Changes in NCL Cruises – Part I of II

Author’s Note: The blog for this week and next will be a trip report about a cruise my wife and I took aboard the Norwegian Cruise Lines Bliss from Los Angeles to the Mexican Riviera between November 28 and December 5. There were Covid protocols in place, and to my knowledge, no outbreaks on board. At approximately the same time, on the NCL Breakaway (a ship of similar size and configuration), sailing south from New Orleans, at least 10 people contracted Covid — and the ship returned straightaway to New Orleans. That story is still breaking and you may look it up should you like.

In my story, Bonnie and I had a pleasant and safe trip — and returned home to negative Covid tests. Had we been on the other ship, my conclusions would undoubtedly have been different.

For more than 15 years, I’ve maintained my Seven Stars status at Harrah’s/then Caesars/then Eldorado properties. Part of the benefits of that status is a “free” balcony cabin on a week-long cruise that actually runs about $250 or so per person in port fees, plus strongly-encouraged-but-not-actually-mandatory gratuities that now come to $15.50 per day, minimum. More expensive staterooms have larger gratuities associated with them.

In 2020, cruise lines were shut down everywhere in the world in March and are only now opening up again. We were fortunate that we weren’t actually cruising when the shutdown occurred. Some passengers couldn’t disembark from cruise ships for months! Although I didn’t play at any Caesars property in 2020, my earned cruise benefit was extended to at least the end of 2021. Bonnie and I signed up for a Mexican Riviera cruise out of Los Angeles, leaving the Sunday after Thanksgiving on the Norwegian Bliss. 

Although we’ve been on Mexican Riviera cruises four or five times together (and I have been on at least that many before Bonnie became part of my life), this is currently our standby vacation. I have numerous relatives near Los Angeles and this gives us a good excuse to get together. It’s a four-hour drive from where we live in Las Vegas, and I pay for dinner for everybody the night before the cruise. In exchange, we get to see everybody, have a place to sleep one night, a place to store our car for a week, and transportation to and from the port. A good deal for everybody.

This year there were Covid restrictions, of course. All passengers, including children of all ages, needed to be fully vaccinated at least two weeks prior to embarkation. What this meant was, basically, no children on this cruise. I did see about five teenagers, but nobody younger. When it was time to make reservations, there was uncertainty as to when children of certain ages would be allowed to be vaccinated. So parents avoided booking this particular cruise. Probably next year we will be back to the normal number of children on these ships, but not this time.

In addition to these vaccines, everybody needed to be Covid-tested at the pier prior to boarding. This turned out to be a nose-swab test that took 15-20 minutes to get the results. We had to make specific reservations for our testing so we didn’t all show up at the same time. We selected 11 a.m. and we got to the pier at 10:45. When we got to the testing area, nobody asked us the scheduled time of our reservation. We just walked in, showed proof of vaccination, and stood in line for the test. After this test, we went to registration where we received a forehead temperature check. It was extremely well organized, and we were actually aboard the ship by 11:45. This was the fastest we’ve ever boarded a cruise ship. In the past, we’d have to wait until noon or 12:30 for the first people to be allowed to board, and then you were allowed to board in groups. But when we had passed through the registration process, everybody was being allowed in.

One thing that sped things up was the lack of passengers. There were slightly more than 1,700 on this trip and the ship advertises a capacity of 4,004. There had been about 100 more passengers the previous week. The scarceness of passengers is due to some combination of CDC or other official mandates, uneasiness among the population that cruising is safe, and some unknown number of people being turned away at the pier because they failed their nasal-swab Covid test. 

When you were onboard, masks were optional for the passengers — and very close to 100% of the passengers chose to not wear masks while onboard. Crew members, except performers while performing, needed to wear masks when they were around passengers. (Whether they wore masks when they were solely among other crew members, I don’t know.) When you went on shore in Mexico, masks were mandatory. When you eventually arrived back at the Port of Los Angeles, masks were optional.

NCL was severely discounting these cruises in order to get people on board. They earn a significant amount on alcohol, the casino, specialty dinners, spa treatments, shore excursions, and retail onboard sales, so it makes financial sense to get live bodies on board, even at a small initial loss. Passengers were awarded packages including free specialty dinners, free alcohol, free shore excursions, free Wi-Fi, and a certain amount of help with airfare.

Nothing is totally free, of course. If you sign up for the dinners or alcohol packages, the tips get billed up front. The dinner tips aren’t too bad. The alcohol tips come out to about $25 per day per person and if one adult in a stateroom signs up for the package, every adult must sign up. Since Bonnie doesn’t drink at all and the two bottles of wine they give per cabin if there are one or more “Platinum” or higher members in the cabin are more than I normally drink, we passed on the very expensive “free” booze package. 

The free excursions amounted to $50 per cabin per port (of which there were three, although it’s possible that the home port of Los Angeles was included in the places where you could use the discount), but they couldn’t be combined. Didn’t matter to us. We’d decided to stay onboard for the entire cruise and by the time we arrived back in Los Angeles we were ready to head home. We’re not sure how Mexico is faring with Covid, and we didn’t wish to risk infection. I believe returning passengers had a temperature check before they were allowed onboard again. 

For the Internet, we received 250 minutes in addition to whatever free minutes they had given us for being “Latitude Plus” travelers. When I logged on the first time, my computer anti-virus system gave me strong warnings that the Norwegian Bliss Internet was particularly unsafe. I decided to believe the warnings. I did logon once to check that my weekly blog posted, but most of my free Internet minutes went unused. 

We knew we were going to get two free specialty dinners because of our Latitude Plus status, plus our “Ultimate Dining Package” dinners that came free with the signup. So experienced NCL travelers head to the “Dinner Reservations” desk as soon as they are onboard. Although I had made reservations online prior to sailing, these reservations did not show up on the ship, so I had to make them again. The Ultimate Dining Package formerly included three meals. In 2021, it includes two meals.

We find the complimentary meals satisfactory, albeit less desirable than the specialty dinners, so we picked times for the four free meals we were getting and decided to wing it for the rest.

We actually did things backwards. The Norwegian Bliss offers entertainment options every night — some you need reservations for, some you don’t — and the show times are fixed. It would have been better had we stopped at “Show Reservations” prior to “Dinner Reservations,” but we made it work. We were among the first onboard, so we mostly got our first choices for times.

I have lots more to share with you. I’ll continue this trip report next week.