This year, I was lucky enough to travel on the large Royal Caribbean’s Allure of the Seas cruise ship with my husband and sister and her family. We had booked it last May (2018) for our travel dates in February 2019, because we’d found a Buy one get 2nd half off deal + cruise ship credits that sounded too good to pass up, even though it was a long waiting time after we’d booked the trip! Suffice to say we were all excited to be traveling on a cruise since we’d all heard and seen so much of them over the last few years. They’ve definitely become a lot more common as a travel source to beautiful destinations and our brother and his wife have raved about it, and so we couldn’t wait to check out this type of travel ourselves. (As a bonus, I was going with my little nephews and so excited about taking them along on their first ever vacation).
For those people who haven’t been on a cruise yet, there’s definitely things to know before you go. Imran and I have been on enough resort type vacations, where the all-inclusiveness of everything makes it one of our easy go-to’s when we want to get away. Before we booked the cruise, I thought this new kind of vacation would be similar to the resort types. And in some ways we were right, and in others we were totally wrong.
Here are some things you need to know before you book/go on a cruise vacation. Note that this was for the Royal Caribbean cruise line, some of the others such as Carnival have different policies and it’s always best to check on their website what’s included/ not included.
Food and drinks are not all inclusive.
Food is one of the most exciting things about taking a vacation. Trying out new delicacies, experiencing food of another place and culture, different tastes and knowing you’re going to eat only delicious things on vacation (especially a cruise or a resort vacation). Before we’d booked the cruise, I thought all food on the ship would be included for us to dine on. But once we got there, we found out that buffets are all you can eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner each night, as well as 2 main restaurants, and some specialty cafes and restaurants (pizza place, sandwich place, dessert cafe). The rest, around 7 or 8 specialized dinner venues were paid for. That meant that if you wanted sushi or steak or BBQ or Italian, you’d have to pay for them. The way the payment system works is they put it on the card you receive at the beginning of your trip, and at checkout, you pay whatever balance has been accumulated on your card. We ate a lot as a family at the buffet (let’s just say breakfast at the same buffet after 5-6 days got very redundant, even with the variety, but this is similar to resorts), and separately, Imran and I ate at the Italian and BBQ restaurants to try them out, both of which were paid. We also ate as a family at one of the a-la-carte main restaurants which was included and I found this one to be a beautiful dining experience with delicious foods and great service.
Drinks too are not all included. This includes both pop drinks like Coke, Sprite, etc. as well as any alcohol you may want to drink. The only included drinks are water, orange juice and sugar-free iced-tea. This is something I did not know when I booked the cruise, and was pretty bummed out about because I like to drink pop and lots of virgin pina coladas on my warm beach vacations! However, you are allowed to bring a box of pop with you on the ship, as well as a bottle of wine with you at time of boarding. Lots of people brought wine and we brought coke with us, which we had once or twice on our cruise balcony. Hot drinks like tea and coffee are included and you can get these from different cafes and venues across the ship. There was also an ice cream bar which was great for hot days and the kids loved having ice cream there a lot. A big benefit for us was the $250 worth of cruise credits we had received when we booked – because of this we did not pay out of pocket for our food and drinks as we used that for food, drinks, and shopping, etc.
2. There are a TON of activities to do – too much to even relax on some days.
Cruise ships are made to keep you busy while you are traveling on the water to different locations across the Caribbean. For the first 3 days while you are just on water (no land in sight!), you get to enjoy all the activities and shows the cruise has to offer. In our 7 days of cruising, we saw 3 amazing world class shows: Mamma Mia, Blue Planet, and an outdoor Aqua show in the large Aquatheatre. Both inside shows were spectacular and both would get booked early in advance. We had to use a cruise app while on the ship to book timings to see the shows, and for Blue Planet, we didn’t show up early enough (15 minutes before show starts), and by the time we got to the amazingly large theater, it was hard to find a spot for 6 people to sit together. So we had to wait 1.5 hours for the next show and come early to find good seats.
Other activities we did was in the daytime, the boys went surf boarding on the ship, they’d play basketball, could go rock climbing, Ayesha and Ali took their kids to the kids area on Deck 5 where you’d have a carousel and Disney characters come out to greet the children and have ice cream. And Imran and I would go into the pools and hot tubs during the day and spend time enjoying the adult-only hot tub area on Deck 7. There are also a ton of workshops offered, everything from learning how to age better, to cooking classes, to art auction workshops, to getting your scuba certification while on the cruise. There are a thousand ways to keep busy, and it’s easy to get caught up in all the fun and busyness, sometimes too much to even relax and take a breather. After the first 3-4 days of us doing lots of things, we all decided to cut back on some of the in-cruise experiences and just enjoy one or two main things each day. Otherwise, you’d come off a cruise ship feeling more worn out than relaxed! (Note that some of the workshops offered give you perks, but when you get there it’s really a pitch to sell you a product or service).
3. Some of the land days will be shorter than you think so plan ahead.
We were porting at 3 different places over 3 days: St. Maarten, Puerto Rico and Labadee, Haiti (a beautiful Island the Royal Caribbean is renting from Haiti). After 3 days on the ship, we came to St. Maarten where we were given 7-8 hours before boarding back on the ship. This was plenty of time to go to the beach, relax in the water, and also check out the cool airport in St. Maarten where the planes land just above you, since the airport is next to the beach (Maho Beach).
On the 2nd day of landing, we were at Puerto Rico. Here we had 5-6 hours before we needed to come back. This day we did not have enough time to explore both Old and New San Juan on our own, so we rented a tour guide to take us around Old San Juan before bringing us back to the cruise dock. This day was also super rainy so a lot of times we were getting drenched in the rain, or had to drive past places we’d normally stop at because of the rain. And having only 4 hours outside to enjoy puts unnecessary pressure on you because you have to keep track of time the whole time you’re outside exploring. The ships do not wait for people to all board – if you are running late, the cruise leaves without you as they give you ample warning to get back on the boat by a certain time.
On “land” days, everyone follows the same schedule. People wake up super early around 6 or 7, have breakfast and by 8 am thousands of people are getting out to go explore the island. One thing to know here is they don’t let you bring back anything from outside in terms of items you may have found. At St. Maarten, I helped my nephew Adam collect lots of seashells which we packed up and brought back. However when we came back and checked in at the dock, they scanned our bags and found we were carrying seashells. I was told to get rid of them and was super sad to have to throw them all away (Adam was going to gift these to family back home), the lady doing the check in saw this was a big deal and let me keep them quietly and hushed me out of the way. We didn’t pick up any more shells anywhere else because I didn’t want to have to throw them away while boarding.
Another thing to note is that if you have food you bought at the islands, when you are de-boarding the cruise to go back home, you have to throw away any fruit and vegetables you might have bought and were planning to take back home with you. They will not allow you to leave with it and so we lost a very delicious mango to the large fruit pile gathering on the ship as we left.
4. Larger cruise ships (the kind we went on) are packed.
Our cruise ship was about 5000 people. That meant about 3000 vacationers and 2000 staff. That’s a lot of people! Our ship had 18 decks and was pretty much a large moving city on the ocean. And it was packed. Maybe it had to do with the fact that it was February and people were trying to get away from the cold, but I’d think that every time a cruise ship leaves the port, it is probably a full ship. This meant that every time Imran and I decided to go to the adult-only pool and hot tub area, they were usually packed with people. And lots of times we couldn’t even find a deck chair to sit down or put our stuff on. We had to walk away 2 or 3 times because there was just no space in that area of the pool. Once, we came right after breakfast and found good seating – any later than that and all the poolside chairs are gone and the pools are packed. Same goes for night time shows: if you don’t come early enough, they’ll get packed and you’ll have to catch the next show or do something else. Same with breakfast, if 3000 people are all trying to have breakfast at the same time, it gets super packed and you have to find space to sit and eat in a large crowd (especially on land days). It gets stressful sometimes dealing with large crowds, and you have to be very patient.
There are also a LOT of old people on cruise ships. You’ll find half the population is a crowd over 60 who’s there to have fun and relax. We did not see a lot of young couples on the boat (like we did on our honeymoon resort), although people did bring families with them. So it’s a very distinct crowd that comes on the boat. But one of the benefits of having 2000 cruise staff on board is that they are everywhere and you can ask them for assistance or questions anytime, and they’re more than willing to help and provide excellent customer service.
5. You have to pay mandatory gratuities (in the hundreds).
I believe every cruise ship charges gratuities for all the staff they have to pay. You can choose to pay the approximately $20/day/person gratuity upfront when booking our cruise vacation, or wait to pay at the end when checking out. Imran and I decided to pay this $280 CAD gratuity charge upfront so we didn’t have to worry about it at the end, since it’s a charge that’s not going to go away. Ayesha and Ali decided to pay this at the end and use their on-board credit to pay off some of the gratuities. They had a higher tipping fee because they had 2 kids with them also. Note that this is common for cruise ships but is never charged on resorts. So be mindful of this before you book, because if you’re going with a whole family, this can add up pretty quickly to be over $600+!
6. The ship moves.
This one is pretty self explanatory. You’re traveling on a boat in the middle of the ocean. And when the ship is going full speed (which it definitely will to make all its destinations on time), you will feel this constant movement back and forth, and the constant vertigo will make you dizzy sometimes. For me, every time I went to the washroom I felt the gentle sway of the ship. And once when I went in the middle of the night, I guess they had just landed at one of the ports and the ship was swaying a lot. Thankfully I went back to sleep soon. But even during activities like eating dinner, or watching a show, you feel the sway back and forth of the ship, and you have to force yourself to put it in the back of your head and just enjoy the ride (quite literally) as you dine, explore and relax on your vacation. None of us felt motion sickness, but we all definitely talked about how much the ship was moving time to time. Don’t make the mistake of going cruising (or resorting) during the hurricane season, because the last thing you want is to be caught on a wildly moving ship, or have your cruise cancelled completely!
All in all, it’s a great vacation to experience at least once. Although Imran and I are big on beaches and would choose to go to a resort next time instead of a cruise, my brother and sis-in-law love cruising because it gives them so many more options to try different activities and stay busy while on the boat. It also makes for a great family vacation, especially when you can explore a different piece of the Caribbean every day and never get bored having fun with the family.
P.S. We ported from Miami and were lucky enough to spend a few days there after the cruise adventure. MIAMI IS AMAZING. Below are some pics of Miami and it’s a place I’d always be ready to go back to in a heartbeat!