Hands-On Review: The Carnival HUB Onboard App
There is a very polarizing evolution going on within the cruise industry. As the ships get bigger and bigger and the profits keep going up, a philosophical conundrum is brewing.
How do we quench the public’s thirst for technology without ruining the “get away from the chaos” vibe that has fueled the industry’s growth. How much connected is just right?
Carnival Cruise Line has created a very strong contender to solve that question. The cruise line has already been proactive in strengthening onboard Internet capabilities for passengers, creating tiers of connectivity packages, offering social media access for $5 per day right through a premium package for $99 for a seven-night cruise that gives the cruiser unlimited access to high connection speeds to fully surf the Web.
Carnival has tried to take another step ahead of the competition with the creation of the Carnival HUB app. The tool is downloadable for both Android and IOS-based smartphones and promises to keep passengers updated on ship activities and let them track their spending while onboard.
The Carnival Breeze has been the testing grounds for the technology, with plans to roll out to five additional ships by year’s end and fleetwide by summer 2016.
I recently got the chance to test the app hands on during a Caribbean-bound cruise aboard the Breeze. My family walked away impressed by the usefulness of the app and already clamoring for more features.
HOW TO USE: Perhaps the smartest ability of the HUB app is that you don’t need to buy Internet plans to use it. Just turn your phone to airplane mode and connect to the ship’s intranet via its free wireless connection. The app will count down to your cruise embarkation on land. Once aboard, the real fun begins.
One of the most enjoyed traditions aboard Carnival ships is returning to your cabin after dinner to find a steward-constructed towel animal masterpiece on your bed alongside the next day’s Fun Times, a pamphlet containing a full rundown of the next day’s activities on ship.
The daily brochure includes a perforated abbreviated edition that provides a mobile pocket-sized schedule of such activities as trivia contests, comedy shows and pool activities, as well as open times for the ships’ many eateries.
If you lost your sheet while out and about the ship, no worries. Replacement Fun Times are located strategically around the vessel.
The HUB app takes that minor hassle out of play. Just log-in and the app not only gives you a rundown for the current day, but gives a rundown of the entire cruise itinerary, broken down by day. It lists ports of call and when passengers must be back on the boat. And you can “favorite” specific activities on the app to create a personalized itinerary for your trip.
My favorite part of this feature was the additional explanation of each activity. Often times, in the staff’s efforts to be clever with activity names, they only have a limited amount of space on paper to describe an activity. So we as passengers are left to guess about specifics, like what is a Carnival Challenge trivia contest all about. Being in the app allows unlimited room for explanation, allowing you to truly pinpoint activities you most want to do.
My family and I found this function to be a game changer, giving us even more freedom to find the stuff we wanted and not end up on an upper deck stuck in an activity that was nothing like we imagined while missing a supersized Jenga game five decks below.
The app also includes deck plans and an overall “Good to Know” section that’s an FAQ for life on the Breeze. And it updates as activities take place, so no need to constantly scroll through a full day of activities.
HUB also features a chat feature, available for a flat fee of $5 per cruise. The chat function allows users to create screen names and chat with family or friends on the app. So let’s say you are on the Lido deck working on your suntan while your friends go to a trivia contest. This allows passengers to instantly connect, as well as compare notes on ship activities. The feature works like any messaging app you’re already using and proved to be very easy to pick up, even for the most tech-challenged among us.
The end result? No more leaving notes on cabin doors or scouring the ship to find your family.
HOW MUCH DID I SPEND?
Carnival ships like the Breeze already have an in-room, on-screen interactive tool where you can check your onboard spending balance and order shore excursions.
The HUB app gives you the ability to constantly track your Sign and Sail account balance from anywhere on the ship, with purchases updated instantly.
This has the potential to not only be convenient but allow you to have more time to focus on your vacation. No more waiting in the epic long lines at Guest Services the last night of the cruise to settle up your account.
BUY YOUR BEVERAGES AND SHARE YOUR PICTURES
The HUB app also gives you the ability to pre-purchase the onboard beverage programs, Cheers! And Bottomless Bubbles. And an especially cool feature was a photo upload feature which allows you to share pics that could end up featured on the ship’s 270-foot big screen at the Seaside Theatre.
This kind of technology is not a new thing. Norwegian has an iConcierge app (which charges for use of more advanced features) and Costa, MSC, Disney and Princess all have on-board apps. And Royal Caribbean has connection speeds that allow for streaming of Netflix, Hulu and other services.
What most impressed me with the HUB app was that Carnival may be a bit late to the game, but they’re making sure they get the tech right. Other apps I’ve used have been very glitchy with early versions. I had zero glitches using any of HUB’s features.
WHAT NEEDS TO BE NEXT
That said, the possibilities are endless with this app to make your cruise even more convenient while at the same time saving the cruise line money on printing costs and extra customer service labor.
One big missing piece is the ability to preview and purchase shore excursions. There has been plenty of times when my family and I finally settle on an excursion plan, then run down to the Shore Excursions desk only to see a closed sign as we missed their office hours by minutes.
Carnival would be smart to be as transparent with reviews as they are on their website – and ultra-fast, as passengers who go to an early-morning dune buggy adventure in Aruba could post instant reviews, sparking passengers to make a last-minute booking for a later dune buggy ride while eating partaking in the brunch buffet.
One other suggestion: the in-room TV tool allows bookings, but only for bookings with no age restrictions – for those, you still need to go the Shore-Ex desk. The app should know your party’s ages and allow for those bookings, as well as showing you how many takers have booked the excursion. Take it a step farther and tell me “6 people have booked in the last 2 hours” to give me a sense of how fast the excursion is filling up. (OK, I know I’m getting very specific on that last one, but a cruiser can dream.)
Carnival reps say the shore ex booking feature is coming soon, as well as the ability to order room service and make on-the-fly reservations for activities such as spa, salon and premium restaurant outings.
What else would we like to see? How about a way to message your steward about needed items for your cabin, or to ping the maintenance team directly via the app or leave instant feedback when you get outstanding service. If you’re like me, I often make a mental note in the moment and by the time I get the post-cruise online survey, I’ve already forgotten names.
Or say you’re off ship on your own exploring Curacao and get lost. The app could allow you to alert the ship and connect you with local taxi companies.
How about approximate waiting times for activities such as the waterpark or the Breeze’s popular SkyCourse. This kind of convenience single-handedly made our family switch from SportsClips to Great Clips for our kids’ haircuts. Onboard, it would give you even more ability to maximize every minute.
Dining or mini-excursion recommendations for each port of call would be a nice touch.
Or a Google Maps-type feature that uses GPS to pinpoint where you are on the ship and direct you step-by-step to that library bar you simply can not locate? Or for parents, a “Find My iPhone”-type function that shows you where each child is on the ship at all times.
One other huge convenience would be the ability to load your itinerary into the app and create boarding passes that can be scanned in cruise terminals, a la airline boarding passes. But creating this would involve the port authorities investing in the tech.
As I said, the possibilities are endless. But what Carnival has come up to start with is very impressive, practical and most importantly, extremely user friendly for even the most tech-challenged in your party.
HUB offers onboard conveniences and connectivity without creating a sense that you’re far from unplugged on your vacation. Can’t wait to see the app updates to come.
More by Tim Wood
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