NCL Breakaway… Beautiful Ship, but the Extras Can Add Up!

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Three weeks ago today, I woke up to this beautiful sunrise from my balcony on the Norwegian Breakaway. This was a last-minute booking, as my husband had to work, but my 10-year old son was off from school so I decided to take advantage of his vacation days & hit the high seas!

Departing from New York City, the Breakaway is NCL’s newest & largest member of their fleet. Sailing with almost 4,000 passengers, this is the biggest ship I’ve been on & I was worried that I’d spend most of my week clutching the map. I was pleasantly surprised however, by the ship’s easily navigable layout. And the crowds only became a problem when looking for the ideal lounge chair up on the pool deck or when trying to get on or off the boat (we spent almost 1.5 hours in line to get off the ship in NYC!).

There were several promotions available when I booked this sailing, however they did not apply to the “Balcony Guarantee” category we selected because of its great price. For almost double the cost of our reservation, I could have chosen our specific balcony cabin location & received 2 of the following free perks: 3 dinners at their “specialty” restaurants, an all-inclusive drink package, free wifi or prepaid gratuities. Honestly, when traveling with a 10-year old, I really didn’t think those upgrades would be worth the extra cost, so I stuck with our base fare of $649 per person and hoped for the best.

We did ok with our cabin assignment… On a “Guarantee,” the cruise line picks a cabin for you, in the category you select or higher, and you’re notified of the cabin number a few days before sailing. We ended up on Deck 11, which was very centrally located, but all the way forward on the port side. No complaints… it had a balcony and that’s all I really wanted for this trip! Our cabin attendant, Ruby, was wonderful and the little extra walk to the very front of the ship was not a big deal (and always made it easy to find our room!).

Unfortunately, to really experience all this ship has to offer, you need to shell out some extra cash, and be prepared to make reservations for everything – even the shows! The promos that NCL was offering clearly would have enhanced our experience, but we kept to our budget and still managed to have a great time. Here’s my take on whether the promotional perks that I skipped were really worth it…

DINING – There are 3 complimentary main dining rooms on this ship, each with a different atmosphere, but all offering the exact same menu. There is also a huge buffet restaurant on Deck 15 with food literally available all day long. I have always been pleased with the quality & selection of the food in these “inclusive” venues without feeling like I had to spend extra money to get a better meal at one of the specialty restaurants. On this cruise, however, I was a little disappointed. The buffet was very good & full of options, but the dining room meals were just ok and the service was spotty at times. The menu lacked creativity & variety and there were several nights that I couldn’t really find anything that appealed to me. I truly look forward to my evening meal on a cruise (it’s the actual highlight of my day… can you say “foodie”?), but many nights here I was disappointed.

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La Cucina, the beautiful Italian specialty restaurant.

The specialty restaurants (some being a set price per person, others with an a la carte menu) received rave reviews and the selections all looked delicious. There were options for steak, seafood, teppanyaki, sushi, Brazilian, & Italian (which I was tempted to try as the prices weren’t too bad, but I couldn’t get a reservation 😦 )We did try the sushi restaurant for lunch on our last day & it was amazing.

Bottom line:  If you want to eat well on this ship, (and by that I mean quality, not quantity), pick the specialty restaurant promotion or purchase one of the dining packages & make all of your reservations online before you leave, to insure entry into your favorites.

DRINKS – This area was interesting to me. On every cruise I’ve been on, there have always been an abundance of waiters walking around trying to take your drink order. As soon as you walk on the ship, they are usually pushing the “drink of day” and I usually get one… lol! Not the case here. No welcome drink as you boarded, no waiters to be found in the pool area, and in the dining rooms I was only approached once. Now that so many people are opting for the all-inclusive drink package, apparently they’re no longer hungry for that money. So for those of us who would like to have a drink here and there, and actually pay their outrageous prices, you’ll have to find a bar & wait in line.

Bottom line:  If you get the drink package, you’ll have plenty of places to wet your whistle. There are uniquely themed bars for martinis, beer, whiskey, margaritas and more. But the all-inclusive packages are pricey… averaging around $400 per person for the week. However, a single glass of red wine was over $10, so you’ll make your money back in no time. It truly depends on how many days you’ll be on the ship (vs in port) and how much you think you’ll drink each day. To me, this one is still a toss-up.

WIFI – We sailed on Carnival last year and paid approximately $60 for 120 minutes of internet access. It was fine… no file size limits and easily trackable minutes. This ship only offered “per megabyte” plans, not minutes, or you could purchase an unlimited plan for $210 for the week (almost 1/3 the cost of my cruise!). I finally broke down on the 4th day & bought the 300mb plan for $59, but was afraid to upload any pictures or even scroll through Facebook or Instagram for fear of using up all my MBs!

Bottom line:  If you need to keep in touch with the outside world, this perk may be worth it, or plan to cough up over $200 to stay connected.

GRATUITIES – This is that little bill that they tack on to your account each day to cover the tips of all the people who serve you during the week.  In the old days, they gave you actual envelopes that you filled with cash and handed directly to those people providing you with the service. Now it’s simply charged to your account, at the rate of $13.50 per person, per day. For a 7 night cruise, we paid $189. If you’re not happy with this amount, you can go down to Guest Services and have it adjusted, but then you’d really just look like a big jerk. 😉

Bottom line:  This is a set fee, so you know the cost right from the start. It would be the least valuable add-on offered, but if you didn’t need the wifi or you aren’t big drinkers, it’s a nice perk.

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In front of The Breakaway in Nassau.

All in all, we had a great time… our trip was fairly low-key, focusing on activities for the kids (although none of the kids we met were overly thrilled with the kid’s club) and not participating in too much of the ship’s nightlife. The itinerary was unfortunate as our beach day at NCL’s private island was cancelled due to damage from Hurricane Matthew & our late arrival into Nassau only gave us a few cloudy hours of beach time on shore. Our best day was in Port Canaveral, FL when we chose to just stay on the ship & enjoy the less crowded pool areas.

As for NCL’s concept of “Freestyle” cruising, I’ve realized after taking this trip, that the structure & formality of a traditional cruise vacation is something I actually enjoy! I missed getting dressed up for dinner, getting to know my servers in the dining room, looking forward to each meal without having to make a reservation or pay extra & being able to decide last-minute if we wanted to attend the main nightly show (at no additional charge!). As for the food, I certainly ate my fair share, but I just didn’t find the high-end options in the dining rooms that I’m used to.

Bottom line: This is a gorgeous ship with tons to offer. The public areas are beautiful and everything is new and spotless. Kids will have plenty to do during the day, but if they’re not into the Kid’s Club, finding something to do at night will be a bit of a challenge. For the adults, there seem to be enough bars, shows and of course the casino, to keep everybody busy. Our particular itinerary wasn’t great, but the usual route should be adequate for most. Don’t rule this one out, especially with the convenience of leaving from New York, but it’ll be tough to find a bargain if you want to take advantage of all this ship’s extras.

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Water Park Fun on Jekyll Island, GA

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Located just about an hour north of Jacksonville, FL, on tiny Jekyll Island, you’ll find “Summer Waves“… a perfectly sized, very clean water park, with enough attractions to keep everybody entertained for the day.

20160625_133545-1The park features a wave pool, lazy river, 2 splash parks (one for bigger kids & one for little tikes), and 4 water slides of varying intensity.  There are plenty of shady spots with lounge chairs to set up camp and although you can’t bring in your own food, “Larry’s Giant Subs” offers a fairly diverse, reasonably priced menu.  There are also several snack shacks, lockers, showers & changing areas plus a decent Surf/Gift Shop for anything you may have forgotten.

On a Saturday, at the very start of summer, it wasn’t too, too crowded, but I can imagine at peak times of the season, it can get a little overwhelming.  I’d recommend getting there early to secure a good spot and hit the big water slides first to avoid the lines that seem to build as the day goes on.  For park hours, click HERE.

My 10-year old had a blast and “Grandpa” survived multiple trips with him down the water slides, while “Grandma” & I opted for the wave pool & lazy river 🙂

Please note:  There is $6 entrance fee, per car, to get onto Jekyll Island.  It’s a beautiful remote spot that features a few hotels, a campground, beaches, miniature golf, historic trolley tours, and a few shops & restaurants.  For discounted Summer Waves passes, be sure to check out Living Social & Groupon.

Babies in the Back?

plane.jpgTaking a baby on an airplane seems to be the thing parents fear most when traveling. What happens if they cry? Or they don’t sleep? What about their ears? I faced all of these fears on my son’s first flight to Florida when he was just over 2 months old, but I went for it & with a little bit of prep, everything went smoothly.

My first piece of advice is this… When flying with infants or young toddlers, book your seats as far in the back of the plane as possible (the last row is truly ideal). This gives you the most privacy if you’re nursing, you won’t have the entire plane watching you if your child starts crying or acting up and if you need to walk around a bit to calm your baby down, you’ll have more space & less of an audience. It also keeps you closest to the bathroom for clean-ups & closest to the kitchen for heating bottles, rinsing cups, getting extra snacks, etc.

I also remember being really concerned about my little one’s ears. Since they can’t “yawn” or chew gum to keep to keep their ears clear, plan to nurse or give a bottle during take-off and landing when the cabin pressure changes the most severely. The sucking keeps the babies ears regulated and avoids the painful “popping” that can occur at these times. Even a pacifier will do the trick. For older kids, a lollipop works wonders.

There are a few items you should definitely pack to ensure a smooth experience…
– An extra change of baby clothes (in case of an unexpected “explosion”)
– Ziplock baggies (perfect for dirty diapers, soiled clothes or anything “wet”)
– A large, tumbler-style cup (have the flight attendant fill it with hot water before you take off and drop your bottle or food in it for heating)
–  Wipes… and more wipes!  Good for everything from wiping down the armrests to cleaning up the baby.
–  Favorite blanket or stuffed animal (or whatever item comforts them to sleep)
–  Baby Benadryl or Tylenol (as a last resort… and I say this jokingly, however it’s sometimes a necessity if they have any kind of congestion, allergy or teething pain that can be accentuated by the cabin pressure.)

Being prepared for every scenario is obviously a good strategy, but don’t go into it fearing the worst. Flying is amazing and the staff & crew are usually more than happy to help you out. The key is to start early and get them used to the process – in fact, fly as much as you can before they turn 2 & you have to buy them their own seat!

P.S.  I know sitting in the back of the plane sounds awful… and it also means you’ll be the last ones off.  Don’t worry.. chances are your baby will have JUST fallen asleep about 10 minutes before you landed & your gate-checked stroller is going to take its sweet time making its way out of the cargo hold… so there’s really no rush 😉

 

Here’s my little guy… he’s an easy, seasoned traveler now & has racked up some serious miles over the past 10 years, but he still starts out every flight like this… Safety first! Lol!

 

 

Day Trip: Adventure Aquarium

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If you’re planning a visit to Philadelphia or simply looking for a fun day out with the kids, head to the Camden, NJ waterfront and check out the Adventure Aquarium.  Three full stories of exhibits await you at this hands-on, well laid-out aquatic wonderland.

Come face to face with sharks, sea turtles, sting rays and more in their enormous salt water tank, visit the African hippos and check out 2 very different species of penguins. There’s even a 4D movie if you enjoy getting sprayed in the face & having air blown at the back of your head… lol.

Check out the daily feeding schedules to hear more about the different animals and be sure to bring the kids to all of the “touch tanks” where they can pet sharks, stingrays, starfish and more.

There’s a reasonably priced food court offering the usual chicken fingers, pizza, pretzels, etc, or you can bring in your own lunch & snacks.  We enjoyed eating outside on the patio overlooking the river & the Philadelphia skyline or head out towards “Penguin Island” for another relaxing spot.

Discount tickets are available at your local AAA office ($22 for adults, $17 for kids) or keep an eye out for a Groupon.  The Aquarium is open daily from 10am to 5pm with parking right across the street for $10/day.  Check out their web site for all the details:  www.adventureaquarium.com