We had a great time on board NCL Jewel on this long 17 night cruise, and if you're booked on the Jewel, you will really enjoy it as long as you don't have any 5 star expectations. Like all cruise lines in this mid-price range, they all have different strengths and weaknesses. But none are 5 star. And like so many cruise critics so correctly point out, you get what you pay for. If you want a 5 star cruise ship, then book a Regent cruise.
The Jewel is a 3 and a half/4 star cruise ship. We got a great deal for this cruise, and our philosophy is just to go with it, knowing some things will probably be a bit hit or miss. And that's exactly how it was.
The other key factor you must accept is the upselling of product on board. It's just part of the territory. And a necessity for cruise lines in this price range to make real money. That's why you can choose so cheaply.
We never felt the need to book a surcharge restaurant on the Jewel. Knowing the surcharge restaurant reviews were so mixed may have been a factor for us not to book, but we really liked the food in the MDR's Tsars and Azure. And having an evening buffet option with solid food was great, when we wanted to be more casual.
We took an inside cabin on deck 11 because we were on a budget having travelled from New Zealand, and wanted to splash out in NYC for our week there, prior to the cruise. The cabin was great value. Knew what we were getting. Bathroom was bigger than our balcony cabin on our last cruise (Costa) and was so clean and well maintained by Richard, our steward. As I'll point out below in my list of Panama Canal cruise tips, it was not a great disadvantage for the Panama Canala, as you really need the full wide vision view of the canal for photos. Not just one side of the boat.
The service stars of the show are crew who look after the Garden Cafe buffet and Great Outdoors areas. And the room stewards. They're so friendly and welcoming, as opposed to several service personnel in Tzar's, who spoilt it for the majority of on the ground servers at Tzar's who were great. One reception hostess thought she was running a prison camp for a couple of days there, and I was appalled at how she treated some American guests around us. For those guests, there's no way they'll ever take an NCL cruise again. Just couldn't work out why reception service was so friendlier at Azure - but maybe because it's smaller. We loved the freestyle dining at Tzar's and Azure. Had to wait sometimes, but were always happy to just go with it.
Here are some random Panama Canal Jewel tips - in no order of importance
- Small torchlight becomes your best friend, especially for an inside cabin.
- Great Outdoors at the back of the boat is a great home base. Always tables available except at peak breakfast time.
- Will never go on a cruise ship without an evening buffet. The Jewel buffet is excellent value despite some bad reviews. Was just great to have a real casual place to go after a busy day on your feet. We ate dinner mostly at Tzars, so we never got tired of the evening buffet options. Generally good 3 and a half star/4 star fresh food.
- Avoid breakfast buffet on port days unless you get there first thing " it's a real zoo with everyone stressing they are going to miss their tour. Go to Tsars for breakfast..
- We loved Tzar's Palace for our a la carte meals. Like all cruiselines in this mid-range cost category it can be a bit lucky dip with the food. But we had some great meals there. We avoided the steak as it tasted manufactured. But other beef dishes were OK. Lamb shank's great. Pork and chicken dishes never disappointed. The large open environment made it a pleasure to eat there, despite the service hiccups.
- Tsar's Palace for breakfast and lunch is a bit of a secret it seems.. No queues and very civilised. Lunch was excellent with calamari and beer battered cod on the daily menu fantastic. Would avoid the battered fish off the favourites lunch menu - didn't work from frozen. Such a better experience than the buffet at peak times.
- Dinner at Tsar's and Azura has queues to get in for much of the night, but it doesn't take long to get seated really despite that. A small price to pay for the freestyle concept of eating when you want to. Was great to get our own table for 2 every night.
- Spinnaker Lounge is great place for space and quiet (except when bingo is on). Library was fairly busy mid morning, and mid afternoon, but also a good option as other posts have pointed out.
- If you like tea and scones with raspberry jam, then go to Great Outdoors for their afternoon tea about 3pm/3.30pm.
- Don't bother about ear marking seats or getting up at 3am to claim your spot on Canal Transit day. Just a waste of time and energy. There are great views all over the ship, and they also open up the front of the boat on deck 8 mid morning for extra viewing options. That's right up on the bow. You honestly need to move around to get the best shots. Our best pics are from the stern " from Great Outdoors area " looking back at the locks/views.
- the entertainment is above average at Stardust Theatre. Production crew were excellent and the flagship shows - Four Seasons Oh What a Night, Band on the Run and Cirque were very good.
- NCL excursions were too expensive for us, and no-one we met had a good experience with them. Just head ashore and choose your own tour with the local operators waiting outside. Or better still, just join up with a group on the cruise critic forum.
- Book a late flight out on disembarkation day at Los Angeles, and stay on board until 11.30am as you're allowed to do. The disembarkation process from about 7.30am was a total disaster. Most people didn't have a clue what was going on, and the warm friendly fuzzy approach from staffers strangely was absent. They had their B Team on. Was almost like "we've got your money, so don't really care how you get off really". Felt really sorry for older people struggling with it. The logistics crew obviously devised this system on a staff night in a bar somewhere. Unfortunately NCL Jewel take this freestyle thing too far, and allow you to try and get off the ship taking your own bags with you. Most guests, it seemed, decided to take this option, instead of leaving their bags out the night before, like we did. (and do on other cruiselines) The result was chaos.
- Deck 7 is great for walks. Spacious and never too busy. Usually use ship gyms, but 45 mins each day walking on deck 7 did the trick.
Overall - the positives far outweigh the negatives. We always knew it would be 'lucky dip' in one or two areas. As it always is on ships in this price range. We had a great time. For the record, most cruise veteran's rate Princess as the best in this category, with a question only over their food not being as good as it once was.
We knew it would be an older mature set of cruisers, given not school holidays, and the length of the cruise.
The average age of cruisers would have been late 60's. Only 17 kids according the the Kids Club, compared to about 650 for the previous 7 day cruise. We met some great people.