This was going to be the Cruise of a Lifetime for my companion's 50th birthday. She has always wanted to see Alaska and I figured we would truly "go in style." I wanted the very best in service aboard a smaller, more custom vessel.
1. AIR TRANSPORT
This therefore narrowed it down to either RSSC or Silverseas. What sold me on Regent, like many other passengers I am sure, was that they include airfare while Silverseas may or may not, in a sailing-versus-utilization scheme that's more complicated to understand than your cell phone company's data plans. But as it turned out, this "free" airfare was a huge hassle, and ultimately a very expensive perk: we were traveling on to Hawaii, and while Silverseas flat-out refused to even consider ending up at a different airport than where we started (Newark), RSSC was quite accommodating. But here's the catch: because our other connections were made by us (RSSC was only responsible for getting us to and from the ship), that meant that if our other carriers failed to make connections we were on our own. And of course, that's exactly what happened - our Go! airlines flight was cancelled coming back, creating a domino effect of missed flights and resulting in us having to pay $900 in additional airfare - not to mention taking almost three days to get home. In addition, I later discovered that Alaska Airlines (the preferred carrier to the Navigator) actually flies direct to Kauai, which would have saved us considerable funds and literally days off our round trip; but RSSC's air program only covers Honolulu. NONE OF THIS is RSSC's fault, and I am definitely not dinging RSSC here: if your plans take you directly to and from one of the preferred airports that RSSC's air program covers, then this is a pretty good deal (but even then, do not expect RSSC to make the effort to find you particularly efficient connections). My proviso is that if your plans involve going to any secondary airports, or on to other destinations, then RSSC's included airfare may not be the bargain it first appears.
RSSC does TERRIBLE job of communicating to passengers, and perks that they claim are available often simply don't actually exist. We booked a deluxe cabin, which included a butler. Did we actually require a butler? No. But my companion was very much looking forward to having one if only for bragging rights. Aboard the ship, we were introduced to our stewardess (who was indeed friendly and helpful). But no butler - RSSC had changed their web site and their policy regarding which cabins are butler-equipped...months after we had paid in full. Another example: each deck has a big map of the ship next to the elevators. Except they don't accurately reflect the ship's layout (deck eight showed a laundry, but deck seven did not, even though the laundry is there). The map handed out said something different, and the maps on the company's web site said something else yet again.
Internet is not included (well, stay tuned) and is unbelievably pricey - really? An Internet plan for $1,200?!? That was pretty hard to swallow, but the punch line was this - on the last day of the voyage, after we had been directed to the Internet lounge to print boarding passes, we discovered that our cabin came with 60 minutes of free Internet. Nobody had ever told us.
One thing that people DID tell us, including an announcement by the cruise director, that if the ship was sinking we were to report to our mustering stations printed on the back of our room keys. Except no such information was on the keys. To his credit, the Cruise Director was very glad to hear of this and promised to correct his briefing - but he had not been told by the junior officer to whom we pointed out this important safety misinformation on the first day.
While in many instances the information coming to us was wrong or missing, a place where they definitely overcompensate is the number of emails they sent us in the months leading up to departure. I just tallied them up: seventeen emails with "latest" or "updated" itineraries. Except...for the most part, they were identical copies of each other - but one included a change in airline departure time, and boy that one change would be easy to miss buried inside 17 otherwise identical emails.
3. PORTS OF CALL
Here is the one place where I really felt let down. RSSC makes a major point of the Navigator's small size and how her smaller size allows her to go places where the bigger ships cannot. Well, I guess from a technical point of view that may be true...but the fact of the matter is that at least on the Seward-to Vancouver run, the Navigator follows EXACTLY the same course as the bigger ships. I know this for a fact, because we often were part of a convoy of ships including Princess, NCL, and Holland America, and we followed in each other's wakes. It was very disappointing to find that RSSC makes great play about the Navigator's special abilities but fails to mention that they don't utilize any of it.
It is certainly nice that RSSC includes many excursions in the fare. Naturally, the better ones are not included (if you do go, absolutely take the float plane glacier ride; worth every penny. Don't waste your money on a helicopter unless that chopper is also going to touch down to let you do something useful) (this advice applies to Alaska; there are places in for example Hawaii where a helicopter is worth the extra price). Of the ones that are included, warning: take RSSC's guide to physical fitness with a grain of salt! The "nature walk" requiring you to be in good physical condition refers not to YOUR condition, but that of your walker. The only thing that required anything more than a heartbeat was the kayak and even that was ultra low-key. And having excursions included means that you are restricted to RSSC's contracted schedules, which can be very limiting. We wanted to go ziplining but it did not fit in with our other excursions. I checked around (we did not know we had free Internet yet, but there's a McDonald's in every port...) and found that the zipline operator had lots of other times, including at other ports. But the "destination services" desk wasn't interested in trying to book us for a different time, even if we were willing to pay for the excursions ourselves.
The Navigator is a fairly fast and comfortable ship. The cabin was very nice but it showed a surprising amount of wear, including a bathroom cabinet whose door was caved in. The bed was firm but very comfortable. But it was NOISY when the ship was underway - all kinds of squeaks and buzzes coming from above the ceiling. In desperation I tried stuffing toilet paper above the ceiling tiles - only to discover toilet paper already there from previous passengers! As it turned out, the noise was coming from joints and piping above the ceiling and simply could not be silenced by any means other than a pillow over the head. The Navigator was built as a research vessel, not a cruise ship.
When I was aboard the Norwegian Dawn, the only time the cabin ever made noise was while the ship was at top speed and with the stabilizers going full tilt in a rough sea - in the middle of night a slow, distant groan came from a ceiling panel. The Navigator creaked at the slowest speed in the calmest sea.
Okay, now we're getting somewhere. The Navigator really does great meals, and room service is terrific. But even this comes with caveats:
a) most liquor, and some pretty good wines, are included. But it is impossible to know what complimentary wines are available. In each restaurant, on each day, the menu will list one red and one white. But all the wines listed in all the restaurant menus throughout the ship for the entire cruise are complimentary - you just don't have any way of knowing what they are. Worse, the wait staff also don't know what they are. The head sommilier printed me a list, but when I said that list should be available to passengers or at least to the wait staff he was less than thrilled by the suggestion. I had one waiter who insisted that the red and white on the menu were the only complimentary wines I was allowed to have.
b) we already had a reservation in Prime 7 (the excellent steakhouse) before we boarded. Supposedly that's not allowed, but I had made it clear that if I did not have reservations for my companion's birthday we would book elsewhere. I was told repeatedly that we could book another dinner there once everyone had a chance to make a reservation - according to the concierge, no later than the second night. As it turns out, this is just baloney - the head maitre'd later confirmed to me that nobody gets a second reservation.
The officers are European and are generally excellent, although the woman at destination services made me feel like it was my duty to do her job (when I was trying to resolve a conflict between the start time of an excursion between what was on the excursion ticket versus what was in the excursion schedule). The staff, and especially the wait staff, were another story. They all were earnest but some of them spoke so little English as to make any attempt at communication pointless. Trying to find out if they had "Smirnoff Ice" led to an ongoing running comedy that would have made the Marx Brothers proud.
One definite drawback of such a small ship is that there is only one troupe of entertainers on board; the same group perform every show. So Shakespeare, 50's Rock-n-Roll, and Acrobatics. The two main stars were wonderful; the supporting cast belonged in a High School musical, and not the kind that anyone other than parents show up for.
I had a great time on the Navigator. But I had an even better time on larger ships whose fares cost literally a third as much. Most - but not all - of the touted advantages of being on such a ship don't really pan out in reality. If I had to do it again, I would have taken the Silverseas and planned my own transportation. Silverseas has the additional advantage of moving passengers from Anchorage to the ship (a trip of several hours) via the very nice and romantic train shoreline, while RSSC puts you on a boring bus.
But I am sure that I would have had every bit as good a time on an NCL ship - and had many many thousands of dollars left over a consolation for not having a butler...
Oh, that's right - I didn't have one anyway!