January 6 – 21, 2017 (Summer)
Currency: Dollar ($)
Cost of living: Extreme
We were not in our right minds. From the perspective of a sweltering summer day in Budapest, a cruise though the icy waters of Patagonia was a tantalizing thought. There’d be mountains, glaciers, and especially penguins. We ran the numbers; once we factored in the high price of airfare in South America, sailing between nearly a dozen destinations was practically practical!
We should have known better. Several years earlier, we’d experienced cruising: a last-minute deal from our home in Seattle through the Alaskan Panhandle. The scenery outside the boat was great; the scene on it, not so much. That was every bit the case on this ill-advised redux. Our itinerary took us to some truly incredible places. But the experience lacked what we value most in our travels: freedom.
Life at sea
There are two ways we can evaluate this cruise: was it a good choice from a digital nomad perspective? And if not, was it at least a nice vacation?
First question first: no. Hell no. These were, by far, the two most expensive weeks of our entire trip. And that was just the sticker price. After all the myriad upcharges and hidden costs, they may have been the most embarrassingly expensive of our lives. We had nowhere to work. Internet packages were outrageously overpriced and underpowered (in 2017, there is no reason for this!). Quite simply, a cruise ship is engineered to be the worst possible choice for digital nomads. We regretted our mistake from the get-go.
But was our time unable to work enjoyable as time “off” work? As a vacation? Not especially, for a number of reasons:
The demographics of this cruise were very different than our shorter jaunt to Alaska. We were very much outliers among the retirees looking for a bucket-list experience. Not that we cared much about socializing anyway, but it would have been nice if we didn’t have to constantly steer the dinner conversation away from political rants and casual racism.
Our cabin (from the cheapest tier) was basically a broom closet. Of course space is at a premium at sea, but after months of stunning accommodations all to ourselves at a fraction of the price, a windowless hovel was a big let-down.
The common spaces were overcrowded with thousands of others similarly seeking less-depressing surroundings. At sea, with no spare land to to disperse the crowds, our city-sized ship began to feel pretty darn claustrophobic. One of the few respites – the walking track – was unusable as we dipped toward the southern pole.
For as much time as we spent away from shore, it didn’t even occur to us that the cruise would have nothing to do. And there really wasn’t. Not if we weren’t interesting in gambling or shelling out extra cash, anyway. A modest library here, a few movies there. The string trio from Poland was our favorite live entertainment by a mile. Only the daily trivia quizzes saved us from total monotony.
The crew often joked about their lack of a budget for fun activities, but after a few days it became clear that this was true gallows humor. They tried their best and were incredibly well-meaning, given the circumstances. The tight parameters of serving thousands of meals at a time, dealing with guests in a dozen languages, and poorly planned tender schedules put them at a disadvantage. It wasn’t their fault that they had a mandate to sell costume jewelery on top of all that “customer service” stuff.
In the end, we couldn’t shake the feeling that we were on the cruise version of a budget airline. Ryanair’s lack of amenities and constant upselling is unpleasant but survivable on a two hour flight. That model doesn’t fly on a two week voyage, Norwegian. It sucks that everything on the ship is designed to wring money out of you. It’s not okay that the free entertainment is an afterthought. Avoiding the barrage of sales pitches felt like work and measurably made our experience worse. We shelled out a lot of money to be here. Some people saved their entire lives for this one trip. How disgusting then that Norwegian ruins the experience with endless hounding for more.
Ports of call
When we picked our cruise, we hadn’t committed to anything after Mexico↗. This itinerary guided our stays before (Lima, Buenos Aires) and after (Santiago). It got us thinking more about the destinations, to the point we booked extended stays in several of them before we even set sail. And in many cases, these were one-in-a-lifetime opportunities: lots of people travel, but how many do we know that have been to the Falkland Islands, or rounded Cape Horn?
Unfortunately, the reality was not nearly so glamorous. The absolute biggest frustration was simply leaving the ship in port. Punta del Este, Stanley, Puerto Chacabuco, and Puerto Montt all necessitated everyone be tendered (shuttled) to shore via lifeboats. Naturally, they used as few boats as they could get away with, resulting in sometimes hours long waits to exit. Priority access getting ashore made all the difference between having time for an activity and not. And guess who got priority access to tenders? The customers that paid for Norwegian-brand excursions.
Embarkation: Buenos Aires, Argentina 🇦🇷
We had already spent 5 weeks in BA and were plenty ready to move on by the time Embarkation Day arrived. Boarding proved a great introduction to what we could expect for the next two weeks: lots of waiting and queuing. Things didn’t improve much on the ship. We were disappointed almost immediately by our depressing cabin and the barely-functioning amenities. But we weren’t the only ones. Customer service preemptively posted a sign that no upgrades were available or would be provided, much to the chagrin of more than 200 people in line. The parting views of our home for the last month turned out to be some of our favorite memories of the city, though.
Read more↗ about our stay in Buenos Aires
Montevideo, Uruguay 🇺🇾
Before we even got on the boat, we knew our next couple homes after we got off it: Santiago, Punta Arenas, and Montevideo. So we were in no rush when the ship docked here on the second day of our journey. We would have plenty of time to explore the city’s sights and soak up its charms later. Instead, we busied ourselves with a relaxing stroll along the waterfront Rambla, scoping out our future Airbnb, and picking up a bottle of Uruguayan wine to bring back on board.
Read more↗ about our stay in Montevideo
Punta del Este, Uruguay 🇺🇾
Punta del Este was our second port of call, and far less interesting to us than Montevideo. The resort city’s mobbed beaches were the main attraction. We didn’t do any swimming, though. The water was far colder than the sand, and both were too crowded to be much fun. Instead we took some pics at popular photo-op La Mano, and filled up on one last dose of Freddo’s ice cream. When the weather began to turn in the afternoon, and we hurried back to wait in a long line for the next tender to the ship.
Puerto Madryn, Argentina 🇦🇷
Puerto Madryn, halfway down Argentina’s coast has such a shallow shoreline that its cruise pier has to stretch the better part of a kilometer over the water. Its top attraction is a penguin colony (quite a ways south of town) and that incredibly flat, incredibly wide beach. We wandered to the far end of the waterfront and back, the highlight of our day. La Abuela Dorotea sold us two bottles of delicious Argentinian reds to take back on board the ship. A pinot noir and a Malbec from Del Fin Del Mundo winery seemed fitting for our upcoming journey, and were miles better (and cheaper) than the on-board offerings.
Stanley, Falkland Islands 🇫🇰
A few hundreds miles off of Argentina, the Falkland Islands are still a sore subject for those that call them Islas Malvinas. But to the locals in Stanley, there’s no question – this land is wholly British.
We could have booked overpriced tours to visit penguin colonies on far-flung parts of the island. Instead, we opted for a 4-mile, zero-cost hike from Stanley to Gypsy Cove, eschewing the $20/person van tour to the same spot. The waterfront walk was a delight. We passed one solitary king penguin, a shipwreck in Whalebone Cove, and plenty of peaceful scenery on the blustery day. Gypsy Cove’s population of Magellanic penguins prefer to hunt at dawn and dusk, but we saw a handful frolicking in the sand and hopping their way back up to their cliffside burrows. The dunes across Yorke Bay are off limits to humans though: land mines placed by the Argentine army during their 1982 invasion are still buried in the sand.
We’d randomly chatted with the ship’s security officer and told him of our hiking plans. Just as it began to rain on us on our return hike, he and another officer drove up and offered us a ride back to town. In Stanley we wandered around the adorable little outpost; the Anglican church, red phone booths, and many nods to British rule feeling almost completely out of place in the South Atlantic. Grabbing a pint at the Globe Tavern, it was hard to believe we weren’t in the UK proper.
Cape Horn 🇨🇱
The waters around Cape Horn are infamously treacherous. Strong currents and huge waves made this a graveyard for countless sailors over the years. We rounded the Cape on a day with almost glass-like water, a rarity. Approaching the Horn, watching it grow until we could practically swim to it, was an experience of a lifetime. And the other way, nothing between us and Antarctica but a thousand kilometers of open ocean. Eventually the blistering cold air overpowered us and we retreated indoors. But not before taking in an especially serene evening.
Ushuaia, Argentina 🇦🇷
Clouds thoroughly enveloped Ushuaia and Tierra del Fuego National Park during our too-short stop. We had considered hiring a taxi to take us to the park, but decided to wander the town rather than disappoint ourselves with nonexistent vistas. This turned out to be a solid choice. We climbed the slopes behind the city and earned a commanding view of the tiny outpost on the Beagle Channel. With little time to spare, we discovered Klöbber, a father-and-son brewery making some of the best goods on the continent. Though they weren’t even open yet, they happily invited us in and served up some truly special beers (once they made clear that food was off the table). Fine by us!
Glacier Alley 🇨🇱
Next to Cape Horn, this was the singular attraction that might have made a cruise a worthwhile option. Steaming away from Ushuaia brought us through this remarkable channel where we passed glacier after gorgeous glacier. The sights stunned us almost as much as the face-numbing air. Still, we couldn’t help but notice the undeniable toll mankind was taking on these treasures. The glaciers have retreated dramatically from the reference photos on board the ship. In another generation, there may be nothing left to see.
Punta Arenas, Chile 🇨🇱
Once again we stopped at a city we already knew we were coming back to, so there was no urgency to our explorations. We were free to wander the city and get to know our future home. The stunning viewpoint at Cerro de la Cruz became a fast favorite, as did the brilliantly-developed walking path on the Strait of Magellan shoreline. Los Pingüinos Natural Monument and Torres del Paine↗ could wait for our eventual return.
Our ship did manage to secure a docking berth in the port zone, canceling the need for tenders. This was billed as a big favor to us. But when we got off the boat, we discovered the free shuttles out front would only take us as far as the Zona Franca. To un-strand ourselves from the boonies, we were free to hire transit into town ourselves, though! Most passengers unfortunately ended up with a pretty sour impression of a town that we absolutely adored when we came back on our own.
Read more↗ about our stay in Punta Arenas
Puerto Chacabuco, Chile 🇨🇱
Sadly, tiny Puerto Chacabuco got the short end of the stick, time-wise. The town is just a few streets wide and not much to look at, but the nearby fjords deserved much more time than they got. Counting tender waits we had just a couple hours to explore. We picked up our first Chilean SIM card at a small corner market and did a little window shopping at the pop-up craft market.
Puerto Montt, Chile 🇨🇱
We spent our morning in Puerto Montt exploring and getting some shopping chores done, namely stopping into an Entel to getting both our phones working on the Chilean network. The region’s real prize was inland at Puerto Varas, known for perfectly cone-shaped and snow-topped volcanoes. Tours through the cruise company cost at least $40/person, but we found our own way on a local bus for about $1.25. Puerto Montt’s bus station, the Rodoviario, is right on the waterfront and minibuses left for the neighboring towns every fifteen minutes or so.
Once in Puerto Varas, we discovered the mountains were well and truly buried in a thick coat of cloud. Oh well. Instead we explored the town, a small but upscale mountain getaway with a decent amount of charm. Iglesia del Sagrado Corazón was worth a stop – patterned on a German church, but made out of steel rather than stone or wood – and the gardens below it house an imitation Grotto of Lourdes. A elderly woman insisted the icon had healed her knees. We also stopped for a drink at Café Haussmann. Chester Beers, a local craft brew, surprised our taste buds and rocketed to the top of the local leaderboards. How could we say no to a brew named Obama’s Redemption? Finding our own way was half the fun, making Puerto Varas one of our most memorable stops of the cruise.
Santiago Valparaíso, Chile 🇨🇱
In the end, we were unceremoniously dumped, not in “Santiago” as advertised, but the industrial port of Valparaíso an hour and a half away. Transfers were not included. The cruise-owned buses and line of cabs outside our isolated terminal gave the impression that there were no other options – all roads led through Norwegian. One last chance for an upsell, we guess. Many people took them up on the
coercion offer, but we skirted the barriers and hiked a few blocks to the city’s central bus station. Tickets to Santiago left frequently and set us back less than $5 per person.
Read more↗ about our stay in Santiago
Many days: At Sea 🌊
Even with such a busy itinerary, almost half of our days were spent doing nothing but sailing. We rather enjoyed it in theory, and despite Norwegian’s worst efforts, occasionally even in practice. Several times we sailed alongside pods of whales resting at the surface. Occasionally one spouted or breached in the distance. Dolphins entertained themselves and us by frolicking in our wake. Seabirds fished for snacks churned up by our massive propellers. We witnessed multiple rainbows, including the sort of double rainbow that could inspire a spiritual awakening – or a viral video. Even the crew members scrambled to grab their coworkers (but hilariously, not more guests) to come out and enjoy the sight. At night we found corners of the deck sheltered from the brightest lights and stargazed, taking in a new hemisphere of night sky than we were used to.
But with so little to do in such a crowded space, we found ourselves very much unhappy with our “vacation.” What enjoyment we got out of the experience was almost entirely by luck (unusually great weather) or by squeezing blood from the stone that was our cheap-ass cruise.
Food & Drink
Food was included in the price of our ticket. But just like the ports of call and entertainment activities, it became clear just how little our all-inclusive ticket amounted to only after we were underway. Once again Norwegian neglected the bare minimum in favor of the bottom line, cutting costs and driving passengers to the premium ($$$) options.
Norwegian’s “freestyle” cruising promises dining on our schedule and for any dress code. In theory, this should spread out the lunch and dinner crowds and fill in snacking gaps. In practice, the most edible food was exclusive to the banquet halls. These had a dress code and limited seating/hours of operation. There was an all-hours buffet, but its quality was very hit-or-miss. Either it was slammed with a long line of diners at normal meal times (the same time the banquet halls were open), serving warm but mediocre food, or it was largely empty and mostly shuttered with just a few rapidly cooling placeholder dishes set out. The other all-day option was a long wait for some pub fare at the sports bar.
None of the food was very good. Some of it was downright disgusting. We missed being able to cook for ourselves almost from the outset. Even at best, the entrées were bland, meat & potatoes fare with no flavor and even less variety. Often they arrived barely above room temperature; clearly the kitchens were overwhelmed handling so many meals at once. During one of the free events – a lecture on the behind-the-scenes logistics of the ship – a manager let slip the staff gets different food. Surprisingly authentic and spicy dishes with from their home countries like Nepal and the Philippines. We’ve never been so jealous of underpaid and overworked cruise ship workers.
Just about everyone that books a cruise is offered some kind of bonus, a tactic for nabbing bargain-hunting types. Unlimited drinks are the popular choice, but with mandatory gratuity on that package topping $400 (more than we’d ever spend on drinks) we passed on that option and picked a meal package instead. This gave us access to our choice of the upscale (i.e. expensive) onboard restaurants.
Teppanyaki tasted fine but the presentation came across as more than a little dated and culturally insensitive. The French- and Italian-style lounges were so boring as to be utterly forgettable. Moderno Churrascaria was the only real winner. Servers walked around with a rotating selection of meat skewers, carving off portions on demand. The quality rivaled even a terrestrial restaurant (high praise, we know). We actually ate there two times, the second as invited guests of the same ship’s security officer who gave us a ride back to Stanley. Apparently he took notice of our hiking moxie. Great guy!
One of the main ways ships make money is by selling alcohol at outrageously inflated prices, some going as far as banning all outside beverages to ensure a captive audience. Cruise-focused web forums are chock full of advice about smuggling booze on board to circumvent these bans. We took a simpler tack to save money – we mostly just did without. However, we did take advantage of the one “allowance” in the fine print: bottles of wine can be brought on board, for a fee.
Even with the added charge, this was still cheaper than purchasing glasses of wine on the ship. (And it wasn’t just about undercutting the cruise – our vino was generally more local and higher quality, too.) But following the rules didn’t get us any better treatment from security. Both times we brought bottles aboard, the crew made us wait for long periods of time in a zone of shame while someone qualified came down to log our purchases and sticker our bottles. Clearly they didn’t want to incentivize such behavior as “reading the fine print.”
Stuff of interest
Internet was basically unavailable for the duration of the cruise. The onboard wifi packages were prohibitively expensive, and our course kept us too far from shore for decent reception. We had some coverage in Argentinian ports leftover from our Buenos Aires SIMs↗; in Chile, we tried to get chips early so we could hit the ground running in Santiago. Our first attempt flopped in Puerto Chacabuco when we purchased an Entel SIM↗ from a mini mart. We didn’t realize until after paying that it didn’t come in a nano-size punch-out. Kevin borrowed a set of scissors from the shop’s proprietor and surgeried the SIM down to size (much to her amazement). But it didn’t come with any credit. In Puerto Montt we found an actual Entel shop and learned we just needed to purchase credit from basically any kiosk.
Laundry wasn’t included or even really an option, save for an expensive and impractical dry cleaning service. We ended up hand-washing undergarments and quick-drying shirts in the shower. It takes an awful lot of effort to wash a garment by hand! But at least the bathroom had a tiny laundry line. That helped a little.
The most depressing part of our tiny room wasn’t the lack of space, but the lack of light. Nobody enjoys waking up in a cave. We learned that the livestream from the upper-deck camera could serve as a makeshift window in a pinch, but we rarely used it. The TV was really cheap and threw off way too much light and buzzing for a restful sleep.
Weather-wise our trip was relatively uneventful, but we did experience a few days of rough seas. For those occasions alone our interior room was a minor blessing, shielding us from the worst of the undulations. Even so, our closet doors were thrown open in the middle of the night. We ended up wedging flip flops beneath them to cut down on the clatter.
For all our complaints about Norwegian’s cheapness, their most egregious oversight didn’t affect us at all. The staff got an earful though. An inexpensive (-ish) cruise between two sides of South America attracted a fair number of Brazilian, Argentinian, and Chilean guests, but almost nobody on the ship spoke a lick of Spanish or Portuguese. Absolutely shameful on the cruise line’s part.
We made the mistake of participating in a Newlywed Game-style show on one of the first days. It should have been a fun little embarrassment, and anyways, what else was there to do? Only, it was filmed and replayed all over the ship, multiple times per day… for the entire two weeks. The half-bottle of champagne they awarded the participating couples was hardly a fair trade. We should have been earning champagne royalties! And for two self-proclaimed introverts, being instantly recognized by a thousand strangers (“You’re the newlyweds!”) was a royal pain.
What we learned
Cruises, especially “bargain” deals on big ships, are the worst. This was literally the antithesis of everything we love about travel. It was bad for us as digital nomads, it was bad for us as global citizens, and it was especially bad for us as introverted but independent adventurers.
We know some people like this style of vacation. More power to them. We won’t be joining them again.