My husband and I embarked on the Venice round-trip Mediterranean cruise to the Adriatic, Greece, and Turkey on May 19th. This was a great first-time cruise, though we prepared quite a bit beforehand in order to know what to expect... (Though we had never cruised before, our family has cruised extensively primarily with Disney, Royal Caribbean, and the European river companies... Thus we knew, from their descriptions, that we most certainly wanted the freestyle concept!)
First and foremost for all cruisers - READ YOUR PAPERWORK!!!!
We heard quite a few people on the cruise, after the cruise, etc, complaining about the service charge. This was posted in my booking papers, on the member website, in the boarding documents, in the room information, and as part of the freestyle daily newsletter. (For example, NCL charges $12 per person per day... My family members have been charged anywhere from 8 euro per person per day up to $16 per person per day on other cruise lines.) We chose the simple solution. Pay the service charges in advance, then don't tip anyone unless they are truly awesome! No bill at the end, no extra charges on the credit card afterwards, and your cruise can be paid off before you even step on the boat.
Moving on, there were some things that made us blink in confusion when we were preparing for this cruise... I call these things the "Crap that Goes Wrong that NCL had NOTHING to do with" category. This includes: Missing flights, delayed flights, bad cab-drivers, poor language skills, and rude port authorities... None of these folks work for your cruise line. Though, since these were all concerns, we planned ahead. (Notice that this will be a recurring theme... These are huge vacations - PLAN AHEAD!)
Choose a good airline, this is not the time to cheap out. Leave plenty of time for flight connections, delays, weather issues, etc. In fact, consider flying in the day before and out the day after. Really, it's worth the stress relief. Besides, on embarkation/debarkation day, those airports are NUTS! Pay extra and book the NCL transfer, the driver knows where to go, if he's rude you can report him and expect action, and they meet you at your gate... And, hey, it's prepaid, no sticker shock!
So, on to the actual cruise!
Embarkation - Venice is not bad, as long as you don't arrive first thing in the morning. First thing in the morning? They're trying to empty and clean the ship. Expect craziness, expect delays, expect to start your vacation grumpy. For a 6 PM sailing time, I would not arrive any earlier than an 11:30 AM flight. Our flight arrived in Venice at 2:30 PM and I felt rushed (not by anyone, just personal stress and OCD). I would certainly book my next flight to arrive at about 12:30 PM. We claimed our luggage (Marco Polo airport workers are slow... This is not NCL's fault, just expect it and plan ahead!), went out to meet the NCL person and then stood in a massive crowd looking for the sign. Be proactive! One person stands with the bags, the other person works through the crowd to find the NCL corner. Once the NCL greeter has been located, then everyone moves forward. We waited about ten minutes for our bus to be ready, went outside and boarded the bus. If you have big luggage and your cruise line luggage tags, you can just leave it with the bus... it magically appears in your stateroom. If you have hand luggage to keep with you, carry it. Our bus arrived at the port luggage drop off. We were required to claim the bag when we got off the bus, hand it over to the luggage porters who checked to make sure they had cruise line tags, and then walk about 200 yards to the embarkation facility. (If you want your bags to arrive sooner, choose a stateroom when you book. Thus they know what room to take them to immediately, rather than having to look up where you were assigned once boarded.)
Embarkation facility - big... very big. But, they are ramps for the mobility-challenged. There are lots of signs, just read them and you will see the door. There are lots of NCL employees standing around, smiling, gesturing the way and answering questions. Once you arrive in the hall, you are asked to fill out a health survey to see if you're going to infect everyone. Here surfaced one of my minor complaints about the process. BRING A PEN! We luckilly had a pen in our carryon. Many people did not. Three pens attached to a desk is not enough for everyone (all 2400 of the passengers) to fill out these surveys. But, the survey itself is simple. Three questions designed to see if you are sick and infections. Fill it out, sign it, proceed to the check in desk. The nice check in person is going to need your cruise docs. PLEASE PRINT YOUR CRUISE DOCS AT HOME!! Do not be that person standing at the check in desk asking why they need that... You need it for the transfer, you need it for checkin, they sent me several reminders to print my edocs. Print them, take them with you.
Annoyingly, the checkin process was also where they collected our passports. All non-EU passports were collected due to the stops in Croatia and Turkey. They gave us a receipt, they returned them later, other than the "OMG, not my passport" reaction, it was really no big deal. BUT, have a second photo ID with you... You don't want to go ashore anywhere without a photo ID in case of emergencies. A drivers license is fine, a military ID worked for us, anything... If you do not have a photo ID, or you have children with no photo ID, tell the checkin person. I saw several people with NCL issued "photo ID" for exactly this issue. This is also the step at which they will ask for your deposit - credit card or cash. Hand over a credit card, check your onboard account every few days, and don't worry. There was no huge credit hold (though I still wouldn't use a debit card). Now just board the ship!
On board, the Norwegian Jade struck me instantly familiar... This is because I've been to Las Vegas. I would assume all cruise ships have that similar "floating Vegas hotel" look to them. The layout can be confusion at first, pick up a NCL pocket map for the ship. It really does fit in your pocket, carry it, don't complain about being lost. There are maps of the ship at fore, mid, and aft. There are also plackards next to every elevator listing what is located on each floor. We proceeded to our room and dropped off our carryon so we could explore.
The mini-suites on the Jade are excellent. It's basically the equivalent of a large European hotel (which are always smaller than their American counterparts) with a bed, a desk, a fold out couch, and a nicely sized bathroom with toilet, sink, and tub shower. Also, the balcony is big enough for two chairs and a small table. The stateroom was immaculate. The balcony glass was a touch grimy... It's the salt spray, the glass is impossible to keep clean. The chairs were clean and very comfortable, so we enjoyed our view onto the Venice port. (NB: For Venice sailings, get a balcony on the port side... As you leave the port, you get a beautiful view past all the Venice attractions and some amazing pictures. Why crowd into the public area, you have a balcony for a reason!)
This brought to mind our first future cruise consideration - Pay for the BEST stateroom you can afford. I will never stay in an inside stateroom, but some people are happy there. I would consider an oceanview stateroom for an incredible itinerary. For us, a balcony is a must. My stateroom is my escape, if I don't enjoy it, I'm going to have a crappy cruise.
On embarkation day, on sea days, on debarkation day, the atrium/reception area is going to be packed. We're talking seriously crowded. On those days? Avoid it unless you need something from there. Guest services? Call the phone number from your stateroom and skip the line. Excursion Desk? Call the phone number from your stateroom and skip the line. Onboard Account? Call the phone number... It's a recurring theme and one that shockingly many people do not even consider. I mentioned this technique to a "frequent cruiser" and they looked at me like I'd grown horns. But, it worked. All of my questions, concerns, bookings, reservations got done... And I didn't stand in line to do it.
So now on the ship, there's a few things we were concerned about....
There were many included food options: Buffet, Aft Dining Room, Mid Dining Room, Blue Lagoon, Room Service (between 5AM and midnight).
Just a few tricks - if you don't like something, send it back. If you're still hungry, order something else. Portions are small, order multiple courses. Portions are small BECAUSE they expect you to order multiple courses. If you're having a problem with a server, ask for a manager. If you don't like the food options, get up and go somewhere else! You're on vacation, have dessert with every meal!
Buffet - the food was monotonous and it was always crowded. We ate here on embarkation night and only went back for the Chocolate Bar night. Avoid the buffet if you can, it is populated (in our experience) by rude and pushy passengers who do not realize that you can order anything you want, as much as you want, in the dining rooms and be guaranteed a table you didn't search for. Though we did share our dinner that night with a lovely pair of couples from Wales and a very nice couple from Germany. Be prepared to share your table, the Buffet (both of the areas) are packed!
Aft Dining Room (Grand Pacific) - This is the "formal" dining room, though don't take that too seriously since I saw people being seated for dinner in jeans and shorts. It's a big space. Sometimes there is a wait to be seated (if you must dine at a specific time, make a reservation, yes you can do so for the dining rooms). You will be asked if you want to share a table. If you don't, say no. There may be a longer wait, but we never waited more than five minutes for a table at breakfast or dinner. Service was quick, friendly, and the menus were available in six languages (and I'm betting more). The food has two options for dinner, a continuous menu that will not change your whole sailing and a daily menu themed around your port. Try the daily menus, they are really inventive and give you a local taste... And if you don't like what you're served, you can order something else!
Mid Dining Room (Alizar) - This is the "casual" dining room. It had the same daily menu as the Grand Pacific and a slightly different continuous menu. It's worth trying both out. Service was impeccable in each restaurant, though it seemed as if there were more waiters available in the Grand Pacific. The mid ship location can seem a little rough on a bad sea day. Otherwise, eat in whichever is less crowded.
CRUISE TIP - There is a restaurant guide in the hallways. It lists all restaurants and the expected crowd in an easily understood green, yellow, red format. If you want to eat at a specific time, make a reservation. We did this and watched our seating time change from yellow to red. Reservations will always be seated before walk-ins, so if you are picky, take advantage of this!
Blue Lagoon (quick service cafe) - This was located above the atrium area on the port side. A "comfort food" menu but sometimes that's what you want. Full English breakfast available in the morning. Options like hamburgers, hot dogs, fish and chips, tuna sandwich, etc, at lunch. Appetizers and desserts available. We never had dinner here, but again never waited more than five minutes for a table.
Yes, at first I was annoyed by the whole "washy washy happy happy" hand cleaning at every food outlet. But, two things. It's not mandatory. If you say no, they will still let you in. (Rather important for people allergic to the standard sanitizer and yes, that allergy does exist.) Second, wow, people are gross.... You will be only too happy to sanitize your hands after you see someone wipe their nose and then hit the elevator button. Guy scratches himself with his hand in his pants and then slides his hand down the banister. Please, let them sanitize you, we washed our hands regularly and still let them sanitize us because people act like pigs in public areas. Besides, my wedding rings have never been that clean!
Room service - Yes the menu is small... It's room service and it's free from 5 AM to midnight. If you're starving, order a lot of it. We ordered dessert one night, a slice of cheesecake for each of us, and the guy on the phone asked "That's really all you want?" They're used to it, order whatever you want. Leave your tray in cabin, covered with a napkin, and it will dissapear when your steward comes to provide service.
Paid options for food -
Yes, some places have a surcharge. On our ship, a lot of these places were packed anyway, particularly the Teppanyaki house. (Though you could see in the window from the main hallway, those chefs are awesome... I can understand why it was always full.)
We ate at Le Bistro, Moderno, and Cagneys. Yes, the surcharges were annoying. I paid them anyway because I wanted a special type of food and we planned ahead for the expense. (And paid them in advance, use your myNCL login and set up your reservations about 20 days beforehand.)
Le Bistro - French and Fancy! Not a place to take kids. We sat down, looked at the menu, and the waiter brought out a special Salmon Mousse appetizer from the kitchen. We didn't order it, it was simply that day's special appetizer for all guests. Delicious, truly delicious, and he asked if we wanted another... This is the kind of service you get from NCL. All of our food was fantastic (and yes, we did the whole soup, salad, entree, dessert thing). For dessert we had the chocolate fondue. Very good, but the fruit tray (an emptied out pineapple) was more melon than anything else. Gestured the waiter over because I don't particularly like melon, in five minutes we had a brand new pineapple tray filled with pineapple, strawberries, and banana.
Moderno Churrascaria - You better like meat! This place is definitely for the carnivores in the family. After sitting down, you get the menu of meats... You don't order, that is simply what you'll see over the course of dinner. Take your salad plate up, browse the appetizer bar, or sit back and wait for the food to come. The salad bar was quite good, with three different leafy salad options, about six prepared salads, and a nice selection of cheeses, sliced meats, stuffed and marinated options. You're also brought a selection of four side dishes (baked beans, mashed potatoes, rice, and fried plantain). Then the meat starts coming to your table. Don't want a particular type, just say so. Want two or three pieces of a particular type, tell them. The meat cycles past you from lightest (chicken) to darkest (really amazing roast beef) and then you get some grilled pineapple. Just when you think you're stuffed, the waiter comes back and asks if you want to start over. Yes, you can keep eating until you have to be wheeled out... all meat. Or, you can give in gracefully and have dessert. I recommend the dessert as the sample platter was excellent!
Cagneys - Traditional steakhouse. If you can get a steak in the free dining room, why go to Cagneys? Because the steak in the free dining rooms is the kind you buy at the grocery store... and the steak at Cagney's is the kind that some foodie stands over salivating while it's hand-selected for three times the price. It was melt-in-your mouth delicious. I probably could have cut my steak by simply waving my fork at it, it was literally that tender. Indulge, go the whole four courses way (we did). Or, eat your steak and order another one. Even in the specialty cover charge places, don't like it? Send it back. Still hungry? Order another. The portions were larger at Cagney's, but we were asked several times if we wanted anything else.
Water, Tea (this is not brewed, it is mixed like a Nestea concentrate), regular Coffee are included. If you have religious limitations, this is going to get a little irritating. Drink water and carry a beverage mix like Mio in your purse. Or, for those who can't live without their soda, buy the soda package. Or, buy the occasional soda... it's only $1.95 each. (For the soda package, it comes with a mug that you HAVE to carry. For a child, don't buy it unless they will drink at least 2 sodas a day. For an adult, not unless it's 3 sodas a day.) We did not pay for the package, we stuck to water and tea. The tea is not sweet, but you have three options for artificial sweetener (blue, pink, yellow) and two options for regular sugar (white and brown).
Espresso beverages - These cost extra, but they are occasionally worth it. Craving a capuccino? I bet the last one you bought in the States cost more than $2.75 for a Venti version... For the European guests, the prices seem ridiculously low. It's all Lavazza espresso products, so if you don't like strong Italian coffee, stick to the free stuff. Speaking of the free coffee, there is a coffee station in the atrium in front of the Aloha bar that is open 24/7. Walk up, get a coffee. The quality does depend on who brewed it, but that's true no matter where you get your coffee at home or at sea.
We heard a lot of people complaining about the price of the alcohol. Here's a few tricks...
Play the games - every time a couple, individual, family participated? They walked away with a free bottle of champagne. Need some glasses to drink it? Call your steward, he'll bring them and you've scored free alcohol for about thirty minutes of work.
Go to the art auctions - In the first fifteen minutes of the art auctions (and there were three of them that I noticed) the servers will walk around and hand out a glass of champagne to every adult in attendance. Leave after you have your glass if you have no interest in art.
Cocktails - read your freestyle daily newsletter! There is always a drink special on cocktails, usually for less than $5 per glass. (Ask what the souvenir glass is before you order a cocktail in it... Usually it's some plastic throwaway, but the Rebellious Fish comes in a glass fishbowl and it's kindof neat! But, if you get souvenir glass, take it with you.. YOU PAID FOR IT!) By the pool, there were frequent Margarita specials ranging from $3.95 to $5.95. These are not small drinks and perhaps seem weak to someone who drinks a lot... My husband and I would have 1 and be pleasantly buzzed. Two and I'm ditching the heels... Three? Why would I want to be hungover on my vacation?
Beer - The whole cruise a "buy 5 get #6 free" special was running on buckets of beer. Yes, it was a bucket. You paid for 5, they gave you a bucket, with ice and six beers in it. We don't drink beer usually. My husband ordered a Sam Adams one night and it cost $4.50. For $4.50 I could get the special cocktail of the day. If you are a heavy beer drinker, you are going to have a huge tab to pay at the end of the cruise.
Wine - At embarkation, you can buy a wine package. Get 20% off five bottles, get a sixth bottle free. No, they don't give you the bottles right there. You get a chit that identifies your room number. When you want a bottle, you give that chit to the server and tell them which bottle. They bring it to you and open it. You can finish it at the restaurant, or take the open bottle back to your room. Any bottles you don't drink on the cruise? You pick it up at the end and take them home with you. I suggest carrying a bottle padding product in your suitcase (something like 'Wine Diapers') to make sure those bottles get home safely without soaking everything you own when the luggage handlers at the airport get a little rough.
Things To Do -
If you are bored, you are not trying hard enough (or just not reading the daily schedule). For us, it was always a case of "which do we want do more" because things we were interested in kept overlapping.
If you are nervous about being in a destination, take an excursion. Let NCL worry about where you go, how you get there, whether you get back to the ship on time. GET BACK TO THE SHIP ON TIME! The ship will leave you. Plan to be back about 30 minutes before required, but if you're on an excursion, that's the guides' problem. NCL is not going to leave their own excursions behind.
However, if you don't like being treated like cattle or trying to keep up with a guide in a crowded area, do the ports on your own. The excursions tend to be crowded, they go to crowded places, and there will always be the slow person in the group that everyone else is waiting on. Read the warnings on the excursion description. If you can't do stairs, don't take the trip with a listed 200 stairs. There is not always an elevator...
Also, excursions can all be booked and paid for in advance through the myNCL login... This does two things, it guarantees your spot if you definitely want to see a particular site. And, it keeps you from getting a big bill at the end of the cruise!
Want to learn about art, casino games, authors, ports, cruises, etc? Read the schedule, there will be a talk about it at some point. There will be games (for families, for couples, for kids, for singles, etc), just go watch or play. There will be art auctions, karoake contests, dance lessons, etc. Keep busy, if you want, but don't complain there is nothing to do.
Leisure Spaces -
We had our choice of a card room, library, quiet areas, and two pools. I never saw the card room or library crowded. I didn't seek out the quiet rooms or the conference rooms because I had my stateroom for that (see above section about choosing your stateroom).
The pools were very nice... You have a kids pool on the Jade, complete with water slide and two hottubs. We saw maybe ten kids the whole trip, but never really went near the kids areas because we had none with us. There was also an adults pool (and, yes, it was enforced) with separate pre/post shower and two hottubs. Yes, the pools are salt. Use the post shower or this will dry your skin out like crazy. The adult hottubs are crowded. Use the ones at the kids pool or get to know your fellow cruisers. And despite the posted signs about no food or drink at the hottubs, the waiters will serve you drinks there anyway. Usually with a laminated printout showing the really low-priced special of the day.
We are not 'go to the show every night' people. There was a show every night, usually twice a night, and it was typically different every night with one exception. Look at the show information in your newsletter, decide if you want to see it. If you want show tunes, there will be a show. If you want country music, there will be a show. There are many different options. They are also relatively short, about 45 minutes, so you aren't giving up your whole evening to do so.
The one show we did see was Elements, a quasi Cirque de Soleil option. IT WAS MAGNIFICENT!! If you like that type of show, I highly recommend this one.
Yes, there is a casino on the ship. This is where you will find the ATM for people who don't want to pay the ship's currency conversion rate. You will see all sorts in the casino, the rabid slot players, the high rollers, the casual players, etc. They had tournaments for Texas Hold-Em and Blackjack and several other activities. I suggest the "Learn the Casino Games" activity... Show up, drink their free Rum Punches, let them tell you how all the different table games work. Play if you want to, but don't play more than you can afford. It's possible to break even in the casino, we did. We also met people who lost thousands. Determine your own risk tolerance or avoid the place like crazy. Smoking is allowed in the casino and if you don't smoke, you will need a shower when you leave. Except for the activities with free drinks, alcohol will always be charged in the casino.
IF THEY ASK TO SCAN YOUR CARD, YOU ARE PROBABLY BEING CHARGED!!! If you don't know why they need to see your card, ask! Occasionally, it's nothing. In the dining rooms, they scan your card to track guest traffic.
Yes, there is a (rather nice) spa on the ship. In the Jade, the Spa is on the top floor at the front of the ship. This means you can feel a lot of the ship's movement. They offer everything from hair and nail services to massages and non-invasive beauty treatments. Not sure I'd trust someone to stick acupuncture needles in me on a rough sea day, but since I never asked they may not even offer that on a rough sea day.
The one bad experience I had was with the spa. On a sea day, my husband and I took the Behind the Scenes ship tour ($55 per person, slightly overpriced. Glad we did it, but won't do it on any future ship) and wanted to schedule a massage for after. Spa lady wanted to schedule us for the same time and got a little snotty when I insisted I had a tour at that time because "We're at sea, Ma'am, that isn't possible." I mostly laughed it off, but I could have gotten her name and complained to Guest Services.
Overall, the Jade has a wonderful staff with great attitudes. The ship is clean and busily decorated but still beautiful. It's just small enough to feel comfortable and large enough to give us so many, many options. It was a great first-time cruising ship and we've already booked our next cruise with NCL.