So most people wonder what is it like sailing on the world's largest ship, and what are the differences with other ships? I'd like to separate my review into categories, and also end with a few tips and a cruise ship code of conduct:
General impressions - this ship is impressive - it's just amazing that this ship was built, and is running so smoothly - everywhere you go there is staff cleaning, maintaining, assisting - and there are surprises everywhere - for example, I would recommend taking the time to look at the artwork all across the ship (especially at the stairs and in the hallways) and you'll be impressed. This ship kicks it up a notch, and all I can say is WOW!
Embarkation/Disembarkation - the official documents you receive will tell you that the boarding time is 2 PM - we arrived around noon and were on-board by 12:30, and as everyone mentioned it is a really smooth process. When the ship is not ready, you are guided to the waiting area divided by your membership class if you have one. As said above, we sailed a few times on RCCLs and are Gold status members, but this means the same as those who don't have that membership. Platinum and Diamond members are the first to board before the rest of us, but it was not a problem. It went smoothly. There is a kids play area in the corner of the waiting room with a small slide and obstacles, so our two year old son was happy to play there while we were waiting.
Disembarkation was also smooth. We packed our suitcase and left it outside of our room by 11pm in the previous night, and once we got off the ship on Sunday, it was easy to find our suitcases and proceeded to the immigration. In addition, there are porters who will help you carry your luggage through immigration and to the taxi (please tip them). We also noticed quite a few people chose the option of bringing their suitcase on your own to de-embark. In that case, you can keep the suitcase in your room until the day of arrival but you do have to carry your luggage to get off the ship, and taking the elevator with a large suitcase may be a challenge when everyone else is also trying to do the same and get off the ship at the same time. In addition, you will have to leave the ship early, before 7 AM (although we saw a lot of people doing that at 8 AM)
Eat - everywhere you look there is food and drinks - we didn't try any of the specialty restaurants but the main dining room and Windjammer were just fine - except for breakfast, there is something different every day (and something the same) - so there is some variety - and you may have heard complaints that the food doesn't taste good, but let's be realistic here - how can you suit the tastes of over 5,000 people? That's why there's salt and pepper shakers on every day table. We did try the Boardwalk Dog House, which is really cool, they serve different types of hot dogs.
One thing I really liked was the touch screens all over the ship, which would tell you how crowded the restaurants were (along with a listing of the day's events, and importantly, the nearest bathrooms!)
Play - there is so much to do on the ship for everyone - one thing you won't see though is the typical art auctions - but between all the neighborhoods there is enough to do on the ship, trust me....
The neighborhoods include the Boardwalk (with a carousel), Central Park, the Royal Promenade, the pool deck (which has a zipline, flowrider, and mini golf course, not to mention a solarium for adults only that keeps wind out).
On the 4th floor, there is an ice skating rink and the casino as well.
One cool thing Allure did was show 3d movies in the Amber Theater, so it was like watching a movie in a theater. The 3d movies were great!
Like I said there is plenty to do - wine tasting, lounging, shows, movies, and of course lots of eating! There was also a Q&A session with the captain, which we found it very interesting to hear. Unfortunately our son didn't let us stay until the end, but nevertheless, we learned a lot about the ship and I would recommend that you attend the session.
Crowds - 90% of the time, you would not believe that there are over 5,000 people on this ship - since it's such a large ship and there's so much to do, the only times there are large crowds are a few specific times, such as breakfast at the Windjammer (tip: you can also eat in the main dining room and avoid the crowds - there is a buffet section though not as varied as the Windjammer). There are large crowds trying to get back on the ship at the Bahamas (since there is a 1 pm boarding time) and after the safety drill, but overall not more crowded than other ships I have been on.
Shows - Ocean Aria is a must see, and I must commend RCCL for putting on Chicago, which could be considered racy but is a great musical - kudos for not being conservative and putting on a cheesy performance that would work for all! All the other shows were also high quality. The aquatheater and Amber theater are amazing venues, rivaling theaters in New York.
Dreamworks collaboration - This was really cool - there were characters all over the ship, you could take pictures with them, there was an ice skating show based upon it. You could also have breakfast with the characters too - my son loved it!
Royal Tots program - I had a better experience on the Freedom Class ships, where there was specific times for an event, instead of just open play time (which the Freedom class ship had as well) - also I went to the 8:30 storytime two nights in a row and no one was there -
Sleep - we had a balcony room on the 6th floor, and it was actually pretty well situated, since the Royal Promenade, Amber Theater, Main Dining Room, Casino, Central Park, and other activities are just a few flights of stairs away. However, you could hear the music from the Promenade a little bit in the evening, but I'd say the 6th floor saved us a lot of time, so the 6th or 7th floor is a great spot. The rooms are tight but you really won't be in the room most of the time, the rooms are there mostly to change and sleep.
The staff: I really have to give props to the staff - they work 10 - 12 hour days, deal with new people every week, but they were really pleasant and courteous throughout - RCCL is really standing out with the professionalism of their staff. They are also very accommodating to the family with small kids. Just like any two years old, our son made a mess when we ate, and they were all helpful and nice about it. (Of course, as a courtesy to others, we cleaned as much as we could before leaving the table)
Ports - the great thing about all of these ports is that the ship is docked, so there's no tendering - but...see details below...
Bahamas - OK, I know it's just one day after you get on the ship, you're tired and want to sleep in - but the ship is only there from 7 AM - 1 PM, so make the most of it (unlike us who had less than an hour to explore Atlantis) - expect large crowds getting back on the ship since the ship leaves so early (not the case on the other ports)
Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas - once you get there, there's lots of taxi cabs that can take you downtown, which has tiny sidewalks and lots of name brands - it's very crowded - Taxi is usually a van or large open air vehicles and the drivers try to max the number of passengers by picking them up everywhere, and it could take a while to go and come back. These taxis will take you to all the major beaches and attractions.
Philipsburg, St. Martin - if you can wait, Philipsburg offers a much more relaxes shopping trip. (think Grand Caymans but a notch lower) - They do carry the same major brand name products compared to the ones in St. Thomas. You can take a water taxi that will get you to downtown very easily, and there is a beach there you can relax on too, with lounges and umbrellas.
1) Have a neck lanyard to keep your Seapass card - with all the stuff you put in your pocket, it's easy to lose track of that card - you can buy a neck lanyard on the ship for $4.50, which was money well spent.
2) Bring your own coffee mug - on the Royal Promenade, there is Cafe Promenade which serves free coffee all day - it's really strong, and that's coming from a Starbucks addict (which they have on the ship, and this was the first Starbucks I have ever seen that is not crowded) - seriously, the coffee from Cafe Promenade will do just fine, and it's free too. Bring your own cup and help the environment out.
3) Bring your own water bottle - according to the Captain, the water is extremely pure out of the faucet, and it tasted fine to me too - drink away! Alternatively you could also pour water from the Windjammer, and I believe there was a water cooler by the miniature golf course and probably in the gym. Two bottles of Evian are in your room but a bottle cost $4.
4) For parents, it would be good to also bring some snack tapper ware or extra Ziplocs, especially for the days of excursion. Bring a cheap dish washing sponge to clean it if necessary.
5) Book your shows in advance and on-line - yes this takes some of the spontaneity out of cruising but something's got to give when you have to accommodate 5,000 people. Even if you didn't book ahead of time, you can wait on standby and they will let everyone in 10 minutes before the performance - I didn't have a problem getting into a show whether or not I had reservations or was on stand-by.
6) If you want to avoid the crowds of the Windjammer, 1) don't eat at the same time as everyone else (i.e. eat early or eat later) and 2) just go to the main dining room, especially for breakfast!
7) Yes, cocktails are expensive, but every day there is a "drink of the day" which costs $6.99, so if you don't care what drink you want, you can save money this way.
8) There is a service called "Luggage Valet" that will take your luggage from your room to the airport, so you will only see your luggage at your destination point. At $20/person this is a great deal for convenience, but make sure you book your flight after 11:30 AM, as they will only offer this if your flight is after 11:30 AM.
9) There are kiosks where you can print out your boarding passes for free.
10) If you are bringing a tot, note that car seats are required in Florida (even in taxis) so BYOC (bring your own carseat)
Cruise Ship Code of Conduct - OK, I'm writing this because when you put 5,000 strangers on the shop, you will inevitably have some rude and obnoxious people - don't be one of those people!
1) Be kind and considerate to others - let people off the elevator, let small kids, women, elderly, handicapped go into the elevator first.
2) Don't cut in line. Sadly we saw quite a bit of this especially when we tried to board back on the ship when the rest of the crowds were doing the same. Yes, eventually you do go back on the ship, and yes, you do not want to stand and wait in the slow moving line when the sun is beating down on you, but please do show respect to others and don't cut in line !!!
3) It is said in every cruise review, but don't be a beach chair hoggers !
4) Be aware of stuff you leave on the deck outside whether you are at the poolside or on your balcony. We saw some people left stuff like a daily schedule on the table, and that piece of paper was flying into the ocean because of the wind. Let us all do our part to protect the environment.
Conclusion: I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed cruising on the Freedom Class ship, and this ship offers even more - if you're wondering whether it's worth it, I'd say yes, at least once - it's an engineering marvel and just doesn't compare with any other ship - and add to it the wonderful staff and you should have a great vacation!
If you have any specific questions, please feel free to e-mail us at email@example.com (or if you're in New York city please contact me and you can have my neck lanyard) I've also put a few pictures up on a Shutterfly site (no Shutterfly account needed to view) that I hope will give you an idea just how impressive this ship is. The link is here: