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JamieLogical

Alternatives to NCL?

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I just began cruising last February. My first ever sailing was on the Escape and I loved every second of it. I have since sailed on the Gem in June and the Escape again in October. I am sailing on the Bliss in under two weeks and booked to sail on the Escape yet again in April. We're also booked on the Encore's inaugural transatlantic in November. So, far, I have loved sailing with NCL, but I do have some thoughts and concerns about continuing to sail with them beyond our transatlantic next fall. I guess, what I am looking for in this thread is info from people who have sailed with multiple cruise lines. What cruise line would you consider to be most like NCL or the best alternative to NCL? I'll list off some of the things I love about NCL to help you understand more of what I am looking for:

 

  • Casual attire... I am a jeans and t-shirt kind of person. I always pack one dress to wear to specialty restaurants, but otherwise like to feel comfortable walking around the ship, attending shows, dining in the buffet and MDRs in my jeans and sneakers.
  • Specialty Dining... I love the variety of specialty dining available on NCL ships and the fact that you can get the SDP as a perk or purchase it ahead of time and have a set number of meals in specialty dining restaurants.
  • Drink Package.... I don't think of myself as a heavy drinker on land. I might have something like 8 drinks a week in my real life? But on a cruise, I want to be able to have 8-10 drinks a day! I don't have expensive taste in liquor and I am not a wine drinker at all, so the current price hikes and $15 cap on drinks isn't hurting me, but I could see how it might be an issue if it continues, or if they continue to raise the "price" of the UDP and, by extension, the service charges associated with taking it as a perk.
  • Chipper Staff... One of the things that has constantly impressed me on my cruises so far is how up-beat and happy the staff appear to be, despite their thankless jobs and grueling hours. I don't know how they do it! But I am so appreciative of it. It makes for a really lovely and relaxing time. It is important to me in considering any other cruise line that the staff be friendly and attentive. I have been blessed with some great room stewards so far and would hate to have a negative experience when switching cruise lines.
  • Live Music... We aren't big on the large theater productions. They can be fun, but we could take them or leave them. What we do love is live performers in small venues where we can sit with a couple of drinks and enjoy the music. We found the Gem to be better for this than the Escape, but I understand a lot can depend on which musicians they have on board for any given sailing.
  • Sailing out of NYC... This isn't critical, but it's definitely nice. For some of our "in between" cruises we've taken on shorter notice (the Gem in June and my upcoming sailing on the Escape in April), being able to sail out of NYC reduces the cost of the trip and the logistics of planning with no need for a hotel or flights.
  • Large, Modern Ships... We enjoyed our time on the Gem, but agreed we prefer the larger and newer ships.

 

I will say that we don't care at all about pools, water slides, and loungers in the sun, so top deck activities aren't a huge priority.

 

Hopefully you guys will have some suggestions and insights for us!

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I think most of what you find important is pretty standard across lines. Sure, other lines have formal nights but you certainly don't need to participates. If modern ships out of NYC is important then Royal Caribbean might be your best choice for an alternative. 

Edited by Alegeeter

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The only thing of the list I believe is hard to find somewhere else, especially relatively consistent across the fleet is the specialty dining.

Otherwise of those that I tried (Costa, MSC, RCI, Celebrity) all are pretty much interchangeable and the differences between the classes of ship and destination/length under one company were much greater than between the different companies for a similar itinerary on a comparable ship. 

 

At the moment my best suggestion would be MSC. Interesting itinerary still moderate on board spending costs. Reminded a bit of NCL 5-8 years ago.  

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Sailed Carnival, Royal, NCL, Princess, MSC, Holland, and sailing Celebrity for the first time soon. Princess and Holland are a bit too reserved but the service, food,  and itineraries are great. Try the MSC Seaside, Carnival Vista/Horizon, or an Oasis class ship from Royal. Celebrity had some good deals right now (non - Edge ship) with drink packages and such ...... I do find that Royal's pricing for a cruise and a drink package is high comparatively speaking. 

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Princess has a good drink package but may be too subdued for you.  No slides, climbing walls etc.  Personally I like Princess but it is not for everyone.

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Been on carnival, princess, rccl, and ncl.  Started doing ncl only contioulsy in 2011 because of the dining program being so much more casual then others plus being able to eat one day at 530 and the next at 9pm is so nice.  Although some of the other lines have flexible dining now, the still have "set" early and late dining times that they try and have you set up for.  Not only can you end up at a time you don't like you can end up sitting with strangers for 7 nights.  I normally enjoy that but our last cruise with rccl in 2010 got stuck at table for 8, 3 spoke not a word of English, and the other 3 were crook complainers, and rude to staff.  Plus rccl late night snacks were almost nonexistent.  Love ncl, my husband likes good food but doesn't want to wear a tie while eating it.

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From your description, I would consider Carnival or Royal.  They are the closest competitors to NCL and both sail from the NYC area.  You could also consider Boston or Baltimore as a port, but those ports will have smaller ships.

 

Carnival is more casual than Royal and NCL.  It offers fixed dining or your time dining.  They have very good casual dining options, particularly during the day.  No "free" beverage package, but it is only $55 per day, plus gratuity and covers more than NCLs package.  There is a 15 alcoholic drink per day limit on the package, if you can drink that much.  They do sail out of NYC during the warm weather months.

 

Royal is a more formal than Carnival or NCL.  They  have the most restrictive dining room dress code and certain contingents of Royal passengers do not look kindly on casual attire in the dining rooms.  Their onboard entertainment is on par with NCL.  Their beverage package is similar to Carnival's, but without the 15 drink limit.  Royal sails out of Bayonne, which means less driving hassles and cheaper parking than Manhattan.

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I have sailed Carnival, Royal, Princess, Celebrity, Disney and of course NCL.

 

Like you, I enjoy the NCL product but won't limit myself to cruising with only them. Out of lines I have tried, I recommend you consider Royal and Carnival. We have had several cruises on both of these lines and thoroughly enjoyed them (then again, I have never been on a bad cruise).

 

In our experience in terms of dress, Carnival and NCL are the most relaxed and flexible. 

 

Neither of these lines offer a "free" drinks package and we therefore buy a la carte with them so are very mindful of how much we are spending. The best drink package offer I have experienced is Celebrity. When we cruised with them in 2015 it was truly free (no tip surcharge) and also included some specialty coffees and bottled water (great for shore excursions). Celebrity also gets high marks for their big production entertainment which I really enjoyed. I seem to recall enjoying the food but honestly can't remember any particular meals so that says something I suppose.

 

Between Royal and Carnival, I think Royal outshines Carnival in the MDR (but Carnival's Guy Fieri burgers are the best at sea, hands down) and also has better stage productions. Comedy is really good with Carnival if you're into that. 

 

You won't know until you try different lines which will appeal to you but you may find that like my husband and I, you don't want to remain loyal to any one line. Yes, this means you won't build status and get additional perks quickly and that is certainly a perk people who love one particular line receive but there are other great ships with great offerings out there. 

 

Whatever you decide, go with an open mind and have a great time! 

 

 

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Based on the criteria, I'd point towards Carnival and RCCL for the OP. I put RCCL over Carnival for both ships and quality but the prices are higher. Obviously, choosing the right ship is important. The Oasis class is unique for the time being and there isn't (IMO) a Carnival class as good as the Breakaway Plus class. Even if the Oasis class is "too big", RCCL has new/newish ships that are smaller than Oasis but are still bigger/better than the Vista class (again, my opinion).

 

MSC doesn't really have enough options in North America for now and sailings out of the Northeast are even fewer.

 

 

Edited by Two Wheels Only

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I've sailed RCCL 2x and have my first NCL booked in April.  Maybe things were a little more relaxed due to the section of the MDR/restaurant we were in on the last cruise (the "MDR" on the Anthem is broken into different "restaurants" but with the same menu, we were in what seemed like an overflow of one of them, we had 9 people) they didn't seem overly particular about the dress code. My family respected it, ties for the guys on formal nights and polo shirts at worst the rest of the week, but others weren't as respectful of that.  Our wait staff was EXCELLENT, the head waiter interacted with my niece and nephew and was VERY attentive to food allergies/needs (nobody had ANY effects from eating something they shouldn't). 

 

Anthem of the Seas is a nice ship, currently sailing from Port Liberty, but it's a madhouse if you're going during a school vacation week, they can fill 4 beds in many of the cabins on those weeks and it can feel overrun by kids.  Some things seemed mis-managed - we thought we were scheduled for the first seating for dinner but it took them over half an hour after "opening" to get things sorted out the first night and even start seating people.  Another disorganized item was the bumper cars - there was a staff member standing at the entrance to manage people going out to the cars but some of the kids were cycling back into the front of the line right off the cars and nobody was controlling them (the line wrapped 2/3 of the way around the "rink").  The band they had on board for the first half of the trip was EXCELLENT (DSB Band, a Journey tribute/cover band, they played 2 shows), the stage show that I saw was great, and the 270 theater is a sight to see.  There was one night my dad and I came across the guitarist from the stage show playing in an atrium space, we just sat there and played our own game of "name that tune" while she played, we found a couple bucks for the tip jar as she deserved it.

 

I'm excited to compare it to the Bliss in April, though it's quite a different itinerary, being on the West coast compared to the Bahamas, it's nearly the same size ship as Anthem was.

 

My first RCCL trip was Explorer of the Seas in 2014, we won't talk about that except to say Bermuda was the highlight of the trip and it was BEAUTIFUL.  It wasn't so much the crew as the weather, and the ship was showing some signs of neglect as it was due within a couple months for a dry dock overhaul.

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We sail both RCCL and NCL regularly (platinum plus on NCL and equivalent status on Cunard). Also have cruise on Princess and other lines on an infrequent basis. 

 

Freestyle Cruising has been the biggest draw to NCL. The days of fixed time dining with unpleasant strangers who slow down the dining process is in our distant pass.  The need to pack gowns and tuxes are also in our distant past. Cruise Casual attire is the only way to go on a vacation. So, it is MyTime Dining on RCCL and Freestyle Dining on NCL now. 

 

I am kinda tired of going to the RCL windjammer buffet and hearing the loud speaker announcements "if you're done eating, get the heck out since we got more people to feed". And the unhappy crew, bordering on being unpleasant on RCCL.  Every crew member on NCL greets you with a smile and a greeting. 
 

All that being said, we are cruising on the Escape soon (4th time) and Harmony of the Seas (1st time) shortly after. 

 

We were booked on the inaugural Joy until it was cancelled last week. Because of other schedule conflicts, we have decided to abandon the Joy and go on another RCCL cruise instead. 

 

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Thanks everyone for the great replies. I don't know if I've reached any conclusions yet, but I am grateful for all of the responses. A couple of things I should have mentioned in my OP:

 

  • First, we don't have kids and don't particularly like kids. We try to sail at times when school is in session to avoid a ship packed with children. So far, it hasn't been too bad on our sailings. There were definitely fewer kids on our Gem sailing to Canada & New England than have been on our Escape sailings. But even the Escape sailings weren't bad, one being in February and one being in October. It was only really an issue at all in the buffet and the arcade. And there were crying babies several times, but you can't avoid those, since they aren't beholden to a school schedule.
  • The ability to eat any time we want is really nice, but we end up having to make reservations a few times per sailing for the specialty restaurants, so I think we could stick to a dining schedule if we had to. I also don't mind eating with strangers from time to time, but having to eat with the same strangers all week does NOT sound appealing at all!

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Try Celebrity, Jamie. They have the best pricing with perks right now of the next level up cruise lines. Few kids, better food, better service, anytime dining. We have chosen the Celebrity Silhoutte for 2020. The entire fleet is going thru a 500 million dollar renovation as well. I’ll give you an idea of pricing. We (family of four) sail the Bliss for 15 days here in March. Inside cabin with drink package was $5775. Next year 12 days on the Celebrity Silhoutte (family of four) A1 angled balcony cabin, drink package for 2, $100 OBC ....$6005.96. All things considered, the prices are very similar. I think you’ll find NCL, CCL, and Royal more the same than different.  

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@JamieLogical I have always enjoyed your posts and think we are very similar.

 

I also do not have a kids but love specialty dining and not being around kids.

 

@tallnthensome posted a great suggestion. Personally I have only been on Celebrity twice but find they have even better food than NCL and have less kids on board.

 

Their drink package is stellar and the upcharge to Premium is minimal and worth it. Price is comparable too. I've loved sitting on the lawn Club and watching the glass blowers. Solstice class is a way to go.

 

Personally I would stay away from CCL, RCCL, and maybe NCL soon. Although Celebrity is a part of RCCL, it achieves a higher standard with not much additional cost. I would also take a look at Virgin once they get moving.

Edited by willsears94

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24 minutes ago, tallnthensome said:

Try Celebrity, Jamie. They have the best pricing with perks right now of the next level up cruise lines. Few kids, better food, better service, anytime dining. We have chosen the Celebrity Silhoutte for 2020. The entire fleet is going thru a 500 million dollar renovation as well. I’ll give you an idea of pricing. We (family of four) sail the Bliss for 15 days here in March. Inside cabin with drink package was $5775. Next year 12 days on the Celebrity Silhoutte (family of four) A1 angled balcony cabin, drink package for 2, $100 OBC ....$6005.96. All things considered, the prices are very similar. I think you’ll find NCL, CCL, and Royal more the same than different.  

Wait, inside cabin vs balcony? I think I would choose Celebrity. 

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2 minutes ago, vicnsue said:

Wait, inside cabin vs balcony? I think I would choose Celebrity. 

Exactly, al be it 3 days shorter than our 15 day in the inside NCL cabin. 

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Have sailed NCL (Platinum), RCCL (Platinum, which isn't near their top tier as it is on NCL), CCL (Gold), Celebrity (only one cruise with them) and HAL (one cruise with them).

 

Celebrity and HAL really didn't show me much.  I've never had a bad cruise.  It's just the activity and energy levels on Celebrity and HAL weren't to my liking.  As others have said, they're much more subdued.

 

On the flip side of that is Carnival.  I've sailed them a few times and the vibe with them is almost "manic".  If you're in the mood for that, they know how to do it well.  Announcements for constant activities, guests (and crew) rushing around always, people get...well....maniacal from what I've observed...from restaurants, to the bars, to getting on and off the ship.  If you like that, go for it.  As an aside, the "faster to the fun" up charge wasn't worth it.  Some love it.  Personally, I found it a giant waste of money.

 

RCCL.....been on their biggest (Allure) and their newest (at least at the time of my sailing), Anthem.  I also sailed one of their older ships, Freedom of the Seas.  I really enjoyed sailing in a solo balcony cabin on Anthem.  Allure I was with my (then) girlfriend and we enjoyed how big the ship was and the activities it offered.  

 

One note.....It was crowded at times....shoulder to shoulder on the Promenade....long waits for the restaurants, even with reservations, etc.  I did like me some WONDERLAND specialty dining (a slight uncharge from the dining package).  That was unlike (in a good way) anywhere I've ever dined. RCCL is probably a tie with.....

 

MSC....status match to their highest level, BLACK.  Sailed the Divina out of MIA and the Meriviglia out of Barcelona.  These are just stunning ships....probably the most beautiful I've sailed.  They both kind of split the difference between RCCL and NCL.  Entertainment was good (especially the Cirque shows).  Food was wonderful, but I know some who don't like the Mediterranean focus of the food offerings.  Me?  I loved it.  You will probably be familiar with EATALY, which is a unique Italian restaurant/grocery on land.  They do the same experience at sea.  Probably the best Italian restaurant I've been to on any cruise.  

 

Entertainment appeals to a much more international audience than what you'll find on any other cruise line sailing out of the U.S.  You either like that, or you don't.  I do!  

 

Service was good, but more subdued.  They won't hit you up for a drink every 10 minutes.  If you want something, ask.  They won't be in your face.  Again, I like this.  Tipping isn't a "thing" on the MSC Cruises I've taken.  Getting a massage, getting a drink, etc....no tips are expected, and you won't find anyone pushing drink packages, Salon elixirs, etc.  That's pleasant.  Their Yacht Club is a true luxury experience, if you decide to go that route.  It used to be significantly less expensive than Suites on RCCL or NCL.  I think they caught on they could charge more, much more, so they do.  Butlers in tails to take your luggage as soon as you are dropped off at the pier.  Concierges who will take care of bookings, Billings and reservations.  Very nice!

 

NCL....the line I've cruised on most.  Platinum gets you a specialty dinner, a free load of laundry (as much as you can stuff in a bag), some discounts on board, a "behind the scenes" tour, early embarkation and debarkation.  Where you really get the goodies are the ever available "free at sea" promos.  Not going to debate the drinks they offer, nor the tipping debate.  Drinks and dining are good deals, even with tips.  Personally, I'm not looking for top shelf drinks, anyway.  So, when they offer mid-grade liquors (Bulleit Bourbon, Titos vodka, Tanguerey Gin, I'm good.  Love some Ocean Blue (a slight upcharge from specialty dining).  Had the best Lobster I've ever eaten at Ocean Blue.  

 

Entertainment is where NCL really shines.  It's the best at Sea.  I've seen the Cirque Shows, Blue Man Group, Rock of Ages, Million Dollar Quartet, the great live music everywhere on board.  It's all great.  Never seen better anywhere else.

 

Pricing is something that's debated a lot.  NCL will strip away all the "perks" and offer a sailaway price, if that's what you want.  I always take the perks because I use them....a lot....on every NCL cruise.

 

Generally speaking, the ships on every cruise line are clean and beautiful.  MSC's are the most beautiful.  Service on all of them rank good to great.  They're all very clean (had some cleanliness issues on Carnival, however.

 

My suggestion?  Try another line to give you some perspective.  I've never taken a cruise on any cruise line, that I had a bad time.

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I've seen some mentions of entertainment in various replies, but that seems to apply to the big, main theater shows? What about live music in small venues like I mentioned in my OP?

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13 minutes ago, JamieLogical said:

I've seen some mentions of entertainment in various replies, but that seems to apply to the big, main theater shows? What about live music in small venues like I mentioned in my OP?

In my experience, and that's with predominantly  rccl and ncl, I've seen better live music with rccl. 

Of course this is something that can change sailing to sailing but I do search out the music when I'm on board.

For example, when I was on the Anthem a couple of years ago, I had a ton of fun in one of the smaller venues when they had a Police tribute band. They were great!

On the same cruise, I went down to the Royal Promenade one night before dinner to have a drink while waiting for my wife, and wandered into Bolero's and listened to this great little band with a female lead singer. They were outstanding and, unfortunately for me, were getting off at our first stop and being replaced with something else.

I think I'd give the nod to rccl over ncl with regards to entertainment overall and with the music.

With that being said, I just booked the ncl Encore for next January.

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I loooove NCL and would cruise on them exclusively if not for the increasing prices.  I am cruising next week and still waiting for my upgrade bid to be accepted.  I do not like this process.  It's too stressful.

 

That being said, we booked a balcony cabin on Princess for Aug. 2019.  We paid $2600pp.  NCL's equivalent was $3600pp.  This is for the 12 day British Isles cruise. 

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38 minutes ago, JamieLogical said:

I've seen some mentions of entertainment in various replies, but that seems to apply to the big, main theater shows? What about live music in small venues like I mentioned in my OP?

I'm a musician (used to play professionally), so I tend to judge live music pretty harshly. We've only sailed NCL and RCI, but the music we've heard on NCL was head and shoulders better. I saw the best guitar player I've ever seen (on land or sea) on the Escape last September.

 

I agree with @Graphicguy that the entertainment on NCL is superior. I've never sailed Carnival, so can't speak to this from personal experience, but I remember reading a few years back that they removed all of their live music and replaced any live acts with DJs (one of the many reasons we've not sailed with them). Not sure if that's still the case, but it would be a major factor for me in choosing which line to sail.

 

We're thinking of trying Celebrity next, just for something different. Though some of the above on MSC is making me take a closer look at them.

 

Cheers.

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I've looked into it quite a bit and the last 3 times I have chosen NCL.  When everything is added together it was always the cheaper option because of the UBP perk being free vs having to buy it on another line.  However, MSC has some pretty good deals sailing Caribbean out of Miami now and I think I'm going to give them a try in 2021.

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22 hours ago, JamieLogical said:

But on a cruise, I want to be able to have 8-10 drinks a day!

me too! I so want to be able to drink, but more than 2 will probably kill me. Or, at least, incapacitate me.

 

On a serious note, I'd look into RCI (activities and entertainment) and Princess (better food).

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The rewards level matching of MSC is intriguing. I am still only Bronze right now, but I will be Gold by the time I return from our Encore transatlantic next fall. At that point I would be 20 points away from Platinum. Wonder if it would be worth getting to Platinum under NCL before sailing with MSC? I could do it in two more cruises (maybe even one if I could find a 10 night Latitudes Rewards sailing).

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We've done a smattering of different cruise lines (except Princess).  No disputes with anything anyone has typed here.  We did one Hal (over new years, with our 2 kids, thus it was more of a typical family age range, not all 80+).  If you have easy access to their newer ships (eg. Koningsdam), I'd consider them too.  Seeing their Lincoln players do Radiohead with violin, cello, etc was impressive.  The music onboard was more like 1960s and 70s classics (not the 1940s-50s one might think).

 

For us, it was an easy flight, pricing was good, no regrets.  

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