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17 Royal Caribbean Tips for First-time Passengers, According to Cruise Experts

If you’re shopping for a traditional cruise, chances are you’ll consider Royal Caribbean. The household name among big-ship cruise lines is the second-largest carrier on the seas (after Carnival). It has 27 ships in its fleet, including the new Icon of the Seas, the world’s largest cruise ship, with room for 7,600 passengers. Another four mega-ships are under construction. Even Royal Caribbean’s smallest vessels hold more than 2,400 passengers, so by any definition, they’re big.

If you’ve never sailed with Royal Caribbean, it can take a while to learn the ropes — nautical reference intended. And since your vacation time is precious, we asked some cruise line experts how to make the most of your first voyage. Here are their tips and tricks for first-time Royal Caribbean guests.

Don’t wait to book.

Courtesy of Royal Caribbean Cruise

It’s a piece of advice that goes for most cruise lines. Matt Hochberg of Royal Caribbean Blog, a fan and information site that’s not affiliated with the company, says to book your Royal Caribbean cruise “as early as possible — as in now. It’s not like airfare where you can wait on the chance that prices will go down. Cruise prices stay where they are and only go up, and right now, demand is as high as it’s ever been. Your best bet is to book as early as you can, like 12 to 24 months out, to lock in the lowest price.”

Make show reservations in advance, too.

“Would you show up in New York for a theater weekend and simply cross your fingers and hope you get tickets to the shows you want?” asks Rob Clabbers, a Travel + Leisure A-List advisor and founder of Q Cruise + Travel. The answer is probably not, so use the “Manage My Cruise” feature on the Royal Caribbean website and book the shows you don’t want to miss. “You’re more likely to get the reservations you want and you’ll avoid having to scramble for seats or stand in line on your first day on board,” he adds.

Study the ship layout before your cruise.

Courtesy of Royal Caribbean Cruise

If you’re like me, the anticipation of a cruise is half the fun. Use the weeks and months before your sailing to study deck plans and hone in on your favorite amenities. The largest Royal Caribbean ships are like small cities — the Icon and Oasis class ships even have their own neighborhoods. If you already have your bearings before embarking, you’ll waste less time riding the wrong elevator or wandering the wrong deck when trying to get to your destination — or back to your stateroom.

Get a jump on online check-in.

As soon as you book, access the “Manage My Cruise” portal on the Royal Caribbean website (the Royal Caribbean app has some of the same features). Then, as soon as online check-in opens, get right on it so you can secure the earliest possible window. “It makes the cruise terminal experience way faster,” says Hochberg. “About 30 days in advance, they’ll give you a check-in window. Arrive right around that time and you’ll breeze through — you don’t even stop moving.”

Opt for a drinks package.

Courtesy of Royal Caribbean Cruise

You won’t go thirsty on a Royal Caribbean cruise, but free drinks are limited to standard coffee and tea, tap water, hot chocolate, milk, and a few other basics. Everything else costs extra — often a lot extra. “Even if you don’t drink alcohol, it may be worth checking out the options in advance, if you’re into premium coffees, sodas, juices, or bottled waters,” says Clabbers. “Royal Caribbean occasionally offers promotions on the ‘Manage My Cruise’ [portal] that may save you money on certain beverage packages.”

Pack a swimsuit in your carry-on.

“Royal Caribbean ships have so many great pools and water features,” says Hochberg. And they get really crowded. Get ahead of the other passengers by packing a swimsuit in your daypack or carry-on. You can enjoy the pools, water parks, or the popular FlowRider surf simulator while you wait — often several hours — to access your cabin. “Embarkation day is one of the best times to go to the pools,” Hochberg adds. If you’re traveling with kids, you’ll be glad you stashed those suits in your bag.

Splurge on a suite.

Courtesy of Royal Caribbean Cruise

“Royal Caribbean ships can feel large and busy, so maybe you want to upgrade to a suite,” says Clabbers. Most suites start at around 300 square feet and go up from there — both in dimensions and price. You can expect to pay about twice as much for a suite, but the additional space may offer a welcome break from all the hubbub on board. Clabbers adds, “Depending on the category and ship you choose, you may enjoy suite-only restaurants and lounges, VIP treatment and embarkation, and even Royal Genie butler service.”

Asses how much drinking you’ll really do.

Royal Caribbean’s Deluxe Beverage Package — the only one that includes alcohol — follows a dynamic pricing model between $56 and $105 per day, per person, with prices varying depending on the ship, itinerary, and other factors. Alcoholic and soft drinks are expensive on board, but you still have to indulge a lot to make the package worth the investment. If you’re not sure how much you’ll drink (and don’t want to feel obligated to do so simply because you’ve paid for a package), consider going a la carte for the first few days of your cruise. You can always add a drinks package later, as long as you still have at least four days left on your sailing.

Find your place in the sun.

Courtesy of Royal Caribbean Cruise

If you want a poolside lounge chair, you’ll have to arrive by 10 a.m. at the latest on most Royal Caribbean ships, according to Hochberg. “People who sleep in and roll up at noon are not getting a chair by the pool,” he says. That said, the ships do have plenty of outdoor space, even if it’s not right by a pool. “If you just want to be outside, there are other chairs. Walk to the front or back of the ship. The further away you are from the pool, the more chairs you’ll find,” he adds, noting the promenade deck on any Royal Caribbean ship is always a great spot to read.

Consider a balcony cabin.

Like most cruise lines, Royal Caribbean is adding more balcony cabins and suites on its ships, and that’s, of course, due to customer demand. “Balconies are the most popular option,” says Hochberg. Though they cost more than an interior or non-balcony room, they’re still reasonably priced compared to suites. Hochberg adds, “They offer more space and fresh air, and if you do get seasick, the view and fresh air help.”

Choose an older ship.

If your vacation is more about the destination than the journey, you should consider an older, smaller Royal Caribbean ship, especially given the demand for their newer Oasis and Icon vessels. Radiance and Vision classes are among the oldest and smallest in the fleet, but still offer plenty of big-ship amenities without the “city at sea” feel. Hochberg calls these ships “much more manageable,” to the point that you probably don’t even need to make show or specialty dining reservations in advance — though you might still want to book once you’re on board.

Look for no-kid zones.

Courtesy of Royal Caribbean Cruise

Royal Caribbean is a family-friendly cruise line — there are a slew of facilities and programs made just for kids. But if you prefer a more adult experience, Royal Caribbean offers options. “Certain areas are adults-only, such as the casino and nightclubs,” says Hochberg. While bars and lounges technically allow children to enter, he says it’s rare to see kids in these areas in the evening. Later dinner seatings also mean fewer young kids. Almost every ship in the fleet offers the Solarium, an adults-only section with a pool and whirlpool, a sundeck, and a bar. On the brand’s private Caribbean island playground, Perfect Day at CocoCay, Hideaway Beach is the adults-only pool and beach, though entrance is for a fee. Hochberg also says that “on longer sailings — those past seven nights — the amount of kids drops precipitously.”

If you can’t snag a show reservation, try walking in.

Because booked passengers scoop up show reservations as soon as they’re offered online, you may not get your first choice when it comes to the many show offerings, which include ice-skating performances, aqua theater, and Broadway-quality productions. But don’t give up, says Hochberg. “Show up at least 30 minutes before the show, even if it’s sold out,” he says. “You’ll almost certainly be able to get in, as people blow off their [advance] reservations.”

Cost out The Key program.

Clabbers says Royal Caribbean cruisers should look into The Key program, the paid upgrade that’s akin to the Genie+ service at Disney theme parks. “It provides priority boarding access, a welcome lunch, high-speed internet access, fast lane access to onboard activities, private time at the FlowRider surf simulator, dedicated theater seats at shows, and other niceties.” Prices fluctuate, though, so before you purchase, compare the cost of The Key versus that of Royal Caribbean’s Voom Surf & Stream internet package. If there’s not much difference in cost (remember, it’s per user, per day), The Key benefits are worth springing on. However, if there’s a big price difference — or you want to disconnect during your cruise — you can skip The Key.

Look into third-party excursions.

Shore excursions must also be reserved in advance, and depending on when you book, you might not get your first choice of activity or time slot. But that doesn’t mean you have to stay on board or near the port all day. “Of course, Royal Caribbean offers shore excursions wherever they go,” says Clabbers. “But if you like more options and potentially smaller groups or lower fares, take a look at excursions offered by third-party providers.” Clabbers likes Shore Excursions Group and Project Expedition. “If you prefer private [excursions], Context Travel offers cultural and historical tours and activities in cities around the world.”

BYOB — to a point.

Perhaps you don’t want to buy a beverage package, but you’d like to have a glass of wine or two during your cruise. Royal Caribbean lets you bring one 750-milliliter bottle of wine per cabin guest, per cruise, and for many light drinkers, that’s plenty. Don’t try and bring more than this, and don’t put it in your checked luggage — it will be confiscated and returned at the end of your journey, as will any alcohol you buy in ports of call. You can also bring up to 12 containers (bottles, cans, or cartons) with up to 17 ounces each of soft drinks per stateroom. If you bring your bottle of wine to a restaurant or other public area, you’ll be charged a corkage fee.

Skip the transatlantic cruise if you’re a first-timer.

Transatlantic repositioning cruises are not ideal for first-time Royal Caribbean passengers, according to Hochberg. “Transatlantic cruises are like a fine wine. Once you’re more acclimated and know you like the shipboard experience, they offer great value priced per night,” he says. But you don’t want to get on board and find that you don’t like the brand, or worse, don’t like cruising. “They are long cruises with lots of sea days, and are very susceptible to the weather.”

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