It's been 1 month since going on a NCL Escape cruise with my family, and even though we tried to make the best of it, we're still bothered about how it all panned out, as well as NCL's obvious cuts and rollbacks over the course of the last 5+ years. So I felt the need to post this review here to help other cruisers make up their own mind. I hope this lengthy review helps you out, because it sure could've helped us out before booking! TL;DR Just read Intro and Conclusion to get the gist.
INTRO: To start, we were a group of 6 aged 30-45 with 2 seniors over 65 but still physically capable, all sailing May 19-26, 2019. We’ve also sailed on other cruiselines to compare (RCI, Princess, Holland America). The 2 seniors were celebrating their 50th anniversary. We're pretty casual and sensible people, but we sure know quality when we see it.
While the NCL Escape wasn’t a horrible cruise, it was disappointing in too many areas that it really has left us just vexed and irked. It’s almost a completely different cruiseline compared to a few years ago, and not in a good way. They don’t offer a good enough product for the NYC area, with nothing premium that is not in The Haven (the ship’s suite facilities). The ship’s biggest flaw was not being able to fit the passenger capacity in the facilities onboard due to them being too small or an afterthought.
EMBARKATION/DISEMBARKATION: Embarkation was congested yet semi-organized, which took about ~1hr from the entering the marina to getting on the ship. Many hurdles to jump through, and towing luggage while doing it isn’t too fun and I can’t imagine doing this regularly/monthly.
Disembarkation was initially a disaster since the ship docked many hours earlier than expected, and some rocket scientist in charge thought it was a good idea to call our tag color 1hr before it should have. You should have seen the madness that was the buffet and elevators by then (8AM). Absolutely NUTS. And the staff was no longer as pleasant, but go figure special thanks to rocket scientist. Then once we managed to squeeze into an elevator, it was ~20min total time off the ship and passing customs.
The $40/day pier parking was totally worth the convenience, and we could have gotten a potentially much cheaper shuttle arrangement had we researched in advance.
DEMOGRAPHIC: Basically the Carnival cruise kind of crowd. Passengers were mainly 30-60 yrs of the blue-collar-with-tattoos who looove to drink and consider the burgers and pizza to be gourmet, and there were some kids running around, making scenes and spreading germs via poor hygiene. But most passengers were respectful and we all treated each other as such.
SHIP: Bigger isn’t necessarily better, and this ship’s a clear example. Aside from being a big & beautiful ship and all that, it’s packed to the gills with passengers like a sardine can. There simply aren’t enough pools & hot tubs for everyone. It’s hard to find a seat in the buffet most of the time. You have to hunt down lounge chairs often and early to get the location you prefer. I could go on.
The ship also seemed to be cheaply assembled since it constantly creaked and rocked from the slightest choppiness at sea, and how the walls didn't seem well insulated or secured as evident by the constant creaking in the stateroom and several facilities. I’ve felt less rocking in smaller ships, on WORSE waters. The strangest thing was that the engine’s vibrating was felt all the way up to the 10th+ floor, with sometimes jolts of vibrations that would dissipate randomly. Why? How? Imagine having to sleep with that….NOT fun!
CABIN: Our cabin was a mid-ship balcony, 9280, smack-dab next to the elevators. The elevators weren’t a noise issue because they were partitioned from them, but the cabin walls were thin enough to hear a cough from the neighbors or flip flops in the hallway. Especially door slams and toilet flushes, what a drag. The bathroom was OK in size, but the toilet paper roller is installed in a hidden place which doesn’t make sense. Also, 9280 had the bed closest to the balcony rather than the sofa (as some balconies do), which while it’s nice for couples, it didn’t work out at all when having guests over. The dark wood and the sofa material were terrible design choices, because the material cheapened & the color visually confined the cabin.
SERVICE: The crew overall helped to create a positive cruise experience, and for the most part the staff is pleasant.
Our housekeeper Edwin was the rudest, laziest housekeeper we’ve ever met. Not to go into much detail, he was in a bad mood no matter what, constantly neglected to refill or clean certain things, hung up on our call requests to fix them, ignored us when we ran into him and said hello, and rushed us out of our cabin whenever he felt like making up our room. Sure, he had 16 rooms to clean, but frankly that wasn’t our problem since we were on vacation.
We had to beg him to arrange an anniversary surprise for the senior couple traveling with us. He didn’t even provide the “anniversary cake” card they were promised, so we had to get it at guest services.
Other than folks like Edwin, the crew was overall friendly and hardworking however lacked refinement or training when it came to good service (eg MDR). Most are no longer willing to go above and beyond. Most are no longer eager to please. Those small details that make a vacation special were missing.
The absence made sense when we saw staff being rotated around the ship instead of focusing on one area (eg one day Richard’s in the MDR, the next he’s in the buffet). The MDR was understaffed, lacking hands to manage several tables. The whole experience were even less special as a result of lacking food, service and timeliness. Other passengers complained of similar service issues in the specialty dining restaurants. Why pay more for the same experience?
The anniversary surprise resulted in a quarrel between the staff of who were or weren’t in the mood to sing for the couple. On their 50th? A crying shame...
DINING: The food aboard was overall acceptable, however was cut back a good amount since we sailed with NCL in 2015. It’s obvious that the cruiseline decided to go with a cheaper & lower-end selection of meals, even in specialty dining. It seems even Carnival (from what I've noticed) has more gourmet dining options now.
The Garden Café (buffet), while ideal for quick & no-frills meals, was limited or unimaginative when it came to selection and quality of food options. Where was the salmon, gourmet cheeses, array of cured meats, unique ingredients/foods/proteins or fine pastries? Because 80%+ of the time we couldn’t find them.
Buffet breakfast was disappointing, with the same boring assortment every single day: continental/American usual choices, an embarrassing European selection, and congee. The buffet offered cuisine themes, but 1) themed ethnic dishes were NOT authentically prepared (not even the Mexican or Italian dishes! Really?? and the Pho station was underwhelming), and 2) just the dinner themes were advertised while nobody knew what themes were going on for lunch. The pizza would upset ANY native NYC’er since it was essentially tomato sauce & cheese on a bland and greasy insult to pizza crust. Buffet desserts were mostly boring and repetitive, including the crepe station. There were always 1-2 no-sugar-added options (eg vanilla ice cream; strawberry mousse), but again, VERY boring and repetitive. The executive chef (an Indian man whose name I forgot) did nail down not seasoning the dishes too much/little, much like on RCI. He especially excels at Indian buffet dishes, but as much as I enjoyed the fish curry or chicken korma, I had to skip it often due to being too heavy/spicy, (and most of the passengers apparently did the same).
O’Sheehan’s was a pub-style free dining option, with decent wings and other bar snacks of varying quality. The whole place kind of felt like an afterthought, like “yeah, welcome, what do you want, are you done yet?”. The atrium right next to it was deafening loud a lot of the times where you just couldn’t hear each other at the table. Most things we tried on the menu were overall good, not great. The service, just meh. The desserts were disappointing, including me not finishing the brownie cheesecake -- something I NEVER did on a NCL cruise in 2015. It didn’t even TASTE like cheesecake or brownie. What happened? Oh that’s right, quality cuts the company hoped their passengers wouldn’t notice...
The MDR menu selections were reduced a good amount, and lacked gourmet touches when it came to the ingredient quality and cooking technique. No special sauces, no complex flavors, barely/no textural components, no unique proteins/fish/etc, no Lobster night, and no prime rib or salmon every night like before.
The MDR for breakfast and lunch was a COMPLETE afterthought in both food and service, glacial in pace (avg meal there was 1-1.5 hrs), and had a noisy ambiance forcing you to yell across the table just to hear each other (see sardine can notes above). 75% of everything we saw was just repeating classic fare available every day and night. MDR dinner was barely considered a memorable event due to scaling back the quality & presentation so much (not to mention the service lacking), so MDR meals never felt special like before.
We’re not picky eaters at the end of the day, even though this review may give the opposite impression. But most food options were seriously lacking that gourmet touch we expect when cruising (especially compared to the past); instead they just came off as upper-casual at best, or ideal for hangover recovery.
ENTERTAINMENT: The entertainment is all over the place from poor (eg After Midnight) to pretty good (eg Choir of Man). All the outdoor parties were underwhelming (deafening?), with the oldest of the age range doing most of the interacting/dancing while most of the youngest were just standing around and drinking. The comedy-magician guy was alright. Howl at the Moon was actually pretty good. The dance-off competition was funnier than the non-magic comedian. Again, all over the place.
SHIP AREAS, ACTIVITIES, ETC: There were 2 shuffle board courts, a ropes course, water slides, 2 tiny pools, a kid-zone, a mini-golf course, and some other small things.
The pools were empty most of the time, with people all around the perimeter dipping their feet. Why? Because a) the pools are too deep to touch the bottom, and b) they’re too cold to enjoy most of the time. At least they were salt water.
The ropes course & mini golf were nice but forgettable, and could have been removed to make (desperately needed) space for more pools & hot tubs.
The running track on deck 17 is obviously an afterthought. It didn’t have a dedicated pathway and is actually a hazard for both the runners and non-runners. Who wants to run while dodging puddles, loungers and second-hand smoke?
The Waterfront on deck 8 was the ship’s saving grace for adults wanting R&R outside their stateroom. You can only walk on it due to dividers. It has plenty of chaises and lounge chairs to enjoy actual peace and quiet (something very rare on this ship).
The muster drill is a congested joke to get up the elevators, so we just waited it out in the Waterfront (deck 😎 until the crowds cleared.
Deck 18 is a nice place to get some sun and relax, and there’s usually plenty of loungers available. There’s 2 hot tubs up there, outside of the Vibe Beach Club entrance. But the problem is that a) it oftentimes is too windy to enjoy, and b) not enough hot tubs for the deck’s capacity, so they were always crowded.
Spice H2O area is nice and adults only, but all the loungers are taken unless you snag one before 10am. Again, not enough space. The (scarce) umbrellas are almost always closed unless there’s barely any breeze, so hope you like tanning. Not enough hot tubs, and the waterfall just takes up wasted space.
I mean, I could see the need to go black-Friday-doorbusters for the 1st-come-1st-serve Vibe passes at guest services upon embarkation (~$100 each IIRC), to get guaranteed access to umbrellas and hot tub. But because it’s deck 18, it’s oftentimes too windy to enjoy whenever.
Enrichment activities were available, but many weren’t for pure knowledge and just ended up with upselling something you didn’t need.
All other adult activities besides the gym, buffet, Waterfront & pools/tubs were basically fee applied.
Nobody other than a handful of people at most wanted to see late night movies in the Atrium, much less popular compared to other cruiselines. So giant heaps of pre-bagged popcorn went to the trash each night. So if you like popcorn...!
The gym was decent size for after 1st sea day when it cleared out, with plenty of treadmills, ellipticals, weight machines, etc as well as a cycle & yoga/dance room.
The gift shop had some good items, clothing and jewelry for sale, and at decent prices during their flash sale events. Honestly, not all of it looked like chintzy Made in China stuff like I assumed.
BERMUDA: Our 1st time visiting and we look forward to going back! We thoroughly enjoyed having a port of call for more than a day so we could explore it at our leisure. We did the mini-bus shore excursion which was a great way to see the island, but the experience is mostly all about the driver’s knowledge & proficiency (and we got a bad one). The Gibbs Hill Lighthouse area was probably my favorite part of the island. A view up there so nice that the Queen approved of it. The free ferry going from the dockyard to St. George (complete opposite side of the island) is nice if you go early to explore the area. We passed by Horseshoe Bay, and it’s $14 pp round-trip, but it appeared underwhelming with not-so-pink sand like we kept hearing.
CONCLUSION: NCL Escape has so much room for improvement that there are some key areas that cannot be improved or fixed. Don’t get me wrong, the crew is overall pleasant and there’s activities here and there, but NCL needs to bring back the quality in dining, comfort and service. There’s not enough space in several ship areas, and NCL clearly knew this when designing the ship. They cram the passengers like a can of sardines in order to maximize profits. It’s kind of like the airlines: if nobody complains, they keep cutting in quality and amenities. They act like a premium cruiseline by offering The Haven and specialty whatevers, but what about everyone else? NCL’s missing the big picture when it comes to what makes a cruise special, because they’re so transfixed on dumbing down everything to become mainstream or casual. It essentially feels much like a giant ferry to provide room & board and some distractions while getting the masses to their port destination. And last but not least, the Dining & Entertainment experience has dropped to a new low, which is unacceptable. Based on how the cruiseline trends are going, we’re basically left with no choice but to resort to the more premium lines (Princess, Holland America, Celebrity, etc) to ensure we get the quality and service we pay for. No more NCL for us, which is too bad!