In April 2013, the ship underwent a $7 million upgrade as part of Royal Caribbean's larger $300 million investment in its fleet.
The new features included a cupcake shop, an Italian trattoria called Giovanni's Table and a Royal Babies & Tots Nursery. On the technology side, the ship got new digital signage, bow-to-stern Wi-Fi and a poolside movie screen.
The digital way finding systems are an excellent addition -- especially for new-to-cruisers who get lost on huge ships such as this. They offer maps and directions to everywhere on the ship using a board with a number keypad on which a passenger can enter their room number to find their way to their room. There are also features that display the menus for the ship's restaurants, lists of entertainment options and other onboard facilities. The large writing and quick responsive touch screen makes navigation around the ship so much easier than squinting at a laminated map.
"I thought we should take a Disney cruise," said a mom I met onboard Independence of the Seas. "But the kids wanted Royal Caribbean." It was an enlightening comment since her kids were 8 and 10, prime ages for Disney. Independence of the Seas, the third and final of Royal Caribbean's Freedom-class ships, may not have Mickey Mouse on tap, but there's so much offered for youngsters -- from kid-oriented entertainment and enrichment to recreational options that range from surfing and body boarding to ice skating -- that it's a superb choice for family travelers.
For all the emphasis on wholesome, family activities, as an adult without kids onboard, passengers will still find plenty of space for more mature pursuits. The fitness facility, complete with boxing ring, is excellent and always busy. Adults-only spots beyond bars and the casino ranged from the Solarium pool and boutique restaurants (which have a set age limit of 15) to a rather racy late-night comedy show. Travelers of many different stripes coexisted comfortably. (The ship even has outstanding facilities for disabled passengers.)
Another pleasant surprise is that the essentials of a good cruise experience, such as personal service and excellent food, were very much in place in spite of the size of the ship, which was at 100 percent occupancy on my trip. I didn't anticipate luxury cuisine or service, but quite pleasantly, my expectations were exceeded by consistently good meals in both for-fee eateries and the buffet venue, as well as very personal service.
Several crewmembers particularly stood out on my trip. One was a cabin stewardess who had served on numerous RCI ships and who had such a cheerful, positive and maternal disposition that she lifted my spirits with every encounter. Another was a bar waiter who pleasantly poured me a Diet Coke even though his bar wasn't yet open. The next day, as I filed into the Alhambra Theater with a couple thousand other passengers, the same waiter spotted me in the crowd and delivered a Diet Coke to my seat. I'd never even asked! You expect that kind of intuitive service on a small, luxury ship with just a few hundred passengers, but with 4,000-plus travelers onboard, that was genuinely a "wow" moment.
However, not everything is perfect on Independence of the Seas, and there's room for improvement in some areas. As a traveler who likes to connect with the ports I visit, I was disappointed with Royal Caribbean's lack of bond with any of the places on our itinerary -- at least via anything more than the banal shopping talks that highlight retailers who pay for the privilege. Sea days could feature a bit more substance in the lackluster enrichment department. (The chief workshop was advanced napkin folding.) The ship's vast sun deck, divided into three "neighborhoods," is colorful, whimsical and joyful -- but there's not enough effort to create events there after the sun sets.
Ultimately, Royal Caribbean's Independence of the Seas offers a wholesome cruise experience that deftly balances cruise traditions with contemporary innovations. The ship is best for cruise travelers interested in a low-key, ship-as-destination kind of vacation.
Independence of the Seas Fellow Passengers
The passenger make-up onboard definitely varies, depending on the time of year. On our Easter week Caribbean cruise, kids made up more than one-third of the passengers, and a significant number were teens. During periods other than school holiday breaks, the ship feels less like an all-family resort destination, though the ship's Adventure Ocean program operates year-round.
During the Caribbean season (late fall through early spring), Independence of the Seas' American passengers are in the majority, though on my cruise there was a strong showing of travelers from the U.K., Mexico and Spain, in particular. During its warm-weather cruises in the Mediterranean, when the ship is based in Southampton, expect Europeans and Brits to be significantly represented.
The ship makes an effort to accommodate travelers with special needs. There are cabins with roll-in showers, transfer lifts in one pool and one whirlpool, and lowered tables in the casino. A show room is equipped with an Infrared Assistive Learning System, and the ship's daily newsletter is available, upon request, in Braille.
Although the ambience onboard is conducive for a variety of passenger types, this is a tough ship for solo travelers. So many passengers travel in groups of family members or friends that all but the most gregarious may find it hard to connect with fellow singles. One suggestion: Consider signing up for Cruise Critic's Meet & Mingle gathering. Traveling alone on this trip, I made some new friends that helped make the cruise a really fun experience.
Independence of the Seas Dress Code
On our eight-night cruise, there were two formal nights; the rest were resort casual (tropical sundresses and pants outfits for women, khakis and collared shirts for men). On the formal nights, those who dined in the ship's main restaurant venue tended to be the most dolled-up; passengers not in the mood to dress in black tie (most men actually just wore jackets and ties, and few women sported beaded gowns) headed to the Windjammer buffet venue, Johnny Rocket's or to casual eateries along the promenade.
During the day, dress was plain ol' casual, though most wore bathing suit cover-ups and shoes when indoors.
Independence of the Seas Gratuity
Royal Caribbean passengers are charged $13.50 per person, per day ($16.50 for suite guests). Gratuities can be prepaid or will be added on a daily basis to passengers' SeaPass accounts during the cruise. Passengers can modify or remove gratuities by visiting the guest services desk while onboard. An 18 percent gratuity is automatically added to bar tabs.
Next: Independence of the Seas Cabins