After returning from a cruise with P&O Ventura last year we were total cruise converts and so as soon as we came home we began searching for another fantastic family holiday. After much searching we were recommended RCI Independence of the seas. As they claim to be great for families and with a slogan "cruising is for kids too!" we thought we would be onto a winner. However, unfortunately, we found this to be completely wrong.
Last year we went on Ventura which really is fantastic for families with young children. Firstly, they had a night nursery for under 5 year olds, completely free and you were issued with a pager so that they could get in touch with you if there were any problems. This was in a group setting and allowed us to have a few hours every night for dinner, drinks and entertainment. This is a fantastic service particularly as this is something we never get at home due to lack of babysitters. If your child preferred to stay up, they had a 'night time slumber party' where they tired the kids out first with loud and fun games, then dimmed the lights, put on a film and each child had a little sleeping bag where they either watched the film or slept. It also meant that the kids were fully rested each night and so were on good form the following day. We were hoping for something similar with RCI and had been led to believe that there was some form of babysitting available. When we boarded this time we found out to our dismay that, yes there was a babysitting service, but that it would cost us $19 per hour and would be in our cabin. We couldnt believe how expensive this was! And we wern't nearly as comfortable with a stranger being alone in the cabin with our children as we feared that they may be frightened if they woke up and found a stranger there. Plus we were told that it was 'just volunteers' that did this -(i dont know how this can be the case as surely a volunteer would be free?) But obviously this meant we didnt know if these people were vetted in any way either. Anyway, this meant that we never had a babysitter throughout our cruise as it was simply too expensive. So not only did we have our children with us every night, but also we were unable to sample any of the night time entertainment, something which is supposely included in the price when you book. It also meant that we had 3 grumpy, tired children every day as we did keep them up longer than they would have been at home in order to at least enjoy part of the evening on the holiday. On top of all this, from around 10pm we sat in a darkened cabin every night in order to let our kids sleep.
On Ventura this was available from 2yrs and up, they changed nappies and was completely free. On Independence, it was for 3 years and up, they changed no nappies, and over lunch time between 12 and 2pm there was a fee if your child wanted to stay there. What exactly you were paying for was unclear to us as all food is supposed to be included in the price you pay for the cruise. This we found very annoying. They also offered a 'late night party zone' after 10pm at night. For this - a fee also. Both of these were around $9 per hour, per child. Not only is this ridiculous to have to pay for, but also wholly inappropriate for young children. My children anyway do not want to party late into the night - they are exhausted and want to sleep!! I can understand how this would be good for older children maybe, but even then, I doubt if they would want to do this frequently. Other than this, the programme in adventure ocean did seem good. My kids really enjoyed all the arts and crafts and frequently wanted to go. On one occasion my three year old had a toileting accident. I was informed by a member of staff that if this happened again her time in aquanauts would be limited, and then if this happened a third time that she would be barred! I was aghast as my feelings are that if they decide to try to cater for 3year old they do need to accept that at times, even though they are toilet trained, that at times there may be accidents, particularly when in a new, exciting, busy environment. Plus, the rules seemed to be slightly fascist considering this was supposed to be a 'fun-filled family holiday'.
For our 18month old they claimed they had a nursery with a programme of events and age-appropriate toys. We went to see this on our first day. It was in a small, dingy room right at the bottom of the ship with no natural light at all. The toys were all for much younger babies than ours, not at all appropriate. We never took him back.
Independence has a childrens water park called the H20 Zone. This looked great and our children were very excited about it. We were informed however bvy who we ended up calling the 'swimming pool police' that our 18month old was not allowed in the pool as he wore a swimming nappy. How this can be called a child friendly zonebut ban kids in swim nappies is beyond me. Also, the whole point of a swim nappy is to enable a child who is not potty trained to swim in a pool without nasty leakages. Their policy is simply that no child wearing a swim nappy is allowed in the pool! So our poor 18month old was banished to a tiny 3metre square pool with around an inch or two of water in it. With around 4000 people on board this seemed wholly unfair and badly set out. Plus, due to the lack of water in this area, our son kept slipping and banged his head on the bottom of the pool quite a few times before we just took him out altogether. He was then very upset as he could see his sisters playing in the pool where hecould not join them. We would not have taken him or the other two into the other pools, but think that if they are going to have a child/family pool then a child wearing a nappy should be allowed to go in too.
One token hour from 7pm onwards, family disco, family Kareoke and family nintendo wii! This was rubbish, as people can play wii at home anyway and plus our kids are again just not interested in wii. After 745/8pm nothing really available for kids and we had quite a few problems with other guests who frowned upon kids being in their presence after this time, not all I hasten to add, but enough for us to find it quite depressing.
Other than this it was the cost of things that really started to ruin our holiday. After being shocked at the prices for babysitting and kids clubs etc we decided to forget about it so we could try to enjoy our holiday. However, it proved to be neverending as we felt that every time we turned our heads we were being asked for money.
1. There was no laundry onboard. Laundry was done for you by your stateroom attendant and was priced (highly) for individual items. Or, they did what they called a 'laundry special' which was $25 for a bag of laundry. The bag was the same size as a carrier bag from a supermarket. Again, this may have been ok for couples travelling alone, but travelling with three young children generates a lot of laundry. We ended up spending $100 on laundry.
2. We had to pay for shuttles which was a total shock to us, them having been free on ventura. When we got to Toulon, or rather La Seyne we were told we would have to pay $60 for the short journey into Toulon! Fortunately there was a small tourist information office at the port where a very helpful girl advised us to take a small walk around the port - 10-15minutes and take the ferry over to Toulon. This took a total of about 20-25minutes and cost us 4 euros - they did not charge for the children. We complained about the cost of the shuttles to Guest services when we got back onboard and they told us that next time we would not have to pay for the children. Hen we decided we would just pay for the shuttle into Livorno when we arrived there as we wanted to travel to Florence that day, we were charged for our 5year old child - a total of $24 for a 10 minute bus ride into Livorno centre! On top of this, we got up really early so that we could be on the train to Florence extra early to get the monst out of the day, but we were sitting on the shuttle for around half an hour before it would depart as they wouldn't leave until 8am!
3. Drinks are very expensive. We spoke to several people who just didn't have wine with dinner or curtailed their drinking due to the expense. Champagne was about $8-9 a glass, cheapest bottle of wine at dinner $28-30.
Lastly, the boat was so busy that we spent a lot of time wandering the boat trying to find somewhere to sit, or having to queue for a long time to get things. This is frustrating. On days when the weather was bad and no one was on deck, it was impossible to find anywhere to sit. There were ice shows on throughout the cruise but we were unable to see this as they sold out of tickets for all the performances. This seems unacceptable that some guests do not get to see a show when entertainment is supposedly pre-paid.
On a positive note, our cabin was lovely. It was very spacious and excellent for a family. The staff we met onboard - our stateroom attendant, our waiters in the Macbeth restaurant and all the waiters in the windjammer were excellent and couldn't have done more for us. The staff at guest services were ok, but not as impressive as the others. Despite the limitations of the kids clubs, our older two girls, particularly our 5 year old did love the activities and were happy there.
On the whole, we find it annoying that this can be described as a 'family friendly boat'. We were unable to get the rest we were hoping for, or to spend some time together as a couple due to the lack of help for parents. Our youngest seemed to spend most of the time in his buggy as there wasn't really anywhere to let him run around due to all the stairs etc and the club for him was no good. The cost of everything onboard, having worked really hard to save up for the holiday in the first place, put several limitations on our holiday and only resulted in us feeling annoyed. We will certainly not be sailing with Royal Carribean again and found the holiday very disappointing, but would definitely recommend Ventura for families in a similar position to ours. Unfortunately, ventura cant accommodate families of 5 in one cabin, which is why we didn't go with them again. The only criticism I could have given them is this.