Royal Caribbean’s Freedom of the Seas: Passenger Tips – Part Two

In last week’s Travel Wednesday post, I detailed five tips for future travelers on Royal Caribbean’s Freedom of the Seas.  My family and I spent a week on the Freedom of the Seas in late May and early June, traveling to Haiti, Grand Cayman, Jamaica and Cozumel.

This week, I conclude my list, with an additional six tips.

1. Get up early if you want lounge chairs near the pool on the days at sea

Despite a “guest conduct policy” that prohibits saving chairs and signs that say attendants will remove personal items left on an unoccupied chair for more than 30 minutes, we never saw any issues with saving chairs.  However, we did see many people disappointed by 9:00am when the only chairs they could find were either in the shade or on deck 12, one level above the pool, where the wind is fierce.  Getting there early is even more critical if you want chairs by the adult pool.  These are premium seats for the quiet and for the chair cushions which aren’t available at other pools.

The Adult Pool on the Freedom of the Seas

Our cruise had two days at sea, and on both days we got up around 8:00 and put out towels, magazines, sun tan lotion and other markers to stake our claim on two lounge chairs near the adult pool.  By the time we finished breakfast and made it up to our seats around 9:30, all the chairs were long gone.  No one had disturbed our stuff, and we settled right in.  We recommend making friends with the people near you, so that you can protect each other’s chairs when you step away for food, a massage, or to gamble.

I’ve seen other reviews that suggest our behavior is revolting and mean-spirited.  Sorry.  I spent a lot of money on this vacation, and I got up early to get the seat I want.  If you want a better chair, get up earlier than me.

2.  Book your own excursions

We booked excursions in Jamaica and in Cozumel on our own, not through RC.  We found both excursions through Trip Advisor and found the reviews to be accurate. In one instance we had a better time and saved money, and in the other we did something that RC doesn’t offer.

On Jamaica, we booked a day-long tour that included climbing Dunn’s River Falls, a tubing trip down the river, and a stop for lunch.  Our guide, Phil Lafayette, kept us entertained with his stories and his narration of the surroundings.  When rain washed out the tubing trip, he took us to nearby areas for more sightseeing, and he reduced the cost.  The cost should have been $55 per adult and $45 per child under 11.  We found similar trips offered by RC that were double the price.  Finding Phil at the dock was easy, and we were one of seven or eight families that did the same thing.  (By the way, if you haven’t climbed Dunn’s River Falls and you are physically able to do so, I highly recommend it.)

On Cozumel, we participated in the Amazing Cozumel Race.  This is offered by Carnival, but not yet by RC, so we booked it ourselves.  We walked, swam, and ran 3.5 miles through and around downtown Cozumel in 90 minutes, moving from clue to clue as in the television show Amazing Race.  We finished third, behind a group of four 20-somethings and behind another family with older kids.  It was nearly 100 degrees, but, except for a bit of family bickering at the clues, we really enjoyed ourselves.  The race was inventive and challenging.  The cost for the four of us was $268.

3. Get private lessons on the Flowrider

The Flowrider lives up to expectations.  Located on deck 12 at the rear of the ship, the Flowrider is a “ride” in which water pulsating very fast up an incline provides resistance to allow “riders” to surf or boogie board.  As you might imagine, the lines get very long, especially during the days at sea.  At about five minutes per surfer or boogie boarder, it takes a while to get through the line.

For $60 per person, you can take private lessons on the Flowrider.  We signed our son up for surfing and our daughter up for boogie boarding.  At 9:00pm on the second night, they had one-on-one instruction in a group.  For example, my son was one of four surfers for the hour, but each time he was up, he worked directly with an instructor.  During the lessons, the surfers and boogie boarders can use the whole Flowrider each time, whereas during the day, the Flowrider is divided in half to allow more people to use it.  After the lessons, both kids qualified to attend “expert sessions” early in the morning when lines are shorter.  We can’t recommend these lessons enough.  Below is video from our kids lessons.

4. Get a “cabana chair” in Haiti

Unfortunately, we found information lacking about RC’s private beach at Labadee, Haiti.  We checked for maps at guest services and asked around, but could learn almost nothing.  The head of the excursions desk on deck 5 knew zero!  I want to pass one thing on to you.

When you get off this ship, go straight and take the path almost as far as you can take it.  By walking straight and far, you come to a less rocky area, from which you can swim.  However, you will also find “cabana” chairs.  These are two normal chairs pushed under a half-moon, umbrella like cover that provides shade and a bit of privacy.  They are first-come, first-serve.  If you don’t care about swimming, then find some shade under a tree.  But, if you want to swim and want shade to relax, go directly for a cabana chair.

5. Return to the ship earlier than normal in Grand Cayman

Grand Cayman is a tender port.  This means that you go from ship to tender (a boat) to the shore.  At all other ports, you can just walk off the ship.  These tenders become natural bottleneck as they fill up with passengers and leave the dock.  The line quickly gets long and winds through the port area.  When the sun is hot and the line moves slowly, it’s no fun.  If we had to do it over again, we’d head back to the boat on the earlier side to avoid the lines and take advantage of quiet on board ship.

6. Depart on your own terms.

After going through departure, I have two tips.

First, don’t forget to fill out your departure times on a slip in the room.  We forgot and ended up in group 20, which was scheduled to leave at 8:30am.  We were in no rush, but 8:30 was just too late.  There is commotion all over the ship.  As a result, it’s nearly impossible to sleep late.  I recommend something around 7:30 or 7:45.  Remember to fill out your forms and leave on the earlier side.

Second, if you are antsy, you don’t have to wait for your number to be called to leave.  The departure group numbers are the order in which luggage is delivered to the baggage area.  It is not a limiting factor on when you can leave the ship.  If you are in group 20 and want to leave with group 1, you can.  However, you are stuck in the baggage area until your bags come out.  Although we were group 20, we departed when they called group 15, and only  had to wait a short time for our bags.  Not one person asked us what our group number was except the person directing us to the right luggage carousel.

I hope this week’s and last week’s tips are helpful.  If you have other questions, post a comment and I’ll answer as best I can.

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Royal Caribbean’s Freedom of the Seas: Passenger Tips – Part One

In late May/early June, our family went on a one-week cruise on Royal Caribbean’s Freedom of the Seas.  The cruise left Port Canaveral in Florida and went to RC’s private beach in Labadee, Haiti, to Jamaica, to Grand Cayman, and to Cozumel.  There were also two days at sea.  We thoroughly enjoyed ourselves and recommended the cruise to families and couples.

Spidey on Labadee, Royal Caribbean's Private Beach on Haiti

The Freedom of the Seas is one of the Freedom Class of ships from Royal Caribbean and was the largest cruise ship in operations from its launch in 2006 until the Oasis of the Seas was launched in 2009.  The Freedom of the Seas has a capacity of 3,634 passengers and 1,300 crew.  It cost $800 million to build.

Rather that do a straight review (there are 412 such reviews at Cruise Critic), I thought I would share with you, over two posts, some tips for after you decide to take a cruise on this ship.  Let’s start with food, since that is often (always?) the central point of cruises:

1. Buy Bottles of Wine Not Individual Glasses

My colleague Mike told me about this before we left, and he was right.  Glasses of wine in the dining room can be expensive – in the $15 range.  However, if you know that you want wine every night and don’t mind the same wine for two nights or more in a row, buy a bottle.  At the end of the meal, your waiter marks the cork with your table number, takes it away, and then brings it back the next night for you to finish.  Since we had only two drinkers (my wife and I), this worked better than the RC Wine Plan, where the fewest number of bottles you can buy is five.  The per bottle cost of the Wine Plan is less than we paid, but we couldn’t have possibly drunk five bottles in a week.

2. Try the Buffet for Dinner

The food in the dining room is generally very good, and the service has a nice pace to it.  However, I urge you to try the buffet for dinner at least once.  After a long day in Cozumel, we decided to hit the buffet for dinner and were pleasantly surprised.  Before even considering the food, there are four clear pluses of the buffet:  1) you can wear whatever you want (no need for long pants), 2) you can eat as fast or as slow as you want, 3) you can try a lot more things, and 4) you get a great view up on the 11th floor, compared to the 3rd, 4th, or 5th floor views from the dining rooms.  We found the food to be of great variety and very tasty.  They had everything from sushi to Indian to pasta to burgers and pizza.  I had an ice cream sundae for desert.  It was a great way to start a relaxing evening.

3. Get the Early Dining Seating for Dinner

Yes, this tip may just reflect our preference, but 8:30pm is just too late for dinner for us.  If you get the 6:00pm seating, you can go as late as 6:30 and have no problems.  Since it takes at least 15 minutes to get your food, you are really eating at 6:45.  As far as the “My Time Dining,” which gives you flexibility:  we found that there was a lot of scrambling by those families to pick a time every day.  6:00pm dining also means you see the shows after dinner, which fit our schedule.

4. Get the Fountain Soda Package

This worked for us, but we are pretty big Diet Coke/Diet Pepsi drinkers.  The cost is $6 per day for adults and $4 per day for kids.  If you don’t buy the package, each soda is $1.50 plus 15% gratuity.  On the first day of the cruise, they offered the soda package at a discount, so I would wait to buy on board.  Unfortunately, there’s no self-serve soda, although I hear that’s coming.  Instead, you have to go to one of the bars and show your room key with a sticker that identifies you as having purchased the soda package.  We bought two – one for my wife and me and one for our two kids.  You could always flash someone else’s card with the sticker to get a soda, so sharing is definitely possible.  $6 per day = 4 sodas per day or 2 sodas per person, which is well below our normal drinking rate.  We certainly exceeded that and got our money’s worth.

That’s it for food tips.

Let me add one other tip and then save the rest for next Wednesday:

5. Prepare to be Disconnected

Royal Caribbean claims to have mobile phone service for those whose phones support GPRS.  However, I found the data service on my iPhone to be very spotty and completely unavailable for the last day or so.  I could make calls, in theory, but any data service from email to  texting to Twitter just didn’t work most of the time.  In my case, work paid for the international service, but I would check your rates to see if it is even worth it.  As far as Internet, you can get access, but it is very expensive — $0.65 per minute or packages such as $150 for 500 minutes.  Those minutes go fast if you have two kids like mine that live on Facebook.  There are no newspapers on board, so the best you can do is CNN Headline News, which gets boring after a while.

Next week – tips on activities and excursions.