First and foremost, let me say that we had a wonderful family vacation on NCL's Epic last week. I'm writing this review because the comments and reviews we got from Cruise Critic before our trip were SO helpful ... it's only fair to pass my thoughts along too. It was our first NCL cruise (after many RCCL cruises and previous trips on both Carnival and Disney) so it's impossible not to make comparisons. Here's how preferences stacked up for my family of four (two adults and two teens - 13 & 15) between NCL and RCCL:
Big Screen in Lobby
It's a Tie
Ports of Call
FOOD. We pick RCCL for this one because the food in the MDRs was significantly better than NCL. NCL's food choices were boring (same things every night in MDR and on buffet) with a few chef's specials. Waiters were reluctant/or refused to make changes to the dishes ordered. (Asked for sauce on the side once and was advised to just select another menu item because the chef doesn't like to do that.) One night, there was a 45-minute wait for dinner but we were happily advised that we could be seated immediately in any of the upcharge restaurants. I have to note that the food and service in the upcharge restaurants was wonderful - we ate in LeBistro and it was perfect. La Cucina was just okay. Cirque was much better than previous reviews suggested - the dessert was beautifully plated. Loved the live music in the Manhattan Room but our waiter had an attitude that borderline ruined the meal. Waiters in Taste were friendly and quick. O'Sheehan's was a great late-night spot to grab a snack and make plans for the next day. Highly recommend the steak at LeBistro, omelets from room service and Mushroom Quesadilla from the MDR. Couldn't help but notice that ALL of the desserts at the buffet were jello-pudding-mousse type, no baked goods at all. Odd ... Considering the cost of the cruise, it was frustrating to realize that we had to budget in several hundred extra dollars to eat nicer meals. We went to the upgrade restaurants 3 nights and (without drinks) that added about $300 to our bill.
ACTIVITIES. Our experience on previous RCCL cruises was that we left the ships after a week and realized that we simply didn't have time to do everything. There was an abundance of activities, classes, tours, games, cooking demos, art and scrapbooking workshops, etc. that were all included and did not come with additional cost. On NCL we frequently found ourselves looking for things to do. In fairness, there were options that came with a fee ... Bingo ($40-$89/each game), bowling ($5), Mystery Lunch ($20), etc. but for the most part the "activities" listed on the day's schedule were not planned ... for example, they would list Rock Climbing Wall 2-4pm, Water Slides 10-6pm, etc. as scheduled activities. There were only 150 kids/teens on our cruise so some of the scheduled activities were cancelled without notice (we sat with other families in the theater waiting for Slime Time Live to begin when a maintenance worker happened to stroll in and said, "I think they cancelled that today."). That seemed to happen several times during our cruise. I wouldn't go so far as to say we were bored, but we certainly weren't busy. Spending money on drinks and gambling was clearly the focus for NCL to entertain passengers. Also, some things that were advertised simply didn't happen ... Ice Skating has been taken off the ship, Giant Screen Wii happened for a total of TWO hours during our entire cruise, Spider Web was only open twice, etc. We tried to bowl several times ... the lanes in O'Sheehans always had a 2-3 hour wait and the lanes in Bliss were never open. In fact, the activities counter where you could check out games, books, get bowling shoes and trade in "points" for NCL gifts was never staffed.
POOLS. RCCL wins this one only because the pools were bigger. NCL's pools were so small that if there were 3-4 people in them, you really felt like you'd be intruding on their personal space if you jumped in. As a result, we didn't use them at all. Not a big deal for us, but for folks who enjoy pool time, I can see how it would be a big negative.
CABIN SIZE/COMFORT. First, let me say that the Epic cabins aren't anywhere near as small as previous posters made them seem. I have to give NCL credit for space efficiency. We were in the Deluxe Balcony and it was perfect for two adults but unreasonably tight for a family of four. Comparing the Deluxe Balcony on NCL to RCCL's Family Oceanview (which has similar cost, and we've sailed both) has to give the win to RCCL. The size is almost double on RCCL, though you give up the balcony. The lighting in NCL's cabins is very cool. The flatscreen TV on NCL is nice and big. The beds on RCCL are wonderful - all have pillowtops. The beds on NCL were terrible. By the second day I asked our steward (who was super nice, by the way) if he could get me one of the foam "egg crate" pads to put on the bed and he said "No, everybody complains about the beds and those all get taken on the first day." He ended up folding a comforter and putting it under my sheet to add a little cushion. The bunk bed and couch were even worse. He jokingly suggested that I go to the spa and get a massage to help my back, said lots of passengers do that.
BATHROOMS. Did I like the layout of the bathroom on NCL? Yes. The shower was great - spacious with really good water pressure and very hot water. Bring your own soap, shampoo and conditioner the product provided is substandard. Plenty of room in the toilet. The glass doors are a real problem though. Yes, you can close the curtain. But, have to tell you, it never failed that either the steward, one of the kids, or room service knocked when one of us was using the toilet. It got old hearing the frantic "Just a Minute!!!" screams from the other side of the curtain. Also, the doors aren't sealed so sounds and smells were all shared. If anyone is in the cabin, they are trapped there until you're done in the shower or toilet because they can't exit the cabin without invading your privacy. The sink is no big deal; not sure what all the fuss was about. Storage around the sink was plentiful. Now, I understand that some couples are comfortable sharing everything ... for them, this layout will be no problem. But, if you're like us and enjoy even a little privacy, then the NCL layout will be uncomfortable for you. So, for me, the win goes to RCCL simply because I prefer the traditional private bathroom.
CUSTOMER SERVICE. Okay, so when our cruise documents/tickets arrived from NCL in an envelope marked Welcome Aboard, there was a coupon book included. There were coupons for 10% off a single item purchased in the Duty Free onboard Gift Shop, 5% off onboard liquor purchase, buy two LeBistro dinners get a free cover charge, match bet coupons for the casino, etc. However, when I tried to use those coupons, I was told that they weren't accepted on Epic but that I was welcome to use them on a future cruise. Excuse me?! NCL sent them to me along with my Epic cruise tickets! It was very frustrating and when I went to the customer service desk to ask about it I was quickly dismissed and handed a business card for NCL's corporate office. "You should call them when you get home." To make matters worse, when I tried to use the coupons the cashiers in the shops kind of reacted like I was being "cheap" and made me feel silly for even asking to use them. We had several issues with waiters, albeit nothing major, which made us quickly realize that the mandatory service charge that is automatically added to the NCL bill ($12 per person, per day - about $350 for our family) really does impact the quality of service compared to RCCL. Another thing, again not major, but ... when we entered our cabin on the first day the trash cans from the previous guests were full, the sheet under the comforter was pushed down to the bottom of the bed and there were some unfolded towels on the counter. We couldn't help but wonder if our cabin had been thoroughly cleaned before our arrival. In fairness, I have to tell you that our cabin steward (Anthony) was simply wonderful for the remainder of the cruise - he was friendly and attentive and I have nothing but positive things to say about him. In fact, our refrigerator was broken and Anthony was kind enough to bring us an extra ice bucket to keep our drinks cold - so we had two ice buckets which he refilled daily. (I know what you're thinking ... Why didn't he just get the refrigerator replaced? No idea.) And, in the casino (again, not major) there was no rapport with the dealers. My previous experience at Atlantis and on RCCL was completely different, the dealers were personable and familiar, and on NCL they barely made eye contact with you. So, the Customer Service win has to go to RCCL.
ON BOARD EXPENSES. We read online that NCL will "nickel and dime" you on the cruise and while I can't say it was that bad, I can tell you that I've never felt the need to pay so much attention to spending as I did on this cruise. Beware if you have kids and they use the arcade - games are $1.50 to $5 each and they add up FAST! Big warning ... if they swipe their card and the game doesn't work, kids will naturally assume that the card swipe just failed and they'll try to swipe it again (and again and again) until it works. Problem is, they actually do get charged every time even if the game (air hockey was our problem) doesn't start and you can't dispute that charge. Our kids ran up an $80 tab in an hour without even realizing it. Most of the parents we met on board were complaining about it, customer service responds with a shrug and won't provide times (only dates) for charges so you can't prove the game actually wasn't played. By the end of the week, most parents had disabled their kids' cards. We also had an incident where a charge was accidentally doubled on our card, it was an honest mistake and when the cashier noticed his error he immediately issued us a credit. We checked our folio on the TV and confirmed the credit was there. Two days later, however, the credit was mysteriously removed. We went to the customer service desk and they said that the credit probably didn't make sense to the night auditors so they just removed it. We had to provide the receipt to get it put back on!! So, my advice is keep all of your receipts in your cruise and match them up to your folio daily. We've always enjoyed the cooking demo type activities on RCCL which do not have an additional charge, on NCL the only interactive type are drink workshops and they come with a fee. Granted, you get to sample all of the drinks so if five martinis at noon are your thing on vacation, you might find this to be a great deal! When you factor in the restaurant charges, entertainment charges and activity fees it adds up super fast. Can you avoid all of those things and still have a nice cruise? Of course. But, the expenses on NCL add up significantly faster than on RCCL.
CASINO. We aren't big gamblers and really the only time we game is on our yearly cruise. But, we've always had some luck. Can't say we ever left a ship ahead, we always end up giving our winnings back to the casino, but we've never gone an entire week without a single win either. Maybe the luck just wasn't with us this week, but we noticed it wasn't with too many other people either. The casino on NCL isn't a destination, it's a required walk-through part of the ship, and you cannot avoid it. Because of that, there is no excitement or energy in the casino; the "fun factor" is lost because of the constant flow of traffic. Read lots of complaints about the smoke before we cruised and I have to say it wasn't nearly as bad as I expected. They have standing floor purifiers plugged in (is there no filtration system built into the ship??) like you'd buy at Sharper Image and I thought they were working pretty well. So, if you're sensitive to smoke I really wouldn't worry about it being a big issue. We never saw the poolside tables open; I wasn't up there all day every day so I can't say they were never open. But, because my kids spent so much time on the slides I was on the pool deck somewhat frequently and they weren't open. Our time in the RCCL casino was much more fun, not only because we had the occasional win but also because it was a separate place on the ship that we chose to spend time in and there was music, cheering, positive energy. After awhile, NCL's casino offering was like wallpaper and you just walked past it on your way to better things.
SPORTS/TV. We're sports fans (especially college football) and, as it turns out NCL gets one satellite game per day only. So, if it's football season, you just have to hope that the one game they're showing that day is a good one. The rest of the time, the TV's in the bars and the big screen in the atrium will have a "window" replaying, which is interesting the first time you see it (still camera in Times Square, still camera on a park bench in China, still camera on a busy city street in Tokyo, etc). However, by the end of the week you be really sick of it. Also, we've always enjoyed relaxing in our cabin with the kids and ordering room service for a late-night snack while watching a movie on RCCL. On NCL you will be charged $12.95 for a movie and the same eight sitcom episodes, which are about ten years old, show over and over in the same order for seven full days. NCL did show a few good movies on the big screen in the atrium (Hitch, Mamma Mia and Star Trek were the three on our cruise). We saw two of them and it was very comfortable, they had popcorn and we noticed the teens were there in PJ's with pillows on the floor watching too. We enjoyed that.
LINES. Turns out, Freestyle ain't so freestyle after all. On RCCL every passenger has the ability to see every entertainment offering. On NCL, if you didn't reserve things in advance (you could book reservations 45 days before sailing) then there was a chance you wouldn't get in. Thanks to Cruise Critic, we knew to do this so we got to see everything we wanted (Cirque, Blue Man Group, Legends). However, each night at Cirque there was a stand-by line that went through the lobby and up the stairs. On the night we saw Cirque, people with reservations were lining up an hour before the show to get good seats and on our night nobody in the stand-by line got in. Legends was full and closed to walk-in guests for every show but one on our cruise. Blue Man seats were available. We had to wait in lines for dinner, we waited in line for over an hour to disembark in Nassau, there were long lines for bowling (we never did get to play). So, bring your patience.
EMBARKATION/DISEMBARKATION. NCL completely wins on this one. Literally, 20 minutes after placing our luggage on the curb we were seated in Taste ordering lunch. There were plenty of NCL staffers showing passengers where to go, greeting us with friendly smiles and keeping the line moving. Previous reviews complained about entering through the casino and not being warmly greeted. My opinion was that entering through the casino was no big deal, it was clean and colorful and we were quickly handed the day's itinerary and invited to have a seat for lunch. We were greeted by several friendly NCL staffers with big smiles and were also invited to take a face-recognition photo. Our experience with RCCL wasn't horrible, but we certainly spent plenty of time waiting on lines at port.
PHOTO GALLERY. Anyone who has sailed RCCL knows how much time can be spent in the gallery searching racks and racks of photos trying to find familiar faces, then stacking them up and squeezing them into the racks. NCL had a great system. Thanks to the face-recognition photo taken at embarkation, they manage to not only identify your photos but they place them in binders that are sorted by cabin number. Fabulous! The photographers were friendly and patient, the background options were plentiful. We collected a few dozen pictures and struggled to select the best ones and stay within a budget (haha, I always spend double what I planned on pictures!). The photos aren't cheap ($20 each) but they are right in line with what the other cruise lines charge and I thought the quality was really good. NCL easily gets the win on pictures and gallery organization. A word of caution, however, a LOT of people wait until the final night to select their photos (I did) so it gets crowded and hectic, bring your patience if you choose to wait.
ENTERTAINMENT. Are you guaranteed a seat to see all of the entertainment? On NCL - no. On RCCL - yes. Is there a different live entertainment option to be found (not including clubs and bars) each night on the cruise? On NCL - no. On RCCL - yes. That being said, the quality of entertainment on NCL was significantly more impressive than what we experienced on RCCL. In fairness, the team of entertainers on RCCL was really versatile and talented and we also enjoyed those shows. But, the NCL performances were far more upscale and Vegas quality. The Blue Man group was great. The Legends show, which I expected to be campy, turned out to be very good and the entire audience was reacting positively. The Cirque Dreams show was good ... not amazing, but to be fair, I had seen Cirque du Soliel previously so my expectations were likely too high. The other passengers at our table, who were experiencing Cirque for the first time thought it was marvelous. The comedian/magician who is not a permanent performer on Epic, was mediocre ... we were able to see the "magic" in several of his tricks because he made mistakes and he did the same schtick night after night, told the same jokes (boring), etc. We noticed people walking out on him. The bottom line, in comparing NCL and RCCL, however, has to give the win to NCL because of the quality of the permanent shows.
SLIDES. NCL wins. Carnival has them, Disney has them, NCL's are the best. Not sure why RCCL is avoiding this huge passenger draw. The slides were appropriate for cute 5 year olds in princess bathing suits, 70 year old grandparents with sunblock on their noses and even moms like me. People of all shapes, sizes and ages were able to manage the slides and the steps (which were not steep or slippery). Though, be warned, the deck around the slide area is VERY slick I saw several people fall. NCL is clearly aware of the problem as in addition to having fabric carpet runners strewn around the deck there was also a maintenance worker with a giant squeegee on deck at all times pushing puddled water towards drains. I read about the problem on Cruise Critic before we sailed and purchased some traction fabric slides from Land's End, which were comfortable and inexpensive, to wear specifically while on deck.
CABIN STORAGE AND EFFICIENCY. Cubbies, cabinets, shelves, drawers, bins, hidden compartments behind headboards, sliding trays under the beds ... the list goes on. NCL has mastered the challenge of making use of almost every inch of the cabin. There's really no place to leave a suitcase out so go ahead and unpack, there is easily a place for everything and plenty of space under the beds to stash the luggage. Right up until the final day of our cruise we were discovering little hidden spots to store things! NCL easily wins this category.
CRUISE COST. A Deluxe Balcony on NCL is priced about the same as a Deluxe Family Cabin on RCCL for a seven-day Caribbean cruise. NCL's cabin is almost half the size of RCCL's, but NCL includes a balcony. The big difference however, ends up being onboard costs. While I can't agree completely with the "nickel and dime" charge against NCL, I do have to admit that our onboard costs (not including gifts and artwork) was significantly higher than on RCCL. So, no winner here, have to call it a draw.
BIG SCREEN. NCL has a nice quality big screen (smaller than IMAX, bigger than your local movie theater) in the lobby on Epic that is used to show sporting events (one a day maximum), live concert videos (two on our cruise), and movies (three on our weeklong cruise). The lobby had very nice comfortable chairs and a good sound system so we really enjoyed it. RCCL showed sporting events on a big screen in one of the entertainment venues but wasn't really set up for that kind of viewing. On the flip-side, RCCL had free movies in the cabins so if relaxing with a film is on your vacation ToDo list; you can do it in the comfort of your cabin. The win, ultimately, goes to NCL. One complaint would be that the placement of the big screen, at the back of Epic in the Spice H2O area, made no sense. It entirely blocked the view off the back of the ship and ironically sometimes showed the view from a camera of the water behind the ship ... the exact same thing you'd see if the screen were down!
CRUISE DIRECTORS. Both RCCL and NCL impressed me with their choice of Cruise Directors. Full of energy, enthusiasm and happily keeping the positive flow moving at all large group events. Paul Scully was our Cruise Director on last week's Epic and his humor was charming, flirty and his ability to recognize people and remember their stories was amazing. This one is also going to be a draw between RCCL and NCL because both cruise lines really do a wonderful job selecting Cruise Directors with big personalities who positively impact passengers' vacations. One minor negative note, on one evening of our cruise the Assistant Cruise Director hosted a game show called The Perfect Couple. There was a point where he was trying to get the crowd to dance and he jokingly said into the microphone "You people are looking a lot redder and rounder than you were at the beginning of the cruise, obviously you found the buffet but not the gym. Give me a show of hands, how many of you have even seen the gym?" I know he was trying to be funny, but he wasn't. You could hear an audible gasp from the crowd when he said it and a lot of people left, wandering out of the venue just shaking their heads. He also hosted Bingo a few times and repeatedly criticized other cruise lines - "This isn't Carnival, we keep our pants on." Not cool.
PORTS OF CALL. A draw, NCL and RCCL stop at the same ports on their 7-day Caribbean cruises and both do a good job preparing their passengers for shopping deals, excursions and customs regulations.