Modern cruising isn't the Love Boat

Summary:Before you take a cruise ship vacation, there are a few caveats you may wish to consider.

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Modern cruise ships like the Norwegian Epic are much larger than their predecessors. That doesn't mean the cruising experience itself is greater than before.

As I mentioned in my previous piece, in-between changing jobs this month, I decided to go on vacation with my wife. 

Originally we had planned to relax at home for a week, but instead we decided to look into what we could do together on such short notice. Being that we live in South Florida, it was convenient for us to take a cruise, because many of the cruise lines have ships that depart from either Fort Lauderdale or Miami.

We were able to get a pretty good deal on a 7-night cruise on Norwegian Cruise Line's Epic, leaving from the Port of Miami. There are a number of discount cruise web sites (such as Cruise.com and Vacations to Go) that will allow you to book cruise vacations only days in advance of departure, because many of the ships will have unsold cabins, are not filled to capacity and look to book as many people on the boats prior to departure as possible.

This was to be our first cruise together and we had a lot of expectations going in, having never been on a modern-style ship before. I had been on a cruise with my parents on Chandris RHMS Britanis when I was a young teenager in the early 1980s, but it was a much smaller and much older boat, and obviously not outfitted with any of the modern technology and amenities that ships have today, so it wasn't comparable. 

The Epic, like other super ships is a massive, massive boat. It weighs over 155,000 tons and is over 1000 feet long, making it the third largest cruise liner in the entire world (surpassed only by Royal Caribbean's Allure and Oasis) and was also one of the most expensive to build, at an estimated cost of $1.2 billion. It can accomodate over 4,100 passengers and 1,700 crew. That's just under four times the size of the Titanic by gross tonnage alone.

The Epic, built by STX Europe and launched in 2010 is a one-of-a-kind ship. NCL had originally planned to build a sister ship, with an option for a third vessel, but when part of the company was sold to Apollo Management, a private equity firm, NCL made significant changes to the ship's design and various disagreements with STX resulted in cost overruns as well as the cancelling of the second cruise ship.

Norwegian has since gone with slightly smaller designs and a different shipbuilder for their next generation Breakaway and Getaway, which are coming in 2013 and 2014 respectively. Another super-ship that exceeds the Epic in gross tonnage, code-named the Breakaway Plus, is to launch sometime in 2015.

My first impression of the Epic was overwhelming. It's a gigantic, and dare I say it, extremely ugly vessel. It's like someone took the hull of a container ship and dropped a massive 20-story Vegas hotel right on top of it. Along with a casino deck, a shopping mall deck, a spa, a fitness center, several large dining rooms, multiple buffets, multiple bars, nightclubs with entertainment venues and specialty restaurants, the vessel is also equipped with a water park with three different types of slides.

Unfortunately, the integration of the water park resulted in the cannibalization of a lot of swimming pool space, and only one small pool, in the aft of deck 15, which is about 12'x12' square, is reserved for adult-only use.

So what does booking a cruise actually get you, value-wise?

My wife got us a balcony cabin on deck 10, for about $1600 (for 2, plus around $300 for taxes and pre-paid tips) using one of the discount sites. Had we gone with an inside cabin, it would have been significantly less expensive, but we wanted the ocean breeze at night. The ship also has much pricer (and larger) spa rooms and villas, which were way, way outside our price range.

I'm going to level-set the framework for the rest of this piece. If you are prone to any forms of anxiety, or dislike cramped, enclosed spaces, or have ever felt claustrophobic or uncomfortable in crowds of people, I do not recommend you ever go on a cruise vacation. You will be extremely unhappy. Trust me on this.

You may have seen TV classic 1980's shows like the Love Boat which depict happy couples in spacious cabins.

That vision of cruising is a fantasy. The reality is that modern cruise ships are designed to pack as many passengers in them as they can and make as much money as possible, so what you can expect is a very tight cabin that feels a lot smaller than its advertised 200 square feet, with showers and bathroom stalls that are much more akin to what you might find aboard a 737 than in a hotel room. 

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The beds are not standard hotel beds, they are more akin to a Queen-sized bed with rounded edges and the sides and the bottom shaved off. If you're tall, your feet are going to stick out off the edge of the bed unless you go into a fetal position.

If you are prone to any forms of anxiety, or dislike cramped, enclosed spaces, or have ever felt claustrophobic or uncomfortable in crowds of people, I do not recommend you ever go on a cruise vacation. You will be extremely unhappy. Trust me on this.

The corridors on the cabin decks are also extremely cramped, so if you are a big person, you're going to feel uncomfortable just getting around. Moving your luggage into your room and unpacked on the first night after it is delivered in front of your cabin is a major challenge in and of itself, particularly if you have large suitcases packed for a week.

Let's talk about the food. You've probably heard that food on cruise ships is plentiful and it's basically impossible to go hungry because there are always buffets serving something and you can order virtually unlimited stuff from the main dining rooms.

This is not true anymore. The buffets have set hours, and there was no "midnight" or "chocolate" buffets like our friends suggested we look forward to. The only place to get something after midnight was room service (very limited menu) or the bar & grill in the casino.

If you are expecting world-class cuisine that you might find at a five-star resort, your expectations are far too high. While the variety of food items you will find at the buffets is good, the actual food quality is closer to the kind of offerings you might see in a decent corporate cafeteria due to the scale at which these ship galleys need to operate on.

Norwegian, like many of the other cruise lines in the last 10 or 15 years have changed the way cruise dining and activities operate. In the golden days of cruising, it used to be that you had set meal times and seatings. Today, with the rise of "Freestyle Cruising" you can go and eat at the dining rooms and the buffets basically any time you want, when they are open. But there's a catch.

If you want to eat at any of the specialty venues, there were lots of options (French, Chinese, Sushi, Teppanyaki, a Noodle House, Italian, Steakhouse and Churrascaria restaurants). But you have to make reservations and you pay a surcharge or a la carte for visiting them.

My wife and I did not choose to eat at any of the premium shipboard restaurants for a number of reasons, which I'll get to shortly.

Now, the drinks.

One of the ways that cruise lines make lots (and lots) of money is the beverages. There were two ways of paying for beverages on the cruise -- per drink or via a beverage plan. NCL had two types of beverage plans, one for soft drinks at $20 a day per person (which is highway robbery considering the markup on fountain sodas) and a semi-premium alcohol plan at $50 per day per person. Purified ship's water, Iced Tea, Juice and regular Coffee and Tea is free.

The food quality is closer to the kind of offerings you might see in a decent corporate cafeteria due to the scale at which these ship galleys need to operate on.

Now, $50.00 per person per day for alcohol sounds like a good deal, considering that your average beer is around $7.50 with included tip and a simple alcohol drink like a Absolut Vodka on the rocks is like $9. A bucket of 6 Bud Lights is about $38.

However, you cannot just decide that "oh well, today is a sea day and tomorrow we are at port the entire day, so I'm gonna get completely tanked all day today and take it easy tomorrow."  No, you have to incur that $50 per day charge for the entire length of the cruise.

But there's more. Both adults in your cabin have to sign up for this plan, so you're hit with an $800 alcohol bill at the end of the week. So if your wife or girlfriend isn't a big drinker, there isn't a ton of value in doing this. And top shelf alcohol like superpremium vodkas and rums and tequilas aren't covered by this plan either. This isn't just an NCL thing, this is standard for the entire cruise industry.

I've heard from a number of veteran cruisers onboard that there are ways of getting around this. One of which is to book your cruise through the ship's casino and get a casino card. They'll ask you a number of questions about how much money you plan to gamble per day, et cetera.

The end result is when you visit the casino and you blow money in there, you can get drinks for free. Neither my wife nor I are big gamblers so we didn't take advantage of this. But there were a lot of people on board who have taken so many cruises with NCL and blow so much money at the casinos that not only do they get free drinks, their entire cruise vacation is basically free. However, we're talking about an entirely different level of vacationer here than your average couple or family, though.

Don't even think about bringing your own alcohol on board, either. The ship will confiscate it the minute you get on and return it to you the night before you return. This includes any alcohol you buy duty-free at a port of call that the ship visits.

Expensive drinks are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of nickel and diming expenses on cruise ships. You want to bring your laptop on board? We were charged $55.00 for 100 minutes of Internet access. Which, by the way, was slow, unreliable, and practically useless. And is completely standard in terms of what you can expect to pay for these services in the rest of the cruising industry. Of course, you're supposed to be relaxing and not surfing the 'net anyway, but the occasional email check for peace of mind was painful.

Now, let's talk about what it actually feels like to be on a large cruising vessel like the Epic.

If you have never been on a cruise before, I strongly suggest that you do not take a 7-night cruise with multiple sea days as your very first. Additionally, based on the advice I have received onboard from cruise veterans, I would not take an Atlantic cruise as your first cruise either. Take a 3-day cruise that heads south from Florida to one port (like Cozumel) and comes back. If you like the experience, then do something more ambitious another time.

Also Read: I Went on a Freaking Cruise (Salon.com)

One would think that a vessel as modern and large as the Norwegian Epic could handle moderate seas, particularly with the stabilizer technology it has on board. However, this is not the case.

Because modern cruise ships like the Epic are so large, and so tall, any rocking movement is amplified all the way to the upper decks. When you are out in the open Atlantic heading towards or returning from the Eastern Caribbean, there is also nothing to stop the wind from blowing at 35-40 knots across the ship, and creating five and ten-foot waves.

Do you have any idea what it's like to be on a 1000-foot, 20-story tall cruise ship chugging along at 17 knots in five or ten-foot waves in the middle of December in the open Atlantic? It's pretty freaking horrible.

Now, I've actually grown up on sailboats, and have been in some really lousy squalls. I've never gotten actually seasick in any of them. But being on a cruise ship in just moderate weather conditions is nothing like being on a yacht that is just offshore for just a few hours at a time. It's nearly impossible to walk on deck and your equilibrium gets completely messed up, particularly if you are below decks and have no visibility of the horizon.

In my case, I didn't get nauseated or actually seasick, but without going into personal details, I was very unhappy and I wanted to leave the boat. It was only because of the nice group of people that my wife and I ended up hanging out with for the duration of the cruise that convinced me to stay.

Because I was so messed up most of the time, I did not make use of any of the main dining rooms or the special restaurants below decks. I didn't go to any of the entertainment venues either, and ended up ditching my wife for all of the shows who had to go see them by herself or with people she had met onboard.

I needed to be outside or near a large window where I could see the horizon and get fresh air. So I found myself isolated to certain parts of the ship, such as the upper-deck buffet and the aft section of deck 15 which is an adult-only area with deck chairs, a nice view of the ocean, a dedicated bar as well as hot tubs and the aforementioned tiny swimming pool.

Oh, and I completely forgot. If you're in five or ten foot waves, the swimming pools look like they are running tsunami simulations and they have to keep them closed. Which they did for the majority of the cruise.

If you do get seasick, there are things the ship's doctor can prescribe you, but some people should not take certain drugs because they can have interactions with other medications you might be taking, such as for hypertension. Be also advised that visiting the ship's doctor is expensive, at like $100 or more per visit and they do not take insurance cards, and your carrier may not reimburse you for it when you get back.

There's another thing that you need to know about and that's Land Sickness. This is a condition that occurs when you've been on a rocking boat for an extended period of time.

Basically, when you leave the cruise, your brain still thinks you're on a boat, and you feel the rocking motion even though you're sitting still or lying down. It will impair everything you do (including driving) and make you feel completely miserable and debilitated and unable to do even the most simple of tasks.

While not everyone gets this, a lot of people do.

I felt the symptoms of this for over a week after our cruise, and if I had any sense in me I probably would have not have flown straight to Seattle to start a new job the day after I got off the ship. My wife had it for at least 3 days after coming ashore. 

Norwegian's public-facing cruise staff told us that the weather conditions were highly unusual because the cruise the week previous was "smooth". However, after conversing with some of the Spanish-speaking housekeeping staff and servers, all of them off the record told me that the ship behaved like this on every cruise.

Now, it's certainly possible that the Epic has a horrible design and doesn't behave like other cruise ships. Veteran cruisers who have been on Royal Caribbean's Oasis and Allure, both of which are larger than the Epic, told me they were much smoother boats. I also heard from veteran NCL cruisers that the company's older and smaller ships were better run and also had superior food and accomodations, and that they would never go back on the Epic.

However, I also heard the opposite from other people as well, that these other cruise lines and NCL boats had many of the same issues. So you should do your research before booking any cruise.

Another thing I want to address is port of call visits. If you're expecting to get the flavor of the local island you're visiting, you can forget it. You get maybe six hours that you can spend at port, and that's not really enough time to do anything unless you book an excursion or just have a cab driver take you straight to the beach. 

And when you do get off, you will get assaulted with shopping/tourist villages that will try to get you to spend all kinds of money on jewelery and various other crap before you even try to see the real island.

Nassau, Bahamas is the absolute worst when it comes to this. The town is an absolute pit. Don't even think of getting off the boat there unless you book an activity or want to go hang out at Atlantis on Paradise Island for the day. Although, an afternoon of shopping in downtown St. Thomas is a worthwhile diversion and you can get good deals on jewelery and other items if you bargain and comparison shop a bit.

The real beautiful places like Grand Bahama Island, St. Martin, Puerto Rico and the USVI require multiple days to truly enjoy what they have to offer, so if you want to see them, I suggest you just fly there and enjoy a week at a resort hotel or book/rent a timeshare week at TUG2.NET or RedWeek.com. You'll be so much happier.

Based on what I experienced, I am unlikely to go on another cruise. But maybe I can be convinced to try another cruise line. What have your experiences with cruise ships been like? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

Topics: After Hours, Travel Tech

About

Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet is a technologist with over two decades of experience with integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer... Full Bio

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