Cruise notes: NCL Bliss, February 2023

Beware: I didn’t get this cruise documented in a reasonable amount of time after sailing, so have lost some context, but still want to keep track of all sailings for key reminders and later reference.

Norwegian Bliss was, at the time we sailed her in 2018, the best sailing I’d been on yet. It certainly outranked our previous five cruises from an amenities and service perspective, and was one of the reasons we started and ended with NCL for future bookings. When we were able to arrange a child-free sailing with some of our best friends, Bliss emerged at the top of the pack, despite not being the newest ship or best value in that timeframe. Thus in February 2023, we embarked Bliss from PortMiami.

Unfortunately after that 7-night sailing, Norwegian cruises haven’t had quite the same shine in my mind. It’s not at all that it was a bad cruise, but there were some truly mediocre experiences and blatantly obvious cost-cutting measures that hadn’t been present on any of our previous sailings.

Perhaps this is the “new normal”, or an aberration on this ship or specific sailing, but the changes and onboard experience made a (fairly) brand-loyal customer think twice about which cruise line to book with next. I was glad, in a way, that I didn’t have any more CruiseNext deposits to use after this sailing. I absolutely value the quality time we got to spend with friends on this trip, but this experience on Bliss left me wanting more.

Less lucky with NCL air

For the third time, our booking over 120 days from sailing meant that we could use the Norwegian half-off flights program. This, however, was the first time we would be using it for the Toronto/Miami round-trip. We selected a 1-day prior deviation, received the flight confirmation from NCL at 63 days out from the sail date, and were assigned the following:

  • Outbound: American, YYZ-JFK at 0600-0750; connecting in JFK-MIA 0900-1240
  • Return: Delta codeshare (WestJet hardware), FLL-YYZ at 2115-0024 the next day

This was not a great set of flights.

I’m not complaining about the use of Fort Lauderdale airport when the ship is in Miami. It is a common and well-documented substitution, and a choice I’d make myself if MIA commands a hefty premium. It does mean a slightly increased taxi, Uber, or shuttle cost to get closer to the ship or a Miami-area hotel.

The 0600 departure from Toronto is one of the earliest flights of the day, but understandable if these flights are theoretically being booked to be able to catch the ship on embarkation day, ignorant of the requested day-prior deviation.

The two things I was most concerned with were a connection in JFK in February, due to the potential for bad winter weather both in Toronto and New York City, as well as being assigned the second-worst return option at 9:15pm. There was one potentially worse flight back to Toronto that we could have been assigned, departing at 9:50pm. This would mean that we’d have to spend most of the day in Florida.

There are post-debarkation tours available, and some options for day-use hotels, but this adds more cost to the trip and requires more of a commitment for childcare.

I was able to access the Delta flight booking through the website, using the PNR and confirmation numbers received directly from Norwegian. In a stroke of luck, Delta provided the option to change flights purely for the difference in cost. This is both an airline-specific benefit, as well as a function of the ticket type NCL booked for us – while their included air program does certainly select inexpensive flights, we’ve never received a completely restrictive “basic economy” fare where the original ticket carries no exchange value.

It was $80US per person to move us onto an 11:25am flight leaving from MIA instead; while this added a connection with 1-hour layover in JFK, the replacement route got us home seven hours earlier. $160US seemed worth it in comparison to the inconvenience and extra costs we would incur for the day in Florida. This was also a flight NCL would not have booked us on themselves, as their own service standards specified noon as the earliest possible departure. There is always a risk that the ship doesn’t dock or clear customs on time on disembarkation day, but since it was just Kayla and myself, I felt we could easily make the pre-noon flight using self-assist for luggage.

Alternate accomodations

In coordination with our friends, we chose to stay at the Hampton Inn & Suites Miami Wynwood Design District, which was further east (and therefore slightly closer to the port) than the Marriott airport complex. It did offer complimentary hot breakfast, walkable access to a Trader Joe’s and a Target, but lacked a free airport shuttle. I wouldn’t pick it again myself; the closer proximity to PortMiami didn’t really change the travel time on the morning of the cruise, and while nice, it was more expensive than other comparable properties.

I spent some time during the pre-cruise afternoon at the nearby Tap 42 Craft Kitchen & Bar, taking advantage of their Friday happy hour specials for food and drink. When our friends arrived and got settled, we ended up returning there for dinner as well, so consider that a light recommendation.

Embarkation morning

This was the first time we would sail out of the new NCL Terminal B, and we’d selected a 10-10:30am arrival time. We were slightly delayed leaving the hotel due to an emergency trip to Target, and ended up arriving 20 minutes past that checkin window, but it didn’t really matter; Bliss was still disembarking passengers from the previous sailing when we got there.

Security and check-in were quick, with the only surprise being issued a piece of paper indicating that our port of Cozumel was cancelled and replaced with Bimini. This was unfortunate as we had booked an NCL excursion in Cozumel, and the replacement offerings in Bimini were generally beach days or other activities that didn’t entirely appeal to us.

After completing check-in, there weren’t any available seats in the terminal that made sense for our group. We ended up sitting on the floor in an out-of-the-way area, trying to avoid the “gate lice”. Similar to the airport, these are people who stand up well before their category or number is called, and generally impede anyone who might be legitimately entitled to board before them.

At 12pm exactly, we (as Platinum members) were on the bridge to the ship and on our way to confirm entertainment and dining reservations. The NCL app was not working properly for our friends, so we spent some time in line to lock down a go-kart slot, SIX, and Jersey Boys showings. After that was a trip to the Taste/Savor main dining rooms, and we had menus at 12:28pm, appetizers were served about 15 minutes later, and entrees 10 minutes after that. Overall, not too bad for our first hour onboard!

Platinum benefits

Kayla and I made good use of our Platinum Latitudes benefits this sailing – two specialty dinners (including a very filling one at Los Lobos), complimentary bag of laundry (which took a few days to return), Wines Around the World, and – my favourite – the Behind the Scenes tour.

NCL had fairly recently resumed the Behind the Scenes tour as a post-pandemic offering, and we were able to see some crew areas, galley, food prep and storage areas, the theatre, I-95, and laundry facilities. It was run on the second day of the cruise (first sea day) and the times were quite early in the morning; there were at least three groups taking the tour, and our group started at 7:40AM. Our tour conductor was one of the CruiseNext staff, who did a good job modifying the route on the fly when necessary. A neat discovery on the real deck plans was that there is actually a crew-only, partial deck labelled 71, forward in between decks 6 and 7.

While there was no “hard sell” of future cruise credits, all the Latitudes activities (especially the cocktail party later on that evening) seemed very… culty. A huge deal was made about people who had been sailing Norwegian for years and there was lots of mutual back-patting between staff and top-tier passengers. Obviously, a focus of these events is to recognize people who have reached elite tiers in the loyalty program and drive recurring business, but even as much as I love sailing, we’re not in the category of cruisers who book a particular ship because of a specific crew member or hotel director.

Cabin service downgrade

This sailing on Bliss was also our introduction to some of the NCL cost-cutting measures that had started popping up in quarterly reports. The most obvious one was the increase in daily service charge to $20US/person/day for non-suite cabins, while at the same time housekeeping services were reduced from twice a day to once. Behind the scenes, Norwegian also restructured their room steward/attendant structure, effectively requiring these folks to service more cabins in a day and eliminating many promotion opportunities.

While we’d prepaid the DSC at the previous rate ($16US/person/day), I’m not certain that we ever were introduced to our room steward – we might have waved to them in the hall, but certainly no recognition that they were the ones assigned to our cabin. We also missed two days of housekeeping service, without a “sorry you were in the room or had DND on” note. Incidentally some of the more prolific CruiseCritic personalities are deliberate about rejecting stateroom service, except for a towel and TP refresh conducted at arms-length in the hall, so maybe this situation wouldn’t have ranked as a negative for some.

I’m quite transactional about housekeeping/stateroom services and don’t especially need the staff to be overbearing – in fact, having a consistent steward throughout a cruise, compared to someone each day from a pool of available attendants, holds marginal value to me. Stewards have limited time to service each cabin, so changing towels, emptying garbage, and removing glasses or plates once a day is sufficient for my needs.

At any rate, once a day cleaning is certainly better than the “maybe once, if at all, during your stay” downgraded housekeeping schedule many land-based hotel chains have pivoted to – but I do expect that service consistently once a day, especially when it’s part of a near-mandatory charge.

Continued inconsistency

It wasn’t just the housekeeping that was less consistent – another obvious place was at the bars. I spend a good amount of time on sailings either sitting at a barstool, or ordering drinks to take back to a different spot. Pre-pandemic, the larger exterior bar on the Waterfront like the Cavern Club, at peak times, would be crewed with two bartenders and someone in a “utility bar” role, in addition to one or two roaming servers.

On our sailing, staffing in this location was limited to one bartender and a very novice trainee, who unfortunately became flummoxed every time they were asked to do two things (one after the other) and made mistakes with straightforward drinks like a Bloody Mary. We felt for the more experienced crew member, who essentially had to serve a dozen folks at the bar and all the walk-ups, as well as repair the issues caused by his charge. This also wasn’t helped by the Oracle Micros point-of-sale system, which repeatedly raised “Index was outside the bounds of the array” errors throughout this voyage.

Similarly, on the opposite side of the ship at Sugarcane Mojito Bar, there was often only one bartender when in 2018 there would have been two or three outside staff.

Inside at Maltings I was able to develop a solid rapport with several of the bar staff, but it took until day 6 of the sailing to get to a spot where service was proactive and drink preparation accurate. I did avail myself of several “Buffalo Cokes” – Buffalo Trace was included in the regular-rate drink package, and after a week of it I can say it beats Jack Daniels.

One thing that never was quite right on this sailing was the preparation of a margarita; every venue we ordered it from seemed to mix in orange juice. It got almost comical – asking for a lime margarita, margarita with “just lime”, and “margarita with no orange” didn’t really change what was delivered, which was certainly not a conventional version of the drink.

Onboard credit

Cozumel was replaced with Bimini, and Costa Maya also didn’t happen due to high winds; I’ve heard Costa Maybe is the seafarer’s nickname for that port. NCL did provide $50 US/guest in nonrefundable onboard credit after the Costa Maya cancellation, which was a reasonable gesture – but other lines might have provided a fully refundable credit for port fees and taxes, which does not seem like a thing Norwegian regularly does.

At the point in the cruise where the OBC was officially on our statements, it started to get difficult to find things we wanted to spend it on – our specialty dinners were already included in the rate, we had $75 promotional credit even before we set sail, and our shore excursion in Cozumel also was credited back on our invoice as refundable. Our first deduction was the already-incurred $45 on clamshell rental at Harvest Caye; we find this to be a necessary expense at private islands to ensure we don’t have to play chicken with sun exposure.

We played a round of bingo on our unexpected sea day, which is something we’d probably not do without “free money.” Neither of us had any luck, so the $69US in NCL Funbucks did not manifest into something tangible. There was also a gift shop purchase for $25, a $6 gelato, $6.50 at Starbucks, and $15 went to my go-kart reservation. $10 also went to the “coin pusher” in the casino, but this actually consumed refundable credit – maybe because it was considered gambling?

This set of purchases still left us with just under $70 in refundable credit. Instead of that amount being refunded to my credit card, we received a letter on Day 6 advising us to go to Guest Services to collect the balance. I went when it was only a short wait in line, and was given cold, hard USD notes and coins.

I can think of no other way to describe this than a way for NCL to keep people’s money in small quantities: letters get lost, people don’t check their accounts (or know to do this), and Guest Services can be very busy toward the end of the cruise. There will be a non-zero number of passengers who just give up on money that is rightfully theirs.

Food availability

NCL’s cutbacks also hit the buffet hours; at 9:30pm every night, show’s over, folks. This is probably a reasonable effort to reduce food waste, as generally if I’ve already had a full dinner the options at The Local are very suitable. They did get much more restrictive about closing most sections of the buffet between lunch and dinner, so your non-room-service options in the 3-5pm window are Observation Lounge canapés or selections at The Local. This caused a significant load on the pub, magnified again on port days when people come back and might want a more substantial prelude to dinner. We encountered this problem one day: predictably, food service was somewhat slow and drink service was incomplete.

On a positive note, our group didn’t really experience notable waits for tables in the main dining room, and the Norwegian dress code (or lack thereof) in those venues continues to be a positive selling feature of the cruise product. I’m not quite certain why some people think full-length pants on others elevate the dining experience, but I’m willing to don “trousers” in the venues and on the ships where it’s required in the fine print.

The serving staff were often flustered by the tablets they seemed obligated to use, and had trouble with requests such as “half portion”, or if someone ordered multiple appetizers but no entree. On one particularly difficult evening in the Manhattan Room, it was evident our server was trying very hard and just had too many tables to attend to. While I’ve very rarely had a service charge mistake on NCL, one of our friends was charged full rate (as if they didn’t have a drink package) for a glass of wine at dinner, and had to push at Guest Services to have the charge removed when they later noticed it on their statement.

There was some good

Some people will opine that a bad day at sea is better than a good day on land. I can see several ways to contradict this statement, but the reality is that nothing went exceptionally wrong on this cruise for us or our travel partners (at least anything you can pin to Norwegian; Air Canada, however, made a mess of our friends’ plans home.) There were many cold drinks, decent food, warm days, and evenings filled with entertainment and lovely conversation. On this sailing both Jersey Boys and SIX were playing, and so we got to appreciate two Broadway-calibre shows with the convenience of an open bar and pub food afterward.

Bimini, too, was at least a somewhat interesting port – if we’d known in advance, we might have been able to secure golf carts, but we had the chance to see some of the town as well as the curious Dolphin House.

Reflecting, and next up

The only thing that was significantly different on this sailing from our last few was that we were unable to secure Vibe passes. At the time we made final payment, passes were available to book in the shore excursions portal, but we didn’t coordinate with our friends in time and they’d sold out. Vibe access wouldn’t have made a difference to the dining and cabin experiences, but might have given us an accurate bar, readily available deck chairs, and usable set of hot tubs.

While some folks may call me an experienced cruiser at this point – and I certainly spend a lot of my time in between sailings digesting and interpreting cruise-related material online – I feel like I just don’t have the right context to understand why this ship experience didn’t hit the mark. My speculation is that that there might have been crew turnover, recently hired/inexperienced staff, and likely policy changes internal to NCL as they focus on pulling themselves out of a mountain of pandemic debt.

While our next sailing on Carnival Celebration in July 2023 was booked before we knew how this one on Bliss would go, as of July 2024 it’s somewhat telling that we have no future NCL cruises planned, but deposits out with other lines. There is nuance to that, and it’s not a “I’ll never sail NCL again” kind of statement. Notably, Norwegian’s summer sailings don’t include third and fourth guests at reduced rates, and we’re beginning to use cruising as a family vacation to fill some of the eight weeks where the kids are out of school. Other lines such as Celebrity, Princess and MSC offer similar bundled rates to “Free at Sea” so we now have the flexibility to try different ships and lines, while preserving the mostly-inclusive nature of the NCL offering.

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