At the outset, I should point out that booking your first cruise is best done directly through the cruise line. I obtained mine thru Delta Skymiles where I bank my mileage since the 90's Northwest era. Having been awarded several free international flights , I thought it was a no brainer to add 5000 extra miles. Now, I can tell you that you are best served by cruise reps directly if there are concerns that you should be aware of, like traveling with minors and using the cruise liner's own drafted parental consent form for unaccompanied teens in your party. After all, leave the planning to the sea experts. Celebrating my daughter's 18th birthday on board turned out to be a life event that we are looking forward to do again.
After overcoming initial changes and call back on three-way calling with cruise reps and travel agent who didn't have direct access, we were ready to sail. The checklist sent by NCL was helpful but it makes sense to pack separate day wear and evening cocktail dresses, counting the number of formal sit down dinners you intend to have. Just think of what you'd wear to a broadway show if you were invited, accord the same respect to the Entertainment Director who worked so hard planning themed parties and theatre performances. I was pleasantly surprised to discover nightly photo sessions by studio artists who took family portraits with a different backdrop each night. Another reason to get dressed for dinner, and a true value for your money since you can only pick the photos you want at the end of the cruise.
The art auction by Parkwest Gallery did not disappoint either, the film presentations and lecture about the Masters were great eye opener to my daughters for appreciating the finer things in life. We were split with our dining choices since teenaged kids prefer buffet but I made it a point that they joined me for sit-down dinner. Savoring the daily Chef's specialties had been an adventure by itself, and worth going back to. Best of all, it's free except for the French restaurant we loved, the French cuisine did not have the raw tartare but they served traditional favorites. It's worth your bucks to add a bottle of wine that you can store for a second dinner. We didn't try the other specialty restaurants because the items on the menu were also served by the Chef at either Magenta or Grand Pacific hall. And don't forget to TIP your waiters. They get a share from the extra money paid at specialty restaurants, but it still makes sense to give them anywhere from $5 to $10 per dinner. It's different in the buffet section, you can spare a dollar or two for special favors, why not? If you want to know the true story of whether or not they get their fair share of the gratuity added on by the cruise line, all you have to do is ASK. It used to be that crews get as low as $50 salary and rely on tips, but the world has changed. They get fixed salaries, plus whatever tips you'd hand them. The gratuities you pay thru the cruise line is not certain to go to your servants- YES I KNOW.
As compared to my daughter's 16th birthday in Paris, where I spent 300 Euros per night for the room alone, the overall experience on board and the action-packed adventure in 4 seaports was well worth the money. Of course the convenience of room accommodation can't be compared to Marriott unless you buy the suite rooms. In a hard economy, cruising might be your best alternative to flying. It just made me nervous if I didn't see my teenagers for several hours so we brought our own walkie talkie- which they didn't carry all the time anyway. Texting helps, with a roaming enabled gsm cellphone. We tried parasailing at St. Thomas, USVI, a little pricey for a 5-minute rise 450-ft above the sea. It was an awesome experience but I was concerned that the operators did not offer helmet in case of an accidental fall. Not being a regulated industry, you may want to wait until this legal issue is settled and operators are bound by rules. My teens went for sailing and snorkeling at the Turtle Cove, they had amazing time swimming with the turtles.
The stop at St. Maarten had available choices to hire your own taxi service to see both the French and Dutch side, a 2-hour drive cost us $20 each but I gave our driver John some extra. It was thrilling to see his plate number had single digit 3, which meant his father was the 3rd to register a taxi back in the 60s . Beware though that these taxi drivers will stop by tourists shops where they get commissions so you may want to browse around port shops before you embark at your own journey. The closest beach from the port cost us only $3 per pax, and no entrance fee at the privately owned resort! Just pay for the umbrella and chairs at $5 each. My eldest daughter went for a single tank scuba dive for $55 while the teens joined a free scuba lesson at the pool. The shore excursion desk had prices more expensive understandably.
The stop at Samana, DR was perfect for ATV rough riding since there was nothing to do there. Tour Terry provided reasonable fees for a 5-hour excursion that included lunch at the beach. My daughter found him through a forum discussion. A double rider ATV costs $80 per person, the back rider can drive on the way back. Bring single pack candies that won't melt in the heat, like M&Ms for giving away to by-standing children along the way. The stop at Puerto Rico also had available taxi services offering $10 per, for an hour tour. The shore excursion desk wanted $40 for the same trip! Considering the short time, we decided to walk and shop. Jewelry stores offer high and low prices for the same items, so be sure to check out several places. It was fun getting freebies but a legitimate intent to purchase can be detected by the shops so forget about collecting the cheap stuffs and avoid wasting your precious time. It must be noted that Pto. Rico and USVI are bound by US commerce regulations so be sure to ask about warranty and return policies. Use credit card for major purchases just in case something is wrong.
Back on board, during sea dates, there were enough activities to choose from ranging from Chef's pastry demo to towel folding by the crew. Those animal shaped towels got my attention so I bought the cd for $10 and asked my housekeeping stewardess to show me a few animal samples. I never saw her smiled before though she kept my room very clean despite several towel changes by the girls. I figured that rather than waiting for the last day, I handed her $60 tip for such a good work and lo, and behold, her face lit up like sunshine. You don't get this type of satisfaction by leaving your gratuity added to the bill. I insist that it is best to confront and ask your servers how they want to be compensated, and ask how are they actually compensated by the different cruise lines. My first cruise wasn't perfect, but it certainly provided varied activities that suits all ages and preferences, from children's entertainment to after midnight parties, from water sports to casino, or choice of quiet board games and giant chess games to indoor golf and mountain climbing competition, there was not enough time to attend them all! Finally, my daughter and I submitted our reviews for outstanding crew members and officers, including the Asst. Maitre'D for making our stay a truly memorable one. The casino personnel had been outstanding, and I can't tell you how many times they offered drinks on the house.