Is it worth the money? Royal Caribbean’s Key Program

This morning we finished our cruise- the Harmony of the Seas- at Port Canaveral. Since the topic is fresh, I wanted to quickly share the run down on our experience with Royal Caribbean’s Key Program. We decided to take a chance and invest in this experience. Here’s the question: would we do it again and was the experience worth the extra cost?  Overall, my response would be- we would not sign-up again and the benefits aren’t really worth it when you look at the big picture.

For $24.99 per day, RCI offers their Key program guests:

  • Priority check-in and boarding
  • Exclusive carry-on luggage service with stateroom delivery
  • Private lunch at Chops Grille®, Jamie’s Italian, or Giovanni’s Table on embarkation day
  • Private hours on marquee activities like FlowRider, Rock Climbing wall, Ripcord by iFly.
  • Priority port of call debarkation
  • VIP seating area at Main theater, Aqua Theater, Studio B, etc.
  • VOOM ® Surf & Stream (1 Device per each paying guest)
  • Priority treatment at debarkation with an exclusive a la carte breakfast

Here’s the rundown on what our experience was like:

  • Priority check-in and boarding was a decent experience, but to be honest, the wait times to board were already so short, I’m not sure it made a big difference.  With Key, we were able to be 1st in line versus 4th in line, but everyone except for suite guests, must go through the same security lines before this, so it really didn’t make a difference in the end. There’s no special line for Key guests at security.
  • We didn’t have a need to use the special carry-on privilege since we left everything with the Porter to deliver to our room later in the day. We simply had a backpack and needed access to it to swim and do other things. This is usually the case with carry-ons, so this benefit is just okay.
  • The private lunch at Chops was nice, but we boarded close to 1 p.m., so there were other lunch options and the crowds weren’t bad. I’m not sure this is a big enough benefit to pay the additional charge. It actually may have been better to invest in a special meal package and gain access to many restaurants.
  • Private access to the special marquee activities was the benefit I was most excited about, but the promise that didn’t deliver and frustrated me the most. Out of 7 days, we were given one hour assigned to four different days to try each activity privately (four hours total on the full cruise). We only used this benefit once. They also assigned us two activity times that were during our port of call times, which made it almost impossible to use this unique benefit. The lines to most activities were not too long, so I could easily forgo this benefit.
  • They only offered the Priority port of call benefit once and it wasn’t necessary, as some of the other guests made it out even faster than us. This might be a good benefit when a tender is required, but was a bit useless, almost silly to have for our cruise.
  • VIP seating wasn’t really necessary. At every show, if you arrive early enough, there are plenty of open seats. I liked the access, but I believe we could have lived without it.
  • Voom Surf and Stream- the connection was great, much better than other cruise lines, and we had a strong stream most of the time. We would have purchased this separately without the Key, as it was much needed for us to chat with our kiddos at home. However, if you aren’t going to capitalize on the other benefits here, probably not worth purchasing the Key, simply spend your money on the internet package.
  • The most frustrating and confusing part of this experience was debarkation. The letter they leave in your room is very misleading. We thought we were purchasing an easier debarkation experience, but we were muddled in the same lines as everyone else once we exited the ship. Note, there was no wait to get off the ship for any guests, only as we waited to enter the luggage area. Our luggage made it out at the same pace as the rest of the ship and we did not have access to priority lines. We decide not to do the private breakfast as we wanted to move faster to get off (wanted to self serve) and opted for the buffet. The buffet was not crazy as expected and a smooth experience.

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Overall, my advice would be to not invest in Key program for your next vacation with Royal Caribbean. It is tough to make the case on the value it will offer versus money spent, at least it is for us.

It also amazed me that every RCI employee on and off the ship had a different version of what the program was and the benefits. A few were kind, a few confused and others not very nice in their interactions with us. One very nice team member said “Every day they are re-briefing us on the Key program, what it means, and how the benefits and access have changed. It can be tough to keep up with the latest with it changing so rapidly.”

My advice to Royal Caribbean is to finishing piloting this program with guests at a lower price rate or offer it in a very targeted complementary way until you figure out what the recipe for success looks like. The experiences are so different, benefits confusing and misleading. Most importantly, your employees, especially those interacting with guests on the front lines, should be able to talk about it accurately and understand the benefits of the program with confidence. If RCI can correct some of this and re-launch the program in a more consistent way, I believe cruise goers will be happy vacationers and embrace this unique program and feel a little less like guinea pigs.

 

5 reasons to spend the day at Couples Tower Isle in Ocho Rios

When cruising the MSC Seaside, we were ready to visit Ocho Rios, a port we’d never visited before. Jamaica in particular is special to us, since we were married there (in Negril) in 2008.

I spent hours crawling over everything I could find out about the port, excursions, the culture and what to see. We settled on an excursion that would take us to the infamous Blue Hole.

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Unfortunately, before we arrived at the port, we learned the rain had turned our “blue hole” trip into a “brown hole.” Apparently, this natural wonder turns brown when there are heavy rainstorms.

I quickly turned my attention to Google seeking some sort of day pass we could purchase to a beach or resort that would allow us to still relax, but take cover if needed. Passes to resorts on sites like www.resortforaday.com were already booked or sold out. Then, I had a wonderful idea.  Why not give Couples Resorts, the same unique line of resorts we used when were married 10 years before in Jamaica, a quick phone call.

There were no information for Couples Ocho Rios/Tower Isle available online related to day passes, so maybe one of the staff members could tell me more.

I called from our room on the ship once we were in port. I quickly learned there was not only a day pass, but also a half day pass for cruise passengers that would be leaving by 3:00 p.m. All we had to do was taxi to the resort and purchase our passes in the lobby.  Here’s why taking the trip to Couples Tower Isle for even half a day, is totally worth it:

1. Couples Tower Isle offers sanctuary from the port’s chaos, cruise crowds and kids.

After exiting the cruise ship, we quickly discovered just how crazy and crowded the port area is. With port authority employees on one side of the fence talking to you and coordinating, all other taxi drivers and services are staring at you from the other side of a barbed wire fence.  It was pure madness (you can see in the video below).

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Also, since this was our 10 year anniversary trip and time to relax without children, we were hoping to get away from the hustle and bustle of little people.  Once we finally left the port, we took a taxi ride over to Couples Tower Isle (20 minutes in total).

Once we arrived at Couples Tower Isle, it was like a breath of fresh air and calmness.

Not only was the lobby calm and quiet when we entered, but many of the shared spaces were not busy or crowded with plenty of space to move around.

The resort is all-inclusive and you get more for your money than other resorts offer. I was surprised to learn that we could spend $50 for a half day pass to the resort.  As a cruiser, you are on a time limit from the spots you visit to “all aboard.”  So, purchasing a pass that gave us access from 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. was perfect for us.

Not to mention, we were delightfully surprised to learn that everything was included (I mean EVERYTHING). Unlimited food and drinks, access to 5 hot tubs, 2 large swimming pools and bars. The beach and lounge chairs, towels, access to a game room and more.  Basically, every amenity included except for the rooms and the spa.

Pool at Couples Tower Isle where we played pool volleyball. 
Pool at Couples Tower Isle where we played pool volleyball.

It also included access to many water sports equipment, which I outline further down. Visiting the resort was well worth our time and money.

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3. The included food and drinks (and choices) were exceptionally good.

When you hear unlimited food and drinks, you automatically think the food will be lower in quality. This is not the case at Couples Tower Isle.  They have a beautiful buffet spread for lunch in the Patio Restaurant and a poolside grill that can cooks items to order such as burgers and fries and has an open area for things like ice cream, nachos and popcorn.

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Patio Restaurant: lunch buffet and drinks.

The drinks were also wonderful. Every day, we learned that the resort has a different drink special which they make it large quantities. This area is self-serve as well, so you can have as much Rum Punch as you want.  They also have servers walking on the beach and pool serving drinks.

In addition, a broad selection of mixed drinks, beer and wine, and nonalcoholic beverages. I decided to try a Bob Marley and was very impressed, especially with the service received at the bar!

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Try a Bob Marley, you’re in Jamaica.

4. Water sports are included with the price of you day pass.

We had a the best time playing volleyball in the pool with some of the other guests. There was also a whole agenda of activities happening at the resort throughout the day that all guests, overnight or day, can participate in.

Activities at the Couples Resort

They also have an area devoted to water sports and toys. Hydro bikes, paddle board, kayaks and other types of equipment were all included with our pass.

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5. For the adventurous, Tower Isle has a small “clothing optional” island across from the main area of the resort for guests.

Most of the Jamaican Couples resorts have a dedicated nude section.  At Tower Isle, there is a namesake island well know to locals, as our taxi driver asked if we planned to go over to “the island”.

We quickly learned about the island.  It requires a one-minute boat ride from the main beach and pools areas and is a small, rocky island set away from the mainland. The resort picks guests up on the pier as needed.

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Private clothing optional island across from the main resort.

The private, secluded island has a small pool, a little bit of beach, and a swim-up bar.  The one catch is if you visit, you must be willing to bare it all to experience it. The island’s policy is not “clothing optional” but rather “clothing prohibited.” For those looking for something a little different, this option might be appealing.

The Couples Tower Isle=Great, affordable fun

All and all, we had an amazing day at the resort and would happily return.  Highly recommend Couples Tower Isle in Ocho Rios as well as trying out many of the other Couples Resorts.

Photo from our wedding at Couples Negril.
Photo from our wedding at Couples Negril.

 

 

 

 

Doing it on your own: Exploring George Town’s cruise port

When cruising the MSC Seaside, we were most excited about visiting George Town, Cayman Islands.  This is a port we had never visited before and we weren’t sure what to expect.  I spent hours crawling over everything I could find out about the port, excursions, the culture and what to see.

George Town stop on MSC Seaside

We ended up having a memorable experience and George Town was beautiful, just as all of the reviews promised.  Here’s a glimpse into what the port has to offer and some of the unique things that come with visiting as a cruise passenger:

Tendering is a must to visit George Town by cruise ship.

With some of the beautiful coral formations and risks to the surrounding environment, Grand Cayman is one of the ports where you must tender.  Cruising on the MSC Seaside, they made this quite easy and it didn’t take us long to make it across the water. Before we boarded tender boats, we picked up a number from a central area and this was tied to an assigned time to board.

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Making our way from the MSC Seaside to the pier in George Town.

After we exited  the tender boat, you immediately look around and see many restaurants and souvenir shops including places like Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville. We spent time in a few stores, taking our time, because we decided not to book an excursion on and explore on our own. Our mission was to make it to Seven Mile Beach, but we also didn’t want to spend a lot of money and planned to “do it on our own.”

If you aren’t a resort guest on Seven Mile Beach, your best bet is Royal Palms Beach Club.

After walking a few blocks, we were greeted by a shuttle driver who was taking people to Seven Mile beach.  We quickly jumped in the shuttle with about 10 other tourists and enjoyed the ride.

The destination was Royal Palms Beach Club (this would have been a 3 km walk), which I learned was one of the only beach clubs or public areas on Seven Mile Beach where you can relax and play outside of the surrounding resorts which are for guests only.

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Note, standing in line to get in, they were checking backs for food and drink which are not allowed.  They have items for sale inside, but they were extremely expensive.

We entered the club which had an adults only pool, cabanas on the beach and near the pool and a few bars. We decided to walk along the beach heading back to the ship (the way we came).

We knew it would be about a 3 km walk, so we weren’t in a rush. We weren’t sure how long we would be able to walk along the water without being redirected to the main road, but decided to be adventurous and explore.

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Walking along the beach doesn’t cost a dime.

Many reviews I’ve read talk about how beautiful the beaches are in Grand Cayman, but especially Seven Mile Beach. And, every last review was right on!  The water was crystal clear and you could see everything last detail underneath as we walked along the beach.

There were also small areas that were clearly man-made coves, where we saw plenty of people, including families, relaxing in the water.

Check out how the locals live, where they shop and eat.

We continued to walk as long we could and finally made it back to the main road.  We took our time walking back, soaking up everything around us including the stores and everyday life of locals.

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Maker:0x4c,Date:2017-9-23,Ver:4,Lens:Kan03,Act:Lar01,E-veAs we walked, we decided we would head back to the pier to pick out some souvenirs for our daughters. At that point, we were very hot and also hoping to stop for a drink. We were surprised to see a grocery store right off the main drag and decided to check it out.

Kirk Market has everything you need, even if it’s a grocery store.

Maker:0x4c,Date:2017-9-23,Ver:4,Lens:Kan03,Act:Lar01,E-veThe grocery store was called Kirk Market and it was right off of Bay Road, the main drag right along the water.  We went inside and actually had a little fun comparing prices to what we see in the U.S.  We also were able to buy a few drinks, a snack and souvenirs for our family. Many of our fellow passengers and cruisers were making the same purchases for more money further down the road right by the cruise ship.  On top of this, the store was actually very nice on the inside and well-organized.

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After we left the grocery store, it was about a 20 minute walk back to the MSC tender boats.  We made our way back, stopping in just a few stores along the way, but at that point we were tired and ready to get back onboard the MSC Seaside.

Expect lines when you head back to the tender boat.

We had decided at the beginning, after learning how expensive Grand Cayman is, to explore and do our best to stay within the small budget we had set for the port.

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To do this, we decided to head back early (1:00 p.m.).  We were hoping to eat on our ship since everything was included and enjoy the waterslides while other cruisers were off doing excursions and shopping.

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We were very surprised to see the long line that awaited us to board the tender boats. We waited for 15-20 minutes to gain a seat on one of the tender boats and finally headed back.

Maker:0x4c,Date:2017-9-23,Ver:4,Lens:Kan03,Act:Lar01,E-veEven after making it to the ship, we sat on the tender boat for at least 10 minutes waiting to exit, but we were just happy to be sitting in the shade and relaxing while we waited.

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If you don’t care about organized fun, you can explore on $20 or less.

All and all, a wonderful time in Grand Cayman! Not a lot of stress, no deadlines associated with excursions, and we spent less than $20 on snacks, drinks, transportation and entrance to the Royal Palms Beach club.  Traveling on a budget in a free manner like this might not be for everyone, but we certainly enjoyed ourselves and this new place.

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