Just returned from 14 night cruise of the Mediterranean on the Independence of the Seas (IOS). This review is long, to fit everything in so I have broken into sections.
Overall, outstanding is the best description of the cruise experience. Our first cruise and will not be our last. We decided to cruise in style and stayed in a suite (Owners Suite on deck 10), so some of what is mentioned below only applies to suite guests.
We parked at Southampton Port with the prebooked (free) parking. We arrived just after 12.00 and were on board by 1.15. Most of the time was waiting for the cars to be taken through for passengers to unload luggage etc. With the number of passengers / cars the process was good and easy. You don't have to handle your own cases, they do it for you, and so if you can't lift etc. it is done for you. The actual parking is very close to the ship and only a few minutes walk to the terminal building.
Check in with RCI was smooth and quick with staff who clearly know what they are doing. Suite guests do get priority, but it didn't make a massive difference, as the queues were not that long anyway. This is the last point that we used our passports as the SeaPass takes over as your passport / credit card for the 2 weeks. It is worth doing the paperwork before you get there (can do it on line) it means check in takes a couple of minutes. After getting a wrist band for our 5 year old (ID and evac reasons for when they are away from you), we were on board.
It's big, but didn't seem too big, we went everywhere in the 2 weeks except the smoking bar, even if it was to just have a look.
You get allocated a main dining room (one of three -- King Lear (our one), Romeo and Juliet or Macbeth). Not sure if there is any logic to the allocation? You do get allocated a dedicated waiter / assistant waiter and Head waiter. These remain with you for the whole cruise. They are very attentive, professional and efficient. Brian, Arnel and Anthony were ours and were terrific. From day 1 they knew your name and from day 2 remembered your preferences for drinks.
There is something for everyone on board and I won't go through all that is there, you can read that from the RCI site but we never found anywhere particularly crowded or busy. Even on the England football Euro 2012 night, we easily got a seat in the wine bar to watch the game.
The Windjammer is the main restaurant for breakfast / lunch ( and dinner if you want). It is busy and noisy, but with that number of people eating at the same sort of time it is inevitable. It is also spotlessly clean, well staffed and big enough to deal with demand 90% of the time. Just like a Hotel at breakfast time, at peak times it can be a struggle to find a table. This is where being a suite guest really pays dividends. Suite guests don't have to dine in the windjammer, you still collect what food you want, but waiters look after you with drinks etc. in the Chops Grill (a speciality restaurant adjacent to the windjammer). This means no worry about a table, it quiet and a much, much nicer place to eat. Access is strictly controlled and you can only get in with a Gold Seapass. This also works at lunchtime, the same process; you get your food from the windjammer, but eat in the Chops Grill. You cannot do it at dinner, as obviously the Chops Grill is open as a speciality restaurant (Steak house).
Sundecks do get busy when the weather is nice. Despite the signs, people still reserve beds with towels but there are lots of beds. No doubt there are times of extreme demand when there isn't enough to go around, but this is very rare, you can usually find one somewhere. Another benefit here of having a Gold Seapass, there is a reserved area on the skydeck (above the bar) and although it is a small space we often found beds here for suite guests when the rest were full. Access is controlled and we saw one person removed by security who was with someone who had a goldpass but didn't have one themselves, they are quite strict, and rightly so.
Lovely. The suite was huge, massive bed and enough storage, even for my wife! You could cruise for a month and have enough space for everything, there are cupboards and drawers everywhere.
The cabin has a dining area for 4 people as well as the sleeping and sitting areas so makes it much easier to eat in the room without having to use the bed or sofa. The main sleeping area is blocked off by means of a heavy curtain, so you get visual privacy but it obviously it doesn't stop noise. You can also access the balcony via the bedroom area as well as the main lounge; handy is someone is sleeping in the main area. Our 5 year old was on a rollaway bed and we hoped that we could place it in the bedroom area, but this was not possible, it is too big (the bed), so it was left in the dining area, it worked fine, but if you need it in the bedroom, it don't fit!
The stateroom attendant was brill (Raj) he looks after all your needs and makes up the beds / turn down and all the usual cleaning etc. Also it is nice to come back at bedtime to find chocolates, beds ready and the bathroom all cleaned up with fresh towels whilst you have been at dinner. Of course the towel animals was our son's fav bit!
On the balcony you get 2 chairs and 2 sun loungers with cushions and a table, the balcony is basically 3 times the size of a standard balcony cabin. From a safety point of view we were concerned about our little one out on the balcony and whilst we didn't allow him out there alone, the glass panel is high and not easy to climb, so it is safe. There is also a reasonable size safe in a cupboard for highly valuable things but we didn't bother for most stuff.
Plug sockets are mainly western Europe type so a normal 2 round pin adaptor is fine. There are several so unless you bring loads of devices that need charging an extension is not necessary but that also works. You don't need a charger for an Apple Ipod touch etc. as the radio has a dock to charge / use.
Suite guests get access to the concierge lounge (on deck 10 by the lifts) a real bonus. It isn't huge and can be busy just before dinner, but we always got seats for our group of 4. They do continental breakfast (we never used that), light snacks / cakes in the afternoon and canapes in the evening (5 to 8.30.) The main benefit is in the evening you get free drinks. The lounge is open 24/7 for coffee / tea when you just help yourself.
Kenneth and his team are in the lounge at key times and they are really helpful. Ken is able to book all you trips / reservations so there is no need to go to guest services and queue up.
Our 5 year old loved it, towards the end of the holiday, trying to get him out was the problem! Staffing level was high and they were all very well qualified. What was also good was they are not shy of telling naughty kids off! I witnessed a little terror having a winge and tantrum and they were firm with him (and fair), they don't take any nonsense, very impressed. You feel confident leaving your little ones with them. Opening hours depends on sea / ports day, but generally it opens at 1000 to 1200 and again 1300 to 1700 and there is also an evening session from 1845 to 0200 (you only pay extra if you use the 2200 to 0200 bit), we didn't. They will also take you children to lunch if you want and give them pizza and chips. I was surprised that you can even leave your kids in the club and go off the ship on port days, and there is no problem with this. The kids don't have to go in for a whole session but the staff did get a bit irked with people turning up for just an hour or so, they were still smiles and pleasant but you did feel it disrupted their business a bit, perhaps understandably, they are working with the kids and they have to keep stopped to book new kids in and out it disrupts it for everyone.
This is not my idea of a good time, so we didn't' do many shows, but credit where it is due ,with one exception they were excellent. The ice shows are a must, very good, The Rat Pack were excellent. We did see a show towards the end of the cruise which was themed on a fairy tale, it was awful, over sung, messed about with lyrics and the two really good singers were hamstrung with others who couldn't. The saving grace was that it was short! As a generalisation the 'guest stars' were much better than the core entertainment staff. The musians in the bars and lounges were good, A female singer in the Olive or Twist Bar was good and D'Version who played in the Pyramid Lounge were also good (just get out whilst the entertainment drones do their quiz in the break the band takes!) as these can be spine-tinglingly bad.
Food and Drink
If you don't find something for you, you must be the fussiest person in the world! The menus in the main restaurant are very varied and expansive and the self-service buffet in windjammer has all sorts. You can (and some do) eat yourself silly. The quality is excellent and we never had anything other than an excellent meal every day.
When you board they offer drinks packages (also you can prebook them). I don't see the value in most of these unless you consume a huge quantity. Perhaps for teenage kids, the soft drink package may allow some flexibility, but the beer / spirit deal is very pricey and you need to drink in excess of 8 plus drinks a day to break even, (even on port days when you are not on board). Drinks are not cheap but comparable to 4 / 5 star Hotel prices. A good way to save money is have the cocktail of the day, you get a cheaper drink and a free glass!
You do get free alcoholic drinks in the concierge lounge if you are a gold seapass holder, but all passengers get free soft drinks at breakfast, lunch and dinner. A choice of still lemonade, fruit punch, apple juice and water is available, as much as you like. Tea and coffee is also available 24/7 around the ship for free. We did pre pay for wine as this was easier and also a bit cheaper as you don't pay the currency conversion. 7 bottles each worked out for the gold package at Â£17 a bottle, quite normal restaurant prices. As there were 3 adults in our party we bought 3 x 7 packages, this means you can share the packages, you cannot buy one package and share it 3 ways. In the end we had 6 bottles left over, so room service delivered it on the last night and we just took them home.
All drinks and additional purchased are billed to your seapass and you sign for everything and get a paper receipt, so you can keep track of spend. You can also use the in suite tv to check the bill. EVERYTHING comes with 15% gratuity added, no choice, and a box where you can add more of a tip. I never added anything and it didn't seem expected either. If you do My time dining as we did you pre pay tips anyway, so I didn't feel it was necessary.
We had a couples massage which was very nice and felt great after. Prices are on the high side, but again fairly comparable to good hotels and it was a good massage. You are offered a discount on board for 2nd, 3rd treatments so may be worth not pre-booking too much.
We did, Florence, Rome and Corsica trips which were well organised, on time and informative. I am really not an organised trip person, but as this was our first visit to all of these places took up the trip. I think if you have been to the port before you can just as easily (and much more cheaply) do you own thing.
At most ports visited on this cruise you can simply walk off the ship, in summary:
Gibraltar -- Walk off, loads of taxis / tours to select on arrival, takes 20 mins to walk to the town centre
Provence -- Walk off, some taxis and a little road train you can get into the town
Florence -- -- Busy large port you cannot walk off, need to get official tour or a shuttle service to the station etc.
Rome -- Busy large port you cannot walk off, need to get official tour or a shuttle service to the station etc.
Corsica -- Walk off, taxis and tours available
Cadiz -- Seemed to be able to walk off but we were on a coach tour, so not sure
Lisbon -- Just walk off, lots of taxis. We didn't do an official trip but went to the Aquarium on our own as we wanted more time there. We were advised to agree a fixed price for the taxi and were told expect 20 to 30 euros each way. We agreed 20 with a taxi driver before setting off, thinking we had done well, but the meter in the taxi showed 9 euros, so we paid over the odds. My advice, don't agree a fare, insist on the meter and pay the right price. Just make sure the taxi has a meter and it is an official taxi, avoid people who approach you, go to the taxi rank. On the way back to the port we did this and paid the real fare or 10 euros including the tip.
Vigo -- Just walk off, the shopping centre is 3 mins walk.
I am not going into the places on here but will write elsewhere about them (or I will never finish this review)
Suite guests don't get any priority getting on or off, it isn't necessary, nor is it practical to do. We never waited more than 5 minutes to get off or on. Getting off is simple, just swipe your seapass, getting on does involved some security checking and bag scanning.
With organised tours the group meet in a lounge or theatre onboard and leave together, this makes it much easier to get on the coach etc. it also staggers the numbers leaving the ship.
The only thing that didn't work as planned was one of our cases went missing when we disembarked and the shore side security (G4S) were totally useless. We did the late departure plan and stayed on board until 1330 and when we got to our cases one was missing. Eventually a senior lady (very helpful) from the team attended and sorted it, finding the bag in unclaimed luggage from earlier departures (the tag had come off). The other tag we had on the case was a bit mangled so I guess it got ripped off whilst the baggage was being handled. TIP, add more tags than just the RCI paper ones, as they aren't brilliant.
Overall, excellent service, food and accommodation. Totally recommend RCI and if you are prepared to spend extra, a suite does make it special.