We recently returned from a 7-night Western Caribbean cruise on Freedom of the Seas (June 22 - 29, 2014). This was our second RCI cruise, having sailed on Liberty of the Seas 4 years ago to the Eastern Caribbean. We are a family of 6 from outside Chicago - 4 boys ranging in ages from 15-26 , my wife and myself who are in our early 50s. Here is a fairly long and detailed summary of our trip - sans pictures. I used Cruise Critic and to a lesser extent, Trip Advisor to help with my planning, so this is my effort to pay forward our experience for future cruisers.
We booked the cruise back in Oct for a June 22nd sailing. We booked two cabins - a outside balcony stateroom (D1) for my wife and I and an inside cabin for the boys - both on deck 9. More on the staterooms below. RCI had a few mishaps with their website a month or so prior to our departure so in additional to the onboard credit of $100 we had for booking a balcony stateroom, after some negotiation for my time/troubles to get this fixed, were given an additional $300 in onboard credits, a bottle of wine for us and non-alcoholic sparkling juice for our kids. It was also the week after our 29th Anniversary and RCI gave us a nice package of another bottle of champagne, chocolate covered strawberries and some appetizers for our room - all gratis. A very nice gesture.
Flight/Shuttle: Took a very early limo to Midway, flying Southwest/AirTran the morning prior to our trip into Orlando. No problems.
I had arranged a pick up at MCO using Cocoa Beach Shuttle (321.631.4144) based on CC recommendations. Making reservations was a breeze - 105 plus tip for both legs. The shuttle runs every half an hour and we waited about 40 minutes from when we got our luggage. The drive from MCO to our hotel was an hour; we shared the van with a nice family of 4 from Philly who was also on FOS; they were staying at the Sheraton near the beach which they told us later on the cruise was very nice. The driver was an ex-NASA guy - very nice and was very talkative about his space experiences and really connected with one of my sons. The van's aren't the most up-to-date in terms of condition, but if you want reliable transportation to and from the cruise for a decent price, I'd recommend them.
Hotel/Meals: Again, based on CC recommendations, we booked two rooms at the Country Inn and Suites (a Carlson hotel) in Port Canaveral. The benefit of this hotel is that it is literally 5 minutes drive at most to the port. The downsides of this location is that there isn't very much around to do here - especially if you don't have a car, which we didn't - other than hang by the pool. If you do decide you want to go to NASA, be prepare to pay. The cost for the day would have been $500 between admission, lunch and taxis; the latter are very high. We got to the hotel around noon and the rooms weren't ready yet (3pm is check-in), so we grabbed a quick bite to eat at the local Burger King - about 1 block walk from the hotel. The staff was very nice. The pool was clean and the breakfast buffet was quick and easy. The rooms aren't cheap. We had booked two rooms and using AAA, ran $150 per. If you need any missing items like sun tan lotion, there is a gas station about 3 blocks from the hotel. One thing to note: You have to call 24 hours in advance to book the hotel shuttle to Port. I called at 5 am Chicago time (on the way to the airport), and the early departure time of 10:30 (the one I wanted) was already filled; clearly the hotel has permitted guests to book earlier than 24 hours which I was not happy with. The cost is $5 per person.
Based on some other reviews, we ate dinner at Fish Lips. This seafood restaurant in within walking distance from the hotel - about 15 minutes at a reasonable pace - using the sidewalk on the hotel side of the road. Dinner was nice - we all had fish sandwiches of one type or another - try the Grouper; they were busy since there was supposed to be a space shot that night; which got scrubbed due to weather. They don't take reservations for parties under I think 8, but if you call 20 minutes prior to your arrival and give them your name, you will be put on a waiting list. We were seated within 2 minutes of our arrival. Food was good. Nice view of the ships in port; this is where the Port Canaveral Webcam is. Try the local beer. Note: The Port Canaveral port is, to be quite candid, ugly. If you have cruised out of Miami, this isn't it. In short, this is a working port and the cement factory is what you'll see; no South Beach here.
Shuttle: Given the comment above on the unavailability of the hotel shuttle to take us to the port at my desired 10:30 departure, I was given a recommendation by the hotel staff to call the local cab company 888 Taxi 321.868.8888 which I did. The cost was exactly the same as the hotel - $5 per person. They arrived on time, packed up the bags and were at the port in less than 10 minutes. I highly recommend this as the way to go.
Port Canaveral: There were 3 ships in port on Sunday morning: FOS, Disney Dream and Carnival Sensation. Arrived at the port around 10:45 and immediately handed our luggage to the porter. We had arrived fairly early, but there we still a few hundred people who had arrived earlier. I had previously tagged our bags with the RCI plastic room luggage tags that I had purchased from Amazon. Cruise Luggage Tags Holders 8 Pc for Royal Caribbean & Celebrity Cruise Ships (Eight) - for 10 bucks. Worked out great. One of my son's was missing his and the port created a new luggage take right then and there. I tipped him $7 bucks.
We're Gold on RCI having cruised once before, so made our way through about 3 security checks with Passports in hand (DON'T forget these, or you won't sail) and got into the Gold line by 11am. Took about 20 minutes to get our Sail Pass cards and we were on the ship -- again after 2 more security checks by 11:30. Could not have been more smooth. I highly recommend getting to the port at this time as the lines were starting to fill up as we were boarding.
After lunch in the Windjammer (see food), we walked the ship a bit prior to the lifeboat drill. Rooms would not be ready until 1pm and they had crew members on each of the cabin decks stopping anyone from going to your room. You don't have to put on life preservers, but instead make your way to deck 4 and your designated area. This took about a half an hour all told and we then made our way forward to the helicopter pad for sail away. To get here on FOS take deck 4 all the way forward and climb the stairs. All told, maybe 100 people were out there; a nice view - you go right past Fish Lips and the webcam, but keep in mind my earlier comment - this is a very unattractive port, so not much to see. As we are HUGE Disney fans, we did enjoy watching the Disney ship take off ahead of us.
Ship: The ship is in very good shape. While we were on board we saw the crew performing continual cleaning and upkeep - replacing warn carpet, cleaning the glass, etc. RCI does a very good job of keeping this ship spic n span. One note on the elevators: On port days they could get busy, but in general, the best advice is take the stairs. Quick and easy and a lot less hassle. We did notice on this cruise, unlike Liberty of the Seas, a bit more sway and the rumble of the ocean. This was especially noticeable in the Windjammer and Vintages (the wine bar on the promenade); not sure why, but it was distracting for one of my kid's.
Crew: With one exception, the entire week the crew was extremely friendly - always saying hi, good morning, asking us how the cruise was going, etc. I have heard others on this board suggest otherwise, but that was not our experience. The one time we met someone who was not nice, was a woman in the cup cake area. She was surly, never smiled and really seemed to dislike her job; she really needs to find a new job. I want to call out a few people here: Our sons' room attendant was amazing. He was from Indonesia and got along great with my boys - even giving them his card and said if they were to find themselves in Indonesia to reach out to him and he'd be their tour guide if he was home; keep in mind he had to keep clean an inside room with 4 older boys - not an easy task for anyone - and he did it with a smile all the time. He learned our names and never failed to say hi and worked his butt off - 16 hours a day. We gave him the largest tip of anyone on the boat above and beyond the std. gratuity.
Alcohol package: We did a lot of research into the RCI alcohol packages and decided to pre-purchase 2 of the Premium packages. I didn't need Starbucks or fresh squeezed orange juice and the premium brands we wanted were all covered. It also included water and pop from the freestyle machines; my oldest bought one for himself as soon as he got on the ship.
• Pros: You can drink what you want and if you don't like it, order another. On average, it is about 6-7 drinks to break even on the $55 per day cost. We typically had a few drinks by the pool, a pre dinner cocktail (that you can take to the main dining room), a cocktail with dinner (wine or a mixed drink) and then the RCI shot of the day (more on this in the food section) and maybe a night cap. You don't have to pay gratuity as it's built in at 15%. And on one occasion, our youngest knocked over a drink, we just cleaned it up and ordered another. The drink package works in every bar or restaurant on the ship, the bar service had no issue with us using it. You sign your seas pass receipt, but it has a zero on it for balance and we almost always just put zero for "additional gratuity." This also worked on Labadee.
• Cons: On port days you don't drink as much as you do on sea days or in Labadee, so you may not make the minimum; but on other days you may go beyond the 6. By the end of the cruise, we had had enough and didn't have a desire to drink as much as we had the first couple of days.
Overall, my guess is we broke even or a bit ahead on the package vs. paying for it per drink. The nice part was the no hassle of just ordering what you want, when you want it. I'd do it again.
Bars: We really liked the Schooner bar on deck 4 - quiet during the day (a great place to read), with a piano player who was very good. We weren't thrilled with the classical guitar player as he liked to talk; just play. But when he played in the Main Dining room, he didn't talk and it was nice background music. We also spent significant time at Vintages, wine bar. If you can, make friends with Shane - a great guy and very knowledgeable about win and happy to make a recommendation; he even brought over some tapas a couple of nights on the house. We drank them out of their sparkling red Rosa Regale. I would note that the automated drink by the glass system was offline the entire cruise and in speaking to one of the bartenders , had been this way since installation. He said the system costs 8K and requires a ton of maintenance to keep working right (at one point they had the vendor put people on the boat to keep it working), and they don't do enough business on FOS; seems the Oasis class do and is working. I also had the chance to hear the sing-along guitar player in the Bull and Finch beer pub. He really got the audience into it and was a lot of fun to listen to.
Cabins: As noted previously, we had two cabins on deck 9, midship- a balcony stateroom for my wife and I, and an interior cabin for the 4 boys. On our last cruise we were on deck 7 and liked that location better.
Our room, 9612, had plenty of room for two people, we really enjoy the openness of having a balcony (even if we didn't use it much). The bed was very comfortable (2 twins connected to make a queen), we kept the room pretty cool since it was hot in the Western Caribbean. The bathroom is small (hey, it's a cruise ship), but serviceable. We didn't see our cabin attendant very often, but he kept it very clean and made a couple of the towel animals during the cruise.
As I noted previously, our boys had an amazing room attendant, who kept their inside stateroom. They were in a pretty small room 9483, but perfectly serviceable. Two twins and two fold out bunks. All my boys are 6 feet+ and they were fine in this room; keep in mind you don't spend much time here. I recommend using the safe for your passport and other valuables.
As we had previously sailed of LOS, we knew about the Windjammer as a great place to grab a quick bite to eat for breakfast or lunch. Take note of the hand cleaners as they rightly expect you to use them before you enter any of the food facilities. The Windjammer was generally busy, but had no trouble finding a table. The food was as expected for a buffet: A lot of choices, hot and enjoyable. If you are expecting a 5 star restaurant, reset your expectations. This is good quality, good selection and fast food. I have the utmost respect for the cooks and serving staff who push out 10,000+ meals every day and do it with a smile. Get the fries when they are hot - very good.
We elected again with this cruise to have a set seating - at 8pm in the main dining room. We like this seating as we don't have to rush back to the boat on port days, don't have young kids and don't desire to see the shows. Last cruise we were on deck 3; this cruise we elected to move to deck 4. This deck was very nice and we had a table for 6 overlooking the Captain's table on deck 3.
Our head and assistant waiter were very nice; the former from Trinidad and Tobago and the latter from India. It took a few days for our head waiter to warm up, but by the end of the cruise knew our names and food preferences. Note: Our head waiter on LOS, Dave Thomas was simply amazing, so it was a high bar.
Overall, I would say the food for dinner ranged from the very good to the just OK. Note: In general the food is bland. If you want it spicy, you'll have to ask. The Italian night was a bust as far as we were concerned and the boards confirm this is not a highlight. The steaks/prime rib were very good. The lobster very good as well. The appetizers and desserts were very good (escargots / Crème Brule) to just ok. We did something on this cruise we had not done before - order multiple options. Case in point - Lobster night we had 11 between us and my youngest ate 3 himself. My second son by the 3rd night just asked that every new dessert on the menu be brought to the table to share; and share we did. My only comment to my boys was if you are going to order multiple options don't waste the food.
I was very pleased to see that most folks at the 8pm seating dressed up according to the recommendation of RCI for each night. And in particular on the two dress up nights, suits, ties and dresses we the standard. I only saw one time where someone was seated in the main dining room looking disheveled. I hope RCI continues to strengthen their policy of dressing appropriately for each night. If you want to wear shorts in the main dining room, sail on Carnival.
We also ate breakfast and lunch twice in the main dining room. Breakfast (salmon on a bagel and Eggs Benedict were very good one time and not so good (along with the service) the second time; ask for your own table. Lunch on sea days in the MDM was a nice, made-to-order salad. Note: One day for lunch I forgot about the dress code and had a cut off RCI t-shirt. The Maître De nicely, but firmly told me I would have to put on a different shirt - which I did. I very much appreciated her keeping the standard high.
A highlight of our last cruise was after dinner shots; most made with baileys and come in their own special shot glasses. We collected them last time, so didn't need to this time and that worked out well since the shot w/o the glass was in our Premium alcohol package. The beverage manager on deck 4 made it a point after being told of our interest in shots in coming over each night to confirm our desire to have these, along with a cocktail (by the end he just told us the shot of the day), learn our names and provide a high level of service on our drink orders. He told us that RCI has stopped pushing the shots as they cut back on the number of beverage managers from 6 to 3 to cover the MDM, but he went out of his way to make us feel welcome and enjoy this experience. Highly recommend.
The one other change on this cruise was on the last night, they did not introduce the entire chef and wait staff as they had on LOS or put on a short show for us. Instead, we gave a hand to the waiters and the chefs were introduced (again, an amazing job serving this many people) and then they walked around the MDM and asked if we enjoyed the food; a nice touch.
Entertainment: We aren't show people, so the only one my kids took in was the adult comedian who they said was very funny. Note: Don't bring your kids - this is adult humor and wording. My kids took in 3 movies on the pool deck at night and 1 in the auditorium on the last sea day and this was a very nice addition. They were also showing the World Cup during the day and the picture was very viewable. The Caribbean band that played during the day was very good and nice to listen to as you caught some rays on deck 12. The 70s dance party was a ton of fun and the cruise director did a great job with his team engaging the crowd. He also led the belly flop contest and really got everyone into the act. We didn't see a lot of the cruise director, but when we did see him he was very engaging.
Activities: On our previous cruise we had done most of the activities e.g., climbing wall, flow rider, etc. so this time the only activity we did was a group lesson on the flow rider. 1 hour for 8 people max at a cost of 60 bucks per person. We had two instructors who were very good and were able to boogie board and surf. Highly recommend. The only other activity is my two younger boys (15 and 19) tried out the arcade a bit and quickly blew 30 bucks playing air hockey, but had fun.
Labadee: We had been on Labadee before and enjoyed the relaxing day on this Haitian peninsula, so this time decided to splurge and rent a cabana. Normally for Suite guests only, when I called in February they had 3 remaining, so rented a water one for $200 per family. You got unlimited drinks and the services of a cabana person (see alcohol package), 2 float mats, water and two lounge chairs and a nice covered couch; easily held 6 -- the max you can have. The cabana's have their own very nice beach/swim area, which limits crowds,, but in reality anyone can swim here. The cabana was to have come with an upgraded lunch buffet which included shrimp skewers, but seems RCI has now changed their policy and no longer offers this upgrade to non-Suite guests. We spent the better part of 30 minutes being shuttled from one person to another before finding this out. I was very upset to hear about this after the fact, and made clear my disappointment, so they let us in. The reality is the buffet isn't that great on Labadee, so you aren't missing much. The only activity we did on the island is the hour-long aqua park - which we really enjoy. I did it with 3 of my boys and had a great time. Try to climb the big iceberg - very challenging. I did watch the zip lines come over the beach, which looked very cool, but for $100 bucks for one run, didn't seem worth it. It was a nice relaxing day and if we were to do it again, probably would try to rent a cabana again, just to be out of the sun and have a nice place to relax.
Jamaica: This was our least favorite port and we would not go back. Falmouth is nothing to write home about - just a bunch of shops. So unless you want some jewelry, skip the shopping. We elected to take an RCI excursion - Green Grotto Caves and Dunns River Falls. You travel by bus and it takes about 2 hours travel and 5 hours in total, so be prepared with a book. As you drive around you will see hundreds of unfinished buildings - which we are told is due to the high cost of construction, so the locals build in stages as they can afford to, but this may mean that homes are unfinished for 10 - 20 years. A bit of an eye-sore.
The Green Grotto tour was nice. We had a very informative guide, but be prepared for it to be hot and humid and do a lot of walking. Tour lasts about an hour. They did some filming of a few James Bond movies here, so you get to see those sites. We enjoyed this, but one and done.
The second part of the excursion was Dunns River Falls. There is a fair amount of waiting beforehand as you get your guide and the video person. The climb up the falls lasts about an hour from top to bottom - depending on crowds - and is approx. 180 feet vertical climb over the course of 600 feet. Note: This is NOT OSHA compliant. There are very slippery rocks as you climb up the falls and people slip, fall, trip, etc. A lot of fun, and you will get wet as you climb, get dunked, fall into pools of water, etc; the water is cold, but you get used to it. The guy taking the video will ask you to take lots and lots of poses and then try to sell you this video for $40; we elected to pass. On the way out, you have to walk through a local shopping area and they can be pretty aggressive; don't stop unless you really want to buy or be sold to. People should do this once; but that would be sufficient to check the box.
Grand Cayman: This was our favorite port of call bar none. So much so, that my wife is still talking about it and would like to find a way to live there.
Still part of the British Commonwealth, it shows with the well laid out streets, nice buildings, no garbage, etc. What a contrast to Jamaica. For some reason Grand Cayman has not elected to build out docks, so you need to tender in. We were the only ship in port, so this was no big deal. Boarding took maybe 10 minutes and then a quick 5 minute ride from the ship to the pier. At any one time there were 4 to 5 tenders working to ferry passengers over. However, I could see that with multiple ships in port, times would be much longer. Keep this in mind as you pick your sail dates as there are plenty of web sites that tell you which ships are calling on which ports on which days.
We elected to split up our excursions here, with my 2nd son and my wife going on a tour of the city (booked via RCI - Land & Sea), a trip to the turtle farm, a rum cake shop, a stop in Hell and the highlight of the trip, a semi-submersible submarine. They both raved about this tour and their guide. Great picture of the reefs and fishes. On the way back to the ship, they stopped at Tortuga liquors and purchased some 7 and 12 year old rum from Nicaragua and Grand Marnier tax and duty free - a big savings from back home. The ship kept it until the Saturday before coming back home and then we carried it off through customs. Note: You need to check it with your baggage so we packed it in the middle of the clothes and arrived home fine.
My other 3 boys and I elected to snorkel, again on an RCI tour, Reef and Wreck Snorkel. About a 100 people were with us, but didn't feel overly crowded on the boat. It is about a 10 minute/half mile walk from the pier where you meet your guides to the ship you take for this excursion, so don't be surprised when they tell you to line up and to take a walk. The boat and crew were very nice and somewhat surprising to us, you don't go out very far from shore - maybe 1500 feet or so. That is where you dive on a wreck (great fun, about 20 feet down) and then you move slightly further out to drive on absolutely beautiful coral reefs and tons of multi-colored fish. This was a real highlight and total dive time is about 1.5 hours.
Cozumel: Here is my review from Trip Advisor on our beach day at Nachi Cocom Beach Club & Water Sport Center
We decided to spend the day at Nachi while in Cozumel. We were looking for a nice beach day that was quiet and with limited small children and since they only take 100 people, this seemed to fit the bill.
We arrived about 10:30 and left by 3:30. Cost for a cab of 6 was $32 plus tip each way and took about 10 minutes from the port. There was someone waiting for us as we pulled up and she took a family picture; typical tourist photo - each of us in sombreros. My wife bought it for $12 bucks, but there was no hassle to buy. We then paid the balance on MC and settled in for the day at the beach. Was about 90 and sunny - so ideal conditions.
We were the only boat in town, so the max number of 100 people each day was far less - maybe 30. The grounds were very well kept. We had a shady spot on the sand; watch out for how low the tree umbrella is - we ALL hit our head on it at least once. Good food for lunch; really enjoyed the salsa which was a bit spicy. The pool was clean, had a swim up bar, and refreshing after a dive in the ocean. About the ocean - this is not the place if you want to see fish; just enjoy relaxing in the water.
The Jacuzzi was very warm, but still quite usable. Service was very good - the staff made a real effort to ask if we wanted more to drink - and the drinks were fine. You will get asked if you want any additional services like a boat ride or snorkeling; we just said no and that was it - no additional pressure to buy.
My 19 year-old son was able to drink here, so he thought this was the best island. All in all, a good time was had by all, good value for the money, and we'd go back again.
Smoking: Smoking is allowed on one side of deck 4 and in the casino and the cigar room. The cigar room (which we tried out with my two older boys and was a lot of fun and had the proper ventilation) and the smoking side of deck 4 were fine. What wasn't fine and my biggest complaint on the cruise and one I communicated to RCI in my after-cruise survey, is smoking in the casino. Since this is not an enclosed space and right on deck 4 - which is the main route to the Schooner Bar and where you viewed your pictures, the smoke was pervasive. I have asthma and this was very unpleasant as there was no ventilation. In this day and age, IMHO, I'd like to see RCI ban all smoking on the inside of the ship.
Pictures: My wife uses the cruise to update our family pictures and this trip was no exception. We probably took 50 pictures using RCI's photographers. While we thought the pictures on the last cruise were better, we ended up finding 10 8x10 prints my wife really liked and purchased the package for $120 dollars or so. If we would have taken this many photos at home, they would have been a lot more expense. When we got home, I printed off the RCI release and my wife had a few blown up at Walgreen's.
Internet: My oldest had some school work to get done while on the cruise (he's in a Master's program) so had to use the internet. He has a 10% off e-coupon on his sail pass as we are Gold and got a 24 hour pass for $50. He found the speed up on the Royal Promenade was better than in other parts of the ship.
Quiet spaces: Looking for a place to read or just have some quiet time..Helipad, back of the boat on deck 12 (the jogging deck; very windy), the Solarium - esp the two small room off the Solarium that are behind a glass door and have about 12 deck chairs. The library. The bars during the day - esp. the Schooner lounge. But the BEST location is deck 4 on the non-smoking side. They have great chairs and lounges here to use and almost no one is on the deck. A great place to read or just watch the sea go by as you have a great view.
Running: Up on deck 12 you can walk or run; this can be very very windy. I got up around 5:45 am each day and there were usually 10-15 people running or walking. As you got closer to 8 or 9 am, it got much more crowded. Pet Peeve: You want to run or walk, don't do it during the middle of the day when 3000 people are sunning on deck 12.
Pools/Deck Chairs: We were always able to find a deck chair and RCI was doing a good job of policing the chairs for people putting down towels and trying to save them for hours. You don't use them, then you lose your opportunity to save it. We spent a lot of time in the Solarium pool and Jacuzzi and for the most part, kids less than 16 stayed out. The main and kiddy pool were pretty crowded on sea days, but you could still get in if you wanted to.
Tipping: We did tip on the excursions - usually $5 or $10 dollars. We also tipped on a few drinks where we had really good service or booze; see bars above. On top of the standard end of cruise gratuity, we tipped our head and asst. waiters, our boy's room attendant and the beverage manager in the main dining room.
Debarkation: We were the second group off the boat at 7:30 am our boys were the 4th - despite having a 3pm plane home. Our disembarkation was very quick and easy. We met in one of the bars off the Promenade and when they called our group made our way off the ship in 5 minutes. Luggage came in about 10 minutes later and quickly cleared customs. Our boys took slightly longer and weren't real happy with some of the port personnel's attitude, but we were all off within an hour.
We walked over to the limo areas and waited about 20 minutes for the Cocoa Beach Shuttle to arrive for us; this is controlled chaos with arriving and departing passengers in this area. The van was pretty old and several seat belts were broken but it got us to MCO in under an hour.
Closing thoughts: Royal Caribbean is never a cheap vacation - for 6 of us, all in, runs around 10K with airfare; about what you would pay for 7 nights at Disney at one of the higher end resorts. That being said, you are paying for a higher level service than, say, Carnival, so expectations are high and RCI delivered. We had a very enjoyable time - great weather, good service and a very relaxing vacation. By day 7 we were ready to go home, but would definitely cruise with RCI again on one of the Freedom class ships.