Before I begin this review, I feel it best that I explain some background. My wife and I fell in love with cruising 4 years ago, and we have just completed our 4th cruise, on our 4th cruise line. We decided we'd like to try all of the mainstream cruise lines in hopes of finding one that suited our taste to settle down with as a frequent cruiser. So far we've cruised with Celebrity, Princess, Norwegian, and Royal Caribbean. We would still like to try HAL and Costa/MSC. Crystal and Radisson are unfortunately out of our budget range, not to say we wouldn't like to try them too! Based on reviews and word of mouth, we have no desire to try Carnival, and we have no children, so we have no real need to try Disney, though we've heard nothing but positive about them. The following review is based on a comparison of 4 different cruise lines. Please do not be offended if you are a fan of Royal Caribbean, I'm a tough critic, and opinions are like, well... what you'll think I am by the end of this review.
Airport: We arrived in Miami shortly after noon, and easily found RCCL representatives displaying their signs around the luggage carousels. Once all of our luggage was pulled together, we began to drag it toward the exit to the bus when an RCCL representative stopped a man with a large luggage cart and told us to give our luggage to him, and queued me to "take care of him", which I assume was my hint to tip him, which I did. Having only our carry-on luggage now, we were quickly directed to our bus transfer (included in our cruise-air package), which was a filthy Greyhound bus. Not that I'm above taking a Greyhound, but this one was nasty, and to think it cost me more for this bus than it would have for cab fare...not cool.
Cruise Terminal: Once off the bus, we tipped the driver and we were off through security and into the terminal. Like most cruises, we had to show our I.D. to several different people along our journey, a security measure for which I am grateful. We were directed to the appropriate line to stand in based on our deck number (deck 6). The line took roughly half an hour, and we were up the ramp to the ship.
Cabin: No formal welcoming committee, just a couple attendants directing lost people to their cabins. We quickly found our cabins, and our Cabin Steward promptly greeted us, I'm guessing she was from Jamaica by her accent. After a quick inspection of our room, I found that the closet door was broken, and I informed our Cabin Steward. She assured me that she'd inform maintenance immediately. The door remained broken for the endurance of our cruise. Our last piece of luggage arrived by 8pm, allowing us plenty of time to get changed before our Second Seating Dinner, which is 9pm on the first night, and 8:30 every night thereafter. The shower floor is about 30" x 30", the only smaller shower we've had was on Princess Cruise Line. Ladies, you'll have to stand in the shower and prop your leg up on the sink to shave your legs. Careful not to slip! We had to put the bath mat down before getting in the shower because the rounded shower doors don't make a good seal when closed, and water leaks onto the floor. The only bathroom amenities were lower quality bar soap, and a dispenser labeled "conditioning shampoo" in the shower. Do bring your own shampoo and conditioner, as this stuff is junk and will dry your hair out. Take note, the hair dryer is in the top drawer of the vanity in the stateroom, not in the bathroom, and is permanently attached by its cord. A little challenging to use, but you get used to it. The bed was two singles pulled together to make a queen, as is common with most inside cabins, forming a stiff "ridge" in the middle that makes sleeping close to your spouse a "no go" (honeymooner's take note). The mattress was about 4 inches thick, and about medium hardness. The sheets were some of the softest we've ever had, and the comforter was thin, but felt as if were made of lead, very heavy & warm material. The thermostat was easy to set, but took several days of tweaking to get set just the way we wanted it. We did notice that the walls on our cabin were less insulated than those of the other cruise ships we'd been on. We could hear the music from the dance club, as well as our neighbors and our very vocal cabin steward who would start yelling (loudly conversing) at other cabin stewards at 7am every morning.
Dining: We headed to the main dining rooms, and discovered that there are three of them, on levels 3,4, and 5. There is no information to tell you which one is yours. After waiting in line with about 200 other people, on level 4, we were directed to level 3 and had to push through a flood of people entering to get back to the stairwell to go down one level.
Hint: your table number is on your room card. We were table 388, the number 3 represents level 3, and we were table 88. They could have put that information on a sign outside the dining rooms for the first couple of nights and saved a lot of tired, irritable, and hungry people some trouble. (Not just us.) Once we were seated, we introduced ourselves to our tablemates, and our waiter came around promptly to introduce himself and his assistant waiter.
The service was excellent throughout our voyage, and they were quick to remember our preferences. The Head Waiter came around once a night to chat for 3 minutes and ensure his tip at the end of the cruise. This is customary with all cruise lines, and I feel that the Head Waiter should be salaried, as you're unable to directly see what his job is, making it difficult to rationalize tipping him. We tipped him anyway (as is customary), but this is just one of those things I wish cruise lines would change.
The food in the main dining room ranked #2 of the 4 cruises we've been on. The only exception was the veal on the Veal Parmesan, which was so tough it was almost inedible, but most everything else was wonderful. The butter-herb steak, available every night on the menu was exceptional! The menu selection left something to be desired. Being on other cruise ships where you have 5 different appetizers, 4 different salads, 4 different soups, 5 different entrees, and 5 different desserts, RCCL is lacking on selection. They also seemed to blend the appetizers, soups and salad (notice I didn't say salads) into one category on the menu. It almost seems that throughout our whole cruise that RCCL is trying to not only control food options, but quantities as well. Overall, our main dining room experience was a good one, and our Waiter and Assistant Waiter were professional and personable.
Buffet: The only buffet, The Windjammer Cafe, which is the main option for breakfast & lunch, left much to be desired. There were over 3,200 passengers on this ship, and it seems that RCCL does their best to keep everyone herded into one area, rather than keeping you spread out so you don't step on each other like the other cruise lines. At certain times during lunch hours, they'd have areas blocked off and only one food line going, offering only hot dogs, hamburgers, salad, and a couple other little things. If you've only sailed RCCL you may think this is normal and acceptable, but ALL other cruise lines we've been on have had a huge selection on the lunch buffet. Norwegian for example had at least 20 entrees representing a dozen different ethnicities at any given time, and has "no charge" mini-restaurants (similar to but surpassing the Cafe Promenade) all over their ship, catering to half the number of passengers of this ship. Once again, it seems that RCCL is watching their budget closely in the food section. The quality and selection of RCCL's buffet food, in comparison with the 3 other cruise lines we've been on, ranks the lowest. One other thing, good luck making one trip before sitting down to eat. Want salt and pepper? Go find it. How about catsup? Better ask someone; it's in individually wrapped packages somewhere (in an unmarked container) totally different from the rest of the condiments. The buffet did not "flow" properly and is not very linear in comparison with other cruise lines.
Entertainment: Over the period of 7 days, we caught 2 different comedians, a dance show, and 2 different performances by "Majestic" (a couple of awesome acrobats/contortionist), all lounges/nightclubs, and several outdoor activities. Overall, I would rank their entertainment #2, only barely being outranked by Norwegian due to their dancers & stage performances. We didn't get to see NCCL's ice show, but heard they were spectacular. The Cruise Director was excellent, but was not at the forefront of all major activities like other cruise lines. When he was visible, he was stupendous. The only major downfall (and many other cruises aboard agreed with this) is that most onboard activities lasted no more than an hour. As soon as you started to unwind and have fun "nnnnnnnnnt!" time's up!
Activities: Yes, this mammoth ship does have a rock climbing wall, and a golf course, and an ice rink, etc., but everything has very limited hours and occupancy, and 3,200 passengers trying to do the same things at once. Once again, crowd control. "Got to herd the cattle where we want them." After 10pm, it's pretty much the bars, clubs, or casino. RCCL has decided that free entertainment time is over; it's time to buy their booze. I realize that most of the ship's revenue comes from booze, but they don't even try to create the illusion that you have an option. You can go drink, or you can go to bed. Shopping is over at 11pm. The average age of a cruiser on this ship is probably 45, RCCL is shooting themselves in the foot here, and a lot of young and old non-partiers shop at night when the crowds are low. Princess Cruise Lines had midnight sales on jewelry, and people stayed up late just to buy the stuff!
Pools, Jacuzzis and Chairs: Two pools, 4 (I think) Jacuzzis, and plenty of chairs. Though I have been spoiled with being able to use a nice fluffy chair-towel for 30 minutes and then throw it in a bin and get another clean one an hour lately if I desire, I will say, RCCL has got something good going with their towel/chair policy. Because you are responsible for your towel for the endurance of the cruise, you don't see a lot of "chair hogging", which means you can frequently get a good seat in any area you like. Other cruise ships I've been on, people get out of bed at 6am just to throw a towel and book on a chair and go back to bed, and then claim that as "their chair" for the rest of the day. You'd see 200 chairs, covered in "stuff" around the pool, with no one using them. So yes, due to the un-thoughtful people out there, this is a more effective way of doing business. The Jacuzzis never seemed to be packed full, and the pools were easily assessable most of the time too. The adult pool was too cold for my taste, but if you can't tell by now, I'm picky.
Shopping: RCCL doesn't seem to put a lot of focus in this area. It almost seems that they have an "...oh, and we have shopping on the ship too..." attitude. No exceptional merchandise, clearance sales, or any real encouragement/incentive to go shopping onboard. I didn't see any place to buy clothing or formal attire (though you can rent it). Most cruise ships have a good selection of everything from formal dresses to neckties to swimwear. One noteworthy thing here is their alcohol prices, they were about 40% lower than in the States if you took advantage of their "buy two bottles for $xx.xx" prices.
Conclusion: If this is your first cruise, forget everything I've said, and go have fun. Just remember, it only gets better with the other cruise lines (except Carnival). Most people that frequent Carnival think that Royal Caribbean is luxury. For the refined cruiser that has high expectations and wants to be pampered and feel special, stick with Celebrity, HAL, or NCL.