At the time of booking Hapag-Lloyd didn’t seem to offer direct online bookings, forcing us to find travel agent. In our experience, adding another layer of administration and bureaucracy never improved any aspect of life and most travel agents are no exception.
After some online searching, we started the booking process with Six Star Cruises. To be clear, there were no special deals, no discounts and no advice from the agents - we called up naming the cruise we wanted to book and paid the full brochure price.
Right away, the agents went to work, telling us why we could not have what we wanted. It started with flights, which were included in the cost, so we requested seats on Ryanair services to and from our local airport at civilised times. That was vetoed. Six Star Cruises don’t use low cost carriers as they are “unreliable”. So, instead of securing us seats on Europe’s most punctual airline, Six Star proposed flights with Monarch (who, as you may be aware, were on the brink of insolvency and would soon collapse) leaving at some ungodly hour of the morning from Gatwick - hardly the ideal start to a luxurious trip. In the end, we compromised on flights from Heathrow. Compromised, while spending over £7000.
There was then some administrative to and fro and an insistence on knowing the precise details of our plans before and after our cruise so that transfers could be arranged, ten months ahead of sailing.
We then, over the following months, had a series of weird automated e-mails, incorrectly telling us that final payment was due, before we called ourselves in plenty of time to make it. That was followed by silence.
As the sailing date approached, we called to ask why we hadn’t had any details of excursions or other cruise extras; we were dismissed with some nonsense about them never coming out until ten days or so before the voyage.
A week or so before our departure date, we still had nothing. Another call to Six Star Cruises, expressing concern that some of the shore excursions would be fully booked, was dismissed with the ludicrous claim that nobody pre-books excursions and space was always available on the ship. After some further calls, it was agreed that Six Star would go to the trouble of trying to source a PDF of the excursion brochure from Hapag-Lloyd. Lo and behold, when this arrived in our inbox, several of the better excursions had booking deadlines that had passed weeks ago. Further calls to Six Star saw them push Hapag-Lloyd to reopen bookings.
Worse was to come. Much worse.
After admitting that there had been “some miscommunication” I was told that Hapag-Lloyd would courier the travel documents to us, and they duly arrived six days before we were set to fly. Leafing through the paperwork I thought that the cabin number printed on our cruise cards seemed odd. A check back through previous correspondence with Six Star confirmed that we were no longer in the cabin we chose ten months earlier. Instead of being in a cabin in a quiet location with a balcony which would be south-facing for most of the voyage, we were now in the shade and above one of the music venues - a cabin Hapag-Lloyd themselves mark as “noisy” on deck plans.
I won’t go into the detail of the many angry calls and e-mails, between ourselves and Six Star, but the key highlights go along the following lines:
Except, it hasn’t.
Late the following day, Six Star call back with the news that they cannot agree terms with Hapag-Lloyd to move us to the higher cabin grade, so that is no longer happening. We are offered a full refund or another, suddenly empty, cabin above “the spa”. Twenty seconds looking at a deck plan online clearly shows that this new cabin is on the opposite side of the ship to the spa and is, in fact, above the gym. Again, Six Star decide to argue the toss about the difference between a spa and a gym.
In the end, we agree to the new cabin, as we’ve already arranged many other commitments around this cruise.
We don’t ask for and are not offered any sort of compensation or discount - this is still a sailing proceed at full brochure price.
Our opinion is that, as they both claim to be working at the super-luxury end of the travel market, Six Star and Hapag-Lloyd should have been falling over each other to fix this problem. Instead, each just pointed fingers at the other.
There has been no follow-up or after care from Six Star since the cruise ended.
Aside from the booking issues, as we’ll spell out in other parts of this review, Six Star should not be selling Hapag-Lloyd; they just don’t know enough about the product, particularly in regard to embarkation and disembarkation.
If you don’t speak German and aren’t looking for an expedition cruise, Europa 2 is the only option you have with Hapag-Lloyd. This is certainly no hardship - the vessel is consistently rated as the best cruise ship afloat.
Europa 2 differs from “normal” cruise ships in some significant ways, the most noticeable of which is the very generous passenger/space ratio - even on our fully-booked sailing, the public areas never felt crowded. Indeed, there were times when some of the bars felt eerily quiet. Cabins are also large - there are no inside cabins and every passenger has a balcony. The base level Ocean and Verandah suites which make up the majority of the accommodation are larger than the mini-suites which appear towards the top of the pricing range on mass-market ships.
Another big difference between Europa 2 and most other ships is the composition of the staff - almost all of them are young Germans rather than the variety of nationalities found on other lines. Regular customers seem to place great importance on this point - we’re not convinced it really led to better service.
While tiny by modern standards, Europa 2 does offer a lot of the amenities you’d find on larger ships, such as multiple restaurants, and some extra - notable a fleet of cycles for use in port and Zodiac inflatable launches.
For most british travellers, the name Hapag-Lloyd is probably most familiar from orange and blue containers moving up and down the country on trains and trucks, however, the company has a storied history in passenger shipping and a much lauded contemporary cruise operation.
Hapag-Lloyd was formed in 1970 through the merger of two major Hamburg shipping lines - Hamburg America Line, otherwise known as Hamburg-Amerikanische Paketfahrt-Aktien-Gesellschaft (HAPAG) and Norddeutsher Lloyd. Today, their small cruise operation consists of two luxury vessels (Europa and Europa 2) as well as a few expedition vessels. More, custom-built, expedition vessels are on order to replace the ragtag current fleet.
Europa and Europa 2 are, consistently, rated by the Berlitz Cruise Guide as the two finest vessels afloat. While Europa offers a formal environment and is aimed only at German speaking guests, Europa 2 tends to be rated even higher and is marketed to international guests, with all onboard activities, in theory, taking place in both English and German. The atmosphere aboard Europa 2 is also more laid-back - there are no formal nights and the dress code is fairly relaxed at dinner. Europa 2, at just over 500 passengers, is also slightly larger than the 400-passenger Europa.
By our reckoning, if anything was to overcome our scepticism about cruising, such a highly regarded ship would be it.
Given that it would be easy to spot who we were amongst such a small number of guests, we didn’t live-blog this sailing, so we’re starting the review immediately upon returning.
Stay tuned over the next few weeks to see if we were won over.
Having wrapped up our Navigator of The Seas, we have now sailed with each of the three massive lines focused on the American mass-market; Carnival, Norwegian and Royal Caribbean.
The big question for us is “are these three lines interchangeable, or is there a noticeable difference in product quality amongst them?”.
As far as we’re concerned, there are, indeed, differences and there is a clear best choice, so, let’s rank them, starting at the bottom…
Third Place - Norwegian Cruise Line. As compared to its two primary competitors, NCL offers a less homogeneous hard product, with a fleet which remains something of a hodgepoge. In our experience, we found that, not only was the ship crowded, but the cabins were cramped and there were few appealing public spaces. Food was disappointing and the bar offering didn’t really cater to people who enjoy decent wines or spirits.
Second Place - Royal Caribbean. If our reviews were based simply on the number of bells and whistles attached to the ships, RCCL would win hands down, they offer a modern fleet which is continuously renewed with vessels which set new records for capacity and variety of facilities. In contrast to NCL, we found plenty of places to sit in peace and quiet, despite the vast number of fellow passengers. Like NCL, food was nothing to write home about, but there were at least wine bars and cocktail venues catering to grown ups.
First Place - Carnival. In our experience, Carnival is in a different league from it’s principle competition. Yes, some of the ships, including Triumph, are older, but ongoing improvement projects keep them relevant. While there are noisy kids arcades and clubs, there was also appealing bars and quiet lounges. The staff on Carnival were friendly, attentive and enthusiastic - really contributing to a great atmosphere in places, notably the pool bars and casino. Food, perhaps because it has no pretension to being haute cuisine, is far superior to that offered on RCCL or NCL - the sea day brunch is particularly good.
The downside to Carnival is that, unlike both NCL and RCCL, they offer very infrequent cruises in Europe and almost never anything sailing from the UK. That being said, if we were already in the US for work or another holiday, we wouldn’t hesitate to add a short Carnival sailing on to the end of the trip.
Royal Caribbean have one big attraction from our perspective - they offer cruises on modern mega-ships from Southampton. With the possible exception of the newest P&O ships, if you want to depart from a UK port on a ship that has enough bells and whistles to keep a brood of children distracted for a week or two, Royal Caribbean are, really, the only game in town.
However, if you’re not travelling with kids, we don’t see much attraction. Sure, despite the massive size, we found the ship spacious and a fairly pleasant way to get from A to B, but it didn’t offer anything exception that would transform our time on board from a journey into a holiday. The food in particular, even the extra-cost options, is mediocre, at best.
As ever, passengers aboard Navigator of The Seas have the choice of leaving at a set time, with their luggage collected the night before, or walking off, carrying their own bags which, on a short cruise, is easily done.
We found ourselves through immigration and getting into a taxi ten minutes after leaving our cabin. We were slightly concerned about finding a taxi as there were two other ships docking at the same time as us, but it didn’t seem to be a problem.
The overwhelming majority of passengers on Navigator of The Seas were travelling in family groups - large multi-generational family groups were particularly noticeable. There was also a smattering of hen parties, but that’s to be expected on shorter sailings.
As usual, everybody we met was very friendly, but this isn’t a ship we’d suggest for people who’re looking to meet new friends.
There is a wealth of activities on Navigator of The Seas for kids, far less effort has been spent on their parents.
Rock climbing walls, crazy golf, flowrider surf simulators, ice skating… Kids are kept busy. Yes, arguably, all of these facilities are, arguably, open to adults, but on this sailing they would certainly feel out of place - these areas were, essentially, a well equipped nursery.
So, what is left for adults? Trivia quizzes, scavenger hunts and shuffleboard tournaments. Tha’ts about it, unless you want to be sold to, in which case there are the inevitable Park West art auctions, pre-owned Rolex sales and endless “information” events from the spa, gym and jewellery shop.
Our advice - buy the drinks package, you’ll need it to power through the tedium, particularly if the weather confines you to the indoors.
As we try to do on every ship, to ease comparison, we sampled a deep tissue massage which, in itself, was excellent.
The rest of the spa experience was less appealing, mainly because the hard-sell is relentless and completely tone deaf.
In the waiting room, somebody was pushing acupuncture hard. Straight away, we explained that we live in mortal terror of needles, but still, the sales pitch continued. The very notion of acupuncture on a moving ship just screams potential catastrophe - we could crest a sudden wave and have a kidney speared as the therapist lost her footing.
Once safely away from the terrifying needle lady, the massage began with an immediate upsell to include hot stones ($20). The post-massage product sell verged on physical assault.
The spa suite also seems to be directly the kids area, so the “relaxation” time is filled with the sound of running.
Navigator of The Seas offer multiple drinking venues - in addition to the cocktail lounges and pool bars found on every cruise ship, there’s also a pub and a wine bar. Our favourite venue was, however, the retro Schooner Bar - the signature cocktail lounge found on all Royal Caribbean ships.
In all bars, the service was good and any cocktails we ordered were well made. There are masses of children waiting at may bars to have their “bottomless soda” cups refilled - there has to be a better way of handling this.
We’ve touched before on the notion that the “free drinks” package on cruise ships merely creates a pricing floor, particularly for wine. The wines available within Royal Caribbean’s drinks package isn’t great. However, some decent glasses are available for a small supplement (e.g., $3 for Whispering Angel rose).