Arguably the most stressful day of any cruise is the first day when you're trying to get onboard and get so many things done.
Royal Caribbean wants its vacations to be as relaxing and enjoyable as possible, but the reality is the embarkation experience for the first few hours is less than ideal as many passengers use this time to essentially run errands onboard to set themselves up for the rest of the cruise.
Is it a necessary evil or something that could be improved? Royal Caribbean thinks its newest cruise ship can remedy the situation.
Icon of the Seas was designed to be a ship that can take a leap forward in nearly every aspect of the cruise experience. It has new neighborhoods, easier means to get between decks, integration of technology, and lots of new ways to think about traditional experiences onboard.
Before Icon of the Seas entered service, Royal Caribbean's Senior Vice President and Chief Product Innovation Officer Jay Schneider, talked about how Icon would re-think boarding day so that it would be less stressful and easier overall.
The goal is simple: reduce or eliminated crowds and friction for guests.
"Make it easier"
Speaking at Royal Caribbean headquarters in Miami at a meeting in October 2023, Mr. Schneider identified one of the goals of the Royal Promenade on Icon of the Seas was to make the first day of a cruise just as fun as day two through seven.
Up until Icon, the Royal Promenade served as a place for guests to deal with issues that Mr. Schneider referred to as, "transactional" because they were things guests wanted to solve. Issues such as someone forgetting to buy something, set up their internet access, or a question for Guest Services.
"We spent a lot of time researching with guests what their day one experience is," Mr. Schneider explained.
"And what we've learned in that journey is that there is a lot of heavy lifting that the Royal Promenade today takes, that we wish it didn't."
Specifically, Royal Caribbean's feedback from their research was passengers wanted a simpler first day, "The feedback from guests as we did the research to prep for boarding day was that make it easier and easier for me not to have to go to the the booths that you create on only day one that don't exist on day two."
Essentially, the first day had so much going on that it didn't feel like a vacation until day two. Royal Caribbean wants its customers to feel like they are on vacation and enjoying it all from the moment they step onboard.
"They want to start their vacation. They don't want to go find a Voom desk," Mr. Schneider pointed out.
The solution is to allow guests to do more pre-cruise so there's less to do once they board, "The more services that our guests say they naturally would prefer to do pre arrival than do on day one, that we can remove off the Promenade automatically helps."
For about a year, Royal Caribbean had teams looking at how they could leverage technology to remove the first day hassle and make it feel more like day two through six.
Is boarding day better on Icon?
With those goals in place, here's how Royal Caribbean implemented fixes for the issues their research identified.
Easier way to connect to the internet
Buying an internet package is becoming more popular on Royal Caribbean ships, especially with the advent of Starlink internet that brings true high-speed internet to its ships.
Some guests struggle with how exactly to access the internet due to a cumbersome process of first creating an account and then logging in.
The Royal Caribbean app on Icon of the Seas features better app internet connectivity. Specifically, if you have purchased the internet package and you have the Royal Caribbean app installed and set up, there's no more captive portal. You instantaneously are connected to Wi-Fi and you don't have to do anything.
While the traditional way of creating an account still exists, I did notice a few times when I returned to the ship after being on shore, the Royal Caribbean app would open immediately to a screen alerting me that I was connected, with the option of purchasing additional device plans.
Guest services chat
Royal Caribbean is using AI to make it less likely that you'll need to wait in line at Guest Services.
Within the Royal Caribbean app is a chat feature that can help answer issues guests may have. The chat feature interacts with an AI bot, who could help reduce the lengthy Guest Services line.
The way it works is you can ask the bot simple questions. You can can ask an AI bot certain questions like "What can my SeaPass do?" and "How do I access Wi-Fi?"
It will also tell you how much the drink package costs, as well as help you add a registered user to your account and opt out of gratuities.
If it can't answer it for you, then it will connect you with an actual agent.
"Being able to text someone from your pool deck chair or your swim-up bar seat is where we'd much rather you be [on vacation]," said Schneider.
According to Schneider, the new chat system "works beautifully."
Pre-book restaurants with a dining package
The one improvement I cannot wait for Royal Caribbean to implement is the new option to pre-book restaurants if you have a dining package.
Traditionally if you bought a dining package, you'd have to wait until you got onboard the cruise ship to make an actual reservation.
Mr. Schneider pointed out the issue of how this makes the first day less enjoyable, "If you book a dine package with us, you can't actually reserve those restaurants ahead of time. So you have to run around on day one of your vacation to figure it out."
The plan is for all dining packages to be reservable so that guests don't have to do go make reservations on the first day. Essentially, it creates the same experience for people with a dining package and those that pre-book a specific specialty restaurant.
This upgrade is not available yet on any ship, but Royal Caribbean says it's a top priority and they hope, "to get it into market as soon as possible, but we don't have a date yet."
Once implemented, expect it on the Icon Class ships and Utopia of the Seas first, with the rest of the fleet getting it later.
Shore excursion desk
How you book and manage a shore excursion on Icon of the Seas is also different.
Instead of dedicating space to kiosks to book a shore excursion, Icon has removed that. Mr. Schneider pointed out these spaces, like the one on Freedom of the Seas, are largely empty most of the time because guests are pre-booking tours before the cruise or on the Royal Caribbean app.
"If you think of the evolution of spaces, spaces that were really important 15 years ago are no longer important today. And so the notion of transactional kiosks, when everybody books their shore excursion on their phone or pre-arrival, isn't needed."
However, Royal Caribbean didn't get rid of the shore excursion team all together.
Behind the Pearl on the Royal Promenade is a service lounge experience, where you can go to talk to someone about an excursion. It's run similar to stores on land where you are seated and a customer service agent comes up to you to address your concern or need.
When you walk up, you're entered into their system for the first available crew member to assist you. Your name is even listed on a screen to show where you are in the queue. There's no physical line, so you can sit down and relax until it's your turn.
On my cruise, there was no one else there so I did not need to wait at all, but not having a formal queue seems like it would be easier, especially for families.
Order photos from the app
A favorite tradition on any cruise is getting your photos taken. While the memories captured through these photos are a fun, going to the photo gallery to order prints was not.
Royal Caribbean recently implemented new functionality within the Royal Caribbean app to be able to review photos you've taken and order them, all within the app.
Just like the shore excursions, there's no digital kiosks on Icon to preview photos. Next to the shore excursion desk is the photo gallery desk to assist with concerns you might have.