This was our first cruise, and since the cost would be ten times that of our typical vacation, there was plenty to be anxious about. I had heard that cruises are a good value for your money
This was a fan club cruise which is not an inexpensive way to cruise; the fares were about $400/person (about $100/day) higher than the same cruise without the fan club events. This probably cost ten times the amount of a typical vacation for us, so expectations are high. It was about 7 days into the trip before I could say I was having fun, and 2 days later I got sick. When enough time has passed that I have forgotten about the credit card bills, but remember the good parts, the trip will have been worth it.
The travel agents were very helpful answering my newbie questions and didn't push additional products. (In contrast to the cruise itself, where plenty of additional product was pushed.)
We parked at SkyPark. It takes a while for you to get to the airport, but probably no longer than being in economy parking, and if you give them your business card, you can park for about $10 per day. We flew from Newark to Seattle on Continental. Newark is always crowded, but security is efficient (unlike in Philadelphia). The flight went without incident, though each flight was its typical hour late.
Because we wanted to increase the probability we would get to the ship on time, and get to our return flight on time, we got to Seattle three days before the cruise and left a day after the cruise. We stayed at Best Western Plaza on the Green in Kent, WA. It's about 15 minutes from the airport and 30 minutes to downtown Seattle, and much less expensive (about $130 per day). I believe there is a shuttle to the airport, but we rented a car because we visited friends in the area. The hotel was nice enough; they had a hot breakfast. The only complaint we had was that the hot tub was inoperable.
Travel to port of embarkation:
Instead of driving to the port and spending 7 more days for a rental car, we returned the car to the airport and got a taxi from the airport to the port (about $40 each way). We got to the port about 12:00. People were there to direct you through security. You have to have your cruise ticket (1 per room (?), not per person) and your passport out. Fortunately, the security process is not nearly as intensive as at the airport: you can keep on your shoes, belt, jackets, and jewelry, and keep your laptop, liquids, and camcorder in your carry-on luggage. Each person can have 4 pieces of check in luggage. (How the contents of those 4 pieces of luggage fits in the room is another question.)
After security, you check into the ship; the process is similar to that of a hotel except they take a picture of each person and gives each person a room key which doubles as a charge card. Makes it convenient to rack up huge bills. We still had to wait an hour or two until our room was ready, but we were able to eat at the Market Cafe and look out the window, so the wait was quite pleasant.
I didn't have to worry about having nothing to do. There were so many things to do that it was hard to choose among them.
One of the supposed positives about a cruise is that it includes everything. "All-inclusive" is, at best, a terribly gross exaggeration. Half the restaurants had a cover charge ranging from $10 to $25 per person, and some menu items had an additional charge on top of that. You got cafeteria food for free; anything higher than that was extra. Juice is free at breakfast. Water, tea, coffee, hot chocolate are free all day. Other drinks are extra, and about twice as expensive as on land. $2 for a can of soda, $9 for a mixed drink. Alternatively, you could get a soda card which would get you unlimited fountain sodas for "$6.25/day/person for adults and $4/day/person for kids+15% gratuity". However, you have to buy that for the whole cruise for about $50 per person, similar to saying that a shoe costs $50, but you have to spend $100 to buy two of them.
The whole trip was basically an 7-day infomercial. It seems like living in a dorm in Las Vegas, but on a boat. Advertisements about casinos, tournaments, and how to play the games. Bingo games. Art auctions. Shopping consultants pitching gemstones. Advertisements about shore excursions, threatening "if you don't book with us, we'll leave without you." Spa treatments. The "extras" cost almost $3K. Even the spa pushes to buy extra products.
Most of the crew was not from English-speaking countries. It's often hard to understand the crew. (You get used to it eventually.) If there was an emergency, someday someone will likely die as a result of miscommunication. This is not a problem at the Market Cafe, where you just point at the food. When you order at a restaurant, you never know what you're going to get when the food arrives.
If you are seeking good weather, don't go to Alaska. It rained half the days. It was foggy half the days. It snowed on two of the shore excursions.
It was nice to have a balcony room in two ways: (1) it was fun to take pictures of the ports as we came into port, and (2) being between Floors 8 and 11 means we didn't have to walk too many stairs to get to things. The restaurants are on Decks 6, 7, 8, and 12, the shows are on Deck 12, and the pool, fitness center, and sports activities are on Decks 12, 13, and 14. The wireless hotspots were on Decks 7, 8, 9, and 12.
For an Alaskan cruise, bring raingear and lots of layers, a hat, gloves, sunglasses, and sunscreen. An umbrella is not so useful. The high in Seattle was in the upper 80s and the low in Alaska was in the 30s. If you take the fjords cruises or dogsledding tours, dress for 30 degrees, snowing, and a 30 mph wind, but also for 70 degrees and no wind once you are back in town.
They say you can board the ship at 16:00, but I'd get to the ship by 14:00 at the latest.
We found one US and one UK electrical receptacle. Bring a power strip and/or extension cord and maybe a foreign adapter if you plan to charge more than one item.
There are no maps of the ship available on the ship that you can carry around with you, so if you are new to cruising, print the deck plans off the website before you go. We felt lost for the first three days. However, if you've been on mass-market cruises before, the layout seems pretty similar.
There is no self-service laundry on the ship, but plenty of places to hang clothes, so you can do laundry in the sink, pay for NCL to do it, or bring enough clothes for the whole trip
If you plan to drink alcohol, you are stuck buying it onboard, but if you plan to drink soda, buy some in the originating city to bring on board. Otherwise, learn to drink water, juice, coffee, tea, and hot chocolate. Depending on how much you plan to buy in foreign cities, consider bringing some local currency.
If you have a camera, bring either lots of film or plenty of digital capacity (memory cards or a laptop). Extra rechargeable batteries and a charger will be useful as well, as well as something to prevent your camera from getting wet and a lens cloth (and other cloth) to wipe off your camera lens and body. You may get a lot of pictures, but do not expect to get pictures like you see in the brochures. It will likely be raining, and often you are in a moving vehicle, so the sights are visible for less than a minute. You also have to have a very long zoom (>300mm in 35mm equivalent) and know how to use it without a tripod to avoid your subjects being specks in your picture. There is one shore excursion that is photography specific (Capture Juneau Photography Tour). Most of the tours also have a lot of people that want to take the same picture you do, so they often get in the way or shove you out of the way. If you plan to use the internet enough to buy a plan (more than 73 minutes), consider buying it the first day. They give you about 15 or 20 extra minutes.
We had a balcony room (Category BB, 9th deck, Rm 9612) and really liked the location. It was on the same level as the internet cafe, which was great for us. It was relatively centrally located and not too much rocking. It reminded my wife of an RV. The bathroom was small, but adequate with liquid soap and shampoo and a bottle of lotion. The shower was a Grohe more typical of a European hotel (separate temperature (in C) and volume controls). The bed was tolerable, but not very comfortable, even by hotel standards. There is a small hotel safe, but we couldn't open it, so we never used it. The view of the mountains while on the ship is nice, but not spectacular since the ship is so far from land.
They do housekeeping twice per day. In the evening, we got a bulletin with the next day's events. We also got a towel folded into a cute elephant.
You hear lots of safety messages at the beginning. It may sound old, but is valuable for new cruisers, e.g., don't burn candles or throw cigarettes overboard. Mandatory boat drill. It's useful, and only takes about 15 minutes, but they forbid passengers from taking pictures, supposedly for security reasons, then the crew takes pictures of the passengers during the drill and sell the pictures to the passengers.
Internet access was expensive ($100/250 min or $55/100 min or $0.75/min +$3.95 activation; get 15 or 20 minutes free if purchased the first day; after the first allotment, $12/30 min or $0.75/min) and slow (about dial-up speed).
Cell phone quality was poor. My wife tried to call me from her cell phone to mine. So much echoing that we couldn't understand each other. Ship to shore calls to US and Canada $5.95/min, elsewhere $6.95/min. Toll-free calls are the same rate, and calling cards and credit cards are not accepted.
There was one pool that was deep for swimming laps. The shallow pool was mostly dominated by children. There was about 6 hot tubs, most of which were dominated by children. Most of the time, it was too cold to swim; I imagine the pools would be used all the time on a Caribbean cruise.
There were a variety of sporting events available: ping pong, basketball, soccer, dodgeball, and badminton. However, picking up a game was difficult: it seems as if you have to bring your own people to play with. I can play with my own buddies at home; I don't need to go on a cruise for that.
Between Prince Rupert and Seattle, it must have been in a hurry to get back because the boat was really rocking (compared to on the way to Skagway).
Reservations can be made one day in advance. They say you have to cancel by 17:00 on the day of the reservation to avoid getting charged. Reservation has a 15 minute grace period. However, my wife was late because of a spa treatment, and they were okay with changing the reservation.
Resort casual, including jeans, is welcome at any restaurant except Versailles. Market Cafe even accepts swimwear. Sunday was dress-up night, but dressing up was not required.
Service was slow in every restaurant we went to (Versailles, Aqua, Le Bistro, Ginza); dinner took about 1.5 hours.
Le Bistro is their French restaurant. It cost an extra $40 with tips and one drink, but we got an appetizer, an entrEe, and a dessert, and we thought the food was good.
The next day we went to Ginza the Asian fusion restaurant. It cost an extra $30. I found it strange—the dishes only sounded like typical Asian dishes, e.g., chow fun, lemon shrimp, but all tasted strange. I guess that's the "fusion" part. How often do you see recommended wines at an Asian restaurant?
Aqua restaurant. This is one of the free restaurants that is open only for dinner, so you have to wait in line during peak dinner times. We went their twice; they had a slightly different menu each time.
Versailles. This is their "dress up" restaurant, though "dress up" is relative on NCL. If you're a stickler for dress, NCL (at least on this cruise) is not for you. This is one of the free restaurants, so you have to wait in line during peak lunch and dinner times. We went there twice.
Blue Lagoon: This is only restaurant open past 22:00. We went the first night, and not unexpectedly, it was crowded. We got to the front of the line to order food, and then were told the line started 10 feet back, so we were effectively kicked out of the line. Only after a complaint were we allowed to order (but only to go). After 25 minutes of the food's failure to arrive (and customers that ordered after us already got their food), we complained again, and it showed up a few minutes later.
Chocolate buffet: We were glad we missed this, as we were told by people who went that the event was the ship trying to get rid of all the desserts it didn't sell during the week.
I suspect they use basically the same dishes in all the restaurants and just slightly change them, e.g., the way they prepare them, for the different restaurants. For example, the same ice cream was available in Le Bistro and Ginza. The same flourless chocolate cake was available in Le Bistro and Aqua. Crème Brulee was available in both Le Bistro and Ginza. Sirloin steak was available at both Aqua and Versailles. It was nice to have some familiar items in all the restaurants, but some might ask, "Why have different restaurants?"
They have a free ice cream bar each afternoon, but if you're used to Ben & Jerry's or Haagen Dazs, you will be disappointed in the ice cream here. I found it not worth eating even for free, though I did have ice cream as dessert in some of the restaurants.
Water, coffee, and tea were generally available at any time. Juices were apple, pineapple, and orange, and were available only at breakfast. I found hot chocolate only at the Blue Lagoon, but available at any time.
It seems that NCL cares about our waistlines. Portions were small compared to restaurants such as Chilis, Bennegans, or Fridays. The juices are diluted compared to buying it at the grocery store. The ice cream and desserts were not sweet, as if they forgot to add the sugar.
They told us on your 3rd specialty restaurant visit, you get free champagne. We never made it to that 3rd specialty restaurant.
I really enjoyed the "Acoustic Coffee House" performer, Jana Seale. I ended up listening to her almost every night. The first karaoke night featured a bunch of people who were drunk. The second night, in comparison, seemed to be professional night; almost all of the performers were very good, the best I have ever seen except for once in Montreal. The last night, "Karaoke Idol" night, had a mix of very good and bad performers, but the audience had to vote for the best female performer and the best male performer.
Melodic Quartet: From a southern American point of view, it was humorous to listen to foreigners sing country music. They did easy listening songs very well, though.
We really enjoyed the comedian, Bud Andersen. He had adult humor without being too graphic (no swearing, no explicit sexual references, no jokes about race, religion, or politics, or jokes that made fun of NCL or its staff).
We were glad we did not go to the acrobat show, as we were told later by people who attended that it was 5% acrobatics and mostly felt like tai chi for spectators.
Many of the shows were late in the day, and we had to get up early for the shore excursions, so we generally did not attend the shows.
There is plenty of opportunity to buy expensive useless stuff (art, jewelry, knick knacks) on the ship and at each port. Ship prices for some items were not too inflated, other items were grossly inflated.
You can do the typical spa stuff, though it's more than twice as expensive of a similar service where we live, and about 30% more than a similar service at a hotel. A part of each spa service is pressure to buy extra products.
Ports of call and shore excursions:
Most of the shore excursions are very early and the shows are relatively late, so you have to prioritize between shore excursions, shows, and sleep. Since the sun sets after 10 PM and rises between 3 and 5 AM, it's relatively easy to get up early.
Every time you get off the ship, you need your ship card (and your passport if port is in a foreign country). You also were grabbed by people in costume to take a picture. I think it was a way for the staff to feel up the women, but I found them getting in the way of people trying to get to their shore excursions.
We chose to do the wilderness and nature tours instead of the cultural tours for this trip. We were told the glacier tours are better from Juneau than from Ketchikan, and that whether you see Mendenhall Glacier or the Four Glacier tour does not matter.
It seemed as if most of the guides were college students or recently graduated students.
Misty Fjords & Wilderness Explorer: The trip takes you from Juneau to Rudyerd Bay and back. About 30 min of exploring and 4 hours of getting there and back. It's similar to driving hours to see the Grand Canyon, getting out of the car, trying to take pictures while other people are shoving you out of the way or getting in the middle of your picture, then driving home. The narrator, Christy, was very entertaining and informative. You will learn a lot about glaciers and the local trees and animals. She was able to explain things using familiar analogies so that even children would be able to understand. Sometimes the narration was hard to understand while the boat was moving fast or the. The crew was very good as well. If you want to take pictures, you'll want to go to the top deck. However, the top deck is cold. (Imagine 30 degrees, snowing, and with a 30 mph wind.)
Four Glacier Helicopter & Dogsled Adventure: If you've never been on a helicopter ride (and you're not prone to motion sickness), it is an awesome sight. If you (or your children) like dogs, this is the tour for you. If you don't like the smell of dog doo, this is not the tour for you. If you want an adrenaline rush, this is not the tour for you.
We took a helicopter ride, the usual 6-person, 2 in front with the pilot, 4 in the back. They assign seats according to weight; they try to keep groups together, but this is not always possible. (Don't complain about it; sitting apart is better than riding in a helicopter that crashes.) Fortunately, the two in the middle back going one way get to be in the front going back, so everyone gets a chance at a window seat. (In contrast to most helicopter rides where everyone keeps his seat the whole time, so 2 out of the 6 don't get to see much.) The sights you can see from the helicopter (glaciers, blue ice, crevasses) are incredibly beautiful if you have never seen glaciers before.
The sleds are slowed down to 10 mph instead of the usual 35 mph, so the ride was rather boring. You don't really drive the sled; the employee says all the commands, and there are no turns (the trail is roughly a 2-mile circle), so you just stand in the back and step on the brake when directed. If you want to take pictures or video, do it from the front seat of the front sled.
Tracy Arm Fjord & Glacier Explorer: We chose this tour because it one of the few tours that lasted past 1 PM. (Tracy Arm had too much ice, so we went to Endicott Arm instead.) The narrators, Michelle and Bonnie, were very entertaining and informative. They were able to explain things using familiar analogies so that even children would be able to understand. About 30 min at the glacier and 4-5 hours of getting there. At least there were whales, eagles, seals, and icebergs along the way. The views on the way are beautiful. The boat does not get that close to the glacier, but the glacier still looks nice because it's so big. (Besides, you don't want to get hit by falling ice.) It is a unique vantage point to see a glacier, though. It's not every day I get to see ice break off of a glacier into the sea. Or harbor seals lounging on floating ice. The seats were not as comfortable in this tour, nor were there many binoculars (compared to Misty Fjords Explorer).
One this cool about this trip is the cruise ship comes to Tracy (or Endicott) Arm to meet the boat we took for this tour, so you don't have to worry about a return trip.
Ultimate Yukon & White Pass Railway: This trip takes you from Skagway (Alaska) to Carcross (Yukon) and back. The ride up was on the railway. While it was kind of interesting, it's hard to see much, and almost impossible to take good pictures, from a moving train. Most of the sights are visible for only 15 seconds, and there were too many people on the bus wanting to take the same picture, so they almost always get in the way or shove you out of the way. The sights from the train are not much different from what you would see in Switzerland. On the bus, there were more opportunities for picture taking, more stops in towns, and a tour of downtown Skagway. Each picture stop was only two minutes long, and there were too many people on the bus wanting to take the same picture to avoid not having strangers in your pictures. We did have a chance encounter with a bear on the road. The bus stopped so we could take pictures (from the inside of the bus).
At Caribou Crossing, we had lunch and the opportunity to visit a museum, shop for souvenirs, and other activities such as panning for gold and a dogsled ride on grass. The complimentary lunch was barbecue chicken and donuts, which was better than I expected. The other activities cost money, $10 for panning for gold and $30 for the dogsled ride.
You have an express checkout option (leave at 8:00), but you have to carry all of your own bags. Otherwise, you can leave as late as 10:00. You have to pack and leave your stuff outside your stateroom by 1:00 the morning of disembarkation. Remember to keep your next day's clothes with you.
NCL, unlike some other cruise lines, lets you enjoy the ship on disembarkation day instead of having everyone wait in a room until your name is called to disembark.
We enjoyed the fan club part of the cruise very much—this might be the only reason we consider going on another cruise. We are glad we went, as we had not been to Alaska before. However, for the amount of money we spent on this vacation, we could go to Hawaii two or three times, or go to San Francisco ten times, and enjoy ourselves more. It is not that the cruise line did a bad job; they did their job very, very well. However, there are competing interests for our vacation time and money. Read Less