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HAL vs NCL "Apples to apples"


FredT
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Over the past 10 years my wife and I have taken eight HAL cruises.  This year we chose an NCL cruise on their 2000 passenger Spirit through the Mid East.  As this ship is similar in size to the Vista class ships we were interested in comparisons. First, I am NOT going to be noting the differences in corporate culture or dealings with NCL itself.  (THAT has been a disaster.  In my opinion NCL definitely deserves the reputation it has of "nickle and dimeing" it's customers.)  As well, as the ship JUST came out of an extensive dockyard, it has a LOT of work that was not completed before we embarked.  

 

The layout of the ship itself is reminiscent of HAL ships.  Full wrap around Promenade deck, Crows Nest lounge, large LIDO buffet.  It also has a much larger number of (very high quality) "premium" restaurants.  While these are great, they come at the price of eliminating most meeting rooms, which is fine as NCL has no interest in any "enrichment"  programs.  Basically their attitude seems to be if they cant make money off the space.....   cut it.   

 

Food is similar to NCL in the Main Dining rooms (Yes they have 2) and a step above HAL in the variety and quality of food in the LIDO.  One thing they do there that we especially like was to have THREE omelet stations,  thus cutting the wait in the morning for your eggs by 90%.  There are also three other "non paying" restaurants, for those times you dont want either a full meal or to brave the (always crowded ) LIDO.  

 

Entertainment.   Well, NCL obviously puts a LOT more emphasis on their "main theater" shows than HAL does.  Larger theater, larger casts, and a lot more professional.  The rest of the entertainment on board though was almost identical to what you find on any ship in the HAL fleet.  

 

As the ship was refurbished specifically for the far east market, it has a new HUGE casino, complete with smoker's rooms and a "high roller" room.   As they just re purposed her AWAY from the far east (due to the Corona Virus scare) it will be interesting to see how the casino does.  (It was almost dead empty on our Rome to Dubai trip) 

 

Outside space:    Here this particular ship shines.   Their rear deck (with pool) has 5 levels, with bars on 2, and PLENTY of seating and lounge space.  As well, they have added a bar onto deck 13, covered with a large tent style cover.   It is the perfect place to lounge and enjoy those warm sea days.   I say that as for the first four days of our cruise, the weather was cool, and NO ONE used this space, and as this ship does not have a roof over the pool area, everyone was forced inside... making for a crowded ship.  

 

To recap, NCL has a slight edge in food aboard (not including 5 REALLY good paid restaurants) an edge on entertainment, and an edge in deck space.  Where they lack is ANY thing to do that requires a brain (and is free) and quiet places to settle in and just read.  Add that to the constant "hands out for your money" mentality, and I would take any of the HAL ships any time.  BUT....    I would book this "baby of the NCL fleet" again if the itinerary was right and the price compatible. 

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Thanks.  This is helpful.  We have cruised HAL 4 times and are getting to love it more but will be venturing out to NCL for the first time on the Spirit this fall .... just can't resist those Greek Isle itinerary.

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I appreciate you taking the time and making the effort to post your review/comparisons.  I liked reading it.  Thanks.

 

Your opinion of the main theater entertainment exactly mirrors mine.  Disappointing to the point of "why did I waste my time attending?"

Edited by rkacruiser
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We’re set for a HAL cruise in a few weeks. However our last two cruises were on NCL. Like you, I found their food better than HAL’s. In fact it was better than I experienced in several years. Cruise food simply isn’t what it used to be or so it seems. 

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You were wise to choose one of the (few) relatively-small NCL ships. My wife and I are 4-star Mariners with HAL, and we've also sailed multiple times with Oceania, Cunard, and Silversea. This past year, just for the hell of it, we did a 6-night repositioning cruise on the 3,900 passenger NCL Joy (Vancouver to L.A.). There were good aspects to it. It's a beautiful ship (except for the godawful top decks, with their race cars, water slides, laser tag area, and such). The two-deck high observation lounge is particularly stunning. As FredT says, the MDR and specialty restaurant food was equal to, or better than, HAL's. And the cabin layout and decor were really nice (we had a mini-suite). 

 

But the NCL Joy's bad aspects would probably outweigh the good for most HAL loyalists. The atrium areas were noisy beyond belief, and the noise never stopped. In order to avoid an hour-long wait (or longer) in any of the three MDRs you had to show up either very early or very late---same with breakfast and lunch. And there simply were way too many people everywhere; you rarely had time to relax and think unless you were in your cabin.

 

However, FredT's review piques my curiosity about the smaller NCL ships. Maybe I'll try one if the itinerary and price are right. As I said, the NCL good parts are very good.

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2 hours ago, jimdee3636 said:

 

But the NCL Joy's bad aspects would probably outweigh the good for most HAL loyalists. The atrium areas were noisy beyond belief, and the noise never stopped. In order to avoid an hour-long wait (or longer) in any of the three MDRs you had to show up either very early or very late---same with breakfast and lunch. And there simply were way too many people everywhere; you rarely had time to relax and think unless you were in your cabin.

 

 

You are so right.  I had a lot of fun on my Escape cruise but the word I used to describe the public areas was "chaos."  It was by far the most crowded and chaotic ship I've ever sailed.  

 

I very much agree with the OP though except for one thing.  My free dining experiences on NCL have been pretty awful.  However, I think their specialty restaurants are better than HAL's.  

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As someone who has sailed mostly on NCL and once on HAL (though easily one of the best) I think your assessment is spot on.  Although I sense you may have been holding back some of your opinions on your experience, I really think this is a great preservative for anyone who sails HAL and might have been considering NCL.  Though if you had sailed NCL's megaships, you might have though otherwise.  I do sail solo often, and enjoy the entertainment on NCL, i do miss they don't have more enrichment.  I don't think I will ever sail some of the newer (Bliss, Joy, Encore) NCL ships, because of what they have done to the top decks.  I do enjoy the Breakaway/Getaway and Escape.  Although top deck lacking, I love their waterfront, which is the promenade deck were they have added al fresco bars and dining in their "specialty dining"

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We started out cruising on NCL back in the 90's but when it went to Freestyle we hated it. So we started cruising on Carnival and Holland. I prefer Holland and we have almost as many days with 11 HAL cruises as we do with 39 Carnival cruises (cruise more with them because we live near Tampa and less than a two hour drive to Port Canaveral and take lots of 4-5 day cruises). Holland's loyalty program far exceeds Carnival's and we love the double suite bonus days and the on board spending bonuses. Carnival's loyalty program is almost worthless.

 

After cruising with Holland and Carnival, we found the NCL cabins tiny and felt claustrophobic even with mini-suites. We also felt nickel and dimed. I think Holland's food is exemplary and hard to beat. We also prefer the smaller Holland ships and its demographic fits us. Friends of ours who are Royal Caribbean and Holland loyalists just returned from a NCL cruise on one their big ships and disliked it. Too many college spring breakers and their mini-suite also felt too small for what they paid for it.

 

We won't be trying NCL again even though they are in ports closer to us than having to go to Ft. Lauderdale or Miami. Our favorite Holland ship the Veendam is coming to Tampa this Fall (from Ft. Lauderdale) and we are already booked on it for Dec. Sailed on her in Feb. and going again in a few weeks.

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have been on 13 cruises  (RCCL, Celebrity, HAL, Carnival, Princess, NCL)   Of all disliked NCL the most.  Sailed Escape which is one of the larger ships.  Customer Service was terrible.  First time in all of my cruises I had a terrible room steward,   Public areas were the most cramped and crowded of any ship I have been on,   Specialty Restaurants were just ok,  Overall feel of the ship was hectic!

 

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It is unclear to me how you can do an apples to apples comparison between these two cruise lines. We have enjoyed our cruises on both lines...but for different reasons.

 

These are two very different cruise lines.  In our experience very different products, different attributes, and different demographics.

 

Edited by iancal
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I am going to offer a different opinion.  I am platinum (almost platinum plus) on NCL and almost 3 star Mariner (started with HAL about 3 years ago).  Husband and I sailed on Zuiderdam in a Neptune Suite at end of January.  Sister and I just returned yesterday from a cruise on the NCL Dawn.  We were in a Penthouse Suite (not Haven) with large balcony.  I will not sail in any of the big ships on HAL or on NCL, so the size and layout of both ships were similar.  My husband loves sailing on HAL for the salad bar in the buffet (among other things, of course).  We eat there daily and bring the food back to our cabin for dinner and some wine. We enjoyed room service breakfast in our suite or had a wonderful breakfast in the Pinnacle.  Never in the Garden Cafe.  All good.  On the Dawn, we ate breakfast with suite guests in Moderno's and we had specialty dining every night, many nights delivered to our cabin and set up on the dining table with linen table cloth, fresh flowers, etc by our butler.  I learned long ago to avoid the buffet on any NCL ship.  I find the food to be of poor quality and cannot abide the crowds fighting for places in line or for tables.  We really don't use the MDR much on either line.

 

For us, the ship is the destination, as we have been to the ports many times.  The entertainment on HAL may be lacking (I don't care about the "educational opportunities" when I am on a 7 day cruise) but the movie selection is terrific.  On NCL the shows are the same old same old (we have been there done that too many times) and the movie selection is not nearly as good.  We do spend some time in the casino, more in HAL's because of its non smoking policy.  There is more variety on NCL but the casino is used as a "smoke hole" and that makes the experience quite unpleasant after being on HAL.

 

HAL lets me bring wine onboard for a minimal corkage fee.  I like that.  Occasionally we do an afternoon happy hour, too.  One of the perks on NCL for suite guests is open bar (although there is a $160 gratuity charge up front for that).  Our suite was steps away from the pool bar and the bar staff did a fine job of keeping up with our frequent requests.  There is something to be said about just ordering drinks at bars and in restaurants without having to sign anything or worry about the cost.  All in all, I liked having the open bar, but I was fine with my wine in the Neptune Suite.

 

The service provided by HAL staff is always exemplary, no matter what ship we sail on.  Having been on the Dawn multiple times in a suite and also on the Jade once in a suite, I can truly state that the butler, concierge, and cabin steward this trip were the absolute best on any ship on any line so far.  In the long run, though, I would give the higher mark to HAL for consistently providing great service to guests at every level.

 

Both suites were beautiful and fairly similar.  The big difference for me is the 2 padded chaise loungers on the Dawn balcony (there were also 2 comfortable padded wicker chairs and a small matching table out there).  Forget the ports; for us the balcony experience is most important.  We spend so much time out there!  While in general HAL's suite balconies are large and comfortable, those on the Dawn were much nicer for us.  I would also add that HAL's Signature Suites are miles better than the mini suites on NCL and sell for similar prices.  There's really no comparison between the two, except when NCL offers free bar and free specialty dining at multiple restaurants, and sometimes even free wifi.  But the cabin size and amenities on HAL are way better.

 

As for "nickel and diming" on NCL, I didn't notice it.  I prepaid the DSC and gave expected cash tips to butler, concierge, and even to room steward.  Beyond that, my bill at the end of the cruse was less than $5 and that was because of state/local beverage taxes before we got into international waters.  The same is true for our HAL January cruise.  Maybe we paid up front in the price of our suites and thus avoided the little charges that the OP was talking about.

 

I usually cruise 1-3X each year.  I hope to do another NCL (small ship/suite) and HAL suite next year, too.

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