Seeing Antarctica outweighs line imperfections

My son and I took an Antarctic cruise, Jan. 10-22, ’06, on Orient Lines’ Marco Polo. We paid a total of $6,026 each for the cruise.

After sending in our deposit and final payment, we heard practically nothing from Orient Lines for months. Then we received a letter telling us what to pack, etc., and also mentioning a “Required Health Statement.” We didn’t know exactly what that was, but a $72 office visit with my doctor produced a letter stating that I was healthy enough to travel to Antarctica. The health requirement was never mentioned again.

Our travel agent had difficulty getting any information from Orient Lines and at one point was on the phone to them every day. Four days before departure, we finally received our airline tickets and cruise documents.
The line had us scheduled on United Airlines from Portland to Chicago to Buenos Aires. We were to return on the same airline on the same route.

We were met at the Buenos Aires airport by Orient Lines personnel. They checked our names off a list and told us to wait over at one side with our luggage. An hour later we were loaded on buses for the trip to the Sheraton Buenos Aires, where we would spend two nights and from which, we were told, we would take a half-day tour of the city.

At the Sheraton, no rooms were ready and no keys were available. We were herded into a large room, where Sheraton employees announced every couple of minutes that it would be just 10 minutes more. This went on for well over an hour.

We were told that our luggage would be delivered to our room. We were tired, sweaty and cranky after a day and a half of travel, and all we wanted was a shower, a toothbrush and a change of clothes. Our luggage never was delivered. We had to go search it out and take it to our room ourselves.

Meanwhile, the city tour left at 2:30 p.m. We didn’t get our luggage and into our room until well after 3 p.m. Later, we heard from passengers that there had been a makeup tour the next morning, but no one informed us so we missed that one too.

Things got a little better when we were put on a charter flight to Us­huaia in Tierra del Fuego. The flight arrived on time and we were bused to the ship. Boarding was efficient and our luggage was delivered to our cabin in a timely manner.

The voyage to Antarctica was an experience to last a lifetime. The scenery is indescribable, and neither words nor photographs can do it justice. The captain and crew of the ship wove through a minefield of icebergs and got us in close to some magnificent sights. We got close-up views of penguins, whales, seals and a plethora of seabirds. The lectures on board were interesting and informative, and the experts seemed very knowledgeable.

We found the crew members handling the landings in the Zodiac inflatables to be very competent. The only problem with the landings was that they ran late. Each group was assigned a time to appear in a lounge to be escorted to the Zodiacs and taken ashore. This never went off as scheduled and, wrapped in cold-weather clothing, we would end up sitting around sweating in a crowded room waiting for our group to be called.

The landing procedure was very regimented, and my son got pretty impatient with it, but considering the potential liabilities, the average age of the passengers and the requirements to protect the environment, the process was understandable.

Having been on other cruises with other lines, I could not help but compare the Marco Polo with other ships. The food in the dining room was very good. I heard other passengers complain about there not being any food available outside of normal meal hours.

The service in the dining room seemed indifferent, with some wrong orders and ignored requests. The service in the bars and lounges was excellent. I found the people manning the gift shop and duty-free shop to be abrupt and unfriendly. Our cabin steward was excellent.

Two days before we were scheduled to return, we received a letter from Orient Lines saying that our flights home had been changed. It stated, in part, “Unfortunately, the connection time between the charter flight and your international departure is shorter than expected.”

Our United tickets were canceled and we were booked on an American Airlines flight, Buenos Aires to Dallas to Portland.

This affected a number of passengers and we all demanded an explanation. We got several. “United changed their schedule.” Not true. “The government of Argentina changed the rules.” Unlikely. My personal favorite was, “Orient Lines has the right to make any changes they want.” We never received a satisfactory explanation as to why Orient Lines didn’t know beforehand that the connecting time was too short.

A number of us brought up, several times, the fact that we would lose a significant number of United frequent-flyer miles. In our case, it was 7,341 miles each.

Our overall impression of the trip is that it was well worthwhile. On the other hand, our impression of Orient Lines is one of disorganization and disregard for customer service. If anyone asks me about a cruise to Antarctica, I would suggest that if they can afford it they should take one of the ships of National Geographic Expedtions (Washington, D.C.; 888/966-8687). If, like so many of us, they want the most economical way to get there, they can go with the Marco Polo, keeping in mind the hassles we had with Orient Lines.

Junction City, OR

    ITN sent a copy of the above letter to Orient Lines (7665 Corporate Center Dr., Miami, FL 33126) and received no reply. The line did respond to Mr. Wilson, however, who wrote ITN this follow-up: “I received a letter from Ava Horsham, Customer Relations Coordinator for Orient Lines. There was another explanation for the change in flights, one which I found somewhat inadequate, but the letter included an apology for the lateness of the flight changes and for the lack of explanations aboard ship. She also indicated that my other concerns about the trip would be communicated to the various department heads.

    “The letter also contained credit certificates of $975 each for my son and me for a future Orient Lines cruise.
    “In this age of unconcern for customer service, it is gratifying to receive any response at all, and the fact that the company was willing to address my concerns and make amends is truly refreshing.”