If you are someone who cruises frequently with the same cruise line, you have most likely set sail on the same cruise ship more than once. Depending on where you sail and who you cruise with, being on the same ship can feel like a totally different experience.
Not to mention, if a cruise ship has been recently refurbished with new additions and amplifications, this can totally transform the onboard experience. Just because you’re sailing on the same ship, it’s unlikely that you will have the same experience twice.
I just returned from a 12-night sailing onboard Royal Caribbean’s Jewel of the Seas to visit Iceland with my husband. This wasn’t the first time that we had sailed onboard Jewel of the Seas. Back in December 2018, we cruised on Jewel of the Seas with family for a 7-night Caribbean sailing from San Juan.
A five year difference had a big impact on our perception of Jewel of the Seas and the onboard experience. While I thought I knew what to expect from our prior experience onboard, I was wrong. Our Iceland sailing on Jewel of the Seas was totally different than sailing on the same ship in the Caribbean five years earlier - and not just because of the drastically different climate and itinerary!
Here is how our experiences differed while sailing on the same Royal Caribbean ship.
Jewel of the Seas is a Radiance Class ship that first debuted in 2004, making her nearly 20 years old.
The Radiance Class ships are Royal Caribbean’s second oldest in the cruise line’s fleet. Jewel of the Seas, along with her sister ships, is a stark contrast from Royal Caribbean’s newest ships, which are massive floating resorts that hold triple the amount of passengers.
These ships are considered small to midsize and hold right around 2,700 passengers, making them perfect for port-intensive itineraries to off-the-beaten-path cities. I’ve also sailed on all of Jewel’s sister ships, some even multiple times, so I consider myself a Radiance Class cruise guru at this point (kidding!!). This is likely because I am destination-driven when booking cruises and Radiance Class ships tend to sail more interesting itineraries.
When I first sailed on Jewel of the Seas in 2018, the ship had just received a $30 million investment for refurbishment.
With refreshed staterooms and a bow-to-stern makeover, we had no gripes about the ship’s appearance, amenities or overall condition back then. In fact, everything felt pretty fresh and up-to-date, although Jewel of the Seas has never had the same bells and whistles that you'll find on newer and bigger ships.
During this dry dock in 2016, Jewel of the Seas received the addition of Giovani’s Table and Izumi Sushi while disappointingly removing one of the few complimentary dining options onboard, Seaview Cafe.
When we booked this cruise, my husband and I were 23 and newly married. We were living on a much tighter budget back then too. We booked the cheapest cabin onboard to make our budget stretch as far as possible. In fact, we booked through a website called iCruise to save an additional $500 (something I would never do today). We booked that cruise because of the dates and the exciting itinerary, with unique stops like Granada and Dominica.
The total cost of our cruise on Jewel of the Seas in December 2018 was $2,063 for an outside cabin, which was oddly cheaper than an inside stateroom. I remember thinking this was astronomical compared to other cruises we had taken for half the cost in college, but this was mostly due to the fact this sailing was over New Years Eve.
At the time, we were both Diamond Plus members because my husband inherited my Crown and Anchor Status once we were married.
Onboard Jewel of the Seas in 2018, we had a wonderful Caribbean holiday with family, even ringing in the New Year onboard!
Each evening, we would sit outside in the Concierge Lounge and sip on our unlimited cocktails during happy hour. This was back when Diamond Plus members could visit the Concierge Lounge onboard and drinks did not require vouchers during happy hour.
We sailed with first time cruisers who raved about the cruise experience, particularly the food in the dining room. My husband indulged each evening with his favorite escargot and everyone loved lobster night. We ate each night in the main dining room since we did not feel like splurging on specialty dining, nor did anyone in the family.
Although we had paid what felt like a premium, the onboard experience felt pretty luxurious as we sailed in the warm Caribbean sun. We loved seeing the sweeping views of the ocean with Jewel of the Seas’ floor-to-ceiling windows and outward facing glass elevators.
Fast forward to 2023 and we found ourselves booking a cruise on Jewel of the Seas again, this time heading to Iceland.
Five years down the road, we booked Jewel of the Seas again for a 12-night adventure to Iceland This was entirely destination-driven, as Iceland has been at the top of our bucket list and we wanted to visit this summer.
We looked at both Celebrity Cruises and Norwegian Cruise Line, but Royal Caribbean’s pricing could not be beat for nearly half the cost. Of course, our daily drink vouchers are an amazing perk as well. We paid $3,000 for a balcony guarantee, as we wanted to have our own private veranda to take in all the sites of Iceland.
I wasn’t surprised to see that Jewel of the Seas was sailing to Iceland this summer, as the ship’s size is perfect to visit the ports of call on our itinerary. The nearly 3-acres' worth of glass throughout the ship make it perfect for scenic cruises. After our prior sailing in 2018, we had pretty fair expectations about what the cruise would be like - or so we thought.
Almost immediately, we noticed that Jewel of the Seas needed another refurbishment to modernize the cruise ship.
Although Jewel of the Seas is almost 20 years old, we were surprised to see the ship’s overall condition had gone down hill quite a bit. It was apparent to us that Jewel of the Seas needed another refurbishment.
To start, there was a broken window near the Cafe Latitude coffee shop! I was shocked to see this window completely shattered, although I assume it (hopefully) did not pose a safety threat since it was left unfixed. This was almost as surprising as the time we saw duck tape on a window when cruising on Carnival’s oldest ship, Ecstasy, last summer.
In addition, other areas of the ship had a seemingly strange smell when we would walk through, which was something that we had not noticed before.
Our stateroom also had a lot of wear and tear. The drawers and table were all heavily worn, along with the balcony. Our carpet had some stains as well, which were slightly off-putting. Luckily, we had an excellent stateroom attendant and felt that service on the ship was just as great as we had remembered.
Had this been my first experience with Royal Caribbean, I honestly would not have been super impressed by these damaged areas. This did not negatively impact our cruise by any means, but it was certainly noteworthy compared to our previous time onboard.
We missed having access to the Concierge Lounge and other loyalty benefits that have since changed.
Royal Caribbean’s post-pandemic comeback has led to some changes to the Crown and Anchor loyalty program, both good and bad. One of the biggest changes has been the addition of daily drink vouchers, along with the removal of Concierge Lounge access for Diamond Plus members.
Back in 2018, we loved going to the Concierge Lounge on Jewel of the Seas. Each night before dinner with family, we sipped on our unlimited cocktails as the ship sailed into the sunset.
(Left: Concierge Lounge in 2018. Right: Diamond Lounge in 2023).
These days, Diamond Plus members are no longer able to access the Concierge Lounge with recent changes made to the loyalty program.
As we crammed into the Diamond Lounge on our recent Iceland cruise, we were a bit bummed thinking about how this benefit had been taken away. Having more space with less people made it feel more lucrative and special. My husband also misses the unlimited drinks during happy hour, although our 23-year-old alcohol tolerances are a bit different than today!
With more Diamond members than ever before, the lounge was packed to the brim almost each night. We struggled to find seats most evenings unless we came much later. Luckily, having the vouchers eliminates the need to go to the lounge altogether, but we do enjoy the views, service and overall company.
Another small, but notable, difference was the loyalty gifts received in our cabin.
Looking back at pictures from 2018, I was shocked to see a massive loyalty basket with cheese and fruit, which had been gifted to us for being Diamond Plus members. We also received chocolate covered strawberries and other petite snacks during that cruise.
During our recent Iceland sailing, we received a small plate with a bruised banana, orange and apple with a note that said “Compliments of the Chef”. This was... an interesting choice, to say the least!
Now, I am not expecting anything over the top here, as I do appreciate any recognition of loyalty from Royal Caribbean; but, comparatively speaking, the shift from truly warm and welcoming gifts to this obligatory, somewhat sad-looking token of appreciation was a bit disappointing. Others onboard also found this gift a bit questionable, as it was a hot topic on our Facebook sailing page!
One of the biggest, and most disappointing, differences we noticed was the change in the main dining room’s food quality.
The most controversial change within Royal Caribbean has the rollout of new menus in the main dining room earlier this year. While we enjoyed our food on earlier cruises this year, we felt there was a noticeable decline in the quality of main dining room food onboard Jewel of the Seas.
Since this was a longer cruise being 12 nights, we opted to book the Chops + 1 dining package so we had a little variety in our dining choices. We also planned to utilize our BOGO dining benefit as Diamond Plus members, along with booking an evening at Chef’s Table. As such, we had five nights in the specialty restaurants during our cruise.
The other nights we ate in the dining room, and while the service was fabulous, the food was very hit or miss. While we really liked some entrees, others were pretty bland and low quality. This was a big disappointment for us, as we loved the main dining experience when we sailed on Jewel of the Seas in 2018.
The menu changes are more subjective, although my husband missed his nightly escargot. The lack of complimentary lobster was also a bummer, as this is a highlight normally during his cruises.
With the main dining room being hit or miss, we started debating if we should splurge more on specialty dining.
Surely, back in 2018, we would have never justified spending extra on a more upscale dining experience. We were newly married and budget-busting already to sail on a holiday itinerary.
However, and most importantly, we also did not feel the need to pursue specialty dining because we had great experiences in the main dining room.
This was a big difference for us in 2023. We are not picky eaters, but we do love the culinary experience when we cruise. There were a few evenings that we debated going back to the specialty dining restaurants simply because certain menus really did not appeal to us.
But, perhaps that is part of Royal Caribbean’s business strategy to drive more guests to specialty dining and away from the complimentary options, especially those willing to splurge.
We also found the ship’s complimentary dining schedule did not align well with our European itinerary.
Because we were sailing around Europe, our days were much longer than a normal Caribbean sailing. Returning to the ship around 4pm or later, we struggled to find much for complimentary dining.
The Windjammer closed each day from 3pm to 6:30pm, leaving just the tiny Solarium Cafe as an option with the same sandwiches each day until dinner. This was a bummer for us and others who had late dining or My Time Dining.
Since most people were also spending long days in port, it was disappointing not to have more complimentary dining options. I would have loved options like Cafe Promenade, El Loco Fresh or Sorrento’s Pizza onboard with more availability and selection.
This was also the case late at night. Everyone crammed into the corner of the Solarium for late-night pizza and snacks, but the tiny Solarium Cafe couldn’t keep up with everyone’s hunger.
This was not an issue that we noticed on Jewel of the Seas back in 2018. Either the Windjammer is closed more or the ship’s dining schedule does not align well with the general pace of a European cruise. Either way, it seemed like this was an unusual problem to have on a cruise.
Dining gripes aside, Jewel of the Seas’ outward-facing design really shined during our scenic itinerary in Iceland.
Jewel of the Seas was a great ship to sail around Iceland, especially as our ship weaved in and out of the gorgeous fjords. We could see sweeping views from not only our balcony, but also from the glass elevators and floor-to-ceiling windows.
Taking a cruise to the Caribbean is not usually very scenic, at least not for the majority of your sailing. Most of the time, once you leave port, you’ll being seeing ocean for miles upon miles. This is not the case for destinations like Iceland, where you can see mountains, waterfalls and fjords even hours after leaving port.
Jewel of the Seas was the perfect size for this itinerary. We docked in remote ports near the Arctic Circle that had as little as 2,000 people living there; therefore, a mega-ship holding 6,000 passengers wouldn’t have gotten the job done.
At the end of the day, five years seemingly made a big difference in our perception of Jewel of the Seas.
Boarding a cruise ship that you’ve sailed on before inherently brings up nostalgic memories. I have been sailing on Royal Caribbean ships since I was 10 years old, so I have a lifetime of special memories tied to these cruise ships. I’ve seen the company evolve and change with some great changes and other not-so-great changes.
Being back on Jewel of the Seas had us reminiscing on that precious time in our lives back in 2018. Perhaps those rose-colored glasses played into our current perception of the ship too. Between changes in the dining, loyalty perks and the ship’s overall condition, the experiences onboard were very different.
Between 2018 and 2023, Jewel of the Seas has undoubtedly aged - just like my husband and I have too. But, our perception has also changed. Being a bit more established, we no longer have to pinch pennies to stretch our cruise budget. Perhaps we have a higher cruising standard now after being able to afford higher-end ships and cruise lines in the last five years.
Boarding Jewel of the Seas again and writing this article was like taking a trip down memory lane. Back in 2018, we were newly married with a brand-new puppy waiting for us back home. We also had a highly anticipated move away from the Midwest to begin my husband’s military service. We called that Caribbean cruise our ‘last hurrah’ before we knew life would change drastically.
Now, life looks a lot different, just as Jewel of the Seas does too. Cruise ships can really transport us back to certain eras of life. While this article was a bit more sentimental than I intended, I think that is what cruising is all about - making lifelong memories with the people we love most.
Stepping back onto Jewel of the Seas half a decade later resurfaced a lot of memories for us. We loved both of these cruises, even if our perception of the ship and onboard experience has changed overtime. It is crazy to think how five more years will change the Radiance Class - and I am eager to see how (or if) Royal Caribbean modernizes these cruise ships.