Not All Vacations Can Be Winners: Sandals 2016

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We didn’t enjoy our trip to Sandals…but at least the drinks were strong

Updated 2/16/2016 3:53 PM: Once you’ve read this, make sure to check out my next post in which Sandals tries to bribe me into taking this down.

I am very susceptible to good advertising.

I think that’s why, back when the hubs and I got engaged, I was totally starstruck by the Sandals ads that I kept seeing in bridal mags, on wedding-themed tv shows, and at bridal expos.

No kids allowed, I thought! Suites that come with a butler! Rooms with their own private pools! I mean, it all sounded pretty great. I filed it into the mental list of eventual “must-do vacations.”

A few years down the line, when Southwest rolled out service to Jamaica as part of their new international routes, it seemed like the time was right. We had the Companion Pass, and plenty of Southwest points, meaning we could get our flights to Montego Bay for free.

And while the Sandals properties were pricey — our room ended up costing over $1k a night — they were all-inclusive, promising unparalleled service, and a “perfect” vacation experience. So, for once, I put my points-first approach to travel aside and shelled out actual cash money for a 4-day, 3-night long weekend in Montego Bay at the Sandals Royal Caribbean.

We were literally SO excited. We filled out our butler info and our online check in forms and sent them off well in advance. We called and verified amenities and arrival times over the phone the week before. We prepared a trip itinerary with requested daily activities and restaurants for our Butler, anticipating this would be one of the best trips we’d ever taken.  Finally, we boarded the plane for Jamaica, and from that moment on…

…we were so let down. It was probably the worst vacation experience we’ve ever had.

This blog is long, mainly because I needed the catharsis of writing everything that went wrong down somewhere.  If you’re interested in the play by play, click “Read More” to keep going below the jump.  Otherwise, just know that Sandals is definitely on my “do not recommend” list.

DAY ONE

The trouble started at the airport, as soon as we encountered the Sandals reps. “Put your luggage here,” they said. “The bus will be ready in 15 minutes.”

So we left our luggage where the attendant told us, they marked it with color-coded tags with all our information, and we went to get a Red Stripe at the small but nicely appointed Sandals arrivals lounge.  Sure enough, about 15 minutes later, we were told the bus was ready, and to follow a porter out to the bus.

But when we got to the bus, the porter informed us that he wasn’t with Sandals, despite a Sandals rep telling us to follow him, and that we now owed him a tip. Seeing as how Sandals has a no-tipping policy in place, we were unprepared for this, and had no small bills on hand.  The porter got up in my husband’s face, yelling at him, while we apologize profusely and got on the bus. Not an ideal start to the trip, but we tried to put it behind us as we headed towards the resort.

When the bus dropped us at Sandals, a worker greeted us with cool towels and told us to leave our luggage where it was. Someone would bring it to our room shortly. Along with our fellow guests, we began to queue for the reception desk, but now I was confused – I knew from when I called to confirm our arrival time that our butler was supposed to meet us and lead us to a private check-in in our suite. I asked the towel-girl where we should go if we’re suite guests, and she directed me to a small office space away from the main check-in area

We went in and the people inside the office seemed just as confused as we were.  Instead of being welcomed warmly, offering snacks, we got an annoyed “ummm…can we help you?” It was clear that they weren’t set up to check people in there — it seemed instead to be an event sales office with a couple extra couches. But we explained that we were suite guests and were told to come in here, and they radioed off to find our missing butler.

Fifteen minutes later, our butler arrived, but told us our room wasn’t ready because we had showed up “earlier than expected”.  How we were a surprise when they had both our flight info and our check-in with the woman at the airport is still a mystery to me.  But the butler said she would go get our room ready for us, and in the meantime, could we please check in via a tablet and continue sitting in the sales office.  Umm…sure.  We stayed put, intruding on the sales team’s space, until our butler returned back another 15 minutes later.

At this point, she offered us a tour of the property, which we accepted, despite the fact that it had started to rain. We saw other butlers running over to their guests to offer them umbrellas, but we didn’t get one. Instead, we got halfway through the damp tour, until our butler bumped into another butler she knew.  She asked for our keys and phone. (They give all butler-suite guests a cell phone where they can reach their team of butlers at any time.)  But this other butler didn’t have them either, and our butler couldn’t get us into our room because she didn’t have the keys.

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Our first cocktail on property, as we wait for our butler to figure out her job.

We offered that, since it’s raining and this is awkward, we can just sit at the bar while she goes to sort it out, and despite the fact that we’re still in jeans and travel clothes in the 80+ degrees and wicked humidity, we settle in for 25 more minutes at the bar while our butler tries to track down our room key and butler phone. Two drinks later, she finally returned and we were able to go to our suite.

In the suite, the butler began by explaining our amenities.  We handed her the itinerary we’d prepared and asked that she make a copy and return it to us, as it had our flight information and other confirmation numbers on it. It detailed what activities we wished to do each day (sit by the pool, island cabana, scuba, etc.) and which restaurants/dining times we’d prefer each night. As our butler, it was her job to arrange these activities for us, and we assumed by writing it all down, we’d be making her life easier.

As the butler began to wrap up her spiel, we asked about the butler phone – but she still didn’t have it, apparently. We also asked when our luggage would be delivered so that we could change clothes. “Any minute now,” she stated.  And then she was off, and we wouldn’t hear from her again for the rest of the afternoon.

With time to kill, we made ourselves a drink and waited out on our balcony for the luggage to arrive.  And we waited. And waited.  And finally, two hours after our initial arrival at the resort, or an hour after we’d gotten into our room, we called down to the bell station to ask about our luggage.  “It’s on its way now,” we were told. So we waited, and waited some more. Until we finally called down again. “Any minute!” they said.  Finally, after another hour had passed, our luggage arrived.  We were informed that the woman at the airport had mis-coded the bag tags, and that’s why it took so long.

Finally, we were able to change into beach attire and walk around the resort a bit. The facilities are nice, well-maintained, though they allow far too many local “vendors” (read: hustlers) on to the property to try to sell you cheap trinkets and/or weed. After walking around for a while, it was nearly time for our first dinner, so we returned to the room to change, expecting to find our butler phone or at least a note confirming our dinner reservation somewhere in the suite.

There was nothing, though. So we called down to the front desk to ask about it. “Oh, you’re butler suite guests? ” they asked. “You should just use your butler phone. We can’t help if you have a butler.” We explain that we don’t have a butler phone, and the front desk says they’ll try to track our butler down. A little while later, we get a call saying that our butler will meet us at the restaurant at 6:30, the time we requested. She does, and we’re finally given the butler phone, thus completing the “check-in” process that started 4.5 hours earlier.

Dinner (at Elanor’s Caribbean Cuisine) was acceptable, if not anything special.  Throughout the week, we noted that just about all the food at the resort (excepting the excellent lunch cookout on the island) was bland, over-salted, over-sauced, and over-cooked. But it was fine; no one really goes to an all-inclusive resort expecting five-star cuisine.

The one real turn off at dinner was the wine service.  When we sat down, we were asked if we’d like any wine, but then told that they only served wine by the bottle, which was at an upcharge.  We asked if there were any wines by the glass, like in the bars, and told no, not in the restaurants.  Then a different waiter came over and asked us if we’d like anything from the bar, and we asked if we could have a glass of wine. Sure – no problem – and no upcharge, either. After we’d finished our first glass, the original waiter came back and tried to tell us again that no, wine was only available at an extra charge.  I just love when people point blank lie to my face like that.

We left dinner and decided to switch into swimming suits. We went to the hot tub, and requested a bottle of champagne via the butler phone.  It was brought to us, and we were pleased that for the first time all day, the butler actually got something right. She let us know that she’d picked up our breakfast order for the next day, and would see us in the morning

Day one ended on a slightly hopeful note that maybe with that all the check-in annoyances behind us, things were set to improve.

DAY TWO

Friday morning, we awoke well-rested from the very comfortable bed, and because we unexpectedly got to sleep in. It was unexpected because all scuba, snorkeling, and water activities had been cancelled for the day, so there was no reason for us to pop up early anymore.

That evening, we would talk to other guests that had been there more than a week – they told us that these activities are cancelled more often than not, even when the weather appears fine. As we’re only staying for three nights, this day was the hubby’s only opportunity to scuba (as you can’t scuba within 24 hours of flying). So much for this much promoted”all-inclusive” benefit of our vacation, we thought.

At ten minutes to nine, we got a call from room service. They didn’t understand our room service breakfast order (which was French Toast, and the “American Breakfast” but with toast instead of eggs, and a pot of coffee.)  The hubby spoke to them – explaining that we don’t want eggs, but toast instead. “French toast instead?” they ask. The hubby explained we want French toast, and we also want the American breakfast with toast. The order was delivered to the door 15 minutes or so later, but was just French toast and plain toast.  All the rest of the things on the American breakfast – the bacon, ham, hashbrowns, etc, were missing.

We inquired with room service and they told us “you said no eggs.” Umm….yeah. But, ok, understandable mix-up, and we used the butler phone to call down to the butler asking for a breakfast sandwich listed on the butler suite room service menu instead.

As we called, we were surprised to hear the same butler answer (groggily) that had been on duty last night.  The butlers are supposed to rotate shifts every 12 hours.  But one of ours was MIA, and so our original butler that we met at check-in yesterday ended up being on call for 48 hours straight.  Poor gal.

We told the butler about the missing breakfast and requested the breakfast sandwich be brought up instead.  She arrived with it 40 minutes later, long after hubby had finished his French Toast.  At this time, the butler also asked what we’d like to do that day instead of scuba.  We said that we’d like to go down to the pool in a bit, and she instructed us to call her when we’re about to head down so that she can set up chairs and towels for us poolside.

After breakfast, we got ready to head down to the pool, and just before we left the room, we called the butler phone again. No answer this time. So we left a message that we were heading to the pool, and could she please set up our chairs?  Also, as we anticipated being at the pool for several hours, could she please have housekeeping come during this time?

Unfortunately, once we got down to the pool, it was immediately clear there were no chairs set up for us.  We asked the pool attendants about having some set up, and were told that our butler should be here to do that shortly.  So we waited, standing around for 15 minutes or so, before finally just stealing our own towels when the attendants weren’t looking, and claiming a few chairs that are supposed to be for the non-butler suite guests. We got in the pool and hit up the swim-up bar for around an hour and a half before getting a bit chilly and heading over to the hot tub by our room to warm up.

Around that time, the butler phone rang.  Our butler heard we had been looking for her at the pool.  We told her that, no, by that point, we had already left the pool and were over at the hot tub. She didn’t ask if we needed towels or chairs over there, just says in typical Jamaican fashion,”no problem”.  She then asked if it would be ok to switch our dinner locations – we had requested the Thai restaurant at 6:30 for that night, but it was full, she said, so would we mind doing the French restaurant at 7:30 that evening and the Thai restaurant the next day.  “No problem” we replied.

Another 30 minutes or so went by, and we popped back up to our room, hoping that housekeeping had been by as we requested.  But they hadn’t. So we called our butler again, letting her know we’d be heading down to lunch and would really like our room serviced while we ate. She said she’d send housekeeping up. We went to lunch, then the bar, then walked around for a bit. Around 2pm we returned to the room and sighed —it still wasn’t made up.

By now, my cool-as-a-cucumber hubby was getting pretty ticked off. We were paying nearly double what non-butler suite guests pay, for a service that was proving more of hassle than a benefit. He pointed out that even small requests (like when I had asked for extra hair conditioner when we checked in, how he had requested bourbon in the mini-bar on the pre-arrival request form, and how I had requested my printed itinerary back but had not received it) were also all going unhandled. The only thing the butler had done right so far was bring us champagne in the hot tub when asked the previous evening. He convinced me it would be better to go and talk to a manager while something could still be done rather than stew in silence, so we left the room and trudged back to the sales office where we originally checked in and asked for a manager.

Someone named Andre (there are like, 50 people named Andre that work at this resort, so no clue if that’s really his name or just the default nametag he grabbed that day…) came over and told us that he was the butler manager. We told him about our difficulties, and he took a few notes and asked that we give them a chance to make it right. The sales staff all acted super surprised when we mentioned that our second butler had never shown up – and I immediately felt bad for finking out my butler team, until the hubby reminded me that we were paying over a grand a night for this service, and there should be nothing “fink-worthy” going down in the first place.

With that burden off our chests, we went to the bar for a bit, and soon got another call from our butler.  She sounds irritable now, like she was aware that we’d complained. “The Thai restaurant is available after all,” she told us, and asked if we’d like to switch back to the original restaurant order we’d requested.  “Sure,” we said.  She also asks about our request for a cabana the next day; would we like it the whole day or only half day? We asked for it for the afternoon, 12-5pm, and agreed to pay the upcharge for the cabana.

Around 5, we headed back to our room to see that it had finally been cleaned, bourbon had been placed in the mini bar, and it seemed like someone has at least *tried* (unsuccessfully, though) to attend to the horrible, horrible water pressure situation in the shower. (It was like showering in a water fountain.) Still, we were cheered by at least some improvement and held out hope that things would get better from here.

We proceeded to get ready for dinner and called the butler just to confirm the time and when we needed to be on the shuttle, as the Thai restaurant is over on the resort’s private island. We just needed a time.

But instead the butler started to argue with us. “No, don’t you remember?” she asked “I switched your restaurant back to the Thai restaurant tonight. I called you about it.  You said it was ok.”  We told her yes, it was ok, and that we just needed the time. She continued to argue, “I thought you knew the Thai restaurant was on the island.  You have to be at the boat 10-20 minutes ahead of time.” We told her yes, that’s fine, we just needed to know the time. “7 o’clock,” she spits.  Unsure why she couldn’t tell us that from the start, we headed over for another bland dinner at 7pm.  We noted that the restaurant (which the butler had originally told us was “full” for that evening) was well over half empty.

After dinner, we went to the piano bar, the more upscale of the two night-time bars on the property. The hubby asked the bartender for an Old Fashioned. The bartender poured some rye in a glass, then left the bar altogether, for a good 10-15 minutes. When he finally returned, he looked surprised to see us still standing there, then said “oh yeah, we can’t make classic cocktails, we don’t have any bitters.”  Unsure why he couldn’t have told us that from the start, the hubby asked for a vodka soda with lime instead.  “This bar’s out of limes,” the bartender told us. Le sigh.

We gave up and went to the Cricketers Pub for a beer instead.  Cricketers, at least, was fun and lively with a fantastic and personable bartender.  We wound up night two here, making new friends.

DAY THREE

After a late night in the pub and the breakfast mix-up from the previous day, we decided we’d prefer to just sleep in, and didn’t put out the breakfast room service form, planning instead to just go to the breakfast buffet instead. So we were surprised when, at 7:30am, our butler phone started ringing.

“I wanted to confirm you’re going to the island cabana today,” the butler stated.  “From noon – 5”.  Unsure why when we had already confirmed this the previous day, this matter required a 7:30am wake up call, I agreed that yes, that was what we wanted then tried to get back to sleep.

This interruption was followed by a second one around 9am.  Someone from housekeeping was there to “take away our breakfast tray”.  We explained that we didn’t order breakfast that morning, so there wasn’t one to take away.  The worker argued with us about it, like we had somehow forgotten that we’d eaten breakfast, before finally leaving. By now, I was awake. There was no going back to bed at this point.

After that, the hubby and I got dressed and went to the breakfast buffet, and were pleased to see that it looked like we’d finally get a nice, sunny day with great weather. After a leisurely breakfast, we went over to the water sports hut to ask about borrowing flippers, so that we could snorkel while we were over on the private island.  But, we got turned down.  They only rent out snorkel equipment to those going on up-charge tours, we’re told. We can’t have any flippers just to take to the island, despite also paying an upcharge for the cabana. Disappointed again, we walked back to the room.

When we reached to the room, we were surprised to see that housekeeping was actually just finishing up, since it took them so long to get to us the previous day.  While this was a happy surprise, we weren’t thrilled that the maid allowed us to go into our room without checking our room key first, as she had no idea if we were the correct guests or that we were actually supposed to be in there at all. But, no harm, no foul, apparently.

Next, we gathered up our beach bag of sunscreen, snorkel gear, and selfie stick and headed over to the dock to wait for the shuttle to the private island. We got to the dock about 11:45a and got on the 11:55a boat. Around this time, our butler phone started going off again. We were apparently supposed to have waited for our butler to escort us to the shuttle, but no one had mentioned that to us, and we didn’t really see the point of it in the first place. Oh well.

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The private island cabana day was the only redeeming part of our experience.

However, upon arriving at the island we met DeWayne, and the best part of our vacation began.  He was the “cabana butler” and would replace our “room butler” while we were on the island. He took us to our beach bed, which came with suncreen, a cooler of drinks, two loungers, etc., and took great care of us during the day. We snorkeled all over the island, which was unnecessarily difficult without flippers, but we still managed to see two puffer fish, several lion fish, a barracuda, and some lobsters. We also ate by far the best meal of the trip, freshly-grilled jerk chicken and other traditional Jamaican foods. This is how the whole trip should have been, and I was super-sad at 5pm when we had to head back to our room.

When we got to the room, the butler had done it up in rose petals and towel animals, but really we just wanted a shower. The butler had also drawn us a bath, which was a nice gesture, but it had also used all the hot water. We took cold showers and got dressed for dinner.

Steeling ourselves for another unpleasant phone call with our butler, we phoned to ask where and when our dinner would be that evening. And lo and behold, our second butler had finally surfaced and answered the call. Our reservation was at 7:30pm at the French Restaurant, he told us. Again, they’d finally gotten something right!

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The Cricketers – where you go to drink in frustration that your butler sucks.

We went for a pre-dinner drink in Cricketers before heading to the restaurant, only to be told that because there had been a brief 5-minute rain shower an hour ago, they’d moved that night’s dinner (usually in a courtyard) into the drab, window-less corporate meeting room instead. The tables were jam packed to the point you could easily overhear all your neighbors’ dinner conversations, and the tablecloths hadn’t been replaced since the rainshower and were grey-speckled with rain. They even still had the projector screen pulled down for some reason. We ate the bland food and hurried back to our preferred bar for a bit, before hitting up the hot tub for our final night on the island.

The butler, on a chore from someone else, ran into us at one point and got us drink refills. We eventually ended up turning in early, but not before requesting room service breakfast once again, for the following day.

DAY FOUR

Our final day on the island kicked off with our room service delivery at 9am.  Except instead of the 2 danish, bacon, and coffee we’d requested, we received coffee and a fruit plate. Not even caring enough to argue at this point, we drank our coffee and began packing our things. The butler is supposed to pack for you, but we were so turned off by the whole service at this point, we opted to just do it ourselves.

A bit later we got a call from our butler telling us that our shuttle back to the airport would be at 12:45. We thanked him for the info, and then headed down to the French restaurant for a replacement breakfast. Our final adieu to the bland resort food was also punctuated by bad service, and at this point, we basically were just laughing.  How much more horrible could this place be? It had become wholly comical.

After breakfast, we headed back to our room and got a call from the butler.  Someone was going to call our room phone in a few minutes, so please answer it, he told us.  Okkkkk. Having no idea why, we waited for the call. One of the hotel managers finally called and told us she’d heard we’d been unhappy and complained on Saturday.  She wanted to meet with us before we left. She came to our room, and asked us to recount our bad experience, which we did. But what was even more infuriating is that she had no record or details on the earlier complaint we’d made to the alleged “butler manager”.  How many times do you have to tell the story before someone does something about it?!

Honestly, it kind of riled us up having to yet again re-live all that had gone wrong on this vacation. She asked if there was anything she could do at this point to make it better. We said we just wanted to sit on our balcony, watching the waves roll in until it was time to get on the bus. “Unfortuantely,” she informed us. “We need you to vacate this room right away so that they can clean it for the next guests.”

We sighed and trudged down in our travel clothes to the hot beach bar, to wait for the bus there. Except the bar was flooded, and they had a maintenance man trying to deal with it. With no other bars open, and not wanting to get wet at the pool bar, we just asked for water bottles and went to go sit in the lobby area for the next hour instead.

The hotel manager came back around at some point and apologized again, then said she would be emailing us a “free one night stay” certificate the next day that we could use at any Sandals resort in the future. We basically told her “thanks, but no thanks. We would DEFINITELY never be coming to a Sandals resort ever again.” Not to mention, when a whole $3k vacation has basically been crap, a 1-night voucher is more of an insult than an apology. As it turns out, it didn’t matter anyways, as we haven’t recevied any emails as they assured us we would.  More empty promises from a horrible company.

With that, we loaded onto the bus, and headed back to the airport. Our long weekend was just about over, and instead of coming out of it relaxed and invigorated, we felt suckered and aggravated.

With all that being said, I was with my love, and so we still managed to find the bright spots. But if you’ve ever considered a Sandals resort, I would REALLY warn against it.  The experience was so off-putting, it was literally the worst vacation experience either of us have ever had (and the hubby’s had some pretty harrowing experiences from when he traveled around Asia…)

Next time we want a splurge, we’ll stick with the St. Regis’s and Four Seasons of the world. You get what you pay for…except in the case of Sandals, where you get a whole lot less.

Lesson learned.

Update 2/16/2016 3:53 PM: See Sandals incredibly insulting response to this whole incident, here

Whitney