For those of you who have read my trip reports before, you know what to expect (hopefully good things). For everyone else: this will be presented in a narrative form and include pre/post trip experiences as well as some costs and how I went about planning. I will present the good as well as the not-so-good. I will be biased but hopefully explain my biases. It will come in pieces because even as a fast writer, it does take me some time to collect my thoughts. I welcome questions and others from the same trip supplementing or contradicting me, but I don't want this thread to spin-off into complaints, rants, raves, etc that continue on and on.
My parents and I are both frequent cruisers and are D+ with Royal Caribbean. We have cruises mostly RCI in the recent past, though we have traveled several times on Celebrity. My parents are retired and live in Indiana while I am in my first year as an assistant professor at a southern university. Our favorite RCCL ships are RCI’s Oasis-class and Celebrity’s Solstice-class. We are not big drinkers or sun-worshipers, but we enjoy our loyalty perks (such as a few free drinks) and relaxing on the ship by reading, playing trivia, and enjoying nice meals.
My parents and I like cruising over the holidays. At one point, Christmas cruises were fairly inexpensive as they did not seem popular. Those times have passed and Christmas and NYE cruises tend to have standard pricing at about double the normal going rate. At one point in September, we were looking as holiday cruise prices (as well as airfare) with a bit of despair. As an alternative, I also started looking at Thanksgiving cruises. I had noticed that the “inaugural” cruise on the Quantum over Thanksgiving had post-final payment pricing with a military rate (my dad is eligible) that brought the price down enough that it was competitive with other sailings at that time period. Throw in the excitement of a new ship and some bargains with frequent-flier miles to NYC in the proper time period and we decided to try Quantum out though not without a bit of trepidation. Would the ship be ready? Would we be happy with an absolutely terrible Bahamas itinerary (with scheduled stops in Port Canaveral, Nassau, and Coco Cay)? Would we enjoy pre and post-cruise in New York (which was not a good experience for us on our previous cruise from Bayonne)?
I had an old-style NextCruise booking that was going on about three years old that I decided to use for this trip. We decided to use an online travel agency we had had previous positive dealings with (though our agent recently left). I transferred the open booking to the agency, which was then used to book Quantum. Our agent told of some back-end arguing about the rate (taking into account the military discount, the $100 I had already paid, etc), but in the end we received what we thought was the proper pricing as well as my OBC from RCI, OBC from the agent, and a two free gratuities. This process took a few days as RCI did not seem to be in a hurry to transfer the original open booking (just letting anyone else who might want to try this know that it was not immediate).
Since we booked fairly late, we missed all of the initial waves of issues with dining and show reservations. However, as late-bookers, we had our own issues. Shows were available without problems. Dining, however, had limited reservations available at desired times. The booking site was just not very user-friendly and, unless I missed something, there was not an easy way to compare show times and available dining times … this all had to be done by the user manually. I eventually booked show times and just tried to find early dining times that would work (my dad does not like eating late so late dining was never going to be an option). This led to many compromises when trying to no-fee choose restaurants that had open times. In the end, I had no reservations for dining for the first night though we did have Mama Mia that evening, 2 reservations for American Icon, 2 reservations for The Grande, 2 reservations for Silk, and one reservation for Chic at times ranging from 5:45-7:15. A few of those reservations overlapped nightly entertainment by 15-30 minutes. There were also some times that appeared available but when selected would cause the website to throw an error. My dad tried calling C&A after lingering issues but they could not improve any of the times we did not like. We never lost all of our reservations as some people have reported, but it was something that did take some hours of planning and re-arranging.
Side rant: I have felt for a long time that RCI’s shoreside IT department has consistently remained one of the weaker parts of the company. The website generally remains a mess on both the booking side as well as the cruise planning side. The idea that this much more of a load would be rested on their shoulders was, in my opinion, doomed to work poorly from the start … ignoring the whole different complaint about how much the passenger now has plan the entire vacation from the ground up in terms of juggling restaurants (with no idea how much they will be liked), times (with no idea how long meals will last or knowing what else will be on the daily planner for that day), and show times. RCI labels this as “dynamic” for the spontaneous, but it does not feel dynamic as you are mapping out vacation days months in advance. It honestly reminded me of going to Disney World on the dining plan. You can optionally make reservations to ensure you get to eat at the venues you want at a time you choose. If you don’t, you may be seated right away, or you also run the risk of long waits or missing out on an experience. There is something I don’t quite like about this type of structure, which is odd considering before there was always an imposed structure of dining times unless you chose MyTime Dining (which even then seemed to really require reservations). I don’t have a solution necessarily, but this was something that was off-putting before even stepping foot on the ship.
The New York Experience
Due to pricing of flights (and wanting to experience a bit of the city), my plan was to spend 2 nights pre-cruise in NYC and one night post-cruise in NYC. This seemed fun to me and my mom. My dad, on the other hand, views NYC about the same way that Homer Simpson did in the classic episode “The City of New York vs. Homer Simpson.” On our past cruise out of Bayonne, we stayed at the Country Inn and Suites in Elizabeth, NJ. There were several negative experiences from that encounter (single king room for three people, cab-ride to the port that mysteriously cost $80, etc). This time, I decided we would stay in the city and at least have a few experiences we would not get biding time in NJ.
As the family travel agent, it was my job to find a place to stay that would comfortably sleep 3, was clean and safe, would have access to things to do in the area, and would not cost more than the cruise itself. This was an interesting challenge (much like trying to find a hotel with similar properties in London as I’ve done twice in the last couple of years). In the end, I decided to use Hotwire in order to spend our pre-cruise at the Conrad Hotel in downtown Manhattan. It was not cheap by any means, but Hotwire pricing definitely helped.
After booking the hotel, I then needed to figure out how we would be getting there from our respective airports. I booked my parents on a direct flight from Indianapolis to Newark for an 8 AM arrival. With just two of them and plenty of time, I also booked them on a shared-ride van with SuperShuttle (found a coupon online for $3 off, bringing the total to about $20 each). I was flying into Laguardia with a 10 AM arrival, so I also booked a trip on SuperShuttle for about $16. Our hope is that we’d be able to meet up at the Conrad by noon or so … well, that turned out to be wishful thinking. Both of our experiences were fairly similar. After arriving, we had to check-in at ground transportation and wait for our assigned shuttle. This took about 30-45 minutes. After that, we were loaded into a van heading to Manhattan. Most tourists in the van were staying in the Times Square area, meaning that for both of our vans, we were the very last people off and the only people heading downtown. This meant we got the nickel tour of the jammed streets and about a 2-hour tour of the city. Did we save money over a car service? Yes. Was it worth it? Depends. We did not have any obligations that day with such an early arrival.
My parents beat me to the Conrad by a few hours and had at least been able to check-in and get on the list to be notified when a room became available. Once I arrived around 1 PM we still did not have a room so I checked my bag with the bellman and we went off to find some lunch at the food court across the street. Around 1:30 we were notified our room was ready, so we headed straight back after lunch.
The room at the Conrad was huge, clean, and well-appointed. There was a bedroom and living room area separated by two sliding doors. In between these doors were the separate shower and bathroom areas as well as a sink and coffeemaker. With all of the sliding doors and opaque glass privacy was a little less than optimal, but in the end, it was a very nice room. My sofabed in the living area was decently comfortable (though it was still a sofa bed). Turn-down service was offered and every staff member we interacted was smiling, helpful, and generally seemed to be trying their best to make it a pleasant stay.
The Conrad is near the water and is across the street from the World Trade Center site. There are also several metro stops nearby as well as ferries and the train to/from NJ. There are several restaurants and a movie theater in the Conrad building including a less-busy-than-other-locations Shake Shack where I had a pretty good burger for dinner that first night. I walked about a mile across the tip of the island to the Sea Port to visit that location of TKTS for show tickets on our arrival night and, on that walk, there were quite a few interesting restaurants and a smattering of drug stores. In the end, I thought this was a pretty good location as it was away from the bustle of Times Square (which was about a 20-minute metro ride away) yet still had plenty of things to do and places to eat.
Next up: Getting to Bayonne, Boarding, first impressions of Quantum
Chris's guide for budget travel - Made for conferences (may make a cruise version some time) but airline, shuttle, Priceline, and Hotwire tips should remain the same
Cruise Albums on Flickr