This was our first cruise and probably the last. It had some real highlights that made it a special holiday but let's go through the negatives first:
1. Tipping. Once upon a time, cruising was the privilege of the rich and famous and they left a trail of large tips behind them as the staff pampered to their every need. Now Jo Bloggs can go cruising but the tipping culture has remained. In fact the tipping expectancy is out of control. For a family of 4, the cruise line will automatically add over 600 dollars to your bill for tips. Even if you have opted out when you make the booking it will still happen. So you have to go to customer services on-board and get these 'gratuities' removed. When have you ever stayed at a hotel for 2 weeks and left 600 dollars in tips? It is better to make the tips yourselves in cash at the end of the cruise. The staff appreciate 'cash in hand' but I'm sure you won't leave them 600 dollars!
2. Smokers. There are dedicated smoking areas on deck for smokers but of course I should have known that smokers would choose rooms with balconies so they could light up as close to their cabin as possible. We had smokers either side of us and we had the pleasure of their exhaled smoke and chesty coughs every time we used the balcony. Thanks.
3. Number of fellow guests. The ship is BIG. In fact there are over 4,000 guests on-board. Think about that number for a second because they all want to do roughly the same thing at the same time. This can make for a bit of a scrum at break-fast and lunch, along with a lot of Germanic towel behaviour around the swimming pools (despite there being a no hogging policy for sun loungers it is never enforced). Some of the port trips were a bit painful because of the shear number of people going to the same place at the same time. There were days when it felt like you did nothing but queue.
4. Drinks Prices. As you would expect, the price of beer and wine is high because you are a captive audience. However what really grated was that the price for the same wine/beer varied tremendously between the on-board restaurants. In my view, one tip for keeping costs down is to stick with the excellent Windjammer restaurant on Deck 11 and avoid the formal dining rooms. It's relaxed and self-service but you can get a carafe of wine for 9.95 - compare that to 40 for a bottle in one of the restaurants! If you want to drink Coke or other soft drinks you need to pay 75 dollars per person for a soft drinks pass for the trip (seriously).
5. Water. There is no free water outside of the restaurants. Come on! Have you ever stayed in a hotel where there wasn't a free bottle of water in the fridge? On board it will cost you $4.50 so get in the habit of carrying water back to your cabin (sorry - 'stateroom').
6. Internet. Can't live without WiFi these days but on-board it is VERY expensive. Top tip is to wait until you get into port and use the free WiFi that is available in almost every cafe.
7. You WILL put on weight.
Now for the positives:
1. The crew are very helpful, knowledgeable and provide great service.
2. The cruise gets you out to a number of countries and cities which was a great experience for the kids. In fact, our youngest said it was 'the best holiday ever'. However I can't help but throw in another little negative here because these trips are at additional cost: approx 200 dollars for a family of four (now multiply that by 8). These city visits made the holiday for us so do plan for them. Another tip is to simply get off the ship and head for the near red tourist bus which give you an excellent tour / taxi service around the city, which you can take at your own pace. NB: for Florence and Rome you have no choice but to take a 30 minute bus ride to get into the city because the ports of Livorno and Civitavecchia are so far away.
3. Our eyes were also opened to some place that we would not have previously considered for a holiday e.g. Cadiz with its excellent beaches, and Corsica with it's crystal-clear water.
Overall, it was a memorable holiday which the kids will never forget. However, I just can't get the total cost vs value out of my head. For what we spent we could have hired a nice villa in Spain or Italy THREE TIMES. In fact, that's my final recommendation: don't cruise - hire a villa with a private pool in the summer and go on some city breaks during the rest of the year.