Monday, April 6, 2009

Opinion: "Revenge at Sea" - Christopher Elliott Engages in Yellow Journalism on MSNBC; A Misleading Attack on the Cruise Industry

Last week I received a notification of an article by Christopher Elliott entitled "Revenge at Sea" - Five Ways Passengers Are Getting Even With Cruise Lines. Frankly, it shocked me to read this headline at a time that cruise lines are sharply discounting prices in an effort to lure hesitant guests onboard and, thereby provide incredible values. Something about biting the hand or killing the goose that just jumped into my mind.

At the outset I must disclose that Mr. Elliott's website (http://www.elliott.org/) describes itself as "This site is one of the last remaining efforts to bring quality, commercial-free, consumer-focused travel journalism to the Web." But then two lines later he asks for donations, "You can support this site now using a major credit card" ("commercial-free"???) followed by a very short list of "underwriters". Self-promotion and questionable tactics aside, keep the maxim, "Let the buyer beware" in your thoughts.

Now... as I read the article I realized that the perspective is, to start, from a passenger on the Carnival Glory that moaned about the cruise being marketed as "all inclusive" and then he was hit for $30 in specialty dining fees, drink charges, aggressive photographers and a mandatory gratuity. Huh? Who told this man that Carnival was "all inclusive"? There is nothing on Carnival's website or marketing that even hints at that. It is, simply stated, a knowingly false premise...which Mr. Elliott clearly knew and did not correct.

Then he criticize Royal Caribbean for providing its guests with the option...I repeat, option...of purchasing for $14.95 the same upgraded steak they might select in Chops (it's extra cost restaurant at $25 per person). Personally I think that is a great idea...and allows someone to enjoy a better meal for potentially one third the cost (ex. the husband wants the steak, but the wife doesn't and they don't want to dress up). If you think I am making that up, read my review of the Mariner of the Seas (It is actually four parts) where in I complimented Royal Caribbean on the main dining room decor and noted I would have eaten there more often if the food was the quality of what I ate in Chops. Now options are worth someone revenge? But I digress...

Then the author twists his sordid story into how this somehow relates to the Park West Auctions lawsuit for ripping off customers with alleged fakes and overpriced "art"...which the cruise lines obviously get a cut. What does that have to do with anything? Was that ever pitched as part of an "all inclusive" experience. And I have commented about Park West in this blog: Piracy or Ignorance on the High Seas - Art Auctions.
This effects a very small portion of the cruising public...and if they are complaining about $30 for dinner in a specialty restaurant they are not dropping the kind of money that brought Park West under attack.

Mr. Elliott then lays out the actual premise, "But in a series of interviews with passengers and industry experts, a slightly more complex picture starts to surface — that of profit-starved cruise lines pulling out all the stops to attract new customers and of penny-pinching passengers who know they have them over a barrel at last." Didn't I mention at the outset that the cruise lines are courting passengers, not trying to rip them off? UPon what good faith basis Mr. Elliott bury this mid-way in his article and then leave it as though never mentioned?

So these "penny-pinching passengers"...as they have finally been identified...are then given a list of five ways to "get back" at the cruise lines...forgetting that not a single rational reason for this aggressive, negative, emotion has yet been provided. You are going to love them...they really get the cruise lines "over a barrel":

1. Wait until the last minute to book - As I have said, that can really work against you! The least expensive cabins probably will be gone (a horrid thought for THAT kind of penny-pincher) and the better cabins in in any category may be gone. Of course, your ability to pre-plan, get the best airfare, etc. all go out the window as well. Mr. Elliot, you claim on your side, "His focus is’t on the destination, or even the journey, but on the tools you need for a successful trip. No other journalist has his depth of knowledge when it comes to offering practical travel advice, useful strategies and helpful tips." This strategy benefits who exactly and in what way?


2. "Smuggle alcohol onboard" - Wait a minute! You first say the cruise is supposedly "all inclusive" and then you say how to plan around it not being that. And you claim to be the "Travel Troubleshooter" for a major travel magazine. You tell people to break their contract with the cruise line by pouring vodka into a water bottle? While I do not agree with the alcohol prohibition (save the former Carnival passengers who would bring coolers of beer and the like), there is a difference between putting a bottle of whisky in your suitcase and boorish behaviors being encouraged.

3. Don't take the ship's tours. Now I am usually not a fan of ship's tours, but they are very popular for a reason. If you don't want to see Tulum or a specific museum which is cost-prohibitive, so be it. Take a taxi to the beach for $20 rather than a tour for $49 each, absolutely. But to seek revenge by screwing up your vacation by not going on a tour or increasing your stress by making private arrangements? What is it exactly that you are getting your revenge for? What way does that put a cruise line "over a barrel" when it, in reality is only hurting the passenger's vacation?

4. Avoid the upsell. I don't get this at all. If you don't want to eat at the specialty restaurant (the vast majority never have...and they couldn't function as they would be overwhelmed otherwise...ask NCL!) then don't eat there. The author points to a coupon for a free lunch at Johnny Rockets on RCCL, but that has been a marketing item since the venue was established...just like the buy one-get one sales held all over the place. Mr. Elliott, you aren't intentionally misrepresenting the facts because you have a problem with the travel industry are you?

5. Stay at home. Well, there is a non-starter. Don't take a cruise because you want to take out your revenge. Ever heard the saying, "Cut off your nose to spite your face?". You can complain about this charge or that upsell, but the fact is that the VALUE has never been greater. Pay $599 rather than $999 and get hit with $75 in additional costs? That sounds like a bargain for me. (But, I still am wondering what those "additional" costs are. Not one has been mentioned!)

So what we have here is a bogus and irresponsible article trying to create controversy where none, in reality...though may emotionally...exists. Cruises have never been a better value...ever. You can break it down and want this different or that, but the trash that Christopher Elliott pushes in his article are clearly, to me, based upon his desire to get published rather than to assist anyone with a credible article.

More importantly, Mr. Elliot's effort to exploit the naive penny-pincher (as he calls them) into creating non-existent issues can only harm those innocents. The most recent problem posted (which was two months ago) was a person wanting Princess to refund a $200 onboard booking made 4 years ago some other way than by crediting back his credit card account which had been closed. Princess had properly advised the passenger of the process which was complicated by the passenger's action of closing the account rather than the cruise line doing anything wrong. Mr. Elliott intentionally titled his article "Is My Cruise Refund Really Sunk?" when he knew it never was.

In short, Christopher Elliott most certainly appears to be engaging in yellow journalism. At least that is my opinion. I wouldn't trust that man to assist me with a vacation...ever.

MSNBC, you should know better.