My approach is going to be a hybrid of review and suggestions based upon experience.
To begin with cruises start on day "one" which obviously is your first day. But if you arrive at the ship at 6:00 PM you don't have a very long "day one", so the goal would be to arrive as soon as RCCL will allow you to board the ship, which is around 12:00 noon on day one. Your objective should be to maximize day one.
Its always a good idea to arrive in the departure port the day before and stay overnight at a local hotel. San Juan has dozens of choices ranging by price. If you check Expedia.com they provide a list of hotels and give you the ability to sort the list by price or by traveler opinion. The latter is the way to go and you'll notice that Hampton Inn is consistently listed in the top 5, and its worth it. First, it costs far less than the Caribe Hilton with the added bonus of a morning breakfast that includes a couple of hot items. Mostly the choices are toast, bagels, English muffins, fruits, cereal, juices, coffees, etc. This saves you on breakfast for 2 in the morning which won't be cheap in San Juan unless you find a McDonalds.
The choice of hotel really comes down to life style: some want more from a hotel and some accept less for lower price. Just remember that choosing a hotel is like paying taxes in the United States: you get what you pay for.
From the airport you can take a cab at a defined rate, just ask the driver what it will cost. From your hotel the next morning you can again hail a cab and pay a defined price to the pier. Ask people at the front desk for info on cabs. NOTE: they charge an additional $1.00 per bag that goes in the trunk.
Trust me on this one and learn from someone who has been burned in the past. Do not, and I mean DO NOT, and I'm saying you ABSOLUTELY DO NOT take the RCCL transfers and here's why:
Problem 1) They pay a local cartage company to transfer your bags FROM the airport TO the pier. Problem 1: Bags are often pilfered due to the locks being cut off. This violates your privacy and trust in them. RCCL does nothing thing to stop this so its YOUR problem, not theirs.
Problem 2: Bags arrive at the pier whenever the cartage company truck arrives. We once arrived at the pier just before 6:00 PM and our bags didn't arrive until nearly midnight. Until they arrived we presumed them to be lost and sought help from the cruise line (Celebrity) who gave us a small pouch with a tooth brush, past, and comb: big deal. The bags arrived with locks cut off and contents rifled. This latest trip we got lucky and our bag arrived by 3:00 PM. That is a fluke.
RCCL hires local buses to transport you to the pier. The problem is they decide to fill the bus and that means waiting around for passengers to arrive, which can take an hour or more and that delays your transfer to the pier and board time. Several years ago on a Celebrity cruise we got off the airplane at 4:00 and didn't make it to the pier until nearly 6:00 PM. After checking in we were late for our 6:00 dinner seating and denied access to the main dining room - because the bus had to fill every seat before departing the airport.
DO NOT USE RCCL TRANSFERS.
ONLINE CHECKIN; We used Royal Caribbean's online check-in and this is a must because it saves a great deal of time at the pier. Either you fill out personal information (name, address, phone, various data) online yourself or they do it at the pier, which will take at least half an hour. I suggest you do that yourself from home over the Internet. When you arrive at the pier all they need from you at that point is your signed "Set Sail" agreement where you basically agree to pay your ship account, and a swipe of your credit card.
EMBARKATION: In general the earlier you arrive at the pier the better off you are going to be. If you arrive in morning you will likely have to wait as passengers are still disembarking and RCCL will delay entry. But the line is short that early in the day.
Unfortunately, you are going to have to take some initiative and ask about the lines into the terminal. There were 2 lines: the line to the right was to drop off bags to be handled by RCCL. While they are better than the cartage company they hire to transport your bags, nonetheless, your bags are still out of your control. Those bags then arrive at any time during the day so don't count on getting them any time soon. My suggestion is to bring with you any bags you carried on the plane. Note that large bags cannot go through their xray machines and must be handled by RCCL. You hand carry (roll) all other bags to insure their safety and timely arrival at the ship. This insures you'll at least have something.
THE SHIP: Adventure of the Seas is huge. OK, its not in the Oasis class (new ship) but its still huge with lots of features. It's been very tastefully decorated, far more so than Carnival ships, which tend to be gaudy & overbearing. You can find images on the RCCL website. The Royal Promenade is a great place to hang out having shops, bars, and a cafe with pizza & deserts (included in the price).
CABIN CHOICE: Most likely you already know the differences between inside cabin, outside with window, outside with balcony, etc. But what you may not know is you are vastly better off with a room towards either bow or stern. Room aft (mid ship) tend to be burdened by lots of traffic. People pass by those rooms at night, drunk, and conduct themselves like noisy recalcitrant children. But when they get near THEIR cabin they quite down and behave. Midship, having lots of traffic by fact of location, offers little protection from jerks. We chose a room aft and not only was there little traffic but people were well behaved and we had no problems.
CHEAP ROOMS: In case you are not aware of this cruise lines offer rooms VERY cheap at the last minute to keep cabins full. This is desirable for them because that way the room attendants and dining staff stand do lose less money due to high occupancy. I've heard that Carnival lets rooms go for as low as $200.00 last minute. But keep in mind this is usually only possible for locals, which in the case of Miami led to noisy, unruly, barbarians. In the case of San Juan I found that to be much less of a problem. So you ALWAYS want to carefully consider the departure port for this reason.
DINING: Food is very good and most people typically eat lunch and breakfast at Windjammers on deck 11. Some choose the dining room instead. Breakfast at Windjammers tends to have some of the same items every day, but with so many choices it shouldn't matter because you can't eat everything. Lunch tends to be similar also but they do vary some of the meats, fish, and sides. The deserts change daily and are very good.
The main dining room, which is 3 floors high with each having their own name, is excellent. For us service was very good and the food was great. Waiters work for tips so they highly motivated to please you.
Portofinos has great food and offered the best tenderloin I've ever had. Great deserts! Worth the $20.00 per person. Make your reservation(s) as soon as you board the ship. It can be a great escape from noisy diners in a really dignified environment.
DINING ROOM DRESS: There are 2 formal nights in which the majority of people actually dress formally. If you are the kind of person who refuses to dress up then I suggest having dinner at Windjammers Cafe on deck 11. Also, if you cannot get to dinner on time you should have dinner at Windjammers Cafe. It's informal and buffet style. When people refuse to dress properly in the dining room they disrespect their fellow passengers. When they refuse to arrive on time they disrespect the dining room staff and make life very difficult for them.
BEDS: Other reviewers talk about how bad the beds are and if they are talking about the edge of the bed they are right. But what people forget is the cardinal rule of beds - which is you DO NOT sit on the edge of the bed. In addition you don't sleep on the edge. The beds are large and though the mattress is thin it's not bad in the middle. My wife and I had plenty of room.
RCCL is pretty chintzy about this and want to make sure you ONLY buy THEIR liquor at their inflated prices.
In ports of call, for security purposes, they x-ray your bags so you are not going to sneak on liquor. But hopefully RCCL won't read this and I can pass this on to you: at San Juan pier we purchased liquor at the pier shop (AFTER we went through port security - the guys that x-ray bags) and then brought the liquor on the ship. After you go through port security no one gets intrusive with your property. At the ship's door someone was there to greet us but didn't pursue our bag (with liquor inside) as they did on past cruises. So we did manage to sneak something on board. Even if it gets confiscated they return you liquor to you on the last night. Trust me - buy champagne!
PORTS OF CALL & EXCURSIONS:
Renting a car VERSUS excursions:
It certainly is cheaper to rent a car than go on an island excursion, and this is true for any island. However, you have to consider that first you are driving in the 3rd world and if you are American you take for granted the roads you drive on. If you drive a highway in America there's likely local police who will offer assistance if you pull over with a problem.
When driving a car in the Caribbean you have to keep in mind you are NOT in America, but rather, the 3rd world and they don't have a tax base to support the roads and infrastructure. For example we rented a car on Barbados and found it impossible to navigate because there are no road signs. None. I'm talking about standard signs like speed limit, warning signs, and even street signs. You have no idea what road you are on and no idea where to turn. And it gets worse because the roads are VERY narrow, unmaintained, and covered with potholes everywhere. Cars driven by locals are often full of dents so that tells you how little they care and how bad the roads are.
On the other hand if you can manage the roads the advantage of a car rental is you can come and go as you please. And it will cost less. On St. Lucia we paid $55.00 each (2 of us for $110.00) for a 4 hour island tour. A car rental would have been less. But note that all Caribbean islands heavily push "collision damage waiver" which limits the amount you are responsible for. And worse some require a "deposit" which in island speak means a promisory note to pay $500-1000 in case of an accident claim. We purchased an insurance policy through CSA Travel Insurance over the Internet that covered the trip INCLUDING cruise, air, and the collision damage waiver so don't take their coverage - it stinks and is just another way to get money out of you.
Barbados:This island is a 3rd world pit. The roads are so bad you DO NOT want to rent a car there unless its a jeep. After driving on Barbados you'll have a new appreciation of how tax dollars provides services and infrastructure. I would NEVER consider opening a business on Barbados because it cannot support one. Most "houses" owned by locals are propped up on cement blocks (so it can be moved) and there's no utility hook ups. I have no idea what they did for electricity, water, and sewer. Be advised that houses are next to the street, there's a tiny curb, and between the curb and house there's a trench for drainage, which might be used as sewage also. Barbados is a total dump! Driving is on the LEFT with steering on the right.
St. Lucia: This was far better than Barbados but still a very poor island and some of the Barbados characteristics exist here also. You can see some of the palaces owned by the rich who control the island. Driving is on the LEFT with steering on the right.
Antigua: Yet another 3rd world island. We rented a car and the roads were slightly better than Barbados but likewise roads are not marked. It is smaller than Barbados and a bit easier to navigate. Betty's Hope Sugar Plantation is in ruins but still interesting, and free because no one is there to charge you. The wind mill is very scenic and appears to be in working condition. Nelson's Dock Yard is another worthwhile place to see and entrance is $5.00 per person. There's parking just off the entrance for free. But watch out for the rental return because its very hard to return a car to the cruise port - the town is a complete zoo. Driving is on the LEFT with steering on the right.
St. Maarten: Because driving was so difficult on other islands we gave up on a car rental. But you can take a water taxi from the pier to town for $6.00 and good for all day passage as often as you like. The town had been spruced up a bit since our last visit 3 years ago. Lots of shopping & very nice beach.
St. Croix: Since this is a U.S. territory the roads are more like America. The pavement is fairly maintained and there's actual signs to assist you. This might be a good place to rent and drive a car. Driving is on the LEFT.
There are tons of excursions offered by Royal Caribbean, but what's not generally known is there are other companies providing excursions. One such is Port Promotions who we used in the past. They have any number of excursions on many Caribbean islands and are comparable to those provided by the vendors selected by RCCL, and may cost less. BUT - if you choose them you MUST keep track of the time returning to the ship and let your guide know. DO NOT expect them to keep track of ship departure time because they won't. You DO NOT want to arrive late for the ship since it may not still be in port.
This is pretty subjective and depends upon your personal taste so that must be up front. The ice show is fabulous and not to miss. Get your tickets as soon as they are offered, which I believe is Monday. There were 2 musical shows that are 'Broadway' and/or Las Vegas quality. Around the ship there are various other musicians and usually pretty good.
ART AUCTIONS: Auctions are held on most cruises lines and on most ships. I've sailed Royal Caribbean, Celebrity, and Carnival, and Park West Galleries was on all of them.
Park West used to claim they sell art for 60-80% below gallery prices. That's hogwash. Today, they no longer make that claim because people were catching on. On this last cruise they wanted over $6,000 for one of pieces from Salvador Dali's 100 illustrations from the Divine Comedy, which we purchased from Park West back in 1997 for $200.00. But if you check the Internet you'll find them being sold by Lockport Gallery (southwest suburb outside Chicago) and their websites says the Divine Comedy pieces go for only a few hundred dollars.
Park West appraisals come from outer space because they don't jive with the real world. You can get some good pieces but you MUST do your homework first. If you see something you like go research it on the Internet BEFORE you bid. The will NOT tell you the minimum bid they will accept so forget that. Watch out for opening bids because they can be very high.
About once in each auction they give a low opening bid for piece and let it go just to get the audience fired up, and so Park West can claim the buyer got a really great deal. Maybe they did and maybe they didn't. But be aware there are other places to buy art so don't feel obliged. Drink their champagne and wait until the end so you get your free artwork - which is an 8 x 10 that's probably not worth much. And don't forget the purpose of the champagne is to get you loosened up to buy are their prices.
Also, you can catch the Park West people on the cruise, let them know what you are interested in, and make them an offer. You're going to have to do it blind, having no idea what their minimum bid OR opening bid would be. FYI: Often their opening bid is higher (maybe MUCH higher) than their minimum bid, which typically are 2 different things.
WARNING: Park West auctioneers like to talk about the value of a piece and how it rises so quickly. Be advised - they are salesman and very slick. Many auctioneers are NOT knowledgeable. Buy artwork because you like it and NOT because some fast talking 29 year-old says it's a great buy. Trust your instincts, not them.
Art work is shipped from a Detroit suburb and we've never had a problem. HOWEVER, you WILL see some reviews in which people describe their nightmares with Park West.
DISEMBARKATION: People leave the ship in groups and you are provided with a group number, which they call for disembarkation. RCCL wants you off the ship as quickly as possible so expect a knock at your door by 7:00 AM.
OVERALL CONCLUSION: We had minimal problems with obnoxious people, probably because mid January is a highly desirable time to travel so there's not too many cheap tickets issued. Food was very good, entertainment was great, the ship is fantastic, I would take this ship and cruise itinerary again.
- It's worth it to try to sneak on alcohol at San Juan. It's your property.
- Don't miss the ice show. It has world class skaters and you'll see it up close rather than on TV. They are incredible on such a small ice rink.
- Check in online. Embarkation will be faster.
- DO everything possible to AVOID letting ANYONE to handle your bags.
- If you have problems with rude people at Windjammers then eat all meals in the dining room.
- WARNING: Be advised to avoid a confrontation with rowdy people. You are at sea and there is no local sheriff to arrest people. The ship's "security" will "file a report" which you CANNOT get a copy of for documentation or further legal matters. They WILL NOT cooperate with you. Been there, done that.