Sunday, November 6, 2011

Vacationcruisesinfo.com - Does It Provide More Than a Claimed Impartiality?

USA Today has just launched a new, claimed to be, impartial cruise website called Vacationcruiseinfo.com.  The premise of the site is ala Consumer Reports:  It reviews cruises without the reviewers receiving any benefits from the reviewed cruise line.  USA Today will pay for the cruise, will not accept any extras and its reviewers will be chosen and overseen to supposedly ensure impartiality.

I think the concept is a great one...but (as there always is with me)...one thing struck me immediately.  You are going to love this:   The site is plastered with advertisements from:  Royal Caribbean Cruise Line.  Not exactly Consumer Reports-esque.  Now, that does not necessarily mean that Royal Caribbean hasn't accepted the premise of its cruise ships being impartially reviewed, but there is definitely a "Don't Bite The Hand That Feeds You!" concern.

Is There True Editorial Review?  I Have My Doubts

Noting that the site is still new, what I have noticed is that the comments (the "review" information) is very, very limited.  For example, a review of the Norwegian Dawn commented on the food:


Overall, we give mixed marks for the food on the Norwegian Dawn. We were disappointed with the quality of dishes at the two main restaurants, Venetian and Aqua, and even the dishes at some of the extra-charge specialty restaurants failed to impress us. That said, we give high marks to Le Bistro, the French eatery, and the Japanese Teppanyaki restaurant.


One nice touch: If you can’t finish your meal for any reason, most restaurants will deliver the leftovers to your room.


One thing we should note is that all the restaurants have different names for the same items, especially desserts. If something sounds familiar, it’s probably the item you ate in another place.


Nice bit of surface information, but not nearly enough to make an informed decision.  By contract, some of the comments on the Celebrity Summit review were more detailed...even flowery; giving a bit more information, but also with a bit of a snide tone:


The onion soup was amazing, with a thick crust of Gruyere cheese on top of a tasty broth with herb croutons. The warm goat cheese tarte with balsamic was another delicious appetizer.


As for main courses, we had good and some bad experiences. The lobster was overcooked. The game hen looked very tasty, but was still bloody (the chefs were probably busy overcooking the lobster, so who can blame them?). One night, we could overhear somebody on another table who had to order the filet mignon three times before the cook got it medium rare. These were isolated incidents, however.


If this review was the subject of editorial review I have to wonder how the first bolded comment survived and why an isolated incident was reported as relevant (of course not knowing if the filet mignon was actually perfect and the passenger was simply impossible to please!).

Who Are The Reviewers?  What Are The Standards?

The biggest flaw, in my opinion, is that we don't know who it is that is reviewing the ship.  Is the person someone really qualified?  From where does that person's perspective come from?  This is vitally important to know because there can be enormous inconsistencies between reviewers and standards.

Recently a person another site reviewed the Seabourn Sojourn.  After rants and complaints for page after page the reviewer admits he is one of the quirkiest people to ever embark a cruise ship, posted whatever he wanted to at the moment and then change his mind (without changing his prior comments...that people will rely upon).  Then he admits that both he and his wife as peculiar dietary requirements.  (He also has had years of scorn because Seabourn did not invite him to any special events and would not pay for his airfare if a complimentary cruise was offered.)  I think it is important to know this before reading the review.

But what of a reviewer that loves Carnival with all its high energy reviewing a Silversea cruise?  Great if you were thinking of moving up a quantum leap in sophistication and cuisine...which may be of absolutely no interest and, in fact, be a huge imposition on your Fun Ship desires, but terribly misleading if you are looking for those things and the perspective/experience isn't there.

Then there is an issue of whether a 7.0 on the Norwegian Dawn is a 7.0 on the Celebrity Summit is a 7.0 on the Seabourn Sojourn.  The expectations, the price point, the meeting of a passenger's desire isn't the same. Carnival's bar service is a lot more fun (and more beer-ish) than Crystal Cruises' (more champagne-ish), but the service of each cannot be interchanged.

Douglas Ward, of the Berlitz Cruise Guide, has, in contrast a very complex system of rating everything so you know how things compare ship to ship.  You also know, if you read his reviews, that such things as variety of cheeses and breads, weighs heavy for him...as does identifying when a "suite" is not really a suite.

Cruises Are Not Toasters!

Vacationcruiseinfo.com does have a great photo library of the ships presented and an excellent brief overview of each area of the ship. I strongly encourage it to be used as a resource.  (Heck, I just might use it from time to time!)

But what Vacationcruiseinfo.com cannot do is provide the in depth nuances and comparisons that I believe are really necessary in order to find the best cruise for you. It is more than a Consumer Reports' comment like, "The Volvo wasn't as fun to drive as the Saab."  You know that you will give both a test drive...or at least one of them and will make that decision for yourself.

But for a cruise there are so many things to consider and so many personal issues that can arise that whether it is Berlitz or USA Today's Vacationcruiseinfo.com, that you need real personal advice and consultation.  It is why, alas, luxury travelers hardly ever make a purchase of a cruise over the internet.  But you know that.  It is why you are reading this!

Overall, I applaud the concept, but I need to see more before I can endorse the execution.  Right now I have my concerns and reservations.  (I am also not too fond of the layout.)  The site is new and I am sure there will be tweaks and changes.

Regardless, as it grows it may be a good place to check out.