For our 20th Anniversary, my wife and I decided to take our first cruise. We first thought of the idea in November of 2011 but did not take any action until January of 2012. We knew nothing about cruises so we searched through various cruise forums including cruisecritic.com to gather information. Then we decided on Royal Caribbean over Carnival because of the latter's reputation as a "party" cruise line. We chose to sail on Freedom of the Seas and their Eastern Caribbean tour over Oasis of the Seas because we were concerned about the larger number of passengers on the Oasis. We received offers from various internet travel agencies and chose one who we hoped would meet our needs (they did). We made a $500 deposit on the cruise through our agent on January 21st. We had to have the whole cruise paid off seven weeks later on March 6th for our May 20th sail date which made things a bit tight. Our agent actually gave us a three day extension to March 9th which we used to make the final payment. However, we were unable to purchase Royal Caribbean insurance because we missed the deadline. We later purchased cruise insurance a week before we sailed through another agency. You don't need insurance but we felt we had too much invested not to have our investment protected. Our agent arranged our flights through ChoiceAir and so we flew from Columbus Ohio to Atlanta and then to Orlando. From Orlando we used a shuttle service we found online which picked us up at the airport and took us to the hotel I booked in Cocoa Beach. I wanted to get there the day before we set sail in case there were any glitches. We paid the hotel $6 each to use their shuttle service the next morning to drive us to the dock.
What to bring
We bought two hard-shell pieces of luggage to protect our breakables and souvenirs. Our luggage had TSA friendly locks and as it turned out they did search our checked-in luggage because they left pamphlets inside stating they had done so. I understand TSA will break your locks if they feel they have to. We also had two carry-on pieces (I saw a suggestion to bring duct tape for various reasons. We didn't but wish we had when one of our older carry-ons ripped. The ship gave us some tape and so we repaired it) Suntan or sun screen. I got a nice face burn on Coco Cay. Put swim trunks and change of clothing or two in the carry-on. We met a lady on ship whose luggage got lost at O'Hare airport and didn't have any other clothes until she bought some at one of the islands. I brought my suit and wore it for both formal nights in the Main Dining room. Of course you never have to eat in the MDR if you don't want to. The Windjammer offers free buffets morning, noon, and night and there are other paid restaurants on the ship. My wife brought an iPod dock for music in our room and on the balcony. The closet contains plenty of hangers and a small safe. We brought a laptop and just kept it in one of the suitcases as it wouldn't fit inside the safe. But I never felt theft would be a problem as many others stated that they just leave their laptops on the desk in the room. I brought a nice digital camera and a $70 underwater camera that took photos and videos. The underwater camera came in handy when we Jet Skied and swam at the beach. (I took about 500 photos and videos combined). I also bought an underwater watch for $30 and wore it the whole time. You need to keep it on ship's time so you know when the ship is departing from a port. The ship used Eastern Standard Time. I brought my iPhone but never turned it on except at the U.S. Virgin Islands so as to not incur any extravagant roaming charges. I also wore T-shirts that I purchased at each port so my wardrobe increased during the cruise. Anything you buy has to be packed on the trip home so leave some room. My wife had to repack our suitcases at the airport so as to not incur an overweight bag charge.
Royal Caribbean suggests passengers don't get to the dock too early. I on the other hand was willing to sit on the dock for as long as it took. As it turned out the hotel shuttle got us to the dock at 11am and we immediately began the boarding process for our 4:30pm departure. The first line took a few minutes to go through as we showed our passport and drivers license. The next line took about twenty minutes before we got to the counter to receive our SeaPass card which is the card you use to enter your cabin and to make any purchases on the ship. Then we proceeded to the gangway to board the ship. Once aboard we explored the ship as we had to wait until 1pm to enter our cabin. The Royal Promenade is Deck 5 and is the main shopping area full of various lounges, pubs, specialty shops, and eateries and is aesthetically pleasing. I believe Decks 3,4, and 5 are the only lower decks where you can traverse the entire length of the ship through the middle. Decks 6-10 are where the staterooms are located and you can walk down the long hallways on either side of the ship to get to your cabin. There are eight elevators located at the end of each deck. We went up to decks 11-13 where the pools, hot tubs, solarium, bars, fitness room, lounges and other venues are located. The Flowrider surfing simulator, rock-climbing wall, miniature golf course, basketball court, and Johnny Rockets restaurant are on Deck 14. We also made it to Deck 15 which consists of the Skylight Chapel only. The ship is absolutely beautiful and the service was phenomenal. Our cabin steward got us extra pillows and made us the famous towel animals every night of the cruise. We upgraded to a balcony stateroom and it was worth the extra cost. Although we didn't spend much time in the cabin it was nice to walk out on the balcony at various times of the day and enjoy the view. We ordered the free room service breakfast five mornings and ate at the Windjammer the other mornings. The Windjammer has breakfast, lunch, and dinner buffets with great selections to choose from. We ate every night but one in the Main Dining Room where we enjoyed dinner, drinks, and great table companions. We met many interesting people throughout the cruise. The ship was magnificent to look at. There were paintings, sculptures, Egyptian statues, chandeliers, hanging art work, lighted bridges, marble floors, dynamic lighting, glass elevators, and so much more that caught your eye.
Our cabin was spacious with ample room in the bathroom, closet, and bed area. We had a safe for our valuables, a desk and large mirror, drawers for clothing, a minibar, outlets for charging electronics, and television to watch CNN, Fox, CBS etc and Royal Caribbean International's TV channel. Be sure to watch the Cruise Director's show every morning. You also can review how much money you spend on the ship at the Account Review menu on the TV. I was pleased to see that the Onboard Credits (dollars) we received from our Travel Agent were deducted from our account. And of course the balcony was incredible with two chairs and a table and was about 10 ft long and 5 feet wide. Our cabin was the third from the last cabin aft before the ship curves to form the stern. Although we could hear the low hum of the engines it didn't prevent us from sleeping. I set a 5 inch battery fan on my nightstand to help cover any noises. You can notice the gentle rolling of the ship when lying down but it didn't hinder our sleep. Sometimes you would notice your step shorten or lengthen when walking on the ship because of its movement. We had a phone which I used for room service, wake-up calls, and to receive calls from anywhere on the ship. There was plenty of lighting in our cabin and the twin beds made for a very comfortable king sized bed.
We swam in one of the ship's several pools every day of the cruise. Although not lengthy you had some room to move around in them. There is a nice size separate pool for kids. We enjoyed the three hot tub pools and of course the Solarium which is a hot tub that hangs over both sides of the ship. There are plenty of bars and waiters selling drinks in the pool areas. Soft drinks can be purchased individually for just over two dollars however I purchased a Soda drink card for 52 dollars at the beginning of the cruise. You can then get unlimited soft drinks throughout the cruise at any bar on the ship or at the drink machines located by the pools. I brought two pairs of swimming trunks so I could use one pair while the other was drying out. We also brought beach towels although the ship hands them out free in the pool area. When you use the pool towels the attendant scans your SeaPass card so that if you fail to return the towel there is a $25 charge added to your account. There are plenty of venues where the ship's entertainment includes comedy, karaoke, dancing, deejays, magic, movies, ice skating, trivia contests, bingo, and many other shows that encourage passenger interaction. I enjoyed the Ice Skating show where international skaters performed on a 50ft by 30ft area of ice. There are plenty of themed lounges to relax and have a drink and stores to purchase souvenirs or everyday items you may have forgotten to bring. They have $10 days where you can purchase some nice items for $10 duty free at the kiosks throughout the Promenade on Deck 5. The Promenade also hosted some parades and the second to last night the cruise director performed in a show called Rock Britannia which was fantastic. The Promenade was decorated with a British rock music theme and the director and his staff played medleys of British rock while the crowd in the Promenade danced and sang and partied. There was a casino, a smoking lounge, a Gothic themed lounge called The Crypt, Disco lounge, along with the aforementioned Deck 14 sporting venues. All in all there is absolutely plenty to do or not to do on Freedom of the Seas.
The Ports of Call
(A note about disembarking at the ports. We had an early excursion at Coco Cay so we got right on the Tender. At St. Thomas we got caught in the rush to disembark and the elevators were slow and people were sitting on the stairs going up eight decks waiting their turn. At St. Martins we took our time and disembarked with no problem later in the morning)
Coco Cay in the Bahamas was nice. What made it extraordinary for us was the Jet Ski excursion. We Jet Skied for the first time ever. We met in the Champagne Bar at 8am on the ship to sign the waivers. Then a ferry called a Tender took our group of passengers to the island. There we met the Jet Ski Guide who led our group. There is nothing like zooming over the turquoise, clear water of the Caribbean at 45mph. There is also a marketplace to purchase souvenirs. A friend of ours said they did some hiking there and saw 3ft long Iguanas. We wish we would also have done the para-sailing here since they didn't offer it at St. Thomas. Since Royal Caribbean leases this island the ship's staff comes ashore and provides you with a barbecue buffet at no extra cost. However, to purchase souvenirs at the beach marketplace I believe you have to have cash. (I used the ATM on the ship a couple of times to withdraw cash but there was a $6 service fee)
St. Thomas was our favorite stop. The ship pulled alongside the dock so we could walk right off the ship and go shopping. An hour later we joined our excursion group. We went to Magens Bay which was absolutely beautiful and our favorite spot on the whole cruise. I rented a floating mat for my wife and we swam for two hours before we had to leave. I wish we had had more time to spend there. The tour bus driver asked if we wanted dropped off at the street market instead of going back to the ship and we said yes. There was an ATM ($2.50 fee) at a nearby bank where I withdrew some money because the market was cash only. We bought some nice souvenirs before getting a taxi (which are plentiful and cost us $8 plus tip) to return us to the ship. I took some beautiful long distance shots of our ship from the harbor in the market area. I also took a video of a seaplane taking off from the water.
St. Maarten had a beautiful white sand beach and the turquoise water. However, we chose not to do any excursions so we didn't get to see much of the island except the shopping area. After exiting the ship we caught a water taxi which took us across the harbor to the town and returned us for a one-time $6 fee. I do wish we had paid a taxi to take us to the famous St. Maarten airport to get blown away by the jets taking off by the beach. Just before returning to the ship we stopped at a dockside bar where we had a great time talking to the local bartender lady. (The local shops on St. Maarten will accept cards but they let you know they much prefer cash and so we paid in cash)
The last night of the cruise we filled out a customs form of what we bought. We also filled out the voluntary Royal Caribbean Gratuity form which is added to your SeaPass account for automatic disbursement of gratuities to the various staff members who provided personal service for you during the cruise. Guest Services sent us four envelopes with two vouchers each (one from myself and one from my wife) for the Cabin Steward, Head Waiter, Waiter, and Assistant Waiter. We also voluntarily added cash to each envelope because each of those staff members were great. We packed everything but what we were wearing for departure and set the checked-in luggage with the luggage ID tags the ship provided outside our cabin door before 11pm to be taken ashore. We kept the carry-ons with us. We arrived back at Port Canaveral around 5:40am Sunday. We got up and went down to the Windjammer for a final buffet breakfast. We went back to the room and got our carry-ons and went down to our assigned waiting areas on Deck 5. When they called our luggage number we went down to Deck 4 to disembark and go through customs. Once through there we went to the ship baggage terminal and picked up our checked-in luggage and proceeded to the arrival area where our shuttle picked us up and took us back to the Orlando Airport.
This was one of the best experiences my wife and I ever had. It met every hope we had when we started planning it. The ship was beautiful and the Caribbean was beautiful. And the best evidence that we really enjoyed this is that we plan on going next year for our second cruise with Royal Caribbean because this one was so phenomenal.