30th August – 2nd September 2019 Royal Caribbean Cruise Review
We’re Peter & Patrick from Manchester, UK and it’s been 5 years since we sailed on this class of ship (Freedom). The last time was on her sister ship, Liberty of the Seas. I was eager to see the new additions such as The Perfect Storm water slides, Skypad, Splashaway Bay water park and specialty dining venues such as Izumi and Fish & Ships.
This was a family treat for Patrick’s sister, brother in law and niece. Celebrating their wedding anniversary on boarding day and his sister’s birthday the next day.
We travelled down to Southampton on Thursday 29 August and stayed overnight at Jurys Inn, Charlotte Place. Although the rooms are OK, the property is let down by its service.
With being just a 3-night sailing, there were only 2 ports visited, Zeebrugge in Belgium and Cherbourg, France.
I had ensured that everyone had a printed Set Sail pass, although I also had them stored in the Royal Caribbean mobile App which provides lots of information on all your booked cruises. More on that later.
We entered the terminal with our carry on baggage and cleared security scanning and proceeded to check-in.
Since the implementation of “The Key” program where guests can purchase additional benefits such as priority check-in, it has been reported that there are no longer separate lines for loyalty Crown & Anchor program members. This appeared to be the case in Southampton, but to be fair there were no lines when we arrived as scheduled at approximately 11:30.
However, due to the new check-in process which can take place in line (so you are not always waiting for an agent at a desk) means your Sea Passcards are not provided at this stage but, are available outside your cabin. A member of staff scans your Set Sail pass using a tablet, then checks your passport and if you didn’t upload a photo as part of your online check-in, takes your photo. You just answer the questions from the health questionnaire and you’re on your way to the ship! Very efficient and painless.
We boarded the ship on deck 4 near to the Schooner Bar and Izumi which replaced the top level of the disco (the lower level converted to cabins) and made our way initially to deck 5 and the Royal Promenade to take a drink in the Ale & Anchor. Forgetting that when sailing from the UK, the 18% gratuity is included in the price displayed, at first the prices looked high at $7.75 for a bottle of Corona and $8.25 for a Budweiser. Prices also included 20% VAT which had to be charged as this sailing would not visit a non-EU port.
Lunch beckoned so we headed for the Windjammer on deck 11 and I was pleased to see handwashing stations had been installed at the entrance, although disappointed at the reluctance of some who declined to use them before entering the venue.
As expected, the place was extremely busy as is always the case on embarkation day and it took a while to find seating for 5 of us, but we managed it eventually.
Taking of advantage of our ‘buy one get one free’ speciality dining cover charge, I made reservations at Chops Grille for that same evening as an anniversary treat for Patrick’s sister, niece and brother in law.
At precisely 1:30pm (as advised when boarding) an announcement was made that cabins were now available. So that’s when the Windjammer emptied!
We had balcony cabins on deck 7, theirs port side (7628 category 1D) and ours starboard (7354 category 4B). 7628 was a connecting cabin so only had an armchair in place of a sofa and the 3rd bed was a pullman type that drops from the ceiling above the other 2 twin beds.
As you entered 7354 the bathroom with shower enclosure (no curtain, rounded Perspex doors!) was to the left and the closet to the right. The bathroom had ample space and a corner mirrored cupboard with 3 shelves giving plenty of storage. A single shampoo/conditioner/body wash dispenser was provided in the shower with shelves for toiletries and a retractable line for drying clothes. A shaver powerpoint above the wash hand basin which also had some complimentary toiletries (shampoo, moisturiser, conditioner etc). Two glasses together with washcloths, hand and bath towels and shower mat. Above the toilet was another towel rail useful for hanging damp towels over to dry off. No nightlight in these bathrooms which is becoming the norm on newer build ships.
The air conditioning control was just to the right of the entrance to the bathroom.
In the closet, there were a few clothes hangers, enough for our short sailing, but far fewer than usual in my opinion and you’d definitely need to ask your stateroom attendant for more for a longer cruise. The in-room safe was also located on one of the floor to ceiling shelves in the closet. Our life vests were also stored in there.
As a perk of the loyalty program, 2 bathrobes had been left on the bed for our use.
Next to the closet was the desk area with mirror (mirrored cupboards with shelves on either side), power outlets (2 US and 1 European), TV and tray containing electric Kettle, mugs and a small supply of tea/coffee/milk/sugar. The kettle is a UK thing and only provided when ships sail out of the UK.
Under the desk were sets of drawers containing hairdryer, tissues, and information booklets. The cooler/mini-fridge (empty these days unless you ask for it to be filled) was also located here.
Opposite was a sofa bed that would convert I believe into a double bed. If this cabin slept 4 people, it would be pretty cramped when the sofa bed was extended and made up.
We had 2 beds with cupboards to either side. New slimmer style phones have been installed which also contained 1 USB port that would be handy overnight to charge your phone etc.
At the balcony doors there were only drapes, no net curtains as previously seen on this class of ship, but the drapes appeared to have ‘blackout’ material on the back.
As usual with this class of RCI ship, the balconies are very generous and so had a couple of big chairs and a large high table.
Lighting was good as was the air conditioning but remember it doesn’t function if you have the balcony door open.
The only issue for me was the fact that the interactive TV did not work so I had to use the RCI app (connects for free to Voom wi-fi) to check my on-board account and manage reservations. Maybe that’s the way RCI is going, not sure. I think I may have mentioned the TV if we were on a longer sailing, but for 3 nights I could do what I wanted on the app.
As already mentioned, there’s the Windjammer buffet (deck 11 aft) with the 2 speciality restaurants – Chops Grille (steakhouse) and Giovanni’s Table (Italian) on either side.
Also, on deck 11, but out on the pool deck near the newly designed ‘Splashaway Bay’ is ‘Fish and Ships’ a café providing items such as fish and chips for an al a carte fee.
Deck 12 has Johnny Rockets American Diner where you can all you want for a cover charge of $9.95 per person. Check the opening times in the Cruise Compass as they do vary.
The 3-storey main dining room extends from deck 3 to deck 5. Deck 3 used for ‘My Time’ dining in the evening where, although reservations are not required, it is suggested as it can get extremely busy resulting in long waits for a table at the most popular times. Decks 4 & 5 are still for fixed time dining.
Breakfast is offered in the Main Dining room on decks 3 & 4 (check opening times) with table service or buffet area on deck 4 and table service on deck 4. Also, in the dining room on deck 4 to the left as you enter was an area for Diamond Plus & Pinnacle Crown and Anchor loyalty program members where you did not have to wait for a table.
Down on deck 5 and the Royal Promenade, you have Café Promenade offering complimentary snacks such as cakes, cookies and small sandwiches. At the opposite end, you have Sorento’s which serves pizza and salads.
Down to deck 4 and just beyond Boleros bar is the newly created Playmakers Sports Bar & Arcade which is enclosed by huge glass doors that open automatically as you approach. As is the case with sports bars there are numerous screens showing sporting events, a long bar and various tables/benches with seating and other arcade games. An American menu is offered with al a carte pricing.
If you keep walking through and exit Playmakers at the opposite side, again by automatic sliding doors, you enter Casino Royal (which can also be accessed by a staircase from the Royal Promenade above next to Vintages Wine Bar opposite the Ale & Anchor pub.
As you leave Casino Royale you enter the Schooner Bar which offers entertainment by a pianist on most evenings. Located opposite is now Izumi which offers both a sushi bar and a great hibachi experience where you sit around a cooking area where a chef will prepare your lunch or dinner right in front of you whilst at the same time providing humorous entertainment.
In addition, there are evenings where the ‘Chef’s table’ formal private dining experience is offered on deck 5 aft, for a very small group which offers a 5-course dinner and wine pairing.
There is always room service providing breakfast in the morning (check the Compass for available times) and then from 11:00 am until 6:00 am the next morning, except for boarding day when it isn’t available until early evening and the last night when it ends shortly after midnight. There now appears to be a $7.95 per room service charge for all room service orders.
There are numerous bars around the ship, starting with the ‘Olive or Twist’ in the Viking Crown Lounge on deck 14. Please note only the elevators on the port side of the aft centrum will enable access to this deck.
The Viking Crown Lounge also houses the Diamond Club for Diamond, Diamond Plus and Pinnacle Crown & Anchor members. A lounge available 24 hours a day accessed by key card providing complimentary continental breakfast, lunchtime snacks and an evening cocktail ‘hour’ serving complimentary beverages from a limited menu and canapes.
Where there were 2 rooms used for card games and private events there is now the Suite Lounge where, as the name implies, suite guests have 24-hour access and complimentary continental breakfast, lunchtime snacks and an evening cocktail ‘hour’.
I have already mentioned the Ale and Anchor, Vintages (deck 5), Boleros, Playmakers, and Schooner Bar on deck 4, but there is the Champagne bar (deck 5), Casino Bar (deck 4), Pool Bar and Solarium Bar on deck 11, Sky Lounge (deck 12), Plaza Bar (deck 11 in Windjammer), Star Lounge (deck 5) not forgetting there is a bar in the Royal Theatre when shows are playing.
Alcoholic beverages are also available at Sorrento’s with soda available from the 2 self-serve ‘Freestyle’ soda dispensers located there, coffees at Café Promenade, and ice cream from Ben & Jerry’s opposite.
There are so many options it is difficult to list them all, from the production shows in the Royal Theatre theatre to the entertainers at many of the lounges and bars around the ship in the evening. Grease is the main production show but unfortunately, we didn’t get to see it due to technical issues. A later show was rearranged but we didn’t make that as we were enjoying the ‘Rock Britannia’ party on the Royal Promenade.
There are numerous ‘events’, weather permitting, on the main pool deck.
There were so many activities arranged that it was necessary to review the Cruise Compass or the RCI app on a daily basis to plan your day if you wish to take part.
As Independence has 2 water slides (Perfect Storm & Typhoon), FlowRider surf simulator, Rock Climbing wall and a sports court there were many opportunities for enjoying yourself on the pool decks, together with the Sky Climber and ‘Skypad’ virtual reality trampoline experience.
As mentioned earlier there is Splashaway Bay, the Main Pool and the adults-only Solarium.
A Laser Tag game is often set up in Studio B and then there is Independence Dunes Golf which has been relocated to deck 13 forward.
Another new addition is the Escape Room located on deck 15. Unfortunately, as it was often in use, I didn’t get chance to review the venue (it is where the chapel used to be).
Independence is now one of the few ships left where you can get right to the front of the ship. Go along deck 4 promenade deck and then up some steps to the helipad.
The majority of retail venues are located along the Royal Promenade with a high-end brand such as Michael Kors.
There is an Art Gallery and the PhotoShop on deck 3 and the ‘Picture This Studio’ for personal photo sessions on deck 2.
Independence has the standard Royal Caribbean high-speed system called ‘Voom’. This can be used for free if you are only using the app, otherwise, there are various packages available for purchase.
Towards the end of the cruise, you will receive a leaflet explaining the process.
If you want to carry off your own bags, then you can, and there’s no need to place your bags outside your cabin the night before.
No luggage tags are required, and you will be able to disembark the ship in the first group leaving the ship once it has been cleared by the authorities.
If you do wish for RCI to take your bags off for collection in the terminal, then your bags need to be placed outside your stateroom by 10pm on the last evening.
A coloured tag will be delivered to your cabin at the same time of the leaflet explaining the process.
On the last morning, breakfast is served in the Main Dining Room and Windjammer Café, check the departure leaflet for times and venues.
You are allowed to stay into your cabin until 8am which is not as generous compared to other lines which let you stay until 9am.
Announcements are made when disembarkation starts and once again each time the next colour tag group is available. The electronic screens located around the ship also show the current status of which groups have been called.
Summary & Conclusions
Taking into consideration we are not Royal Caribbean ‘virgins’ we still naturally make comparisons with the other cruise lines we have sailed on (NCL, Celebrity, MSC, Cunard, P&O, & Carnival). The following are purely our observations and may not impact others and so please do not take the negatives as criticisms, none ruined our sailing.
There were a few nice touches in the balcony cabin such as kettle, ample storage, and the shower was very roomy.
Turn down service included a towel animal every night.
The door magnet for ‘Do not disturb’, and ‘Makeup Cabin’ is a better option than the old-style card that you had to place in the key slot.
The beds were extremely comfortable as always and gave us a great night’s sleep.
Numerous indoor venues for relaxing and entertainment such as the Star Lounge, Viking Crown in addition to bars and lounges give plenty of places to enjoy.
Obviously, there was the main pool area and sports court together with the 2 water slides were extremely popular.
All staff were very friendly and helpful, with a few officers visible, all of them greeting guests with a smile whenever passing you around the ship.
The Cruise Director and his team were good and ensured that all guests were encouraged to attend the various events organised by them and very energetic to keep people entertained.
Bar service was very good in all venues we attended, despite being busy at times. On the whole table service in the restaurants was great, again considering the number of people being served by the wait staff.
The ship is attractive to look at both externally and internally, so is pleasing to the eye and the venues have very comfortable and plentiful seating each with a style of its own. It is obvious that much of the furniture in some of the bars/lounges/restaurants have been updated to give a more modern feel.
The floor space was fine for 2, but for 3 or 4 it would be a little cramped in our opinion.
Due to the limited time we had on board it’s hard to form an opinion of all the venues, other than to say $9.95 for Johnny Rockets is getting a little high in our opinion.
Maybe due to the short nature of the sailing, many venues appeared very busy at most times. Although the addition of numerous cabins has meant more guests are onboard in the same public spaces.
Did we enjoy the cruise? Yes, we did.
Did we have any issues that meant we had to visit Guest Services? No, none
Did we value what Royal Caribbean offered for the price we paid? Definitely.
Would be sail with them again? Yes, of course, we already have an Anthem sailing from Southampton booked for June, and the Allure westbound transatlantic from Barcelona in November 2020, followed by Voyager from Sydney, Australia in April 2021!
Did we enjoy the company of our fellow sailors? Such a short sailing did not really give time to get to know our fellow cruisers, but those we did meet were great.
So, despite our observations above, would we still recommend Royal Caribbean? Yes, because it has more similarities to the other mass-market lines such as Norwegian, Carnival, and MSC.
Check out the blogs for this and some of our other sailings here: –
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