My family went on our first cruise this year on the Royal Caribbean's Vision of the Seas Mexican Riviera Christmas cruise. Our group consisted of myself, my wife and our three sons, ages 24, 22 & 9. Overall, I would say we are very satisfied with the trip. It was better than we thought it would be and we are very likely to partake in more cruises in the future. That's not to say that things were perfect, there were a few things that would have made the cruise even better. Being first time cruisers, we had a lot of questions going into the trip, so we are writing this in hopes of perhaps helping out others that are in the same spot we were.
Pre-cruise Research Once we booked our trip, like others in the internet age, my wife and I spent hours researching cruises. We booked the cruise early, in March so we had a lot of time to look things up. Unfortunately, this may have caused us more grief and confusion than necessary. Like everything in life, what you experience is based on expectation, so what is good for one person will be crap for another. For example, when we read reviews on the food that was served on the Vision of the Seas, we were told the food was ; great, terrible, bland, tasteless, fresh. Try to base your expectations on those remarks! In hindsight, I would suggest that we tended to believe the negative reviews more so than the positive ones. I'm not sure if it's human nature to do so, but we went on the trip with a relatively low expectation which may have added to how much we actually enjoyed the cruise. One things we found on the internet that really helped was YouTube. There are a number of excellent videos people have put together documenting their cruise experience and you can likely find a video that was done on the same cruise ship and voyage you will be taking. We found these helped in answering question like what clothes we need to bring (for example, what is acceptable for Formal Night dining), what activities you can expect on boards, shore excursions and so on. We would highly recommend you check these out, especially you fellow first timers.
Boarding Our cruise didn't exactly get off to a stellar start. We boarded in Los Angeles and to be frank, it was a bit of a cattle call to get onto the ship. It took us over an hour to get processed, through customs and then aboard the ship marching through various line-ups along the way. A large part of this was due to security checks (screening bags, documentation checks, the usual customs procedures) and really can't be helped, plus we were very tired after fighting our way down to Los Angeles (remember, this was the winter of the bad weather and even getting to Los Angeles on time was a triumph). But it should be something to expect when you board the ship.
Stateroom Our stateroom was pretty much what we had expected. We had checked out the Royal Caribbean website and they had a virtual version of the stateroom we had. My wife and our 9 year old, shared one room and the two older boys had their own. In our room we had a queen size bed and our son slept on a Murphy style bunk bed above our bed. At first glance, the room actually feels smaller than what we had seen on the web, but it is functional. We also had an inside stateroom which meant we didn't have a window. I know from reading other reviews that people weren't crazy about the accommodations but really, let's get serious. You're on a boat with limited space, do you really expect something spacious? Oddly enough, we actually did spend a bit more time in our room than we expected and found it quite cozy. One thing we noticed about having an inside stateroom without a window is how easy it was to sleep in. Without a window, you really have no idea what time it is when you awake from sleep and there are no alarm clocks provided in the rooms. You can arrange for wake up calls if you have to get up a specific time. We found ourselves sleeping in until 10:00 on a regular basis, when at home we normally do not get up any later than 8:00. Our stateroom attendant really looked after us well. Very courteous friendly. It's also weird to have your bed turned down for you every night, but again it simply adds to that sense of being pampered.
SeaPass The SeaPass is the card Royal Caribbean issues you to cover almost all of your shipboard expenses. It works as advertised, everyone on the cruise gets one and it's tied to a credit card you provide when you register. About the only thing it won't cover while you are on the ship is tips for those people who deliver your room service orders. Kind of weird, but unless I missed something tips for room service are in cash only, although the card covers for tips at pretty much every other service. One helpful little note. If you are like me, you sometimes have a hard time keeping track of where you put your cards, especially if you are constantly pulling it our of you wallet or pocket and then putting it back. I know when I'm wearing my hiking shorts, which have like a million pockets in them, I am constantly going through my pockets looking for my card. I bought one of those card holders that hang around your neck and hold your SeaPass. Best investment I made.
Shipboard Activities Since this is a cruise, obviously we knew we would be spending a lot of time on the ship. So what is there to do? Here's where I give the crew a lot of credit. There are activities on board that go on literally from dawn until late night. These range from Family Scavenger hunts, to the old standard Bingo games, seminars on Health and Exercise and activities for the kids. Again, we had read reviews where activities have been rated as "lame", "boring" and "old". But again, it depends on what your expectations are. I can appreciate how difficult it is to try and come up with programs that will keep 2,000 different people ranging in ages from 1 to 90 years old happy. So, for the most part, we felt the activities we participated in fun and enjoyable. I give the crew credit in this area as it was the enthusiasm they show when organizing the programs that made it work for us. The other component of entertainment on the ship where the shows put on in the Masquerade Theatre. Again, we had read a wide range of reviews on the shows put on in the theatre, so we really didn't quite know what to expect. To our delight, we found the shows quite entertaining. I mean, if you are expecting someone like Jay Leno to do stand up, or a David Copperfield magic show, obviously you'll be disappointed. But considering the vast range of people in the audience, we thought the shows were quite well done. For the kids, the ship offered the Adventurer's Club, which has activities for varying age groups. Our 9 year old went to a couple of events and didn't really enjoy himself though from the sounds of it was more due to the other kids rather than the staff or the activity. From what we could see, it appeared that the younger kid especially had a grand time of it. I mean, how can you lose when they march you around the ship chanting pirate rhymes with the appropriate costumes and face painting.
Food We ate at three locations on Vision of the Seas, The Windjammer Cafe, The Aquarius Dinning Room and the Solarium Snack Shack (our name, not the ships). In addition, there was also the room service option. Each offered something different.
The Windjammer This was where we ate the vast majority of our meals. This is the buffet style of dinning on the ship. Before I go any further, let me explain my perception of buffets. I am by no means an expert on buffets, but like many I have eaten a number of meals in buffet settings. Generally, if you are looking for fresh, tasty and perhaps something exciting to eat, I would say that a buffet is not the place to be. The purpose of a buffet is to get the greatest amount of food to the greatest amount of people in the shortest amount of time. So, having said that, I would say the quality of food at the Windjammer is very good, for a buffet style setting. Is it fine dinning at it's best? No, far from it but I would say there was a far amount of variation and they didn't run out of any specific types of food. One thing we would liked is perhaps some variety for breakfast. The main course for breakfast consisted of a variety of breakfast meats (ham, bacon, sausage), a few versions of scrambled eggs and a selection of pastries. Unfortunately, it was the same selection for all seven days. I love ham & eggs, but after eating it a couple of times in a row, the thrill wears off quickly. It got to the point where I actually spent the last couple of days eating cereal for breakfast, something I don't even do at home! We would suggest an egg station would be an improvement on the ship, as I know I like to have eggs either over easy or sunny side up.
Aquarius Dinning Room The Vision of the Seas version of fine dinning and for the most part, they pull it off spectacularly. For us, this was because of the serving staff. We were spoiled and pampered for seven nights. As another fellow traveler noted, she has eaten at several of the so called "elite" restaurants back home, but few provided the service we experienced every night when we dined in the Aquarius room. The waiter, assistant waiter and even the head waiter provided excellent service, yet at the same time came across as extremely friendly. One thing that was recommended in some of the other reviews was to check out your table in the dinning room fairly soon after boarding the ship to ensure the table was acceptable. We did so when we boarded. We had assumed that being party of five, we would have our own table, but when we checked we were actually seated at a table for eight, which meant we were sharing the table. When we went to change our seating arrangements, we found that there was a wait of about an hour to make changes, so being our first day on board, we just decided to live with it. In hind sight, we should have taken the time and changed our table. This is not a knock on those we shared the table with, they were lovely and for the most part, we had a grand time. But, it would have been more comfortable and perhaps more fun with a table to ourselves. The food was, for the most part, great. The menu had great variety with new and exotic (to us at any rate) dishes every night. For example, Liam, our 9 year old, tried on consecutive nights as an appetizer, Strawberry Soup and then Peach Soup and to our surprise, actually liked them. The entries were likewise very good. The one quibble I would have is that at times, the beef was not quite cooked to order. For example, my son ordered his prime rib well done and I ordered mine medium rare. When we got our orders, both appeared to be medium rare. One dish to note, on our last night they served a Stewed Beef Shoulder. It was absolutely delicious. Also note that the Aquarius room serves both breakfast and lunch as well as dinner. However, the hours of service are somewhat limited. We missed all of the breakfast servings and only managed to have lunch there once. The one lunch we did have was superior to the meals served in the Windjammer. Before the cruise my wife and I were somewhat concerned about having the appropriate clothing for dining in the Aquarius room. Just so you know, the guys wore shirt & ties with a jacket for the formal dinner and we were neither over dressed or under dressed. For the Smart Causal dinner, we wore golf shirts and khakis and again, we were neither over or under dressed.
Solarium The Solarium is the option for those who are looking for a real quick bite or a snack. The Solarium has hot trays where guest can make themselves either a hot dog or a hamburger, French fries, pizza as well as some fresh fruit or cookies. We often wandered down to the Solarium between 10:00 pm & midnight for a late snack.
Room Service My wife and I only used room service a couple times in the morning to have some coffee and Danishes. My two older sons order more substantial items from them and told us the chicken wings and turkey club were both excellent.
Internet Access One sore point with us was the limited access to the internet. On the information package that was sent us, it stated that the ship had internet access, which we could access via a wireless card for "a nominal fee". I packed my laptop and when I inquired I was told the cost for internet access was $0.55 per minute, or the better rate of $28 per hour. Now I don't really expect to get free internet access, but I would suggest that the rates offered were far more than just "nominal". Hell, the hourly rate is more than my monthly DSL charges at home.
Shore Excursions On our cruise, the ship made three stops in Mexico; Cabos San Lucas, Mazatlan and Puerto Vallarta. A disappointment for us was the lack of information on these destinations. We had anticipated having internet access on board, so we didn't bother printing off any information on the ports of call, assuming we could look things up as we approached the ports, so we were somewhat in the dark without the internet. The ship did offer a seminar with a "Personal Shopping Guide" the day before we reached our first port. She did offer some information during the seminar, but it was more like an infomercial as she really pushed the so called official approved "Royal Caribbean stamped stores", which for some reason focused a lot of attention on jewelry. Actually, they taped the seminar and then ran it on the ships TV station several times a day. My wife and I watched it over and over again to get whatever information we could on the various ports of call. It worked it to about five minutes of pitching to one minute of information. The down side is my wife has developed this uncanny impersonation of the shopping guide pushing for jewelry from "Diamonds International". Sorry, insider joke but I think anyone who has sailed on this specific cruise will know what I'm referring to. In hindsight, the one regret we have is we should have gone on at least one excursion per port of call. We did go on a tour of the Puerto Vallarta on the last stop. We bargained with a guide and managed to get a 1.5 hour tour for $15 each. We drove around the city in an air conditioned van and saw the sights. We were then dropped off in the old part of town and leisurely walked around the city, grabbed a quick lunch and made our way back to the ship. On the other two ports we wasted a lot of time trying to figure out how to get around, and then proceeding to get lost. We spent way to much time wandering and not enough relaxing. One thing to note. We were informed by the ship that in Mazatlan, if we wanted to go to a resort, we should go to La Flores resort because if we went to any of the other resorts we would be charged for using the facilities, but that La Flores would honor our SeaPass and allow us free access. We actually went to the El Cid and got the same deal, and other passengers we spoke to told us they were not charged for using the facilities at other resorts. Summary As I said at the start, we are now hooked on cruises. I have never felt as spoiled as we were during this vacation. We were treated first class by the personnel on the ship, we had a lot of fun with the activities offered, we ate very well, we saw a part of the world we have never seen before and all in all, it was a blast.