Cruising the Western Caribbean on Oasis of the Seas
Especially for First Time Cruisers
Cruise Line: Royal Caribbean
First Time Cruise Experience
We are ocean front beach cottage people. Until recently we hadn't even considered a cruise. The opportunity to write about a first time experience and report on low friction choices together with high friction avoidance was too strong to pass up.
There are so many variables and decisions that the whole process felt daunting. Yet a cruise also has the appeal of a vacation in a package, with someone else to worry about making you happy. So...is there a low friction cruise experience to be enjoyed? We unselfishly set out to find out...just for you, of course. And now hindsight allows me to claim that, with some forethought covered in this article, there is a low friction wonderful experience waiting for you, subject only to acts of God and politicians.
Hindsight is what we take advantage of in this report to you, but the actual process for this cruise newb had its share of anxiety and a healthy dose of work and research. I attribute our good experience to planning. Hopefully the information here will help to alleviate some of the work and worry for you. As we embarked on our cruise, our anxieties melted into the realization that we had hit a home run.
I spoke with many "advisors" along the way including several cruise company sales reps. As friendly as they all were, there was a constant worry of "am I hearing what is best for us or what the other person wants to sell me?" As you would expect, we connected with people who have a variety of experience and motivations, but some did rise to the top in knowing what they were talking about and being willing to offer fair advice. Know, too, that the cruise ship reps on the other end of the telephone line have not likely been on your cruise and may not have ever been on a cruise themselves. So take that into consideration along with their advice.
Related articles here in FrictionFactor.com:
Best Western Plus Airport/Cruise Port Hotel, Fort Lauderdale, Florida
Creature Feature Scuba Diving with Captain Slate, Key Largo, Florida
Ocean Pointe Suites, Tavernier (Key), Florida
Setting Our Cruise Criteria
What were the key considerations that affected our decisions?
We love the Caribbean and it is convenient to where we live, so we didn't really consider other destinations for this cruise.
I was concerned about being prone to sea sickness.
Our Big Questions:
Where to cruise?
Which cruise line?
When to cruise?
How many days?
Cruise line sponsored excursions or roll our own?
Which cruise line? Asked a bit differently for our first cruise: Who has the biggest, most stable ship? Royal Caribbean. However, we still investigated other companies by reading reviews and watching many YouTube videos, especially ship tours and excursions.
Your choice of cruise may be influenced by other factors: its appeal to children and youth (or lack thereof), or some particular theme. For families with children, Disney cruises are highly ranked. But, as we discovered, Oasis of the Seas offers a good balance. The ship is large enough to have big areas that strongly appeal to children and youth while having other areas with greater privacy and quiet for relaxing adults. Pool areas could be very crowded but we had no problem finding very comfortable relaxation spots with terrific views, indoor and outdoor. In fact, during the day the indoor lounge areas were effectively abandoned; so if you want to relax indoors in an upscale setting, choices were numerous even at the most popular times. We took advantage of this for short times, but we prefer being outside in the shade with a breeze.
At the end of our cruise our expectations were exceeded to the point that we found ourselves saying, "Now that we've experienced perfection, why make any other choice." OTOH, our dinner companions also had very good things to say about other cruises, so we may have to suffer through comparison experiences.
Which ship? Which is the biggest highly stable ship? Oasis and Allure of the Seas. We chose Oasis.
When to cruise? Which month has a good balance of low average rainfall, reasonably calm seas, and does not put us in the middle of hordes of hormone driven young adults on spring break? February and April in the Caribbean seem to be the best choices. April worked out for us.
Which route? Choosing a western or eastern route didn't matter very much to us. Being a scuba diver, Cozumel seemed a good place to visit for our virgin cruise. As it turned out, I preferred being with my wife over going diving alone. It turned out to be a great decision for the amazing experience we did together.
How many days? Seven days pass like three on vacation. So at least seven days.
Which excursions? Much, much homework. More below.
Cruise line sponsored excursions or roll our own? Being cruise newbs...no taking chances for us on this trip.
Doing Our Homework
Those of you who are cruise sophisticates may laugh over the list of questions we had. Well, it's the little things that can make the difference between a great experience and one that is...not. So I imagined being there and thinking of things I wish I'd thought of ahead of time...ahead of time.
It is amazing how hard it is to get some information that everyone involved seems to take for granted.
For example, with my wife healing from an injured foot, I was concerned about walking distances. We scheduled two excursions in Labadee, Haiti: "Labadee Snorkel Safari - QLB2" and "Labadee Wave Jet Tour - Driver - ZL03". Nobody could answer questions like:
How far is the walk from the ship to each excursion area?
Is it a good idea to bring our own snorkeling equipment?
What do we do with our personal belongings during the excursion? We were told there are lockers but nobody knew their type, size, cost, or payment method.
See answers to the above questions in the Ports of Call section herein.
A glaringly obvious homework assignment, but mentioned anyway...
Find and review videos posted on the web. Tours of ships (press tours as well as what it looks like fully crowded), excursion videos, sight seeing videos for points of debarkation, etc. Become aware of safety issues...not to become paranoid, but for awareness to help in your selection of excursions.
You will also easily find critical reviews of stateroom locations on every ship that will inform you of the expected noise level, convenience of the location, obstructions to your view if any, etc. As a general rule: get a room that has staterooms above, below, and adjacent to you unless you want to risk sleeping near the excitement of a loud party or casino noise.
My personal list of questions and todo items as we planned our first cruise:
...with our decisions and the answers that we dug up.
1. What type of stateroom and its location on the ship?
Staterooms are priced, as you would expect, on time of year, size (normal, suite, luxury suite), location within a deck (inside, ocean view, balcony view), and other considerations such as partial view obstructions and proximity to noisy areas. Another general rule: the higher the deck, the higher the cost. Some like a stateroom at the ship's stern to get a view of both sides of the ship when leaving a port. I didn't mind simply walking to the stern to get my "TV commercial" view of the ship's wake. That also let us enjoy watching the kids take on the FlowRider. And we enjoyed the "I am the king of the world" view at the bow from the adult section of the ship.
Don't get too excited over the price quoted as you search for a cruise. The price quoted is always for the inside staterooms with no view. The balcony ocean view is, in my opinion, the only way to go (upgrading to a suite if you can afford it). These rooms don't seem to go on sale the way you'll see advertised for inside staterooms. There is price variation as noted above, but an ocean view balcony stateroom is going to be hundreds of dollars more than an inside stateroom...and worth it in my opinion. So wait until you see the cost of a room you're actually interested in before letting the heart start fluttering in anticipation of an affordable cruise.
Unique to Oasis of the Seas and Allure of the Seas is the choice of an ocean view balcony or an interior balcony. You're on a cruise in the Caribbean. Why would you want a static view of Central Park or the Boardwalk? Sure, they're pretty, but I am so glad we chose an ocean view balcony.
We lucked out. We had reserved a guaranteed ocean view balcony and, thankfully, ended up with a stateroom assignment that was good: Cabin 11150, Category D3 - Superior Ocean View Stateroom with Balcony.
Below are drawings and photos to give you an idea of our stateroom location. As you can see we were relatively high and forward on the port side of the ship. The advice given us to minimize motion that causes seasickness was to be low near the center of the ship. We did not follow that rule and we loved the location of our stateroom. Not only were there no seasickness issues, but we had a magnificent view. There seemed to have been opportunity for motion sickness as the winds were very high the first couple of days. And, indeed, during some performances the rolls and surges of the ship were apparent, enough to cancel one of the high dive performances and enough to be entertaining during a performance of Hair. But no stomach twinges for my wife or me, nor did I observe any guests hurrying from the show. All in all, a very satisfactory result that has boosted my confidence for the future...albeit, still wondering how much different it will be aboard a smaller cruise ship. I am assured that modern vessels have good stability systems, but I will reserve judgment for personal experience.
2. Where to stay the night before the cruise?
See my related article on Best Western Plus Airport/Cruise Port Hotel, Fort Lauderdale, Florida. We were very pleased for its comfort, convenience, affordability, and the help we received for our transportation needs.
3. Do you need your passports?
Yes, with some exceptions or alternatives. See the travel documentation information page.
4. What should I budget for expenses over and above the cost of the cruise?
Gratuities. The cruise line conveniently suggests an amount that is reasonable for the experience and service received, about $20 per day for a couple (budget $160 for a 7 night cruise...counted as 8 days). It can be conveniently paid to your ship account at the start or end of the cruise which they divide in predefined proportions to wait staff and room steward. I quickly realized that there is no reason to be concerned about whether the service provided will be deserving of a generous tip. Everyone on the staff, without exception, does a great job. Attentive without being overly so, cheerful, and simply excellent service. If you take excursions, then there are tips to be given to the various guides and some other handlers. It can add up, so prepare your budget for this.
Transportation to/from the airport. If you count transportation to/from the hotel, airport, and cruise port as an "extra" expense, then list those. They certainly need to be budgeted. Airfare and hotel accommodations are whatever they are. Transportation from airport to the hotel was complimentary for us. Transportation from hotel to cruise port was $8 each and from the cruise port to the airport, $10 each plus tip via All Stars Transportation. The drivers were helpful and interesting to talk to. The service used by Royal Caribbean is probably equally good but costs a few dollars more. I did not expect to see the industrial "underbelly" of Fort Lauderdale as we dropped off passengers at their cruise ships. An interesting scenic tour.
Otherwise, there are no other required expenses. None. You can exit and return to the ship as often as you like at any port of call and sightsee to your heart's content. Or you can stay on the ship and enjoy all its amenities in peace and uncrowded quiet. The spa offers discounts during ports of call.
5. Meals, snacks, drinks at no additional cost:
Walk up to the counter of any of the several complimentary cafés and dessert shops at any time and get whatever you want, as much as you want. I am still amazed that my wife and I did not gain weight on our cruise. I attribute that to a lot of walking. Much of the food is very good. Everything prepared in the Opus Dining Room was delicious and beautifully presented. Donuts on the Boardwalk...not so good...which was good for my health. The pizza at Sorrento's Pizzeria on the Royal Promenade was a favorite for snacks.
We enjoyed variety by having lunch at different places like the Solarium Bistro in the adult pool zone and Park Café in Central Park, relaxing in the comfortable surroundings of Central Park to eat, keeping a lookout for the TV cameras that just had to be filming a "this is the great life" TV commercial.
6. Meals and drinks that cost extra:
There are specialty restaurants that charge an additional fee, though much less than what would have been the normal cost off-ship. We had intended to try Chops Grille, but we enjoyed the food and company so much at the Opus Dining Room that we never got around to it.
Alcoholic drinks cost extra as do soft drinks and bottled water. The ship offers beverage packages, or you can pay as you go, or you can enjoy the ice water, lemonade, or small milk and juice cartons at some locations. Large bottles of water are conveniently provided in your room; just be aware that they are actually part of the in-room bar tab–not complimentary.
Dining / Meals
When we signed up for the cruise, we were given a choice of dining at a private table or at a group table. We chose the former and got the best of both worlds. Your table, waiter, and assistant waiter are assigned to you for the entire cruise (your choice of early or later dinners) whether you use it or not. Here, too, we hit a grand slam with our decision. While we could enjoy private dining, the small tables are close together which offered the opportunity if one wishes, to socialize with couples sitting in adjacent tables. We had very enjoyable company, so it worked out well. Our waiter, Radostin from Bulgaria, was outstanding as was our assistant waiter, Radney, from the Philippines. Radostin and Radney were very personable, remembered our preferences, and treated us as if we were very special guests throughout the entire cruise.
Radostin was very familiar with the chefs and their meals and had a knack for making perfect suggestions. I was never disappointed in following his recommendations. Every course he served was prepared with excellence and artistic appeal. I cannot think of any way this aspect of our cruise could have been improved.
We were impressed by the actions taken on Oasis to protect passenger health. When entering and exiting any restaurant and at strategic points throughout the ship, we were provided with Purell antibacterial hand gel and polite insistence on its use.
Breakfast: The Windjammer Marketplace turned out to be a favorite place for breakfast. As in many places on the ship, this restaurant features a very tall wall of glass facing the sea. An incredible view. This restaurant has several buffet islands with a variety of food types spanning cultures.
What should I know about the dress code? Most of the time attire is casual. There are two formal nights and one "smart casual" night.
Royal Caribbean dress code definitions on their website:
Casual: Sport shirts and slacks for men, sundresses or pants for women
Smart Casual: Jackets and ties for men, dresses or pantsuits for women
Formal: Suits and ties or tuxedos for men, cocktail dresses for women
We wanted to follow the rules and do things right, so we made inquiries to be sure we were clear on what was expected. The reality was different and will be noted in our future plans (allowing us to pack significantly lighter). There are a goodly number of people who dress according to the descriptions above for the formal and smart casual nights. However, I felt a little out of place in a suit and tie on formal nights. On the smart casual night, even the jacket and tie was too dressy around our dinner companions. The women wore nice dresses but formal gowns were a minority. You also have the option of eating in one of the casual restaurants.
Shows and Entertainment
We made reservations in advance of the trip for the evening shows and that worked out well since many shows were fully booked by the time of the cruise. Our preference was to eat early (6:00pm) and go to the shows afterward, though we could have reversed that (dine at 8:00pm and go to earlier or late shows). We enjoyed the various performances that we attended. We were impressed with the size and grandeur of the Opal Theater, the very existence of an ice skating rink and ice shows (the rink being available to passengers during off-times), and the amazing Aqua Theater at the ship's stern with its cliff-diving height high dive and its deepest-on-the-seas diving pool. The Aqua Theater has an adjustable floor that becomes a dry stage, an ankle-depth water dancing area for some performances, or a deep pool. At times we just enjoyed sitting in the stands to watch practice diving.
Toward the end of the trip we started paying more attention to the large touchscreen kiosks around the ship from which you can get directions and find out "what to do right now". We realized that we had been missing out on a number of smaller venue events, activities, and parties. We intend to take better advantage of some of those things on our next cruise. Still, just wandering the ship at night we found dancing, karaoke shows, art displays, and other events that were fun to step into for a time.
We're not gamblers so I cannot report on the experience at Casino Royale.
I did enjoy taking the zip line that spans the ship's atrium nine stories up. We also enjoyed watching people...mainly young people taking turns on the FlowRider for an on board surfing experience. It looks like a lot of fun.
Enjoying the Ship
Oasis boasts seven themed neighborhoods:
Royal Promenade: Oasis "main street"
Central Park: shops and restaurants with a wandering path through gardens and night lights
Boardwalk: carousel, shops, rock climbing walls, and Aqua Theater
Youth Zone: an entertainment and games area for kids
Pool & Sports Zone: sloped entry pool, FlowRider surf areas, and zip line
Entertainment Place: a contemporary night club district
Some liken Oasis and Allure of the Seas to cities on the water because of their size and population. Nobody seems to really know the number of passengers that can be accommodated. Published numbers are in the range of 6300 passengers and 2300 crew (Royal Caribbean quotes 2394 crew). So there is about a 3 to 1 ratio of passengers and crew. Royal Caribbean's sister line, Celebrity says their ratio is about 2 to 1 and some luxury lines offer a 1 to 1 ratio. But we never found ourselves wanting for a lack of needed crew attention on Oasis.
With that many people you may expect crowded conditions, and at certain times and locations you would be right. During the sun-worship hours chairs around the pools were completely taken. So if you are there to tan in the sun, you will find it challenging to find a perch during prime time. Long rows of lounge chairs are so close that they touch which can be very claustrophobic. Happily, we were always able to find comfortable places to lounge in the shade with wonderful views of the ocean. On some nights there are parties and entertainment on the Royal Promenade and it is shoulder to shoulder for the length of the main drag. We loved the excitement (in reasonably short doses).
A big globe unrolls into a platform for a band, rolling back into a globe at the end of the party (we thought it was pretty cool). And regardless of how crowded an area might be in one place, you always have choices to your liking. We never observed Central Park to be crowded and it is beautiful, day and night.
I was fascinated by the elevators. They have full glass sides looking out over the promenade which provide a wonderful view as the elevator ascends or descends. Even at the busiest times there was never an overly long wait for an elevator. If you're in the mood for a long relaxing elevator ride you can take the Rising Tide Bar. With seating for about 35 people, it moves very slowly between the Royal Promenade on deck five and Central Park on deck eight. I loved watching it "land". As it comes down, a dancing-waters fountain entertains observers, but at about twenty feet a circular column of water shoots up to meet the bottom of the Rising Tide, giving the impression of an alien landing craft.
Information kiosks: If you're not sure about what you want to do and would like to know what is available, there are large touch-screen information kiosks in the elevator areas on every deck. They are easy to navigate to get information about the ship including scheduled events and "what to do right now."
We attended shows in the Opal Theater. It amazed me that a theater of that size and quality could be found on a ship at sea. The logistics for attending shows and other events was made pain-free with the use of our SeaPass cards. Crew at the entrances simply scanned our badges as we entered to confirm our reservation. We hardly paused as we entered the theater.
The ship's private, well maintained miniature golf course was another of our favorite places on Oasis. For whatever reasons there were very few players in the evenings after dark. My wife and I effectively had our own private playground in a luxurious tropical setting. It wasn't so much the miniature golf that we enjoyed so much as it was being together, doing something fun in such nice and peaceful surroundings. As hard as it is to find a well maintained miniature golf course on land, it seems it would be even more difficult with the conditions at sea. Yet Oasis staff keeps it in pristine condition just as they do the rest of the ship.
The Infinity Pool was one of our favorite places. It is a very large hot tub filled to overflowing set next to a multi-story glass wall looking out over the ocean. So it looks like the pool continues on into the ocean, extending to the horizon, thus its name.
We never found the time to use the services at the Vitality Spa. That is something I would like to correct at next opportunity.
Reconnecting when separated: Before the cruise we wondered what we would do when we were separated to find each other again. We could use our cell phones, but cell phone service on a cruise ship is very expensive. I did confirm that you are only charged if you answer a call, so some solutions could have been derived from that. But it turned out to simply not be a problem for us. We were generally together and when not, the old fashioned approach of "meet you in an hour" worked fine.
We read stories about people who take walkie-talkies with as many stories complaining about people who use them on a cruise. I don't think we ever saw anybody doing this on our cruise.
Cell phone service is available on the ship for all major carriers. A worldphone is not needed because the ship uses CDMA. The cost is high: $2.49/min, $.50 send a text message, $.05 to receive a text message, data $20/MB. For data, you can alternatively use the ship's wi-fi access (see Internet rates below).
To avoid high cell phone charges, turn off data access and put the phone in airplane mode. I also explicitly turned off wi-fi just to make sure.
Internet access: I tried to find out how reliable and fast the Internet service would be, but nobody seemed to know. I never needed to use a GoToMeeting connection, so I didn't find out if that would have worked. Some of the documentation led me to believe it would not have worked. Considering it had to be satellite service I would be surprised if GoToMeeting or other VOIP services could be used. Essentially all I needed was to check my email. For that I could connect, download pending mail, disconnect, review and reply off-line, reconnect and send. That required such a little amount of connection time that I had prepaid for more minutes than I needed. And, for the most part, the wireless Internet connectivity in our stateroom was indeed reliable and convenient. Cost ranges from $0.65 per minute down to $0.30 per minute with pre-paid package plans.
Electronic books: When I upgraded my cell phone to a Samsung Galaxy Nexus Android device, one of the first things I did was install the Kindle reader, effectively turning my phone into a Kindle. It has all the conveniences of a Kindle tablet—resizable font, back lighting, black text on white background or white on black, convenient paging and search—but can be used in one hand and stored in a pocket. I don't understand people who use a big tablet for reading their electronic books. And I read a lot in bed which is a lot more convenient with a handheld device. So I kept the phone in airplane mode and used it as my "read anywhere I want" book. Another Android used as a Kindle for my wife and we were set any time we wanted to pull out a good book.
Our Stateroom: Even though it was our first cruise, my expectations from photos and other info were properly set for the size of our stateroom. And it was very adequate for the time we spent in it—especially since we had that terrific balcony. The balcony was large enough for both of us to sit comfortably, privacy panels on either side, a small drink table between us, enjoying a fabulous view. We just loved standing at our balcony as we left Florida, people waving, escort boats honking, and beautiful ocean front homes passing by. We were similarly rewarded for early morning arrivals at a new island. At night the stars were often clear and numerous, ocean air blowing through our hair...ok, I don't have much, but if I had... and the ship's wake passing below (albeit no phosphorescent glow I had hoped to see; I guess we don't have the right plankton in the Caribbean). If we didn't have the ocean-view balcony it would not have been the same trip.
The bed was one of the most comfortable beds I had ever slept on. It impressed us to the point that we had to investigate its source and availability. The pillows, too. Such comfortable nights of sleep. We were impressed by the quality of workmanship and materials used in our stateroom (indeed, over the whole ship). Though small, the space was very efficiently designed and served our purposes well. Our extra large suitcase and other luggage fit well under the bed to be out of the way.
The bathroom is a model of efficient design and quality. An oval sink was cleverly used to provide adequate bowl volume and space without intruding very far into the room. The toilet has a vacuum-driven plunger that was entertaining to use even when there was no need. Even the shelves for toiletries had side bars that doubled nicely as handholds. The shower provided excellent water pressure and nicely built in amenities.
The flat screen TV included remote access to our account information and a library of other helpful information in addition to be a seldom-used (actually never used) TV.
The cabin doors opened to alcoves in the hallway rather than opening out into the hallway itself. A very nice safety feature on the day I watched a young child running full steam down the hall.
Our cabin attendant, Kemuel "Abraham" Omier from Nicaragua, was very thoughtful and courteous, providing outstanding service. We enjoyed coming home in the evening to a turned down bed with towels on our bed sculpted into different animal shapes each night. He always had a smile and a greeting for us when we saw him in the halls.
We were very pleased with out stateroom, its location, its amenities, and the service provided.
Remember to Bring
Backpacks: These are must-have if you plan to leave the ship. A medium size backpack was best for us. Include some strong plastic bags to store wet swimsuits and ziplock bags for sundry items (chap stick, medicine, maps...). Our camera had its own padded case but was most comfortable to carry in the backpack.
Waterproof waist pack: This proved to be exceedingly helpful to have along. I ordered a Splash Caddy Jr. for $18 from Magellans.com, my wife's new favorite travel catalog. But they don't seem to sell it any more. It looks like the same item is being sold now as a LOKSAK Splashsak Dipper FP but is no longer specifying a waterproof depth. Anyway, an item similar to this is handy for keeping dry things dry and hidden (like money, papers, and medicine). It is flat and comfortable, easily worn under a t-shirt. It was convenient during excursions, even when it rained hard or when I took it underwater. It also provided extra security for cash and ID (e.g., I needed my driver's license for a couple of excursions). I also took a Sharon's Luggage version that was not waterproof, but I never used it. The Splash Caddy was comfortable and waterproof...and waterproof was a good thing in the Caribbean.
Water shoes (closed toes!): If you go on excursions these are must-have. Sports shoes and flip-flops don't cut it. Get a good quality set that fit well, wet or dry, and will take punishment. Get them well in advance and find excuses to wear them wet and dry for extended periods. Go on hikes with them and tromp through streams. Walk over wet and slippery rocks. Getting this right can make or break your trip. You'll wear them more than you think. The pair I got from Kohl's wore worn out by the end of the week. I ended up wearing waterproof band-aids on my heals to avoid blisters.
Hats: Baseball hat, jungle hat...whatever suits you. More than one of different variety because you'll change your mind. My wife brought floppy sun hats that she sometimes couldn't wear because of the wind.
Underwater camera: I wanted a small, lightweight underwater camera that was good for scuba depths and could do still photos as well as videos. I ended up using mine not just for snorkeling and scuba, but also on excursions where we waded in rivers and at the bottom of waterfalls. I found a low cost camera from Newegg.com, the INTOVA 9MP Digital Sports Camera with 130' Waterproof Housing, for $65 ($73 with shipping). It ended up working well for me but I made sure I memorized the menu buttons for use when underwater and unable to read the small writing on the camera inside the housing. I got lithium batteries because this camera is a power sucker. In fact, it was kind of wonky with the batteries. There were times it would stop working as if it had run out of battery power when it hadn't. I discovered that before I left and played with the camera enough to feel confident I could get it to work when I needed it. I came back with some very nice shots and videos, but I regret purchasing this camera. [Later... especially now that GoPros are available.]
Rain jacket: It's the Caribbean. It's going to rain. We shopped for light rain jackets that fold in on themselves into a small packet.
Sunglasses and prescription glasses holders: The rubber or cloth lanyards that slide onto the ends of the ear pieces, worn around the head...I didn't bring one and my wife did. In fact, she brought two and I was on the receiving end of a smug look when I discovered I wished I had brought one and she pulled one out of her magic bag.
Tissue or small TP roll equivalent on excursions: My wife suggests that I mention especially for women that foreign rest rooms can leave a lot to be desired. You may also want to carry a small bottle of hand sanitizer on excursions.
Over the counter remedies are limited (not a big selection in ship stores). Sudafed, Imodium (thankfully not needed), Tylenol, sunscreen, etc... more convenient to just have your own stock in your luggage.
Motion sickness remedies: I love scuba diving but I am unfortunately very prone to seasickness. For this cruise, the most effective remedy for both of us was ginger gum (convenient for right when it's needed) and ginger powder capsules (not ginger ale). I kept a package in my waterproof waist pack and we were glad to have them on our long ferry ride over rough water.
Small plastic tumblers: My wife said that next time she will include these on her to-take list, saying they would have been handly for organizing small items in our cabin.
Empty water bottles: Fill them with water from fountains or shops to have in your room. Or purchase one of the ship's drinks packages.
Things you may not consider but wish you had
Towels on board: we read about passengers getting charged for towels that they had lost (or that had been moved when they tried to reserve a deck chair). There were towel stations in the pool areas and we signed them out using our SeaPass cards (cabin towels should be left in the cabin). I suppose we could have been charged for losing a towel, but we never had a problem with it. Normal care taken.
Towels on excursions: We found it handy to have our own beach towels, so I'm glad we brought them along.
Security checks when returning to the ship: Every time you re-board the ship there will be an airport type security check (metal detector/x-ray) and a physical inspection of your bags. Not a good time to be humorous. Definitely a good time to be patient, but the lines move quickly.
People watching: You will run across some of the most interesting and strangest people you have ever seen. In fact, you may be one to fulfill this for other passengers or locals. I am happy to say that I never came across anyone, including fellow passengers, who was "difficult."
Is there a retractable clothesline in the bathroom for drying swimsuits, etc.? No, but there are places to hang them to dry in the shower.
Travel insurance: I could just see myself re-injuring a knee while on an excursion in a foreign country and all that would do to our dream trip. The Cruise Care insurance at $180 seemed a good price in light of the possible risks. Happily it was not needed.
Avoiding smoking areas: We were concerned when we heard that designated smoking areas were on the side of the ship to which our room was assigned. We were relieved to learn that all cabins are non-smoking and the designated smoking areas on the decks are limited and easily avoided. However, smoking is also allowed on balconies that face the ocean. We would have been very unhappy to have had smoke blowing into our balcony area; I am grateful that did not happen.
Laundry? No, but there is a hotel-style cleaning service.
When can you board the ship? For our cruise we were told we could board at 2:00pm. We scheduled hotel transportation at 11:00am, got through the boarding procedure soon after noon and were allowed to board the ship at 1:00, enjoy lunch and walking around the ship until our room was ready.
When should your departure flight be scheduled? For our cruise we were scheduled to arrive back at the Ft. Lauderdale cruise port at 7:00am and were advised not to schedule a departure flight before 11:00am. We were fine because our return flight was not until mid afternoon. So we scheduled the latest available departure from the ship to maximize our stay. As it turned out, that was not a perfect strategy because they still wanted the rooms cleared out and us waiting in a departure lounge. Still, we got through customs much faster than we expected.
Remember it's ship time. At least for Royal Caribbean (or at least for Oasis of the Seas), ship time stayed constant at Ft. Lauderdale time. Ship time does not change at the ports that are in a different time zone. That can be a source of confusion or worse. Shore excursions booked through the cruise line are based on ship time, so they take care of you in this regard.
Consider airline miles for your cruise. Compare the differences for your selected cruise if it's booked through the ship line or using an airline cruise service such as Delta's Skymiles cruises. You may find that the special deals offered by one or the other are a better deal for you.
Our Cruise Experience
Cruise: 7 Night Western Caribbean Cruise
Ship Name: Oasis Of The Seas
Date of Departure: 14-Apr-2012
Departing From: Fort Lauderdale, Florida
The cost for an ocean view balcony on this cruise seems to have been the lowest offered at any time, yet it was, for us, a perfect time of year to go.
Checking In at the Cruise Port
Royal Caribbean provides online check-in which should be done at least three days in advance or else additional time is required for the boarding process. Check-in documentation and luggage tags can be printed from your online account and a copy is mailed to you several days before the cruise.
We didn't know what to expect, having never been to a cruise port before. We were dropped off at the main entrance and our bags remained with the shuttle driver to be delivered to the right place for us (we had already put RC-provided luggage tags on each of our checked luggage). All we had to do was walk into the cruise port with our carry-on bags and follow the signs in the enormous facility to check-in for our cruise. We were impressed by the efficiency of the process.
You must check in at least 90 minutes before sailing time or you are not permitted to board. If you forget or lose your required travel documentation you will not be permitted to board. There are no exceptions to the exceedingly unhappy experience of some.
Passengers go through the usual metal detector/x-ray machine. There are lines to a large number of check-in counters that can process many passengers quickly. So after a short wait you present your travel and cruise documents and you are each issued your SeaPass card.
From there you follow a well marked and guided path that passes "tourist photo opportunity" points where eager photographers are ready to accept your money for a photo in front of a cheesy poster of the ship or other backgrounds. We were more interested in seeing the real thing. Up an escalator, anticipation growing, we came to a station where our photograph was taken and matched to our SeaPasses. For the remainder of the cruise, any time we left and reentered the ship, our SeaPass card was scanned and our photograph presented to the security staff who then greeted us by name and confirmed who was on or off the ship and that it really was us.
Following our fellow passengers along a long corridor, a glass wall finally opened our view to our first sight of the ship. Oasis of the Seas is BIG. Really, really big. We were amazed at all the work in progress along the dock below, giving us a glimpse of the logistics involved in planning for the care of 8,000 passengers and crew for a week—the sheer volume of all that had to be placed onboard ship and organized. We had a better appreciation for this since we had watched a YouTube video about what is involved.
We began a trek up several flights of switchback gangway to enter the ship on deck five at the Royal Promenade. Royal Caribbean knows how to build anticipation and then make for a grand entrance.
SeaPass Cards At the start of the cruise, Royal Caribbean issues SeaPass cards to each passenger. The cards serve as stateroom key, security ID, and credit card. Any time you are in Royal Caribbean country (on ship, Labadee), your SeaPass card is a great convenience and eliminates the need to carry much cash or a credit card.
Most people, including us, wore our cards via lanyard over our necks and usually kept under our shirt. As often as they are needed and not wanting to lose it from a pocket, this turned out to be a very good way to carry it. A couple of days into the cruise I thought I had lost my card. It was an easy process at the ship's help counter to get it replaced with assurance that it had not been used by someone else.
With gawking tourist gazes and dropped jaws (well, for me at least) we wandered through the ship making our way to the open air decks, marveling at all there was to see and do. It sort of reminded me of the feeling of grandeur overload I experienced at the Hermitage and Summer Palace in Saint Petersburg, Russia. We found the adult area with all of its pools and hot tubs and relaxation areas at the ship's bow. Walking into the Solarium Bistro we enjoyed our first experience of exploring the buffet islands and counters that presented a wide variety of inviting foods and desserts, being able to get whatever we wanted. I know how neophyte that sounds, but hey! everyone who cruises has to have a first time experience and we were of a mind to enjoy ours. So we created a light lunch of chicken and brown rice with a variety of fresh fruit and vegetables and yogurt trifles. The theme of Solarium Bistro is healthy eating. Except for the yogurt trifles, which for me looked much better than they tasted (not the usual yogurt taste), I very much enjoyed the food there. Wait staff was always there with a smile to help, provide drinks, and make us feel pampered. What a great start to our cruise!
Then we continued to explore the ship. At the right time we found our way to deck 11 and down the corridor to our stateroom. Exploring our stateroom and enjoying the high balcony view, our luggage was soon delivered. We unpacked and got organized.
At some point during that activity we realized the ship was moving. We went out onto the balcony and thoroughly enjoyed watching the beautiful ocean-front homes as we passed. Apparently there is a tradition for families in many of those homes to come out and wave as the ship passes. At that moment I was glad to have a stateroom on the port side of the ship so we didn't miss all of this. A Coast Guard escort boat at our side raised clouds of spray every time it hit a wave as it pushed along with us (it was a very windy day). Once we reached some invisible point going into the ocean, the Coast Guard boat's horn sounded several times in grand good-bye and it spun around to head back, its sailors on deck waving to us.
Ports of call and our choice of excursions
Before our cruise, we spent a lot of fun time exploring the many, many available excursions sponsored by Royal Caribbean. We watched videos on the Internet to get a better idea of what to expect on the excursions that sounded interesting to us. As we did, we zeroed in on our choices and scheduled them in advance. Some passengers prefer to simply stay on the ship and enjoy uncrowded pools and other venues. You may also enjoy simply going into port and taking a self-guided tour.
Remember when you schedule your excursions that the times quoted are ship times, not local times.
We elected to try some excursions and these were our choices:
DAY 3, 16-Apr-2012, Labadee, Haiti
Labadee Snorkel Safari, 08:30 AM
Labadee Wave Jet Tour - Driver, 01:00 PM
DAY 4, 17-Apr-2012, Falmouth, Jamaica
Green Grotto Caves & Dunns River Falls, 10:30 AM
DAY 6, 19-Apr-2012, Cozumel, Mexico
Caverns & Beach Exploration By 4x4, 07:00 AM
You may want to be aware that you can contact Shore & Land Excursions to get answers not available in the excursion descriptions. You can email email@example.com. They were responsive and helpful to us.
For questions regarding all other reservations, you can contact Pre-Cruise Planner at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Labadee, located on the northern coast of Haiti, is a private resort leased by Royal Caribbean. To me it has more of a Disneyworld hotel grounds feel than real local cultural experience. On the other hand, it is clean, safe, and offers a very pretty tropical island experience.
As it turned out, there were very high winds that day in Labadee and both of our excursions were canceled. So we ended up taking a tour mobile to the nearby tourist market, looking around a bit before going out to relax near the beach and take photos.
I had to run a couple of errands back to our room on the ship, so I was pleased that it was not a great walk. Of course, as big as that ship is and the long length of the concrete docking pier, "not a great walk" is a relative phrase.
Walking over to the Snorkel Safari check-in point we were told it had been canceled because of the high winds. I was especially disappointed over this because I had heard many very nice things about the catamaran ride and beautiful coral snorkeling area for this excursion. I did learn that the snorkeling equipment provided would have been adequate (and sanitary), so we need not have worried about bringing our own.
Labadee has a long beach including palm-shaded areas with plenty of lounge chairs. We found a nice shaded area where we rested to the sounds of surf and island wind, reading our Kindle books until falling into a restful nap.
At lunch time we made our way to the large buffet and seating areas where we enjoyed jerk, burgers, and a nice variety of lunch food and drinks that came from the cruise ship.
The wave jet tour had not yet been canceled, so we took the short walk to the wave jet area. We put our bags in one of the lockers—typical modern half-height school type metal lockers available for $10 with sufficient space for the packs we brought for our personal belongings. As we waited our turn for instructions a staff member came out to inform us that it, too, had been canceled.
We were very tempted to take a ride on the Dragon's Breath Zip Line (claimed as the world's longest zip line over water at 2,600 feet). There are actually six zip lines in parallel and riders come down from a tall point overlooking a bay to the beach below. You realize that some riders are moving pretty fast when they hit the brake stops at the end of the line. However some riders who are light weight or who do not lean back on the way down end up barely making it to the end. We saw one passenger who stopped a hundred yards from the end and had to be retrieved by one of the staff.
The cost of the canceled excursions was automatically credited to our account on the same day and could be seen easily from the TV in our stateroom.
I had not been to Jamaica before. On the rather long bus ride to our excursion areas we saw a lot of mostly bare almost desert island in extreme poverty. Our hearts went out to children around dilapidated shacks that seemed abandoned but were actually where they lived. On the bus ride to our "Green Grotto Caves & Dunns River Falls" excursion, the local woman who was our tour guide fancied herself to be humorous as she gave us background and history of the places we passed. Much of what she said was interesting, but she couldn't hide her low opinion of us in her sometimes acerbic comments. Enjoyable at first, I quickly tired of hearing "no problem" constantly inserted in her dialog as if there was some high quota to be met of the common Jamaican-accented phrase.
Our first stop was Dunns River Falls. This was a highlight of the cruise. It exceeded my expectations. I thought it would be relatively short falls down a hill. It is quoted to be 600 feet long. In reality it seemed much, much longer. Starting at beach level where the falls end, we hiked up the falls through an absolutely beautiful jungle. There were long lines of people taking the hike, each group instructed to hold hands as we climbed. Thinking that instruction to be stupid, I placed myself at the end of the line of our group and had some space between me and the others. If they fell, I wasn't going with them. Some spots were actually fairly treacherous. My wife's foot injury prevented her from joining me but we were pleasantly surprised to learn that she could follow along via a wooden deck path along the shore's edge. I was able to meet up with her at a few points along the climb and share this experience and the beautiful views with her. At some points I walked along smooth boulders, the river running just over the top of the boulders. In other places I could wade waist deep through the river. At one point, with my waterproof camera taking video, I dipped under water and walked along to stand under a waterfall. I was really glad to have brought a waterproof camera. There were many alternate paths and groups took different climbs, making it seem less crowded in spite of the large number of people there on the day of our excursion.
Green Grotto Caves: On our way back to the ship we stopped for the second point of this excursion, Green Grotto Caves. We were much less impressed with this stop. Green Grotto Caves is basically a big mud hole that has served betimes as a hiding place for runaway slaves or Spanish soldiers, a rock band dance hangout for teens, and now a destination for tourists. There was the occasional opening to the surface with long tree roots extending to the bottom of the cavern—that was pretty cool to see. Otherwise, we just wandered along a path of mud walls, no beautiful stalactites or stalagmites, wearing hard hats on top of white sanitary cloth head covers that served mainly for blackmail photos. Photos on the web make it seem much more impressive than it really is, and maybe we just didn't have access to those places on our excursion. We had no boat rides or swimming in the underground pools. In the one place where we did climb down long stairs to an underground river it was too dark to see anything.
Leaving the ship, we were guided to a large ferry boat that took us on a 45 minute ride to Playa del Carmen, Mexico on the Yucatan Peninsula. We walked through the crowds on shore until we found our guide holding up a sign that identified our excursion, "Caverns & Beach Exploration By 4x4." After waiting for everyone to show up and for some to take their chances in the local rest room, our guide took us on a swift walk through town to a parking lot with our Jeeps. There we divided into groups of four among five Jeeps. Those of us who had a driver's license (U.S. ok) with us and who could drive a stick were assigned as a driver. I drove ours. Our guide wanted to make sure we had fun four-wheeling, so he led us through every water hole and bouncy area he came across. We very much enjoyed the companionship of the couple from Columbia who joined us in our Jeep.
Chaak Tun caverns and cenote: We pulled up to the parking area for the Chaak Tun caverns and cenote. There we put our personal belongings in small lockers and were issued hard hats and life jackets.
Don't put on sunscreen before going into Chaak Tun. Or, if you do, bring a towel to carefully wipe it all off. They rightfully do not want the pristine waters of the cenote to be polluted with lotions.
Then we hiked down a jungle trail to the opening of Chaak Tun, named after the Maya god of rain. Now that was cool to see. Along the path was a station where we could rent snorkeling equipment which I quickly took advantage of. Inside the cavern was an opening to the jungle above, sunlight streaming into the cavern along the long roots of trees seeking water below. We came up to the bank of a portion of the cenote where there were benches to remove our outer clothing and shoes to be in our swim suits. Having snorkeling equipment I was not required to wear the life jacket.
Our guide invited us to choose between a wimp entry into the water, walking down stairs, or to simply jump into the cold water. Jumping in and swimming under water, there was subdued lighting that made for an eerie view. The water was about 15 feet deep and crystal clear. We quickly became accustomed to its cool temperature and enjoyed the surrounding rock formations. The rock formations were even more impressive underwater. The sole life I found was a small catfish swimming along the bottom. I was thoroughly enjoying swimming along the bottom taking photographs and videos while waiting for everyone to join us. Looking up at the swimmers on the surface was like watching them through air.
Our guide led us though different branches of the dark caverns. At one point he tapped on a stalactite and made it ring like a bell. I didn't know they would do that. Along some branches the water got pretty deep.
This was a great experience!
Leaving Chaak Tun we headed off for the "Beach Exploration" part of the excursion. Driving back into town we pulled onto a major highway and drove several miles. Our guide pulled off the road into an almost hidden path in the jungle, driving along until we came to the beach and a small restaurant. There we had lunch on an outdoor porch. The sky was cloud covered yet sunlit. A sailboat anchored off shore gave me the setting for a vintage Caribbean photograph.
Having been told we would have an hour or two to go swimming, I rented snorkeling equipment and headed off shore. I was taking photos underwater, the water not particularly clear that day, wondering when I would come across the coral reef. I stopped to look back and catch my bearings then dove back under to keep going and immediately ran right up to a very large underwater frond reaching out from the coral reef. Scared the bejeebers out of me. So I started navigating along the reef enjoying the view when I heard someone calling. I was being called in already; time to leave. Ugh. That was the world's shortest snorkeling adventure. As it turns out the guide was worried that we were running late and might not get to the return ferry in time. A very quick outdoor shower to wash off the salt water, pulling on clothes over swim suit, and back to the Jeeps. We came up to some check point that looked like a customs crossing with machine gun toting soldiers. They recognized our guide and we were waved past the long lines and on into town. Parking, our guide took us on at a race-walk pace back to the ferry pier where we boarded, happily with time to spare.
The wind came up and the waves became high. I got really worried about getting seasick on the 45 minute return. Thankfully we had ginger gum which proved effective for us in holding off motion sickness. We got off the ferry (the return was outside of town rather than near the cruise ship) and it started raining. Rather than taking the long walk through town we grabbed a cab and were glad we did because the rain hit hard. We got soaked just on the walk from the cab to the shopping pavilion that led to our ship. We were happy that the rain waited until the end of our day.
We had time to spare so we took on the challenge of narrow aisles and shoulder to shoulder crowds to find Cozumel t-shirts. Then back to the ship after a successful, fun adventure in Mexico.
Return to Fort Lauderdale
We enjoyed the final night party extravaganza on the Royal Promenade. Performers from the various shows entertained us from above floor stages as we wandered around taking it all in.
We packed and left our suitcases in the hall outside our cabin where they were picked up during the night. After leaving the ship and heading to customs, our luggage was easily found on a very large floor space at the bottom of the escalator. We grabbed our luggage and moved into a long line to customs. The line moved swiftly, the customs employees were entertaining as they encouraged us along, and the passage through customs was uneventful and smooth. Nice. Outside, with a little looking and wandering we found our airport transportation bus and headed for home...highly satisfied from a golden cruise adventure.
Transatlantic? Alaska? Pacific, South Seas islands? New Zealand?
I have learned since our cruise that Celebrity is the 5-Star sister company of Royal Caribbean. If it really is nicer/better than what we just experienced then it must be truly amazing, for our cruise on Oasis of the Seas exceeded even our very high expectations.