THE KAERU KID: Epic Disappointment

Let me preface this article by stating that I am not a big fan of cruises because my interests are the destinations rather than the cruise experience. However, there are many fans of cruises and if you have never taken one, it is definitely an experience not to be missed — but I think there are much better choices than Norwegian Cruise Lines (NCL).

Women especially enjoy cruises because one can unpack once and not worry about packing again until the end of the cruise. Many women also enjoy dressing up for special occasions such as the captain’s dinner, but men generally do not enjoy formal dress, so that informality has become the rule on many cruises. There are also many dining and entertainment choices usually without extra charge.

I have experienced sailing on cruises ranging from NCL, Carnival, Costa, Renaissance, Princess, Cunard’s QE2, Windjammer, Explorer/Lindblad Cruises, Discovery to Antarctica, Semester at Sea voyage, Mississippi Queen and Regal Princess on Yangtze River (a terrible ship) among others, so I am not a neophyte voyager.

Water slides. photo by Kaeru Kid

NCL launched their newest and largest ship in June 2010 and among the touted innovative features were studio staterooms for single travelers not requiring a single supplement, and this was the main reason for my selecting this particular ship. A special lounge solely for studio inhabitants also sounded like a good idea. Their big promotion slogan was labeled “Freestyle Cruising,” defined as the freedom of choice to dress up or go casual.

NCL probably gave press reviewers free passage to encourage rave reviews about their experience. I do have to credit NCL for very efficient boarding and disembarking even with so many passengers.

If only their hype came halfway close to reality, it wouldn’t have triggered this diatribe. I was told a $100 discount would be given for being a veteran upon presentation of a copy of my form DD214. They would not accept a copy beforehand and at the ship no one knew anything about such a discount. Too late, I also learned that I qualified for a 20 percent discount as a Harrah’s Diamond cardholder.

The stateroom for singles was adequate but cramped. All single staterooms were located in the center of the ship without access to outside portholes or balconies. Brilliant idea for them to make maximum use of what are usually the lowest priced, least desirably-located rooms.

There was one lounge area exclusively for these single studios, which could be quite a distance from many of the staterooms. An organized gathering each evening at 5 p.m. did not have many people attending — probably because there was nothing special to lure attendance. The provided snacks were pitiful.

The Epic claims to be the second-largest cruise ship at the present time and boasts having the only rappelling wall on a cruise ship (repelling for me), water tube slides and bowl slides, ice bar (extra charge), largest spa and fitness rooms, most bowling alleys (extra charge and located next to a dining area, so guess how much fun it is for diners) and the largest chandelier.

Single room. photo by Kaeru Kid

The only free shipboard dining was the buffet area, Taste restaurant and O’Sheehan’s Neighborhood Bar & Grill. There were about eight other specialty restaurants serving Japanese, Chinese, French, Italian, Brazilian Churrascaria and a private dining area reserved for those staying in suite or villa rooms. All of these required an extra charge. The buffets were adequate but many Las Vegas hotels provide a much larger and tastier selection.

The large casino area had terrible pay schedules for video poker, table games using continuous shuffling machines with rules giving the house a large advantage, and high limits. There was another “suckers” game requiring dropping in tokens that are then pushed to fall off into the pay bin. If your idea of fun is to lose money, you will be welcomed with open arms to the casino. It is no wonder that Harrah’s and NCL have a working relationship since Harrah’s is known for providing the worst gaming odds for players.

There was an art exhibition and auction for paintings and sculptures. The prices they were getting for these “treasures” put used car and time-share salespeople to shame. It was a mind-boggling experience for me.

Exercise room. photo by Kaeru Kid

Internet access was incredibly expensive at 75 cents per minute down to 40 cents per minute if purchased in $100 block amounts. Type your e-mail messages into your word processing program and then later copy and paste them into your e-mail program at port calls where either free Wi-Fi or very inexpensive rates are readily available.

Another reason for my disliking cruises is shore excursions that require being herded like cattle at a high cost for a superficial glimpse of selected sites. Most cruisers go with the ship’s offerings because of the convenience and security, but doing it on one’s own such as I do cuts the cost and provides more sightseeing opportunities.

The destinations on this cruise included St. Maarten, which I had visited within the past year. The short port stop deprived passengers of seeing many of the island’s attractions. Another stop was St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands with its abundance of shopping. Almost every cruise ship stops here since shopping must be high on people’s wish list and probably cruise lines get commissions from the recommended stores. Caveat emptor.

Coral World Underwater Observatory. photo by Kaeru Kid

Coral World Ocean Park in St. Thomas provided an opportunity to experience underwater “diving” with a helmet that had oxygen piped in. It was an enjoyable experience similar to “snuba,” which is snorkeling with an attached air hose provided by a tank on a raft. Scuba allows deeper diving but requires training and certification. There are lovely beaches here but my type A personality does not enjoy non-activity such as roasting on a beach. The last stop was Nassau where Atlantis Casino is located. Since I live in Las Vegas, nothing here impressed me and again the gaming odds were terrible.

The majority of the ship’s entertainment was from Las Vegas and included Blue Man Group, Legends in Concert, Second City comedy players and magician Jeff Hobson. I knew some of the performers and socialized with them when they were not performing.

NCL also has an option to pre-pay $12 per day in tips, purportedly as a service for passengers and to eliminate passengers stiffing service personnel. This practice does not prevent cheapskate customers from not giving tips and instead the pooled tips are given to people that one never sees. My room porter did not like this system because he told me his compensation has dropped markedly. It probably is a subtle way for NCL to pay its help lower salaries. I recommend opting out of their program and tipping your porter, wait personnel, and drink servers individually.

Climbing wall. photo by Kaeru Kid

A less expensive and better choice in my view is to go to Las Vegas for better food selection, entertainment, gaming and accommodations. You will sacrifice the superficial port tours. With the money saved, go to that port location for an extended stay.

Among the cruises that I have enjoyed I would include Diamond Princess for very nice rooms and excellent food, Lindblad/Explorer cruises for knowledgeable lecturers to interesting destinations, and the now defunct Renaissance Cruises for the best value for the amount spent. Inquire directly or have your travel agent check with a cruise line to see if you can get a single room without paying a supplement, rather than deal with NCL’s high-priced single staterooms.

The Kaeru Kid lives in Las Vegas and hopes readers will send him comments at KaeruKid@yahoo.com.

Las Vegas Tidbits:

It is always wise to get to the airport in plenty of time in case of delay getting through the onerous TSA security. McCarran Airport has free Wi-Fi if you have your computer. Do NOT play the slots because they have some of the highest allowable hold percentages. If you are still bored, check out the Howard A. Cannon Aviation Museum exhibits. If you have a portable radio, tune to FM 88.5 to listen to conversations between pilots and flight controllers.

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