We just returned from a 7-day Western Caribbean Cruise on the Allure of the Seas. My wife and I traveled with our 18 month old toddler and 12 year old son. I have some good and bad to report - especially for families traveling with young toddlers. Royal Caribbean requires families to pay full-fare for all children regardless of age, including infants. This pricing structure is unfair IMO and a very bad value for families. The full fare is supposed to cover all the entertainment and dining options that an infant cannot participate in... Even the pools and water park were off limits to young toddlers, which caused tears of frustration for my daughter (and her mother). Regardless of her wearing special swim diapers under her suit, which is sufficient to gain access to public pools and parks everywhere, our little girl was restricted to one tiny 8 foot by 4 foot baby pool with about 3 inches of water. It was rediculous. How do you entertain a young toddler on a ship in the tropics without being able to visit the pools? Mini golf? Nope - too young. Ice skating? Nope - too young. Zip line? Nope - too young. Rock climbing? Nope - too young. There is a nice playroom inside the ship, but we can do that at home. Otherwise, there is nothing to do. It's unfair to charge full fare for a child who can't do anything that you are paying for IMO. And since she requires hands-on supervision, at least one parent was out of action most of the day as well, so we paid for things that we could not enjoy either (I was able to watch about a total of two shows all week). We could have taken her to the nursery... but even though she was a full fare ticket, there was an up charge for nursery services. This is why we have decided that we can't afford another RCCL vacation while we have young children. It's a waste of time and money based on our experience. If they offered a child rate, then they might have a chance at getting 3 full fare passengers as well. I suspect many other families feel the same way and RCCL is missing an opportunity for creating good will and countless loyal cruisers...
Here are some other observations...
Embarkation/Debarkation: we flew in the night before and arrived at the ship before noon... so check-in was fast and we were on board in no time. This gave us plenty of time to get a bite to eat and check out the ship before it got too crowded. On the backside, debarkation seemed like a breeze at first, but there was a problem at customs that caused a huge jam of people waiting to get through. When they opened it up it was like a stampede. A total mess. In one 90 second period, 4 different RCCL staffers shouted 4 different instructions as far as where to go... and each conflicted with the other. This may have been a unique instance due to the customs snafu, but it was the worst debarkation experience I have encountered.
Food: I did not actually count, but it seems that there were more fee-based eating options than inclusive options on the Allure. This is a shame because our trip lacked the all-inclusive spirit of cruising that we have appreciated in the past. Even the cappuccino in the main dining room cost money. For comparison, this was included in the price of our last Carnival cruise. Overall, the quality of food in the main dining room was good, but no better than Carnival. Our favorite place was the Park Cafe, which served awesome roast beef sandwiches, Panini's and made to order salads. This became a frequent spot for breakfast and lunch. Very good and not too crowded most times, but we did encounter a some long lines at times. But those lines did not compare to the chaos that was the Windjammer. This buffet eatery was too small for a ship so large. Long twisted lines of people waiting for food - and cutting line - were the norm at this place. Who wants to go on vacation just to compete for food? We traveled on the Freedom of the Seas last year (sans baby)and it seems that their Windjammer was larger for a smaller passenger count. This was a shame because we really enjoyed the variety and quality of food in the Freedom's Windjammer... Seriously, only venture into the Allures' Windjammer at slow times just after opening and just before closing. The hot dogs on the boardwalk were awesome... try the Wunderdog, our favorite. The Cafe Promenade, always a pleasure on the Freedom, was always too crowded on the Allure. We had difficulty getting a table and dealt with lines that did not exist on the Freedom (both cruises were fully booked). Again, I was disappointed since we enjoyed sitting with a cup of coffee and some excellent cookies on the Freedom. We did not pay for any dining options... not after paying such a high price tag for this cruise. Nor did we order room service since our room was too small to sit down in let alone eat (more on that later).
Stateroom: We booked a "Large" interior stateroom... but the term "large" was misleading to say the least. When we opened the couch for my son to sleep... and wedged the RCCL provided "pack & play" crib next to the queen bed in the back of the room, there was no useful floor space... just a 10 or 12 inch wide path from the foot of the bed that went down between the desk and the sofa bed to the bathroom and door. We had to walk sideways to get through this path. And since there was no path to the crib, we had to crawl across our bed to tend to the baby (or to use the phone which was stranded on a night stand bed-locked in the back corner. One of our Carnival ships and nifty bunk beds that lowered down from the ceiling above the master bed which kept the floor space open. Then they stowed back up in the day time. This was a brilliant way to maximize space. Our stateroom on the Allure with 4 people (including a baby) was just unlivable. We found ourselves taking turns standing in the hallway while others got dressed... it would have been fine for two people... may be three... but the rooms were not designed to accommodate a crib. RCCL should have known this and flagged it when we made reservations. And speaking of the pack & play - every parent knows that there is a pad that goes in the bottom that covers the metal "X" frame of the unit, creating a firm sleeping platform. Ours was delivered sans pad! And we were told that none existed... that we should just fold enough comforters to soften the frame in the bottom. What???? We argued and complained, but our baby was forced to sleep on it, so we had to keep her in our bed since she just sank into the comforter like quick sand. So the first night was sleepless for all. Finally the head of house keeping came the next day and provided the missing pads that our room attendant told us did not exist. Also, the much ballyhooed ipad dock was useless for the majority of passengers since most people don't have ipods. Plus the clock on the dock ran 20 minutes fast and was unable to be set properly. It was broken rendering it even more useless. The bathroom and shower were fine... no problems there.
Crown & Anchor Society: If you are a loyalty member, you get a coupon book for your cruise. But in practice, RCCL seems to have not intended for you to use some of the coupons. The free pay per view movie coupon(which should have been free anyway) coupon required you to pay the fee and then take the coupon to guest services and have them credit a refund. Ummm, who wants to stand in such a looooong line when you have such limited time? Especially when guest services is woefully small for such a large ship. The lines often flowed out into the promenade deck making any inquiry extremely time consuming and frustrating. The same with ordering pictures and using that coupon. We stood in a loooong line to pick up our pictures and were told that if we wanted to use our coupon we needed to stand in another looong line where they will credit a refund to our account equal to the value of the coupon. If RCCL wants to provide a benefit, they should just provide it without making you jump through enough hoops that many won't take advantage of it. I also heard that there was a C & A appreciation event for repeat passengers. I only heard about it because we were not invited. Nor were the people from whom we heard about... they just stumbled upon it. Every other line on which we have been repeat customers has taken the time to invite us to similar events... So we were disappointed to hear about this after the fact.
Entertainment: Since we were taking turns with the baby, I only saw the opening of Chicago, but it looked top notch. My wife said she loved it. The high dive show was interesting and entertaining. The small bits of the ice show that I saw seemed disjointed but the skating was great. I only saw the end of Blue Planet, but the singing at that point was pretty horrible - especially the male vocals. Worse that a high school musical IMO. We did see the marriage show and enjoyed the witty cruise director, but it seems that every marriage show on every cruise line follows the same script with the same questions. Seriously, is it syndicated so they all ask the same questions? We sat in a jazz show one night, it was good, but not great... lacked range. But it was a nice break none the less. By comparison, we thought the entertainment on the Freedom of the Seas was amazing. The Allure was very hit or miss.
Teen club: Well, my son is 12 so he now can run with the 12 to 14 old group on board. Unfortunately, they share space with the considerably more rowdy 15 - 17 group and he felt intimidated. He also told me that while he was in the "Living Room" teen lounge playing the Wii, he was uncomfortable because teens who just meet each other were making out and groping each other on the couches. That's not a good environment for most kids... and he told me that RCCL staff just looked the other way. I am hearing this second hand, but I tend to believe him. Needless to say, he was not comfortable there so he spent most of his time with me instead of participating in group activities, which was another disappointment. When we were on the Freedom he was 11 years old and participated with that group, which was segregated from the older kids. He LOVED it. I assume he would have had a similarly good experience on the Allure if he was younger.
Labradee, Haiti: the beaches were rocky and we were up charged at every corner. The included buffet was tasty. Otherwise, $99 for a 90 second zip line ride (that more than $1 a second!) is just insane - yet the lemmings were lining up anyway.
Falmouth, Jamaica: I was on shore for about 15 minutes and returned to the ship. The port was not finished and there was not much to do in town. My wife and son took the 3 hour long zip line canopy tour which they loved for $99 each. They took the 12:30 slot, which was the last if the day and only had six people total on the tour. Timing is everything! But unless you are willing pay for an excursion, there is not much appeal to this port... not yet anyway. I hear that it is improving. I wanted to take a stroll in town, but the day was too hot for the baby, which was not RCCL's fault, but still, non-excursion options are limited.
Cozumel, Mexico: We shunned the expensive excursions and took a cab to a place called Paradise Beach and it was Paradise. The first moments of tranquility all week. A nice big pool that our baby was finally welcome to swim in... $2 per person admission (no charge for the baby thank you very much!), $12 to access all the water sports and obstacles (jet skis were an added cost), and food was ala cart and yummy. We loved this place and it was the unexpected hit of the week. Great service and very friendly and accommodating staff. We hated to return to the ship.
Overall, sometimes bigger is not better. When we booked the Freedom of the Seas, I was worried about the size. But I never felt that it was too big. I always could find peace and never felt overwhelmed. Everything was easy to access and the entertainment was awesome. To this date, it remains my favorite ship and favorite cruise. But the Allure was crowded and felt stressful. Competing for tables, seats, elevators, walking space and food is never enjoyable. Our stateroom was not suitable for a baby... not even close. So at this price point, it was a big let down. I am sure that if I was traveling just with my wife, we would have enjoyed it more, but the limitations of a young toddler combined with RCCL's lack of accommodations for kids her age (no swimming!), added another layer of stress and frustration that marred the experience. Indeed, all the staff was helpful and friendly, but the atmosphere was more like a "Nation of Why Not Pay Us more Money" than an inclusive family retreat. As I mentioned earlier, we won't be back until our baby is much older and by then we may have found a more toddler friendly cruise line