Music to a Family Man's Ears: 7 Days on the Symphony of the Seas
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Now that our kids are at the age where they can hack overseas flights without embarrassing us or making us so exasperated we embarrass ourselves, my wife and I decided to take them to Europe for spring break this year. After sorting through a few options, we opted for the maiden voyage of Royal Caribbean’s brand-new Symphony of the Seas, currently the biggest passenger ship on the planet. (You know, until the next one comes out.)
The Symphony is the newest of RCL’s Oasis class of megaships. It has a volume of 228,081 tons and is 1,188 feet long (longer than New York's Chrysler building if it were laid on its side) and 215 feet wide. It has 22 restaurants, 42 bars, an ice rink, three water slides, three theaters (including an aqua theater for a diving show), a casino, a full-size carousel, a park with some 12,000 plants and trees, 18 decks and a maximum capacity of 6,870 passengers. It’s a big boat.
The Symphony is quite similar to RCL's Oasis, which we’d sailed a few years ago, but also has a handful of new features, like the Abyss slide, the sports bar and the new Hooked Seafood restaurant.
The western Mediterranean itinerary started in Barcelona, Spain and took us to three countries and five ports of call (Mallorca, Provence/Marseilles, Florence/Pisa/Cinque Terre via La Spezia, Rome/Civitavecchia and Naples), over seven days, Plus, it had enough sugary treats and kid-friendly shenanigans onboard for us to use as bribes to pull them through mornings and afternoons of sightseeing we hope they’ll remember when they’re older.
No, eight hours isn’t enough time to do Rome (and let’s not kid ourselves: We slept till 8:00am, so it was more like six hours). But it was enough time to make it through the Vatican (which the kids truly loved) and then dine on Roman artichokes and gelato before heading back to the ship, where I could enjoy a stiff drink prepared by a robot. It was a compromise, but also kind of win-win.
Ports of Call
The seven-day Mediterranean cruise called at ports in Spain, France and Italy, and included one full day at sea. We were very happy with the amount of Europe we got to see in a single week.
Day 1: Barcelona, Spain
Take it from us: Definitely arrive a day early, if you can, and explore Barcelona before the cruise ship departs. We found plenty of options for air travel from the US, and what with all the food, museums and, of course, Gaudí, it felt it was a sin to head straight to the port. We filled a jet-lagged Friday with all of the above before retiring to the Four Points by Sheraton Barcelona Diagonal, an SPG category 3 property right off the water, for a much-needed 12-hour rest.
Day 2: Palma de Mallorca, Spain
This was a wonderful surprise for us. The port was a quick bus ride from town and the enormous Catedral de Mallorca. We strolled around the massive structure watching locals race gas-powered boats in the water surrounding it before heading over a few blocks for shopping near the town square.
Day 3: Marseilles, France
This is the one port on the French Riviera that can accommodate an Oasis-class ship. It's a city, which wasn't on its face that appealing to us as New Yorkers, but neither my wife nor I, let alone our kids, had ever been, so it was still an experience. We decided against the city tours and instead cruised the busy streets while popping in and out of bakeries for a family macaron crawl.
Day 4: La Spezia, Italy
The port was labeled "Florence/Pisa" on the cruise literature, but it was over a two-hour ride out to Florence (where my wife and I have both already been). On this rainy day, we decided instead to hop a train to Cinque Terre. The storm clouds obscured some of the gorgeous views, but we made the most of the day hitting three of the cities, and some of the cute restaurants and churches along the way, before taking our waterlogged brood back to the ship to warm up.
Day 5: Civitavecchia, Rome, Italy
Easily our busiest day, and given the amount this city had to offer, well worth it. A quick cab took us to the train station, where we took a private "cruise ship" train to the city for the Vatican, Colosseum, artichokes and gelato. Our kids were exhausted, but it was fun trying to get them to understand what an amazing experience they'd just had on the train ride back to the station's cab stand. Maybe some day ....
Day 6: Naples, Italy
The port was right on the edge of the city, which made this the easiest city to get in and out of from the ship. We opted for an RCL bus out to Pompeii, where my 9-year-old son navigated us through the ruins using the facility's mobile app. Afterward, we headed back into Naples for the afternoon, in part just to experience this amazingly busy, eclectic and diverse city, and in part to have espresso and very good cannoli at Cuori di Sfogliatella, a bustling bakery and coffee shop near the train station.
Day 7: Sea
The final full day was spent entirely on board the ship as it was returning to Barcelona.
The maiden voyage sold out quickly, and we’d almost moved on, but then were able to book two adjoining balcony rooms through CruiseCompete.com for a total $4,390. (Two rooms for $1,100 per person is a great deal, even off-peak.) On top of that, we got a $50 on board credit for each stateroom. We booked on our Chase Sapphire Reserve, which earned us a total of 13,170 Ultimate Rewards points. We were able to get the entire family of four to Barcelona for $2,445 round-trip on a nonstop United flight in Economy Plus — low enough that we decided not to burn points on the flights. We also used the CSR to purchase the flights, as we didn't yet have the Platinum Card® from American Express, which awards 5x points on airfare purchases. The flight purchase yielded 7,335 UR points, for a grand total of 20,505 points — worth about $431 according to TPG's latest valuations.
If you're looking to use points to book a cruise, your options are fairly limited — the best play tends to be to use points from a fixed-value card such as the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card or the Barclays Arrival Premier World Elite Mastercard, which allow you to redeem points against the price of travel at 1 cent per point. You could also book through a portal — the main transferrable points currencies — including Chase Ultimate Rewards, Citi ThankYou and Amex Membership Rewards — can all be redeemed for cruises. You probably won't get the highest value for your points when choosing this route, but if you don't want to pay cash, it's a solid option.
Royal Caribbean offered an online pre-registration that involved repeatedly promising that we were in good health and giving our credit-card details up front. We could also pre-book excursions online at a discount of 10% or more, make restaurant reservations and buy beverage packages. The experience was a little clunky, but it took some of the pressure off once we arrived. We discovered that prime restaurant and spa times booked up quickly, so pre-registering was key.
The pre-registration also enabled us to sign up for a boarding time, which staggered guests’ arrivals and meant no waiting en masse for boarding. Our RCL Diamond Status enabled us to use expediting lines for checking our bags as well as getting set up at the check-in desk, which made the experience even easier. Within 20 minutes, we were onto the gangway, greeted by smiling RCL servers handing us flutes of Champagne. This was a big improvement over cruises of yore, where check-in was a painful process.
The staterooms were modern and large — at least for a cruise ship. Our balcony rooms were 182 square feet and included a beautiful 50-square-foot outdoor space. We're not fans of windowless interior rooms; better are the ocean-view window room or the Symphony’s “virtual balcony” cabins, equipped with high-definition screens that provide real-time views of scenery outside. But we did better yet: Definitely get a balcony if you can swing it. You can’t use a screen to replicate the experience of late-night cocktails overlooking the waves or waking up every day to view a new country.
Our cabin was laid out well, with both comfort and storage in mind. We were able to easily find space for the contents of two giant suitcases, and the bags themselves disappeared discreetly under the bed for the week.
Getting adjoining staterooms ended up being a game changer. The kids were sequestered in their own quarters, where they were allowed to bicker (and floss dance) to their hearts’ content, while my wife and I got a little adult time while remaining but an interior door away. Most of the time, we kept that door open, and we always had keys to the other room, so our two rooms essentially acted as one big space. Note that Royal Caribbean requires an adult in each stateroom, but since we have big kids (ages 9 and 11), we swapped once we got to our rooms.
As I mentioned earlier, there was a lot to see and do. The Symphony has multiple pools (which will get more use in summer months than they did during our chilly April cruise), several truly thrilling water slides, an athletic court, miniature golf, a boardwalk with a carousel and candy shop, a sports bar with huge TVs (we watched some Champions League soccer there with actual Europeans!), laser tag, indoor ice skating, an impressive art collection and dozens of restaurants, bars and shops. It also had a 10-story drop slide called Ultimate Abyss, which was actually pretty cool.
Kid-friendly spaces and activities are a huge draw for family travelers, and RCL went out of its way to accommodate with the Symphony. One of the highly touted new features of this megaship was its Ultimate Family Suite, a two-story, 1,350-square-foot cabin featuring an in-room slide, air-hockey table, 85-inch TV and a table tennis built into a wraparound balcony, which has its own whirlpool. Not surprisingly, this setup would've come at a steep cost for us (as much as $60,000 for seven nights).
Kids clubs were also state-of-the-art and divided by age, with care in the infant room starting at 6 months. The teen club was very well attended during our stay and had its own nightclub and activities planned throughout the week.
As Lifetime RCL Diamond status members, we were entitled to a few perks. In addition to the previously mentioned priority boarding, we were greeted most evenings with a chef's choice amenity (think plates of cookies) and a free 24 hours of ship Wi-Fi. Better yet, RCL offered members a three-hour happy hour every night, which entitled us to three free drinks from a respectable happy-hour menu at any bar on the ship.
We could also hang out in the Diamond Lounge, where we had access to a concierge who helped with show and restaurant reservations and excursion bookings. Also on offer there was a nightly rotation of appetizers, and, best of all, members could have as many complimentary drinks they liked while seated at the lounge (seating was never an issue for us throughout our sail). The interior room itself was a little drab, even with the two large virtual windows, but we started out every evening with at least a brief stop at the lounge regardless.
Food and Beverage
So much of any cruise experience comes down to the food and drink. Those who hate cruising (or haven’t done it in a while) often complain that ships are nothing but giant floating buffets offering bland, poorly prepared food that you suck down in massive quantities to offset the poor quality. And while there is certainly a thread of truth to that, modern cruising provides a ton of alternatives for those who want something a little nicer (though often at a price).
Like any cruise, the Symphony enabled you to eat a month’s worth of calories each and every day for the cost of admission. From the pizza at Sorrento's on the Promenade to the three daily meals in the main dining room, there were six separate venues where you could eat without dishing out extra cash. And yes, those offerings were good — often very good — but not routinely great. There was something to be said for being able to request the fish and the pasta at dinner, taking a few bites of each, and justifying a quick hot dog and a slice with pepperoni at 11:00pm, even if you just wanted to nibble. You already paid for it. Go nuts.
RCL also added a new complimentary dining option to the Symphony: El Loco Fresh, a Mexican counter restaurant serving fairly bland nachos, burritos and tacos at a pleasant outdoor spot just off the Sports Zone.
But for those looking for a more refined meal, there were the specialty restaurants, which tacked on a surcharge in exchange for a slightly more curated menu and experience. Jamie Oliver’s Italian restaurant was one of the stops along Central Park on the Deck 8, as was the steakhouse, One Central Park. Both upped the game considerably from the free fare in the main dining room. Symphony also added a brand-new specialty restaurant, Hooked Seafood — a no-nonsense spot for lobster, crab, oysters and fresh fish fillets. One of our favorite experiences on the Symphony was our meal at Wonderland, as in "Alice in." The self-described “imaginative cuisine” played with molecular gastronomy and included disappearing-ink menus and "magical mushrooms" for dessert (ice cream and meringue).
There was also the Coastal Kitchen restaurant at the top of the ship on Deck 17. It was reserved for suite passengers and Pinnacle-level RCL members, so we weren’t allowed in.
The surcharges ranged from about $35 up to $50 a person, which was enough to throw your budget out of whack if you’re weren't prepared. It was well worth taking the time to pre-book online so you'd know what you were going to spend and avoid the sticker shock on your final day.
Seeing as we definitely wanted to have great dining experiences at each of our European stops, our strategy was to make sure we had an amazing lunch in every city we visited during the day, which made it easier for us to accept a more run-of-the-mill dinner experience at a free restaurant in the evening. And for the couple of nights when we did do a surcharge dinner, we dropped the young 'uns off at the kids club for pizza and Xbox, which saved us the cost of two kid-priced surcharges.
RCL offered soft-drink and alcohol packages that probably work for some, but after doing the math we decided to go a la carte and just watch our spend. You’re not allowed to bring alcohol on the ship (if you buy anything at a port of call, you have to check it and pick it up when you leave the ship at the end of the trip), but you can bring bottled water on board, which we did — this was a great way to save money on board and have water bottles at the ready for exploring each stop.
Cruises are a good way to visit Europe for the first time with young kids. You eat, drink and sleep while the ship sails to the next port, and you get to visit multiple destinations in a short time without having to spend valuable daytime hours traveling. Truth be told, if you asked my kids whether they’d rather spend spring break in Spain, France and Italy or at an indoor water park in the Poconos, they’d say the water park, every time.
But cruising the Mediterranean is a great compromise — we worked in some culture each and every day, sharing great conversation over local lunches in each port, and then retreated to the kid-approved comfort of a pool, water slide and video arcade every night, while mom and dad got to head out for a nightcap.
One legitimate complaint about cruising is you’re confined to a generic, one-size-fits-all experience rather than immersing yourselves in a new destination. But RCL’s Symphony has so much to do, and so many distinct areas and activities, that it was definitely enough to keep everyone in the family engaged and busy, at least up until the final long day at sea, when, truth be told, we were a little worn out with the same old, same old and ready to call it a trip. All in all, we saw a ton, the kids had fun — and we had fun. The Symphony of the Seas experience is up there with the best family vacations we’ve ever taken.