I'll try to include as much as I can about ports, staterooms, service etc. and will do so with as much of a slant on our experience with a baby so that any of you thinking about cruising with a wee one can take as much of our learnings as possible! Some info will be opinion, others bits are facts and just to spice things up I'll include a couple of 'I heards'!
I'm going to start by saying the weather for the trip was pretty poor - there were a couple of good full days and another 4 or 5 days that the sun shone at some point. That's the last I'll say about the lack of sunshine!
The embarkation experience was fantastic. The concept of arriving quayside, having your bags whisked away and finding yourself on board, with room keys in hand and being ushered to a restaurant all within 20 minutes is fantastic! British airports should go, watch and learn.....we spent 40 minutes at Southampton airport today just checking in! A point to note - if you're flying into Southampton then I'd strongly recommend you use Checker Cabs at the airport - no need to pre-book, plenty of taxis available and a single for all 5 of us was just £21.50. Great value.
Independence is a BIG ship! We were on a Vision class previously, so the difference was immediately noticeable. In total there were just under 4200 guests on board, sharing the space with another 1300 staff - a lot of people to get on. The ship has 14 floors, predominantly accommodation, interspersed with entertainment venues, eateries, casino, the Royal Promenade and the pool/sun bathing and spa areas. While Independence is big....it's maybe not big enough to accommodate the number of people RCI try to cram on. We felt a bit hemmed in places at times......but I'll come to these soon enough.
Right, let me run through the main things:-
There's 4 free places to eat and a few to pay a small amount to go to (Portofino, Johnny Rockets, Chops Grille). Having the wee one, we never went to any of the additional cover charge venues - children aren't allowed in two of them. Here's the summary of the others:-
Windjammer Cafe - a big buffet where most have their breakfast and lunch! It's pretty much always busy. Service was excellent, staff hugely accommodating and always on hand to help you with the baby. Food choices at first seem vast, but they are very repetitive and after a week you find yourself wishing for something different. Quality of the food is good. For a baby there are loads of things for breakfast, we tended to give ours her Weetabix with hot milk and banana, followed up with fresh fruit which is in abundance (melon, pineapple, apples, pear, peach etc.). For lunch there was always a pasta dish, plus the fruit etc. which worked well for the baby. Dinner was slightly different - here's a watch out - if you have your wee one in a routine of eating at about 5pm-5.30pm then be prepared to change it....the Windjammer doesn't open until 6.30pm. Took us a bit of getting used to. For dinner there was grilled chicken, mash, gravy and normally a choice of carrots, broccoli, cauliflower and green beans.....which was fine for a week, but with a limited menu for a baby, ours got bored with dinner after a week or so and ended up eating very little for the last few days at dinner. Moans about the Windjammer - high chairs (like the ones in Ikea) were good and clean, but were in short supply and often came without the tray. I heard a lot of people moaning about not being able to get a seat or waiting for ages...this wasn't our experience....yes, it was busy and sometimes you had to look for a minute, but nothing too inconveniencing.
Main Dining - we were in the Romeo & Juliet dining room on deck 3 at the 8.30pm sitting. We chose the later sitting so that we could feed the wee one in the Windjammer, get her showered (which was new for her, but worked OK), jammies on, bottle and asleep in pram before going for our dinner. We did this for about half of the time and she slept through dinner most nights before wakening up when we were having coffee. Hindsight says it was the right thing to do. Food at dinner was nothing startling, but was OK. Choices were pretty good, plenty of healthy/low fat options.....but mass production doesn't get you 5* grub. No real causes for complaint though. Service was superb.
Sorrentos - is a pizza place located on the Royal Promenade. We used this once due to the fact that there were no high chairs so eating wasn't the easiest with a baby. Pizza was nice though and you could have grabbed a slice until late in the evening.
Promenade Cafe - open 24/7 for tea/coffee/iced water plus sandwiches and cakes/cookies. Always busy during the day, but great to drop in and grab a wee nibble.
We had an outside stateroom on deck 2 - stateroom number 2658 which was towards the rear of the ship on the port side. It was really handy for lifts and was at the Windjammer end of the ship. The room was clean, practical with a baby (a curtain in the room allowed us to separate two areas so that her bit was dark but we could still read books, look out the window etc. without disturbing her) and had enough room for a RCI supplied "Pack & Play" travel cot. TIP - make sure you order your pack and play well in advance of going and don't be surprised if it's not in your room when you arrive. If it's not, make sure you develop a relationship with your stateroom attendant - they will become big allies for you! There's a big BUT for our stateroom - it was directly opposite a service access door and the noise coming from this became too much to bear after a week - 4 times in one night the wee one was woken up by dropped cups and plates outside the door and despite pleading with employees to be quiet nothing seemed to work. We ended up complaining with only 3 days of the cruise left and were immediately moved to deck 7 - won't go into the details, but we were upgraded to a disabled access balcony stateroom - wow, that's the way to cruise if you can afford it. TIP - when making your booking, don't just look at the room itself......look at it's surroundings i.e. proximity to the lifts, what will be the traffic outside your door and ensure your travel agent or RCI agent knows where the service access doors are.
The 'In-Laws' were in a Promenade View room and they loved it. They were in room 7623 which is in the middle of three floors that face onto the Royal Promenade. Theirs faced the guest relations desk, so not on the main thoroughfare. They didn't experience any noise from the Promenade itself and would recommend this type of room.
Gibraltar - a great port to stop at! We walked with the pram from the port into the main town, did a bit of shopping and then got one of the local taxis to take us up the rock. Was definitely the way to see the town and the rock too. It cost €25 per person for a 90 minute trip to St Michael's Caves, the Siege Tunnels and various stops at vantage points on the rock - loads of monkeys! The taxi driver who doubles as the guide was brilliant - knowledgeable, friendly, humorous and great with the baby. We did have a pretty scary experience back on the ship - I'd imagine that you've probably heard about the shore explosion next to the ship so I'm not going to go into loads of details. Let it be said that the crew were incredibly calming and professional, they quelled the panic that was rising among the passengers and all credit to the captain who got us away from the quayside by ordering crew to cut ropes and drop the gangway - 4 minutes later and we were on the way to Cannes!
Cannes - I'm sure it would have been great and we were really looking forward to it......however, it was pouring when we arrived, pouring when we got to shore using the tender and pouring when we got the tender straight back again. Sorry for mentioning the weather!
Barcelona - really, really enjoyed it. Got the free bus from port to the bottom of Las Ramblas (all 5 of us). Walked up Las Ramblas, took a detour to the Cathedral, strolled to the Place de Catalunya and got the open top bus (€23 per person). We took the Blue Route to the Sagrado Famille (the Goudi church) and then got back on and went to the Nou Camp (€19 per person). The tour busses were very busy so be prepared to wait in queues, but they were baby friendly with space for prams etc.
Majorca - we had an overnight at Palma and can't really understand why! The port was a long, long walk away from the main town. The marina was nice, but when you've seen a yacht you think is stunning, then you've seen a hundred!
Alicante - really good wee stop! We were only there for a few hours, but walked with the pram from the port directly into the town. Well worth disembarking for. TIP - if you're stopping in Alicante then take beachwear with you when you leave the ship - there's a brilliant beach as soon as you get to the town which is a 10-15 minute walk from the ship.
Lisbon - was a bit disappointing. We took the RCI $15 per person shuttle bus into the town to find that others were taking a taxi for only €12 return from quayside that took half the time! The town itself is a bit run down, but some great monuments etc. There is one spectacular and unique thing about Lisbon though.....TIP - You must be on the top deck as you sail out of port.........the April 25th Bridge that you sail under is almost within touching distance! Incredible!
Vigo - a very short stop, big shopping centre right next to the port. Was OK!
Cinema - there's a small screening room on Deck 2 at the front of the ship. Probably seats about 80 people and had some good films on during the cruise. It is not baby friendly (unsurprisingly!), but the in-laws enjoyed a couple of films (The Social Network and The Other Guys). The films are typically a few months old, but not a bad choice and there's a different film every day. There seemed to be a lot of people going in late and coming out so it might be a bit annoying for those who are enjoying the film being distracted like that. TIP - go and see the 10am screening on days that you are in port for a quiet experience!
Theatre - we went to a couple of shows on nights that the in-laws baby sat for us. They were OK - not exactly Broadway or the Palladium in comedy terms, but they offered a nice break. It was bit frustrating that the times changed almost nightly for the second dinner sitting - one night there'd be a 10.30pm show for us and then the next it was 7pm.
Ice Shows - can't critique these as all the tickets went in an hour of going on offer. The wife and mother-in-law were really disappointed at this and I'm sure there could have been a more fair distribution method that RCI could adopt i.e. allocate a couple of tickets per stateroom. If you don't want to go then you hand them back so others could go more than once. 'I heard' the shows were not to be missed (Pah!) so.....TIP - make sure you get up and queue for the tickets!
Others - there's plenty of quizzes and bingo etc. going on. The Cruise Compass daily leaflet that you get in your stateroom is a good source to find out what's happening. We did find the entertainments team a bit false and more Butlins than we would have expected (no offence to Butlins!). I could have killed 'Hi, it's Paul your cruise director' on more than one occasion as he came over the Tannoy system bestowing the virtues of his wonderful team and all that was happening having just got the baby to sleep!
Mmmm, well, unless your child is over 3 then you're pretty much on your own! 'I heard' that the clubs were great for kids of age, but for younger kids it's not ideal. There is a playroom near the cinema on deck 2 which is really good and we spent many fun hours in there with the daughter. It's safe, clean and the toys are changed frequently so it proved a good experience for babies. There was an abundance of things going on for older kids......remember there's a full sports deck, with Flowrider, climbing wall, putting greens and big basketball/football courts that the kids seemed to love.
OTHER THINGS FOR BABIES
Some moans here - there's very few baby changing facilities on the Independence - the only ones we found on the whole ship were on Deck 4 and Deck 11 just outside the Windjammer, but are in standard toilets, so not exactly the most private affairs. Another thing......the really good playroom for kids is at the other end of the ship to both of the baby changing areas.....really handy!
On sea days the public areas are absolutely mobbed and the outside areas are very windy, so it's very difficult to move about the ship, especially if you're trying to push the baby to sleep in the pram....then there's the announcements about bingo that keep wakening them up! Aaaarrrggghhh!
Take lots of anti-bacterial wipes with you - while the high chairs in the Windjammer are clean, they're only clean if you get there early and get the chair first. If you don't have your own wipes then you'll wait an age for the staff to clean one for you. Note that you'll be asked to clean your own hands every time you go into an eating area.
TIP - if you're flying down to Southampton and want to maximize your luggage space then don't pack any wipes, nappies, formula etc. Instead, fly without any of these and get the taxi that takes from airport to port to stop at Asda near the port and stock up on all the bulky things you need. The extra on the taxi fare will only be £5 but you'll be able to pack so much more in your suitcases.
OTHER THINGS IN GENERAL
Spa - the wife enjoyed a couple of hours on two different days at the spa and said that they were among the best treatments she'd ever had - she's done a couple of the top spas so is well versed! TIP - don't book when you get on board....they urge you to and say that it books up quickly, but there was always availability and if you keep an eye on the boards outside the Windjammer you'll spot a few really good deals i.e. $99 for 3 x 25 minute taster treatments which included massage, facial etc.
The Champagne Bar - what an absolute utter and total rip off. There, I've said it! If you're happy paying nearly $9 for a Champagne Cocktail only to receive a cocktail that actually is made from Prosecco or Cava then you have no class or too much money (there's a fine line between the two!). I spoke to the barman about the fact it wasn't Champagne in the cocktail and was told to take it up with RCI. If you wanted the real stuff then $20 for a glass of Moet is way out of my league! Take a look at yourself RCI!
Casino Royale - lots of slots with varying options on how much you want to pay to play. Nice atmosphere with an area to drink as well as game. Staff really friendly and efficient. Two criticisms - it's a UK based ship, with predominantly UK passengers, with British theme nights and quizzes going on all over the place, yet it's an American Roulette wheel....again, greed on the part of the owners? There's one more number on an American wheel (00), but the odds are the same. Plus, there's only 3 roulette wheels - if you calculate that you can fit 6 people comfortably at a table then there's 18 seats to be had at any one point. With 3600 passengers on board that can legally play in the casino, you've got a 200/1 chance of getting a seat at a table.........so you've actually got more chance of putting all your money on one number and winning than you have of getting a seat. Makes me laugh!
Lifts - where do I begin? So frustrating that I don't think I'll say much. When you want to go up the only lifts that arrive are going down...people cotton on to this and end up going down to go up....kind of like the Grand Old Duke of York! The lifts are an acid test of the genuinely nice people on the cruise....and I'm not going to say any more on the matter.
Tips - yes, the old debate! We never pre-paid our tips (we never do) as we want to make sure we get good service. The service was amazing from the dining staff so we gave them a bit extra, we gave our first stateroom attendant a bit less than recommended (we had to put the cot up and take it down every day, plus the room wasn't made up on most nights) and our second one a bit more. 15% is already built into the price of drinks you buy across the ship - I didn't know this and for the first few days was always adding an extra dollar or so to my bill when signing for drinks....it doesn't tell you and you feel tight not doing it! Knowing that 15% was already there, I had no issues at all in scoring out the tips line on my receipts when signing. We did NOT give any staff tips for our daughter.....if we had pre-paid our gratuities via travel agent then we would have had to do so.
Coffee - I'm a big coffee lover and need a cuppa to get me going in the day. Note that there isn't any coffee provided in your stateroom for you to make up from the kettle - if you want coffee you'll need to take a jar with you on board......or take a trip to the Royal Promenade first thing in the morning (and sorry to disappoint, but the coffee's not the best unless you pay for the better stuff!).
The Bay of Biscay - I'd been told horror stories about the Bay of Biscay and rough crossings and was a bit worried for the wee one. The Bay of Biscay was absolutely fine - slightly rocky on the way down and smooth as my daughter's behind on the way back. The Sea of Lions......had never heard of that, but it's got a lot more teeth than the Bay of Biscay!
THE LAST WORD
Independence is a great example of the famous man's saying that 'big is not necessarily better'! It is an incredible ship, but poor design, and dare I say greed on the part of the owners in cramming so many people on, would lead me to steer clear in the future and opt for a smaller ship with less passengers. I hear that Oasis of the Seas, which carries another 1k + passengers, feels considerably more spacious due to its design..... learnings were taken from Independence. I don't think I'd sail from Southampton again - no offence to the port which was super, but it's the 2 days lost going and another day coming back with cold winds that make me feel I could get better sailing from the continent.
We did have a great holiday and will look back with many fond memories and just as many experiences!
Lastly, I would almost certainly look at a different cruise operator had I known at the point of booking what I know now. I paid the best part of £1k for my daughter not really understanding what I would get for my money............, I still fail to see how RCI can justify this cost after the event. Shame on you RCI! You'll see a low score for value for money and that's why!
Hope the review helps in some way, shape or form.