Celestyal Cruises: Cuban Authentic Experience Review
Daniel and I went on the Cuban Authentic Experience with Celestyal Cruise Lines in December 2017. A cruise dedicated to the education of teaching about Cuban history and culture. The cruise ship was called Celestyal Crystal. Built in 1980, the ship is 37 years old and has had different owners and names over the years.
The education about Cuba and Cubans extends beyond the country of Cuba as you circle the entire country over 7 days. The entertainment on board is from Cuba. It’s not entertainers trying to pretend to be Cuban. From the band to the singers and dancers.
Throughout the cruise there are lectures to learn even more about Cuba. While stopped in a location, the tours are geared to education. From history, cultural and enjoying live music.
USA Citizens can board the ship and tour Cuba through the program as it’s educational based. In fact, most of the cruisers on board are American. USA Citizens are given a certificate of education completion at the end of the cruise where they keep it on file for 5 years after their experience.
Boarding the Cruise Ship
The cruise ship has two boarding and unloading locations. Cruisers can board in Havana Cuba or Montego Bay in Jamaica. Midway through the cruise, you see a mass exodus of passengers get off with new cruisers getting on. As you get on, there are cruisers half way through the cruise as you begin your week with them. We boarded in Havana, Cuba.
The ship holds 1200 passengers at capacity.
Upon boarding, we wandered without running into any guests. We went to customer service to ask where everyone was. They said it would be a quiet cruise. The first half of our cruise, we had approximately 300 passengers on board with us. The ship was 1/4 full. On the second half of our cruise when over 200 passengers got off, it was replaced by 70 cruisers. For the second half, we had only 140 passengers on board. It was only 11% full. The second half our cruise, it was a definite ghost ship generally. It was truly a financial tragedy for Celestyal Cruise Lines.
With President Obama re-opening the talks with Cuba, Americans were really excited and the ship was well attended. With President Trump over turning the ease of Cuba with Americans, there was fear instilled for Americans to travel to Cuba. It caused a mass exodus of cancellations on the cruise line by guests. The quietness of the cruise started 4 weeks prior to us going as everyone in our time frame was able to cancel the cruise without penalties. Though it’s still legal to cruise in Cuba under the same educational program, there is fear of traveling to Cuba from an American point of view. This is greatly impacting this cruise line. It’s a real shame for Cuban Tourism over all.
Our expenses were in check. The cruise tickets included the drink package and 3 excursions. Normally, this would be extra costs for us. The only expense we had was the internet package. We got a package for $30 USD for 600 minutes of time. Never have seen internet so cheap on board. Daniel also got a haircut for $25 on board. So our costs at the end of the week were only $55.
While the cost of the cruise appears to be a high price that some passengers are complaining about. They are forgetting that the excursions generally are about $100 + each person. So for us, that’s about $600. The drink package is generally $400 per person for a week, so that’s about $800.
Cruise tickets were $2,000 each but if you remove off the extras that were in the ticket, it works out to about $1300 per person. About $285 / Day which includes your cabin, meals, adult drinks, entertainment and excursions. So Celestyal is doing it right. Allowing us to have everything worked into a price that can be budgeted without worry of over spending on the ship. It’s easy in the large cruise ships to start buying excursions and extras on the ship and you don’t really know how much you are spending until the last day when the bill at the cabin door can surprise you in a negative way.
Other than airfare and taxis to and from the terminal, costs were easy to control. We tipped generally $15 USD per tour which is our typical tipping rate. We justify the amount that the tour guide picked us up at the terminal, educated us for the day and returned us back to the ship safe and sound.
Difference of Upselling
There was a significant difference between Celestyal and other major Cruise Lines we have been on.
There is no in-your-face upselling throughout the cruise. No announcements interrupting your day with bingo, photo taking, sales at the gift shop and typical announcements on a large cruise ship.
It’s the ideal relaxing cruise without pressure of spending more money. So it really helps you keep your budget in check.
Having said that… it doesn’t occur to you or there is no incentive to rebook another cruise with them. So maybe that’s where the difference is in the major cruise lines. You are excited and put a deposit on a future cruise and decide the dates later.
Entertainment & Cruise Director
The entertainment throughout the cruise was excellent. With shows each evening at 9 pm with exception to having 1 night off. Each evening, there was a theme where the singers and choreography matched. Some acrobatic acts worked into the performances. As I mentioned, the entertainment is from Cuba, the voices, tone and passion were clearly visible. The live band played long in traditional instruments. Absolutely love.
Danny, the Cruise Director is best director I have ever seen on a cruise ship. Most engaging person I have ever seen in that position. He was speaking 4 languages as if each was his natural tongue. I have never seen anyone switch between languages with easy and without struggle as him. It was rumoured he can speak up to 8 languages.
While on board, Danny would be speaking in languages that matched the guests on board. Starting with English, German, French and Spanish. When switching languages, his attention to the language change of saying names of places were authentic. Saying the word Cuba in all of these languages were unique.
I would describe Danny as, “Fully Invested and All In!” He’s a person totally committed to the guest. Energy was phenomenal. I am sure the guy was a dancer in a previous life. He wasn’t just the speaker. He was aware of choreography leading the dancing at the end of the performances. It appears from our perspective he has a great relationship with his fellow crew members.
Cruise Director Danny with Dancers and Guests
Danny is wearing the suit and leading the dancers and guests wanting to learn the dance. He’s fully invested in entertainment. He’s very likeable
Ship is Out Dated
As mentioned, the ship is 37 years old. In some parts, she looks a bit tired needing some over haul. She is going for a make over anyway in Spring 2018. So my pictures will be outdated soon.
I am okay with outdated decor if the service is up to par. The service was excellent that the decor being outdated wasn’t any trouble for me. There are some areas in the upper decks where exterior flooring needs to be replaced but didn’t impact our cruise.
The ship runs smoothly, engine wise and really can maneuver into the smaller parts. She is is about 1/3 the size of a typical cruise ship.
The crew were excellent in customer service throughout the ship. From the servers, customer service, food services, janitorial and entertainment staff.
Unfortunately, due to the low amount of cruisers on board, many of the servers were stationed in public areas required to stand for the duration even though there was no or few passengers using the space. I am sure the sheer boredom of these people. They ask you if you need anything every so often to fill in their time. I think for some of these staff, they could have used a time out with skeleton crew in areas of the ship not needing full attention to customer service.
At times, I was on the only one sitting in major areas and there was a staff of 1 – 3 servers with bar tending on duty. I felt so sorry for the crew for this cruise.
While the attendance was really low, service on the ship was impeccable and crew still continued to smile and be engaging. They didn’t let the quietness of the ship deter them from giving guests the best time.
The picture with the tables in the solarium pool deck. The ship has everyone on board. It was that quiet as the guests are spread throughout the ship.
Worked into our cruise ticket were 3 exclusive tours. Each were pre-decided by Celestyal as part of the education of Cuba. Each included a walking tour and coach bus city tour.
All of the tour guides were very knowledgeable and engaging. The bus drivers drove safely through the streets of each city.
We loved the tours but wish one of them was re-structured better. Cienfuegos tour had our bus separated between French and English passengers. The tour guide spoke both languages but the talking part of the tour was twice as long as you wait for your language come up to know what is happening. It’s not her fault as the bus was shared. However, it was almost impossible to follow along as you are waiting for your language to be spoken in the busy streets of the city. It was impossible to have continuity to the story and history telling. She did the best we can.
There was only about 16 of us that was dedicated to English Speaking International Guests. The Americans were kept separate from international guests on the ship for reasons I will share. This included excursions.
Over all, we learned a lot and appreciated the time we had in each city. It was a solid investment.
Americans Kept Separate from International Guests
Americans can travel into Cuba through the Authentic Cuban Tour aka People 2 People Culture Exchange program hosted by Celestyal. So yes, Americans can go to Cuba.
American’s cannot vacation in Cuba due to issues between the USA and Cuba but you are welcome to go as long as you part of the educational programming.
So the international guests, like Daniel and I, can go to Cuba at anytime to vacation. So the Americans are kept separate in ship programming due to the requirement of the program.
The Americans have a more education and see more than International Guests. Their tours are structured about learning more about Cuba and having people to people experiences with Cubans as part of the cultural exchange. In many ways, I think it would have been interesting to see what the Americans saw as the city locations vary between this program and the rest of the guests on the ship.
At the end of the cruise, Americans are given a certification of education completion that they must keep with them for a minimum of 5 years after the cruise. The certificates authenticates they were in Cuba for education purposes which is allowed by the USA Government.
There is still plenty of time to wind down and relax in between the learning. Throughout the cruise there are activities on the ship involving cultural exchange such as music and much more.
For Americans, this is the only way they can see Cuba until the government’s begin to work together to allow Americans to freely travel to Cuba.
The only thing I got caught off guard with was the Cuban Money. I have been to Cuba twice before. Once before the fall of the Soviet Union before Cuba’s economy skidded into the ground. USD was taken as a form of currency.
Upon getting our first Taxi… we didn’t realize that USD were not accepted in Cuba at all. We had Canadian Money and that was also declined. We got to the hotel and the hotel exchanged our money to Cuban Pesos so we could pay the Taxi Driver.
I don’t believe you can change this money before you enter Cuba. There are easy to access Money Exchanges in tourist areas like the Airport and tourist port locations to let you change your money over. So it needs to be a first stop when you get off the plane so you have it with you.
Visa and Mastercard are accepted at the hotels as long as you not American. There is a restriction from accepting credit cards originating out of the USA. So you have to plan ahead to have cash with you.
Fall of the Soviet Union Making USD Illegal to Have in Cuba
When the USA caused the Soviet Union to fall. Cuba’s economy was almost solely dependant on Soviet Union to sustain their trading economy and incoming revenue stream. When the Soviety Union collapsed, it ruined Cuba’s income revenue creating massive unemployment and poverty conditions which remains strong today.
When you see Cuba, you are caught off guard with the conditions most of the buildings. To me, it reminds me of a bomb hitting the cities. It’s years of no money to be able to fix the buildings as they are crumbling. Things become broken and there’s no money repair. Even majestic water fountains are drained and falling apart as it requires power to run the fountains.
Fidel made the USD completely worthless in Cuba after the fall. Making it illegal for citizens of Cuba to hold any USD. Citizens even for a tip will refuse USD as a form of currency.
Stores will not accept credit cards from anyone. So this is a country you need to plan ahead with cash in pocket to visit. You need to budget yourself.
Safety in Cuba
This being my 3rd time, I’ve never had a reason to feel unsafe in Cuba. I know there is a stereo type of Cuba that you are in danger while in the country.
There was one scam that seems to be played by street people that I will share. It happened to us twice. A street person will feel generous and offering you a coin. DO NOT ACCEPT IT, it’s the gateway to what happens next if you accept it. Daniel and I were approached with the same scam in two different cities. We walked away both times. We didn’t know why we were being offered money. So it sounded too good to be true. We later asked why this is happening.
The Cuban coins looks very similar to each other. The goal is to give you a coin. Once you are given a coin. You will be asked to change other coins to different denominations. The transaction is intended to get you confused and before you know it… you will be exchanging your own money to make change that is more than you were given. Essentially, you will end up making change leaving you short.
Like any city we have ever been in. You will be asked for money. Unlike places like Florence, Rome and Barcelona, we were never warned about pick pocketing. I have felt more uneasy in other countries than I have in Cuba.
Cuba has a severe penalty for locals interfering with tourists. I’m not saying crime doesn’t exist but if a tourist claims a local has overstepped, the consequences are significant for the local.
Firearms are illegal to possess in Cuba. There is a 100% ban on guns. The only exception to the rules are the officials and enforcement. Cubans found with guns is immediate prison time. Not saying people don’t have illegal guns, the consequences of being caught with a gun is instant prison.
Tourism in Cuba
I initially booked this adventure knowing the Cuba was going to open up to the USA through President Obama. After we had booked, President Trump made some statements and reversed the idea of talks to opening up Cuba to the USA. As mentioned, it caused a significant drop in cruise attendance.
I had this notion through visiting before, opening up tourism opportunity to the USA would be a bad thing as commercialism and capitalism ideology would ruin the balance of Cuba. My thought process was wrong and I saw it first hand.
Cuba’s trade is cut off from the USA and vice versa. Cuba cannot import anything in that Cubans need that may be readily available through the USA. It has to be other countries. Many countries are assisting Cuba such as Canada, South Korea, China and others. When the Soviet Union fell, it left Cuba crippled without an economy to run the country. The good days were replaced by poverty conditions with millions.
Tourism is one of the largest income revenues they have but it’s limited due to the relationship between the USA and Cuba. After seeing the cities falling apart and meeting a few people, you realize they need the tourism to revive the cities with tourism to restore Cuba.
Traveling on an air conditioned coach bus through the streets and seeing the buses the locals ride. Almost cattle truck like vehicles. It’s just shocking.
So the best thing to hep Cuba is to make Cuba your travel destination for a resort or even vacation like I just had. Money feeding the tourism helps Cuba rebuild.
The other times I went to Cuba, I had stayed in a resort. From airport direct to the resort where I enjoyed the in-resort entertainment. You don’t get a sense of the cities in doing the remote resorts I have been to. This adventure was very different.
You are in among the locals in the city, experiencing and seeing the realities of Cuba. It’s a very different and eye opening.
We left with more questions than we had when we landed in Cuba. It’s thought provoking. You end up with questions about socialism, communism, community, culture and you want to be able to solve the issues they face with quick answers. I found the cities to be like onions. You peel back the obvious and find other layers of obstacles and questions to solve. There are no easy solutions.
We like to think democracy is the easy solution but here in Canada and USA, democracy also creates classes of citizens and creates divisive communities too. So ideologically, it seems to make sense to have democracy but like any system, there are pros an cons.
I am super glad I went. I have so much more appreciation for the issues of Cuba. I got to know their history through the locals and the opportunities to see things with my own two eyes. The ship is designed to educate with limited programming. I would most likely never return to Cuba in the same manner of this cruise. However, now that I have seen Cuba, I can zero in on what I want to learn more and knowing where to stay next.
I believe this is just a one week cruise opportunity. Knowing the numbers of passengers now attending on this ship due to recent political issues. Now is the time to score a deal. I’m unsure if they will continue to cruise Cuba in the future if they cannot fill a decent portion of the ship with cruisers. So I think now if the right time to visit if you are inclined to do so.
Booking This Cruise
We booked our cruise through our Cruise Planner that handles our Crochet Cruises. You can visit Sherry’s Website. Cruise Planners. You will need to contact her directly to inquire about this specialty cruise.
Cruise Planners, being American, cannot book a pre-hotel in Cuba. So you will have to do that on your own and can easily google that. Knowing the itinerary of this cruise line, you don’t really need to go in a day before the cruise. You can fly directly to Cuba and get on the ship same day. The ship departs late in evenings giving you plenty of travel time.
Sherry has also booked other clients on Celestyal Cruises for the Greek Islands as they are based out of Greece.