Really smoothly, parked car in carpark and van came along and took our luggage to the ship. We took our hand luggage and suit carriers on board. This was not a problem, other than the fact we decided to tour the entire ship and had to carry it around with us, so the least amount of hand luggage you can take the better. We got into our cabin by 2pm and I was unpacked and back on deck by the time we departed at 4pm which was fab. There are only a few levels you can view the outside from, deck 4, 11, 12, 13 mainly. Our boy of 12 was on the sports deck, deck 13 and the arcade deck 12 pretty much the entire time we were waiting, so not a bad place to wait. Most of the bars are open so you can purchase or use your drinks packages as soon as you get on. There is also food available in the Windjammer which is plentiful and very fresh. Once you check in and give your passports they give you your seapass card which states whether you have a drinks package etc. and if you are 6pm or 8.30pm dining, will state your table number and dining room too - so once you get on the ship you can go and take a look as to where you will be seated. If you are not happy, you can go to customer services deck 5 and advise them you would like to change.
We were in an interior cabin, lots of storage space to be fair, for a small room. However, we had a 12 and 14 year old with us and it was just too cramped. The pullman beds are over the main bed so you have to scooch off the end of the bed, when you wake up you have not concept of time due to the cabin being in pitch darkness always without lights turned on. The best thing to do is pull the curtains across and leave the light on in the bathroom, that way, if anybody gets up in the night they can pull the curtains across and use the light from the bathroom to guide the way. It was hard for our children to get off their beds without waking us, so if you have early rising children do not expect a lie in !! You will have to set the alarm if you want to get up at a certain time as the darkness makes you sleep SO well and you have no concept of morning. We will be having a balcony cabin next year purely due to size and the fact I would like to sit on the balcony and read my book if my family are sleeping in, as opposed to wandering around the ship etc. Our stateroom Cyrus was amazing, he was so attentative and knew our names by the end of the first day, and anything we wanted was never too much trouble. Asked for more hangers, had them in 5 minutes, he took our washing and returned the next day. When we purchased duty free, they took it upon entry onto the ship and left it in your room the night before you departed in Southampton.
The main dining rooms are fantastic. Staff were fantastic, food amazing, They always had a great selection and a basic selection for those who were picky. If you did not like anything in particular they would always try to accommodate for all tastes even if not on the menu. My son ate from the children's menu, but being 12 they always gave him bigger portions which was great. The drinks waiter is great and by the 2nd night knew our drinks without asking. We requested a table by the window on numerous nights and turned up at different times even though we were my time dining at 7.30 and they always accommodated us to the best of their ability. On formal nights if you want your photos taken, get down earlier as the photographer is outside the restaurant and there is normally a queue so best to get their a bit earlier.
The Windjammer restaurant is fab, so much choice and so fresh. We always found something to eat, normally too much. They have water, still lemonade, coffee/tea available complimentary to all at all settings, with orange and apple juice for breakfast. So, you do not have to pay for drinks if you don't want too. The staff are so quick, helpful and friendly, especially on entry. No wishy washy no yummy yummy was our favourite saying, as in if we did not use the hand sanitizer we could not go in .... it made most people giggle.
Lots for everybody. The main theatre was at 7pm and 9pm so fitted around most people. Dancing and music most nights but we did have Bobby Davro, Juggler, Magician on other nights too. As long as you got in their 15 minutes before you would have a choice of seats on the lower level, after that it got a bit busier. Waiters came round asking if you wanted drinks throughout the show which was nice. The Imperial lounge had live music and quizzes, Schooner bar a mix of both and other bars music etc. you will be given a daily compass in your stateroom every evening giving you a schedule of what is going on and where throughout the ship the following day, as well as where we are going to be, sunrise and sunset times etc. really helpful and our bible throughout the cruise. They also give you a compass for the children outlining what they have going on the next day.
They are in groups and ours were in 12-14 - Optics which is the club on deck 12 hold different scheduled events/ groups/entertainment etc. for each age group and it is all detailed in their compass each night. You must register them the first or second day and then they can come and go as they please, other than the odd thing like wall climbing and skating if 12 or under. Our kids LOVED IT all.
We did a couple via the ship which were great, but with some google searching before we went I knew which ports we were able to do our own thing at etc. The ship excursions do appear more expensive than online excursions you can book, but the ship promises not to leave if their excursions do not get back on time, but if you go with others and they are not back then they will not wait for you. But to be fair, if you plan well and are back in time, you will not have a problem. Worth some investigation before you go. Am happy to give information on each port if you want it, so just ask.
If you wanted a particular spot which some did, you would have to get up and save the bed, no later than 8 really. However, because the ship is always moving you could never be sure where the sun was going to be the next day, so we found the top deck the best place to go as you pretty much always had the sun. However, it can get windy at sea so if you don't like the wind, you are better of sourcing your favourite area on deck 11 and saving it. On the days when you are in port there is no need to save beds as most people go to shore, if you come back to the boat relatively early then you will always get a bed. Sunbeds can be a bit cramped together, but if you choose beds on the end you can always move them about, plus there is nothing stopping you taking a bed or two out and stacking them at the side to give you more room. You are unable to save beds and on busy at sea days the pool attendant would come along and remove your towels if you were not on them for half an hour, not so much during the day, but first thing in the morning. So on those days, well the one day we did get up early for, I sat on the beds until my hubby came down and we took turns in getting brekkie. You can bring it back to the bed so no problem. You can hire two towels per seapass and they charge you if you do not return them, however, we ended up with 8 towels at the end because we changed them at the end of every day, and because they tell you to put the towels in the bin without counting them, we obviously ended up with too many, so obviously not too strict on it.
We got the Premium package which cost the two of us '1000 for the 2 weeks - seemed like a lot of money but we did it because we did not know how much drinks would be etc. and could not be bothered with the hassle. We definitely got our money's worth, but we did have a couple of beers before going up to the room to get ready, 2-3 at dinner and then 4-5 during the evening - even on port days - so we made the most of it. We are both the first to admit thought that even when we did not want or fancy a drink we would order one because we could. So to be fair, we probably would not do it again but if you like a drink then it is definitely worth it. We got the soda packages for our children, all fizzy nothing still, and they can get as many as they want, either in the cup they give them or a normal cup, they MUST and you MUST always show your card though and if you go up and get two drinks you must take the two cards as they will only serve ONE drink per card. My daughter drank water most of the time which all bars give for nothing and after the first couple of days they put chilled ice water dispensers on the end of the bars by the pools so we all just went up and got water, which is free, so if that is what you drink during the day, great. There is also a tea and coffee point on the pool deck which is complimentary during the day (I did not like the coffee but it was OK). A glass of Zinfandel was $8 and went up to '15-$20 for a nice Chardonnay etc. bottles started at approx. $36. Beers started from $5.50 and they served all good bottle beers bud, becks, coors, coroner, fosters etc. they also did draft becks etc. they went up to approx. $8 a bottle, and the Duck & Dog sold unusual beers and Guiness etc. All spirits are proper named Smirnoff, Blue Sapphire etc. a spirit and soft was approx. $7 - can't be sure as I did not pay for them. Cocktails including cocktail of the day started from $7.50 but no more than $10 for a decent one. Soft drinks were approx. $3.
Duty free on board is OK but not as cheap as the shops in Gibraltar. Not many basic essentials so if you forget stuff it might be better to wait until you get to the first port. Your room attendant will normally be able to advise you where the shops and wifi cafes are, if not customer services/reception will.
Really expensive so not worth it, however during the cruise there was free wifi for 2 hours, however, you have to create a logon name and password for the RCI website so do this when you get on board so that when they offer the wifi you can get online on your ipad etc. everybody crowded into the computer room when they heard about the free wifi and there were no computers left.
We did pre paid but did leave additional for our room attendant etc. The room attendant leaves envelopes in your room on your last day and you can leave what you want accordingly.
This serves food pretty much 24 hours, tea/coffee, water, pizza, croissants plain or filled, pizza, baguettes, muffins, cakes etc.
The Bay of Biscay can be temperamental, the weather is not always sunny so the first day out and last day home can be a bit drab, it can also be a bit choppy, but like me do not think 'oh my god I am meant to be on a med cruise what is going on', because the next day it was gorgeous. You can feel the ship moving but only very slightly, normally when laying on sunbeds and not all the time, but if anybody tells you that you can NOT feel it at all, they are lying. We followed a storm into France which was interesting and very choppy, but I found it so funny as everybody looked drunk. If you do suffer from sea sickness the medical room on deck 2 and reception will give you tablets.
Leaving the Ship
The ship advises you what deck to go to shore from, and what time you are able to leave the ship and be back on board for, so you do not have to worry. On the day of departure going home, you can opt to leave of your own accord and take your own bags with you but this is between 6am and 7am, however, if not they will give you numbered tags for you cases and you will be allocated a time to leave the ship, no later than 9am though and you have to be out of your room by 8am. You can change your departure time if it does not suit you, you go to reception and ask for different numbered tags. You pack your luggage, tag it up and leave it outside your room by 11pm, your room attendant will then take it away for you. Therefore, you must remember to leave a hand luggage bag and the bits you will be wearing and toiletries etc. for the morning.
I think that is about it and I think I have gone on long enough, if you would like to know anything else specific just ask.
We had a fantastic time and have only been back 6 days but have booked to go on the Independence next year already.