December 2014 - Norwegian Breakaway to Caribbean - Bahamas
Our family of 5 (kids are two teenagers and a 20 year old) sailed on the Breakaway over New Years. We traveled in two cabins. We have been on over 10 cruises, with and without the kids, mostly on Carnival, but also Holland America and Royal Caribbean. We chose this cruise, not because of the itinerary or the cruiseline, but because it left from a local port at a time we wanted to travel. We had never been on Norwegian before, and were interested in trying it out. We will probably not sail Norwegian again, and here's why. First of all, a minor point, the two cabin reservations were not connected online to make registration simpler. I had to enter all the information for both rooms separately. This was also the case on board. Reservations for shows or excursions had to be made separately for both rooms. (More on reservations later) Additionally, we had to book a parent in each room, and Norwegian wouldn't change the arrangement at check-in, as other cruiselines do. Their solution was to give us extra room keys so we could use both cabins freely. This was ok, but it meant carrying an extra card around, and when I forgot one, I was locked out of my room.
"Freestyle" cruising - I had done some research to understand what this means, and in a nutshell, it's not having an assigned dining room or dining time, and no strict dress code in the dining rooms. Jeans and sneakers are acceptable in all but the most upscale restaurants, and probably there too. Ok, sounded interesting. But what we found is this: There are 3 main dining rooms which offer open seating and the same menu (similar to main dining rooms on other ships), and you can just show up for dinner there when you want. If it's not too busy. Otherwise, you will wait for a table. There are also about half a dozen specialty restaurants you can go to that carry a surcharge of $15 - $100 per person. The restaurants with a surcharge require reservations. People who know this can book all their dining online before the cruise, so that by the time we got on board and understood the system, the most popular restaurants were booked up, unless we wanted to have dinner at 9:30 at night. That being said, we did get into 3 specialty restaurants: The Spiegel Tent (cirque dinner show), Teppanyaki (Japanese steakhouse) and Moderno (Brazilian steakhouse). We also ate at O'Sheehan's pub for lunch, one of the venues that is included in your cruise, no reservations needed. The cirque show was amazing, but the dinner was just ok. It is a fixed menu of filet and shrimp, and actually, we felt it was a distraction from the show, which is fast paced and sometimes mesmerizing. The show would be better without the dinner. Teppanyaki was not worth the money. The menu was very limited, and everything was cooked with an appalling amount of fat! We all felt sick afterwards. Moderno was worth the extra money. Service was friendly, the salad bar was fantastic and the grilled meats were very good. Don't miss the grilled pineapple! O'Sheehan's was a limited, typical pub menu, and ok for lunch, but they do have a pretty good price on a pitcher of beer (about $15). (A word about drinks - we aren't big drinkers. Maybe a drink or 2 by the pool and a glass of wine with dinner. But if I'm paying $8 for a mixed drink, I want it to taste like a mixed drink. We felt the drinks were weak and we stopped buying them.) In all, our dining experience would have been better (and cheaper!) had we stuck with regular dining options. Food in the main dining areas had more variety and was what you'd expect from cruise food.
Entertainment - if you enjoy dropping into a show after dinner, you'll have to plan ahead! Another aspect of freestyle that is not free! The main shows, as well as some of the smaller shows (comedy, dueling pianos) require reservations if you want to be sure to get in. Again, people who know book ahead. The only difference is that there's no penalty for missing a show reservation because shows are included (if you miss a dinner reservation, you still pay). So people just make reservations, then decide later not to go, and you can get in a standby line and maybe get in. That's annoying. The theaters and other show areas just aren't big enough to accommodate the numbers on the ship. We enjoyed the shows we did see, however. We just didn't appreciate the hassle of making reservations or going standby.
Staff - this was another area of disappointment. On ALL the other cruises we've been on, it seemed like the staff were over the top friendly and couldn't do enough for us. We just didn't feel this on the Breakaway. The cabin stewards were great, and we had a couple of friendly, memorable waitresses (one in Taste and one in Moderno), but other than that, people just seemed bored or unhappy! Oh the singers in the buffet were enthusiastic and happy, as they sang to us about the importance of hand washing! - "If you're happy and you know it, wash your hands!" But some staff that we encountered were downright rude! The woman at the dinner reservations desk couldn't even look up from her computer screen to help us - no greeting, no eye contact, no smile. And after we stood in line at the box office to try to get into a show, just as we approached the counter, the young man at the desk actually excused himself to go greet "his friend," another passenger who was walking through the hallway! We stood at the counter dumbfounded!
So, what did we like? Well, we had a great time just because we were together. The ship itself is very attractive - none of those wacky color schemes and interior design themes you get on Carnival. It does tend to be smoky in the atrium because of the casino, and we don't like that. The pools are a nice size, but the deck space around the pools is limited and tends to be shaded. We had to go to upper decks to get chairs in the sun, but we could always find a place. The buffet food and regular dining rooms was enjoyable. The Norwegian phone app iconcierge is very helpful. You can make reservations from your phone (but you don't get reminders), see where your ship is on a map, and for $8 for the week, you can keep in touch with family and friends on board via text or phone call. This was great with teenagers. And the kids really enjoyed the teen club, Entourage. Even our 17 year old spent a good deal of time there. We also got great pictures on board! Though almost no one dressed up for "formal night" or New Year's Eve, we did, and we felt a little out of place, but the photos were awesome!
Overall, if you don't mind scheduling out your cruise and making reservations for almost everything, you will get to do what you want and have a good time. We go on vacation to get away from planning and schedules, so we didn't appreciate this aspect of freestyle. Also, the upcharging was excessive. We've never had such a large final bill on a cruise for our family, even when we brought a extra guest. We actually felt constrained by "freestyle," and it's unlikely we will choose Norwegian in the future.