Executive Summary I've cruised with NCL 13 times, and I may not go back. I base this on these observations, which will be detailed in later sections of this review: 1) Quality of service is much worse than when I started cruising with NCL in 2003. 2) Nickel and diming by NCL has gone to an all time high. 3) As the customer, I am always wrong. 4) You are free to, wait wherever, for whatever. As a past cheerleader for NCL, I recommended that many of my family, social and business contacts travel with NCL. I can't do this anymore.
If you want to tell me I am wrong, or want to live in the bubble where nothing is wrong, then read no further. You won't like what you read.
Overview For this cruise, I traveled with my Mom and Dad, my wife, and my four boys. All of us, with the exception of my mom, have cruised before with NCL. We chose this itinerary after having a positive experience on the NCL Spirit repo from New York to New Orleans last fall. We enjoy long cruises, with a good mix of sea days and port days.
Embarkation The terminal and the staff at the Boston terminal were great. In general, we had a great experience in Boston. The TSA experience was fairly tolerable, and I felt their personnel were friendly and helpful, given their job. My only complaint was that we were not allowed to use the "Latitudes Gold" check in line (much shorter), because I was "traveling with people that weren't gold". If my entire family, whom I'm paying for, has to obtain "Gold" status to experience benefits, well, I guess we won't make Gold, or Platinum, for that matter. So, we all had to wait in the regular Latitudes line.
Cabins We reserved cabins 10127 and 10129. We were extremely happy with the rooms themselves. We chose these rooms because of their proximity to the Kids Crew room, and based on their proximity to the aft and mid-ship stairs and elevators. We found shoes, and other items in our room when we arrived, making us wonder how much time was spent in cleaning our rooms. We had four people in each of these cabins, and we felt that the layout was adequate and met our expectations. The clothes line in the shower was broken, so this limited our self service laundry options in the room. There were nights when the cabin would not get cool enough, but we had packed a fan based on our previous experiences. It's unfortunate that we have to pack our own fan, but have been told that 70 degrees is an acceptable room temperature in the past, so we must be wrong, and it must be so. We didn't like walking down our hallway because our clothing smelled like smoke from all the smoking cabins.
Dining Our first night in the Windows dining room was our lone pleasant experience in Windows. Mr. Palmer, raised on a farm in Jamaica, was very attentive, and we had our food and dessert within 1.5 hours. We enjoyed talking with Mr. Palmer, and he was always pleasant when we encountered him on the ship. We tried Windows the next two nights, and in both cases, it took over two hours to receive our food and dessert. We ultimately had to give up on the Windows dining room, because it simply took too long to get food and dessert with our children. Next, we tried the Garden Room, as we had heard that service was much better there. It took over two hours to get our food, and I simply gave up waiting for dessert and walked out. By this point, we had instituted "elevator service", and were taking turns in the room with our two year old, because he couldn't tolerate a two hour meal. At this point, we resigned ourselves to eating at Raffles, and at Blue Lagoon. Raffles was extremely crowded, and extremely frustrating, because they had to implement "silver plate" service due to Norovirus (or other flu), on the ship. With 8 of us, we didn't want to spend $100 or more per day on food, just so we didn't have to wait. So, we took to eating at the "trough" (Raffles), and Blue Lagoon. We enjoyed the Blue Lagoon more, and by the end of the first week, we did most of our eating there. We ate at La Trotteria, Cagney's (Twice), experienced a "Taste of India" meal, but limited our "paid" dining because of the cost. As in the past, the service was always good in the pay venues. It was extremely frustrating to pass empty, or near empty, pay dining venues, to go wait in line to get free food. In the past, NCL would occasionally offer 1/2 price specials, for early diners, in an attempt to boost the number of people using the pay dining venues. In this case, they did not offer this. Instead, they sent staff out to stand outside the free venues to take reservations for the pay restaurants, while the frustrations of the free venues were fresh in the minds of the passengers. To me, this is the cruise ship equivalent of ambulance chasing. I'd say that they were trying to rub salt in the wounds of all of us free loaders, but it would have taken the crew too long to open up all the little salt packets we had to beg for. With NCL, you are free to wait wherever, to whatever, unless you want to pay to not wait.
Public Rooms Hot, hot, hot, hot, hot. Apparently, when Norovirus (or other flu), is on the ship, they shut off ventilation in many of the public rooms. The grand centrum, was usually at a pleasant temperature, but most of the other venues were not. My children and I sweat through clothing sitting in Henry's Pub, Blue Lagoon, and the Galaxy of the Stars. We went through laundry at twice the rate this year, compared to last, because the public rooms were so hot. Many of the passengers were complaining about the temperature, so it wasn't just us. The public restrooms were usually dirty, and messy, and whenever possible, we usually retreated to our cabins to use the restroom. When this wasn't an option, we had to clean up before and after using the restrooms. We were told that this was because the virus or flu was on the ship, but it was frustrating as a passenger. Everywhere you walked on the ship, you were being sprayed, and told to sanitize, and then you had to deal with the filth.
Laundry Don't know what genius made the decision to remove all the public (I don't think we are guests anymore) laundry facilities from the ship, but it lead to much frustration on the ship. We knew about the removal of laundry facilities before we got on the ship, and we planned accordingly, but we hadn't planned on sitting around the public rooms of the ship sweating through our clothing. They did run the "laundry special" one time on the 16 day cruise, but that wasn't enough. I can't judge NCL's motives, but their actions make me question them. Is this just another attempt to nickel and dime the passengers to death, or just another attempt to point out the benefits of being Latitudes Platinum, and getting free laundry service? One of our fellow passengers tried to take his laundry off, in port, to get it done, and was told he could not because it would be classified as "debarkation". This behavior really makes you question motives.
Entertainment We thought the comedies, magicians, hypnotists, dancers, and other entertainers were top notch. We also like Cruise Director Paul Scally, as he was highly visible on the ship, and very affable. We did not like most of the rest of the cruise director staff. My family has enjoyed trivia, on past cruises, and we find it frustrating when you can't understand the staff that read the trivia questions. If NCL wants to cut costs by using people with limited English language skills, as their cruise director staff, then just hand out pages with the trivia questions pre-printed. It was just too frustrating with everyone looking at everyone else, and saying "what did he / she say?". By the end of the cruise, we just gave up and quit going. Any public venue, hosted by the cruise director's staff, was frustrating because they all felt they were way more funny, than they actually were. So, a lot of time was wasted, and we had to listen to them babble on endlessly to impress us. I really liked Paul Scally because he didn't waste a lot of our time doing this. My kids used to like getting all the trinkets, cards, key chains, etc. when we won trivia, but now, you get bingo cards and certificates. Cheap, cheap, cheap. The constant sales pitches for all the "paid" events over the loud speakers gets really annoying. Most of us can read, and those of us that can't, can find someone to read the Freestyle Daily to us. Don't torture the rest of us with all the continual harping on the loud speakers.
Spa & Fitness Used it a lot last year; not this year. No need to go to the spa to work up a sweat. You were free to sweat wherever you wanted on the ship.
Family & Children The kid's crew staff was excellent, as it was last year. My 9 year old and 11 year old boys really enjoyed it. My two year old did not, but he really wants to be with "daddy" most of the time.
Shore Excursions We did the "Beach Break" in Belize, and were satisfied with it. We really enjoyed Bannister Island again, although we wish they would bring back the trampoline. My kids enjoyed it last year, their website still advertises it (http://www.bannisterisland.com/activities.shtml), but it wasn't there. As disappointed as I was with NCL on this cruise, I don't blame them for the bad weather we had for the last hour.
Service Simply stated: If you pay for service, you'll get it. If you don't pay extra, for good service, you got bad service. We all noticed a large dip in the quality of service from this cruise and a year ago. Last year, we had to pay $10 per day for adults, and $5 per day for our kids. This year, it was $12 per person per day, for everyone but our 2 year old son. The service was much worse this year, with a few noticeable exceptions. I can't quite determine the cause. Has NCL removed incentive by having such high standard daily tipping? Was the ship understaffed to handle the virus problem on the ship? Bar service was good in the Blue Lagoon, and at Henry's Pub for us, and non-existent every where else for us. Had to wait 15 minutes for soft drinks in all the other bars on a daily basis, and usually just gave up. Service was good in the pay restaurant venues; poor in all the free venues, except for the Blue Lagoon.
Medical Services This was a large part of our experience on this cruise, and our biggest disappointment. 5 out of the 8 of us got sick. Our thirteen year old son was first. He vomited all over the cabin on the 3rd night on the ship, at 3:00 AM, and our fun cruise began. As instructed by the captain, we reported dutifully to the medical center, because he had flu like symptoms. We dealt with a ship doctor who was pleasant, and informative. The preliminary diagnosis was Norovirus (no means to confirm it without lab testing), and he was quarantined until he had no flu like symptoms for 24 hours. The hourly lectures began, every time we called to report in his latest symptoms. Sanitize, wash your hands, etc. Our family does this regularly anyway, and is very aware of how little the sanitizing liquid really effects the virus, so the constant harping got old quick. Because the doctor was concerned that our 2 year old son might get it, they placed our 13 year old son, and me as his caregiver, in a new cabin. Ultimately, he was isolated for 3.5 days, but it was already too late. Two nights later, our 2 year old son puked all over his bed. Once again, we reported to the medical center. This time, the night duty nurse told us that he did not have Norovirus, because he puked before he had diarrhea. We questioned this, because our family never gets sick, and we never get the flu. The night nurse insisted we were wrong, and we were NOT required to isolate or quarantine him. At this point, we were really questioning the cruise line's motives. Having some experience with infection control studies in my employment past, we decided too isolate him anyway. Being one of three children under the age of 5 on the ship, he was extremely popular with the service staff, who liked to high five him and hug him, so we wanted did this to limit their exposure, and limit exposure to the other passengers. He experienced diarrhea and vomiting for four days, and then three more days later in the cruise. 2 nights later, my nine year old son puked in the night, so once again, we reported to the medical center. Once again, the night nurse told us it wasn't Norovirus because he puked before he had diarrhea. So, one again, we technically did not have to isolate him. We moved him from the other cabin to the "sick cabin", and isolated him for three days with his 2 year old brother. At this time, I wasn't getting any sleep and decided to try to complain about the fact that the cruise line did not want to report these incidents to the CDC. I was told by the reception desk, that I had to complain to the medical center. I told them this wasn't expectable; I did not want to make poor circumstances worse. I was told that their manager would call me, and handle my complaint. The manager called 7 days later; I didn't bother to call them back. Apparently, customer service isn't important to them, so why give them my time. The next night, my wife had vomiting and diarrhea, in the incorrect order, and was told she probably did not have Norovirus. We quarantined her in our "sick cabin" for 3.5 days with the other two boys, while I played the part of nurse / servant. Two nights later, our 11 year old son joined them. He made the mistake of puking while sitting on the toilet with diarrhea, and this seemed to confuse the staff. While they didn't think he had Norovirus, they told me to collect a stool sample, and told us we should isolate him. Duh...Ultimately, on our 16 night cruise, we spent 4 days where none of us were sick. NCL's response was to give us a $400 onboard credit, which made it all better. After not hearing back from the reception management staff, I went to the lady selling future cruises on the ship and told her I wouldn't cruise NCL again, and explained why. She told me that the CDC, and the news media, always over report problems with norovirus, and it was all blown way out of proportion. Since 62.5% of my cruising party got sick, and we never get sick at home, I told her I felt the cruise line was intentionally minimizing the problem, to avoid panic and minimalize financial losses. After I left, she had one of the ship's officers call me. I sat down with him, and explained my frustrations. While he did improve the quality of the room service we received, the rest of my recommendations probably fell on deaf ears.
Norovirus Recommendations 1) Tell the truth. Most of us are adults, and act accordingly. While sanitizing constantly, can reduce risk for transferring germs and bacteria, it won't kill the virus. Minimizing the problem, through misinformation, or over selling the benefits of sanitization, leads to even more risky behavior by passengers and staff. People will behave better, if they are a little more scared. 2) I don't blame the cruise line for spreading the virus, so don't blame the passengers. Constantly harping at us, every time we call the medical center that we need to sanitize more does no good. We actually ran out soap 7 times in our cabins, and two of these times occurred BEFORE any of us got sick. Having gotten Norovirus two years ago, on the Pride of Hawaii, when 27 percent of the passengers got it or some other mystery virus, we have been extremely cautious when cruising. The reality is; by the time everyone knows there is a problem on the ship, it's too late. The virus is going to run its course; and it will be passed around. 3) Instruct the staff not to touch the passengers. My two year old was passed around from staff member to staff member, because he's cute, and they miss their families, but he spent 7 days sick because of it. Who know how many people he passed along his flu too (not that he had it). 4) The passengers were continually told to sanitize, sanitize, sanitize. Then, crew staff would pass around bingo cards, brochures, etc. without sanitizing. Trivia staff insisted that we were all going to cheat, and insisted that we needed to pass around our papers to make sure we weren't cheating to win the non-existent prizes. Be consistent; don't pass anything around. 5) Hey, shit happens. I know that. But any idiot knows that it doesn't have to happen first, before puking, in order for it to be the norovirus. We all have access to information. 6) Offer latex gloves to passengers that want them. Sanitizing me when I walk in a room means nothing. Sitting down at infrequently sanitized tables, using unsanitzed menus, touching the chairs and furniture that have not been cleaned, after sanitizing, is a complete waste of time. When my food arrives, let me sanitize and put on latex gloves, and then eat and drink. At that point, I'll take my chances.
Disembarkation In the past, the TSA staff in New Orleans has always been the worst, and has been gruff and impossible to deal with. This time, they were actually the least painful part of the process. Like the rest of the cruise, people who are willing to pay extra, in this case, take NCL tours in New Orleans, get preferential treatment and can get off the ship and pick up their luggage and go through US customs. The rest of us, have to wait for the Magic Luggage fairy to make sure our luggage magically appears downstairs before we get off the ship. The NCL staff on the ship, during the debarkation process, went to great lengths telling us non paying passengers that we were evil for trying to slip off the ship early, because none of our luggage was available yet. Then, they let all the NCL Tour passengers through (sans luggage), and made all of us wait. We get the message; pay off NCL, and you can do whatever. Otherwise, you wait.
Non-Executive Summary My only hope is that the rest of the fleet hasn't gotten this bad. I'm not sure I want to waste more money, trying to determine if the rest of the fleet is still ok. I think NCL is heading in the wrong direction. Besides the obvious problems with our family being sick on the cruise, the level of service really makes us question using this cruise line again. I feel like I got a $2000 vacation for $7000, and I don't plan on repeating my mistake. NCL will lose much more, in future business, through word of mouth, unless they improve service some how.