Loyalty Is Overrated

We have been on eighteen cruises (so far.) All but one have been on Norwegian Cruise Lines (one was on Carnival, and I didn’t mind it, but my wife detested the food.) We’re Platinum Plus on Norwegian, and might make Ambassador before we die, but it’s a long haul. (That’s another discussion – the levels in a loyalty program and how unevenly spaced they are.)

Loyalty has its perks, but the perks have lessened over the years. It is nice to preboard (sort-of – behind the gamblers, the handicapped, the Haven, the suites.) It’s nice to just get on a tender instead of having to get a tender ticket the night before – assuming the port requires tenders.

Loyalty has kept us sailing Norwegian, even as the fares have crept ever higher and the benefits have stagnated or lowered. However, this year seems to be the year that they finally overdid it – and not just for us, we’ve had other friends mention that the fares are sky-high all of a sudden.

Now, as a stockholder, I don’t mind too much, because I will reap the benefits in stock value (at this point, they don’t pay dividends.) However, as a passenger, it’s now time to look elsewhere.

I don’t really like starting over with any line (there was a slight difference between how we were treated on Carnival as newbies and Norwegian as Platinum Plus), but sometimes, loyalty is just not worth what it costs.

When Frank DelRio took over Norwegian (the parent of Norwegian, Oceana and Regent Seven Seas), he told analysts that he wanted another $40 per day out of each passenger. Apparently, he has changed that to “per hour.”

We’re sailing on the Norwegian Bliss this month, and it is almost as expensive as a Christmas cruise – and it’s not that spectactular a cruise. It’s Eastern Caribbean, but it’s St Thomas (meh), Tortola (haven’t been in eight years or so) and Nassau (bleh.)

The selling point for this cruise I think is that it is a new ship (she just completed her inagural season in Alaska – including our first Alaska cruise), and now is sailing the Caribbean for the winter. So, new ship, high prices.

Here’s the issue (for me) with the megaships – they have a lot of stuff I don’t use. I’m never going to do the ropes course or slide down the slides or have someone in the kids’ club (unless the grandkids travel with us someday.) So, that’s a lot of wasted space that attracts families with … teenagers. I am rapidly becoming one of the “get off of my lawn” old farts. I don’t need that many teenagers.

I prefer smaller ships.

The other issue is that megaships can only dock at so many ports because of their size and because of the number of passengers they hold. I asked about it at a Q&A session on one cruise, and the Captain said the ships could go anywhere, but you don’t want to spend the amount of time it takes to tender 5,000 people off and on the ship, so you go where you can dock, which makes loading and unloading much faster and easier. This means St Thomas, Tortola, Nassau on the East.

The smaller ships go to more interesting ports. Choose accordingly – sail for the ship or sail for the destinations.

So, we’re paying to cruise and see a ship we were already on – but the Alaska itinerary was about the sights. With the Caribbean itinerary, there’s time to actually see the ship and all she has to offer.

However, this is a really expensive way to see a ship. Granted, it’s over Valentine’s Day, but I didn’t expect there to be a premium like a Christmas cruise.

This was the first cruise where the final bill made me say, “Ouch.” Alaska did, but it was a new ship (then) and it’s Alaska where everything is trucked or shipped in and the people have to make enough on a six-month cruise season to last all year. Everything’s expensive in Alaska.

This is a Caribbean cruise with ports that for me are fairly boring.

The charges creep up on you, which is always a warning I give new cruisers. Don’t just look at the base fare. The base fare may be $1900, but by the time you add taxes, port fees, pre-paid gratuities, insurance, gratuities on the “free” perks, and WiFi (I’m working and going to grad school, so I need WiFi), it’s a five thousand dollar cruise.

That’s a lot of money.

Worse than the actual total fare for some of the people traveling with us, the Ultimate Beverage Package (UBP – often billed as “open bar”) had a number of items reclassified from “included” to “extra charge” in the last couple of weeks, and Patron (the only alcohol one of our friends drinks) is now “extra charge.”

That’s a problem.

Now, the cruise lines all have very similar contracts, and they all pretty much say they can change anything at any time, but this is getting ridiculous. Drink prices especially are through the roof and it’s because the prices are all based on the UBP, which means they can charge $19 for a shot of Patron because people with the UBP will only pay $4 (the overage.) Find me a bar that charges $19 for Patron and is still open.

My assumption is that the marketing department thinks people will get the UBP as a “free” perk, pay $200 for gratuities (instead of over two grand for the full-price package), and then when they have to pay $4 to get their brand of choice, they’ll think, “$4 for a drink is cheap.”

They haven’t noticed yet that what actually happens is people begin to think, “I need somebody with less upcharges.”

So, on one hand, I have to admire Frank DelRio. He’s made the stockholders some money, he makes the analysts happy and the bottom line is pretty good. As a loyal passenger, I really don’t like him very much. As a stockholder, that worries me, because if he chases us off, how many of the formerly loyal passengers are fleeing?

We’re sailing on the MSC Divina for Christmas this year. We were able to get a cabin in the Yacht Club for just over what Norwegian wanted for a regular balcony. The Yacht Club is MSC’s version of the “ship within a ship”, with a private restaurant, butler, concierge, private pool and more. MSC’s included stuff is actually included – there were a lot less hidden fees. If you’re in the Yacht Club, all drinks are included. The minibar in the room is included. You get a free spa treatment. (We’ll see how it goes.) That’s when even my wife decided to try someone new. This will be our eleventh Christmas Cruise, and the first that’s not on Norwegian.

I wish I felt more guilty about it.

I don’t.

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