Last winter we took our first Royal Caribbean cruise. Carnival is starting to run out of Caribbean itineraries that aren’t full of repeats for us and RC had some new ports. If you’ve read the blog or talked to me about it at all, you’ll know it was not my favourite. We had a lot of fun – thanks to great friends and fun ports. But we had a hard time getting most things sorted in advance for our group. I didn’t love the ship, I didn’t love the food, and I wasn’t in a rush to try another one.
And then Greg won a cruise with them… and having paid entirely for all of our travelling ourselves, of course we wanted something free! We thought booking a cruise we were paying for was hard with them. Booking a cruise we won was a lot harder… but you’ll have to skip ahead to the end for that rant.
We’ve been lucky our last few trips. Air Canada has some competition in our neck of the woods these days, which seems to be helping to drop the price some. And that means flying from home. Hooray! We left early Friday morning. We survived the total clusterfuck that is clearing US customs in the Toronto airport (why in the hell do you need two machines to do what one machine in every other airport can do?), barely made our second flight even with a 90 minute layover (so much for breakfast and a coffee), and experienced our first Air Canada Rouge flight. So for anyone who hasn’t had the joy of AC Rouge yet, it essentially means way less leg room and using your own device for in-flight entertainment (it’s still free, the selection is more limited, and they don’t turn it on until you are up in the air and they turn off the seatbelt sign… and they turn it off around when they starting descent… also, make sure your device is charged because not all of the planes have charging stations).
We arrived in Fort Lauderdale before noon and were at the hotel (Hyatt Place) with our luggage not too long after that. Our room was ready (yay!), the hotel was nice, wifi was free, location was fine (there was restaurants, a booze store, a grocery store, and lots more nearby), and we were ready to rock. We met some friends who were staying at another hotel almost across the street for lunch at a generic Thai place (we were starving!). After lunch, we had a rest and then we wandered off to find some beer and get some water to take on the ship with us (was definitely not buying RC’s crazy expensive Evian package… I don’t much like Evian to begin with). We met back up with the gang for their free cocktail hour at their hotel, had some supper at a pub across the street, visited a bit longer, and then called it a night.
We got up early Saturday morning to go for a walk after a quick breakfast at the hotel. We ended up walking about 10K and exploring around the waterfront, checking out the ship, doing a little hotel scouting for Wes and Liz, and generally just enjoying the warm weather. We had some beer for breakfast (we hadn’t finished everything we bought the day before), packed up our junk, and jumped on the hotel shuttle ($7pp) at 11:00.
Embarkation for the Oasis of the Seas was a total breeze. From our hotel to being on the ship took 30 minutes. They essentially check you in by deck number and they are very organized about keeping people in the area they are supposed to be in. Once on the ship, we went straight to the Park Cafe for lunch to beat the crowds. This is a great little venue we used for a lot of meals (mostly breakfasts)… make your own salad is right up my alley (thanks for the heads up Sarah)! After that, we may have found a beer or two in the pub. Decent beer selection.
Generally you can get into your cabins on a cruise ship around 1:00, and they were advertising around the same on our ship. So we, of course, were super thrilled when our keys didn’t work… and even more thrilled when we eventually found out that hundreds of our closest friends were having the same problem. RC handled this poorly. It affected a lot of people and there was no announcement made or anything to quickly let us know what was going on. The line at guest services wrapped down nearly the entire length of deck 5 (and who would want to stand in that on holidays!). Eventually someone let us into our cabin to drop off our stuff and then let us know we would need to get new keys made. It was evening before we could actually unlock our door ourselves and we got lucky and somehow found a brief period where Guest Services had a shorter line to make that happen.
Muster was painless, as per usual. We enjoyed watching sail-away from the Sundeck on 14 (not too crowded), and generally just relaxed and explored until it was time for dinner. We had our luggage fairly quickly, cabin was as expected, and our steward was friendly. Dinner was uneventful – I managed to find something to eat without meat in it, our servers were great, and we were all at two big tables close by each other. Dinner did take quite a long time though, so we called it an early night not long after that.
Our first full day on board was a sea day and we were up early to take full advantage of it. The running track on this ship is the best we’ve ever seen on a ship, and before the sun comes up, it’s just the right level of busy… but I think it was big enough (5K was 7.4 laps) that it would be fine most of the day. Since it’s covered, there’s not much for ocean views (a few spots here and there, and then completely along the back) and sometimes there’s not much of a breeze (unless some AC sneaks out from the door to the gym). But that’s all worth it for the complete lack of lounge chairs and railings that one has to dodge while running. We ran every morning but one, and enjoyed a lot of great sunrises as a result. By the end of the trip, Greg and I had both racked up more than 100KM on our FitBits, and we didn’t wear them on the beaches. Never taking the elevator and living on deck 11 helps!
After running and breakfast (our one and only trip to the dining room for breakfast because it was super slow), we spent the rest of the morning exploring all the decks of the ship so we would know where we were going. It really is a nice ship. I loved that it had a proper Starbucks (the free ship coffee is always too weak and/or gross for me). There’s a ton of venues for hanging out if you can catch them when they aren’t in use. The aqua theatre was neat, as well as the ice skating rink. There’s a handful of pay restaurants, and then several other free areas for eating. There’s 2 flo-riders, 2 rock climbing walls, a zipline, an ice cream/cupcake shop, lots of shops, etc. It even has a carousel.
Part of a sea day routine is relaxing with a tasty beverage… so we tried a few new things at the pub and then met some of the gang for lunch at Sabor (modern Mexican) – thanks Kevin! I am always a happy camper when there’s chips, salsa, and guacamole involved, so this place worked for me. My meal was a bit bland, but much better once I dumped salsa and guacamole on it. All of it was super salty though, and many of us agreed that the up-charge for this restaurant was not worth it for the food they were serving. We always consider things this way – all meals are included in the cruise (not free, included!), so the up-charge has to be X amount better than the included food. This was not.
I don’t remember what else we did this day… it’s part of the beauty of sea days and travelling with friends. Dinner wasn’t great for me… pretty scarce on the edible meatless options on the dinner menu, and what I did have was too greasy for me and that was the end of that day. I watched some Netflix in bed after supper (decent Internet speed on this one, though overpriced as per usual on cruise ships… we had bought it before we left and it was cheaper than what they were charging on the ship).
Next up – Labadee, Haiti. RC owns the beach area at Labadee and so going to the beach, doing one of their excursions, or staying on the ship are your only options for this port. They’ve built the area up quite a lot and there’s stuff to do there besides eating, drinking, tanning, and swimming. There’s pay options like zip lining, a roller coaster, and water toys. You can rent cabanas and sunbeds there if you want something more than a free lounger. There’s a small artisan area as well. We didn’t check it out and all we really heard from anyone was that all the vendors were very, very pushy. The gang set up shop in the shade and we spent the day drinking, lounging, and playing in the water. The buffet they set up was fine – lots of tasty meatless options. There’s a tram running to the various beaches if you have mobility issues. We were at Columbus Cove – nice and sandy, good for swimming.
Port 2 – Falmouth, Jamaica. In Jamaica, we had booked a food tour and Ingrid and Kathy joined us. We’ve been to Jamaica before, but not to this port… and this seemed a good way to explore and eat. The tour was with Jamaica Culinary Tours and we felt it was worth what we paid for it. It was about 2.5 hours. We stopped for fruit and sugar cane before leaving the port, then we tried beef patties (my options were all vegetarian), we had some coconut water and meat, jerk chicken, a donut type thing, and assorted coconut candies. They also pointed out various landmarks as we walked around. It was really quite hot and they were great at making sure we had liquids to stay hydrated as well. After the tour, we shopped around the port for a little bit and bought some coffee, nutmeg, and rum cream. Back to the ship after that.
Sea day again! RC called us today to let us know the excursion we had booked to climb the ruins at Coba was cancelled due to lack of interest, so we had to come up with something to do the following day in Cozumel. We very, very rarely book ship-sponsored excursions because they are overpriced and too crowded, but I couldn’t find a private company doing the same spot with a decent review. When we do book something with the ship, it’s always one of the more active ones, and this was not the first time we’ve had one cancelled. We rebooked a speedboat/beach day instead. We tried Izumi for sushi at lunch – it was good, but we thought the same as we did of the other restaurant. It was a bit pricey and didn’t warrant the up-charge it had. We spent the rest of the day doing stuff around the ship and relaxing.
Last port of the trip – Cozumel, Mexico. We like this port quite a lot. This is the third time I’ve been and there’s lots to choose from there. We did the Twister boat ride over to Isla Pasion for the day. It was a bit of a mess getting sorted in the morning as the person who did the organizing at the meeting place apparently didn’t know how to count and kept sending more people than could fit on the boat over to the dock. Eventually we got it all sorted out and headed for the island… and then the boat broke down and we sat floating around for a while so they could fix it. At least there was a breeze Then we finally got going, did some high-speed spinning around in the ocean, and then landed at the island.
The island is lovely and wasn’t overly crowded (though they looked to be building more stuff there that could result in it being overcrowded when they are done) – 3 smaller boats of RC tours, and then a couple of catamarans showed up later with some passengers from a Carnival ship. There were six ships in Cozumel that day. The island had free water toys and hammocks and stuff, and then you could pay to rent some other stuff. They didn’t have anything motorized though. There’s also facilities, showers, and a few small shops. It was all you could eat from a buffet (with the best chips I’ve ever had) and unlimited basic drinks (one kind of beer, rums and such). We did a few more water tricks to make sure we were good and soaked on the way back (they put all your bags in a hold so they don’t get wet). This was a fun excursion – I’d recommend it.
Back at the port, we walked around a bit and then chilled out at Pepe’s Beach Bar (with drinks half the price of the ship drinks) for a couple of hours before going back to the ship. We hung out on our balcony for a few hours after that. This was also the only port where we had other ships in with us, so it was nice to see them for comparison.
Insert another sea day here… we didn’t get into that much… we played some trivia (I rocked some world monument stuff), did a fun selfie scavenger hunt with Kathy, tried the Habachi restaurant for lunch (with Ingrid, Kathy, Mel, and Melissa), watched the parade (Dreamworks characters and lots of people in random costumes), and generally just enjoyed our day. After supper, we all headed to karaoke (not normally my cup of tea) so we could rock out with Dar (wow!)… and then good-byes all around. Most of the others were staying in Florida for a few days, but we were flying home right away.
Debarkation was a piece of cake. We always haul our own stuff off the ship (backpacks for the win!). We left around 6:45 am (with quite a lot of others …none of the luggage was out yet, so the people who normally just do whatever they want couldn’t leave ahead of schedule), went through customs, and we were at the airport by 7:30. We had to wait until 8:00 (though they opened a bit earlier) for the Air Canada desk to open so we could dump our bags… and then we just had some breakfast, coffee, and played on the free wifi until it was time to leave. First flight was uneventful (watched the new Fantastic Four movie – why they remade that again so soon, I have no idea). Spent half of our 2 hour layover in Toronto dealing with long lines for bathrooms and customs, and then spent the other half drinking and eating at Mill Street (they make a wicked west coast IPA). Final flight of the day was delayed, so we sat around charging our devices (our Rouge flight didn’t have chargers – our plane on the way to Florida did). Finally got home about an hour later than planned.
And now for my usual random commentary on our adventure. Oasis wins the ‘getting passengers on and off the ship’ award – we rarely waited in line, and if we did, it was because there was an idiot in the way. It was easy getting on and off for port days and they always had several gangways open. If you get seasick, this may also be the ship for you. I think there was three times I felt the ship move, and a lot of places on the ship you can’t see water or even tell you are on a ship.
Oasis wins for entertainment. I generally hate cruise ship entertainment. It’s too hokey for me and I have very specific likes and dislikes in the realm of music. We went to several shows on the Oasis. I didn’t find the comedians all that funny, but Greg quite enjoyed it. The diving/acrobatics show was pretty impressive considering we were on a moving ship. We didn’t go to the Elvis impersonator (no thank you!). The other headliner show was pretty good. I liked the parts with acrobatics and mostly disliked the singing and dancing – but still it was better than most anything I’ve seen on a ship. We tried to go to the comedy diving show, but the main character was hurt partway in and we couldn’t make it to time they rescheduled it to. We didn’t see Cats – they rescheduled it for during our dinner, and since I don’t particularly like that musical, that was fine with me. The ice show was kind of silly, but still impressive considering what they were able to do in the small space they had available. If you don’t want to wait in line, book your shows in advance. The stand-by lines were pretty long for everything we went to. Sometimes a lot of people were let in, sometimes not.
RC also wins drink packages (although we didn’t get one this time). Sometimes I am just plain too damn full on the ships to drink all day as well, so I do like that on RC only one person in a cabin has to buy the drink package. On Carnival (which we normally sail), every adult in a cabin has to buy it. But they don’t win drink prices. By the time they add on their mandatory tips, a basic shitty beer is $7 USD. Blended drinks start around $12 USD. From our group, people generally had no issues “smuggling” alcohol onto the ship though.
From this sailing, RC swayed me at least to a point where I would consider them again if a great deal on a great itinerary came around, so that’s progress… but they still aren’t my favourite. Both of our cruises with them have been a nightmare to book, and we’ve never had that problem with anyone else. With any line, there’s things we liked and things we didn’t. Most of the things we didn’t like on this one involved pricing – RC just feels more nickle and dimey to us. Things that would have been free on other lines were paid offerings on Royal. Adding $26 (like $35 CAD right now) per couple per day for tips automatically still irritates me. Tipping is for exceptional service, and if you are going to force it onto my account, service better be exceptional. We are very easy on our room stewards and never ask them for anything. We’re also very easy to get along with in the dining room. You can opt to remove the tips from your account by going to guest services and then tipping in cash or doing whatever you want, but we didn’t bother. I think I am going to move towards doing this from now on and just tipping in person in cash.
Also on this one, our dining room waiters practically begged us to make sure we gave them a 10 on the survey RC sends out following a cruise. Anything less could apparently result in them getting moved to a smaller section, and therefore receiving less tips. Also, there was a super irritating section head that checked on us a lot at dinner, but didn’t ever listen to a thing anyone said to him. He also was very adamant that we should give everything a 10. Sorry RC, but your dining options for someone who doesn’t eat meat come no where close to a 10.
I missed my free laundry from Carnival (or even the option to just do my own laundry, especially since we get all sweaty and gross running every morning and it was quite hot and humid most days on this sailing). The Internet was a lot more than we pay on Carnival. When we sailed the Jewel last year, the food was pretty much terrible. It was better on this sailing – at least on par with pretty much every cruise we’ve done. Our waiter quickly picked up on the fact that I never ordered anything with meat in it and told me of other available options that weren’t on the menu. I would have flagged with our reservation in advance, but we had a hard enough time just getting this booked.
The ship never really felt too crowded, except on the Promenade where they were constantly blocking the aisles to sell junk (there was literally a line 100 people long for a purse sale the morning of the last sea day). We were going to donate a few dollars to the casino, but they required you to bring cash and we never had cash on us. We didn’t use the gym (looked fine), spa (looked small), and we didn’t try all the pay restaurants. We didn’t eat a single meal in Windjammer (which is a huge success in and of itself). The activities staff that ran the trivia and games and stuff were pretty lackluster(just dialing it in), and the piano player was pretty entertaining (but a little too talky). I don’t know if they reuse everything week to week, but if you are doing either of the scavenger hunts, find the picture of the pink alligator. Bar service was slow almost every time we got a drink. A lot of the bars only ever had one or two people working. The pub on Oasis was no where near as awesome as the Red Frog on Carnival.
All in all, we had a great week hanging out with friends and relaxing. This is a really nice ship and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend that someone try it if you could get a good price on it (you could get this same itinerary on a smaller ship for a lot less). Because it’s so big (it can accommodate something like 6600 passengers), there’s only certain ports it can actually visit. If you’re travelling with kids, there’s lots for them to do (including huge areas and an entire pool just for them), as well as Dreamworks characters randomly making appearances daily around the ship. You can pay to go to breakfast with the characters as well (don’t be so cheap RC, that could be a free option!).
And for those who care about the “rant” – here it is. I’ll try and keep it short. Greg won this cruise from a contest we were entered into when we booked the Jewel of the Seas last year. The booking process for that cruise was a pain in the ass because the group bookers at RC were completely useless. When notified, we were told that the prize was a $3000 RCCL cruise with no other real restrictions. We knew in advance we had to cover port fees, tips, and our own airfare. We were fine with all of that. We had until the end of April 2016 to use it. After we accepted the terms, we were sent a voucher. In the voucher, our prize then became a $3000 RCCL cruise, valid in the Caribbean only, for an inside cabin only, to be used by the end of December 2015. We quickly got the date straightened back out. Nothing else came easy.
Now, before I get any snarky commentary about how we won a cruise and now are whining about it… let me clear up something. My biggest pet peeve (hell, it’s way more than a pet peeve) in the entire universe is when someone thinks they or their time is more important than me and my time. I am important and so is my time. Plus customer service matters.
So back to the rant. We won this cruise in October of 2014. I finally managed to get a cruise officially booked in July of 2015. The communication breakdown was absolutely maddening. If we asked RC a question, they said to contact the travel agency. If we asked the travel agency, they had to ask RC. When they did reply, they didn’t answer the questions we asked. To be fair, our usual TA sent a lot of emails for us, which was super nice considering there was no commission in this for her (and so she is excluded from all of this rant). Before all of this, I was actually planning to train and go to work for this travel agency. Once all this started, all bets were off. Both RC and the travel agency couldn’t have possibly been less helpful. We tried to book several itineraries and they just plain wouldn’t let us. When they did bother to get back to us, they just suggested something shitty we weren’t interested in or options that were sailing within a couple of weeks (we live nowhere near any of their cruise ports, so it’s just not realistic). They asked us for a list of ships, dates, etc. that we would be interested in and then completely ignored everything we sent them. I sent tons of emails trying to get this sorted out, spent a lot of time on the phone, and waited sometimes weeks for a simple response to sort this. On more than one occasion I nearly just said eff it and gave up – and that’s not something I would ever normally do (and that just made me more determined).
In addition to all the emailing fun I had, we weren’t actually allowed to use our whole prize. During the months we were trying to book (booking a cruise should take 10 minutes, not 9 months), there was not a single Caribbean itinerary that existed where we would be able to come even close to using $3000 for an inside cabin. They would not budge at all on the inside cabin thing, and in the end, we ended up with a $2000 cruise vacation and we paid the difference for a balcony because we had three sea days. But there’s no way I’m calling this free. We earned every second of it with all the work we had to do to get it booked, and we had to fight long and hard to match up to a cruise with friends on the Oasis.
So ignoring the rant and things being more expensive than they probably should be on RC, we still had a great time on holidays (all holidays are good holidays). We can have fun everywhere, especially with friends around. To the rest of our normal crew, you were missed!