Monday, November 2, 2009

Cruise Review: Norwegian Star




2.5 Stars for the Star
By: Diane Hansen

In 1999, Norwegian Cruise Lines (NCL) built the Norwegian Sky and pioneered a cruise concept called "Freestyle Cruising." Going freestyle means no assigned meal times and the freedom for passengers to structure their cruise any way they want. However, the hidden costs, both monetary and non-monetary, are many and may hamper the traveling experience if they aren't expected.

Cruise ships are known for their low cost of entry, like a great rate on a stateroom, with ancillary costs once you are on board. However, the Norwegian Star tends to sacrifice quality and availability of standard inclusive amenities for the potential of increased revenue. This feeling becomes more and more pervasive throughout the guest experience.

The Norwegian Star has one buffet, a casual comfort food restaurant and two dine-in restaurants that are included with the stateroom price. The quality of the food varies drastically, from school cafeteria heat-and-serve on the buffets to three-star fare in the restaurants. Out of the inclusive restaurants, the service was best at Aqua, with highly-attentive, friendly staff and expedient service. Yet the food available in all of the inclusive dining options seemed to leave guests wanting and wondering what the pay restaurants had to offer. One of these restaurants, La Tratatoria, brazenly occupies half of the buffet space in the evenings, which limits the dinner seating options for the buffet.


Most of the paid restaurants on the ship were impeccable in terms of style, service and taste. Possibly the best food on the ship could be found at Le Bistro, a charming French restaurant and Cagney's, a classic steakhouse. Soho, a contemporary cuisine restaurant, also received rave reviews from guests. The influences throughout the ship's cuisine are decidedly French, with emphasis on rich sauces and decadent desserts. Ginza, a Japanese restaurant with a Teppanyaki grill, has a limited selection of sushi plus a respectable selection of Japanese and Chinese creations. The Teppanyaki portion is $10 more than the standard menu. Alcohol is not included on the ship, which is standard. Pepsi products were available for either a per drink charge or by purchasing a soft drink package. Even though this felt a bit nickel and dime-like, most cruise operations charge for soft drinks.

Perhaps the most confusing of pay-to-play perks on the Norwegian Star was the VIP spa, lap pool, hydrotherapy pool, sauna and changing room at the Barong Spa. On paper, this concept looks acceptable. It occupies prime space aft with a sweeping ocean view, therefore it’s the perfect place for a VIP experience. However, the VIP spa eliminates one amenity that is inclusive on most ships, use of the sauna and steam room. The hot tub and lap pool inside is also off limits to non-VIP guests, meaning that there are only five of the six hot tubs on the ship available for use without paying more. The advertised six hot tubs and two pools should be revised for better communication of this fact. Additionally, guests have access to the gym but must shower and change in their staterooms, a real inconvenience if the stateroom happens to be on the opposite end of the ship. VIP areas are wonderful and provide a welcome respite. Making something as standard as a sauna and steam room for VIPs only without providing an inclusive option is simply unacceptable.

Norwegian seems to be looking for revenue at every turn. From diminishing inclusive space and activities to up selling everything that isn't nailed down, the NCL cruising experience has diminished over the past two years.

Shuffles, the card and game room on the Star, has been reduced by half the size. They have opted instead to use the adjacent room as a secondary gift shop. Shuffles is well-used by the guests and the tables are often filled to capacity. Conversely, highlighting the misuse of space further, the gift shop lacked customers. In every nook and cranny, servers were asking passengers if they would like one of the three drinks of the day to the point where it felt like telling a dancer, "no honey, I wouldn't not like a lap dance, thank you." In a stretch of 20 minutes, on the pool deck, some guests were approached at least four times by servers soliciting drink orders.


NCL "U" is another revenue creation which includes educational lectures on international beers, food pairings and wine appreciation. These activities were listing on the activity schedule at $15 each. Attending without consuming food or alcohol, or paying for it, was not an option. The activities were mostly geared around gaining revenue; the White Hot Party had a $15 t-shirt you could buy if you felt out of place by not wearing white (which was recommended). There was also a special drink. Shopping talks, art seminars, gaming classes, bingo... everything on the activity schedule seemed to have a revenue-based purpose. Fortunately, the movie theater was still included without the requirement to take a paid informative class on how to better appreciate film.

With all of this said, this was not a bad cruise. NCL maintains some of the best staff around, all very friendly and eager to help if you need anything. The cabins have an amazing amount of storage and the beds are incredibly comfortable. At times, if it weren't for the gentle rocking of the boat, one could easily forget that they are on a cruise ship. NCL operates the youngest fleet of ships in the world.  So the accomodations and appointments are modern and visually exciting, making for great on-board vacation photos. 


The entertainment aboard the Norwegian Star is Las Vegas quality and features a variety of musical acts, the top Chicago comedy troupe Second City and stunningly bendy Chinese acrobats. There's even a bawdy comedian late at night. For parents, the Star offers a kids program complete with separate kids pools and play areas.  The main pool area is spacious and has twin twisted water slides that adults, as well as kids, are welcome to use.  The itinerary that the Star maintains for the Mexican Riviera is exciting. Although the time in Cabo San Lucas is a short six hours, the rest of the port days stretch to almost nine hours for Mazatlan and a very nice 11 hours in Puerto Vallarta.

Ultimately, being a passenger on the Norwegian Star takes a great deal of control with your stateroom key card, which acts as your ID and your money on the ship. If you understand this, you will have a good cruise with them. If you don't, a potentially frightening bill will await you at the end. NCL operates off of the envelope system, meaning that your service fees for housekeeping are included in your final bill as well. In terms of the other services, a simple rule of thumb will get you by. Just remember, if someone asks for your key card, it is not included.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

First-Time Cruisers Guide



Congratulations. You have just completed your first cruise reservation. But now what? Is there anything special you should do to prepare? How is cruising different than vacationing any other way?

It's best to think of a cruise ship as a floating hotel with many amenities, although not all of them are included in the ticket price. To get to this floating hotel, you may have to travel by air, car or both. So, suffice it to say, although you will wake up in a new place every morning, cruising is quite a different experience.

To make the most of your first cruise, here are some key things to remember.

Documentation

Be sure to carry the following items with you to the check-in desk and then secure them in your room safe for the remainder of your trip.

- Passport (If leaving the country)
- Driver's License
- Military ID or DD-214 (For military discounts)

Packing

Packing for a cruise is not all that different than packing for any other vacation. However, some cruises have dress codes that might surprise you if you are a first-time cruiser.

Common Rules

Dining Rooms: No jeans allowed on some cruise lines
Formal Nights: Men - tuxedo or jacket/dress pants required, Ladies - formal dress
Pools: Proper swim attire

Formal nights vary from ship to ship. However the general rule is that if you are dining in the main dining room, formal attire is required. Check with your cruise line to see if a formal night is scheduled. If you don't wish to participate in formal night, the casual restauants and snack bars will still be open for dining and in-room options are available.

One of the greatest pleasures of cruising is walking around the deck and taking in the 360 degree ocean view. Be sure to pack non-slip shoes and a light wind-resistant jacket. Sunglasses and a pony-tail holder for long hair are also handy.

Medication

Cruising allows you to meet a lot of new people, exposes you to variety of foods and provides the experience of a lifetime. Enjoy it to its fullest by bringing along your own over the counter medications and first aid. This will save you a trip to the gift shop, should the expected happen.

Your kit should be able to fit into a small baggie. You may never need it. But if you do, you'll be happy you have the supplies.

Recommended List:
- Airborne
- Dramamine
- Ginger Pills
- Pepto Bismol
- Tums/Pepcid
- Anti-Diareahal
- Laxative
- Aspirin/Ibprophen
- Band-aids
- Neosporin
- Any prescription medications you are on

Transportation/Parking

Airport transfers can be purchased from your cruise line. These shuttles will pick you up from the airport and take you to the cruise terminal and back. However, depending on cost you may also want to check the price with Super Shuttle.

Parking at the cruise terminal can range from $8-$20 a day depending on your point of departure.

Arrival Time

Plan to arrive at least four hours before your cruise is scheduled to depart. You will be able to check your luggage, leisurely check in and take your boarding photos without rushing. Arriving early is also the best way to increase your chances of getting an upgrade, should you want it.

Extras

Cruise ships are full of extras that are not included in your ticket price. Including room in your budget for on-board photos, soft drinks, alcohol, shopping and gambling is a good idea.

Possibly the least known and most surprising of extras to many first-time cruisers is the gratuity. Bring $10-$15 cash per person per day. Some cruise lines include gratuity in the final bill that is placed in your cabin on the last day of the cruise. However, some work on the envelope system, where you place the cash and envelope and leave it in your cabin. Check with your cruise line for the system they use for gratuities.

Most of all, enjoy your cruise. Nothing beats going to sleep and waking up in a different city or even a different country. Take lots of photos and be prepared to make your friends jealous.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Mexico is on Sale!


Budget Beach Vacationing
By: Diane Hansen

The nation's swine flu panic is your dream vacation in waiting. Why? Because tourism is down in Mexico, cruise lines are drastically cutting their prices to get people on board.

Mexico is ON SALE! Everything from cruises, to flights to shore excursions are ridiciously cheap right now. So you can have a great vacation and spend up to 60% less than you normally would.

The... travel... deals... are... amazing.

Oh, sorry.... got hooked on the "language of the deal." But its hard not to these days when it comes to cruises, even more so when those cruises are to Mexico. Priceline has some great ones departing weekly and at prices that will make your friends jealous.

Just look at their Cruise Center and feast your eyes on Norwegian Cruise Lines latest deal, Oceanview cabin, 7 days to the Mexican Rivera. Destinations in this ditty of a deal include Cabo San Lucas, Mazatlan and Puerto Vallarto, plus three glorious sea days to enjoy the water slides, pool, clubs, restaurants, casinos and shopping on board. They are also offering ship board credits and Priceline is offering two days of hotel (up to $114 in value.

Gun shy about cruising to Mexico? Here are a few reasons why you shouldn't be.

1) H1N1 is less virulent than the standard "flu season" flu, meaning it comes on strong and you get over it fast. In addition, H1N1 has caused fewer deaths and has exhibited fewer serious cases than the standard "flu season" flu.

Just ask Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.

2) Tourist areas of Mexico are not only sanitary, they are pristine and are very able to control their exposure to illness. Still, in daily life and whenever you are on vacation, you should always follow the basic rules of protecting yourself from illness. After all, head colds have a way of ruining a day of snorkeling.

3) Just take normal, every day precautions against getting sick and you will be fine.

According to the CDC, you should take these everyday steps to protect your health:

- Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. Throw the tissue in the trash after you use it.
- Wash your hands often with soap and water. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand rub.*
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth. Germs spread this way.
- Try to avoid close contact with sick people.
- If you are sick with flu-like illness, CDC recommends that you stay home for at least 24 hours after your fever is gone except to get medical care or for other necessities. (Your fever should be gone without the use of a fever-reducing medicine.) Keep away from others as much as possible to keep from making others sick.

So that's where Travel Accomplice will kick off, in Mexico.

Our cruise leaves in 4 days, 18 hours and 51 minutes.

All Aboard!

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