What is it that most people look for when they choose to invest their hard earned vacation dollars on a cruise? When I say most people, I mean people who do not have an unlimited amount of money to spend on vacations and so they consider not only the excitement and relaxation but also the cost of going on a vacation.
A cruise offers an all-inclusive vacation experience with a chance to see different places and even a little adventure on the high seas thrown in; all in a safe environment for the family.
That's where NCL insidiously shattered my expectations. The key to a cruise is the "all inclusive" part. You pay your money up front and you then expect to have a quality vacation that includes great meals and lots of fun; without having to shell out budget busting amounts of money to make that a reality. You already paid for your airfare and the cruise. Except for miscellaneous expenses here and there you should be good right?
Wrong. That's where the insidious part comes in. Freestyle cruising. You get to choose when and where you want to eat. Isn't it funny in this day and age when you stop and really think about many of the advertising claims made that so many are completely the opposite of what they try to get us to swallow? Freestyle cruising. What is it really?
What NCL really does is (a) lower the quality of the of the food in their four "free" dining areas, and (b) create a situation where most of the passengers are all trying to eat "when they want to" within a small window of time so that the experience becomes a frantic cattle call. If you don't want to experience being jammed into a crazy dining situation with other frantic passengers or partaking of cafeteria quality food in the buffet, then you are "free" to shell out more money for their "specialty restaurants."
The bottom line: If you really want a decent dining experience, you have to pay extra for it. It's not really included in the price of the cruise. Some people don't mind the stampede or eating food that's not much better than the local diner. It's just that I expected better after sailing on other cruise lines.
Then there are the drinks: the cruise line offers water, milk, coffee, and tea. For free. Those are the drinks included in the price of your cruise. Anything else and you have to pay for it. And the drinks are not cheap. They come with tax and gratuity added automatically which can drive up the price of most drinks to between $6 and $7. A typical day if you and your wife have a couple drinks in the pub or pool bar, the kids have a few sodas, wine with dinner, taking in a show or going to a club at night can easily cost between $100 and $200.
Then there are the service charges that get added to your bill: $12 per day per person. A family of five can expect to pay $60 per day. There is no guarantee that any of it will go to anyone who directly serves you. In fact, if you read the fine print in the cruise contract "some of it" goes to administration expenses. Once again it adds up to a lot of additional money that the cruiser has to pay and there is no direct connection with the crew. They get it or don't get it regardless of how well they serve you. And you are left paying the bill whether you get good service or not.
Then there's the cost for the excursions, the spas, the pictures, medical treatment if you need it, etc. etc. We paid $5000 for our airfare and the initial cost of the cruise. We paid another $4000 for drinks, specialty restaurants, excursions, a trip to sick bay, and misc. expenses. The add-ons were almost as much as the cost of the cruise and the airfare.
NCL is in the business to make money. They are not satisfied with the revenue they get for taking you for a cruise on one of their big ships. That is only the beginning. Once the ship pulls away from port with you on it, the real profit seeking begins. There is nothing freestyle about anything once the ship sails. If you understand that, and if you are OK with it, then all is fine. However, if you are a family on a tight budget and you expect an all inclusive high quality vacation without shelling out lots of additional money, you have been deceived, and you're in for a rude awakening.