By Anita Dunham-Potter Travel columnist
updated 10/8/2007 1:40:00 PM ET 2007-10-08T17:40:00

It should have been the ultimate Alaska cruise adventure for Oregon resident Phil Callison. Having previously sailed on two larger ships in Alaska, Callison and his wife were looking for a small-ship cruise that would allow them unique access to Alaska's wild side.

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The couple had heard wonderful things about Cruise West, a well-respected small-ship cruise line that offers soft adventure cruises for travelers who seek up-close-and-personal cruising that is not offered by the traditional larger cruise lines. The line sails nine vessels on unusual itineraries in Alaska, Central America, Mexico and Asia, as well as on the West Coast. When Callison saw Cruise West's Alaska brochure, he was hooked by the vivid images of passengers touching glaciers from inflatable boats that had been launched from the ships. So the couple plopped down $12,000 for an eight-day May voyage aboard Cruise West's vessel the Spirit of Yorktown.

Disappointment from the start
It wasn't long after boarding that disappointment set in. The Callisons' cabin hadn't been cleaned thoroughly and it was "meat-locker" cold. "We had no control over the room temperature," Callison reports. "When I asked about the problem, I was informed that it was being worked on."

The Callisons' first night was spent in a frosty cabin, and as they settled into bed, Phil Callison nearly cut his foot on the sharp edge of a broken bed support. The Callisons reported these issues to ship's personnel, who again assured them that everything would be taken care of.

"The crew was extremely friendly with their willingness to provide the best service they could," notes Callison.

Then came the big disappointment: There would be no inflatable boat launches from their ship.

"[Cruise West's] literature boasts the use of portable boats to get in close and even has pictures showing people touching ice," Callison says. "The Yorktown never launched inflatable boats to take passengers anywhere. We had been looking forward to that aspect for months."

The Callisons were upset, especially when they saw that some of the larger cruise ships in the area were able to get closer to glaciers than the Yorktown. They were also disappointed with some of the excursions, which they thought were "rushed" and not what they expected.

The topper came two days before the cruise ended, when the Callisons were at last told they could have had a portable heater.

"Why did they take so long to let us know that?" asks an angry Phil Callison.

When he got home, Callison wrote a letter to Cruise West's president and owner, Richard G. West, and a few weeks later he got a personal reply. West apologized for the problems and promised to look into them.

Sure enough, a month later, the Callisons received a letter from Kier Matthews, guest relations manager for Cruise West, offering another apology and reaffirming that the cruise line has worked out the issues aboard the Yorktown. Matthews then offered the Callisons $150 each in credit toward a future cruise should they cruise again with Cruise West.

Phil Callison thought $300 was insufficient compensation considering the price of the cruise. "We had great expectations considering the price we paid. We spent over $12,000 on this one eight-day cruise! That's enough for at least two of the large-ship cruises!"

He contacted Tripso to see if more could be done.

The problem with great expectations
In an industry that sells adventure, dreams and romance, glossy brochures can raise some very high expectations. Clearly, the Callisons' trip to Alaska didn't live up to what they expected from Cruise West's brochure. Were their expectations reasonable? Could Cruise West have done more?

I contacted Cruise West on the Callisons' behalf and spoke with Jerrol Golden, director of public relations. Golden explained that Cruise West has taken steps to correct the lapses in quality and service that the Callisons experienced in May.

"While we regret that the Callisons were not informed sooner of the availability of a heater for their cabin, they were provided with one prior to the end of the cruise," she said. "We assure you we are not proud of the service they experienced and have worked to make sure our future guests do not have a similar experience."

As for the inflatable boat excursions, Golden says: "Not all our Alaska itineraries include inflatable boat opportunities and we apologize if Phil Callison felt misled by our marketing materials. Inflatable boat opportunities direct from the ship are available on the 'Coastal Odyssey,' 'Voyage to the Bering Sea' and 'Wilderness Inside Passage' itineraries."

The Callisons took all the right steps by trying to deal with each of the issues as they arose during the cruise and by writing a formal complaint to the cruise line when they got home. But they might have had a more satisfactory cruise had they looked more objectively at the brochure before they booked the cruise — and if they had read the fine print. The best way to avoid this kind of disappointment is to have an in-depth discussion with the cruise line, or your own travel agent, about the particular itinerary you are considering.

As for the service issues the Callisons experienced, I am not surprised.

As a cruise columnist who covers every type of cruise, I will say this: The service aboard American-crewed ships is much different from the service on cruises with international crews. While I have found American crews to be friendlier than their international counterparts, the service is not nearly as polished or accommodating. This can be a major disappointment for those cruising with an American crew for the first time. My best advice is to adjust your expectations when traveling on an American-crewed ship. Don't expect formal service; expect a laid-back, resort-type atmosphere.

I commend Cruise West for its response to the Callisons' formal complaint. It's not often that cruise travelers receive a letter of personal apology from the president of a cruise line. Cruise West appears truly sorry for the problems the Callisons experienced and has assured them that similar issues never occur. Still, I believe the Callisons deserve more than $300 in compensation just for having to endure five nights in a cold cabin, and I hope Cruise West reconsiders its offer.

Phil Callison says that with some changes to the Alaska brochures and some tweaking to the actual cruise experience, Cruise West could offer one of the "best and honest experiences available." But for now, he's sticking with the big ships.

Sound off! Do you have a comment, an idea, a complaint or a problem for Anita to solve? Send her an e-mail and you might find yourself in her next column.

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