This week's commentary by TravelPage.com's European Cruise Editor, Malcolm Oliver takes a look at the role expectations play in determining whether a passenger enjoys their cruise.
One Man's Meat
TravelPage.com contains an excellent collection of 'Readers Reviews' of cruises. However the variation of opinion can be quite amazing.
The two short paragraphs below come from two reviews written only months apart, by two passengers, of the same ship travelling on the same itinerary:
Review One: This is the only cruise I have been on but I'll tell you this, I had a great time. The food was great! The service was great! The dinner shows were very fun and light hearted. I had a great time in the main dining room. It made me want to go again so it had to have made a good impression.
Review Two: This is a ROW BOAT folks!! Don't think your getting a 5 star cruise line. Food was nothing to brag about. Carry your own food stuff and water if you want to be sure that it's clean and where it came from. Stay away from the shows…THE WORST OF THE WORST!! JUMP SHIP & SWIM FOR LAND!!!!
So how can two people have such differing opinions of what may have been very similar on board experiences? To answer that question I shall borrow from the methodology of the famous detective, 'Sherlock Holmes'.
From the evidence at hand, it appears that both passengers were 'first time' cruisers, so that in itself does not explain the wide variation of opinion. Of course its 'elementary', the two key factors are 'expectations' and 'subjectivity'.
Expectations: If you play a game of 'word association' with the general public, the word 'cruise' is associated with 'luxury'. The concept of 'cheap mass-market' cruising is probably not the first image that generally springs to mind. It's also not the image that is being sold by the cruise lines.
Cruise brochures and cruise line web sites are probably most people's main source of cruise information and they are hardly unbiased. In fact they can be a little misleading. If you pick up one of the 'premium' cruise line brochures and one of the 'budget' cruise brochures, apart from the quality of paper and design, the claims made within the text can be very similar.
For example, all cruise brochures seem to boast of fine dining, impeccable service, excellent facilities, spacious accommodation and great entertainment. This kind of 'sales' talk obviously raises expectations. Clearly not all ships offer the same quality of on board experience. Quality is generally linked to the fare paid. You cannot realistically expect a $399 cruise to be the same as a $3999 one. On the other hand, could we really expect some cruise lines to write "small cabins, mediocre food, amateurish entertainment, but not bad for the money" even if it was true?
Smaller budget cruise lines, which often utilise second hand-ships, nearly always omit the age of the ship from the brochure. They will state when the ship joined their fleet instead. I've often seen statements like "New to our fleet" or "Entered service with us on 2006" both of which can imply that the new ship is new and not that it is 30 years old. I assume that this is because many people assume that 'old' ships are bad 'ships', which of course is not necessarily the case. However older ships may well have smaller cabins and fewer facilities when compared to the newer/bigger ships. On the other hand they probably feel more intimate, less impersonal, are friendlier and have more charm.
Then there are the cruise lines' marketing slogans. One that always amused me was "Exceeding your Expectations." Now all this achieved for me was to raise my expectations of their product to such a high level that it was then almost impossible for the line to achieve it on board. A more realistic alternative would be, "We aim to meet your expectations", but from a marketing point of view that does not sound so snappy, does it?
However, having said all this it would appear that the person writing 'review one' had fairy realistic expectations of what to expect from that particular cruise. However, the person in 'review two' probably did not.
Subjectivity: When it comes to cruising "One mans meat" really is "another man's poison".
Different cruise lines and ships offer different cruise experiences, aimed at very different clientele. For example: An Ocean Liner fan's 'classic ship 'might be someone else 'old tub'. Another person's 'awesome floating resort' might be somebody else's 'giant crowded nightmare'. One person's 'great food' may not be someone else's idea of 'fine dining'.
It is ironic that if a person was going to buy a second-hand car, but knew very little about car, they would almost certainly seek the advice of someone who does. Curiously, some people have spent a similar sum of money booking a family cruise, yet do not really have a clue what they have booked. So if anybody is about to book their first cruise, I strongly recommend that they do the research first. If you don't, you could spend a lot of money buying the wrong experience as the person in 'review two' appears to have done.
So how do they do that research? Well, I've already warned about the 'persuasive' effect of brochures and cruise line web sites. However, they do of course contain lots of important information such as itineraries, fares and deck plans. I would suggest that those interested in getting an objective idea of what to expect from a particular cruise line and ship to consult a variety of sources, such as the readers reviews already mentioned on TravelPage.com.
CruiseTalk, our online forum, is also a very good place to read about a wide range of cruise experiences and also ask questions from people who have traveled on the ship you are considering.
I personally would not give much weight to a single review about a ship/cruise, but we have multiple reviews of all of the popular ships. If twenty readers said the food on a particular ship is great, but one person says it's bad, I know which I would believe. So choose carefully and enjoy happy cruising!