This is our first cruise so I write this with the caveat that we have no experience to base this on other than this cruise.
We decided to go with Royal Caribbean as they seemed to address the family market well. Not knowing if we would like cruising we chose to book with a guaranteed inside cabin.
Before you read on I want to say that we had a fantastic cruise experience and all the staff and the dining were exceptional despite the cruise being disrupted by very bad weather.
Adventure On The Seas : The Cruise
Travelling at the end of October from the UK along the coast of France and down the Atlantic side of Spain across the Bay of Biscay was always going to be a bit of gamble - and we naturally hit the first big storm of the year!
The ship left Southampton on time (which at the time we thought we might end up staying in port) and sailed across the channel to Cherbourg in a gale. There was a fair bit of movement in the ship but the ship took the weather well - although most of the water in the pools were emptied with spectacular 12 foot waves of pool water being ejected at each of the pool! As such and due to restrictions where you can refill pools at sea, the main pools had no water for several days but the jacuzzis were open which was fine given the weather.
Anchoring off the coast of France we stayed at sea for an extra day postponing our first port of call a day. Our stop in Bilbao was cancelled due to a storm in the Bay of Biscay and due to the change in dates arriving at the ports of Vigo and Gijon meant we arrived on public holidays and everything was closed.
Another storm then forced a further change in plans that put Bilbao back on the ports of call which was well received by everyone as this was the highlight of the cruise. Finally industrial action at the French ports meant we could no longer call at the port of Le Havre and the captain made the decision to head back to the channel to avoid a new storm threatening a safe passage back. The transit back across the Bay of Biscay was very rough and the Ice Show planned for that evening was moved to the following night - good call in my opinion.
Totally awesome. We chose My Time dining which worked well for us. We pre-booked our first days evening dinner with the intention that we would alternate between the dining room and the WindJammer. Since my wife uses a wheelchair the dining room was much easier and as such we ended up choosing the same time each night at the same table. We found the WindJammer difficult with the wheelchair as it was difficult to find a seat that was easily accessible and often by the time we got there someone else had beaten us to it. Also I had to select food for my wife as this was also difficult in a chair. Often the serving staff would find a seat for you if they noticed you looking or if you asked. This may have been exacerbated by having a full ship and 800 children. In both restaurants the food was varied and excellent.
Booking excursions that would take a wheelchair was painful than it needed to be as we had to email two separate parts with RCI; one to organise getting on board and the second to organise the excursions. We had to fill in two different forms with virtually the same information and then had to wait over a week for a reply as to which excursions could accommodate a wheelchair.
We then had to complete another form which we had to return by the next day at the latest. Although we started this process a month ahead of the cruise, in future we'll sort this at least 6 weeks in advance.
The excursions are expensive - having said that I've never been on any package holiday where they are cheap either.
The ship did run a shuttle bus at each port, but the local taxis would have been much cheaper for us. We took 2 excursions, both were good, but could have been longer - I guess that's the nature of cruising, you really only get a taster of each port. The guides were excellent and given our ever changing schedule was a very safe option to ensure we were back on board in time (some people did get left behind!!).
Cherbourg: We took an excursion to the D-Day beaches. The tour was good, the drive to the beaches takes about an hour. Could have spent alot more time here but the all aboard time was quite early as we needed to depart ahead of the weather. This would be difficult to do on your own.
Vigo: We went ashore and picked up a local sightseeing tour that tooks us all around the town for around an hour (total 22 euro). Nice town very pretty with lots to see if you are good walkers.
Gijon: We didn't go ashore as it was a holiday and all the shops were shut, plus the weather was miserable. Shuttle bus was $15 each for a 40min drive to the town.
Bilbao: We took an excursion round the town and into the Guggenheim. The tour guides were excellent and the museum was fantastic. You could do this yourself, shuttle bus was $10 each and a taxi was $28. Town was quite compact so easily walkable.
A mixed bag here. The teens club didn't catered well for our 16 year old son but the weather didn't help as the outside space was closed for a fair amount of the time - that makes them a tough crowd to please - which is no fault of the cruise.
The evening shows were quite short (1 hr) and ranged from good to really excellent. The Ice Show and the Motown show were exceptional. The cinema is tiny and on a rough sea day it was always full.
My only complaint - which is levelled at the other people on our cruise - is that when the show ends it is almost impossible to get a lift if you are in a wheelchair. One evening we waited for a lift and twice in a row before we could get in the people behind us pushed in front and filled the lift. We had no option but to use the lift - the stairs to the next level were only about as high as your domestic staircase. I was staggered at how inconsiderate and rude people could be.
The crew were excellent, the decisions made by Captain Henrik were good, even though this changed our itinerary considerably. Everyone I spoke to whilst a little disappointed respected the decisions made. We were kept well informed and the Captain and the crew managed the situation with good humour. Cuddy, Drew and Captain Henrik were very funny and all the broadcasts were in good humour and great to watch / listen to.
Drinks and the drinks packages are expensive - you could spend a fortune here. Because we left from the UK, RCI put kettles in the cabins with tea bags but no coffee, when I asked about this they said that they were learning the UK market and may put coffee sachets in future. We bought some juice drinks and a soft drinks package each before we joined the ship. In hindsight we wouldn't get the juice drinks again as these were available in the restaurants free anyway (not freshly squeezed) nor would we have soft drinks for my wife and I - tea and coffee was readily available. We chose not to have a alcoholic package - these were $$$ - instead we bought wine by the bottle at the table (approx. $30 for the wine of the day) - we're not big drinkers and a bottle lasted two nights.
The staff work very hard, their wages are basic and they rely on the tips topping it up. This is a US cruise ship not a UK one - US rules apply. We factored tips as part of our cruise costs - the cruise was very competitively priced so it figures that they are expecting to make the revenue from onboard purchases and excursions. Our housekeeper was telling us how they had looked after a party fully occupying 6 cabins (24 people). At the end of the cruise they would expect around $100 per cabin but the party reclaimed all their tips and left $50! Don't reclaim your tips that's a pretty low thing to do.
We prepaid and left some extra - the prepay is part of our cost, the extra is the tip IMHO.