Getting a deal on specialty dining on Royal Caribbean cruises

Like it or not, extra-fee restaurants on cruise ships (usually called “specialty dining”) aren’t going anywhere. Cruising old-timers often complain about the cruise lines’ efforts to nickel-and-dime guests with extra charges, but I see the specialty dining as an opportunity to try new meals in new settings – things that the cruise ships likely wouldn’t provide if they weren’t able to make a few extra bucks in doing so.

On our recent Harmony cruise, we dined at two specialty restaurants. Chops Grille is an old favorite – they serve a fantastic steak and a wonderful mushroom soup, among other things, and the atmosphere is always very upscale and makes for a nice evening. We also tried 150 Central Park for the first time, and we were absolutely blown away by both the level of service and the food, as well as the signature Central Park Martini.

There are a few ways to cut down the cost of trying out these specialty experiences (or revisiting the ones you already know and love!):

  1. Book a “first-night” special ahead of your cruise. Royal Caribbean changes the options on this promotion, and sometimes it’s different on different ships. But if you look in your Cruise Planner before your cruise, you can often find deeply discounted specialty dining for the first one or two nights of your cruise (usually about $15-$20 per person per meal).
  2. Purchase a multi-day or unlimited dining package. You can buy a 3-, 4-, or 5-day specialty dining package for your cruise, either by going to the online Cruise Planner or by purchasing onboard your cruise ship. The price per person per meal will vary depending on the ship, but the price will usually go down as the number of days in your package goes up. Right now, Royal Caribbean is also offering an unlimited dining package, which includes specialty dining for dinner every night of the cruise as well as for lunch on sea days.
  3. Look onboard for special offers. You’ll usually see these on the first day, where employees will walk around the ship promoting discounted rates at the specialty restaurants. You can’t count on these, of course, but they might give you the push you’ve been needing to give these extra experiences a try. (I’ve also heard tell that you can sometimes just walk up to a specialty restaurant – especially one that looks, um, rather empty – and ask for a discount. Can’t hurt to try, right?)

If you’re on a tight budget for your cruise, a specialty restaurant might not be in the cards for you – and that’s okay! You’ll have great meals in the dining room, and you can save the specialty splurge for your next cruise. Personally, I like to go to specialty restaurants when I feel like I’ve gotten a good deal on my cruise fare – after all, I’ve saved that money, so why not use it to pay for an extra special meal? 🙂

If you want to learn more about specialty dining on Royal Caribbean, you can find some good info over on the Royal Caribbean Blog.

Some quick thoughts on our Harmony cruise

I’ve just gotten off a week on Royal Caribbean’s Harmony of the Seas, which is (for now) the world’s largest cruise ship. I’ll be posted a much longer review soon at my friend Emma’s blog Cruising Isn’t Just for Old People, but for now, here are a few quick thoughts. (UPDATE: My review is now live! You can read it here.)

  • The ship really is big, and that’s a good and a bad thing. I’d been on an earlier Oasis-class ship, Allure of the Seas, a little over two years ago. But since then, it’s been mostly small ships for us, and to be honest I think I prefer the smaller ones. A big ship means more things to do, but it also means more planning and a little too much thinking for my taste, especially since I mostly cruise to relax and not to do things.
  • Having said that, I never felt that the ship was particularly crowded, except for the morning of disembarkation in the Windjammer. There are so many options and things to do that I think it just naturally spreads people out. Even though there were over 6300 passengers on our sailing, there were definitely times when we were alone on the deck – which is kind of amazing.
  • Would I cruise on Harmony or her Oasis-class sisters again? Yes, for some specific reasons that I’ll detail in the blog post. (Spoiler alert: dinner in the 150 Central Park specialty restaurant was practically life-changing.) I certainly wouldn’t turn down an Oasis-class cruise, and I think there are some conditions where these ships are a good option: If you have kids, or someone in your group does; if you have a big group or one with diverse interests; or if you’re into the thrill-ride aspect of things like slides and wave pools.

In the end, I’m pretty happy to learn that I like cruising on the older, smaller ships just as much – maybe more? – as the big, shiny new ships. After all, there’s something for everyone in today’s cruising industry!

A funny thing happened at the Crown and Anchor loyalty event…

I’ve written before about my love for the Crown and Anchor loyalty events on Royal Caribbean cruises, where the company thanks the highest-level cruisers in its loyalty program. Usually, this entails a few complimentary drinks and an entertainment program of some sort, along with recognition of the cruisers onboard with the most cruise points.

So you can imagine my surprise (in fact, the surprise of nearly everyone in the Royal Theater on Harmony of the Seas) when our cruise director took to the stage and introduced the CEO of Royal Caribbean, Michael Bayley! As a self-confessed cruise nerd, I was more than a teeny bit excited as Mr. Bayley proceeded to announce that he’d be taking questions from the crowd.

In fact, he answered questions – some with great candor, and many with humor – for almost half an hour, during which I furiously took notes on my iPhone. (Note: Maybe all that practice typing for texting was good for something!) He took questions about a wide range of topics, and graciously accepted some suggestions that quite honestly my husband and I rolled our eyes at. A few highlights to me:

  • The company is planning to put a great deal of money (I think it was $800M? But it might have been $500M) into revitalizing older ships in a program he called Royal Amplify. These are going to be very extensive refurbishments, not your usual glossing over. Mariner of the Seas and Independence of the Seas are up first, with Oasis of the Seas and Allure of the Seas to follow in 2019 and 2020.
  • Potential products like cruises from California and Brazil as well as around-the-world cruises were brought up as suggestions, but pretty quickly shot down. Apparently they’re just not profitable, and after all, we are talking about a corporation here, and they’re here to make money (not necessarily friends).
  • One guest asked about the ships getting bigger (ironic/appropriate since we’re on the biggest ship in the fleet, at least for right now) and Mr. Bayley pretty much admitted that size isn’t a limitation in the newer ships being designed. He talked about how the company’s Song of America debuted in 1982 and was said to be “too big” – at 1650 capacity! Bottom line, I don’t see Royal backing down from building megaships any time soon, especially as I’d imagine the financials are more favorable on these larger ships.

Now, of course the CEO of the company doesn’t show up at the loyalty event for every cruise – he told us that he’d boarded our ship the day before to study some of the features of Harmony in anticipation for planning the new Icon class of ships that’s scheduled to debut in the 2020s. It was a true stroke of luck, as our event had originally been scheduled for Day 2 of the cruise, and postponed due to rain. But hey, sometimes you happen to be in the right place at the right time!

Going to the C&A event (again)

I’ve written before about the Crown and Anchor Top Tier event (for Platinum level members and higher) that the hubby and I attended on our Majesty of the Seas cruise in the Bahamas. I was intrigued to attend the similar event on the Explorer on the Seas because this is a much bigger ship, and I was curious how many people would attend.

One thing that was different on the Explorer cruise: we didn’t get our invitation to the event until midway through the week, and the event was held on the last day of our cruise. No problem – the event was held on our last sea day, and we had a pretty clear calendar. 😉 We attended the event, which was held in the ice rink, a feature found in Royal Caribbean’s Oasis, Freedom, and Voyager class ships.

(Side note: I just don’t get ice skating on a cruise ship. You can both attend skating performances and participate in an open skate yourself, but I’ve never found myself wanting to do it. I guess it’s a matter of personal preference!)

Indeed, there were a lot more people attending this Top Tier event, which was not surprising as it was a much bigger cruise ship. Waiters were walking around with the usual drinks (I opted for champagne again) and even some small hors d’oeuvres. The program was similar, but with one noticeable difference: The top cruisers had far fewer nights at sea than did the ones at the Majesty C&A event.

I didn’t mind attending the event because we really didn’t have anything to do, and we got a few free drinks out of it. I think the hubby is getting a little sick of them, though – he opted out of the event on our next cruise. (As it turns out, I kind of wish that I had too….)

San Francisco: Sailing in and out

When I booked the Pacific Coastal cruise, I was especially excited to be sailing in and out of San Francisco. I’ve visited San Fran by land several times, and sailing in and out of ports has always been one of my favorite parts of cruising. I thought this would be a perfect combination of the two, and I was not disappointed!

Our arrival time in San Francisco was listed at 8 am, and so I woke up pretty early (around 6) to make sure I was awake. Wouldn’t you know it – I was met by the famous San Francisco fog, so thick I could hardly see past the edge of my balcony. I puttered around the room for a while waiting for the hubby to get up, but finally decided I didn’t want to wait any longer. I headed up to the Viking Crown Lounge on the top deck for the best view.

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By this time, it was about 7 am. It was pretty light, but still very foggy. I sat down by a window and took a few pictures of the fog and all the people waiting on the front of the ship. Suddenly, and very quickly, the Golden Gate Bridge began to emerge from the fog. I took a few photos and a video as we passed under the bridge. A crew member who had been washing the windows next to me sat down and we watched as the ship sailed under the bridge. It was a pretty impressive sight, even in the fog!

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Throughout the rest of our sail in to the port, the fog came and went. My husband joined me on deck and we took some great pictures of Alcatraz and, eventually, the city itself. We finally pulled into port around 8 am and I found that I had a great view from our balcony, even though the fog continued to obscure parts of the city.

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Our sail away the next afternoon, in contrast, couldn’t have been more clear. It was also incredibly windy! The hubby and I were lucky to station ourselves just behind a wind screen and got some great pictures as we sailed past Alcatraz and under the Golden Gate Bridge. I had gotten some advice from a friend to always hold my phone-camera sideways when shooting video and managed to get a pretty sweet video of us passing under the Golden Gate.

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You can view my pictures of the sail in and out of San Francisco on my Facebook page. I’m really looking forward to having San Francisco on my itinerary again!

Getting to the port: Seattle Terminal 91

Warning: If you have a friend who lives in Seattle, you might NOT want to ask her to drive you to the cruise port in Seattle. Unless she’s a good friend (fortunately, mine was!).

There are two ports in Seattle; Royal Caribbean and Celebrity both leave from Terminal 91. (We were in port along with the Celebrity Solstice.) You’ll use this port if you’re on any cruise line other than Norwegian Cruise Lines, which departs from the more centrally located Pier 66.

As I mentioned, my friend offered to drive us to the cruise port. After a quick stop to buy two bottles of wine to take on our cruise, we followed the fairly straightforward Google Maps directions to the port. That’s when it got a little…annoying.

We arrived a little before 1 pm for a 4 pm departure and frankly, I thought maybe we were late enough to avoid the majority of the day’s traffic. I was wrong, but not necessarily for the reason I expected. See, the person who designed the traffic flow at this terminal must not have been thinking about have two large cruise ships’ worth of passengers arriving at the same time: Right smack in the middle of the flow of traffic is a cross walk through which every arriving passenger must walk!

Yep, that’s right: The cars trying to enter to drop people off – taxis, Ubers, private cars, Lyfts – all have to stop for pedestrians to walk across the road. Unsurprisingly, this caused quite a backup, and the whole drop off process took a good 15-20 minutes, a lot of which was spent sitting around.

So my take away to you is this: When you arrive at the Terminal 91 drop off, expect that you’ll be slowed down, maybe to the tune of 15-30 minutes. And if you’re going to have someone drive you, maybe ask a person you don’t really like? 😉

Cruising on Majesty: A blast from the past

My mother took me on my first cruise in 1990, when I was 13 years old. She loved cruising, and I got to spend a lot of time with her on cruise ships – which is no doubt a big part of why I still cruise every chance that I get.

In the “arms race” of cruise lines, bigger and bigger ships have been making their debuts every year. My husband and I cruised for almost two weeks across the Atlantic on Allure of the Seas, and we took a fun one-week cruise to the Caribbean on Norwegian’s Escape. These ships are undeniably remarkable: Chock-full of activities, they’re filled with things to do and places to do them.

But to be honest, while I enjoyed my time on these larger, newer ships, I’ve also felt that there’s been something…well, different about them. They really do represent a new era of cruising that’s designed to attract a wider audience and – if you ask me – to pander to our modern sensibilities and our shorter attention spans.

Lately, I’ve been seeking out older and smaller ships, and my trip on Majesty fit nicely into that trend. I have to say that I was beyond pleased with the way that the ship evoked a nice sense of cruise nostalgia – nothing seemed old, per se, but even the layout of the ship was a throwback to the days when I began cruising with my mom. While the Majesty does have a rock-climbing wall, one of Royal Caribbean’s newer innovations and upgrades, most of its entertainment falls right into the sweet spot of cruising: Theater shows, a little gambling in the casino, and a nice drink with a great view of the ocean. What else does a person really need?

Drinks on the beach in CocoCay, Bahamas

Nothing says “I’m on vacation!” like a beach and a frozen adult beverage. Fortunately, on Royal Caribbean’s private island CocoCay, you can get both of these things, and they’re (both) pretty awesome. (The floating bar, pictured above, is pretty awesome as well!)

I’d first visited CocoCay on a cruise with some friends to celebrate my 40th birthday. We’d all purchased Royal Caribbean’s deluxe beverage package because…well, it was my 40th birthday. We were excited to try the signature drink of the island, the Coco Loco. And try it we did! And we tried it again, and again, because…well, it was my 40th birthday.

When we returned to CocoCay on our Majesty cruise, I was excited to belly up to the bar and order myself a Coco Loco. I was surprised to see the bartender start assembling a plastic souvenir cup for my drink. I stopped him and said that I didn’t want to pay anything extra – I already have too many plastic drink cups at home! But I came to find out from the bartender that cruisers without a drink package pay a price for the Coco Loco that includes the cost of the cup – it’s only those cruisers with a drink package who receive it in a normal plastic cup.

So, now we have an additional plastic souvenir cup in our collection…guess I’ll remember to leave extra space in my luggage on future trips, unless I’m planning to get the beverage package!

Should you go to the Crown & Anchor event? (Heck yes!)

At the time of our Majesty cruise, my husband and I were at the Platinum level of the Royal Caribbean Crown and Anchor Society, which gives frequent Royal cruisers bonuses for their loyalty. One of those perks is an invitation to some sort of onboard party, which we attended in the late morning of our first full day on the cruise.

I love going to these events because, well, I’m a cruise nerd. I like hearing about the industry and I often hear updates on advancements and improvements being planned by the company – this time it was discussion of the massive CocoCay renovation, which will include a pier for ships to dock at and other additional facilities on the island. (At our event, they suggested a salt-water wave pool would be among the additions – a neat touch as the water at CocoCay doesn’t have many waves to speak of.)

I also love going to the C&A events because, well, they give you free drinks! Most of them will have waiters moving among the crowd with a tray featuring a number of different drink options (mimosa, rum punch, etc) but if you ask nicely, they can often bring you something else. I usually drink champagne, myself – it’s not the best vintage around, but hey, it’s free!

I really love the camaraderie at these events – at the event on Majesty in particular, cruise guests and staffers were greeting each other like old friends. Clearly, our group included a number of very frequent cruisers – many were at the Pinnacle Club level, earned by cruising over 700 nights, and one cruiser had over 2800 nights! (Our cruise left from Port Canaveral in Florida, which likely contributed to the number of frequent cruisers, many of whom lived within driving distance.)

After an event around 30 minutes, my husband took our glasses of champagne up to the Viking Crown Lounge to watch the sail in to Nassau. Even though it was gloomy weather at the time, this was a very pleasant way to spend the morning!

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Hanging out: Public Areas on Majesty OTS

When you’re staying in an inside cabin, as I was on Majesty of the Seas, you tend to spend a lot of time in public areas such as bars and lounges. Since my inside room on Majesty was a wee bit small, I was pleased to find so many lovely public areas to hang out in while we were on the ship.

One of my favorite parts of Royal Caribbean’s ships is the Viking Crown Lounge. This much-loved feature can be found in most of Royal’s older ships, although it was replaced by a suites-only restaurant on Oasis-class ships. The Viking Crown Lounge on Majesty is used at night to host a reception for elite loyalty guests (Crown and Anchor Diamond level and above), but you can still access part of it at this time, and the whole area is available during the daytime. Its height above the deck makes it an excellent perch to people-watch on the pool deck or watch the ship sail away from a port. (In our case, we had a noon arrival into Nassau, and found this a fantastic viewpoint to watch our entry and docking.)

Another great place to gather on Majesty is the Schooner Bar, another iconic feature in Royal Caribbean’s fleet. I especially liked the size of the Schooner Bar on Majesty, as well as its lovely large windows. Majesty’s Schooner Bar is also full of fun touches that make for great pictures, like this Viking sculpture. (The hubby and I had a little fun with this one. 🙂

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Right outside the bar, I found a great spot for a photo – full speed ahead, Captain! They may seem cheesy, but to this long-time cruiser, these small things are reminiscent of a bygone era in cruising that brings back lots of fond memories.

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