Sunday, June 26, 2011

Cruising on the Norwegian Epic

Looking for a fun filled vacation on a ship with the most modern amenities and some of the best entertainment at sea? Then consider the Norwegian Epic! This wonderful ship is a very different ship and experience than any other Norwegian ship we've cruised on. Our seven night itinerary departed from Miami and went to Costa Maya, Cozumel and Roatan.

Here is our report card for our cruise.

Embarkation: A+

We arrived at the port at about 12:30. Handed our luggage to the porters and were on the ship within 15 minutes. The embarkation process was a pleasure. You are directed to a line based on the deck you are on. Very quick and painless.

Our Cabin: D

We had a balcony cabin, number 10028. Norwegian went with a new concept in cabins on this ship, what they call "wave" cabins. These cabins have a wavy wall that sticks into the room and is a huge waste of space in a very tight room. We were two singles traveling together, so we requested the beds be apart. There was literally 1" in between the beds pulled apart.

Norwegian also doesn't have a traditional bathroom on this ship. Inside the room, looking towards the door, an enclosed show is on the left, a glass enclosed toilet is on the right, and a sink is in the room. We were lucky enough to have our bed near the balcony door. We spoke to our cabin mates next door who had their bed next to the shower and sink and they complained that the bed shook when they flushed the toiler, and the bed got wet if they tried to wash their hands at the tiny sink.

There is a curtain that pulls out next to the sink that blocks off the bathroom area from the room. While this is fine if you are traveling with a family member, two singles traveling in the same room have no privacy.

It is difficult to maneuver in the room as well because they are narrow. If one is sitting at the desk drying their hair, the other person cannot get past them. These cabins can accommodate three people, but I can't see how three people could ever be comfortable in one of these cabins. The rounded wall wastes valuable space and the couch is too large. A smaller couch would leave more room to walk. Our balcony room is 216 sq. feet including the balcony.

While NCL employees will say that they don't get complaints about the bathroom situation, we didn't buy it. We asked many guests we met what they thought about the cabins and they all said the same thing - cabins are too small and the bathroom set up was terrible. NCL just signed for new builds - we hope that they will get rid of the wave rooms and put traditional bathrooms back.

Studio Cabins/Villa Courtyard: A+

We commend NCL for their studio cabins. These cabins are meant for solo travelers who no longer have to pay a single supplement to sail by themselves in a cabin. The studio cabins are considered interior cabins (even though they have a window into a hallway). There are two twins beds pushed together and plenty of storage - the closets are the same size as the other cabins, so they have twice as much storage for one person. The cabins are 100 sq. feet. It also has a regular toilet enclosed in a small room, instead of a glass enclosed toilet.

While these cabins have no couches and are small, there is a wonderful plus for those booked here - The Living Room, which is a private lounge with a bar, coffee bar and plenty of seating. It is meant for solo travelers to meet others so they can get together for various shipboard activities and to even dine together. There is a daily happy hour and different activities planned just for these guests.

The Courtyard Villas and Suites have the nicest Courtyard pool area of any of the NCL ships. There are wonderful pool beds, and Epic Lounge and restaurant, and they have access to the Posh Beach Club.
The Studio Lounge

Entertainment: A+

We thought no ship could match the quality of entertainment on Royal Caribbeans Oasis and Allure of the Seas. The Epic does. From the Blue Man Group, to The Second City, to Legends in Concert and Nickelodeon entertainment, you won't be bored. All of these shows are included in your cruise price. If you paid for tickets to these shows on land in Vegas or New York, you would easily pay at least $300 per person and up for all this entertainment. All free here.

In addition, there is a Cirque Dreams and a Murder Mystery at additional cost with a meal included (lunch for the Murder Mystery, dinner for the Cirque show). You will probably be disappointed in the good, it wasn't very good. The Cirque show was worth the extra money but don't pay for premium seating on the lower level. We sat upstairs and had a great view and we were not squeezed together at tables. Seated on the lower level, if you are stuck at a table where your back is to the entertainment you will be straining your neck to see. The Murder Mystery is done by the Second City troupe and is all improv. Everyone was seated downstairs for this and our seats were uncomfortable.

Other entertainment venues were excellent. The Second City did different shows in Headliners throughout the cruise. There was also Howl at the Moon, a dueling piano show, and Fat Cats Jazz Club, one of the most popular venues on the ship. This ship also has one of the largest casinos at sea.

One thing we loved was a session in the Atrium with the Blue Man Group - Behind the Scenes. It was a q & a session with the men from the Blue Man Group without their make up and a chance to learn what it entails to become a Blue Man. It was lots of fun.

Food: C

Food in very subjective. The main dining room food was fair. Steaks were tough, seasoning was okay, but there were no standouts. O'Sheehans Pub has pub fare that was okay. It is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I had a burger there, it was okay, not outstanding.

The Specialty restaurants were better. We ate at Le Bistro and I had absolutely delicious lamb chops. Chinese food at Shanghai was good, but not outstanding. Sushi at Wasabi was delicious, fresh and tasty. While we didn't eat at Cagneys Steakhouse or Moderno, we did speak with others who raved about the food.

The Buffet was typical buffet food. What we did enjoy was their selection of ice cream - they had a huge selection of flavors that changed daily.

At Spice H20, there is a healthy choice restaurant where we had some delicious chicken and salad. There is an Atrium Bar where you can go for coffee and cake and pastries, all free unless you are ordering specialty coffees.

It's our opinion that the quality of food any any cruise line is not the same as it was even five years ago, but it annoying that to get a really good meal, you need to pay for an alternate restaurant. However, NCL isn't the only line we find this on.

Pools: A+

Another A+ thanks to the Epic Plunge, slides and children's area. Only issue we had was the tiny pool area at Spice H20, the adult only are of the ship. The pool was so tiny there was literally no place to swim and the water was very warm.

Ports: Our itinerary was Roatan, Costa Maya and Cozumel. We enjoyed Roatan, we did a tour with Victor Bodden Tours, including going to his monkey farm. In Costa Maya we did an excursion to the Chacchoben ruins through NCL and enjoyed it very much. In Cozumel, the Epic ports in town, which was a great place to either spend time in town or grab a cab for something else. We arranged to go to an All Inclusive resort for the day.

The Ship: A

Despite our dissatisfaction with our cabin, this cruise was very enjoyable thanks to the unique design of this ship. There was plenty to do on the ship and we were never bored with four days at sea. The many venues, such as Fat Cats, offered plenty to do day and night. There is always a place to sit and have a quiet book read or to be as active as you want. Pool chairs were, as usual, a little tough to come by at sea days, but you could always find seating if you didn't have to be next to the pools. There is even a private area of the ship you can go to if you choose to sunbathe topless.

The gym is huge and has the latest and greatest in weights and machines as well as some great classes. The spa was a good size with some good sales on port days. There is bowling and Wii.

Staff: B

All staff was courteous and friendly. Our room steward did what we asked but nothing extra. For instance, one day we used our beach towel and put it in the wet towel bin. It was not replaced. I had to call twice to get another beach towel. Our room gal said if we had left the towel on the floor, she would have replaced it right away. Huh? We were penalized for being neat?

In the Garden Cafe, there was staff at the entrance armed with spray bottles of hand sanitizer. If you did not use the hand sanitizer dispensers at the entrance, these gals made sure to spray your hands before allowing you to walk in. I applaud NCL's attention to this and the friendly way the staff ensured that hands were sanitized.

Wherever we went, we were greeted with a hello throughout the ship. At Guest Services, someone stood at the front of the line (there really was no line) to speak to guests to see if they could be helped right then and there or if they needed to actually see someone at the desk. Overall, good service.

Disembarkation: A+ (with exception)

NCL is the only line we are aware of that allows you to choose when you want to get off the ship, regardless of whether you carry your luggage off or not. You pick up your disembarkation luggage tags based on the time you want to get off the ship. Since we had early flights, we opted to carry off our luggage to be among the first off.

Unfortunately, so did many others, which would not have been a problem if there were enough Customs and Immigration officers. For some reason, there were only half the number of officers available as there usually are, which caused a line of over one hour once we were off the ship to get through Customs. Not the fault of NCL, so we didn't lower our score for that.

All in all, we truly enjoyed this ship with some exceptions and we would not hesitate to sail her again. If you are traveling with a family, either book a suite or get two cabins - there is just not enough room for more than two people in the cabins. If you are traveling as two single people - be aware that you will have no privacy in the cabin. And be aware of the bathroom situation. Ask your travel agent to look at the bed placement on deck plans before you book - if there are only two people traveling, get the bed away from the bathroom. If you are traveling with three in a cabin, get a cabin with the beds near the bathroom, because the couch will be on the outside of the room and you will be able to get to the bathroom at night with the couch pulled out as a bed.

Check our pictures of this ship on webshots:

Call us to book: 516-608-0568

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Golden Princess Review - Part Four - The Bad

The Bad

Embarking/Disembarking in Port: The fiasco in Vancouver, while not Princess’ fault, could have been handled better per our suggestions in part one of this review. Yet problems getting on and off the ship in each port were Princess' problem and should be addressed by the Security officers on the ship.

The ship was over an hour late getting to Juneau and Victoria. Of course, people panicked, thinking they were not going to make their excursions. In Juneau, a group of people began lining up on Deck Six over an hour before the ship was scheduled to arrive. When people walking by see a line, for some unknown reason they think they are going to miss something, so they had better get on that line! By the time the ship arrived late into port, the line was snaking through three decks and there was fighting going on between passengers about who was or wasn’t cutting the line. Security people were dispensed to try and hold the crowd, but even they appeared to be frazzled and started looking the other way when passengers started arguing with them.

Getting back on the ship was another problem. We’ve sailed on the three biggest ships at sea, RCCL’s Oasis and Allure of the Seas, and NCL’s Epic and never experienced long lines getting back on the ship. While there were many similarities between these ships (two doors open to get on and off the ship), NCL and RCCL have TWO x-ray machines at each location as well as two metal detectors, which allow passengers to embark quickly. This ship didn't use two x-ray machine until the last night in Victoria – resulting in huge lines to get back on the ship after a few hours in port.

Because the ship is only in port a few hours, passengers want to make the most of that time and many arrive back at the ship as close to the final boarding time as possible. In Juneau, it was dark and getting quite cold and the line we were on suddenly stopped dead for almost a half hour. (There was a second line at the rear of the ship that kept moving.)

What we later learned stopped the line was a member of the group we were traveling with. When they first got on the ship (after 3-1/2 hours on line) the Security officer who took the initial pictures for their cruise cards put the wife’s photo on her husband’s card. When they attempted to get back on the ship in Juneau, Security would not allow the husband on the ship – and apparently had no idea how to handle it other than stopping the entire line until they could figure out what to do. This couple was made to stand to the side- embarrassed- for almost an hour before they were taken to have new cards made. The situation was handled very poorly by Security, who denied the problem was theirs, further infuriating everyone.

There were no problems getting off the ship in Skagway and Ketchikan, but there were very long lines again in Ketchikan to get back on – over a half hour in line to get back on the ship. In Victoria, we had long lines to get off because - again – the ship was late getting into port. But it was handled a little better.

Putting two x-ray machines and two metal detectors at each embarkation door should avoid this.

Passenger Services: The biggest disappointment on the cruise. The line at passengers services started on embarkation day and never seemed to go away. On the Juneau night, I went to Customer Service on behalf of our client who had the picture i.d problem. This person I spoke to was actually shaking when I was speaking to him/her to complain about the line processes (we will not divulge the name because I actually felt sorry for this person but will refer to this person as "Shakey").

I was on line with a woman who was also having problems. This was her 29th cruise with Princess and third on the Golden and she was livid about the problems she was experiencing on the ship,saying she had never seen such poor service in all of her Princess cruises.

When I was speaking to “Shakey” about the problem with the card and the issues getting off the ship, Shaky agreed with me about the lines and said there was already a staff meeting about the Juneau line and the line was caused by the passengers who lined up before the ship was in port. My suggestion was that they should have told those passengers to wait elsewhere or in their cabins. Apparently that suggestion wasn’t such a stupid one, because when we were arriving late in Victoria, that is exactly the announcement that went over the loudspeakers.

While I was speaking to Shakey, our Agency Owner started talking to an officer about the problem our clients had with their card. Stated we had been talking to other passengers and many of them had never sailed Princess and were so annoyed they said they never would sail Princess again. The officer said if passengers can’t see the big picture and are that narrow minded, perhaps they shouldn’t sail Princess again. The next day, we learned this “officer” was the head of Passenger Services. As we walked away from him, we saw another passenger grab him to speak to him about problems they had getting back on the ship. We waited and spoke to them and they too had the same problem with pictures on their cards! And they were equally as outraged because he also "passed the buck" and didn't think it was a problem.

We opted to use EZ check to disembark. Princess has a wonderful program where for a fee of $20 per person, they will print your boarding passes and take your luggage to your airline for you. Once you put the bags out the last night, you do not need to touch them until you arrive at your home airport after your flights. We are Delta Amex card holders and when we use our card, we do not pay for luggage. I had asked Shakey about this to ensure we would not be charged a luggage fee if we used the service. Shakey told us if the airline didn’t charge, we wouldn’t be charged. When we received our final bill the last morning, there were two $25 luggage fee charges. I went to passenger services again and was told that Delta charged them so they had to charge me. I asked for a supervisor, a very curt woman who told me “Delta charged us, we charged you – take it up with Delta”

Of course, when talking to Delta, they said we should not have been charged and the only way to resolve it is stop dispute the bill on the credit card because Princess charged us, not Delta – which is what we’ll have to do.

When we arrived home, we sent an e-mail to Customer Relations and received a response back within 24 hours that they knew that Delta Amex holders are not to be charged the luggage fees, the ship is supposed to know that and were assured Princess will be refunding the two fees - within three billing cycles.

If you are a Delta card holder, bring a copy of the Amex policy with you, write it out on your EZ check application along with your credit card number and staple it to the form. Even though I had brought a copy of the policy, staff on the ship still had a problem but I am hoping that addressing it with the California offices ensured the information was relayed back to the ship.

Did the “bad” outweigh the good? Absolutely not. While it takes longer to detail problems, Alaska is such a fantastic cruise experience, there really is not much that can ruin a cruise.

Would we sail Princess again? Since this is not anything typical of our past Princess experiences – yes we sure would. But most of the passengers who traveled on our group would not.

If there were a repeat performance on another ship – then I’d have to re-think ever sailing Princess again.