We last took a cruise with NCL a bit over 2 years ago on the Jewel and we liked the experience a lot.
Last year we took a cruise on Royal Caribbean and at the time we thought we would always choose Royal Caribbean over NCL in the future. But, time passed and we found an NCL ship / itinerary / price we were happy with and we jumped on it. After the first day the difference was obvious and we were disappointed we hadn't stuck to our previous decision not to return to NCL.
Worse - NCL has actually dropped substantially in our estimation from our experience 2 years ago.
The ship is very nice although the decor is a bit psychedelic - shouldn't be a surprise if you've been on NCL before but we had forgotten just how bright the colours were - not a terrible thing, just different.
The biggest surprises came in the areas of food and service. Now Freestyle sounds like a no brainer great thing but it never really lives up to its marketing hype.
We actually loved the designated seating on our last Royal Caribbean cruise (much to our surprise coming off previous cruises on NCL and a bit brainwashed at the time to the benefits of "Freestyle"). Having a fixed time and known table where you meet other couples and bond for the duration ended up being a good thing. Having the same waiter and service staff was fantastic since they quickly grew to know what we liked and had things waiting for us every night. The kids appetizers were often on the table when we arrived since the kids wanted to eat fast so they could get picked up by kids club staff early.
Anyway - I digress - the NCL Freestyle promise is that they offer it all better and with more options. This does not turn out to be the case.
The Buffet is Freestyle - but you have to hunt for a table a peak hours. The two free dinning rooms often had a 30 minute wait at busy times.
The food in the free dinning rooms was below our expectations and memory from just a couple of years ago.
Beyond those free options - you have a number of premium restaurants you can reserve in but they are now all at additional cost and a premium of $20 or $25 dollars per person (plus in some cases other premiums for some menu options) starts to defeat the premise of food being included.
If the premium restaurants were really extraordinary then maybe but we ended up paying premiums most nights because we were disappointed with the free dining options.
The service in all the restaurants - free and premium, was very poor with a couple of notable exceptions but surprisingly the two really attentive servers that we had were both in the free dining rooms - which was a big surprise.
NCL has now gone to Auto Staff Gratuity which means that instead of the guests getting to tip cabin stewards, service staff, etc that really deserve a tip, guests now get charged an automatic $12 per day per person (even for young children over the age of 3) and this gets distributed to the whole service staff.
I hate this model - tips are for people that provide great service to me - not so that I can pay part of the NCL payroll.
The net result of this policy is that the staff is no longer motivated to go out of their way and that was very obvious vs. past NCL cruises and the last Royal Caribbean cruise we were on.
We hardly eve saw our cabin steward and although our cabin was cleaned and serviced properly, in the past we got to know the cabin steward and they went out of their way to earn their merit tip - now that is not the case.
I actually heard the waiter at the table next to us tell the family there that the tip was not included on their dinner tab and when they noticed that there is an "Auto Gratuity" included on drinks etc - the waiter told them that yes there is an auto gratuity but the tip is not included - OK enough about my pet peeve "Auto Gratuity".
My daughters have always loved the kids club on every cruise we have taken but something happened on this one to turn them completely off the kids club staff - my 7 year old was in tears and assured us that nothing bad had happened to her but the staff was not nice and one of the female staff had been really mean to 2 other girls in her group and she didn't want to return.
This is a huge surprise and while I was tempted to complain - one of the best staff members we came in contact with did see her crying about this at a n evening snack and came over to console her later telling us that she was lodging a complaint through her boss.
My girls didn't return to kids club and that was fine by me but knowing how they had always loved kids club on other cruises I was disappointed that they didn't get to enjoy one of their favourite activities.
We travelled with my mom who was using a walker and in this area we did find the staff very helpful and accomodating.
The stop in the Bahamas at NCL's private island retreat of Great Stirrup Cay was excellent - NCL has improved their facilities here a lot and the weather was great for a relaxing beach day.
Unfortunately, at the very end the disembarkation process is still a nightmare that stains most cruises but it was even harder with my mom in a walker - the process kept being halted by customs over several hours due to congestion in the terminal and the line up just to get off the ship and into the next line up in the terminal was a nightmare. This isn't NCL's issue I guess but it sure does close the cruise off on a sour note.
In the end we did have a great holiday (we always do) but we will not take another NCL cruise any time soon, opting instead to go back to Royal Caribbean which we feel is several notches above NCL and not much if any more expensive (or maybe we'll try Princess or Holland America).