December 11, 2005
Strange to say, but "Freestyle Cruising" seems to mean that nothing is free.
Everything from bottles of water to the food in some of the "premium" restaurants
is for sale at prices that you might expect to pay at a New York hotel.
This was my 4th cruise on my 4th different line. I will cruise again with Carnival,
MSC, and Princess. I will not book another cruise on NCL.
We did not get the room we booked. It was to be a handicapped-access room with a
couch and a balcony. There was no couch. There was not even a chair that my wife
(who uses a walker) could use. Their "remedy" was to bring in a somewhat better
chair, more like a waiting-room chair than the little kitchen chairs. We also had
problems with a sink that wouldn't drain, a toilet that wouldn't flush, and a
coffeepot that wouldn't open. These were all fixed, but it seems like a great deal
of work for a fairly new ship.
We had gotten a promotional package that was supposed to include a $300 onboard
credit. It did not appear. The travel agent and NCL seem to be pointing fingers
at each other over this, but I talked to (and stood in line with) at least four
other couples who had the same tale of the disappearing $300 onboard credit. We
did not all have the same travel agent.
NCL announced that they would be selling transfer tickets and chartering
additional busses to the airports due to the NYC transit strike. I asked about
transport to the Bus Terminal. I was told, rather rudely, that there were no
available taxis, that NCL was providing airport transfers only, and there was
nothing additional they could do. We would have to see the port agent when we
arrived. Luckily, the only effect was an unusually long wait for a taxi.
That rude ticket agent was very much the exception among the staff. Except for him
and one member of the cruise director's staff (who seemed to really want to be
somewhere else) the staff was friendly and as helpful as they could be within the
severe limits imposed on them by the NCL corporate environment.
The general problem is that everything is promised as first class and delivered on
the cheap with BIG extra fees. For example, the descriptions of the Internet access
NCL provides make it sound like the kind of service you get in any good hotel these
days. The reality is that they provide an Internet Cafe with very expensive rates.
I think NCL needs to understand that a solo comedian is not really a "show" at all.
This is especially true when a significant portion of the passenger population does
not speak English. To them, a solo comedian is just somebody on a stage making
sounds. There was also a solo singer and a magician. The singer was very good, but
it's very rare that one man can carry an entire show. The one big production called
"Bollywood" was very good, but some passengers had seen it multiple times before.
It apparently has not changed for two years or so.
The stage band and some of the secondary acts were exceptionally talented people
doing their best with inadequate support. The stage band consisted of piano, drums,
bass, and one each of trumpet, saxophone, and trombone. I guess this is NCL's idea
of a "big band." The musicians were quite talented and one of the best evening
entertainments was a jazz jam in one of the pubs. In the small combo context, they
performed outstandingly. It was only on the stage that the handicap of trying to
make a small combo do the job of a big band became insurmountable.
There was a couple from Australia doing a lounge act that was first rate. They
performed a broad range of material with an individual style. They were especially
good in vocal harmonies. Again, the problem was a lack of support. Where they
should have been supported by a backing band, they had an MP3 player.
Even the karaoke book was woefully inadequate, consisting mostly of Sinatra and
bubble gum hits with little of the 50's through 90's songs that are staples in most
It's really sad when one of the best shows of the cruise is the one that the
passengers put on at the last evening.
Dining is the area where "Freestyle Cruising" becomes really critical. There are
lots of extra charges for the "upgrade" restaurants. The basic dining rooms are
quite good. Aqua was our favorite and very well-run. The open cafe is convenient,
but the food is about what you would expect to find at a hospital cafeteria, except
that there are few "healthy" options. Other than fresh fruit, most of the main
dishes are heavily loaded with fat, salt, and carbs. They don't even have margarine
to substitute for butter.
Our first day out, we had two emergency medical evacuations for people with heart
attacks. Maybe they were eating at the cafe.
Other Onboard Activities
NCL seems to provide good stuff when they charge for it (at nearly double the rate
you would pay ashore) and poor to mediocre stuff in all other cases. The spa, for
example, offers good services, but a full massage was almost $200. The exercise
room was usually fairly full with a short wait for equipment.
The trivia sessions, crafts, bridge, and other such activities were not very
well-attended. Perhaps this was because they were often run by that "would really
rather be somewhere else" staffer and often didn't even offer the little prizes
that usually go with these things. The running joke was "winners get to keep the
The casino was very well-run. Of course, it is probably the biggest moneymaker on
the ship. They advertise slots with a 95% return, but the fine print tells you that
this is only on a limited number of machines. My wife was able to find a few, all
expensive. Perhaps this is really the reason for the mediocre entertainment and
other activities. They don't want anything drawing you away from the casino.
In most of the ports, I just got off the ship and walked a few miles (my daily
exercise) with stops for some shopping.
Jamaica was about as expected. The vendors were rather aggressive and the
juxtaposition of poverty with wealth is always a bit jarring.
Grand Caymen Island was a more affluent place, reminding me of Bermuda. There is a
submarine tour that families would especially like.
Roatan was a very poor place, with a policeman every twenty feet or so near the
docks. The police keep the crowds of children from becoming too much of a problem
for the tourists. The cameo shop has some very nice hand work done on the site.
This was the only planned stop where the ship tied up to a dock.
Belize was an unexpected pleasure. We took the tour of the Mayan ruins and got to
see a great deal of the island. It is very clean and organized. The signs of
poverty are kept away from the places where tourists usually go. This place is a
diver's paradise, with a huge reef and the famous "blue hole." I'd like to go back
Cozumel has more Mayan ruins than any other stop. Unfortunately, I did not get to
go ashore because my wife was sick that day.
Great Stirrup Cay got skipped because of high winds that would have made tender
operations too hazardous. Instead, the ship docked at Nassau for half a day. This
was my third time in Nassau, and we really weren't there for long enough to do
I like cruises from Boston and New York because they eliminate the need to fly to
the ship (which is often the biggest problem).
I dislike NCL because of the poor quality of the entertainment and activities, and
the inflated extra charges. If you must take a "Freestyle" cruise, plan on spending
30-50% of the booking cost on concealed on-board charges and don't expect anything
to be anywhere near as good as the brochure says (including your stateroom).
Better yet, just book with another line.