It’s been almost a year since we went on our cruise to Alaska via NCL Norwegian Pearl. I wrote about my overall impressions when I got back home. The write-up below is not meant to be a comprehensive review of the ship. Instead, I wanted to focus on areas that may be of interest to families with small children.
“Peep and pooch,” plus spotting Ninjas
I was surprised by how long it took to get on the ship. I believe we spent at least 2 hours in line, if not more. When we were approaching the check-in (at last!), my son said he had to go to the bathroom. Badly. My husband whisked him away and we had to wait a good bit till they got back. I got a text that had this succinct message: “Peep and pooch,” my son’s names for certain bodily functions, back from the time he was very little. I’ll let you guess what my husband was referring to.
At one point we saw an Asian family with two young kids. My son looked at them and loudly exclaimed: “I know you. You guys are Ninjas!” My husband just shook his head and said: “Oh no son, no you didn’t.” Oh yes, he did! The family thought it was hilarious, thank goodness. We are the most politically incorrect bunch…
Our behemoth, aka Norwegian Pearl
Norwegian Pearl is a medium-size ship (by modern standards), and I prefer it that way. Cruise ships are getting out of control these days. Yuuge!
Our balcony cabin
Last year I wrote a post with a breakdown of what we paid for our cabin. After deducting cash back from booking via Discover affiliated travel agency, we’ve spent a total of $3,000 for two adults and one child. My daughter stayed in my in-laws’ cabin, and it cost me only $210 to add her to their reservation.
We booked it when NCL was running “kids cruise free” promo, so I only paid taxes and port charges for my children’s tickets. We also got a free excursion credit, but I will cover it in a separate post. Short version: not a game changer for family of four, and shouldn’t sway you to book with NCL.
Believe it or not, paying $3,000 total for three people in a balcony cabin on 7-night Alaska cruise is quite cheap. In order to snag this deal we had to go at the end of May, which meant pulling the kids out of school for two days. I realize it’s not an option for everyone, but our school board isn’t very strict on this type of thing.
I watched the prices on balcony cabins for our sailing date, and they got more and more expensive as time went on. It’s an issue of supply vs. demand, which is why I recommend you book your Alaska cruise way ahead. There are last-minute deals, of course, but if you have to fly from the east coast, it may not be that easy to take advantage of them.
So, this was our room for 7 nights: 205 square feet total, including balcony.
Looks cozy, no?
It was doable with just one kid. I think we would have lost our minds if my daughter stayed with us as well. They could have shared the sofa bed, but it would have been very tight, not to mention, create a ton of arguments. The bed does have an extension for taller guests, but since my son is little, we didn’t need it. If you have teenagers, forget about it! You will probably need two rooms or a set-up with bunk beds.
The closet had enough space to fit all of our junk.
Tiny bathroom with a shower and a toilet.
Sailing out of Seattle
Enjoying Alaska sights in a privacy of our own balcony
The highlight of our cruise: a visit to Glacier Bay National park. This is where having a balcony cabin really pays off!
For us, paying a premium was worth the extra cost. I’m not sure we’ll ever make it to Alaska again, so I wanted to treat my husband to this unforgettable experience. As you can see from the photos, it wasn’t a luxury cabin by any means, but it was adequate. Spending $3,000 was the upper limit of what I was willing and able to pay.
That being said, if you can only afford the cheapest inside cabin, go for it. You can always go to the deck and enjoy the same exact sights. Don’t put off Alaska cruise due to “balcony or bust” mentality. My brother-in-law and his wife stayed in a tiny inside cabin (at a cost of $1,500 all-in for both) and had a great time. I’m sure you will too.
My In-Laws’ Penthouse Suite
One of the perks of cruising with my in-laws (aside from them taking care of my daughter) was the fact that they booked a penthouse suite. And we all got to hang out there occasionally. The suite consists of a living room, two bedrooms and two bathrooms.
This is what luxury on a cruise ship looks like (cue my sister-in-law’s sad face)
An espresso machine and complimentary fruit each day
The balcony had nice loungers with cushions on them
The master bedroom
How cool is that?
Of course, you will pay dearly for a penthouse suite. My sister-in-law never told me what it cost her, but from my research, it appears the number is close to $10,000 for four people. So yes, I had no problem giving them $210 to accommodate my daughter for the duration of the cruise. Best deal I ever got!
I didn’t take any photos of the main buffet, but it resembles something you’ll find on most cruise ships. The food was pretty good, but not out of this world. It’s comparable to Carnival in that respect. What I really like about NCL is its “Freestyle” concept when it comes to restaurant dining.
There is no assigned time slot, so you can show up whenever you wish and sit with whomever you wish. That’s a big deal when you have small kids. They also don’t have formal nights, though my mother-in-law insisted we have one anyway (for the photos). NCL definitely caters to families with their policies, and the idea is to make things as relaxed as possible.
The main dining room was decorated to look like a royal palace in Russia:
All nine of us had a few dinners together, which was fun. The key word here is “few.”
Oh my! That painting just doesn’t look right, does it? Those crazy Russians…
We came to the formal dining room with kids during lunch a few times, and the food was pretty good. As you can see, they do serve hamburgers, which made my son very happy. Speaking of, one time there was an Asian family dining near us. All of a sudden, the father gets out these seaweed snacks and gives them to his young kids. And they eat them as if they were fries or something. No wonder Asian people are so much healthier than us!
Since my in-laws booked a fancy penthouse suite, they got all kinds of perks thrown in. One of them was free access to specialty restaurants (like the one above). Normally, you have to pay $20 surcharge per person to dine there. No way, Jose! I go on a cruise because food is included. I can dine in a local sushi place and pay $20 per person.
Overall, if you are hesitant to take small kids on a cruise because you are afraid you won’t find any food they will like, don’t be.
Entertainment and Kids Club
I’m not going to focus on entertainment except to say that it’s very generic: singing, dancing, stand-up comedy etc. Basically, nothing special or unique in sight. Don’t get me wrong, the performers are much better at singing and dancing than I ever could be. But it’s nothing to write home about, that’s for sure. It’s OK, though, because that’s not why I went on Alaska cruise. I was mainly here for the views and Kids Club.
Let’s face it, for parents of small children, having a complimentary access to Kids Club is a huge selling point of any cruise. Well, NCL team did a good job entertaining my children with various crafts and activities. No complaints there.
Like most cruise lines, NCL splits the kids into several groups according to their ages and you can see all the details and FAQ on this page. There is a play area for small children (those under 3), but parents have to be present. Be aware, NCL caretakers don’t change diapers. You get a beeper for “peep and pooch” alert. I promise, it’s the last time I’m going to use these terms!
Here are the details to give you an idea on the hours of operation:
Norwegian Fleet Embarkation Day
8:00 p.m. – 10:30 p.m.
Port Arrival Time – 10:30 p.m.
9:00 a.m. – 12:00 p.m./2:00 p.m. – 5:00 p.m./7:00 p.m. – 10:30 p.m.
Late Night Fun Zone
10:30 p.m. – 1:30 a.m. nightly
The center closes at 12:00 p.m. and 5:00 p.m. Children must be picked up at these times. Pick-up late fees may apply.
If you want to dine in peace, you can feed the kids before dropping them off and then go to late sit-down breakfast with your spouse. Pick them up, feed them lunch, drop them off, then eat at 2 PM. Well, you get the idea.
Either way, you’ll have plenty of time to relax. Those who don’t have young kids simply take for granted the ability to eat and actually enjoy the experience without someone kicking, fighting or driving you bananas.
Come to think of it, couples without kids take a lot of things for granted (wink wink).
Is a cruise to Alaska on Norwegian Pearl a good fit for your family?
If you are looking for a Disney-type cruise, this probably ain’t it. NCL is more of a generic fare aimed at budget-constrained and cost-conscious consumers. Check and check! If I had to compare it to an airline, it would be a cross between Spirit and Southwest. It is geared to families, which is a huge plus. However, they nickel and dime you to death when it comes to extras. Just say No and you’ll be fine.
That being said, NCL delivered exactly what it has promised. So, I wouldn’t hesitate to go on another Norwegian cruise again. I can’t really complain considering the fact that we paid $3,000 for a balcony cabin when Disney wanted $8,000. Obviously, it’s similar to comparing apples and oranges, but I just can’t justify paying that kind of a premium.
But it really depends on your preferences. Nancy is going on a Disney cruise to Alaska in a few months and I can’t wait to read her trip report. Knowing her, it will probably be ready the day after they get back home! But her whole family are Disney fanatics, so to them, the juice will probably be worth the squeeze.
I’m certain my kids would go crazy for a Disney cruise, but the “magic” would be wasted on me and my husband. That said, I’m still thinking about doing a short Bahamas cruise on Disney, but those are a heck of a lot cheaper then Alaska itineraries.
In my opinion, NCL offered us a solid product at a solid price. The food was good, and Kids Club was included. What more can you ask for? NCL cruise isn’t a fancy or unique experience, but it’s relatively affordable for most middle-class families. I believe you will have a good time if you choose one of their ships. You can see a detailed review of Norwegian Pearl on this Cruise Critic page.
Verdict: recommended as long as the price is right.
If you find a better deal on another cruise line, by all means, consider sailing with them instead. For example, I’ve recently priced out Alaska cruise fares on Norwegian Pearl in June of 2018, and didn’t see any good deals:
Even with discounts on third and fourth passengers, it’s too much money. By comparison, here is a quote for four people in a balcony cabin on Holland America ship, also leaving from Seattle:
I really like the food and atmosphere on Holland America cruise line. It’s a more refined experience compared to NCL and yes, they also have Kids Club. Plus, the balcony cabins are a bit bigger (213-389 square feet, depending on the deck). I don’t know if they still do it, but Holland America used to serve lobster, and not just in a dining room. I remember going to the buffet and stuffing my face with five giant lobsters. Because…why not?
Overall, to me, three most important factors when choosing this Alaska cruise were:
1) Price of a balcony cabin.
2) Itinerary (visiting Glacier Bay was non-negotiable).
3) The size and the layout of the cabin. Anything less than 175 square feet was a deal breaker. I also wanted a pull-out sofa rather than a bunk bed because my son is quite young.
Any cruise line would do, NCL just happened to offer the best deal at the time. One-way cruises out of Vancouver or Seward are usually cheaper, though you have to factor in more expensive, not to mention, longer flights.
Few ways to cut the costs on your Alaska cruise
As I’ve mentioned many times, it’s hard to “travel hack” cruises. You can certainly reduce the cost, but you are unlikely to cover it completely. Be prepared to cough up a good chunk of your savings if you want to take your family to Alaska. It’s worth it, though. There are a few offers that could be a good fit: Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite MasterCard, Capital One Venture Rewards and Wells Fargo Propel cards. Those bonuses can give you flat rebate against travel purchases. I just wrote a post on the first card and ways you can maximize the bonus.
You can also sign up for cards like Citi Thank You Premier and Chase Sapphire Preferred. The bonus from both is redeemable towards cruises, and you get 1.25 cents per point. You will have to book through their respective travel partners, but the price is usually comparable to what you would find via regular travel websites. Read more on all of these offers in my page listing Best credit card deals for family.
To start the booking process, I recommend you first go to Cruise.com. Once you pick the winner, check out CruiseCompete. You put in your details and travel agents send you their lowest bid. It’s unlikely to be much cheaper than what you would find on normal booking sites, but every little bit helps. Of course, if you have a favorite travel agent, contact them for help with booking your cruise.
In our case, we’ve settled on booking through Discover Shopping portal because it turned up the best deal. The downside is that I had to use Discover card to pay. I recommend you also keep an eye on Amex offers in your profile. Very often they have $100 discount off $500 cruise payment charged to your American Express card.
In general, I recommend you book your airfare before making a deposit on any cruise. However, in the case of Alaska, it might be worth it to jump on a super deal before having your tickets. That’s what I did. I was pretty certain that I wouldn’t find a balcony cabin for less than $3,000, so I pulled the trigger. Things worked out and we were able to redeem miles without any issues, but YMMV.
This was a fantastic trip in every respect. The only wrinkle was the fact that my husband ended up getting pneumonia. Thankfully, it was towards the end of the cruise, so he got to enjoy most of it. While having a balcony certainly enhanced the experience, I wouldn’t say it’s a must. We were in a position where we could afford it (barely), but I encourage you to go, even if it means “roughing” it in an inside cabin.
A cruise is a wonderful idea for a family reunion. Everyone has their own cabin which cuts down on arguments. There were nine of us, and we did remarkably well. And we all survived to tell the tale of our adventure!
P.S. My reader Audrey has shared with me this deal on a suite via Travelzoo. For $1,800 per person, it’s actually an amazing price if you are looking to splurge.
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Leana is the owner and founder of Miles For Family. She enjoys beach vacations and visiting her family in Europe. Originally from Belarus, Leana resides in central Florida with her husband and two children.