Status Report: Smooth Sailing Ahead for NCL America?

June 27, 2006
Norwegian Cruise Line welcomed a third vessel, Pride of Hawaii, to its U.S.-flagged division in May, which left us wondering: Has NCL America left behind its notoriously rocky start for smooth sailing ahead?

First, a brief history: When the first of its three ships, Pride of Aloha, launched in July 2004, neither it nor its nearly all-American crew (with little to no cruise work experience) were ready for what lay ahead -- and some sailings were even canceled. The cruise line even went as far as to refund passengers' service fees as an acknowledgment of service-related shortcomings.

When we re-boarded the ship in April 2005, much progress had been made -- by then, the line had even created a special three-week crew preparation program (NCL is one of few lines to operate one) where NCL America employees are trained in interpersonal relations as well as water and fire safety.

But based on a recent surge of complaints logged on our message boards and in our inbox, it appears NCL America may not be out of the water just yet -- Pride of Aloha and even the new Pride of Hawaii are hot buttons. Most qualms have to do with glitches of late in food and service (or lack thereof). Member Cruzin4aBruzin shared, at length, tales of woe from a cruise onboard Pride of Aloha earlier this month: "Firstly, our room was hardly ever serviced unless we would call reception. On top of that we never received the proper amount of toiletries (i.e.: towels, hand towels, etc.), had to use the same dirty glasses all week as they were never replaced, the shower gel was never refilled, we never had ice put into our ice bucket, we never had our beds turned down at night, and absolutely no mints were on our pillows at night."

Reader Janet Lea wrote in with the following note: "I spent seven days [on Pride of Aloha] ... it was NOT a good experience (note that we loved the beauty of Hawaii). First of all, we were NOT informed of the fact that there was a very vicious virus on the ship and did not find out about it until after I had to take my violently ill sister to the infirmary. We should have been informed and given options. Secondly the service was terrible! We were told by the relatively polite but obviously inexperienced staff that many [crewmembers] were quarantined because of the illness -- but was that the paying customers' fault? NCL should have stepped up and put other personnel on the boat to get the job done. The result was a bad experience for almost all of us...."

Andy Stuart, senior vice president of marketing and sales for the line, tells us the recent hiccup in service onboard Pride of Aloha was related to the virus outbreak onboard (3 percent of passengers on the May 28 sailing, 10 percent on June 4 and 11 were infected), and that the ship is back to normal. "We have a very strict regimen when we have an outbreak on a ship to make sure it doesn't carry over from cruise to cruise, and that puts enormous pressure on the crew. It does impact service, and clearly we understand that. We opted to offer a shipboard credit because we felt it was the right thing to do."

Those onboard who showed symptoms were given $200 shipboard credit per cabin, and $150 was offered to those who experienced service issues during the week as a result of the intensive cleaning procedures by the crew. "Every disappointing write-up is something we take very seriously, and we look into every single instance if someone writes us."

According to a spokeswoman from NCL, passengers who boarded the ship after the first case was reported (on May 30) were notified of the situation in advance, and given a refund of their cruise fare if they chose not to sail. "We gave letters at the pier informing them of this option, and for the June 11 cruise we made calls to folks to inform them of the situation and give them the opportunity to cancel."

It must be noted that there's also a hefty chunk of cruisers weighing in with positive feedback -- some even having sailed on the same cruise as the disgruntled guests. This inconsistency could be the very reason behind heavily trafficked threads with titles like How is the Pride of Aloha, Truth about cruising to Hawaii and Please say it's not as bad as....

Meanwhile, the just-launched Pride of Hawaii has also elicited contradictory reviews from Cruise Critic members who either loved the ship ... or hated it. We're not exaggerating when we say there is no middle ground: there was one overall rating of five-plus stars, and several of just one or two stars.

So what's the real story, and how can Cruiser A have a completely different experience from Cruiser B -- even on the same voyage? Stuart says, "We've been pretty pleased [with customer satisfaction surveys] considering we're on our fourth Hawaii cruise. Clearly we're still in an introductory mode. It's a mixed crew: some very experienced, some brand-new. We're going to have issues here and there. But from the feedback I've seen they are spotty issues, and overall people are enjoying the ship, enjoying the product and enjoying Hawaii."

A few more weeks should get Pride of Hawaii past the "shakedown" period, Stuart tells us, as well as the challenges that come with any new ship "but have been a little more severe on the U.S.-flagged ships." It is interesting to note that the introduction of Pride of Hawaii went much smoother than that of Pride of Aloha and Pride of America, according to Stuart, with less staff turnaround and higher scores on customer satisfaction surveys.

We invite you to read a few additional comments on the NCL America experience from Cruise Critic readers -- and post your own thoughts in a new survey on our message boards.

"The common wait to get seated in a main dining room was about 45 minutes to one hour. On one night after we got seated we waited for 20 minutes just to receive four iced teas. It was common not to have butter on the table or water in the water glasses. As one can imagine, dining at a main dining room was at least a two hour event -- that is once seated. One thing that was quite shocking was witnessed in the main dining room when an elderly couple complained because they waited an hour only to discover the wait staff did not put their name on the list. After the couple was out of sight, the two young women at the podium were laughing at the patrons and making fun of them for complaining." --Cruzin4aBruzin

"I had a wonderful time in Hawaii, but at this point I'm not sure we will book another NCL cruise. I thought the food in the dining room and the buffet area was very bland. Maybe it would have tasted better if the food had been served hot. Our cabin steward, Priscilla, did a wonderful job and even cleaned the glass on our balcony when I showed her how dirty it was. She tried to get someone to clean the balcony deck too, but no one showed up." --saydiver

"[Pride of Aloha] wasn't great but the ship had come a long way. Fact is more guests are leaving happy then leaving upset. It needs to be higher no doubt, but you can have a good time. I feel the ships are as clean as international ships, are as safe too. Food might not be as good, and the dining room service not as refined." --honestguy

"The downside rides on the shoulders of NCL America and its rapid expansion. As previous posters have stated the service on the ship lacks polish in many areas. There is a definite lack of trained staff, compared to other NCL ships and other cruise lines. We had excellent cabin service, however had many problems with the dining rooms, both in seating and actual food service. We were lucky to not have any 'health' issues, but then again, we are avid hand washers and 'sanitizers.' Passengers can not completely protect themselves from the virus issues on ships, but they can certainly do their part in avoiding them. Proper hand washing, using the sanitizers at every opportunity and carrying and using Purell ... these will help you protect yourself." --Poconolady

"We sailed on June 12th and had a great time! I guess we went in not having high expectations for the ship itself and just wanted a way to get around the islands. We were pleasantly surprised at the ship and the overall service. As others have said, you can go in a look for all of the bad (which you can find on any cruise line) or you can decide to have a great time and not dwell on any of the glitches that might happen along the way." -- JoeAndrew

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