Wednesday, March 01, 2017

where's waldo?

Cruising is not what it once was.

But, what is? I know I'm not.

Roy, Nancy, and, I have our share of cruises under our respective belts. Over the past two decades or so, we have come to anticipate certain amenities on board.

Let me start with the obvious. Cruising is still fun. Speeding across the ocean with nothing in sight but blue seas, blue skies, and an unbroken horizon where the two meet is worth every centavo I pay for fare. For me, all the rest is just icing. And I know Roy and Nancy feel the same way. They propose cruises; I jump at the offer.

But some things are simply not the same as they once were. Take smoked salmon.

Roy lives for it. On cruises, he has a habit of an early breakfast where paper-thin slices of salmon start his day. Every ship has had salmon.

You can imagine his disappointment when we stopped at the breakfast buffet on our first morning on board. There was a whole case of cold cut offerings. But there was no salmon. None.

It turns out that the only place salmon is served for breakfast is in the Diamond lounge -- where frequent cruisers can enjoy their own inbred company. Because Roy and Nancy are Diamond members on Royal Caribbean, Roy can get his salmon. And Nancy can get complimentary coffee drinks that would otherwise cost an arm and a latte.

That paragraph sums up what has happened with cruise lines. They have learned the airline fare lesson very well. In an attempt to attract passengers, the lines drive their fares as low as possible. Then, when the passengers are on board, the additional costs help to top up the profit margin.

Food is a perfect example. Two decades ago, dining on board a ship was almost as satisfying as eating banquet meals at political fundraisers. It was not gourmet food, but it was filling -- and good.

At some point, the cruise executives decided that costs could be cut by serving food that was just "good enough." If some passengers wanted something different, they could eat at a specialty restaurant. For an additional fee, of course, of $20 to $50.

The concept worked. Regular dining room customers did not seem to notice the spiraling quality, and the passengers who wanted something better (usually, a high quality steak house) could shell out more money for better food.

What remained in the dining room were the special nights. Usually, formal. The most obvious was lobster night. It was part of the regular dining package.

But no more. Lobster is now a pay-as-you-go item -- even in the dining room. A Maine lobster will set you back $29.95 (US). Admittedly, that is a bargain on land. But it is a bit of a jolt.

A filet mignon costs $16.95. Combine them for a $34.95 surf and turf.

Even the specialty restaurants have lost their quality edge. There is a hefty service charge to eat in Chops, the ship's steak house. If you order off of the no-additional-menu, you may be a bit disappointed to discover how grainy the meat is.

But, do not despair. If you are willing to get into the swing of spending more money after paying your surcharge, there are possibilities. Dry-aged steaks. Sixteen ounces of New York strip $18. Twenty ounces of Porterhouse $19. And you can have the lobster for a bargain price of $21.

I had stopped drinking diet soft drinks, for the most part, before I came on board. I am glad I did. The cost for a can of Coke Zero is $3.50. There are beverage packages available. But they start at $30 each day. Even at the height of my soda drinking, I could not have consumed that amount of soda each day.

And it is not just food that has succumbed to the additional fee syndrome. The ship shows movies in its small cinema and on a giant screen at the pool. Those are free.

In the past, the ship's television system would provide those same movies on the television in each stateroom. Well, they are still available. But they now cost $12.99 to view. I suspect the charge has its genesis in consumers' acceptance that movies should be streamed on a television for a cost. After all, that is what happens at home.

Speaking of streaming, I continue to be amazed that I can do what I am doing now. Write to you from my desk in my stateroom while sailing the Southern Ocean.

When I started cruising, there was no internet on board. If you needed to contact someone, the ship's satellite telephone system would connect you -- for just slightly less than the cost of the cruise.

Now, I can tap on my keyboard, and every inane thought I have can simply spill out on to your screen. For a cost, of course.

For internet access (on a very slow connection; my upload speed was .06 mgps this morning) during the seventeen days of the cruise, I paid just under $600. And that was at a pre-cruise discount.

That does not change my assessment that having any contact is a great improvement over what I had two decades ago.

If any of this sounds like complaining, it isn't. It is just a reality of modern life. Fares cannot remain artificially low unless the cruise companies make up for revenue elsewhere.

I like good food. And I will pay for it. All of those additional charges in the specialty restaurants simply reflect what the market of gourmands will bear.

If you want to see a movie in the comfort of your stateroom, there is a cost. I do not know if $12.95 is that cost. But it does not sound out-of-line with onshore charges. (That from a man who has no idea what television cable costs are these days.)

The nice thing about all of the additional prices is that the consumer is king. If you want something, you can make up your own mind if the charge is worth it. If not, no one is going to force you to buy it.

It is exactly the same thinking that has the airlines considering what to charge for any items carried on an airplane.

As for me, I will be off to dinner in a few moments. Tonight? It will most likely be the dinner buffet -- where my libertarian spirit can pick as it likes.

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