I am an experienced traveler despite my decidedly less than "advanced" age. I have been on many cruises mostly with RCI and a few with Celebrity.
My wife and I needed a break this winter, so as a break we purchased a cruise on the NCL Jewel, leaving from NYC just a couple of months in advance tapping into the vast reserves of AMEX rewards points I have from work. Due to scheduling constraints, we were pretty much limited to cruises leaving from NYC/NJ which is only about 4 hours from our home in eastern New England. This quickly narrowed our choices down for us and after a quick check with some trusted friends about the quality of NCL, I booked away. This was a pretty big departure for me as I am very loyal to what I consider to be the best in large-scale tourist cruising.
Needless to say, I was actually quite excited to see how some advice I was given a long time ago about never traveling with anyone but RCI (and by extension Celebrity) would stand up many years later. But enough about me.
I will begin with where we began, transportation to NYC. When not flying on someone else's dime, I tend to be pretty frugal with my dollars getting to where I wish to be. That being said, I booked passage on a frequent favorite of mine, Bolt Bus to NYC from Boston. The round-trip cost for both me and the mrs was under $30. This is solely a factor of booking early. If you are in the service area and have never ridden before, you will find a professionally run, clean and reasonably enjoyable ride for short money. Included in the cost is free (albeit occasionally slow) WiFi and power at every seat.
One of my rules of cruising is arrival at the port the day before disembarkation. I have flown enough miles in my life to have seen any number of seemingly minor things destroy your travel plans. Leaving an additional 24 hours is just smart. FYI, a malfunctioning part on an airplane WILL delay you more than the weather, so thinking you are good to go just because it is summer out will not insulate you from utter disaster. That being said, you will also need to secure lodging for the evening. In NYC, you have no real shortage of hoteling options, however, I would stick with a main brand and never spend less than 130ish a night. Sticking to the "touristy" areas as well will help you avoid any less than desirable areas if you are not too familiar with the NYC landscape, sticking where everyone else is will help you even if you pay a bit more. The price of a cab ride anywhere in NYC is cheap enough that so long as you are on the island of Manhattan, you will not be breaking the bank.
Embarkation was pretty easy. We arrived pretty early into the process and I could easily see that the passengers were being sorted into "classes" so to speak. Frequent cruisers, suite passengers and what I affectionately refer to as steerage. This is not a complaint, just an observation. I will also note, that the entire process here is not controlled by NCL at all. There is a company which staffs the port and does the embarkation process. The only thing that NCL controls is who gets sorted where. In the end, both the frequent line and the steerage line moved at pretty much the same pace and we whipped through the process pretty painlessly. A Note: PRINT YOUR E-DOCS A FEW DAYS BEFORE YOUR CRUISE IS SCHEDULED TO LEAVE. Even if you have completed these docs, they are removed from the website entirely a couple of days before the cruise sails. While it is understandable that they would close modifications to these docs, removing them entirely (and your ability to print them in the hotel business center the night before *ahem*) is rather annoying. I am not quite sure what would have happened had I not had the pamphlet that was mailed to me with our names and info on it when this was requested. I am sure we could have gotten through, but it would have been quite the hassle.
After a quick dust-up with the first "washy washy" folks we ran into before boarding the ship, we headed on board.
Standing on my soapbox for just a moment, I hated being treated like a child who could not maintain the cleanliness of my hands on my own. I get the reasoning behind the "washy washy" girls. I understand 50% of the population needs to be shamed into the sanitation of their hands. At every place to eat, (and throughout the ship in key spots) there are self-dispensing units. My wife and I would always partake when we went past one. Getting sick on a ship is NO fun and my constant sterilization of my hands is my defense against your poor hygiene. I wish the "washy washy" girls were positioned BEHIND these dispensers so that the harassment I experienced every now and then from them would not have happened as they would SEE that I was sanitizing as opposed to me having to dodge them to hit the machine. At least allow me the courtesy of letting me act like the adult I am before you treat me like the child you think I am.
Once on the ship, thanks to some good CC advice, we skipped the buffet that we were herded towards and moved right to the open MDR. A quick note on the food on the ship. It is all at least "good"...I am not going to rate every meal, compare places to eat etc. with a couple of exceptions. The first thing I noticed after digging in, is that when one requests ketchup, you will rarely be left with a bottle. I found this to be true throughout the cruise. Instead I had to provide a spot on my plate for someone else to dole out this precious substance for me. Slightly annoying, but I can deal with it. I imagine it has to do with limiting the exposure we have to each other. Though that all goes out the window when busy waiters just leave the ketchup at other tables.
Halfway through lunch it was announced our cabins were ready. This was a pleasant surprise as they were not expected to be done until a little later in the day. We had booked a mini-suite with a balcony as the price difference between a regular room with a balcony and the MS was pretty small. Unfortunately so was the actual difference between the two. Unless you are more than 2 to a room or need a full-size tub, it just did not seem to be worth even the modest price increase. The room was pretty standard other than that, we used 1/2 of our couch as a luggage rack which worked pretty well. There was room enough in the closet for the bags, but we just didn't care. We never tend to unpack all that much, we use the drawers to hold our dirty laundry until its time to stuff it all back in. The balcony was nice, I kept trying to reserve the deck chair out there by leaving my towel on it, but it kept disappearing ;-). The bathroom was roomy enough for its core functions and everything was cleaned to my reasonably high standards (comfort walking around barefoot). If you are able, try to grab a spray can of Lysol to give everything a once-over before you really move in. If you have lots of gadgets, try to bring a travel power strip, squid, whatever....as a side note...there is an additional outlet hidden behind the TV (which can also be unplugged in a pinch). After a bit of unpacking, we unwound for a bit before hearing the call for muster on our in-room speakers. This was the LAST announcement we heard in our rooms. On most other ships, there was a dial that would turn the volume up or down on the speakers in our room so we could hear the general announcements if we wanted...or ignore them if we did not. The "emergency" announcements always override these settings (much to my chagrin the one day we stopped to perform a rescue at sea and I almost went deaf at 6am when the Captain came on to explain our stop). There is no option on the ship to control these announcements which was actually a disappointment. We were always straining to hear what was being said in the hallway and I feel like I may have missed one or two things.
Tragically, the Costa Concordia disaster coincided with our cruise departure. Due to the weather in port, winter, muster is held indoors. I, like many, many, others, pay 1/4 - 1/2 attention to the musters. During the muster on embarkation day, the room was dead silent. It was also the fastest muster I can remember being a part of which struck me as odd, however, I am sure it is just my recollection playing tricks on me. But it was interesting to see everyone staring intently at those giving safety demonstrations. My note on travel safety...as we have seen by recent events, these ships can experience horrible disasters. You should try to familiarize yourself with the general layout of the ship, the location of your life preservers in your room and where your quickest exit will be. While the mrs is becoming a very savvy traveler, she is pretty guilty of just letting me handle the details of everything and just zones out on vacation. I try to point out the best means of escape to her for EVERY room we stay in, ship or not. If you are traveling with a family, you should make a plan for making contact with one another should something happen. You should also set expectations with your children as to what they should do, should they be or become separated from you during an actual emergency. It sounds silly to think of all these things but should anything adverse ever happen, it will be one less thing you will need to worry about during an event.
It used to be that the mrs and I would pretty much keep to ourselves and go out to the ports, hit the casino, eat, pool, balcony etc. It was not until recently that we began to take advantage of the shows, activities etc on the ships. I was reasonably impressed with the quality of the diversions on the ship. My wife and I were left with a pretty satisfied feeling at the end of the cruise. Deal or no deal is ok, just do me a favor if you get picked...if you make it to the final 2 cases, ALWAYS SWITCH THE CASE. Math is on your side. The "show" is pretty expensive and while you can win a cruise, the odds of getting that high are pretty slim. Perhaps do it once, split a card with your cruise partner and pass some time on a sea day. Maybe you will get lucky. The last show on the last night was good. It was a review with previous performers all doing smaller sets from their normal shows. One comment. At the end of the show, the cruise director sings this slightly sappy song about NCL while the crew comes up on stage. I thought this to be a slight does of schmaltz, but it was at an acceptable level. Then the song transitioned into "We are the world" and the mood swung into hardcore Christian revival. Now, I tend to be a bit "sharp" in my view of the world. But this ending was so sugary sweet that it almost put me into a diabetic coma. As soon as the last note was sung we bolted from the room to avoid what was surely an encore of Kumbaya and hand-holding around a fire. Perhaps it works on the population and if this floats your boat then good for you, but it left me with sour taste. I also participated in the very adult game called Quest. Be prepared to strip down to your skivvies or bring someone who will. I will leave it at that.
Now we come to my real bone of contention with NCL and this is the service, or more specifically, the daily service charge. Let us call this for what it is, you paying the bulk of the crews salary and NCL calling it a "tip". They also call this charge discretionary, but trying to remove it is about as effective as solving math problems by chewing bubblegum. Well, to be fair, they do not call it a tip, they just play word games so they can still charge you an automatic tip with your drinks. For 2 people, this amounts to $24 a day. If you have teens in the room, they charge the same $12 rate for them too. This then gets distributed amongst both the customer facing and non-facing staff to ensure a "fair" distribution of the fee. I do not stiff the people who assist me in any service industry. Being forced to tip, boils down to NCL not treating me like an adult again under the guise of fairness. It is akin to the new trend in hotels being "green" and asking you to re-use your linens and towels to save the planet. The only green they care about is the green they save from not having to launder them if you really do not care. Does it save the planet? Absolutely, but lets call a spade a spade here. NCL is augmenting the pittance they pay their people with your DSC. Plain and simple. They do not care about fairness or they would pay them a living wage to start with. When I booked this cruise, I was not made aware of this effectively mandatory charge. It was a bit of a surprise and a grumpy one at that after my deadline to change without penalty passed. They should just build this into the cruise fare, but they never will.
The service overall was ok. I felt it was actually pretty strong to start with, but tapered out over the week. The wait staff were occasionally inattentive and when I was burning precious vacation time this burned me quite a bit. My room steward was exceptional, hands down. From minute one he knew both of our names and was always available whenever we needed him. His knowledge on the disposal of bodies at sea also came in handy at a crucial moment too ;-).
Let us call this next section, Bone of Contention 2: The reckoning.
I mentioned previously that we chose this ship/itinerary combo for its easy access for me and my wife. The ports of call were "Orlando", Great Stirrup Cay and Nassau with a whole lotta blue in between. I briefly considered a 10 day trip which went a tad further south, but went with the 7 day at the last minute. When you leave from NYC, in the winter, 7 days are just not enough. You end up with only about 3.5 days of quality weather and going back is just too damn depressing. To illustrate: Every morning (or thereabouts) we woke up to paradise out of our balcony. When we woke up in NYC, there was 6 inches of snow and you could not see the very close USS Intrepid through the driving snow. There was not enough warm weather to offset this sudden shock to the system. They go back slowly to 1.) fill out the itinerary and 2.) give you more warm weather. It is pretty depressing on the way home. I was apprehensive about the weather during January in the bahamas, but I was pleased with it overall. I heard we were lucky as the week before the seas were too rough to stop at GSC. Point of note, the seas are rough on the eastern seaboard, especially in the winter. If you are easily seasick, this may not be the journey for you. When you cannot tender to GSC, they just skip it and turn it into ANOTHER sea day. If they know that they skip this island at about a 50% rate in the winter, they should have a backup plan, plain and simple. An extra day in Nassau would suffice. But to pull the short straw and end up with 1.5 ports of call on a 7 day trip is underwhelming to say the least. (Florida barely counts here. By the time you get off the ship and anywhere of interest, you have barely enough time to make a day of it, especially if you are packing the kiddies along. Everything takes longer with those life suckers around :-) ) GSC is nice, rent a clamshell if you are not friendly with the sun. Rent a clamshell and get there first if you want to experience this thing we call a "breeze" or a "view". Getting a shell in one of the back rows just means that you will be a slow roast from the heat instead of broiled by the sun. Lifting the back of the shell up onto the lounges does help a tiny bit, but I could put one of these blue monsters in my living room, scatter some sand on the floor and turn the heat up to 80 in the house and get the same effect. The island was nice, but do not expect much help from the people running it for anything. It took us 20 minutes (actual time) and a bit of walking in circles to find where we could secure our clamshell. No one wanted to help us and we would have continued to walk from "that guy over there" to "that white building" had I not, in no uncertain terms, directed the 7th person I was directed to that I expected them to assist us personally and not bounce us to the next unwilling participant in human pinball. We stuck around for a couple of hours, made a very long trek to the buffet, danced around the happy happy girls a few times and found the food to be ok...Nassau is Nassau...Atlantis is nice, expensive if you hit the water park (which is great, but do it in the summer, not the winter)
This brings me to my first serious issue of this review. I understand that it may not apply to the vast majority of people reading this...but it is worth understanding. In the past couple of years, I have developed a severe food allergy which is very rare and very hard to work around. I initially contacted NCLs access desk and was presented with a very scary looking form to fill out which, after I filled it out, pretty much gave them free reign to deny my boarding if they deemed be unfit to travel (which I am not). I understand that this is intended towards the more significant health risks, so I skipped it. I have found, through conversations with other cruisers with allergies, that your meals can be ordered in advance ready for you to eat at a designated time. This takes the freestyle feeling away a bit. I just tried to question the staff as best as I could and I found that when in the MDRs, they ALWAYS made sure to check with the chefs about the ingredients in anything that I asked about. The issue was at the buffet. Food allergies are becoming more and more common and all throughout the US, eateries are listing major ingredients and known allergens. NCL tended to be very sparse with their labeling of the food in general, never mind its potential allergens. The most I saw were peanut warnings on the dessert tables. I found that my reactions got worse as the week wore on and that was linked to our increased buffet use. Asking the servers there led to a much shakier answer. There was one meal which appeared to be a simple pasta dish. Seeing as how this was the ONLY thing I could eat in the entire buffet, I loaded up. I almost ate it when my fork found a piece of pork (a big no-no). It seems that this particular pasta dish had been cherry picked of its pork bits before I got to it and the TOTAL lack of signage as to what the dish even was.
Overall, NCL was a solid experience for me and my wife. I am giving them another shot in April, to see if the service lows are common and if the highs average out, or if they slot where I am kind of expecting them to, which is a great upper end-ish line, but not quite RCI or Celebrity. There is nothing wrong with this, you could probably cruise with them for the rest of your life and be happy, which is not a bad thing to say about anything. It is just sometimes there is more for the taking.
Disembarkation was easy. We picked the "self service" option and lugged all of our crap to the buffet for one final whack at the free food, then off the ship to catch our bus home in a snowstorm. In hindsight, I think I am going to wake up earlier next time, hit the buffet before 8am then just walk off so I do not have to take my crap with me. (They ask you to be out of your room by this time so they can begin making it up for the next guest). There was a bit of a wait to walk off the ship then a tiny line at customs. We left pretty late anyway, so perhaps this is why there was not too much of a line.
I will leave you with this last anecdote. As I was waiting in the customs line, I walked past some folks in the line for non-us citizens. I heard one of them remark "no offense, but our line is much shorter." I could not help but think that I would take the wait any day, any time, any place. Happy cruising.