Cruising Day 1: The Prologue and Barcelona

Sunset at Sea

You find me on Deck 10 of the Celebrity Constellation, a small plate of fries (for snacking) to my right, along with a Hendricks & Tonic. Behind me, the light grey rock and verdant foliage of Croatian cliffs glide past us as we depart Split, headed for Koper in Slovenia.

It’s Day 12 of 14 of our Western Mediterranean cruise, and I am relaxed. This is the first time I’ve turned this iPad on since we departed Boston – the first time I’ve really used any technology other than to check up on some news and take pictures. It is bliss.

I wanted to start writing about the trip whilst everything was still fresh in my mind, and to create some structure for the epic Photo Sorting that will occur once we get back home. Today we visited the Krka National Park in Croatia – a place so beautiful that my brain still hasn’t fully processed it yet. But I’m getting ahead of myself. First we must go back to the start, and to some bitter complaining.

Iberia Airlines fucking sucks.

We started thinking about this cruise back in 2020. The world was falling apart as Covid-19 tore through worldwide society and proved, unequivocally, that the human race is dumb as a brick and incapable of doing basic things to save itself from annihilation.
We decided that we needed to get away, to have something – anything – to look forward to in the dim distant future of 2022, and we’d been talking about going on another cruise ever since stepping foot off our last one (and my first) back in September 2017.

After combing through the Celebrity Cruises website, we settled on one – a 13 night cruise along the Western Mediterranean, taking in Spain, France, Italy, Croatia, and Slovenia. It promised to give my partner, AJ, a chance to see Europe for the first time and give me a chance to return after an all-too-long absence. Most importantly, it promised to give us a break.
We didn’t know it then (though we suspected), but the next couple of years were going to be extremely challenging.

At the start of this year, the signs were looking good that the cruise would go ahead, so we started finalizing everything. The trip was paid in full, we booked all of our shore excursions ahead of time, and we got the flights sorted.
The cruise was leaving from Barcelona and finishing up in Venice. Time Off limits for AJ meant that staying in Venice for a few days was sadly not an option, and flying in to Barcelona and back out of Venice was prohibitively expensive (at the time) so we elected to do a round trip to Barcelona, with a shorter local flight getting us from Venice back to Barcelona.

We checked out the flights and found a direct flight package from Iberia that was perfect. We’d arrive on the day of the cruise, board the ship, then disembark at the end, hop back to Barcelona and be back in Boston in time for dinner.

A couple of months before the cruise, Iberia emailed me to say that they’d unilaterally changed our flights, with no explanation as to why. We were now flying out a day earlier … at both ends. The outbound change was fine – who says no to an extra day in Barcelona?! The inbound however … they’d decided to move our return flight to the day that we’d be in Slovenia on an excursion. We weren’t even going to be in Italy yet!

After a frustrating 45 minute wait on the phone with Iberia, they could only “help” by cancelling our trip and refunding us, leaving us to re-book flights that were now going to be more expensive as we were so close to departure.
For some reason, there were no direct flights between Boston and Barcelona for the dates we wanted anymore, with any airline. The trip had just gotten more expensive and more complicated, and they weren’t done with us yet.

I re-booked flights – again through Iberia – for the original dates. This time we’d be flying Boston – JFK, JFK – Barcelona. When we returned, we’d have to do our hop from Venice – Barcelona, then board our main flights, this time going Barcelona – London Heathrow, Heathrow – Boston.
I decided that, as we were now dealing with added changes and stress (and it is a bit of a trek), I’d upgrade us. We plumped for Premium Economy – at this point, the price uplift was not much more – and figured that we had everything sorted again.

Iberia then informed us that we wouldn’t actually be flying with them at all, we’d be using two of their codeshare partners – American Airlines, and British Airways. I’ve never had great experiences with British Airways but they were always fine, and had never flown American. Little did I know that I’d end up resenting American Airlines even more than BA.

The week before our flights, we had a guest, so went out a lot and promptly got sick. Thankfully no Covid, but AJ went down first (she was ill the entire week) and I managed to catch it just at the tail end of the week, just as our boiler broke. We got that sorted, cleared our guest out, and prepared to go on holiday.

The Sunday night before our Monday flights, we discovered that our vaccination cards were not going to be accepted in Spain because we’d been vaccinated over 270 days prior to departure and hadn’t yet gotten our boosters. This one was entirely on us, but it contributed to a miserable 24-48 hours. We frantically booked boosters at a local CVS for first thing Monday morning – ensuring that our tired and sick bodies would not get a lie in to recover some energy – and dutifully dragged ourselves there early the next morning, both hoping that we wouldn’t be told we were too sick to get boosted.

Thankfully, we got the boosters, got home, and finished packing. By the time we left the house in a masked-up Uber we were both feeling exhausted but accomplished, thankful that we had all the paperwork in hand and could just focus on getting on our flights.

Almost the moment we got in the Uber, we received an email that our Boston – JFK flight was delayed by an hour. It’s only a 1 hour flight, and we had 1 hour to make our connection in JFK so we’d already been fucked by American without even getting to the airport yet. Again – no explanation, just ‘your flight is delayed, whatevs!’.

After getting to the airport and checking in, we got some food to refuel ourselves and found our gate, hoping that one of the gate agents would have some good news. She told us in a matter-of-fact way that we’d been rebooked on other flights – naturally, we had no correspondence of any sort from the airline to tell us this – and would now be flying Boston – Philadelphia, then on to Barcelona. It was unexpected and annoying that this had apparently happened with zero communication from the airline (had we not asked, we’d have just gone to JFK and had to sort it out there), but at least we had a backup plan.

Lunch at Logan
Lunch at Logan; Burger for Him, Clam Chowder for Her, Meatballs for Sharing

The flight to Philly was uneventful, other than us both very self consciously coughing and sneezing and being worried that everybody would think that we had Covid. Naturally we kept our masks on despite the recently reversed mask mandate.

Once we arrived in Philly I pulled up a seat map of our flight, and discovered that our expensive Premium Economy seats were no more. We spoke with two gate agents, ultimately being told ‘you get what you get’. In this case, what we got was being sat way back in the plane and not even seated together, with a vague promise that we’d be partially refunded within 20 days, but no written guarantee.

Luckily some people didn’t make the flight, so we relocated to a free 3-seat middle row (just the 2 of us) and I got to experience a Boeing 787 American Style. What that means is that they reduced the width of the seats to cram in a whole extra row. Stands to reason, this being an American carrier, that the paying consumer of the product gets the most unpleasant experience they can get away with. Whoever says Customer is King in America has never actually lived in America, because I swear you get shafted at every available opportunity in some way.
Weirdly, the seats were also shorter than the equivalents on something like a Virgin Atlantic plane, so the whole thing felt like sitting on a bus for 7 hours.

The flight attendants themselves were wonderful – very friendly and attentive – but I’d rather have a comfy seat and an impassive cabin staff than feel like someone’s trying to cheer me up to distract me from losing the feeling in parts of my body.

We coughed and sneezed and didn’t sleep our way to Spain, where we heaved raspy sighs of relief when our Covid tests and paperwork were all accepted and we found ourselves on the right side of the customs lines.

The Celebrity Constellation from a Taxi
First sight of the Celebrity Constellation from our taxi. Yes, that’s the best picture I could get.

After a quick snack at the airport (Iberico ham baguette? YES PLEASE!) we headed to the port and moved to get on the boat. By this point we were really starting to struggle. We hadn’t slept since Monday – it was now Tuesday – and hadn’t eaten much, whilst our sick bodies ravenously sucked up any energy we did consume. At the same time, the booster side effects started to make themselves known. We must have looked terrible as we arrived at the Celebrity Check-in, and there was a momentary panic as my vaccination card (almost identical to AJs) was not automatically accepted.

After a tense 10 minute wait, we were finally waved through and got on the boat. Our luggage wouldn’t be delivered for another few hours but we were dead on our feet, so we went straight to our Stateroom, took showers, and collapsed in bed wearing the complimentary robes. After a few hours we woke to find that we’d left Barcelona already and it was getting dark. Our luggage had arrived, so we unpacked and made ourselves at home, then headed to the Oceanview Cafe for our first buffet visit of the trip.

Getting some food made us feel human again, and we finally relaxed – happy to be on vacation at very long last, but hoping that the illnesses would wear off soon.

I’m skipping ahead here, but our flight ordeal was still not over.

Some days later AJ was chatting to a couple that we’d met at dinner one night (more of that in a later post) and discovered that the port we would be finishing up at wasn’t in Venice at all. They’ve stopped large cruise ships docking in the city (a fair decision to be honest), and we found that the trip from Ravenna (our actual destination) to Venice Marco Polo airport was likely to take over two hours.
We had not budgeted for this, and would 100% miss our flight from Venice to Barcelona.

Both my searches and our Concierge / Guest Services staff searches turned up the same thing – there was no feasible way that we could make a flight that would get us to Barcelona on time.

I had booked the internal flight with Ryanair, and booked up front for speedy boarding and checked bags – all in the efforts to make it as simple as possible – but that flight was now junked. We wouldn’t be getting our money back, but the bigger issue was our main return flight.

Iberia had already emailed us to say ‘your return flight is with BA, find more information on their site!’ There was nothing online to help us, so we applied for a ‘credit voucher’ which would cancel the flight and give us the money to re-book. Of course, once we applied, BA said ‘sorry, you booked this with someone else, talk to them!’

At this point we were at sea, with slow WiFi and no cell reception, so the idea of talking to Iberia’s less-than-helpful “Helpdesk” was a non-starter. Thankfully, we found a workaround.

EasyJet had a flight leaving Venice later in the morning that would take us direct to London Gatwick (there was nothing with any airline that would get us direct to Heathrow). From there, we would be able to take the train to Heathrow and make our main London – Boston flight with time to spare.

We were now essentially writing off two flights, but the alternative was to potentially write off the full return leg to Boston and eat all of that cost, plus paying for a last minute transatlantic flight … so this was definitely the lesser of a multitude of evils.

New flight booked, we got a reserved seat on Celebrity’s airport transfer shuttle, and breathed a sigh of relief. It’ll be another Monday with a very early start (shuttle leaves at 7:30am) but at least – pending any other disasters – we should make our return to Boston in time for dinner.

It’s a week later, and I’m back in Boston, ready to tweak this post and send it off. But I can’t do that without noting that the last paragraph was very much a premature sigh of relief. I’ll leave that for the last post though, as it’s a story all of its own.

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