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Thursday, September 9, 2021

[Day 1] Freedom of the Seas - Embarkation Day

Guest Post by Rachel Shingleton

All Aboard! My name is Rachel, and I’m excited to share my 4-day voyage on the Freedom of the Seas with you all. If you’ve followed along on a Victoria on Vacation report before, then you’ll likely recognize me as the pub-mix snacking, steak-loving younger sister of Victoria. Like many Shinglebell family vacations, this cruise was planned pretty last minute, which is why only 50% of the Shinglebells were available to join in the fun. Well..that’s not entirely true. Dad was available, but he opted to take advantage of the opportunity to go on a golfing trip with his buddies. Alas, I was able to twist Judy’s arm and convince her to come experience the “new normal” of cruising with me.


Speaking of the “new normal” – I know there are lots of questions about health protocols, both pre-board and onboard, and I have lots of information to share! So much so that I decided it would be most efficient to tackle all of the Covid questions in a separate post. That way, you’ll have a one-stop-shop for all of your Royal Comeback protocol information. If you have any questions in the meantime, feel free to drop them in the comments section below!

The decision to partake in the Royal Comeback…I have been eager to get back to cruising pretty much since March 2020. I used to feel a bit silly telling people that cruises are my favorite vacation, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve decided to own it. I, Rachel, am a self-proclaimed cruise-a-holic. As soon as it was announced that cruises were coming back in July, I knew I wanted to book one. Then I started seeing the posts on Cruise Critic - “reduced capacity,” “endless availability of pool chairs,” “it’s like our own private yacht!” and I knew I had to get onboard ASAP. I started researching ships, itineraries, and Covid protocols and immediately narrowed my search down to 3 and 4-night sailings, because at the time, those shorter itineraries did not require vaccinated passengers to take a pre-boarding or mid-sailing Covid test. Obviously when it comes to cruising, the longer the better! So, 4-nights it was. This brought me to the Mariner of the Seas out of Port Canaveral and the Freedom of the Seas out of Miami. After finding nearly identical flight prices for both me and Judy out of our respective airports, it became a no-brainer. Two days at Coco Cay on the Freedom vs. one day at Coco Cay on the Mariner. Say it with me - TWO DAYS ALWAYS!!


The last time Judy and I visited Coco Cay was in 2012, which was before the island was renovated and dubbed Perfect Day Coco Cay. We were supposed to visit Perfect Day Coco Cay on our Harmony of the Seas sailing in December of 2019, but unfortunately our stop at the island was cancelled due to weather. Needless to say, two stops at Perfect Day Coco Cay was not only appealing because of the possibility of double the perfection, but also because our odds of actually getting to dock at the island were twice as high. Will we make it to Perfect Day Coco Cay this time? Will we make it there TWICE? Stay tuned to find out…

Getting there…I live in Austin, TX and Judy lives in Anderson, SC, so we would both be flying to Miami for the cruise. Initially, I planned for us to fly to Miami on Sunday, August 29th and spend the night in a hotel before boarding our ship on August 30th. But Judy is a nervous traveler. She was nervous about traveling alone, and she was also concerned about the Covid numbers in Florida and wanted to try and minimize our time there. I was able to find flights for each of us on Monday morning that connected in Atlanta, GA, and put us on the same flight into Miami, which really eased my mom’s mind. So, we did it. We committed the cardinal sin of cruising. We flew in on the day of our cruise. Do I recommend this? No. Have I now successfully done it twice? Yes. Has someone (cough cough, Victoria) had a reallyyyy close call with a missed day-before-cruise flight turning into a skin-of-her-pants-day-of-cruise flight? Also, yes. Sometimes you just have to do what you have to do. Judy and I were both on the first flights out of our respective airports, and I knew there was at least one additional flight that day that would get us to Miami in time for our cruise, so I felt okay about the decision. We ended up landing in Miami about 30 minutes ahead of schedule and were in a Lyft on the way to the port by 1:00pm. WHEW!

Boarding the Ship…When I completed our online check-in, I had a choice of boarding windows every 30 minutes from noon until I believe 4pm. I scheduled us for a 2:30pm check-in time, but since our plane hauled its little booty to Miami, we ended up arriving at the port at 1:20pm. I was worried this would be an issue, as I’d read that boarding times were being more strictly enforced due to Covid protocols. However, we had no problem. I think we only saw 4 other passengers total from the time we walked through the door of the terminal to the time we stepped foot on the ship. The boarding process was incredibly quick. We showed our Set Sail Passes at the door and were directed inside where we showed our Set Sail Passes again, along with our passports, negative Covid tests, and our Covid vaccination cards. We then went up the escalators to a check-in desk where we showed all of the same documentation again and were given green #TheRoyalComeback bracelets that indicated our vaccination status. Next, we went through the metal detector and bag scanner, then up the escalators where – you guessed it – we showed our Set Sail Passes and Covid vaccination cards again. The one thing Judy and I both noticed is that we were never asked if we were choosing to show our proof of vaccination. The question was always phrased “Can I please have your Covid vaccination card”. We thought this was odd since our sailing did not require vaccination for passengers 12 and older. A few days after booking our cruise, I received an email from Royal Caribbean where I was asked to provide both mine and Judy’s vaccination status, and the options were “I am vaccinated,” “I am not vaccinated,” or “I do not wish to answer.” I answered that we were both vaccinated, and I think that’s why everyone who scanned our Set Sail Passes knew that we would be providing proof of vaccination. I also saw posts on Cruise Critic from vaccinated passengers who received emails from Royal Caribbean about scheduling their PCR test at the terminal (a requirement for only those who are not vaccinated). I never received that email, and I assume it’s because I had already communicated to Royal Caribbean that everyone in my travel party was vaccinated.

Vaccination Wristband

Finally! After a year and a half of no cruises, we took our corny boarding picture and stepped aboard Deck 4 of the Freedom of the Seas! Man, it feels good to be back! We were immediately directed to our muster station where the crew members asked if we’d gotten a chance to watch the safety briefing video on the Royal Caribbean app. Mom had received a notification on her phone about it while connecting in Atlanta, but I either didn’t get the notification or didn’t pay attention to it. Regardless, neither of us had had time to watch the video (those pesky same-day travelers!), so we were treated to a live re-enactment by our muster station crew. They scanned our Sea Pass cards, and we were on our way!

Boarding Photo 
It was about 1:45pm at this point, and we were hoping to drop our bookbags in our stateroom before finding some lunch. Rooms weren’t quite ready yet, so we headed up to the Windjammer for lunch. By the time we’d washed our hands and found a table, an announcement was made that rooms were ready.

Choosing our Stateroom…I had been keeping a fun little secret up to this point. Two days after booking our cruise, I received an email from Royal Caribbean inviting me to participate in RoyalUp. RoyalUp is an invitation-only program that allows you to submit bids to upgrade your stateroom. I’ll be honest, I don’t really know what the criteria is for the invitation, but I do know that certain third-party bookings, such as Costco, are not eligible. We received a RoyalUp invite for our Harmony cruise in December 2019 but opted not to participate because we had carefully selected side-by-side rooms in a location we loved. When you participate in Royal Up, you have no control over the actual stateroom you’re assigned to. Obviously, I had once again carefully selected the location of mine and Judy’s stateroom – Balcony room 6638, located on the coveted “hump” that provides a little extra balcony space, and is conveniently located near the stairs and elevator. But this time, I only had one room, so I didn’t have to worry about my rooms being upgraded to opposite ends of the ship. So, I did what any numbers-lover does. I “ghost-booked” all four of the stateroom categories I was eligible to bid on to see what they would cost if paid for out-right, then I made a little spreadsheet to figure out my breakeven bids. This is the Royal Up email invitation I received from Royal Caribbean, and these are the rooms I was able to bid on – 

 Royal UpRoyal Up

These are my breakeven bids based on what I paid for my original balcony stateroom and what I would’ve paid had I booked that category of room outright –

  Ghost Booking 

As you can see, even at the maximum bid, the 1- and 2-Bedroom Grand Suites were good deals. The Junior Suite was decent, and the Spacious balcony was not worth it. Through my ghost-booking, I knew that if I bid on a Junior Suite I could end up with a room in a variety of different locations (forward, mid, and aft across three different floors). There were only two 2-Bedroom Grand Suites, and both of them had partially obstructed aft-facing balconies. I prefer a Port or Starboard balcony view, and I didn’t really want to be all the way aft. There were twenty 1-Bedroom Grand Suites available, all of which were located mid-ship on deck 10. Sold! I put in a “weak” bid of $175 per person and crossed my fingers. Three days before our cruise, I received this email –

  Royal Up 

 WOOHOO!! I figured there was a good chance I could keep this a surprise from Judy, and I was right! I only ran into one little snag along the way. Our luggage tags never got updated to our new room! I tried to call Royal Caribbean on Sunday, but kept getting a “We’re sorry, we’re currently closed” recording, even though their website clearly indicated they were open. I debated just waiting until we got to the port and using one of the blank luggage tags that the porters have with them, but I was trying to be sneaky here. So, I got creative. I edited our luggage tags to show the correct floor and stateroom number and printed them in black-and-white to avoid any confusion with deck-specific-color-coding.

Luggage Tag

Royal Caribbean Luggage Tag Holders

I figured there was a 50/50 chance I’d have to go looking for our bags, but they made it to our room without issue! And I was able to surprise Judy with this fabulous stateroom – Grand Suite 1556!

  Please Ring
Grand Suite 

Grand Suite 

Grand Suite

Grand Suite

Grand Suite 

This is the Suite letter that was waiting for us in our room –

  Suite Letter  

Judy earned Diamond Crown & Anchor status prior to our cruise on the Harmony, and I earned it while sailing on the Harmony, meaning this was my first cruise as a Diamond member! I received a certificate and a pin to mark the occasion –

  Diamond C&A Welcome  

 This is the Diamond Welcome letter that was waiting for us in our stateroom –

  Diamond Welcome Letter 

 And the Diamond Perks letter –

  Diamond Perks Letter 

After taking turns ringing the doorbell to our Suite like the standard-balcony girls that we are, we decided to head up to the pool deck to cash in one of our Diamond drink vouchers. We both opted for a Lime & Coconut, which is served in this cute little souvenir bucket.

  Malibu Drinks  

We spent some time people watching on the pool deck before heading back to our room to freshen up for dinner. One of the perks that came with our Suite upgrade was access to the Suite Lounge, which featured a complimentary cocktail hour from 5pm-8pm each night, so we decided to pop in for a pre-dinner drink. 

 Suite Lounge 

We watched the MSC Meraviglia set sail, and then it was our turn! There were only a few other groups in the Suite Lounge, but you could feel the excitement as we pushed back from the pier. Cruising is BACK! 

 Sail Away

 Sail Away 

After sailaway, we made our way down to the deck 3 Main Dining Room for dinner. I did a lot of back-and-forth pre-cruise on whether or not to purchase a Specialty Dining Plan. I was considering both the Unlimited Dining Plan and the Chops+1 package. We thoroughly enjoyed the Unlimited Dining Plan on our Harmony cruise, but the Freedom only has a fraction of the number of specialty restaurants that Harmony has, so I wasn’t sure it would be worth it. We also didn’t have any sea days and didn’t think we’d be boarding the ship in time for lunch on the first day, meaning we wouldn’t get to utilize the package for any lunches. Ultimately, much like our Harmony dining snafu, I dragged my feet too long and both dining packages I was considering were no longer available. I have a lot of thoughts on our dining experience on this cruise that I’ll share later on, but this ended up being a good thing. Probably not for the reason you’re thinking though.

We requested late seating dinner at 8pm in the Main Dining Room each night, and that’s what our Royal Caribbean apps indicated we had. However, we eventually realized that that all vaccinated guests were assigned to deck 3, which was also the designated My Time Dining room. We did not piece this together until the following day, so there were a few confusing moments throughout dinner, but what we gathered was that we could pretty much show up to the deck 3 Main Dining Room anytime during dinner hours and get a table. Y’all…this dining room was deserted. Granted, we eat late, but I think there was a total of 4 other occupied tables that night. Our servers were wonderful, but the food…oh dear. I’ll admit, I always thought Victoria was a little bit of a diva about the food in the Main Dining Room, but I can now confirm: I agree with everything she’s ever said. Not one thing we ate that night was good. Despite our very sweet serving team who seemed desperate for diners, we did not return to the Main Dining Room again on our cruise.

After dinner we decided to change into our swimsuits and head up to the pool deck for some hot tubbing. We made it to the pool deck around 10:05pm…only to find out that all of the hot tubs close at 10pm. This was the case for the whole cruise, so I guess at least for now, the days of late-night Solarium hot tubbing are gone ☹ 

We headed back to our room and enjoyed the balcony for a little bit before turning in for the night. It had been a long day, and we had another big day coming up at Perfect Day Coco Cay!

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