Having been lucky enough to have sailed on over 15 cruise lines through my job over the years (travel writer) I am in a position to compare. Remarkably I had never been on an NCL ship until February this year when I went on a 9 night cruise on the NCL Spirit. Having read the cruise critic reviews as I always do before I book a cruise I was surprised to see a contrast of great reviews mixed with some quite poor ones which seemed incongruent to me. So I went on board with low expectations but was delighted to find what a treasure the Spirit is.
It was built in a day that they spent a lot more on design and fittings and at that time it was the most expensive ship to build of its type and size. With around 2000 passengers that for me is the perfect size as I am not a fan of the huge 5000 plus ships a few of which I have been on in the past couple of years.
Having eaten in every restaurant in the ship I felt the food was very good as was the service and as most cruise critic reviewers said the staff were incredible friendly and helpful. I was surprised at some of the negative reviews as trust me for the cost of the cruise the food was much better than most other cruise lines at a similar price and even better than some of these huge glossy ships which cost more.
There were also a few negative reviews about the entertainment but again I found it very good indeed and a good range of acts to choose from each night - it does make me wonder what those people giving poor reviews are comparing it with.
I also saw a few reviews saying they felt that NCL were charging for everything which added to the cost of the holiday but again I have seen far worse on other ships. In fact there were a number of things that contradicted this allegation - firstly they arranged either free or nominally priced shuttles into the town at each port of call for those not booking an excursion and there was no pressure to book the excursions. Also on the stateroom TV they had a free movie channel which had films like Captain Phillips, Gravity, The Butler and many other top films. They also had Sky News, BBC World and an ITV type of channel all free.
They also give you the option of booking 4, 6 or 10 or more bottles of wine at around a 25% reduction which we did which I thought was great and if you do not finish a bottle they will keep it for you and it will be available in any of the restaurants whenever you want it.
It is true you have to pay a surcharge if you wish to dine in one of the excellent specialty restaurants but they are extremely good restaurants which would cost a fortune in London and there is no need to book them if cash is short the main restaurants and buffets are perfectly good.
For those who love food and wine or perhaps are celebrating a special occasion they offer on one night only a chefs table meal which is amazing. There are about 7 courses each presented by the Executive Chef and each wine is specially chosen and presented by the sommelier. The price also include champagne before the meal and drinks and coffee in Champagne Charlies lounge afterwards. In London such a meal with wine would cost over £125 so at $99 (about £60) it is great value. If you fancy this book it quickly as it is for a maximum of about 12 people and it is held in a private dining room.
One other criticism that I saw published advised readers not to pay the set daily amount for tips as the staff do not get this money. I interviewed the Hotel Director who is a very senior officer controlling the biggest department by far on a cruise ship and he told me that was absurd and that the money did go to the staff. He said it is much fairer system as all the appropriate staff get a share and it was also easier for
passengers as it can all be added to the bill instead of them having to get bundles of cash to hand out. Also with the freestyle dining often waiters who have served you well but were not around on your last day often missed out on a tip. I think it is a sensible, fair and easy option but should you wish to opt out of it and pay tips individually you can do that if you wish.
For those who are curious I booked this cruise for my wife and I through a normal agent and booked and paid for a mid range stateroom. We also booked and paid for 4 specialty restaurants and booked the wine package. I booked it under my real name and not the name I write under so NCL had no idea that I was writing two articles about them until I told them during the cruise. One article will be about cruising in general and the other one will be about sustainability in cruising something that NCL are very big on and are ahead of the game.
So in my opinion for those considering the NCL Spirit I would not place too much value on the negative reviews as the positive reviews are much more accurate. Also should anything go wrong on your cruise do not leave it until you get back tell them at the time and they will do their best to sort it out there and then which they inevitably can do.