Not to compete with the many excellent reviews already posted, I have decided to keep this mini-review short and well organized, covering just the essentials that I wished I knew after reading the many other posts/reviews on these boards. While I realize that just about everything I have to write is probably already posted somewhere, I am pretty sure they are not all posted in one place, and the following highlights things that I was still unaware of by the time I set sail after months of reading Cruise Critic reviews/forums. I also try to clarify from a newcomer's perspective many of the concerns and questions that were raised and caused much consternation on the boards. Since I am only one person, this FAQ only represent's my opinion and my sailing (in particular, the Allure of the Seas Eastern Caribbean May 12), and of course, your mileage may vary. Also, I stayed in an inside stateroom, so those with more expensive accommodations may have a different experience.
1. FOOD QUALITY
As a certified foodie, trained chef (although not practicing), and world traveler, I take my food seriously. RCI has received mixed reviews regarding food quality and thus I had some apprehension boarding the Allure. I want to say to all other first timer sailors, rest assured the food is quite good. Some of the food was actually rather good, and some other food could have been much worse. As many have stated, do not expect gourmet five-star level food, although do expect five-star level service. Although not every dish was hit out of the ballpark, nothing was terrible. To qualify, we ate mainly at the MDR and sometimes at Windjammer, and avoided surcharge restaurants except Giovanni's on the first day. Major nitpicks include the uninspired vegetables (seriously, cut and diced + boiled???), fake baked Alaska (it was not-to-be highlight of my trip, my favorite dessert was "deconstructed" but not in a good way, although certainly still satisfying), overcooked lobster/steak in the MDR, and extremely uninspired chicken Marsala. Giovanni's did not strike my wife and I as being superior to the MDR except in terms of atmosphere. The Windjammer is much-maligned, and unfairly so. The food there is quite good for a buffet, provided you do not expect a buffet to serve a-la-carte quality food (that has never happened in the history of food). The main failing of many buffets my wife and I have been to is not so much that the food is not spectacular but that a few dishes are downright terrible. This was not the case at the Windjammer - the worst I can say for some of the dishes is that they are uninspired standard buffet fare - perfectly edible. I personally liked the chili at the Wipeout Cafe. I did not think as highly of the food at the Park Cafe, although my wife enjoyed it. The Dog House was decent - again mid-level acceptable quality. It does not compare with the dogs in Central Park, NY. Pizza at Sorrento's was actually pretty decent, IMHO. Room service food was good, and I enjoyed the fried fish at midnight. Bear in mind you will not get sodas on the room service menu, and orange juice costs extra (apple juice and tea is free). The service at all the restaurants is above and beyond. Even if they aren't serving gourmet food, they acted like they were, so kudos all round to the wait-staff. Also, expect to be entertained while eating (singing, dancing, the occasional speech/joke). Wait-staff become telepathic to your needs over time (even in our case - we used My Time Dining). Overall, I went in with no unrealistic expectations and came away quite pleased.
2. MY TIME DINING
Same as regular dining, just without the fixed time. You can request your server by name if you like someone. Certain waiters really go above an beyond, to the extent of looking for my wife and I when we were seated in another section. Send me a message if you would like a recommendation for a waiter. If you do not book ahead of time, prepare for a long wait on popular nights.
3. BABY FOOD
I had a 14 mth infant with me at time of cruising. The baby needed milk, and preferred it warm. Warm milk was not readily available of the first night MDR (waiters did not know how to heat up the milk in a carton). So for all parents with infants, here is how you get warm milk: a) royal tots has a microwave, b) Cafe Promenade can heat up your milk for you, c) Windjammer has hot milk every morning which can be combined with cold milk to yield warm milk.
You will receive an e-mail telling you not to arrive at the terminal before a certain time due to travel delays (thanks to the sequester). We did not heed this letter and were able to be accommodated at the terminal ahead of schedule. If you don't mind waiting at the terminal there is no one actually stopping you from arriving early (we arrived at 10 am). However, you will not board the ship until it is clear. We did not notice any delays to speak of.
5. ROOM READINESS
You can pretty much enter your room whenever you want after boarding but your luggage won't be there until later in the afternoon/early evening. As many have posted, bring some swimwear in your carry-on to take advantage of the pool. The sail-away party is on the top decks where the pools are.
The first photo you take will identify all the faces in your party's stateroom to your photo folio. After that, every time anyone in your party has a photo taken, it gets added to your folio using facial recognition software. While the facial recognition is pretty good, it is not perfect, so sometimes you will be asked for your SeaPass card as a redundant measure. However, it is not necessary. Occasionally they will miss either printing out a photo that you have digitally, or fail to identify your party to your folio. There is a wall where you can claim unidentified photos. Even if you have ordered the unlimited digital package, you MUST ORDER the CD by the last night of the cruise or they will not have it ready for you before disembarkation. That's right - even though you have paid for the CD, and have a receipt saying you will get the CD, if you do not go down personally to the kiosk and order the CD anyway, you will not get it. This is one of the more stupid policies IMHO. Also, they do not always print out all your digital photos, but you can request them to (free of charge if you have the unlimited prints package). When you get your CD, you must first install the CD, and, with an internet connection, select the photos you want to unlock. After unlocking the photos, you can export them in JPEG format. The photos are not terribly high resolution but good enough for medium-sized prints. The quality of the photos is actually much better than shown on the MyCruisePhotos website, and my wife and I were very pleased overall with the pricing (we took advantage of all the photo-ops and received >120 digital photos and prints for around $400). BTW, most of the prints are 8x10" so the print package is an absolute steal if you want a hard copy of your memories. Photo-ops include: embarkation, all events such as the parade, game shows, random pics at high-traffic locations, random pics at sports facilities (e.g. Flowrider, zip line), both formal nights (all over the ship), first night at the MDR, formal nights at the MDR, at each port of call, and at various Dreamworks character events posted in the Compass.
There are ATMs on board the ship (we did not use them). Bring enough for taxis and trinkets on shore excursions. As an example, a trip to Megan's Bay at St. Thomas cost USD $22 for the round trip plus beach entry. Everything on board the ship can be paid for with your SeaPass card.
We loved Megan's Bay in St. Thomas. There are very few waves, the water is serene and blue, and the shore is white sand. There are fish in the water that will approach you. Temperature in May was slightly cool but not cold. Food and other amenities are available. The bay itself is not very big, and the many trees drop leaves on the beach. Taxi is $9 each way and entry is $4 pp. In St. Marteen, we liked Orient Beach. There are topless women sunbathing, but no one seems bothered. On the far side of the beach, there are completely nude bathers (Club Orient), but we did not venture that far. Waves here are much bigger than at Megan's bay. Again, the water is cool not cold. Orient beach is a much larger and more commercialized beach than Megan's bay but equally beautiful in its own way - white sands and crystal blue waters. Peddlers of junk will continually bug you so unless you are interested in purchasing, just say no every time they pass by. Remember your sun block.
9. SHOWTIMES AND SHOWS
For the most part, if you do not have a reservation, you can still get in 10 mins before the show, but you may not get the best seats. I liked almost all the shows with the exception of Blue Planet, which was not my cup of tea. I would say Chicago is probably the best act on the ship. The comedians are funny and the comedy club is small (and no children are allowed), so make sure to make reservations for this act because they do turn people away due to limited seating. Expect coarse humor (duh).
10. ROYAL TOTS
Sign up is easy but they do not allow more than 20 hours of sign up until the second night (just in case there is a bumper crop of babies for that particular sailing). We had no problems getting all the hours we wanted. That $8 an hour is really well spent if you need time alone with your spouse. They issue you a portable phone that can be used on board. However, do note that will call you to take your child back if he/she is especially fussy (this happened to us twice, and we cancelled our future appointments). They do feed your child and will change diapers (you provide the diapers but not the food). Warm milk is available. It does seem to me that there were a lot of crying babies - not sure why. The do always keep the nursery dark. The royal tots is one area of the ship I feel could use some improvement, quite frankly, but it was not horrible by any means.
On top of the mandatory tip (which BTW, you can remove if you like by talking to the front desk), extra tips can be given either at the front desk, or by way of two envelopes on the last night (you can request for more).
12. LUGGAGE VALET
This is easily one of the best services on the ship. Instead of putting the color-coded luggage tags on your baggage on the last night of the voyage (that normally deliver your luggage to the cruise terminal where you pick it up prior to getting your taxi to the airport), you receive orange tags plus airline tags for $20 per person extra. What they will do is CHECK YOUR LUGGAGE ALL THE WAY IN TO YOUR FINAL DESTINATION and issue you your airline boarding passes on the final night to boot! I cannot say how nice this is, so I give this service a huge thumbs up. You do need your flight confirmation number, however (front desk is able to assist with looking this up). The charges are per person, so decide carefully how many people you want to list on the valet form.
13. LIVE MUSIC
There are various avenues for live music, which my wife and I enjoyed greatly. We were particularly fond of Dazzles.
14. CC MEET AND GREET
You get to meet your fellow cruise critics and get some RCI crap (btw, the term is straight from the mouth of Ken Rush, the CD).
15. PHOTO WITH THE CAPTAIN
Get there early, because some missed out due to the long lines (the CAPT leaves when its time for him to make his speech and if you are still stuck in line, too bad).
16. INSIDE STATEROOM
It is quite cramped, but very nicely decorated, clean, and serviceable. Toughest thing is finding a place for drying (there is a retractable laundry line in the shower). Beds are very comfortable. Some previous post/reviews stated that the staterooms were not quite up to par - but in my opinion, the staterooms are immaculate, beautifully designed, and very contemporary.
If you fall, it does hurt.
18. ZIP LINE
You need socks, but they can provide shoes in a pinch.
About $7-$9. You can get a virgin anything (just ask) for about $2 less.
$25/towel if you forget to return them. You need your SeaPass to obtain them, and they are nice to have on the beach (check them out the night before a shore day).
21. BABY SPLASH ZONE
They are quite draconian about enforcing the baby splash zone rules, so do obey them. Specifically, there is one tiny play pool where non-potty-trained infants are allowed in, and then only with swim diapers.
On my particular sailing, the great majority of the passengers dressed up for formal nights. Some went all the way, but most dressed in a coat, long-sleeved shirt, and trousers for the men and evening wear for the women. A few did not participate.
23. SHORE LEAVE
We were not big fans of Nassau. At all destinations, be wary as locals tend to be more savvy than cruise passengers. Lots of stuff being sold at the straw market in Nassau or the various souvenir shops in the Caribbean will not look as nice after it gets home. If you do the island tour in Nassau, try to get a van that has A/C.
24. DRINK PACKAGE
If you like soda, the drink package is worth it. Otherwise, note that milk, chocolate milk, iced tea, hot tea/coffee, watered-down juices, and strawberry-kiwi flavored water is free.
This is probably not the ship to take a class in. We took the cupcake decorating class for $22 pp. They taught us how to decorate one cupcake (as a dog). That's really pricey, IMO. Other classes such as scrapbooking were conducted by entirely disinterested staff. Some classes are free (e.g. the flash mob dance class), and even if they aren't the greatest, at least you can't beat the price.
26. FINAL MORNING
The Allure pulls in to Fort Lauderdale right around 5 a.m. (just in case you wanted to see).