Last year my wife, Sheryl, and I took a cruise on The Rock Boat with my college roommate, Tim, and his wife, Marie. We had such a good time that we decided to do it again. This time we each brought our twenty-something-year-old daughters so they could hang out together and talk about how cool their parents are.
Last year's Rock Boat Cruise was hosted by Carnival Cruise Lines. This year's cruise was hosted by Norwegian Cruise Lines. Even with the recent publicity regarding Carnival, I can't help but compare the two experiences. Though Tim/Marie and our daughters certainly had a different cabin experience, since I have time to kill on my flights from Fort Lauderdale to Phoenix and Phoenix to Oakland, I thought I would document the pros and cons that Sheryl and I experienced.
Norwegian Cruise Line Pros
- The check-in process was faster. Last year the boarding process took about an hour wherein we spent the time getting to know other passengers. This was facilitated by our attire since everyone was asked to wear clothing that identified where they were from. Although I wore my Golden State Warriors shooting shirt, this year we walked right on. Nice!
- Our cabin had nicer finishings. Clearly the Norwegian Pearl is a newer vessel than the Carnival Elation.
- There was a good variety of venues to see shows: a beautiful Stardust theater with comfy seats, an Atrium area where some could sit and many could stand, a Poolside stage for shows outdoors, two lounges for medium-sized shows, and a small bar area for small shows.
- To help reduce the spread of germs, an attendant greeted passengers with the phrase "washy washy" as he sprayed their hands with a dab of hand sanitizer upon entering the buffet area. Sister Hazel wrote a song for the last night with the lyrics "Washy washy, Happy happy, Smiley smiley."
- The check-out process was faster. We walked right off the boat, and US Customs processed us immediately.
Norwegian Cruise Line Cons
- Once onboard, getting our luggage was a total hassle. Our bags were tagged with preprinted luggage labels that identified our room number so that the staff could bring our bags to our room. We were told we could bring one bottle of wine per person for a $15 corkage fee. Knowing this, we each packed a bottle in our bag and expected to pay the fee when the restaurant uncorked our bottles. We waited at our room for several hours — anxious to unpack and get settled in. With no bags in sight, I called the front desk and was told bags were still being delivered. Hours later we got a note delivered saying we had to pick up our bags due to a security problem. We could do so at 5:00 pm. At 5:01 pm we went to the reception desk to pick up our bags. We were told to go to another location. They could not give specific directions, only that we should go down a hall, make a few lefts, and rights, and look for it by a penny machine. After walking around for a while, we eventually found the penny machine. We saw no sign of any luggage pick-up. Eventually, I opened a door that said "Crew Only" to see two guys sitting in a storage area. They asked us to wait outside. Minutes later they propped open the door, and we entered. They asked us to look for our bags. We found Sheryl's. They told us the X-rays showed that the had liquid. We said yes, it's our bottle of wine. They made us pay the corkage fee right then and there. Since the bottle was larger than a typical bottle, we had to pay $30 instead of $15. Sadly I could not find my bag. They told me that if it was not here, it was probably still being delivered. So we left, returned to our room, and Sheryl could unpack. After Sheryl got settled, and I still had no bag, I went to reception and explained our situation: we had one bag we had gotten from security, but the other was nowhere to be found. We completed a lost luggage request. Sheryl and I then went back to security, just by chance, and lo and behold my bag was there. The X-ray showed it too had liquid. We opened it, and I paid the $15 corkage fee for my normal-sized bottle of wine. We then went back to my room, and I unpacked. I can guess that Norwegian can show me some fine print that explains the process we should have followed to bring wine on board and avoid problems like these, but this was not a great start. They should know where our bags are at all times. FedEx and UPS know how to track thousands of packages.
- The safety briefing was chaotic. On Carnival, we went to our designated locations, and a person physically present (a local person) showed us how to put on a life vest and told us what to do in the event of an emergency. For Norwegian, they kept us waiting in the hall 20 minutes before we could enter our designated briefing location. Once inside, we had to wait for someone to describe how to put on a life vest over the PA system while a local person demonstrated. In short, I see no reason why this needed to be synchronized at all of the stations using the PA system. This lengthened the process as it could not start until all briefing stations were ready. Each group should have been able to get the information independently from a provided script read by the local person. Put the vest over your head. Buckle the strap. Pull it tight. It has a whistle if you need it. I know it is probably a federal mandate to hold such briefings, like the ones where flight attendants show you how to buckle a seatbelt, but this could have been executed much better.
- The area for poolside performances did not have enough places where one could watch shows while seated. Carnival's ship had more room to watch shows from deck chairs. This is a plus for an 8-hour day in the sun.
- The 24-hour Norwegian buffet was sometimes closed. We went for lunch one time — closed. We went for a late might snack once — closed. We only had to wait an hour before it reopened, but Carnival never did this. In fact, in addition to the normal buffet, Carnival also had an outdoor buffet so you could pick up meals poolside without going indoors. After a midnight concert where the crowd then went for a late dinner, the buffet ran out of food. I know the buffet needs some down time to clean and switch from one meal to the next, but Carnival did not have this issue. How do they do it?
- The Norwegian buffet also had a drinking problem — though there were ample stations to get food, there were too few for iced-tea or flavored water. There was always a line. Also, the cups were so small that it might require multiple trips for a single meal. I guess Norwegian has small cups to minimize waste from abandoned half-consumed drinks, but having more drink stations would avoid the lines.
- The Norwegian cruise includes two days on their private island called Great Stirrup Cay. Though considered part of the Bahamas, it is really a desolate rock with white sand and palm trees artificially added. It was not scenic at all. Over the years as Norwegian develops the property, it will probably get better. Carnival used its poolside area in place of having its own island.
- Each room has a status indicator set by the occupant and steward: Welcome, Do Not Disturb, and Make Up Cabin. On Tuesday I accidentally left the status as Do Not Disturb, so our room did not get serviced, and we ran out of clean towels — my fault. Since this was our second Rock Boat Cruise, we were entitled to attend a special event. Attendance required a ticket to identify the non-virgins. Passengers obtained the tickets from their stewards. At 10:00 am on Wednesday as we departed our room, I flipped the status indicator to Make Up Cabin. We happened to meet our steward in the hall where I apologized for my mistake but asked him to make up our room since we were out of towels. Our steward showed me our event tickets embossed with our names and said he would put them in our room. We said thanks and went to the island for the day. When we returned at 4:00 pm after a day of shows, our room had not been made up yet, so we had no clean towels. I called reception who seemed surprised. They acted like it was my fault — "Do you have a roommate who was in the room?" I explained that my wife had been with me the whole day, and we even had a conversation with our steward in the hall. I explained that we also needed our tickets for the event. The voice on the other end said they would take care of it. Hours later we returned to our room, and indeed it had been made up. We had clean towels (yeah!), but no tickets. Luckily we saw our steward in the hall later that night and obtained our tickets.
- Our toilet stopped working just before midnight on the last night. At midnight I called the front desk. They told me they would send somebody over. When no one came, I called them back at 12:45 am. We wanted to go to bed, but could not if a repair person needed to enter our cabin. The voice on the other end of the phone told me to try the toilet again. It worked. They had fixed it outside of our room but neglected to tell us. So we stayed up extra time for nothing.
- The alcoholic drink purchasing process was right our of the 1960's. Although we had a magnetic room card, we still had to fill our paperwork. Our bill included a $12 fee per person per day for tips. This money would be shared among the restaurant staff and stewards who take care of our rooms. Despite the fact that the tips where built-in, each service provider stared you down while you signed the paperwork in hopes of getting you to write in an "additional tip" amount. I only did it when I got above average service, which was rare. Our steward told me "This is the last time I will see you." three times before he got the hint that I wasn't biting. Between the luggage hassle and the ticket issue, no way.
- On our first day at the beach, we rented two rafts. A raft was $12.99 for one or $18.99 for two. We chose the package of two so our daughter and her friend could each have one. The problem with this was that they charged us $18.99 twice. Despite the Norwegian Pearl being newer, we could not view our folio using the TV in our room. I happened to go get a physical copy at reception. When I spotted the second charge, I asked reception to correct it. They could not. Instead I had to come back at 5:00 pm and talk to a person who handles these issues. I showed up at 5:01 pm and got it corrected but the person who helped me never apologized for the hassle. In terms of renting things while on the island, it was $5 to go down a water slide once.
So given this comparison, perhaps it would be better to take one's chances with a fire, loss of power, and improper sanitation? What are the odds of that happening to Carnival Cruise Lines twice? Pretty long I'd guess. Luckily we attend these cruises for the music, which we thoroughly enjoyed, and I will happily blog about after sorting through our collection of photographs.
Norwegian customer service is not so alive in the lab.