For the past 12 years my family has only cruised Carnival. Everyone always asked me why we did not try other lines and my answer was always, they have never given me a reason too. Over the past couple of years we have talked about venturing elsewhere, just to see how it was. This Spring Break I found myself with a dilemma. Norwegian was offering a great deal! One we could not turn down.
I searched high and low looking for a good comparison between the 2 lines and did not really find much. So here are the differences I noticed.
Booking the cruise:
When I went online to book our cruise the first thing I noticed upon choosing a Balcony room option was I was given the opportunity to choose family connecting balconies. When booking on Carnival I have always had to have a deck plan pulled up and searched for connecting rooms… often times 1 of the 2 connecting rooms are occupied. It was nice that these room were marketed in this manner. It made it super easy.
I also noticed there were a lot more suite options. They had mini suites, suites with just windows and no balcony on up to several balcony suites with 2 and even 3 bedrooms. The newer Carnival ships are offering more options like this, but the majority of the fleet does not. Now… I will say I was booking this cruise over spring break so the prices were inflated. However, for giggles I plugged us into a couple of those rooms. We could have had a 2 bedroom suite (couch makes the 3rd bed) for about $5000 more than what we paid for our 2 balcony rooms. Or we could have booked the Garden Villa 3 bedroom suite that comes with its own hot tub for $20,000 total for the 4 of us. I decided to pass.
It seems like booking suites on Norwegian is more of an experience within itself. Suites come with their own butler and concierge as well as your cabin steward. It is my understanding the butler will bring you snacks and treats throughout the day. If you are craving gummy bears and KitKat bars, they will magically appear. The concierge will book anything you want for you so you do not have to mess with it. You can also eat lunch in any of the specialty dining options for free. So there are many perks that come with what you are paying for.
When it comes to scoring an upgrade on NCL there is not “fairy” that calls. You will receive an email or a message on your account that is like a bidding system. Not everyone receives an offer, but if you get one, you submit the price you are willing to pay and they can either accept or reject your offer.
I did receive an email offering us to upgrade to any number of suites for $750 more per person. I wasn’t up for paying another $3000 more for a suite so I declined. It appears the options that come with the suites are pretty nice because a number of the people from our online cruise group were jumping all over that.
The deal we booked allowed us to choose from 2 of the 4 amenities for booking a balcony. Our choices were Free Ultimate Beverage Package, Free Specialty Dining Package (3 meals), Free Unlimited Internet, or an excursion credit at each port. I believe when you book a suite or above, you are able to take advantage of all 4 of these deals…. So, like I said you are receiving some nice perks for the price.
ONLINE CHECK IN
The online check in was easy. You choose your boarding time just like Carnival. No major changes. The main difference I noticed was you could not set up your “on board account” online. This is only done at the port upon embarkation.
The other thing I noticed was on Carnival, I can add Trenton’s cabin to My Cruises and manage his account, check in, print boarding pass, luggage tags, etc. On NCL I have no access to his booking. I cannot add him to My Cruises because I am not in his cabin. I even tried to create him his own account and their system will not allow a minor to have their own account. Sooo… anything I need to do on his account has to either be done by my Mom or I have to physically call in and have someone do it for me. That’s a hassle.
(More on this dysfunctionality later….)
You cannot bring bottled water on NCL either. I went online to order water and almost had a stroke when I saw the prices. To NCL’s credit, they did lower their water prices about a month before we sailed so I was able to cancel my original order and re-order at the cheaper price. It was still expensive. I will say they only offer 1 liter bottles of water… not the small ones.
For a good comparison: Carnival offers an 8pk of 1 Liter water for $20 ($2.50 per bottle). We purchased the 24 pk of 1 Liter water on NCL for $53.04 ($2.21 per bottle). When you look at it this way it isn’t such a bad deal, it was just a huge shock from paying $4.99 to paying $53!
Another thing I noticed while pre purchasing items for our cruise online was they give you the option to purchase diapers and wipes to have delivered to your room… Not that we have a need for this type of thing, but I can see if you are traveling with young children how this could be a helpful option.
I did not bring any wine on board because we had the free beverage package, but where NCL is drastically different is your “corkage fee” is charged upon embarkation. When you go through security and they check out your wine, the fee is immediately charged to your sign and sail account. No bringing it on board and drinking it for free in your cabin. Fees are determined per bottle size. $15 for a 750 mL bottle and $30 for a 1,500 mL bottle.
Saying their rooms really aren’t smaller than Carnival’s is kind of like Carnival saying they haven’t changed their type of mattresses. I am calling BS. Our cabin definitely felt smaller on NCL than Carnival. Matter of fact, my entire family went “Whoa it’s so small!” when they walked in. When I looked at the actual square footage it didn’t seem so, but it was. The bathroom is also not very functional. I am not a large person and I found it cramped, so the normal sized people of the world might find it rather claustrophobic. I hit my knee on the towel rank attached to the sink trying to put my shorts on. I hit my elbow on the shower door trying to put my shirt on. Every. Day. I have NO CLUE how Mark managed to get dressed in there… I would pay good money to have seen it though!
When using the toilet area it’s probably best just to back yourself in. There really aren’t many options for turning around in there if you shut the door.
I loved that the balcony doors/wall were full paned glass. It does make the room more open and allows for a much better view. The balcony doors also slide so they will stay open and do not slam. It was so nice not listening to doors slam and shake your entire cabin all cruise.
The bed I thought was a little more comfortable than Carnival. I didn’t fall in a hole all night so that was a plus. There was actually a little pillow top on the mattresses and they did zip together to form the 2 beds into one which reduced the separation that happens on Carnival. One of us is forever crawling out of the hole that forms in the middle.
The couch was also more of a “loveseat” size. There was no coffee table and no real chair. Just a small stool with no back.
The clothes storage was much less. I found myself not having enough drawer space to put all my things away. We only had 1 closet for hanging clothes. I made it work, but not as well as I liked. There were shelves in the closet, but they were not very functional. I also found there was much less counter space. The bathroom had essentially none. Just one small shelf. Anything else you have to store under the sink. The trash can was white and built into the bottom shelf... It initially freaked me out because it looked like one of those inserts that goes in a bedside potty chair. I'm weird, I know. But then I couldn't get the potty chair out of my head so I had a hard time putting my things down there. I didn’t like that. In the cabin itself there were 2 small built in tables. One they have all their magazines and books on with your hairdryer. The other had the coffee pot on it. While I love having the coffee pot in the room, day 1 Trenton tripped over the step up coming in from the balcony, bumped the table and knocked a coffee cup off that broke. So not the best placement. I can see where that might happen often.
We did have an ice bucket that they put ice in every day in the room and did not have to ask for it. It was tucked away on the shelf under the refrigerator… I kid you not, it was 3 days into the cruise before I realized our room steward had been filling it with ice.
We only had 1 room steward and this seems to be the norm. While our steward was very nice, there were many times our room was not serviced. We got off the ship in Cozumel at 9am, came back around 1:30pm and our room still had not been cleaned. It wasn’t a huge deal. It was just a difference we noticed.
I would say the food in the Specialty dining areas was better than what is served on Carnival…with the exception of Cagney’s Steakhouse. The food was good, but the overall experience and atmosphere from Carnival’s Steakhouse was better.
Los Lobos was fantastic. Everything was extremely fresh. We didn’t care too much for the desserts. The flan was a little over cooked for us, but we are flan snobs… lol. The Tres leches cake was good and don’t fall for the avocado coconut ice cream! While the consistency is nice, it really doesn’t taste good! The rest of the food here is Fantastic! Tableside guacamole was fantastic! I would pay to eat here again. I would say it was the best dinner of the entire cruise.
There were 2 main dining rooms. They said 1 had a “dress code” meaning no shorts and collared shirts for men. They did not adhere to this as I saw people in board shorts and tank tops coming in and being seated every night we were there. The other main dining room served the exact same menu, but was supposed to have been a more casual dress. There are no set dining times… everything is basically Your Time Dining. It is recommended you make reservations for the specialty restaurants, especially on the larger ships as they tend to fill up fast.
The first night we ate in the Main Dining Room the menu seemed fine, the other nights Trenton and I couldn’t find anything we really wanted to eat…. Our old standby ended up being Spaghetti Bolognese and salad off their everyday menu. I missed Carnival’s port of call menu options. Getting down to the nitty gritty…there were table cloths each night, in terms of table “presentation” they were just plain table settings (nothing pretty or decorative). There was a bread basket on the table each night, but the bread was never hot.
There was no 24 hour pizza. Your 24 hour food option was O’Sheehan’s and it was pretty darn good. The thai chicken wings were the bomb! They also served burgers, nachos, and fajitas. So a nice option for anytime you were hungry.
Room Service has a $7.95 delivery charge. It doesn’t matter if you order 1 thing or everything on the menu… $7.95. I will say there were not dishes lining the hallways like there are on Carnival… I would imagine it was because no one was ordering room service!
The Garden Café (buffet on Lido) was typical buffet quality. I would not say it was any better or worse than Carnival. Chocolate milk in the morning was hard to come by. It was never sitting out. You had to physically ask someone and they would bring it to you. They were always nice and quick about it. They also had large dispensers for milk by the coffee and juice machines. Those seemed popular. I also found out the hard way the silverware is on the table. I couldn’t find any…. Spotted a worker carrying silverware… asked him for one and not sure what went wrong, but he dropped several rolls (knives and forks went scattering across the floor), I ended up dumping my plate. It really was a mess. I finally cleaned up my stuff, got a new plate, sat down at the table and saw all the silverware in the little basket. Oops. It is a nice addition not to try to carry your plate and juggle a drink and silverware.
The casino was nice. It did not seem as “smoky” as Carnival’s, but it could have just been the cruise. Main difference I noticed was it was not free to charge money to your Sign and Sail card. If you put your card in a slot machine and wanted to charge money, there was a 3% fee. When you cash out you also get an actual “ticket” to take the casino cage and cash out. I actually liked this because I had a problem on Carnival once where my winnings did not transfer to my card. I ended up having them pull the records from the machine and they finally agreed to pay me. This ticket thing would prevent that.
The poker table was also a “real” poker table with a “real” dealer. People still complained about the “rake” they take on each hand so that was the same.
On this particular ship all the other table games were not elevated. So not “standing height.” Dealers were sitting in chairs… guests could sit in a real chair too and not have to climb up in the tall ones. Perhaps no one else has an issue, but as a “vertically challenged” person, I appreciated it!
The photo set up was sooo much better. Every time someone takes your photo they ask you what cabin you are in and they type it in on their camera. On your sign and sail card you will have a bookcase and folder number. When you go to the photo gallery you go to your bookcase and pull out your folder. Inside you will find all your photos. If you want to purchase one, you go to one of the computers and you have the option to edit and crop photos as you want. No digging through tons of strangers or crowding around wall after wall searching for your pictures. Soooo nice!
SIGN AND SAIL CARD
Also printed on your sign and sail card will be the UBP (Ultimate Beverage Package) or UDP (Ultimate Dining Package) if you purchase them so you don't have to worry about stickers on your cards or how they will know you have an all-inclusive package.
NCL cards do not come with a pre-punched hole. You will have to have them punched on board if you are using that type of lanyard.
Your cabin steward does not exchange your beach towels. You will find some in your cabin when you board, but it is up to you to exchange them on the pool deck for clean ones. When you are returning from excursions there will be someone outside the ship with big buckets of towels where you can exchange for fresh ones. If you leave your dirty beach towel on the floor of your cabin, they will remove it, but not replace it.
Every time you enter the ship or entered the Garden Café, there was a worker standing there with a spray bottle saying “Washy Washy”. They wanted you to hold out your hand and they would squirt some sanitizer for you. Great idea. Some of them make a pretty fun time of their job. “Washy Washy” is catching. I sure wish I had known about this prior to embarkation because when I walked on the ship and some chick tried to spray me, I dodged out of the way and looked at her like she had lost her ever loving mind. Should have a label on that bottle that says “Say No to Noro Virus” or something!
As usual, we did not participate in this much. They did have a “white hot party” that seemed to be really popular. We went to the magic show one night and there was basically no seating so we ended up sitting on the stairs off to the side. The last night we went to some acrobatic show. That was actually really cool! I don’t think there was as much “night life” as there is on Carnival, so if that is your thing you might miss it. There were Bingo, Trivia and such games during the day. No actual comedy club, though they did have comedy shows in the main theatre.
I inquired about the number of crew members on NCL compared to Carnival because it seemed like there was a lot less crew. Apparently, they have the same crew to guest ratio, but they are organized differently which was something we noticed.
The amount of crew servicing rooms and in the dining venues was noticeably less. I mentioned earlier there was only 1 cabin steward. The same was in the dining rooms. Many nights we only had 1 waiter. Occasionally someone different would ask for our desert order, but that was rare. I think there are fewer waiter teams due to all the specialty restaurants. They are spread out to cover everything.
It seemed to me the areas where Carnival has teams are the areas where you feel you are really being waited on and tended too. It makes you feel special. I can also say we were RARELY addressed by our names on NCL, something we have grown accustomed to on Carnival. You don’t notice it, until you are missing it.
Now for the dysfunctionality I mentioned earlier. This is what did it in for us. Due to the layout of the port of New Orleans and the parking situation… Mom and Trenton boarded after us, therefore I was not there to give my credit card when Trenton’s sign and sail account was set up, so essentially he didn’t have one. It took us 3 trips to guest services to get this solved. I have no idea why this was so difficult. After the 2nd trip they got Trenton’s card working fine, but shut mine and Mark’s off…. And I mean shut off to the point where we were even declined when ordering our FREE drinks. On my 3rd trip I politely asked to speak to a manager and that request was ignored… I was told to stand in line. When I reached the counter I again politely asked to speak to a manager, and that request was ignored. After listening for 10 minutes to the girl call someone to ask if our credit card was any good and then saying “are you sure?” to whomever was on the phone, I demanded to speak to a manager and that request was ignored. My next course of action reached raising my voice and hitting my hand on the counter saying “Get. Me. A. Manager. Now.” …. And that request was ignored. Dear Lord in Heaven… I had nothing left to do but pray. I rarely get mad and I was reaching the point of no return.
Mark headed over to the shore excursion desk, cut in line and told the poor guy working there he better get a manager over there… NOW. He came running around the corner, ran into the back of guest services and came out with a manager. Good Grief. So finally, they got our account straight. However, we never got a follow up call. Not a “just wanted to make sure everything was taken care of.” Never got an “Our bad… Sorry, we f’ed up back there.” Nothing. Oh… she did say she would make sure she “wrote up the incident and forward it on.” To who? The Tooth Fairy?
Mom’s fan was also confiscated upon embarkation. They refused to give it back even though she showed them it was not a banned item on their website. She was upset, but rolled with the flow. However, on the last day she went to guest services and they told her they did not have her fan. She would get it back AFTER she got off the ship. This sounded strange to her so as we were in line to get off the ship she asked another worker where she was supposed to go to get her fan back and they told her it would be given back AFTER she got off the ship. She then saw the cruise director and asked him and he said again, those are given back in the port. As we had exited the ship and were walking up the gangway back into the port to go to customs we looked back at the ship and on the other side of the line we were in was a table sitting there with everyone’s confiscated fans…. ON THE SHIP. There was no way to turn around and get back on the ship. So yeah…. Between the fewer staff available for your room and dining and the stellar customer service provided at guest services….We had a pretty poor opinion of the service.
To recap…. The ship itself was BEAUTIFUL! Hands down better than any Carnival ship we have ever been on. The photo gallery… awesome. Specialty restaurants are not to be missed. Shows… are probably better. Beds and balcony doors… better.
Main Dining Room food, not as good. Beach towel setup not as convenient. Bathroom should just be scrapped and start over. You will be nickel and dimed everywhere you turn. “Personal connection” not as good. Service not as good.
We have one more NCL cruise planned for this summer. We have a dear friend getting married on St. Thomas so we will be on a wedding cruise aboard the Norwegian Escape. Hopefully the customer service will be better and turn things around for us. I know there are things I have forgotten to mention in here. If you have any questions, please feel free to ask below and I will do my best to answer. I will be composing a blog on the ship itself (Norwegian Dawn) in the near future.