Embarkation was about as welcoming as a Qantas desk on a bad air day. No-one to greet you on boarding, or to take you to your cabin. We found our own way. Cabin itself seemed rather cramped, even though it was "Superior". Furnishings were fine, though drawer space inadequate - not one drawer big enough to take a folded shirt. Bathroom OK, with the cheapest possible toiletries. Good beds and linens. Surprisingly, kettle and mugs for making tea (but not coffee!- see later).
Getting about - where was the Guide to the Ship, Deck Plan - or similar? None. Just a multi-lingual generic book for all RCI ships full of dos and don'ts - specifying in great detail all the reasons RCI could have for kicking you off the ship. Great. Day 1 Cruise Compass was in the cabin: it said "Farewell Sydney" . We were in Perth. By this time (Hour 2 of our 18 day cruise) we were already forming an impression of RCI - and first impressions, as everyone knows, are important.
So off we went to explore the ship: without guide or deck plan, we were relying on the signage around the ship, which turned out to be so discreet as to be almost useless. Only on day 17 did I notice there were little notices on each side of each lift lobby saying "port side" or "starboard side" - made in transparent glass with lightly etched, almost invisible, lettering. No prominent red/green color coding, which seems the obvious, nautical, way to do it. RCI obviously want you to forget you are on a ship.
Food and drink: No-one asked us (or, evidently, many other people) about dining preferences before boarding, so there was a ridiculous scrum on Deck 4 as loads of people tried to change their tables, sittings, and dining companions so that they could dine with their friends at a time to suit them. Not surprisingly the Head Waiter trying to sort out this crazy puzzle got a bit short. An absurd process that should have been handled onshore by a computer at the booking stage. We were told that everyone wishing to re-allocate had to be present in person, but that didn't stop RCI later re-allocating some friends to another table without their knowledge - and RCI refused to say why, which caused great offence. Food and service in the main dining room were adequate, though there was no attempt to put local Australian and NZ wines on the winelist, even though the ship had been cruising out of Australian ports for months. Food in the Windjammer was also OK, but the big issue in the Windjammer is the management's obsession with closing parts of it off so that everyone is jammed together. It's inadequate at peak times anyway, and if at other times you still have to hunt for a table, when you can see that half the place is closed off, you might just get a bit irritated. Then late afternoon it closes completely for 1.5 hours, just when people might want a snack after returning from shore. And it closes totally at 9pm - far too early. They ran out of the most favored brand of tea. There are no extra-fee special restaurants. The so-called Solarium Café late-night offering is pathetic - tired bits of dull pizza or burgers and not even a cup of coffee, which brings me to ….
The coffee issue. RCI haven't yet learnt that many people in the modern world - and especially Australia - now regard decent espresso-based coffee as a normal part of life, not some exquisite luxury to be savored occasionally. So they have allowed Starbucks to have a monopoly outlet on the ships - in the Rhapsody's case this means one small self-service bar on Deck 6 in the atrium, serving in cardboard mugs. There is not a single bar which can make good coffee (you can get free "coffee" 24/7, from one "coffee" station outdoors on Deck 9, but unless it's just been brewed, forget it. Revolting.) So forget the idea of relaxing in a lounge with a good book and having a good, hot civilized cup of coffee brought to you . The Starbucks monopoly is also the reason why there is no coffee in the cabins (though tea and kettles are provided). Starbucks apparently told RCI they would sue them if they put coffee in the cabins. So we were not the only people who used a day ashore to go to Coles and buy our own supply - a constant reminder of RCI's weird approach to customer service.
Entertainment and activities: we didn't sample everything - there's quite a lot going on. The Cruise Director bravely submitted herself to a daily meeting with passengers when at sea. The showteam was very poor - dreary dancers, dreadful singers, basic band, and very lackluster shows. Perhaps that was the reason why on this 18-day cruise they sat on their backsides for 10 days doing nothing at all (guess who was paying for them) while RCI flew guest acts in from Los Angeles for one night stands. (RCI likes to claim environmental responsibility - hardly. They might like to enquire whether there are any good performers in Australia). A good guest lecturer worked harder for his money, and, unlike the showteam (quote: "we try to avoid the passengers") or most of the almost-invisible Hospitality staff, seemed quite happy to talk to passengers and be friendly. RCI seems terrified of the idea of crew and passengers getting to know each other (see the Rule Book in the cabin) and this shows in their stand-offish attitude. "The friendliest ship afloat" ? Absolutely not - very far from it. The shop had no postcards of the ship, and no postcards of any port of call. And the staffer there didn't really see why they should. But, usefully, they had some of Alaska. No bridge tours, no information about the ship itself in the cabin or on the TV. Even the "model of the ship" on display in the atrium on Deck 8 on closer inspection turned out to be not the Rhapsody but another RCI ship.
Tours and excursions: we didn't, far too expensive. The "Port Pilot" sheets were poorly produced, with rather useless maps and typeface so small they should have issued magnifying glasses (but they had a lot of blank paper too). Emergency ship's contact numbers were not printed on these sheets. Information about port to city transport links was often incomplete or wrong - often, we noticed, to the benefit of sales of the RCI shuttle bus tickets.
Service and tipping: The troops (cabin stewards and restaurant waiters) work hard and - unlike their bosses - are mostly friendly and cheerful. We were well looked after, as you should expect to be. But the tipping policy generated lots of anger - particularly among those who had booked direct with RCI and pre-paid huge "gratuities" without realizing it. When it comes down to it, the RCI approach to tips - which involves heavy pressure to pay up-front pre-determined amounts - is simply a marketing trick played on passengers to allow RCI to pretend that the cost of a cruise is less than it really is, if their service staff are going to have a reasonable income (which RCI itself declines to pay). And what about all the staff who never see a passenger?
Overall conclusion - the ship is fine - plenty of facilities and mostly in good shape; reasonable food; plenty to do. The problem is RCI and their arrogant, impersonal, revenue-obsessive, one-product-fits-the-whole-world approach to cruise ship management. At the end of our past cruises we have walked off the ship, looked back, and thought "that ship was home". We barely glanced back at "Rhapsody of the Seas". It was as much like home as an airport hotel.