked about changes in the product. Although we are not being closed out on everything, we are closed out in most of the changes we stated here. Bottom line, the answer came back as fleet wide decision, keeping to the brand, public health and coast guard rules, or going "green". Bottom line, HAL is saving money, while still striving to deliver a "premium" lifestyle. And they do have the right to do so. We do hope to see that the premium style remains and not slip to a "standard" experience. And we all agree that it is not too much to ask.
And will we be back on another DAM voyage? You can bet on it! And we hope that the GRAND remains in it for everyone.
Bill & Mary Ann