We booked quite late and didn't have much time to review the comments on Cruise Critic etc but did manage to gather sufficient information together to have most things sorted before we boarded.
We booked two tours, which after great deliberation we booked directly through RCI, more for ease than anything else. I did look at booking through various recommended companies such as Ephesus Tours and was very happy with their response to my emails and the fact that they only wanted a small deposit upfront. I will certainly consider external tour companies next time we cruise.
We also took the soft drinks package option, since this had worked well for us previously.
Other than the fact it took ages for us to get our cases on arrival, the transfer from Rome airport to the Navigator went smoothly. The RC staff were clearly marked at the airport and were very assuring when the cases were delayed, advising us all that the coaches were aware of the situation. The actual transfer to the ship was just over an hour.
Embarkation also went smoothly and much quicker than on our previous cruise. First we checked out our cabin and since the cases had not yet arrived, we went to the Windjammer and had lunch and lots of drinks. We then decided to explore the ship and worked from top to bottom with the boys guiding us using the many maps available. We made the Kids Club our first port of call to get the boys registered before the rush (worth doing even if you don't know whether they will use it - they give all the children a lanyard to attach their sea pass card to allowing them to keep it around their necks and reducing the risk of losing it - (Suggestion - if you don't like bags take a lanyard with you and ask Customer Services to put a hole in the card for you so you can attach it).
I had packed swimming trunks in the hand luggage so my husband was then able to take the boys swimming whilst I unpacked. We then had a leisurely evening meal in the Windjammer, followed by a welcome show in the theatre.
Next day we were in Sicily. We had decided to do this port on our own based on various comments on Cruise Critic. Immediately outside the port we were able to take a tour on a horse drawn carriage (40 euro for 45 mins). There was also the option of a City Tour Bus or a small land train, both of which covered a larger area. The boys loved the carriage, although it was a little cramped since they had to sit on a fold down seat. (I noticed later there were larger carriages too). We then walked back into town to see the clock strike 12. The clock had various levels of mechanical scenes which told a story (though I am not sure what the story was). It was interesting to see, but not as spectacular as I had hoped. There were other sites and we walked a long way, climbed lots of steps and several hills. The views of the ship were great from the top of the hill and we even had a photo stop with Mickey Mouse who we realised was up there waiting for the tourists on the land train.
It was a nice enough visit but in hind site we wished we had booked a tour to Etna. The port town was not very special, lots of graffiti and a bit disappointing. Our reason for not choosing the tour was we didn't want to travel the 2 hours each way to Etna with the boys. As it was we were able to go back to the ship, have a late lunch and a swim whilst the boat was relatively quiet, which the boys enjoyed.
Day at Sea
One recommendation is to get up at a sensible hour if you have young children since the sun beds near the pools get taken very quickly. Despite the policy of not being able to leave your bed unattended for longer than 30 mins we saw lots of beds with towels on which were hardly ever sat on. We were lucky because our boys are good swimmers, so we were happy to be further away.
This was also the formal night, which was the only one we made the boys attend. Since they were not too keen on the show the previous night we allowed them to go to the Kids' club after dinner, which allowed us to enjoy a glass of champagne at the Captains' reception and take in the show ourselves.
We did the RC half day tour to the Acropolis. It was well organised. This was one that I wanted to do but the boys both enjoyed it too. It was unfortunate that the Acropolis was surrounded on three sides by scaffolding which took away some of the views, but was still worth a visit.
We returned in time for a late lunch and a swim.
That evening we ate in the Windjammer, since we found this the easiest option with the boys, due to the variety of food available. The boys then chose to go to the kids' club whilst we took in the evening show.
We chose the half day tour to the House of the Virgin Mary and Ephesus. After an early breakfast we went to the tour meeting point. Being one of the first groups ready, we got on one of the first coaches, and were amongst the first visitors at the House of the Virgin Mary, arriving whilst it was still quite cool and before the queues. This was an enjoyable and interesting stop.
Ephesus was spectacular and exceeded my expectations. I won't say any more other than in my opinion it is a must see. Although still early, it was very hot and the reason all the tour guides use an umbrella as identification was immediately apparent. There was very little shade to be had. Many tourists also carried umbrellas or parasols and if you have trouble with the heat, or are travelling with very small children or the elderly, I would recommend you taking one. The other essential is the complementary bottle of water provided as part of the tour. Don't forget your camera!
I would have liked to see the Terrace Houses, but didn't want to extend our tour to more than half day. I was glad I had made this choice because by lunch time it was exceptionally hot. After the obligatory visit to a carpet store, where we were given a demonstration on carpet weaving and shown many different types of carpet, accompanied by a drink and some kind of pastry, we decided to return to the ship. Fortunately our tour took us to a carpet store near the port, so we were able to make our excuses and return to the ship in time for lunch and a spot of sun bathing.
We had our evening meal in the Windjammer, then the boys went to kids' camp and we went to see the show.
We did Crete on our own, and since we didn't have long at this port made sure we were ready to disembark as early as possible. This was a very enjoyable morning. There were lots of taxis immediately outside the port should you prefer, however, we caught a bus which was also immediately outside the port. This was very easy to do - there was a kiosk where we bought a return ticket for 3 euro each and the trip took less than 30 mins. They do allow passengers to stand so they can become quite busy, but we were lucky and had seats in both directions of travel. The buses also seemed to be very regular and we had no waiting around. Drop off and pick up was at the same spot, near the indoor market and was easy to find.
We were able to explore the town at our leisure. We started by heading to the harbour area where we walked along for a while before stopping for a drink. We then returned to the town/market area and spent some time visiting the many interesting shops and stalls.
Crete was a lovely stop, everywhere was clean and tidy, even the back streets. It was a pleasant change after the graffiti and unkempt appearance of the port in Sicily.
Once we had finished we found the return bus and went back to the ship. We had a very late lunch after which they boys chose to go to kids' camp. At their request we booked them into camp for tea and agreed to pick them up at 10pm after the evenings show. This meant we were able to relax on deck for a while, and then get ready for the last formal night. It was nice to dress up and eat in the formal dining room and our table companions were great company.
This turned out to be one of our more hectic evenings. After a leisurely meal in the dining room, as Crown and Anchor Members were invited to a champagne gathering in the theatre, where they put on a welcome back show for us. Unfortunately, we had to leave this show early because our youngest had spent the afternoon at pirate camp and all the small camp members were to be part of a pirate parade on the Promenade. It was fantastic. They had all coloured in their own pirate bandanas and learnt various pirate songs and shanties. It was really cute and worth the challenge of removing all the face paint when we returned to the cabin. Thank goodness for baby wipes (which I still take everywhere even though my youngest is nearly 8!). Once the boys were tucked up in bed we were then able to go to one of the more adult shows.
After a final exploration of the ship, taking pictures and playing mini golf the boys chose to spend most of the day in the kids' camp. I was able to relax on deck and enjoy my book, whilst various activities went on by the pool below. I spent some time in the afternoon packing, since the cases had to be packed and ready for collection by 11pm the night before departure. That way we could enjoy our last evening together.
We then had our evening meal in the Windjammer and the boys asked to go back to the kid's camp, whilst we took in the final show. There was also a farewell circus parade on the promenade, after which we took the boys to bed, before venturing out for a drink.
The main reason I have done this review is that during my search I found very little information from a family perspective.
My overall opinion is do what works for you. If you prefer the formal dining then do it. For us we only did the formal dining on the two formal nights. We found that eating in the Windjammer was faster, and meant the boys were able to have an evening session in the kids' club, whilst we took in the early show. We were lucky that our eldest is both old enough and was willing to look after our youngest on an evening, so each evening when kid's camp closed at 10pm, we took them back to the cabin got them settled then were able to go out again to some of the more adult and sometimes "cheesy" entertainment and quizzes. It meant that we were able to get as much out of the cruise as the boys. We kept out tours to half day, which meant the boys were able to enjoy them as well as the activities on the ship. It was a good balance that worked well for us.
1. Whatever their age, if your child likes kids' camps, then enrol them and use it. It will give you some time to relax knowing they are in safe hands. They will look after small children whilst you do the shore excursions, or take them to dinner if you do not think they would appreciate formal dining.
2. Do what works for you. Read Cruise Critic, Trip Advisor etc, gather as much information as possible, then, decide what you want to do. The key to cruising seems to be lots of preparation. Try to book tours and drinks package in advance so you don't have to do this on the ship. One less thing to worry about.
3. If you have cruised with RCI before, or if think you may again, join their Crown and Anchor Society online. You receive discount vouchers for use on board, an invite to a return/welcome reception and other benefits.
Also try and find your cruise on Cruise Critic and register for the Meet and Mingle. This can be great way of finding out who is on your cruise and even sharing shore excursions.
4. Be aware drinks are very expensive and I would say the only downside to cruising with RCI. Recommended wine by the bottle in the formal dining room seemed to be upwards of $40 and the wine lists do not have prices so make sure you ask. Check out the drinks packages and decide if you would benefit. In most cases I think the soft drinks package is a must, but if you don't want to commit then there is always water on the bars and free drinks from the Windjammer when it is open (not a big selection - lemon cordial/ice tea/orange).
The big question is would I sail with RCI again and the answer is Yes. I would also be more than happy to sail on either of the ships I have being on again. Having read reviews saying the Navigator was tired I did wonder, but the ship was clean and well maintained. There were signs of her age, but then again I am sure anyone travelling on the newer ships will also encounter similar issues.