Because we've already cruised twice on her sister ship, Allure Of The Seas, we thought it would be interesting to sail on the newer version, Harmony Of The Seas. While the two ships are very similar, there are some important differences. It was also interesting to compare Harmony Of The Seas to Anthem Of The Seas, which is actually the best cruise ship I've ever sailed on. I'll talk about some of the differences as we go on.
If you've read any of my other cruise reviews, I think you'll notice that this one is shorter and less detailed. This was my 40th cruise, and I'm getting a little less energetic about all the effort it takes to put together a super-detailed review with hundreds of photos and videos. I'm going to make this one more brief, to preserve my very precious free time. Some of the reviews I've done in the past have taken six days to complete, by the time I've edited the photos and videos, written all the text, and put it all together on the web site. I'm hoping to cut the labor down to a couple of days on this one!
The Best Standard Balcony Cabins I've Ever Seen
We stayed in cabin 9302, which is a standard balcony cabin... the most common type of cabin on the ship. While recently my cruising style has shifted more towards staying in more expensive suites, Royal Caribbean suite prices are outrageous and the perks pale in comparison to those on Norwegian Cruise Line... so we decided to just stick with a standard balcony cabin this time around. This allowed me to make a very good comparison to similar cabins that we've stayed in during our other cruises.
One thing that really excited me to see on Harmony Of The Seas was that they carried over the cabin improvements that I first saw on Anthem Of The Seas. These are small little improvements that Royal Caribbean has come up with in cabin design, but together these small improvements add up to a way better cabin experience than you get on Harmony's sister ships, Oasis and Allure, as well as a nice improvement over what you get on the older Royal Caribbean ships such as the two Freedom-class ships we sailed on in recent years.
Let's look closer at these cabin improvements, and I think you'll see that Royal Caribbean really put some thought in to how to improve their cabin design.
At first glance, the photo of the couch and two closets might not strike you as being all that impressive. But let me point out what Royal Caribbean did here that you might not notice on your own. Notice that the two closets are about six feet apart, separated by the couch. In most cruise ship cabins that we've stayed in, if there are two closets, they are usually right next to each other. This means that if both people in the room are trying to get ready at the same time (as usually happens) they will bump in to each other and be in each other's way. And in some cruise ship cabins, both people have to share one closet.
This cabin design with two closets separated by quite a significant distance was something we first saw on Anthem Of The Seas, and we were so glad that they brought it over to Harmony Of The Seas, too. Three months earlier, which we sailed on Harmony's older sister, Allure Of The Seas, the closet arrangement was really awkward. So, this is a great improvement!
Another big improvement over Allure and the other older Royal Caribbean ships is a much more generous set of electrical outlets and USB charging connections. Here's a photo of what was offered at the desk area of our cabin.
As you can see, there are two USB charging connections, three 110 volt American-style power outlets, and one 220 volt European-style outlet. Also notice that one of the American-style power outlets is rotated 90 degrees from the other. This worked really great for plugging in one of my camera battery chargers.
In addition to all those outlets you see in that previous photo, there was also an additional 110 volt American-style power outlet next to the bed. This is great if you like to charge your cell phone at night but you also want to have it within reach of the bed. It's also perfect for people who have to sleep with the assistance of a CPAP breathing-assistance device.
Here's a photo of my wife sitting out on our balcony, which was generously-sized compared to some other cruise ships we've sailed on.
Notice that the door which separates the cabin from the balcony slides from left to right, rather than pivoting open and closed on hinges. We've sailed on a lot of older ships where they used a door on hinges... and what happens is that the wind ends up slamming the doors shut. You are constantly hearing the banging noise of other passenger's balcony doors slamming closed on ships like that. Royal Caribbean was smart to not use that kind of design on their balcony doors.
A very minor but absolutely brilliant move that Royal Caribbean made starting with the Quantum class of ships was the use of two tracks for the curtains at the balcony door. On older ships, the curtains come in from the left and right and meet in the middle... but because they share the same track, there is typically a small gap where the curtains meet. On Harmony Of The Seas (and on the Quantum class... but not on Oasis, Allure, or any of the older ships) the left curtains and the right curtains are each on their own track and that way they can overlap in the middle... which creates a nice seal which blocks out all the light from outside. If you like to sleep in past sunrise in the morning, or if you like to take a nap during the day... you will love how dark you can make the cabin now that Royal Caribbean went to the trouble of using a two-track system for their curtains.
Another thoughtful little improvement along those same lines can be seen in the design of the bathroom lighting. There's basically a permanent night-light in the bathroom. When you turn the bathroom lights out, they never go completely 100% dark. Even switched off, a small amount of light is always emitted by the bathroom lights. This is great for those middle-of-the-night potty breaks when you don't want to have to turn on the bright bathroom lights. There's enough light in there, even with the light switch off, to find your way around.
One other nice improvement we first noticed on Anthem Of The Seas and were impressed to also see on Harmony Of The Seas was the addition of a combination lock to the refrigerator. Let's say you're travelling with children and you don't want them getting in to whatever beverages you've got stored in the refrigerator. Just set a code on the refrigerator lock and you'll be able to control access to it. Or let's say you smuggled your own stash of alcohol on to the ship and you don't want your cabin steward to know about it. Put it in the refrigerator and set a code to the lock.
So, I was pretty impressed with all the little improvements they've made to the cabins, and I'd have to say that Harmony Of The Seas (and Anthem Of The Seas) have the best standard balcony cabins I've seen. Sure, there are nicer suites out there if you've got the money to pay for it... but if you're trying to keep the price down and you're looking for the best standard balcony cabin for the money... this is where you'll find it.
While I was delighted to see that Harmony Of The Seas inherited all the great cabin improvements that I had seen on Anthem Of The Seas, I was a bit disappointed that they didn't use Anthem's design for the adults-only Solarium area at the front of the ship. Anthem Of The Seas has an amazing Solarium that is fully enclosed in glass to keep the wind from being a problem up there, and an excellent ventilation and air conditioning system to keep the Solarium cool on hot days. Unfortunately, they didn't bring that design over to Harmony Of The Seas. The Solarium design they've used on Harmony is similar to what's on Oasis and Allure, but with the addition of an additional lower level.
Where Allure and Oasis of the Seas have a two-level Solarium, the Solarium on Harmony Of The Seas features three levels. The new lower level has a big Jacuzzi, quite a few very comfortable day beds, and lots of additional loungers.
But the problem with the design of the Solarium on Harmony Of The Seas (and on Oasis and Allure) is that the Solarium is not FULLY enclosed. There are large openings in the overhead structure that I'm sure were designed to ventilate the area on a hot sunny day in the Caribbean, and which probably also help eliminate the need for a large air conditioning system in this area. This design is fine on a hot day when the ship is tied up to a dock somewhere, but when the ship is in motion it becomes too windy in this area. And in the event of a brief rain shower, which happens from time to time in the Caribbean, the open roof does next-to-nothing to keep things dry down below.
In this next picture, you can see what I'm talking about regarding the roof of the Solarium and how it does not fully enclose the area...
You can see the large gaps between the sections of the solarium roof... which are designed to allow for the heat to escape on a warm (non-windy) sunny day. But once the ship starts sailing, a lot of wind blows in and it can be a bit uncomfortable underneath. Also, notice the design of the panels to the right of the gaps between sections. Those are NOT solid... they are mesh, designed to provide partial shade down below. But they do little to stop the wind from coming in.
Compare this to the next picture, which I took last year on Anthem Of The Seas. You can see that the glass panels of the Solarium fully enclose that area, and protect it from wind and showers.
Remember, that previous photo is NOT of the Solarium on Harmony Of The Seas, it's of the Solarium on Anthem Of The Seas. Notice the multi-level swimming pool. I loved that feature, and unfortunately they didn't bring that over to Harmony Of The Seas, either. The Solarium on Harmony Of The Seas has three Jacuzzis, but no regular swimming pool at all.
Just outside of the entrance to the Solarium you'll find two other big Jacuzzi's, with amazing ocean views!
This next photo shows how that giant Jacuzzi is cantilevered over the side of the ship... which gives it those great views.
The down side of the big Jacuzzis that hang out over the side of the ship is that they are just outside of the adults-only Solarium, and not far from the waterslides. Therefore, they can be a popular hangout for kids at certain times of the day.
One last thing about the Solarium on Harmony Of The Seas: I noticed that the clear overhead covering isn't made of glass at all. On Oasis and Allure it is made of glass, but on Harmony they use some kind of clear vinyl material... not glass. I'm not quite sure why they made that change, as the overhead covering on Harmony Of The Seas doesn't seem to be nearly as strong and durable as glass. I noticed quite a few damaged areas of the vinyl covering on Harmony's Solarium. I could see torn panels, and several that had been damaged so badly that they had to be completely removed. This was a surprise, as the ship wasn't even one year old when we sailed on her!
Big Changes Up On The Pool Deck
Take a look at this photo I shot by one of the swimming pools on the top deck, and see if you can spot a couple of big differences compared to how things would have been just a few years ago on Harmony's sister ships, Allure and Oasis.
There are two things about that photo that should jump out at people who sailed on Allure or Oasis in the past few years. One is the lifeguard standing next to the pool. Royal Caribbean hasn't had lifeguards by the swimming pools until very recently. I guess there have been just too many drownings in cruise ship swimming pools in recent years for Royal Caribbean to risk it anymore.
The other thing is the addition of the waterslides. Royal Caribbean has never had waterslides on their ships until just recently. Carnival, Norwegian, and a few other cruise lines have been big on waterslides for quite a long time, but for some reason Royal Caribbean never jumped on the bandwagon until recently. In the last year or two, they have started to add waterslides to a few of their older ships and to design waterslides on their newbuilds.
A few things surprised me about the waterslides on Harmony Of The Seas. There are three of them, collectively known as "The Perfect Storm"... and I went down each of them. The blue and the orange slides, which you can see on the left side of that previous photo, were a bit of a disappointment. For one thing, it's pitch black inside those two slides. To me, they would have been more enjoyable if Royal Caribbean had built them out of a translucent material that would let some light in. The other thing about the blue and the yellow slides is that they're pretty tame. Probably great for a 10 year old kid... not really very thrilling from my perspective as I have been on cruise ships that have much better slides than those two. The vertical-drop waterslides on some Norwegian, Carnival, and Disney ships are MUCH more thrilling... and so is the raft-waterslide that Royal Caribbean added to Liberty Of The Seas last year.
The good news is that the waterslide you can see on the right side of that last photo is pretty cool, although way too short of a ride. I liked that one a lot, as did most of the waterslide fans on the ship. After the first couple of days, hardly anyone lined up for the two slides on the left... but there were big lines for that more thrilling waterslide on the right. It's one of those type of waterslides where the tube sends you down in to a circular bowl, and then after one or two revolutions around the bowl (depending on your weight and your slide technique) you get "flushed" out of the bowl and you land down below.
But Harmony Of The Seas best slide of all is at the back end of the ship, and is not a waterslide at all! No water involved. It's a dry slide, like you might find on a children's playground on land, only incredibly long and steep. It's the purple thing in this next photo, and it's a pretty thrilling ride that quickly drops you down ten stories. (100 feet!)
The entrance to the slide is at the very top level of the back end of the ship, and is in the shape of some giant piranha that is going to swallow you whole. This slide is known as "The Ultimate Abyss".
I expected to like the Ultimate Abyss slide, and was pleasantly surprised to discover that I liked it even more than I thought I would! Originally, I thought the fact that it was not a waterslide was a bit of a negative. A waterslide seemed more cool to me, in theory... but when I actually went down the Ultimate Abyss slide, I realized that the fact that it was a dry slide was a huge positive, not a negative. First off, you don't have to put on a swimsuit... you can just wear normal clothes, even shoes. Then, when the ride is over, you're not wet or cold! And you can go right from sliding down that slide to doing whatever other thing you want to do. No need to dry off, or change out of a wet swimsuit.
Another cool thing is that you don't have to climb up a long set of stairs to get to the beginning of the ride. Think of all the stairs involved in going down the tallest waterslides at a water park. You can use the ship's aft elevators to get to the start of the Ultimate Abyss... and if you want to ride it a few times over and over, those elevators make the trek up ten stories a lot easier than it would for most any other tall slide anywhere else in the world.
Before trekking all the way up to the start of the Ultimate Abyss, be aware that there are some height and weight requirements as well as some restrictions on what you can have with you on the ride. Children must be at least 44" tall to ride the Ultimate Abyss. I saw one adorable little girl have her day ruined when she got to the ride entrance, very excited to go down the slide, only to find out that she didn't meet the minimum height requirement. She left in tears. So, parents, try to avoid this situation with your kids by verifying they meet the 44" requirement before you start hyping how much fun they're going to have on it. There's no minimum weight requirement for the Ultimate Abyss, but guests weighing more than 330 pounds are not allowed. Don't wear hats, lanyards, loose jewelry, etc. in to the line... as you will be asked to remove them.
One surprise for me about the Ultimate Abyss slide was just how scary the platform at the top of the slide was! It sits 150 feet above sea level, and the floor of the platform is made of glass so that you can look down and see just how high you are above the Aqua Theater which is directly below. I didn't look down the first two times I was on the platform, so it didn't freak me out. But the third time I went up on that platform I made the mistake of looking more carefully at the glass floor below my feet, and looking down through the glass at everything way down below. It truly freaked me out! If you have a fear of heights, don't look down at the floor once you get through the lines and are just about to have your turn on the slide!
By the way, there is no charge to ride the Ultimate Abyss, and there are two side-by-side slides so that you can race against a friend. The slide ends down on deck 6, in the Boardwalk neighborhood, near the entrance to the Aqua Theater.
Speaking of the Boardwalk neighborhood... that's where you'll find one of my wife's favorite Harmony Of The Seas attractions... the merry-go-round.
Some very expensive suites are at the back end of the ship, overlooking the aqua theater. I snapped this next photo of that area so that people who might be considering paying the big bucks for one of these suites can see that the suites on the higher decks have smaller balconies than the suites on the lower decks. I also noticed a hammock on the balcony of the suite on the lowest level... although I don't know for sure that the hammock comes with the suite. A passenger may have brought that on his own.
Another feature of the Boardwalk neighborhood at the back of the ship is the Mexican restaurant called "Sabor". Unlike the way they did it a couple of years ago when Royal Caribbean first started rolling out Sabor restaurants on their fleet, the food there is now priced a la carte. I think that's much better than the way they used to charge a higher fixed price. Now, if you don't want a big meal at Sabor, it's actually a little less expensive than it was back when they had one fixed price.
Here's what we had for lunch at Sabor. I had quesadillas, and my wife had fish tacos...
I can't honestly say that I liked the food at Sabor. If it were a restaurant back in our home town, it would go out of business in its first year! We live in California and there are probably a dozen Mexican restaurants within a 10 minute drive of our house. Mexican food is a big deal in California. Whoever's responsible for Sabor doesn't really get it. It could be SO much better! Hopefully, someday, Royal Caribbean will figure it out and do to Mexican Food what Guy Fieri did to cheeseburgers on Carnival and what Jimmy Buffet did to casual dining on Norwegian Cruise Line.
The best thing at Sabor is actually the chips and salsa you can order for $3. After our less-than-satisfying lunch at Sabor towards the beginning of the cruise, we came back another afternoon and just ordered margaritas and chips and salsa. That was much more enjoyable. Too bad they have VERY limited seating at the small bar at Sabor. I believe it seats about six people, and that's it. Plus, the bartender is really overwhelmed with drink orders from the restaurant... so service is slow.
Before continuing on with my thoughts about the food and restaurants on Harmony Of The Seas, I really should offer a bit of a disclaimer. My wife and I are probably not like you, when it comes to food and restaurants on a cruise. As I mentioned earlier, this was our 40th cruise! We long ago got tired of the whole process of a 2-hour sit down meal at a fancy cruise ship restaurant or dining room. Part of it is that we typically don't cruise with family or friends... just the two of us... and after 36 years of marriage, we just don't have anything left to say to keep a conversation going over the course of a two hour meal... let alone repeating that every day over the entire course of the cruise. Sitting in near silence for two hours while they slowly get around to taking our orders and delivering each course of the meal just feels awkward. If we cruised with friends or other family members, we'd probably have no problem keeping up a conversation over a long dinner... but when it's just the two of us, we just can't do it anymore after 36 years!
The other thing is portion control. I really prefer to eat buffet-style so that I can get a small amount of the things I only like a small amount, and I can get a large amount of the things I totally love! And if something surprises me in a good way, I can easily go back and get some more. Or I can try small portions of three different things, and then go back for a little more of the best one. So many times when I've eaten at cruise ship restaurants, they've brought me a big-assed steak and a tiny portion of potatoes. Or served some vegetable that I hate. Then there's my wife. She has to eat gluten-free and dairy-free. So many times in cruise ship restaurants she has ordered something and instructed the waiter that she wants it with "no cheese"... only to have it arrive 20 or 30 minutes later with cheese on it. These are problems we don't have when eating in a cruise ship buffet, so my wife and I eat almost all of cruise ship meals in the buffet, rather than in the fancy restaurants.
After 40 cruises... three of them in Oasis-class Royal Caribbean ships... we have come to the sad conclusion that the buffet on the Oasis-class ships has consistently been just about the worst cruise ship buffet we've experienced. That's odd since the buffets on Anthem Of The Seas, Independence Of The Seas, and Liberty Of The Seas were among the best. I guess the fact that they're cooking for such HUGE numbers of people on the Oasis-class ships just forces them to make some compromises along the way.
For example, on just about every cruise ship we've every sailed on, you could order a custom-made omelet at breakfast in the buffet. But that's something they don't offer in the buffet on Royal Caribbean's Oasis class ships. And the layout of the buffet is really poor, causing big backups at peak times, as you can see in this next photo I shot at breakfast one morning on Harmony Of The Seas...
In the buffet on Harmony Of The Seas, the layout is really bad! There are two different serving stations where you can get fruit, two different serving stations where you can get bread and rolls... but just ONE station where they serve bacon, sausage, eggs and potatoes all together so that you can just fill your plate in one pass. That's the big line you see in that photo above. They're waiting to get to the bacon, sausage, eggs, and potatoes. If I was in charge, there would be three station where you could get those things... and just one station with fruit and one station with bread products. You'd have much shorter lines and people would be able to serve themselves much more quickly. Somehow Royal Caribbean has not figured that out... which is quite odd, since they've bean really good at figuring out how to make little improvements in other areas over the years. I'll tell you about a few more of those little improvements... later.
I mentioned that you can't get a custom-made omelet in the Windjammer buffet restaurant. If you want one of those, you have to either eat in one of traditional restaurants, or at Johnny Rockets, or in a small buffet-style alternative restaurant called "Mini-Bites". The problem with Johnny Rockets is that they open quite late in the morning compared to the Windjammer... and also that the staff, mostly from India, doesn't have the best English language skills. We tried breakfast at Johnny Rockets twice during the week, and BOTH times they screwed up the orders... most likely from not completely understanding what we said when placing our order, and not confirming with us what they thought our order was before submitting it.
Mini-Bites is buffet style, so we didn't have to "order" anything except one omelet... and they got it right. But as with Johnny Rockets, they open much later in the morning than the Windjammer does... and even when we did arrive right at their scheduled 8:00 AM opening time one morning, they were still in the middle of setting out all their food and beverages when we arrived, and it was about 15 minutes before they finally had everything completely set up and were able to offer everything that they are supposed to offer.
The good news about Mini-Bites, especially during the first few days of the cruise, is that the passengers tend to all crowd in the Windjammer... leaving Mini-Bites very much un-crowded for breakfast. Here's a photo I snapped of Mini-Bites one morning, after I had endured a very crowded breakfast in the Windjammer and decided to see (just out of curiosity) if Mini-Bites was any less crowded. Less crowded?!? It was basically empty!
It was really odd to me how late in the morning Mini-Bites opened for breakfast. They could take a lot of the load off of the Windjammer if they opened Mini-Bites earlier, and publicized it better. A few signs near the aft elevators suggesting this as a less-crowded alternative to the Windjammer would be all it would take.
Another odd move is that the crew hoses down the deck area at the back of the ship in the early morning hours, and this presents a big slipping and tripping hazard in the area around Mini-Bites...
Mini-Bites is a popular place in the late afternoons, after the Windjammer ends lunch service. You can get hamburgers, hot dogs, French fries, tortilla chips, and even make yourself a plate of nachos. It actually gets pretty crowded once the Windjammer shuts down for the afternoon and people look for a snack to tide them over until dinner time.
Just outside of Mini-Bites you'll find two frozen yogurt machines... also a very popular attraction in the afternoons. There's also another set of these machines on the port side of the ship. Smart move by Royal Caribbean to place them in these locations, near the aft elevators, as opposed to where they are located on Oasis and Allure.
Now let's talk about one of the most impressive improvements I noticed on my Harmony Of The Seas cruise, compared to all the other cruises I've been on. They really sped up the boarding process on day one of the cruise! To get 3000 passengers checked in during a four or five hour window on embarkation day is a difficult process for most cruise lines. It might typically take 45 minutes to an hour to get from the taxi to your cabin on embarkation day with most cruise lines. Royal Caribbean has to get well over SIX THOUSAND passengers onboard Harmony Of The Seas, and they manage to do it incredibly quickly. I was shocked at how much they had streamlined the process and how that translated in to the shortest taxi-to-cabin time I've ever experienced in 40 cruises.
What Royal Caribbean figured out was that three of the biggest bottlenecks during the check-in process were taking the passenger's photo, validating their credit card, and finding their key card. So, they have the passenger take their own photo at home and submit it electronically... they do all that credit card stuff in advance, as part of the online registration... and they don't issue the key card during the check-in process, they have the cabin stewards place them at the entrance to the cabins. This tremendously sped up the boarding process! (And I really liked being able to submit a good photo of myself, rather than having a horrible photo taken of me during the busy process of embarkation.)
After 40 cruises on five different cruise lines, it's become clear to me that each cruise line has certain things that they do better than the other lines... a special thing they excel at. In the case of Royal Caribbean, it's the entertainment. No other cruise line spends as much money on providing great entertainment as Royal Caribbean does, and you can clearly see the results of the big entertainment budget when you go to the shows during a Royal Caribbean cruise.
In fact, the main reason we sailed on Allure Of The Seas a second time... even after a crowded, less-than-perfect first cruise... was because we wanted to see the full 2-hour Broadway stage version of Mama Mia. On Harmony Of The Seas, the big stage show is "Grease"...
Ever since high school, I've been fascinated by the production aspects of the theater. Lighting, sound, sets, effects, all that stuff. In high school, I used to operate the big Super-Trouper follow-spotlight in our school's theater. In college, one of my favorite courses was an elective in theater production... and my favorite thing about it is that it gave me full access to all areas of the big theater on campus. I used to get a kick out of exploring all the secret nooks and crannies behind, beside, and above the stage at that theater.
On a cruise, I get a kick out of noticing all the production aspects of the various shows... and nobody offers more elaborate stage effects than Royal Caribbean. An unexpected thrill on our Harmony Of The Seas cruise was a free backstage tour of the theater, which they offered to me due to having reached platinum status in their loyalty program. Frankly, the perks in their loyalty program aren't that great... but this free theater tour was probably my favorite Royal Caribbean perk of all. Not only did I get to look around behind the scenes of the theater, but I got to ask a lot of questions to the theater's technical staff. The most fascinating thing that I learned was the during the shows, the big follow-spots are operated by the cast members of other shows... not by anyone on the technical staff.
During my theater tour, I snapped this photo of an actor's-view of the theater, looking out from the stage...
The thing that strikes me about that particular view of the theater is how beautiful and tastefully decorated that theater is. It makes me think back to some of the theaters on Carnival Cruise Line, designed by their former lead architect, Joe Farcus. Where the theater design on many Carnival ships is meant to be quirky and over-the-top, it sometimes comes off as tacky and un-sophisticated. I think Royal Caribbean really got it right with this sophisticated theater design on Harmony Of The Seas.
Speaking of entertainment... years ago, before I had ever cruised with Royal Caribbean, I used to chuckle about the fact that they had ice skating rinks on their ships. It seemed like a silly thing to put on a cruise ship. But that was before I ever saw one of their professional ice skating shows, featuring former Olympic ice skaters. I don't even really like ice skating... never watch it during the Olympics... but I always enjoy the ice skating shows on Royal Caribbean now.
The Cruise Director during our cruise was Abe Hughes. We've sailed with Abe before, and he's a pro. I can certainly see why Royal Caribbean picked him to be the Cruise Director of their new flagship.
I mentioned earlier that each cruise line has certain areas that they excel in. One of those areas for Carnival is stand-up comedy. On a 7-day Carnival cruise, they typically have performances by FOUR different stand-up comics. Royal Caribbean doesn't put quite as much effort in to stand-up comedy as Carnival does. On our 7-day Harmony Of The Seas cruise, they just offered one stand-up comic. His name was Phil Palisoul.
Phil did several shows throughout the week, but the comedy club is quite small on Harmony Of The Seas and there are over 6,000 passengers vying for tickets. We were only able to see one of his shows.
Comparing Harmony To Oasis And Allure
Harmony Of The Seas is the latest of three Oasis-class ships in the Royal Caribbean fleet. While the basic layout and floor plan of the three ships are nearly identical, Royal Caribbean did make some important improvements to Harmony Of The Seas based on "lessons learned" in recent years. I've already talked about some of them here in this review, but I thought it would be fun to put together a video that gives you a better visual of some of the improvements. Click on the triangle in the center of the video screen, to start the video playing...
360 Degree Videos
I recently purchased a Samsung Gear 360 camera and it allows me to do something pretty cool: shoot videos in 360 degree virtual reality. Check out a few 360 degree videos I shot during our Harmony Of The Seas cruise... I think you'll get a kick out of the 360 degree experience. No special VR headset required! The viewing experience is actually best if you watch these 360 degree videos on a smart phone... as you turn the phone left or right, your viewing perspective will change left to right. As you tilt the phone up or down, your perspective will change up or down. For the most fun, sit in an office chair while watching these videos on your phone, and as you spin the chair around 360 degrees, your view on the video will spin with you! If you watch these videos on a desktop or laptop computer, use your mouse to "grab" the video and turn it left, right, up, or down.
The first 360 degree video was shot on a shore excursion to Balmoral Island, off the coast of Nassau, in the Bahamas:
The second 360 degree video was shot on a sail boat during a shore excursion in St Thomas:
The third 360 degree video was shot as Harmony Of The Seas sailed away from Ft Lauderdale:
Getting There Is Half The Fun!
One of the things I've learned after all these cruise vacations is how to make the experience of flying from California to Florida as good as it can be. I truly do like to fly, but flying coast-to-coast in a cramped seat in coach can be really uncomfortable. What I finally figured out in recent years is how a middle-class guy can afford to fly first class. Here's a look at our seats in first class as we flew out of San Francisco on a United Airlines Boeing 787 Dreamliner... the best airliner I've ever flown on.
Look at all that leg room! And instead of the always awkward 3-seats-in-a-row experience of flying coach, in first class it's just my wife and I sitting together. We like that. Plus, they serve a meal, and alcoholic beverages at no extra charge, too. Good entertainment, too, at least in a Dreamliner. Not so much in some of the 737s we've flown on!
Scoring a seat in first class without paying those huge first class prices is just a matter of figuring out how to maximize frequent flyer benefits. Making it work to our advantage starts with shifting as much of our spending as possible to our United Airlines Visa card. So, I don't pay cash for anything anymore... even lunches at the cafeteria at work, or at a restaurant on the weekend. I charge EVERYTHING to the UAL Visa card now, because they reward me with frequent flyer miles for every dollar spent on the card. I'm not spending any more money than I was before, I've just changed how I pay for everything. No PayPal, no cash, no checks if at all possible. Everything goes on the card, to earn miles.
The big ticket items in our family budget these days are travel related. The biggest is actually the cost of a cruise. To maximize the frequent flyer miles generated by those purchases, I've totally changed how I book our cruises these days. Rather than booking our cruises directly with the cruise lines, like I used to do, I now book all the cruises through United Cruises, a travel agency affiliated with United Airlines. Cruises booked through United Cruises generate at least two frequent flyer miles for every dollar spent, and sometimes as many as four. Since we're talking about the #1 largest expenditure in our family budget, being able to double, triple, or even quadruple the number of frequent flyer miles earned on that expenditure is a big deal. Also, because dollars spent on United Airlines flights earn more United frequent flyer miles than dollars spent with other airlines, we almost exclusively fly with United these days... unless we absolutely can't find a convenient flight and have to fly with some different carrier.
All of this generates a lot of frequent flyer miles for us, since lately we've been averaging four our five cruises every year. And with all those frequent flyer miles, come some nice benefits... the best of which is to upgrade to first class at a reasonable price. It's not a free upgrade to first class, but it's typically only a few hundred dollars plus a bunch of frequent flyer miles... which is totally OK with me to get the first class experience for a coast-to-coast flight.
Another benefit that frequent flyer miles can buy on United Airlines is free Internet access while you're in the air... at least on some planes that are equipped for it. I got a real kick out of buying something from eBay while flying home from our cruise at 37,000 feet over New Mexico... and without having to put out any cash to United Airlines for the Internet access. One other thing I like to spend frequent flyer miles on is magazine subscriptions. At MagsForMiles.com, you can use frequent flyer miles to pay for magazine subscriptions to many major magazines... even expensive ones like People magazine. There is no way I would pay dollars for an expensive subscription to People... but it's nice to have a subscription to it that is paid entirely with frequent flyer miles!
Using a United Airlines Visa card to book the flight has benefits, too. You can bring one checked bag along with you at no extra charge. Also, you get to board the plane in group #2, out of five boarding groups. If you use frequent flyer miles to upgrade to first class, you get to bring two checked bags along (per person) at no extra charge, and you get to board with group #1.
Is April A Good Month To Cruise?
As far as the weather goes, April is a pretty good time for a Caribbean cruise. You don't have to worry about hurricanes... they don't happen this time of the year in the Caribbean. The ocean water is warmer than it would be if you cruised in January, but the air temperatures are not outrageously hot like they can sometimes be in June through September.
April is not the least-expensive time of the year to cruise... the cheapest cruise fares are usually in mid-to-late September, early November, early December, and most of January. But on the other hand, it's usually quite a bit less expensive to cruise in April than it is during the summer months or around any major holidays.
The biggest downside to cruising in April... at least if you're an empty nester like my wife and I are... is that due to spring break schedules for schools, you will often have a lot of families with children on the cruise ships in April. During our cruise on Harmony Of The Seas in the first week of April, there was a huge number of children onboard the ship... perhaps more than we've ever seen on any cruise we've ever been on. The ship was crowded, and the kids were loud and in many cases less-than-well behaved. In retrospect, a 7-day cruise on Harmony Of The Seas in early April was probably a bad choice for us, as far as trying to achieve peace and quiet. If we had booked a much longer cruise, such as a 14-day cruise, or if we had been on a cruise line that isn't particularly family-friendly, such as Viking Ocean Cruises, we probably would have had a very different adult-oriented cruise experience. Generally speaking, the longer the cruise and the more expensive the cruise, the less children you'll find on that ship.
Overall, Did We Enjoy The Cruise?
Since this was our 40th cruise, and some of our cruises have been in ridiculously expensive suites with every possible comfort, the bar has been set pretty high. It's getting harder to impress us. I can honestly say that we've enjoyed every single cruise we've been on and have never had a bad cruise. Some have just been better than others. Harmony Of The Seas has a lot going for it, but since we were just in a standard balcony cabin this time, it can't be expected to rank up there with some of our best cruises where we've been pampered and spoiled in a high-end suite. So, yes, we did enjoy the cruise... but due to the crowded conditions onboard, having LOTS of energetic kids onboard, and Royal Caribbean's Oasis class having one of the worst buffets we've seen on all of our cruises... this wasn't one of those cruise experiences that we'll be itching to repeat. Yes, we had fun... and yes, we love cruising... but we don't expect to be back on one of Royal Caribbean's Oasis-class ships anytime in the next few years. The best cruises we've ever been on have been in "The Haven" on Norwegian Cruise Line... so we're going to be looking at doing more of those in the coming years, not more cruises like this one.
Packing List & To-Do List
Here's my official packing list.
Perhaps this will help you think of things to pack for your cruise.
On a few of the unusual items, I'll provide a link to the exact version I recommend at Amazon.com
Airline boarding pass
Cruise boarding pass
If driving, printed directions to the hotel & cruise terminal
Wallet (I actually forgot this on one cruise!)
Waterproof beach shoes
Underwear & socks (incredibly, I actually forgot to bring socks on one cruise)
One dressy outfit
Toothbrush & toothpaste
Travel-size Kleenex for the airplane
Lawry's seasoning salt
Laptop computer or tablet computer, including charger
Digital SLR Camera
Camera tripod, or selfie-stick
Wireless indoor/outdoor thermometer
6-outlet power strip
Cell phone & charger
My pre-cruise to-do list:
Stop newspaper and mail delivery
Book shore excursions
Send an email to family members with my travel plans & itinerary
Turn off water to the house to prevent the chance of a pipe break
Turn down (or turn off) the water heater to save energy
Make sure garden sprinklers are on
Make sure house is locked and alarm system is active
On the last day at work:
Update voice mail message to indicate my return date
Update out-of-office email message, and turn it on
Make sure my temporary replacement has an updated desk guide
Put a sign at my desk indicating my return date
What Camera Do I Use?
Whenever I post these cruise reviews, I always get questions about what camera I used to take the photos. On this cruise, I mostly used my big Canon DSLR camera for still photos you see here on this page. The camera is the Canon EOS 80D.
If you're in the market for a high quality digital SLR camera, the truth is that the Canon EOS 80D is probably too much camera for most amateur photographers... so the one I actually recommend for most people is the Canon Digital Rebel T6i. If you get one, make sure you get the T6i with the 135mm lens, not the cheap version with the 55mm lens.
I also like to have a Canon EF-S 10-18mm lens with me when I'm on a cruise ship. This is a wide angle lens, which is extremely useful when trying to shoot in small spaces (for example, inside a cruise ship cabin) or when shooting something very large (like a cruise ship, when you're standing on the pier next to it.)
I also bring along a tripod with me, to allow me to shoot long-exposure shots in low-light situations. It's also handy to have for shooting "selfies". I've got a tripod that is just the right size to fit inside my big suitcase but which is heavy duty enough to be stable. It also has a fluid head, which is something that's very important to look for in a tripod if you intend to use it when shooting video.
The 360 degree videos were shot with my new Samsung Gear 360 camera. There was recently a big price drop on this camera, so I decided the time was right to buy one.
Our Future Cruises
As always, we've got some interesting cruises coming up!
Our next cruise will be on the Carnival Vista. There's an interesting new experiment they're trying with this ship... creating a special oasis at the back of the ship called the Havana area, with its own pool and Jacuzzis... but limiting access to only the people paying extra to stay in one of the nearby Havana cabins. Count us in! This should be an especially interesting cruise because we'll be sailing with some friends of ours. Normally, it's just Kellyn and I cruising together... but this time we had an opportunity to meet up with some friends that we think will be a lot of fun to cruise with. I'm totally looking forward to a more social type of cruise than we usually experience.
After our very pricey stay in the Owner's Suite on Norwegian Pearl on cruise #39, we learned that there's a less expensive way to get many of the benefits we enjoyed on that cruise. One of their older ships, the Norwegian Sky, has an owner's suite with a private Jacuzzi on the balcony... which was the thing we loved the most about our recent cruise on Norwegian Pearl. So, the day after we disembark from Carnival Vista, we'll be boarding the Norwegian Sky for a cruise in the Owner's Suite. Something very interesting about this particular cruise is that it will be visiting Havana, Cuba... our very first time visiting Cuba.
In 2018, we'll be doing our first Panama canal cruise... and the coolest part is that we'll be on Norwegian Cruise Line's brand new ship, the Norwegian Bliss. It will be a 15-day cruise and that made it way too expensive to book a suite in The Haven... so we'll be keeping the price more reasonable by sailing in a spa cabin rather than within The Haven. Also, we'll be sailing with one of my sisters... so that should be especially fun!
During our January 2017 cruise on the Norwegian Pearl, we stayed in the awesome Deluxe Owner's Suite... with a huge balcony and private Jacuzzi. It was the best cruise we've ever been on... so we want to try to do something similar in 2018. We've booked the Deluxe Owner's Suite on her sister ship, the Norwegian Gem... and we found a way to do it quite a bit less expensively than we did on the Norwegian Pearl. I'd have to say that this is going to be the one cruise I'll be looking forward to most!
As you can see, we've got some really interesting cruises booked, and I'm excited about all the fun we'll be able to have over the next couple of years.
Need A Travel Agent?
Booking a cruise can be confusing, especially if you haven't been on many cruises before. There are lots of first-time cruiser mistakes that a travel agent can keep you from making.
If you're interested in booking a cruise with any cruise line... please feel free to use the services of my travel agent, Caitlin Gallagher. She's extremely pleasant to deal with, easy to talk to since she lives in the United States and speaks without any kind of an accent, and quite experienced and knowledgeable about different types of cruising. Caitlin is the owner of Ambren Travel. Visit her web site, check out the Ambren Travel Facebook page, or contact her using the information below.
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