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Updated: Sep 30, 2022


Planning A Cruise With Royal Caribbean Honest Review By In The Great Wide Travel Lifestyle Blog

Back in early 2021, I had a dream: to be on the Caribbean island of St. Lucia on my 30th birthday to see the Pitons. Luckily for us (and through an insane amount of preparation), Adam and I were able to take a week-long Southern Caribbean cruise to seven different islands in the Caribbean on Royal Caribbean’s ship Explorer of the Seas in early December 2021 with 10 of our friends!


We didn’t realize just how lucky we were, as we managed to avoid the Omicron COVID-19 variant by just a week. In this article, I’ll share my experience in the cruise planning process with Royal Caribbean, then you can read about our onboard experience in Part 2. Spoiler alert: they were wildly different!


CONTENTS



Booking a Cruise with Royal Caribbean and their Best Price Guarantee

When I started shopping around for this, our first cruise ever, I had a small list of criteria I was looking to meet:

  • 7 nights in the Caribbean

  • Inexpensive (under $900 fare per person)

  • Started and ended in a place that would be easy and inexpensive to get to

  • Visits St. Lucia

  • No days at sea

  • With a reputable cruise company


That’s how we ended up on Royal Caribbean’s ship Explorer of the Seas for a 7 night cruise around the Southern Caribbean, starting and ending in San Juan, Puerto Rico and visiting a different island every day. We went to St. Thomas and St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands, St. Maarten, St. Lucia (on my actual birthday!), Barbados, and St. Kitts, and all for what ended up being $535 cruise fare per person!


Because of the pandemic, Royal Caribbean also had amazing deals with their Best Price Guarantee and a generous cancellation policy, which allowed us to book when we were ready and then call to re-price if the price for new bookings on the cruise went down: something that everyone should be doing if you ask us - it’s only fair! However, Royal Caribbean’s rules have changed since we booked ours, and at the time we’re writing this, their Best Price Guarantee now technically only applies for 48 hours after you book, so make sure you read the fine print before booking your cruise so you don’t get trapped into losing money on a trip.


In The Great Wide Travel Lifestyle Blog Balcony Room On Royal Caribbean Explorer Of The Seas Cruise Ship

Royal Caribbean Group Planners and Staterooms

Since we had 12 people in our group, I went through one of Royal Caribbean’s group planners to make our personal reservation, and then the rest of our group made their own reservations with the same planner to connect all the reservations together…or so we thought. It ended up being that 2 out of the other 5 reservations never got connected to ours, despite multiple emails and phone calls.


Since Royal Caribbean only considers you a “group” if you have 8 or more staterooms (we had 6 total), it didn’t make too much of a difference for us, but it’s ridiculous that Royal Caribbean wasn’t able to officially connect them. Luckily, our dinner reservations got connected properly, so we were still able to sit together for dinner every evening, which is what was really important to us.


We initially booked an interior stateroom, simply choosing the least expensive option. We didn’t mind because we knew we would be spending the majority of our time out on the islands or exploring the ship, so we just needed a place to sleep, shower, and safely store our stuff.


However, we later found out that Explorer of the Seas has different types of interior staterooms. Not only do some have overhead “pullman” beds to fit 1 or 2 more people (although that would be a very cramped situation - this seems to be geared more towards families with children), but some interior staterooms have views of the Royal Promenade (AKA the main walkway in the center of the ship) and others even have virtual balconies with a live feed of outside the ship. No one at Royal Caribbean explained this to us until a very lengthy and confusing phone call where I learned the difference in Royal Caribbean’s lingo for “guaranteed” rooms and “confirmed” rooms. “Guaranteed” means you have a room booked, but not a specific room (one will be assigned to you within the tier you’ve chosen), while “Confirmed” means that you have chosen a specific room (you will have the specific room number if you have this one). More about staterooms in another blog post, though.


Some Interior Staterooms On Royal Caribbean Explorer Of The Seas Cruise Ship Have Virtual Balconies With A Live Feed From Off The Ship

Soon after we made our reservation, our assigned group planner started getting snippy, not returning phone calls and avoiding lowering the price of our room per their Best Price Guarantee by saying that they were still running the same promotions as when we booked, but not taking into consideration that the base fare price had dropped. I ended up calling Royal Caribbean’s main phone number and getting the price lowered that way, but our group planner should have done it himself when I asked him to.


(Note: when we initially booked in February 2021, the base fare was $730 per person, but because I kept watching the price, I got it dropped down to $535 per person when all was said and done.)


As I thoroughly researched the islands we would be visiting, I discovered that some of the islands may not be welcoming to the LGBTQ+ community, which would be a concern for our group, but when I approached our group planner about our concern, the response we received felt rehearsed and insincere. We decided to keep moving forward anyway, confident that the islands would just be thankful to have tourists back after losing so much through the pandemic, and we were right! Everyone in our group felt welcomed on every island, which goes to show that even though a nation may have laws against the LGBTQ+ community, that doesn’t mean the people of the nation agree with them.


After a while, our group planner stopped responding to emails and phone calls altogether from everyone in our group. I called Royal Caribbean to complain and be paired with a new planner, but the company didn’t want to hear my feedback and the new planner we were paired with ghosted us too. We decided to just give up on it and call the main phone number if we needed to talk to someone, even though it sometimes meant long wait times.


Caribbean Sea At Sunrise As Seen From Royal Caribbean Explorer Of The Seas Cruise Ship By In The Great Wide Travel Blog

Royal Caribbean’s Poor Communication

All the Royal Caribbean employees I spoke to through their main phone number were friendly and wanted to help, but rarely had the information we were looking for. I spent HOURS on hold while employees would confer with their colleagues and transfer me around to different departments looking for answers. I used to work in corporate restaurant training, so I know that means that Royal Caribbean isn’t training their employees very well with knowledge of their operations. So no matter how much the employees want to be able to help, they often can't.


The biggest problem we had with planning the cruise was how uncommunicative Royal Caribbean is, with their guests and within their own company. As COVID protocols continued to change and develop, Royal Caribbean did not communicate their policies to their guests, so when I found some fine print in the Royal Caribbean app just 3 weeks before our cruise that suggested we may not be able to freely explore St. Lucia, Barbados, or St. Kitts, I was extremely upset. I called Royal Caribbean multiple times looking for answers and was given different information each time, all within a few days of each other. Some said it hadn’t been decided yet and couldn’t tell us when it would be, some said that it had been decided and that we would only be allowed off the cruise ship on those islands if we booked an excursion through Royal Caribbean (AKA a “bubble excursion”), and some said that would be the case for all the islands, not just the ones listed.


I would also like to point out that I spoke to someone from Royal Caribbean on the phone 3 days prior to finding that fine print in their app, at which point we were told that only unvaccinated guests wouldn’t be allowed off the ship at the ports but that vaccinated guests would be able to explore freely. After doing more research into the possible bubble excursion policy that I found in the fine print, we knew that the information about it had already been available several weeks prior to that phone call too, so we were specifically given wrong information by a Royal Caribbean employee.


All of this is to say that Royal Caribbean needs to get their sh*t together with communication with their guests but also within their own company. We understand that the pandemic was and is out of Royal Caribbean’s control and they were forced to adapt as situations developed, but to not clearly communicate the evolving protocols to guests, especially within a month of their sail date, is inexcusable. Not keeping your employees up-to-date with those policies so they can answer questions when they arise is unacceptable.


In The Great Wide Travel Blog Planning A Snorkeling Shore Excursion In Barbados With Royal Caribbean Cruise Line

Shore Excursion Planning with Royal Caribbean

In the last month leading up to the cruise, I had to call Royal Caribbean 13 times and spend who knows how many hours on the phone trying to get our excursions sorted out. When I tried to email, it would take 48 hours to get a response, and when I replied to the email for clarification, we would be put back at the end of the line to wait another 48 hours for a response from a completely different person. And after all that, the bubble excursions policy ended up not even being enforced onboard.


Royal Caribbean executives purposefully withheld important information and exploited the situation to make guests panic at the last minute before their cruise, forcing them to book excursions through the cruise line or risk not being let off the ship at all.


We had already hand-picked and booked excursions in St. Lucia and Barbados, after hours upon hours of research, that would support the local businesses instead of the huge corporation that is Royal Caribbean, and we wanted to stick with those as much as possible, but Royal Caribbean coerced most of their guests to cancel those kinds of excursions and book through them instead (often with guests taking a loss on non-refundable deposits for the third party tours). We understand that Royal Caribbean is a business looking to make money, but they did not treat us fairly.


In The Great Wide Travel Blog Plans Shore Excursion in St. Kitts Through Royal Caribbean Cruise Line

As far as Royal Caribbean shore excursions go, we thoroughly enjoyed the ones we ended up going on, but yet again, the planning wasn’t always fun.


Royal Caribbean’s Best Price Guarantee applied to everything, including the base fare price, drink packages, and shore excursions. (We can’t find info about this on their website now, so make sure to ask before booking.) Their instructions for lowering the price of anything besides your base cruise fare are to simply go to their website to cancel the specific activity reservation and immediately rebook it at the lower price. While it sounds appealing to not have to call to talk to someone (and possibly sit on hold for a while to do so), we almost lost our excursion in Barbados doing it that way.


I noticed a slightly lower price for our Swim with Turtles, Shipwrecks, Snorkel and Beach shore excursion in Barbados, so I canceled it on the Royal Caribbean website and immediately tried to rebook it (per their recommendation), but it had sold out at that exact time and I wasn’t able to rebook our spots. It took 2 hours on the phone (and a lot of tears, as it was something we were supposed to be doing with all 10 of our friends that were coming with us and I thought we had just lost out over a small price difference), until I was able to rebook it.


So Royal Caribbean will tell you to cancel and rebook online because it’s faster and less of a hassle (which is true), but it can also be extremely risky for popular excursions and we would not do it again. Better to bite the bullet on the higher price tag or to take the time to call and have an RC rep reprice it for you.


In The Great Wide Travel Blog Planning a Cruise with Royal Caribbean on Explorer of the Seas Cruise Ship

Other Planning Problems with Royal Caribbean

A few other examples of Royal Caribbean’s poor communication to their guests include:

  1. They did not notify us when check-in was available for our cruise. I read on the Royal Caribbean Blog that check-in could be open as far ahead as 90 days, so I just kept checking back every single day so we wouldn’t miss the opportunity to get on the ship early. And it’s a good thing I did, because we weren’t notified at all. Note: The sooner you check-in for your sailing, the more options you’ll have for what time you get on the cruise ship on embarkation day. The early times go first and are the best option because you can then get onboard, not have to worry about your luggage, and start enjoying the ship activities and take advantage of your drink packages!

  2. We weren’t told which port to go to in San Juan for embarkation day. When you Google “San Juan cruise port”, you get directed to the ports in Old San Juan, which is what we based our plans off of for finding a hotel to stay at the nights before and after the cruise. Luckily, I continued to do more research into it and later found out that there’s also the Pan American Piers that are on the other side of Cano de San Antonio from Old San Juan. Not far, but not within walking distance of where we were staying like the other piers that we planned on. I had to call Royal Caribbean and specifically ask which pier to go to on embarkation day, which is just ABSURD.

  3. There was absolutely no communication about formal nights onboard or anything else about a dress code. With this being our first cruise, we didn’t know formal nights are a thing, but luckily one of our friends knew and told us to ask about it. It definitely seems as though Royal Caribbean forgets that not everyone has been on a cruise before, and this is something we wouldn’t have even known to ask about if our friend hadn’t said anything. Royal Caribbean should have emailed us an itinerary with their dress code expectations after we booked the cruise.


In The Great Wide Travel Lifestyle Blog Travel Squad Friend Group with Adam and Phoebe

Onboard Credits with Royal Caribbean

One last thing that we think people should be aware of about Royal Caribbean that we only learned because we asked…


Onboard credits DO NOT roll-over into a general Royal Caribbean credit to put towards a future cruise. If you end up with onboard credits for your cruise, you must use them on that cruise or you will lose them.


They can be used for things onboard like specialty dining, massages, and shore excursions through the cruise line, so you’ll have options, but if you’re like us and think that you could just save them to use towards booking your next cruise, that is sadly not the case. We managed to get away with no onboard credits (and kept that money in our own pockets!) so this wasn’t a problem for us in the end, but it’s yet another thing that Royal Caribbean won’t tell you unless you specifically ask about it.


In The Great Wide Travel Lifestyle Blog Royal Caribbean Honest Review of Cruise Planning Process Explorer of the Seas Ship

Final Thoughts on the Cruise Planning Process with Royal Caribbean

If you are able to afford to have a professional travel agent plan your cruise, you’ll be much happier and more stress-free as you enter into your cruise vacation, but we realize that isn’t the case for almost everyone (us included), which is why we want to share our full experience with you.


I’ve heard from a few sources that not going through a travel agent is a common mistake for first-time cruisers and that a good travel agent shouldn’t charge you anything extra, but no one offers any solutions on how to find one of these "good" travel agents and I operated under the impression that’s who Royal Caribbean’s group planners were supposed to be. I truly hope that they are not the “good” travel agents people are referring to.


By the time we were going on the cruise, we were extremely confused about the awards Royal Caribbean boasts on their website, including Best Cruise Line in the Caribbean and Best Cruise Line Overall, both from Travel Weekly’s Readers Choice Awards, for 18 years running at the time. They acted as a promise that our onboard experience would be far superior to our cruise planning experience, which Royal Caribbean desperately needed in order to turn our opinion of the company around.


NEXT UP: Check out Part 2 of our honest Royal Caribbean review to hear about our onboard experience - the positives, the negatives, and whether or not we’ll cruise with Royal Caribbean again!


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Meet Phoebe Meador Travel Blogger and Lifestyle Blogger From In The Great Wide



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In The Great Wide Travel Lifestyle Blog Phoebe and Adam at the Scotch Whisky Experience in Edinburgh, Scotland

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This is our travel lifestyle blog where we not only share stories from our adventures while traveling the world, but also our thorough research of the places we visit & practical advice on how to save money so you can travel more too!

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