Our family of three – 60, 57 & 21 – took our first cruise on Royal Caribbean beginning March 15 after 4 previous cruises with Princess. Our choice to try RCI was based solely on timing and itinerary. We had one week available so the 8 night Eastern Caribbean cruise on Independence of the Seas gave us the most cruise time in our week. And our son had only done Western Caribbean trips. None of us were disappointed with our choice.
EMBARKATION – Against everyone’s better judgment, including our own, we took a chance and flew into Fort Lauderdale from Minneapolis on embarkation day without incident. We’d prearranged a taxi through All Stars Tours to ferry us from the airport to Pier 29 to catch up with our home for the next week. We were done at Baggage Claim by 1:30 and by 2:30 we were through cruise check-in, on board Independence of the Seas and investigating our stateroom with only one small hang-up. In reading some posts on Cruise Critic, we thought we could personally carry all of our luggage aboard. As aggressively explained by an individual outside the pier terminal that was not the case. We backtracked to the baggage porters with a little embarrassment to reluctantly surrender our large bags. Our checked bags appeared in our stateroom by 5:00 to a little relief.
CABIN -- We were able to secure stateroom 7408 on the starboard side after getting tipped to it by Cruise Critic reviews. We couldn’t have been more pleased at our luck in grabbing this cabin. The cabin wall to the outboard side is shared with a lightly used service stairway so there are only neighbors on one side. The width of that stairway is given to the balcony of this cabin resulting in a HUGE aft facing balcony. The balcony is equipped with two balcony chairs, a table and two deck lounge chairs with space left over. We moved the table from the cabin out to the balcony for extra stateroom floor space without overloading the balcony. Unlike the cabin one floor above with a hinged door to the balcony, 7408 has the expected full glass sliding door. To the starboard side, there’s a very large open porthole protected by a waist high railing for viewing in that direction. This cabin is classed as obstructed because of two poles planted in the balcony, but the balcony is so big we never found the poles to be any kind of problem.
The rest of the cabin was as great as the balcony. The doors to the shower are a big improvement over the shower curtains found on Princess. There’s room for a loveseat in the cabin in addition to the desk/vanity with chair. Speaking of the desk – the hairdryer is hardwired in a desk drawer. It’s there once you find it and that’s where it will stay. The refrigerator temperature is only cool and we found no way to adjust it. We asked our room steward to remove the items from the ‘frig, but all he could do was move the cans and bottles to a shelf in the cabin according to rule. We elected to keep the Pullman bed open all the time, and it took a few days to get adjusted to its located over the head end of the regular bed. We awoke one morning to a problem with the toilet, but it was fixed within an hour of contacting Maintenance.
We wouldn’t hesitate a moment if we had the opportunity to have this same cabin again on a future cruise on Independence of the Seas.
FOOD – We totally agree that food preferences are completely subjective so please take these comments as one family’s opinion. We followed the advice of others and ate a late lunch at the Café Promenade on embarkation day. The selection was limited, but there was little wait time and no problem finding a seat. Most of our breakfasts and lunches were eaten in the Windjammer. It was certainly adequate for the buffet food it was. There was almost always ample fresh fruit at breakfast. We enjoyed the made to order omelets from the Omelet Station. The kiosk arrangement helped to spread out the traffic and shortened any waits. Except at peak times, seating was always available. The staff in the Windjammer seemed to work very hard to keep tables clear, clean and provide extra service for passengers needing a little special helping hand. We passed through the Windjammer one night after the evening meal. For passengers not wanting to eat in the main dining room in the evening, Windjammer seemed to have most of the same main selections.
We selected My Time Dining for our evening meal which put us in the King Lear Dining Room on Deck 5. We elected to make reservations online before the cruise for a couple of nights. There was a short 5 – 10 minute wait using this option, but nothing extreme. By the middle of the cruise, the maitre de for the walk ups recognized our group of 3, and there was always the same table waiting for us regardless of whether we arrived at 6:30 or 7:30 for dinner. Randy was our Head Waiter and Nicholas was his Assistant, and they were GREAT! We were treated like long lost members of their family. They both worked very hard to assure that we ended our meal completely satisfied.
We live in a part of the country where there are many options for good steak and pork so we tend to experiment, usually with seafood, when we cruise. Highlights of our meals were the escargot, the crabcakes, the marinated pork and the cold soups. Don’t be shy about asking for 2 appetizers if you can’t make up your mind or for ice cream with your desert even if you don’t see it on the menu. We found the portions to be sized so that by the end of the meal no one left feeling hungry.
The formal nights were Night 2 after the first full At Sea Day and Night 6 after leaving San Juan.
We used room service for breakfast one morning. It arrived within the targeted time with hot things hot and cold things cold. The portions were a little on the small size. Or maybe our appetites had large expectations.
We didn’t try either Giovanni’s or Chops. We hit Sorrento’s for pizza several nights and weren’t disappointed. It’s a nice last stop on the way to the stateroom for the night. And don’t forget a cookie from the Café Promenade for a late night sweet tooth.
HEALTH/WELLNESS – No one is more concerned about the health of their passengers than a cruise line. Hand sanitizer dispensers were at every food venue including spots like the self-serve ice cream stand. Crew members cheerfully directed passengers to the sanitizer at the entrance to each main dining area. There was sanitizer provided on the pier when returning from each port. We saw the cleaning crews wiping down stairway handrails and other “grab” surfaces during less busy times. All this effort won’t guarantee that there will never be a future disease outbreak, but we don’t know what more can realistically be done
ONBOARD ACTIVITIES – There’s so many things to do on Independence of the Seas that we only sampled a portion of what’s available. Like Food, how someone enjoys spending their onboard time is totally subjective. A sampling of things we did included: Exercise Room, Rock Wall, Ice Skating, Mini-golf, Sports Court, Shows in the Theater, Music in the Lounges, and the Ice Show. We especially enjoyed the classic rock (70’s & 80’s) group Rock The Boat and the Caribbean sounds of Hot Spices (Does anyone know where to get one of their CD’s?)
The Ice Show deserves a special note. Complimentary tickets were distributed on a first come basis on the Promenade outside Sorrento’s on Day 2. The listed time was 8:30 am to 10:00 am. We arrived at about 8:20. The line stretched almost the entire length of the Promenade and distribution had already started. By the time we got to the tables at the head of the line, most of the tickets were gone, but we were still able to get our first choice. Arrive at the ice rink in plenty of time for the Ice Show in order to get anything approaching good seats. The show was breathtaking. The tricks the skaters are able to perform on a small, moving rink are unbelievable. The rink is available at various times at no charge for skating during the cruise. Just remember to bring long pants if you want to skate.
We joined in the Meet and Mingle organized by Royal Caribbean through Cruise Critic. The Activities Director had a game for us to do to put faces with names and online handles. Game prizes as well as door prizes were passed out. It was a fun time, and we’d do it again.
We also participated in the Make A Wish Foundation fundraiser. It’s a cause that we support with an easy donation from a T-shirt purchase. There were over 100 people that did a one mile walk around the deck on the afternoon of Day 3. The Cruise Compass has all the information.
PORTS – The ports of call on our 8 night itinerary were St. Maarten, St. Kitts, San Juan, PR, and Labadee, DR. Our port experiences will be in another review.
DISEMBARKATION – We elected to do the early self-disembarkation. We were told by the Guest Services Desk that we needed to have one hand free as we moved our bags off the ship so that’s how we proceeded. We grabbed a quick breakfast at the Café Promenade before leaving the ship. We found there was a line to exit the ship, but it made good progress. In the terminal, there was the option to take the escalator to ground level but to do that required that free hand to hold the handrail. An elevator with a waiting line was available for those not wanting to use the escalator. We had also arranged with All Stars Tours for a taxi to the airport. We were back at FLL in the TSA line before 8:30.
COMPARISONS BETWEEN PRINCESS AND ROYAL CARIBBEAN – Our experience on our 4 Princess cruises occurred from December, 2004 to April, 2012 on Golden Princess, on Caribbean Princess twice and on Crown Princess so the Princess ships were close to comparable size to Independence of the Seas. Here’s our subjective opinions about our experiences.
We felt the Promenade arrangement on Independence of the Seas worked better for us than the Atrium arrangement we’d seen on Princess. It was a nice place to relax, people watch and review the day or plan the next without climbing stairs to really experience the feeling of open space.
The three separate pool areas on Indie really makes sense to us. The separate H20 Zone for kids is a great idea. The smaller pool area in the Solarium area was just right for a cooling dip or a relaxing spot to chat with a new friend.
The whole Sports Court area with the Flowrider, Rock Wall and Mini-Golf exceeded anything we’d seen on Princess.
We thought the onboard entertainment in the theater and lounges was slightly better quality on IOS than on Princess.
Royal Caribbean has found a way to include a loveseat sitting area in even their most economical interior cabins on the Freedom class ships so there’s a seating option besides sitting on the bed. Princess doesn’t offer that in the ships we’ve been on in the past.
Princess totally owns the Movies Under The Stars (MUTS) idea with the good sound quality, recently released movies, the blankets at night, the popcorn. Royal Caribbean hasn’t got that figured out yet.
We’ve enjoyed all the cruises we’ve been fortunate to take. Cost, schedule and itinerary will always be the deciding factors in our cruise decisions. However, after this last cruise on Independence of the Seas, we’ll probably make Royal Caribbean the first stop in our cruise shopping. This review has grown rather long. We hope it has be useful.