Freedom of the Seas launched in May 2006 as the world's biggest cruise ship, measuring 155,000 tons, carrying 4,500 passengers and introducing Royal Caribbean's now-widespread FlowRider surf simulator to the cruise industry.
Although the ship is no longer the biggest in Royal Caribbean's fleet – that title is held by the line's newer Oasis-class ships -- it does not feel outdated. If anything, Royal Caribbean is doing a great job of keeping Freedom of the Seas in tip-top shape.
During a 2015 dry dock, Freedom received new cabins, a new nightclub and two new for-fee restaurants – giving passengers a plethora of dining choices that range from Italian to Mexican. (The ship also had some nagging propulsion issues addressed.)
Although Royal Caribbean's 4,500-passenger Freedom-class ships are the line's third-largest (behind the Oasis and Quantum classes), Freedom of the Seas doesn't feel crowded. That's not to say that the ship feels empty or small. Sometimes there's congestion in Windjammer at peak times, you'll wait in a line (a short line, but a line nonetheless) to disembark at tender ports, and dinnertime can be a bit noisy with hundreds of others chowing down around you. At the same time, it's never hard to find quiet, private nooks. The library, Internet cafe, Cafe Promenade, Vintages wine bar and even the Solarium pool are great for getting-away-from-it-all moments, particularly on port days.
Overall, the traffic flow throughout the ship is smooth, but there are times when it comes to a dead standstill along the Royal Promenade (the ship's mall-like main thoroughfare) -- when there's a sale on duty-free watches, for example. Other areas just seem poorly designed. It can be a harrowing experience to reach the Deck 3 On Air Bar and Studio B from the front of the ship, as there's no direct access straight through. Passengers have to either walk up one flight to Deck 4 (and through the horribly smoky casino) to the aft and then head down or go up two decks to the often crowded Royal Promenade to walk aft before heading down.
In general, service is personal, since there are so many spaces in which you can become a "regular." Baristas at Cafe Promenade, serving Starbucks coffee drinks, remember complicated beverage orders; the bartenders at Boleros, Royal Caribbean's Latin-themed bar, remember names and poisons; and even the wait staff in Windjammer, the casual buffet, treat kids as the highest-order VIPs.
With the FlowRider, H2O Zone and age-specific children's facilities, Freedom of the Seas is an obvious choice for families. The number of children under 17 can range from a few hundred to as many as 1,200 on holiday and summertime sailings. The ship also appeals to active couples, mainly ranging from their 30s to 50s, and plenty of fun-loving seniors. Many Royal Caribbean cruisers are repeat passengers. The majority hail from North America, though many on our cruise came from South America, Europe and Canada.
Seven-night cruises typically feature two formal nights and five casual nights. Themed outfits (Caribbean Night, White Night are encouraged but seldom seen. Many men don tuxedos for formal dining, though suits are just fine (and more common). Women opt for cocktail dresses or gowns. No one looks askance if you don't observe a formal night; plenty of families opt for a more casual experience, bypassing the formal nights for laid-back dinners at the Windjammer, Sorrento's or Johnny Rockets.
Royal Caribbean charges its passengers $13.50 per person, per day ($16.50 for those in suites). Gratuities can be prepaid or are added on a daily basis to passengers' SeaPass accounts during the cruise. (Passengers opting for My Time Dining must pre-pay gratuities.) Passengers can modify or remove gratuities by visiting the guest services desk while onboard. An 18 percent tip is automatically added to bar tabs and purchases like specialty coffee, cupcakes and ice cream. Gratuity envelopes for those who wish to reward extra service are delivered to staterooms on the last day.