If you love cruising, some of what I have to say may disturb you.
How it All Started
I booked this Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) cruise about a year prior to the pandemic and it finally left port on October 5. I have heard great things about NCL and I was excited about seeing parts of northern Europe I had never explored (Belfast, Cork, Invergordon, and Kirkwall). Knowing how travel is these days, I decided to arrive in Amsterdam (our starting point) a day early in order to ensure being at the port for the start of the cruise; I also have a good friend in Amsterdam that I was hoping to visit. I had a voucher for British Airways due to a canceled flight during the pandemic and I thought I’d make good use of it. I had a 90 minute connection at London’s Gatwick, but I thought there would be no reason to rush to Amsterdam.
Taking your luggage on board with you is always the way to go, however, this was a two week trip and I wasn’t up for cleaning my underwear daily; besides I needed some nicer cruisewear. I used a larger suitcase making carryon impossible (although I have to say I did spy some pretty large bags carried on board). I’m not exactly sure why, but I had 100% confidence that my luggage would arrive with me in Amsterdam. Ha.
I’m on antibiotics because of a prostate infection and the meds were in my suitcase (dumb, dumb, dumb – never again). I will spare you the details of my lost luggage, but I will share this: unless you advocate for yourself and be firm with the third party lost luggage company, you will never see your luggage in time for your adventure. I am certain that if I had not asked for details about when and where my bag would arrive at the airport, I would have waited days longer to receive it. As it was, the day after my Amsterdam arrival I went to the airport to wait for my bag to come out of the luggage carousel. The flight my bag was on was early and my bag was the first one on the belt, with a large “rush” tag on it. I screamed so loudly airport security gave me a cautious glance. I kept my happy dance for the rest room. British Airways will be receiving a not-so-pleasant letter from me.
I made my way to the cruise embarkment building anticipating an easy check in (I was three hours late due to my necessary airport run). By the way, I didn’t mention my hotel situation on purpose. Whether I had stayed at the Ritz Carlton for a Hostel, I would not have slept five minutes. I was so anxious about my lost luggage that I had decided if it didn’t arrive on cruise day, I would head back to Faro and just accept the loss. Sleep deprivation takes your mind to awful places; I was worried about Paco, the world economy, and my prostate. Nothing good comes from a sleepless night. But as reported, I had my luggage and I was ready to check-in.
I walked into the port hall and there were no less than 1000 passengers on several lines waiting to check in. I walked up to a staff member and asked where to go for priority check-in. I had paid (or thought I’d paid) an additional $250 in order to be at the front of the line for the beginning and end of the cruise. It once took three hours to disembark a ship and I vowed never to put myself through that again. This very pleasant staff member told me that there was no priority check in and I’d have to wait with the rest of the passengers. I smiled and walked away. The next staff member I approached apologized and walked me over to a priority line. Again, persistence paid off. I had my cabin key in 20 minutes. No doubt some of the people in that hall waited several hours. I was thinking that the $250 I paid for priority check in was the best money I’d ever spent.
I settled into my oceanview cabin. I didn’t pay the hundreds extra for a balcony knowing northern Europe would be chilly in October and I wouldn’t be lounging on my balcony. I want to see the ocean; having a glass barrier is fine by me. I was very pleased with my cabin location – it is essential that when you book you find out where the bars, party rooms, and casino are located, you do not want your cabin to be above or below any of these places. My room was nicely situated close to a couple of nice restaurants and guest services. I decided to tour the ship and get my bearings and basically wear myself out before a much needed nap.
On my tour of the ship I stopped by guest services to ask a few questions regarding the details of the cruise. It was there that I learned that when I pre-registered I had not completed the priority check in payment and therefore, I was never signed up for it or charged. So just minutes before, I dodged a multi-hour process just by saying that I had priority check in. I felt bad, but a nap and some time would take care of my guilty conscience.
I’m not terribly fond of luxury travel. Perhaps it was having been raised in Coney Island, a poor section of Brooklyn or maybe it’s having empathy for those will never enjoy it. When I have staff servicing my basic needs several times a day, I find it uncomfortable. I prefer doing most things myself. The way I deal with the discomfort is to spend some time meditating; considering my good fortune and ways of giving back. It helps me to be more in the moment and to just enjoy myself. I must admit, it took a few days to settle into this temporary lifestyle.
The Third Night
It often takes a while, but when I allow it, my body will finally submit to most situations. On the third night of the cruise I was finished with eating, listening to a live band play some very smooth jazz, and sipping martinis. It was about 9:30 p.m. and I thought I’d read in my quiet cabin. I noticed Gerry (my stewart) has provided turn down service; the lights were dim and the curtains were drawn closed. I flossed, brushed, moisturized, and thought about how delightful the day had been on board this conflicted ocean liner – conflicted because of the various juxtapositioned spaces, although close together, clearly designed by different designers. One space modern with bold bright lights, while another wood paneled and soft. Still further aft, a series of too bright shops that could be in any mall is South Dakota. I don’t mind it really; however, the brain does begin to question why. Coming out of a bewildered trance, I turned out my cabin lights and drew open the curtains. The sea was white capped and crashing against the bow of the ship. Outdoor beams highlighted the shores of the English Channel and the rocking of the ship was akin to a mother gently pushing the side of a newborn’s cradle. I propped myself up against my window and took it all in, reminding myself to breathe and smile. This is why I happily grouse and pay the price of admission. This I could get used to.
Piss & Moan
I can’t ever share my experiences with you without complaining about something, so here goes. I’ll try my best to keep the soap box stuff to a minimum.
As you know, the pandemic changed travel forever. I can picture the NCL top management sitting around a big, expensive, boardroom table with good coffee and danish. The big boss starts the meeting by stating how much the company lost over the last two years. No doubt NCL alone had over a billion dollars in losses. The question of the day: How do we recover those losses? It will be all about how they survived on loans and keeping their lenders at bay. How creative they were with luring people to future travel by offering big deals and refundable deposits.
How the minions suffered with small furlough payouts or minimal unemployment, will not be mentioned at this said meeting. The theme is how much better off we will be in spite of a small hiccup. They may even mention how many of the smaller cruised companies were squeezed out of the market, creating even greater future earnings. Nothing new, this is corporate culture.
Not having cruised for sometime, I can easily see where they are recovering big profits:
- They keep the actual cruise cost at pre-pandemic prices and make everything an add-on cost (dominal fees).
- What is included in your initial cruise price is considered “complimentary;” not sure it’s complimentary if you’ve paid for it. The airlines are notorious for doing the same thing. On a recent flight I asked if lunch would be served. The flight attendant said, “Sir, we will be offering a complimentary snack (a teenie package of pretzels) and water. If you go to our website (you’ll need to sign-up for on-board wifi, extra cost) you will find a bistro menu with pricing. Let me know if you need anything.” “Oh, and we do not accept cash.”
- The cruise served something akin to bitter mud and called it coffee or you could visit the Java Café and get an American coffee for $3.00 or a latté for a nominal $3.95. The lines for coffee all day were impressive. Our addiction to caffeine has created massive revenue opportunities. On the fifth day I learned that I could use my $75 on-board credit for coffee; I joined the java line that day and everyday after. I also learned to add hot water to the mud they served to counter the bitterness.
- I think specialty dining has been around for quite some time, but now you can be treated to a “special” Italian or Japanese dinner with some additional costs. They will add 20% gratuity to the entire bill. If you already paid a 20% gratuity for the entire staff of the ship (which I did), you now need to add this gratuity to your totals. Since you’re eating a “special” dinner, you won’t want to drink that swill included in your $380 beverage package, you’ll want to order a special bottle of wine – only marked up 600% for your total enjoyment.
- We’ll be happy to wash your dirty clothes for a nominal . . . whatever they decide people will pay. Just buy new underwear at every port, it will be cheaper.
- Jump in front of the line for a mere $250.
- Let us take you on a one-of-a-kind excursion for four hours at a mere $189 (food and beverage not included).
- Do you need transportation to and from? We offer that too. A thirty minute ride to the airport for $75 per person – not per vehicle, per person.
- We know you’re all addicted to your phones; therefore, allow us to profit from your addiction. You can have wifi for the entirety of your cruise for only $220 or $29 a day; a bargain no. *Please note, wifi will be stronger in large public areas . . . if and when you’re able to connect. My cell worked in all of the EU ports — another Portugal bonus.
- Remember when you could swim in an indoor pool and use the jacuzzi without paying extra? Now you can enjoy our indoor thermal spa for only $249 for the entire length of your cruise. Extra benefit: it will never be crowded because working class people will not be using these services. We do have a “complimentary” outdoor jacuzzi if you dare to try and use it. Two hundred and eighty pound Joe got in at 11:00 a.m. and still hasn’t left at 4:00 p.m. Our waitstaff will deliver your beverages at no extra charge.
- Do you also remember when the fitness center on board held classes every morning? I recall it was often just me and the yoga instructor or abs trainer. No worries, they still hold classes; however now, there is that annoying nominal fee.
Please don’t worry that your favorite cruise company will go away, they have obviously found many ways to recover their losses and then some. Cynical? No, just sharing facts. The cost of each of the extras may not be completely accurate, as the amounts were from memory. You can be certain that I mostly understated the costs. At the end of the day, I spent over $300 onboard; actually not-so-bad for 10 days.
Reminds me of what the Port Authority of New York said when they built the Verrazano Bridge: “When the cost of building the bridge is recovered, we will remove all tolls from the bridge.” It’s been more than sixty years and the cost of crossing over to Staten Island has increased to a nominal $22 a trip, but hey, you only pay one way and they maintain the bridge so that it will never collapse.
The cruise companies will no doubt recover their losses and profits will continue to soar. Don’t forget billionaires did really well during the pandemic, most increasing their wealth tenfold. How did you fair? Perhaps the billionaires could have paid for the vaccine and contributed to unemployment payouts? Not on your life.
Yes, I have stood on my soap box for far too long; my apologies.
Prologue: After writing this bit I was enjoying a delicious filet mignon dinner with Oren (met him in Dover on my walk to the castle – very impressive castle by the way). I mentioned my blog and that I had just been ranting about all the little extras on board. He replied, ”You know, I added up what a comparable hotel would cost, a nice lunch and dinner out, entertainment and drinks and I realized the cost of this cruise is actually a really good deal.” It made me feel better about all of the nickle and diming happening on the ship; I think Oren is right, it’s a pretty decent deal. Still, I’ll be staying away from the top shelf scotch and the Cuban cigars, thank you very much.
The Best Things about a Cruise
- Being surrounded by the open sea. There are few things more humbling than the vastness of the ocean. When you see nothing but water (similar to looking up at thousands of stars), it is a reminder of how tiny you are compared to the size of the earth and the universe. Best not to try to take up more space than the universe provided.
- I loved walking back to my cabin after a night out on the ship. I could sit in a lounge with a cognac enjoying live music and decide that it is time for bed and be brushing my teeth five minutes later.
- I enjoyed turn down service. If you’ve ever had it, you’ll understand.
- I could read in a different quiet spot on the ship every day.
- You could look at the menu and decide to try three appetizers and two entrees.
- If you are friendly (not always easy), you can meet interesting people from all over the world.
- Several different opportunities to submerge yourself in water.
- I managed to get lost almost every time I left my room and it didn’t bother me.
- There are times when you get to see the best of humankind, usually it’s the staff.
- Being an early to bed, early to rise person has its advantages: mornings on the ship were very quiet, including the dining room at breakfast.
- A wine and chocolate tasting was very well done. I learned a lot and the five wines they paired were excellent. The nominal fee was actually quite reasonable.
- I’m not sure if it was the rocking of the ship, the cozy cabins, being away from day-to-day problems, etc., but I did sleep well on the cruise.
- When everyone went on shore and I decided to remain on the ship, it was heaven.
The Ugly Bits
- You will witness entitled passengers being rude to the cruise staff.
- All of the nominal charges and super inflated prices on board.
- Loudspeaker announcements.
- Some of the food served was downright bad. I had pancakes that I was certain were pre-cooked and microwaved.
- Loud passengers who will do anything to be noticed.
- Cueing up sucks.
- I couldn’t help but wonder how much longer this type of overindulgence will last in our society.
- People talking politics in the hot tub.
- Individuals who, for whatever reason, feel the need to share their stories without being asked to do so.
- Embarkment terminals are depressing – they can be very large and empty.
- Closed spaces (much like airplanes) can mean suffocation by unpleasant human odors – you know what I mean.
- I don’t love group tours. Waiting around for things to get started is frustrating for me.
A Wonderful Surprise
Two Scottish ports were canceled due to rough weather. Instead we sailed into Dover, England and I got to see the white cliffs of Dover; truly majestic. I can look forward to Scotland at another time, perhaps at a better time.
I know I didn’t write very much about the ports of call. I did get off the ship in Dover. I met a new friend outside the ship and we walked a couple of miles to Dover Castle on the hill. I’ve visited quite a few castles; although this was a very well preserved castle, it was a castle. A typical Dover pub for a pint was a nice change. My first visit to Belfast, I decided to see its coastline, which was magnificent. Cork was our next to the last stop; a beautiful city and one of the best fish chowder’s of my life. We docked in Portland, England on our last full cruise day. I wanted to see the Jurassic coast, however, that tour filled up quickly, so I begrudgingly booked Corfe Castle and the English countryside. Long story very short, we couldn’t go to the castle right away due to a parking issue, so our guide decided to detour to the Jurassic coast; it was meant to be. The castle and the coast were spectacular (see photos below).
I cannot imagine more than one cruise every few years. I write this realizing I have an Asian cruise planned for November ‘23. It doesn’t count because I booked it several years ago and it has been canceled and rescheduled numerous times (COVID). It’s a wonderful way to travel, but I find all the food and partying to be a bit decadent.
Near Future Travel
Fortunately, between now and March I have every little planned. My sister and brother-in-law will be visiting from North Carolina in early November and I’m surprising them with an overnight trip to see the incredible Algarve rock formations (my sister has never read and will never read my blog; I love her nonetheless). A food & wine trip to Lyon, France with friends in mid-November and a weekend at the Spanish border in December. That’s it until March when I will be traveling to Florida for a week of curated memories; sharing a house with two of my favorite people in the world. All of the above amply spaced out and well planned.