Monday, May 12, 2008

M writes a review of our cruise

M knows about my blog and reads it on occasion. Usually, I leave him out of my posts except for a quick mention. But he wanted to write a review of our weekend cruise and compare it to the other cruise line we took (and much better cruise). The following words are his, with my notes in ital.

Royal Caribbean vs. Norwegian: A Side-by-Side Comparison
By M, special to Overthink.

As mentioned, Christine and I went on a three-day “cruise to nowhere” on Norwegian Cruise Lines (NCL). In 2006, we went on a “real” cruise to Bermuda on Royal Caribbean (RCL), and at the time, a work colleague (who coincidentally we saw on the second cruise) told me I was being smart by choosing RCL, since NCL was the “Wal Mart of cruise lines” and RCL was far more upscale. We did love our RCL cruise but remained curious as to whether there was indeed a difference, since other patrons on board our RCL cruise had differing opinions as to which line they preferred.

Fast-forward to this year. Because of the new baby, we didn’t want to take a full-blown cruise, and NCL was running this special mini-cruise. We figured we had nothing to lose but a couple days and a couple hundred bucks.

Of course, human nature being what it is, we knew we would be scrutinizing every little thing about the NCL cruise and comparing it to RCL. By the end of the trip, needless to say, this little essay wrote itself. So here you have it: A side-by-side comparison using some completely random and arbitrary categories!

A forewarning: I am going to grade on a slight curve here for two reasons. It would be unfair to compare a six-day cruise on RCL’s humongous, state-of-the-art Jewel of the Seas, built in 2004, with a three-day jaunt on NCL’s Norwegian Dream, a smaller 1992 model. In talking to both a travel agent and the aforementioned work colleague on the ship, this was far from NCL’s representative work. A combination of a new crew, terrible weather and a disproportionate amount of annoying bachelorette parties, 50-year-olds who thought they were in their 20s and/or trailer trash from the North Shore (Christine’s note: I grew up on the North Shore, and M is not a fan of the area, but I know what he means – some of these people were walking stereotypes), resulted in overcrowding, disorganization and booze procurement difficulties (especially that first night) that were not totally the fault of NCL (they will get knocked, when appropriate, due to their crew not being properly trained, however).

So on with the comparison. We’ll go with the following categories: Cabin (and yes, we had the same class of room on both trips), common areas and facilities, food, activities, entertainment, crew (service) and crew (boarding and ride).

Cabin: This one surprised us. Despite the RCL ship being newer and “nicer,” the cabin layout was poor, and we found ourselves shoehorning ourselves into bed each night. (C’s note: On the NCL cruise, I had a bad cold, so I spent more time in the bed in two days than I did on six days on RCL.) With NCL, although the size of the cabin was about the same, the layout was better, and the room felt roomier. It may have been at the expense of the tiny shower, but in all, the space was better designed. ADVANTAGE: NCL.

Common Areas and Facilities: Again, taking ship age into account, these two boats each had advantages and disadvantages. I thought NCL’s signage and directional guides were clearer, and like the cabins, the hallways leading to the cabins were better designed. On the other hand, RCL’s restaurants and theaters had a much more airy and spacious feel that were not all necessarily a result of the size of the ship. Given the crappy weather, we would have welcomed the latter over the former, but again, you can’t fault the cruise line for the weather. EVEN.

Food: Cruise ships all play from the same playbook. You basically have four classes of restaurants, which I have listed in order of quality:

1. Cover Charge Restaurants: For an extra cover charge, this is supposed to be cream-of-the-crop dining. Yeah sure, it’s a little nicer, but I still think it’s a rip-off.

2. Formal Restaurants: Think of one of those semi-swanky, $80-per-couple places – the best place to dine for most meals, IMO.

3. The Buffet: Think Hometown Buffet – tastes OK and a nice selection, but still quantity over quality.

4. Quick-Stop Grab-and-Go Places: Think school cafeteria, hospital or prison – in other words, most of our cruise mates probably felt right at home.

Look, with food on a cruise ship it’s basically when you want, where you want and as much as you want (even at the formal places you’re encouraged to chow down on two entrees or two desserts if you so choose). Who was better overall? Again, it was basically the same playbook. If I had to choose one over the other, maybe RCL’s food quality had a slight edge. SLIGHT ADVANTAGE: RCL.

Activities: Probably a little unfair given the differing cruise durations, but it seemed that RCL tried harder. Allow me to summarize the difference as follows: RCL’s cruise director was a perky blonde British chick (C's note: M called her Dusty Springfield for the whole trip) who appeared to really like what she did. NCL’s cruise director was this annoying Canadian dude that I wanted to kick in the nuts. Think Martin Short, except not funny. Then again, just think Martin Short. There ya go. ADVANTAGE: RCL.

Entertainment: You see, there’s a reason that Simon on American Idol says: “That sounded like something I’d hear on a cruise ship,” and it’s meant as a criticism. You don’t take cruises for the featured entertainment. You’re bound to see so-called “internationally renowned” singers and comedians you’ve never heard of, and who probably don’t even have a Wikipedia entry (isn’t that really the dividing line between people who are sorta kinda famous and people who are not? -- it is for me). I did, however, walk away from most RCL shows saying: “Hey, that wasn’t bad.” while I walked away from the NCL shows thinking: “Hmm, I wonder of the buffet is still out.” SLIGHT ADVANTAGE: RCL (Christine would differ – she thought the NCL entertainment was considerably worse – but hey, this is my survey).

Crew (service): A chicken-or-the-egg dilemma here, folks. You see, unlike with RCL, tipping, for all intensive purposes, is mandatory on NCL, as in they charge a flat fee on your card automatically. With RCL, tipping is “strongly encouraged,” a range of “suggested” amounts are given, envelopes are provided to you and your waitstaff all kinda hangs around a little more on the last day (nudge, nudge, wink wink. . . punch. . . kick). But all kidding aside, I would think that the sorta-voluntary RCL method would provide a better incentive to the crew. Think about it: If you went to a restaurant where the same 18 percent gratuity were added to your bill, no matter what, doesn’t that take “working for the tip” out of the equation?

As Bill Cosby once said after a particularly long, drawn-out monologue: “I told you that story so I could tell you this one.” Anyway, NCL crew tended to be less helpful, more standoffish and more ambivalent about serving you. A lot of them really looked like deer in the headlights. Yeah the crowd sucked, and this was one of the first cruises of the season, but bad is bad. Was it because the tip incentive was removed? Was it because they were hardened from dealing with guests who were surlier because they get charged this gratuity even though the crew is not as helpful? Who knows? All I know is that it was an appreciable difference. ADVANTAGE: RCL. Wait, I’m supposed to grade on a slight curve – OK, SLIGHT ADVANTAGE: RCL.

BTW, I should probably say something about the Freestyle cruising NCL trumpets, but I really don’t feel like it. If you want to find out about it, go read some NCL propaganda. Just know that I don’t feel it’s a big deal to have an assigned mealtime and cruise mates; it just isn’t.

OK, let’s bring this home.

Crew (boarding and ride): Funny thing about this category. Each ship had its own flaws, and in each case, you can’t necessarily fault them. RCL’s ride on the way back was horrendous, despite the more modern boat, but it may have been weather-related. NCL’s ride was smooth as could be but their boarding on and off the ship was clunky to say the least. Bad crew? Bad crowd? For now we’ll call it EVEN until we can get a more representative sample of cruises under our belts.

Overall: Let me put it this way. Even if you’ve never priced a cruise before I’d bet you can guess which cruise line costs less. Sure, all things being equal, i.e., someone else is footing the bill or you’re really wealthy, go RCL. But if you can get a good deal out there on an NCL cruise, you might consider it.

Taking all things into account and giving NCL benefit-of-the doubt due to ship age, weather and jack-offs for customers, I don’t find myself saying “never again” when it comes to Norwegian. Wal Mart? Naaah, maybe Target.

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