On Thursday we flew from Long Beach to Oakland and took a cab to San Francisco where we were to meet our ship. Jim didn't remember which pier we were supposed to go to, although he remembered there'd been a change, so he called Princess's 800 information number while we waited for our baggage. The helpful person at Princess said we were to go to Pier 35. Coolness. This was at like 11 or 11:30am. So we get our baggage and schlep it down the block and across the street and down a fairly well-hidden ramp (to one side and a few steps away from the stairs, and no there isn't a sign near said stairs) and then back up about half another block to get to where the taxis line up at Oakland airport. Hint: If you're ever flying into Oakland and you have more than a backpack, and you need a cab, get a luggage cart. Best two bucks we ever spent. :P
So we get into our cab and Jim tells the driver Pier 35 and we're off. We cross the Bay Bridge and the driver hangs a right and we're immediately buried in a fairly largish traffic jam. The driver commented several times that he's never seen traffic like this on this street before. He had time to comment several times 'cause we were in traffic for about an hour. [facepalm] We weren't in any danger of missing our ship, but still. Our driver finally hung a left and drove through some surface streets that eventually came out a lot closer to the pier we wanted. I can't swear it took all that much less time than staying in traffic and going straight would've, but there's a certain satisfaction in actually moving, as opposed to doing the stop-go-stooooooop-go-stooooop thing, you know?
OK, so we get to Pier 35. It has two cruise ships pulled up to it and there's this huge traffic pile-up in front of it. Aha, at least we know why it was so bad. Well, not quite. The driver stops and someone who looked coppish told him to pull up to wherever he was pointing. Then a guy in more of a shipping-type uniform comes up and asks what ship we're there for. Jim says, "Princess," and the guy says, "You need to go down to Pier 30." Umm, what? Yep, the Regal Princess was down at Pier 30, but the nice, helpful person at the Princess 800 number apparently hadn't known that, so people were showing up at Pier 35, which is where it'd been originally scheduled to go. Change, what change? [headdesk]
For those of you who are unfamiliar with San Francisco piers, and who are thinking, "So you head farther down (or maybe back) by five piers, big deal," I'll mention that maritime-type people, for some unknown reason, like to keep their even numbers and their odd numbers decently separated. Maybe they think the evens are girls and the odds are boys or something, I don't know. But if you're ever on shipboard, all the even-numbered rooms are on one side and odd-numbered are on the other. And if you're ever in an office having to do with the Navy you'll find that room numbers are the same way, so office number 212 is on the other side of the building from office number 211.
As I'm sure you've caught onto by now, we were nowhere near where we needed to be. Pier 30 was on the other side of the Bay Bridge outlet from where we'd gotten off, and almost as far down in the opposite direction. Le sigh. After having sat in traffic -- traffic largely caused by this screw-up, since there were three cruise ships' worth of passengers trying to get off at Pier 35 when there were only supposed to be two -- we weren't in the best of moods at being told to turn around and double back. But we did and eventually found Pier 30. Our nice driver dropped us off and the luggage guys came up pretty much immediately and took the stuff we were checking and we headed inside.
Check-in was a lot faster than it's ever been before, to give them credit. Of course, considering how many of our passengers were either down at Pier 35, stuck in traffic on the way to Pier 35 or stuck in the (lighter but still annoying) traffic between Pier 35 and Pier 30, I guess it's not surprising the lines were short. Everything's fine and people are polite and I'm looking forward to getting to the cabin and relaxing for a bit, when we get to X-ray. (Yep. Security getting onto a cruise ship is just like getting onto a plane.) There was a friendly young man at the X-ray machine and I asked him if I had to take my laptop out of its case. He said no. I said, "I like you -- why don't you go work at the airports?" And he laughed and everything was cool and I went through X-ray and the metal detector and I go to grab my laptop and some blonde woman in a uniform asks me if this is mine. I say yeah and she says it'll have to go through again and do I mind if she takes it out. [facepalm] I say no, I don't mind, but I asked the guy down there and he said I didn't have to. She gives me a big smile and says, "He doesn't know." And that's all she says, like it's OK that the guy at the front-end of the X-ray doesn't know this. No, "I'm sorry," no, "He should've known," no, "I'm going to tell him right now," much less the far preferred, "I'm really sorry, he should've known and I'm going to tell him right now but I'm afraid I need to take out your laptop and put it through one more time." Just, "He doesn't know," and a big smile while I take my laptop out. I wonder if she ever got around to telling the guy about laptops. [eyeroll] Oh, and some other guy who worked the far end of X-ray was standing here watching -- that's important.
So I'm standing there on the other side of X-ray waiting for my laptop to come back through. The guy (remember him?) who worked this end hustled me farther down the line so I wasn't blocking other people coming through behind me, and that's fine; I take a few steps farther down to make room, but stay close enough that I can see when my stuff comes out. I snag my totebag and wait for my laptop. About half a minute later, I see it come out, but there are a few people between me and it. So this guy, who stood there and watched Smiling Blonde Lady take my laptop to put it through, picks up my laptop and offers it to some strange guy standing right at the exit-chute of the X-ray machine and asks him, "Is this yours?" ?!?! I call, "That's mine!" and move as close as I possibly can with my hand outstretched. People lose a LOT of items at X-ray and laptops are prime targets; I wasn't about to let someone walk off with mine, aided and abetted by one of the supposed security guys. [eyeroll]
We finally get through X-ray with as many items as we went in with and head toward the gangplank. The last obstacle to be negotiated is the photographers, but Jim and I are old hands at avoiding them. Think about this -- you've just travelled several hundred miles, by plane or car or bus or however you came, dealt with a large pile of luggage out in the parking lot, made your way through check-in and security (and again, this was really fast for us -- an hour or longer is not at all unheard of for this part of the process) and by now you're hot and sweaty and irritable and your hair's a mess and your clothes are wrinkled, so of course they set up this photographer-trap right in your path with a couple of smiling people who are absolutely determined to take your picture so they can try to sell you copies on board. Umm, right, sure I want to remember what I looked like when I embarked. Not.
One thing I'll give Princess, though, is that they don't set up some fake backdrop with palm trees and cardboard parrots and stuff, or I guess since we were in SF about to go to Alaska, Carnival would've had a cartoon Golden Gate or maybe a couple of grizzly bears or something. Princess is a bit more tasteful than Carnival [cough] but we still didn't want to get our pictures taken, and I'll grant the photo-guys here were polite about it. We've had Carnival photogs get downright testy, and grouch about how we were holding other people up when all we were doing was walking straight through without stopping. :P
We found our cabin with no problem. It's a bit smaller than we're used to, but this is an old ship -- almost fifteen years old, which in cruise industry terms is practically an outrigger canoe. When we took off, Jim went up top and I stood out on the balcony (I didn't feel like putting my shoes back on) and watched us pull out. We sailed under the Bay Bridge and then under the Golden Gate. I amused myself by imagining I was standing next to some tourists and mentally doing some guide-type patter about some of the things we saw as we went by, since I used to live in the Bay Area. [grin] Jim wandered around while I kicked back and read a book for a while, then we had a nice dinner (late seating) and eventually went to bed.
Friday and Saturday were sea days. What that means is that we were just sailing, not stopping in any port. I'll admit that I like sea days quite a lot. I enjoy ports, sure, but what I really enjoy about cruising is getting to pretend I'm rich for a while. :D Figure, you have people to make your food, serve it to you and clean up afterward, and other people who make your bed and clean your bathroom and pick up your cabin -- our cabin steward even folds any clothes we might've left lying around if he has time. Someone comes in in the evening and turns down your bed and leaves a chocolate -- basically your cabin gets straightened up for you three times a day. Cool, huh? [beam] All over the ship are people eager to wait on you. I also like not having to be any place at any particular time. I like eating dinner in the diningroom and getting really good food served by a waiter and assistant waiter, who'll bring as much as I want of anything I want, and if I try something and don't like it they'll bring me anything else I want, but I also like knowing that if I nap through dinner or get hungry before dinner, I can go to the Lido deck and have a really good meal (even if not quite so good as in the diningroom) anyway. And I like going to bed and being rocked by the ship -- yeah, I enjoy rough seas, what can I say? :P Anyway, if someone offered a cruise that was just ten or fourteen days where the ship pulled out and sailed past some beautiful scenery (so there's something to look at outside whenever I feel like it) but never actually stopped anywhere, I'd sign up in an instant. Can you blame me? ;)
Anyway, that's the good stuff and it's true about every cruise I've been on so far. There've been a few down-sides this time, though. Keep in mind that Carnival, which is the cruise line we've sailed with all but one of our previous cruises, is the budget end of the big lines. Princess is considered a luxury line. It's not as expensive as a lot of the others, but it's classier than Carnival and more expensive. That said, what's with charging for non-alcoholic drinks?? On Carnival, and on Princess last time as far as I can recall, the only drinks you paid for at all were alcohol and carbonated stuff -- the alcohol 'cause it's expensive and the carbonated stuff because a lot of people are addicted to it and they can make money selling you a soda card (Carnival) or a big soda cup-thingy (Princess) for a flat rate that you can get filled anywhere for free thereafter. I don't drink alcohol because I don't care for the taste, and I'm not really much into soda -- I figure if I'm going to consume that many calories I might as well have juice and get a few vitamins with it, so I've never had to pay for drinks on shipboard before, unless I felt like trying a non-alcoholic version of whatever the drink of the day is. So I'm at dinner the first night and ask for my customary cup of hot chocolate with dessert, and Jim asks for his customary cappucino, and our smiling waiter asks for his sign-and-sail card and presents a bill. WTF?! Plain coffee is free, as is iced tea. Both are available at dinner, or from dispensers on Lido. But if you want hot chocolate or a "premium" coffee drink, or juice for that matter, you have to pay extra, which is completely screwed.
Remember what I said about Carnival being the "budget" cruise line? Well, on Carnival we'd be paying five hundred to a thousand dollars less per person for the same cruise, and all these drinks would be free. I can go up to Lido any time, 24/7, and sit there reading and drinking juice or hot chocolate for free. I have to get my own refills, but hey, I can deal with that. [wry smile] If the actual cost of the drinks has gone up, I'd rather pay an extra fifty bucks on the ticket price and still be able to get free drinks, just for the convenience factor, you know? And besides, when you're paying a couple thousand per person it's just tacky of them to hand you a bill for a buck and a half for hot chocolate. :/ Some marketing weasel back at Princess Corporate is suffering a serious reality break with this.
Another little thing -- last time we were on Princess, you got a card in your cabin the first night asking if you wanted a fruit bowl and if so, what you'd like in it. I figured they'd just hand us a bowl of fruit and that'd be it, so I asked for two or three each of apples, pears and bananas. Turns out they figured that was your daily order, and once a day the cabin steward would fill it back up to the level you'd ordered, replacing anything you'd eaten. Coolness! We got our fruit bowl card again this time and figuring I knew how it worked I asked for one of each kind I like, plus an extra banana for the husband. Well, turns out it now works the way I originally thought it would -- they brought in a fruit bowl the second day and never refilled it. Once we'd finished it all, the fruit bowl disappeared and that's the end of it. You'd think they'd let you know one way or the other. [sigh]
Then there's internet. [headdesk] I'd figured on being around a bit more than I have been, but although the price is only slightly higher than it was last year on Carnival, the way they're handling it is just a total cluster-fuck.
Let's back up to Carnival again for a moment. They had an internet lounge where the computers were available 24/7, although there was only an attendant during regular daytime hours. You had several payment options -- you signed up and created an account, and then decided if you wanted to buy blocks of time and if so how big. You did this online. If you just sat down and started surfing the web, without buying a block, it was about 80 cents per minute. [heavy wince] Although I guess if you just wanted to sign on for three minutes to check a football score or something then that works. The price went down if you bought a block of time, up to the largest block which was $100 worth and worked out to about 30 cents a minute. I went through two of these last September. [duck] Plus the four hours I spent in a little Internet cafe in Acapulco that only charged three dollars an hour, but anyway, I digress. [grin] But with Carnival you buy blocks of time while you're there at the computer, and you can add more time to your account whenever you want. If you're within a couple of minutes of running out, it pops up a screen and asks if you want to buy another block. If you do then you just do it right there and the warning screen politely goes away and lets you get back to whatever you were doing. That's Carnival.
But we're on Princess, which is the Luxury cruise line. [sarcasm warning] The Regal Princess's internet lounge is in a room near the main show theater -- inside the outer doors to the main show theater. One gets the impression that it was a large storage closet or something before they turned it into the internet lounge, although I'm willing to deal with this since the Regal is an older ship, as I mentioned, and internet at sea wasn't something the designers thought about. Of course, the Carnival Paradise wasn't set up for it either, but anyway.... So the lounge is in this room off to the side, and because it's in a separate room with a door (this is the only reason I can think of) they lock it up every night at midnight. [blinkblink] OK, whatever.
To get onto the internet you have to buy time. OK, that's fine. But you can't buy time online. Instead, you have to trek down to the Purser's desk (three decks below the internet lounge) and buy coupons. Flat rate, thirty-five cents per minute, in one hour blocks. One hour per coupon, sorry, that's the biggest denomination they have. (I think they also sold fifteen minute coupons for the same per-minute price, but who cares?) OK, so you buy a stack of coupons at twenty-one dollars each and trot back up to the internet lounge. You log on with your coupon. (How to do this is not obvious, since each coupon has three long numbers separated by hyphens, and there's only space in the log-in window for two numbers, but some nice crew guy who came in to tidy up helped me. I guess no one thought of printing anywhere on the coupon which two numbers to use.)
So you log in and get a "What do you want to do?" screen and hit "Internet connection" and get a Princess page with some helpful [cough] AOL access crap on it and type in the URL you actually want and start surfing. Notice I didn't mention creating an account; that's because you don't. You log in with your coupon numbers. If you use less than an hour, then you log off and next time you use the same coupon numbers to log in and you keep going until you've used up your hour. And what next, you ask? If you want to keep going, it logs you off and you get the sign-in screen where you can enter the numbers from your next coupon, at which point you get the "What do you want to do?" screen and hit "Internet connection" and get a Princess page with some helpful [cough] AOL access crap on it and type in the URL you actually want and basically have to find your place all over again. Last time I was online at the internet lounge I was working on my Flist, which as you can imagine was rather lengthy, and both times I ran out of time and had to enter a new coupon I burned almost a dollar just getting back to where I'd been. God forbid they set it up so it remembers where you are and takes you there. But of course, to do that it'd have to let you set up an account so there's something to keep track of; as it is, once you time out as far as the system's concerned you're a new person logging in. [headdesk] That's the internet lounge.
They also have wireless, which is the only reason I'm able to post this. No way I'd take the time to type this out with the clock ticking so I'm typing this on my laptop and I'm going to upload it from my laptop through the wireless network. Now on Carnival, you could access wireless from your cabin. Or so the internet lounge guy said; I didn't have a laptop last year and couldn't try it for myself. But here the only place you can get wireless access is in the atrium, and at that I got a "Low" power connection when I was one (1) deck above the deck where the Purser's desk was, and indeed could see the Purser's desk clearly even without my glasses. The last couple of times I've gone down a deck and the strength was "High" and "Very High." Which tells you something about the strength of their wireless hub. [sigh]
And when you tell them you want wireless they tell you that you have to buy a special network card (for only fifty-four something, when you can get a network card for around thirty bucks these days) because a regular network card won't work with "their" wireless network. Umm. Jim and I debated this for a day or so and I convinced him that I really needed to get online with wireless. I haven't had my laptop long enough to have gotten it hooked into the LAN at home, so the easiest way to transfer files from my desktop to my laptop or vice-versa is to e-mail them to my Gmail account and download them from there. So I had some stories I'm working on and a story I'm critiquing for someone else (I'm halfway done with it, I swear!) that I really needed to access. But before we shelled out an extra fifty bucks we hauled the laptop down to the atrium to see what happened. Well, surprise, surprise! We get a connection just fine. [eyeroll] So much for needing to buy a card.
Then, just to make it fun, you can't use the same coupons for wireless that you already bought for the internet lounge. [blinkblink] Ummm, right. The cost is the same, although you can only buy half-hour wireless coupons for some unknown reason, so that's not it. And for the purpose of pissing you off when you go back to the lounge (I honestly can't think of any other reason) when you sign on for wireless you do create an account, and you can put all your coupons' worth of time in at once, although if you run out of time it logs you off rather than just putting you on hold while you enter more hours. I mean, come on people! The whole coupon thing is idiotic to start out with, but if you can let us create an account and load all our time in at once for the wireless network then why the futz can't we do it for the internet lounge?!?! [flail]
And for anyone wondering why I'd bother with the lounge when I have a laptop, since the cost is the same, there are two reasons. First, the lounge is only about half as far away from my cabin as the high-strength level of the atrium, so it's not as far to go. And second, while I've become accustomed to my laptop keyboard, I still prefer a regular keyboard when I can get one. If I don't have anything to up- or download, I'd rather use the lounge and the regular keyboards.
But getting all this straightened out is why it took me so long to get online at all.
To be fair about this, Princess has one major advantage over Carnival, and that's the lack of singing and dancing waiters. [facepalm] On Carnival ships, in the main dining rooms at dinner, someone decided that it'd be Really Cool to have the waiters entertain each evening. This'd be fine with me if it were clear that all the wait staff were actually enthusiastic about this, but most of them are not. Some are very clearly Not. I mean, think about it -- you've got a bunch of people from third-world countries (most of the lower-level staff comes from countries where the economies are sufficiently depressed that the low wages the cruise lines pay look really good), many of whom are from small villages or farms and have very little familiarity with Western popular culture. Seeing some Asian man in his sixties who's trying to earn a dignified living and help support his family, trying to sing and dance the Macarena is just... painful. It's demeaning IMO, and I get embarassed watching them, both for them and for the Western corporate types who won't let them do their jobs in peace but think it'd be "Fun!!" to make folks who just want to wait tables and have no singing or dancing skills sing and dance in a foreign language. And on the last night, it's traditional to make them all parade around the room carrying a couple of US flags and singing "God Bless America," which, since none of them are American and few of them are Christian, is just ridiculous.
Anyway, Princess doesn't do that, which has always been my number one reason for preferring Princess over Carnival. But with the drinks thing and the half-assed way Princess is handling the internet, it's really no longer sufficient reason to go for Princess. Once you've sailed with Princess five times you get free internet access, and mainly for that reason we were thinking about pretty much switching to Princess to try to get that. But it turns out that wireless isn't included with that -- again, they're the same price so why the hell not?? -- and the internet lounge isn't open at night, so.... I'm going to ask the Purser (assuming she knows) how it works once you're at the "Platinum" level; if they give you a Magic Code that just lets you sign in for free and stay there forever then it might be worth it, even if I have to buy wireless time to up- and download stuff. But if they just hand you a stack of coupons and you still have to re-log-in every hour then forget it. [sigh] Being able to eat dinner in peace is not worth this, even for (mostly) free internet.
Now the good stuff. :D The food is good, but then it always is on a cruise in my experience. I had a really excellent prime rib tonight, and the first night I had a beef broth that was incredible. I don't usually care for beef broth -- it's too strong -- but this was just perfect. The desserts are great, the vegetables are crunchy, the fruit is fresh, the rolls are excellent -- just all around the food is wonderful.
And I think I'll break here and get into tours and stuff next post. :)