Review: Return To the “Indi”

In June 2017, we took our ninth cruise, returning to Royal Caribbean’s Independence Of The Seas for the second time, the first cruise being during its maiden year in 2010.

So the question is, did it live up to expectations the second time around?

I’m going to get told off about this post, as Sue spent most of the cruise telling me off for making comparisons between this holiday and our previous trip on Independence and also between previous cruises with P & O cruises.

I make no apologies for this.  As long as you aren’t nitpicking, it isn’t unreasonable to point out differences (good or bad) between your experiences.  At the end of the day, this is how you make informed choices for your future vacations.

I also accept many people will disagree with my findings, but it’s all a matter of subjective opinion.  And taste.  What suits one doesn’t fit all, I realise that.  But at least I’m going to back up my reasoning.  So let’s get started.

Background
Ok, by now you should have gleaned we have cruised before.  You can see some of our previous cruise reviews on earlier posts.   On this occasion Sue and me were accompanied by my mother, who had her own cabin, and my two twin daughters and their partners.    As it is of importance later on, it is worth knowing that my daughters sailed with us on Independence last time, and have been regular cruisers with us over the years.   This would be our third Royal Caribbean cruise (our last on the Anthem Of The Seas in 2015) it’s my mother’s first Royal Caribbean cruise, and it is my daughters’ partners’ first cruise entirely, so for them it was a big deal, certainly one of the most expensive holidays they had splashed out on.

I had spent a lot of time “bigging up” Independence, so I was naturally worried that my recommendation was well founded and they enjoyed the experience.

Check-in
I’m starting here because this is one of the areas I had enthused about to the others.

Normally our cruise check-in consists of a) drop off the luggage outside the terminal  b) park up the car in the nearby parking area, b) Check-in at the desks in a leisurely fashion (With P & O they give you a numbered card on arrival so that you are called up to the desks in small batches to ease congestion).  c) We quickly pass through security and board the ship.

Our first trip through Southampton’s City Terminal in 2015, as we joined Anthem, had been even better than that – after dropping the luggage and passengers directly outside, parking the car as normal, we were met with a young lady sporting an ipad, who checked us in almost instantaneously due to our pre-cruise check-in, which included checking us against the photos we had previously uploaded.   I must say I was intrigued that we had not been asked to upload photos this time and on arrival we realised why.

Our first annoyance was that travellers could no longer drop off their luggage curbside – instead you had to man handle it on trolleys from the car park.   Fortunately we had already driven in and pulled up at the curb when someone approached us to tell us we were in the drop-off only space.  “But we are dropping off?” “Yes, but this area isn’t for people who are parking.  Just for those dropping off and then driving away.  If you are dropping off and parking, you need to take your luggage with you to the car park”.

How ridiculous.   By this time the luggage was already out of our three cars and the porters were already taking them away.  “Oh” said the attendant, “Well I haven’t seen you” he said, and walked off.

The next problem came when we entered the terminal.  There were two entrances, one for normal passengers, and another for those in the Crown and Anchor Club.   As we had cruised before, we were now Platinum partners.  But, obviously, we wanted to board as one party.  This wasn’t allowed and we were herded into the two queues.  Immediately inside we decided to hop out of the platinum queue and get back in with the “riff raff”.

In actual fact, the two lines progressed through to security at exactly the same pace, and we were soon through the x-ray and metal detector and in the long long line for check-in.  And not an ipad in site.  In fact, this was more like checking in with a certain budget airline who shall remain unmentioned (“Potato!”).  No , actually that’s unfair to the airline for two reasons – a) they are slightly better than this and b) I haven’t paid over £1500 a person to board their plane.

When it came to our turn, the assistant at the front of the queue checked our seapass boarding cards and noted that we were platinum and needed to go to the other end of the hall.  We explained the situation with the four cabins, and after some discussion they allowed us all to go together to the C&A queue.   Once there, we patiently waited for our turn, but again the assistant noted that some of our group were in the wrong queue and had to go back.  At this point I got a little tense (I never get angry).   I pointed out that I didn’t really care WHICH desk we checked in at, but we were all checking in together.

It then transpired that we could only check in one cabin at a time.  So we ended up at four different desks.  Of course, mum didn’t really understand what she was supposed to do and understandably started to panic a bit.   In the end, she ended up at our desk while we checked in together, much as I had expected in the first place.

I wouldn’t mind, but we were carrying a letter from RC customer services that said we could all check in together, as we had already raised this question with them.  And although it said “Show this to the terminal staff” it made absolutely no difference.

So, Check-in.  NIL POINT.

Really, Check-in shouldn’t have warranted that much wordage.  Come on RC, your system with Anthem is first-class.  What are you doing reverting back to this appalling state of affairs?  And SORT THE DROP-OFF PROCEDURE OUT!!!

The Ship
You have to remember that we first set foot on board Independence in 2010, and our reaction was one of sheer amazement.  Amazement at the size, at the facilities, at the sheer glitz and glamour.   It was stunning.

Now, in fairness we didn’t expect to get quite that feeling second time round, as it wasn’t a new experience for us.

In fact, we had a similar experience with P & O’s Oceana, exactly the same state of awe the first time round, and on our second and third visits, we were equally impressed – more a case of ‘welcome back’ and ‘wow, hasn’t changed a bit’.

And for the most  part, Independence was equally as good as the first time – But she was showing some definite signs of wear and a distinct lack of attention in places.   Little bits of damage to trim, bodge job repairs to ceiling panels in our cabin, and a distinct lack of varnish to the handrails just to name a few.  Now, you may laugh at that, but on all other ships, one thing that has always stood out is the high gloss of the varnished exterior woodwork, and the constant ‘Forth Bridge’ style painting going off keeping it up to scratch.

Our balcony handrails were down to bare wood and white with salt – in fact the first night we made the mistake of leaning on the rail and left a nice white salt stain across our clothes.  Further into our cruise maintenance staff came on to the balconies while in one of the ports and quickly brushed over some varnish.  No preparation, just one quick coat, and the varnish was rough, dull and sticky for the rest of the voyage, despite being “quick dry”.   It put us off going out onto the balcony in case we rubbed against it.

In other places there were signs of rust, wood decay on some of the panels, and even the rubberised flooring on deck was breaking up in places.   The corridor carpets were well worn, with distinct paths down the centres and to each door.  A good shampoo wouldn’t have gone amiss.

Bearing in mind that this ship takes some 4,500 passengers a time, then its not surprising it wears out quickly.  But considering it’s last refit was 2003, just 3 years after our first cruise, then it must be well overdue for another trip to dry dock.

But getting things into perspective, the majority of the ship remained sparkly and shiny, and spotlessly clean throughout.

The Cabins
The cabins of course haven’t changed, and have stood up well to the punishment of thousand’s of inhabitants.  The bedding was a little creased and crumpled, worn, even holed sometimes, unlike our first visit when it was all brand new.  Just another tired sign.

It was noticeable that we now had packs of bedding and quilts under the bed for the duration, which apparently helps speed up the turnround process at the end of the cruise.

And gone are the chocolates on your pillows at night, or biscuits with your tea and coffee – cut backs I assume.

Oddly, the online services available on later ships has not been rolled out, and the TV still consists of some ridiculously priced pay on demand films, sprinkled with many non-English channels.  English channels are few and far between, odd for an American ship targetting the UK market.

RC cabins are well appointed, have lots of space, although we seem to recall our balcony being a little bigger the first time round – and we definitely need to check this against Ventura, which we distinctly remember being much bigger.

The Staff
For the first time ever, I think I am about to contradict myself.   I would normally say, it doesn’t matter which cruise line you are with, the staff give 110% excellent service all of the time.  And with Independence, I can say this is mostly the case.  But there is a noticeable exception, and it’s something we noted on the Anthem Of The Seas too.

The bar staff, no matter which bar you are in, are just too slow, too laid back and too inattentive.   The number of times we had to take drinks back because they were incorrect, or in the case of cocktails, hopelessly poorly prepared, it was just unbelievable.  A lot of the time there was just insufficient staff on – the theatre, the pools, the dining rooms, even some of the bars, hopelessly undermanned leaving you waiting ages to get served and ages then for your drink to arrive.

And the number of times the flavouring had run out on the sprite fountain was incredible.   I lost count of how many times I was served neat soda water, and even worse, served it again once they had “corrected” the problem!

Normally this sort of thing doesn’t worry me, but the soda package prices and the actual drink and cocktail prices are through the roof – PLUS they add an automatic 18% service charge!   18% for disastrously mixed drinks served with incredibly slow and indifferent service!   But let’s face it, if you are guaranteed to get 18% tips regardless, would you be too bothered?

In not at all subtle contrast, the dining room staff (buffet and silver service) were incredibly attentive and as usual couldn’t do enough to make your experience exceptional.  Likewise the hardworking cabin housekeeping staff, who just don’t seem to have enough hours in the day.

This leads me nicely on to F & B.

Food and Beverage
One of the things we like about cruising is the dining experience.  Glamorous restaurants, attentive waiting staff, beautifully prepared meals.

And up until the Anthem, we have never been disappointed.  However, if you read my post on that cruise, you will see their new six restaurant concept was somewhat underwhelming; yes, you had six different styles to choose from, but all of them with a feeling of just well, an ordinary city restaurant – nothing spectacular in reality.  And the food was good, but not awesome.

Back to Independence, and my ravings about the awesome three floor restaurant with its spiral staircase and grand decorations did not let me down, and it didn’t fail to leave the rest of our party speechless either.
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Our “my time” dining package was a bit of a non-starter.  Allegedly, we could turn up when we liked, but couldn’t guarantee being sat together as a party of seven, and were advised to book every night in advance.  We ended up booking 8 p.m. most nights, which left me wondering what the difference was between that and second sitting?

Our waiters Joseph and Ramir were exceptional, and Joseph turned out to be a central character on the ship during meal times, entertaining the children with his balloon modelling and pleasant and lively Jamaican borne demeanour – “You know me well!”DSC_0862.JPG

The food was less than spectacular though.  Although a reasonable variety on the menu, it was often let down by poor presentation, with it sometimes looking like it had been dished up in a school kitchen rather than a five star restaurant.  The vegetables served were often particularly gross.  The steak especially was of inferior quality, and on one occasion, it didn’t matter what the waiter said to the chef, the steak repeatedly came somewhere between blue and rare, rather than the medium well as requested.

Elsewhere, food quality and variety were pretty good – The windjammer buffet restaurant was always well stocked and completely edible, and had an endless variety of choice to suit every taste – although it still didn’t stop some people complaining there wasn’t enough choice.  Johnny Rocket’s diner is a must, the food there is exceptional and the additional small cover charge is well worth it.   I can’t comment on the other speciality restaurants, as they just are too expensive (for my pocket anyway) to use – The dining room manager approached us every night with special offers in Chops Grille – Just $35 / per person additional charge (and that was the offer price!)  Now I’m not being funny, but I’ve paid a really high price for all inclusive, and I don’t see why I should be paying over and above to get a steak in a different venue (apart from the fact they hopefully use better quality beef!)

I’ve already mentioned beverages, and there are two sides to this story.  Firstly, the prices are horrendously high (in my opinion).  Maybe somewhat due to the decline of the pound against the dollar, but no, they are high prices anyway.   Set that though against the ‘freeflow’ measures.  A pint of beer is a pint of beer.  A glass of drambuie however is a tumbler almost filled to the top with liquor, with a nog of ice for good luck.  So maybe you are getting the equivalent of 2-3 drinks per purchase, which is better value.

But with a drinks package price in the region of £42/day, you have to be knocking some back to get the full advantage.    And with cocktails in the region of $12- $14 dollars, you expect them to be spectacular.  So, take Pina Colada, my favourite.   One day, from one bar it is a smooth crushed mush of coconut tasting slush with a distinctive alcoholic bite to it, the next day it is a mixture of pineapple juice and the liquid mix, a milk like consistency, with about four inch of dark rum sat on top.  No, I mean totally floating on top of the milk.   Not blended at all.   And sometimes its rum, sometimes it malibu – whichever the barman sees is closest to hand I imagine.

So came as no surprise that we heard more than a few complaints while we were on board.

Facilities
It has to be said that apart from one or two of the latest cruise ships, it is hard to top Independence for things to do while on board.  Sports deck, flowrider, ice rink, rock wall, mini-golf, and a plethora of quizzes and other activities, yes, it’s a good programme to suit most people.

Many people complain about the lack of sun loungers but we had good weather throughout and never really had an issue finding somewhere to park our bodies – tables with chairs near the pool are at a premium though, and with Sue not being able to use sun beds, we found we needed to be seating ourselves at a table around 8 a.m. to guarantee a seat.  Of course, we inevitably lost this once we went for something to eat.

Entertainment and bars
There is no shortage of venues on board, although some of the more popular ones like the schooner bar fill up fast and stay like that for the evening.

We struggled again with the ice shows, as the tickets for all performances are given away early one morning at the start of the cruise and then it was a standby queue after that – we aren’t really into queuing with the hope of getting a seat, and with the cost of the holiday I would have expected a more fairer way of allocating tickets – or maybe put the shows on a sufficient number of times so that all of the guests get a chance to see it.
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The shows in the main theatre were good, and as we walked around the bars, the live entertainment was as expected, but again, seating in most venues is taken early, and standing isn’t my thing these days.

Destinations
I’m not going to dwell too much on the places we visited, it was a Mediterranean cruise and we visited the normal popular resorts.    There were some odd arrival and departure timings which made independent travel difficult – like Villefranche by tender; on paper we had time to get to Monaco by train and spend a couple of hours there, and indeed had got the whole trip planned to perfection, but after anchoring in the bay about 8 am it was nearly 12 noon before we set foot on land, and had to be back on the boat by three.  So no point in moving out of Villefranche.  Of course, there was no problem getting off if you were taking one of the RC’s rather expensive day trips…

The killer blow
I didn’t want this review to turn into a moan, and it seems to have done just that.  Don’t get me wrong, we had a good holiday, but it was despite of RC, not because of.  The drinks levy has crippled my party financially, and it was either that or drink tap water for two weeks, with their policy of not letting you bring drinks on board.   P & O prices were cheap by comparison, and they let you bring drinks on board for consumption in the room – which I suppose shows they are not too scared that they will lose masses of money this way.

The food was underwhelming at times, and I heard the newcomers in our party being a little critical of various aspects of the cruise, which left me feeling disappointed for them and a little guilty that I may have over sold the whole experience to them.

Fortunately, they are up for another cruise – just not with Royal Caribbean.

And that killer blow?  It’s the one thing that will stop me coming back on board a RC cruise.

The upsell.

I am NOT kidding.  Every last thing you see or touch costs extra money.  I mean, you expect SOME offers, but seriously, this is like water torture.  And nothing is value for money.   The internet is horrendously priced.  The mediocre photos taken by some really amateurish staff are a ridiculous $15 each – or you can have the whole cruise for $299.  To be honest, I would want wedding quality photos for that price.

The daily cruise planner gives a lot of its pages over to the various events on that have additional charges applied.   The constant drip drip drip of sale events, special offers and chargeable services is tedious beyond belief.  The lunchtime visit to see where the cooks work – $35 / head.   The behind the scenes tour – astronomical.  It just went on.  And on.   And I have to say, that even with sale prices in their duty free emporium, or jewellery shops on board, items were still MUCH cheaper on land.  If you are after perfume, alcohol,  ignore the bogus onboard discounts, you can get much better deals onshore.

The spa was well out of our budget on this occasion, hair and beauty was horrendous, well, just EVERYTHING was sell sell sell!  And don’t forget the automatic 18% tip “for your convenience”!  Well. saves you the time being mugged doesn’t it?

And don’t get me started about the daily art auctions!

But don’t take my word for it, here are just a few examples from the 74 examples I copied (Prices correct May 2017):

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BUT, the worst thing for me was the eagerly awaited destination planner, which you opened up to find the expected map of the town but not the expected list of local things to see;  no, instead a list of RECOMMENDED SHOPS that were partners of Royal Caribbean!    Now come on, do you think I’ve travelled all the way to these fabulous European cities just for you to tell me where the best shops are?   I mean, Barcelona?  Surely there is the odd landmark worthy of a paragraph – no, let’s give it over to more shopping…

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Summary

I’ve bound to have missed something important from this review, and if that’s the case I’ll be coming back and amending it soon.  But for now, these are my findings:

a) We love cruising and that will never change.

b) While we liked Royal Caribbean initially, they have just become money grabbing and don’t give anything like the level of service they should for these kind of prices.

c) Independence is still a great ship overall but is getting tired and needs another refit.  Compared to Anthem however, we are glad we went back to Independence.

d) They need to have a serious look at their drinks prices and an even closer look at their bar staff resources, training, attitude and quality of service.

e) The “customary” need to impose daily tip charges, to add statutory gratuities on drinks and restaurants and spa services just reinforces my belief that Royal Caribbean grossly underpay their staff.   I wouldn’t mind paying a higher headline price for my holiday if it means the staff were paid properly.  But don’t expect me to pay a high price already then slap another 20% on everything to subsidise your staff’s inadequate income.  Shame on you.

f) The constant, flagrant in your face upsell, even unexpectedly by the dining room manager, just total spoils the experience.  You feel like you are about to be mugged each time you talk to a member of staff.

It’s just TOO MUCH!

g) To my great relief our newcomers took to cruising big time, but we are already planning our next adventure and it WON’T be with Royal Caribbean.    At least until they change their current policy of fleecing their passengers for every penny.  The only thing missing on this trip were pickpockets on board!

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Rob and sue’s World Traveller sailed on Independence of the Seas in June 2017.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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