Cruise Details

7-Night Eastern Caribbean

Port Canaveral Round-Trip

Ship: Freedom of the Seas

Prices starting from:

Pricing Info
Inside Oceanview Balcony Suite

$554

$79 per night

$699

$100 per night

$849

$121 per night

$1,199

$171 per night

Freedom of the Seas - Ship Review provided by Cruise Critic


Ship Review | Cruise Line Review

Overview

"Does size really matter?"

I considered this age-old question upon boarding Freedom of the Seas, currently the world's largest cruise vessel. Freedom, which launched in May 2006, represents a new class of ship for Royal Caribbean, measuring just shy of 155,000 tons with a double occupancy capacity of 3,634 passengers (siblings Liberty and Independence of the Seas debuted in May 2007 and 2008, respectively). It surpasses Cunard's gargantuan Queen Mary 2 by 7,000 tons and carries 1,014 more passengers.

Freedom of the Seas has also made waves in other ways. It is the first ship to feature a surf park, a regulation-sized boxing ring, an interactive water park for kids and even a barbershop. Yet in many ways, Freedom is merely an evolution, not a revolution, of the Voyager class that made its own headlines when it launched with biggest-at-sea status back in 1999. The layout is nearly identical and the promenade is back, as is the rock-climbing wall, the ice-skating rink, Johnny Rockets, the Promenade Cafe, Ben & Jerry's, etc. It is almost as if Voyager of the Seas was simply super-sized, and beefed up with innovative spaces and concepts.

Which brings us back to our original quandary: Would the extra space, extra people, extra "everything" live up to the hype ... or leave us feeling claustrophobic?

We got off to a rough start: Embarkation took nearly two hours from the curb to our stateroom, and because so many people were late coming on, the lido buffet was kept open an extra half hour and the time for the muster drill was pushed back; dinner was also delayed 15 minutes so everyone could settle in and get ready.

Surprisingly, in terms of lines and congestion, this was the first and last time we felt truly frustrated. Crowds elsewhere -- at the pool, waiting for elevators -- were equal to if not less than what we've experienced on Voyager-class ships. That's not to say that the ship (as well as Voyager and its siblings) wouldn't benefit from another bank of elevators. It's still a mass-market, big-ship experience, and there will almost always be a half hour or so wait to eat at Johnny Rockets on a sea day. You'll wait in a line (a short line, but a line nonetheless) to disembark at tender ports, and dinnertime can be a bit noisy with hundreds of others chowing down around you. At the same time, it's never hard to find quiet, private nooks -- we loved Cafe Promenade, Vintages wine bar and even the Solarium pool for getting-away-from-it-all moments.

We were also amazed by how personal the service was in general, despite the number of passengers. The two bartenders who worked every night at Boleros, Royal Caribbean's Latin-themed bar, remembered our names and our poisons, and on the last night swapped heartfelt goodbyes and hugs with numerous passengers who had imbibed there throughout the week. When our cabin steward noticed us coming down the hallway, he'd pop his key in the door and hold it open for us -- a nice gesture, particularly when we were coming back from shore with tote bags and purchases.

Size does matter, and in Freedom's case it is a plus, not a negative -- especially for families, first-timers and fans of Voyager-class ships that are ready for the next "big" thing.

Dining

Since our cruise, Royal Caribbean has launched its flexible My Time Dining program on Freedom of the Seas. For dinner, passengers can choose between assigned early (6 p.m.) or late (8:30 p.m.) dining, or opt for flexible dining, in which you pick a preferred mealtime (anytime between 6 and 9:30 p.m.), but can change your reservations on a daily basis. But on this voyage, the three-deck-high dining room (Leonardo, Isaac and Galileo) only offered traditional, assigned-seating dinings during two sittings -- at 6:30 p.m. and at 8:30. And though our meals were generally good (we especially liked the surf-themed menu exclusive to Freedom -- try the steak and shrimp with wasabi mashed potatoes), the logistics left much to be desired.

After embarkation, we visited the maitre d' to request a switch from early to late seating, which was handled quickly. Our first batch of dinner pals, a family from Florida, decided after the first night that they wanted a table closer to the middle of the dining room. Not wanting to sit alone at a table for eight, we asked to be moved again and were seated with another group of relatives traveling together, which went swimmingly ... until the next night when we arrived and strangers were in our seats! After forced interaction with two different families, we were loathe to repeat the experience a third time, and on Thanksgiving no less; we visited the maitre d' again who apologized for the "human error," and thankfully made it right. We asked to be seated alone and were placed at an empty four-top (there are just a few tables for two) where we remained for the duration of our cruise.

But who needs this kind of hassle on vacation?

One of the byproducts of table-hopping is the ability to compare service throughout the dining room -- and this was the only place we found service to be inconsistent. Our very first waiter was practically invisible, never cracked a smile and at the end of the day didn't even ask us if we wanted a cup of coffee with dessert. Our last waiter, on the other hand, couldn't do enough for us: When we asked mid-cruise if he could hook us up with Indian food, he said he'd "see what he could do"; on the last night, he brought us a shrimp curry that wasn't on the menu in the dining room or anywhere else on the ship. We're not sure if it came from crew rations, but it was delicious and we sure appreciated it. He was also at the ready with whatever else we needed: more sauce, more vegetables, more whipped cream for our pie....

Our advice? Make sure your travel agent or booking representative puts in any requests you may have pertaining to the main dining room (early or late seating, number of tablemates, etc.) early on.

Lunch and breakfast are served in the dining room open seating. At breakfast, the main attraction is eggs Benedict. Otherwise, we thought the fare in the Windjammer Cafe, Freedom's lido buffet, was far superior for breakfast and lunch. The Windjammer is set up like a food court, with one long self-service line of hot and cold items, plus stations toward the back for salads, pizza, fresh sandwiches, carved meats, petite desserts, etc. In the morning, an omelet station fixes made-to-order eggs; in the afternoons, we particularly like Jade, an area of the Windjammer that specializes in Asian dishes like sweet and sour chicken. A poolside grill offers up burgers, hot dogs and grilled chicken at lunchtime; Sprinkles self-service ice cream machine is open on the lido from 11 a.m. until 10 p.m. Squeeze is a juice bar that also blends up energy drinks ranging in price from $4 to $6 -- just choose your fruit (banana, strawberry) and your "power" option (fat burning, protein rich).

A casual buffet dinner is served at Windjammer as well; menu options generally mirror what's being served in the main dining room with the exception of Jade -- we visited for "sushi" night and it actually felt like a "specialty" restaurant. The tables were dressed with white cloths and soy sauce; shiny black plates with spaces for ginger and wasabi were at the buffet; and servers were quick to offer drink service.

If you crave a more gourmet experience, be sure to take advantage of Freedom's two specialty restaurants: Portofino is an Italian trattoria, and Chops Grille, a steakhouse-style eatery. Portofino offers caprese salad, fried calamari and carpaccio among its appetizers, with pasta, seafood and veal dishes rounding out the menu. A great option for dessert here is the sampler, which includes a small amount of flourless chocolate cake, tiramisu and panacotta. At Chops, expect tuna tartare and crab cakes among the starters, several cuts of steak, plus other grilled meats and fish like lamb loin and halibut. If you are a chocolate lover, do not, I repeat, do not miss the Mississippi Mud Pie. It is a huge slice of velvety goodness with a cluster of caramel-y nuts in the center.

A cover charge applies for each ($20 in Portofino and $25 in Chops), but is well worth it. If I could splurge on only one, I'd have to pick Chops -- both are intimate, but the cuisine and service there was just a touch more impressive. I loved the warm dark wood paneling and cushy velvet seating (and the Mississippi Mud Pie alone is almost worth the fee to dine there).

Johnny Rockets is identical in layout to those on Voyager-class ships, and serves the same yummy burgers, hot dogs, grilled cheese, chili, tuna sandwiches, onion rings and fries. We waited 30 minutes to eat here, but were given a pager that we were able to take into the arcade with us to painlessly pass the time; we were buzzed when our table was ready. There's a $4.95 cover charge for dine-in or take-out; drinks are charged separately.

Cafe Promenade is open around the clock with complimentary pastries and sandwiches, coffee and tea (the adjacent Seattle's Best coffee bar offers for-fee cappuccinos, lattes, etc.). New to Freedom, on the opposite end of the Promenade, is Sorrento's, an all-day pizzeria (check your Compass for certain times of the day when paninis are pressed -- yum). In addition to a variety of pizzas that switch up daily, there's a front counter where you can choose any combination of seafood salad, grilled Italian veggies, marinated mozzarella or feta cheese, hunks of bread, artichokes, olives, etc. It's a fantastic midday snack spot! Of course, Ben & Jerry's ice cream bar is available to satisfy your sweet tooth; the waffle cones are made fresh -- get one with a scoop (or two) of your choosing. Items are mostly under $5.

Finally, room service is available 24 hours, though the menu consists of just a few salads and sandwiches. We would have liked more options -- the last time I sailed onboard Voyager of the Seas, there were some snacks you could buy a la carte, like chips and guacamole. However, my tuna salad pita was tasty and delivered in the time frame quoted (30 minutes). You can order breakfast in via a doorknob hang card; Royal Caribbean still offers hot items and even omelets on its room service breakfast menu, which we appreciate, as well as Continental fare from cereal to fruit plates. Room service is free from 5 a.m. to midnight; late-night orders incur a $3.95 surcharge.

Public Rooms

The main artery that runs throughout the ship is the Royal Promenade, a Main Street USA type thoroughfare where you can visit the purser's or excursions desk, grab a drink or a snack, people-watch, or shop. At A Clean Shave, gentleman can get a haircut, shave or shoe shine, and all of the ship's galleries and stores are located here. The general store sells incidentals, duty-free liquor and edible souvenirs like rum cakes; a separate venue specializes in perfume and cosmetics, and there's a gift shop as well selling logo items, T-shirts, Christmas ornaments, key chains and other odds and ends. You can buy workout wear at the Get Out There store (FlowRider paraphernalia is for sale up on the Sports Deck).

A library with a view of the Promenade through floor-to-ceiling glass windows contains three walls of bookshelves, and several cozy leather chairs for a quiet read. Above the library is Royal Caribbean Online, the ship's Internet cafe. The actual connection is touch-and-go; expect slowness unless you log on while most folks are sleeping or sightseeing. The charge is 55 cents a minute; however, if you buy packages you can pay as little as 37 cents a minute. The same rates apply to Wi-Fi, which is available in cabins and in various public area "hot spots."

Cloud Nine, next to the Seven Hearts card and game room near the Viking Crown Lounge, can be used for private meetings or parties; the Skylight Chapel one deck up is the spot for onboard weddings.

Shameless plug: On Deck 5, across from the cruise director's office, look for the framed poem "Ode to Freedom," written by Cruise Critic members!

Cabins

There are four main types of staterooms -- inside, oceanview, balcony and suite -- but within each are different configurations, including roomier options for families in all categories at different price points. There are 1,817 staterooms; 842 have private balconies and 172 have promenade views. All staterooms are equipped with keypad-operated safes, hair dryers, Wi-Fi Internet access, mini-fridges and flat-screen televisions featuring a range of channels (ESPN, CNN, Cartoon Network) as well as interactive programming (order shore excursions and room service, or check your portfolio).

Interior and promenade-view staterooms are on the small side, measuring 152 square ft. and 149 square ft. respectively; bathrooms are shower-only, though we appreciate that Royal Caribbean has stuck with sliding doors as opposed to those pesky curtains that always seem to float inward and invariably lead to flooding. Pumps in the shower are preloaded with shower gel and shampoo. Family interiors are nearly double in size (300 square ft.), and sleep up to six with two twin beds that convert into a queen plus a sofa and/or Pullman.

Oceanview cabins add a porthole and a smidge more space (these range from 161 to 200 square ft.); family oceanview staterooms clock in at 293 square ft., with a sitting area, two twin beds that convert into a queen, and a sofa and/or Pullman. Before moving into suite territory, there are two balcony options: Deluxe at 177 square ft. (balcony 74 square ft.) and Superior at 189 square ft. (balcony 68 square ft.). Decor in our balcony stateroom was teal, peach and white, with lighting overhead and at the desk/vanity, as well as bedside wall-mounted lamps; balcony furniture comprised of a small table and two loungers (metal with mesh covering) -- much nicer than the plastic ribbon variety.

Space and amenities increase as you ascend the suite scale. Some Junior Suites (287 square ft., balcony 101 square ft.) and Grand Suites (387 square ft., balcony 126 square ft.) have tubs; walk-in closets are standard in both. The Owner's Suites (614 square ft., balcony 209 square ft.) add a private sitting area separate from the bedroom; the one Royal Suite (1,406 square ft., balcony 377 square ft.) also features a whirlpool marble tub and shower, entertainment center, king-sized bed, baby grand piano, and a private hot tub on the balcony. Grand, Owner's and Royal Suite guests have access to a concierge who can assist with specialty restaurant reservations, spa treatments and the like, and the Concierge Club lounge, where pre-dinner canapes and cocktails are complimentary.

Four Royal Family Suites (610 square ft, balcony 234 square ft.) accommodate up to eight and feature a living area with a double sofa bed, two bedrooms with two twin beds that convert to a queen (one also features third and fourth bunks), a verandah with teak furniture and two bathrooms with showers (one with tub).

The new Presidential Family Suite (1,215 square ft., balcony 810 square ft.) is the granddaddy of family-friendly accommodations onboard, and exclusive to this class of ship. The suite can accommodate up to 14 guests and consists of two master bedrooms with private baths, and two additional bedrooms each with two Pullman beds and two twin beds that convert to a queen. There are two additional "standard" shower-only bathrooms. The huge private balcony is outfitted with a hot tub, teak dining set (table and chairs), and padded teak loungers.

One last "special" stateroom is 6305, a promenade-facing cabin with an obstructed view: the window is blocked by the, ahem, behinds of two cows that stand atop the Ben & Jerry's ice cream parlor directly below. The good news, though, is that cruisers who find a pair of derrieres pressed up against their window receive complimentary scoops from Ben & Jerry's every day of their cruise!

Whatever stateroom you choose, you'll sleep tight: All cabins feature Royal Caribbean's stylish, comfortable new bedding -- a huge improvement from the glorified cots of old. There are pillows and shams, and duvets with cotton blend covers. Custom pillow tops are doubled over when placed atop twin beds, but when the beds are in the queen configuration they are unfolded across both (already) plush mattresses to eliminate the dreaded gap. Our room was set up with twins, but other passengers we spoke to assured us the queen configuration was comfortable and gap-free.

Entertainment

Afternoon activities include the ubiquitous pool games and trivia contests; Vintages wine bar hosts several tasting sessions throughout the week (we attended one that was $15, and much more intimate than the dining room variety; we were part of a 12-person group). Al fresco bars include the Pool Bar, Sky Bar and Wipe Out! bar, and the drink of the day in a souvenir glass will run you $5.95; Casino Royale is open whenever the ship is at sea, and features slot machines in a range of denominations, table games and a bar; this area can get pretty smoky at night -- if you are sensitive to cigarettes, you may not want to pass through.

The main Arcadia Theater seats more than 1,300 guests over two levels and is the venue for nighttime productions; on our sailing, shows included "Once Upon a Time," a beautifully done Broadway-style fairy tale; a concert featuring the Nelson brothers and the popular newlywed contest, which was side splittingly funny as always (how can you not laugh when a woman who has been married for 50 years discusses her coconut bra in front of a live audience?). Late-night comedians and magicians fill out the roster; Pharaoh's Palace is a secondary show lounge for musical combos and private parties.

The ice rink at Studio B also doubles as a secondary show lounge (it was the spot for the Crown & Anchor welcome back party, as well as the Quest, an adult scavenger hunt). There are free skate hours listed in the Compass. Freedom-Ice.com, the professional ice show, was the best I've seen at sea. Even though our ship was moving due to rough weather, nobody fell -- and the amount and speed of wardrobe changes were mind-boggling. Tickets are free, but they need to be obtained in advance; check your Compass for details on your sailing.

After hours, Boleros -- the hip Latin lounge that Royal Caribbean has begun installing on its ships -- is one of my favorite bars at sea. Though the location (in a hallway outside the casino near a staircase) is not nearly as cozy as the stand-alone bar on, say, Empress of the Seas, the two bartenders there were absolutely fantastic, made a mean mojito, and juggled bottles and shakers for us. It felt like "Cocktail" without Tom Cruise. This venue also draws major crowds with live music and merengue dancing.

Nightly music is found in other areas of the ship as well. A guitarist/soloist performs rock tunes in the Bull & Bear Pub, and a pianist packs Royal Caribbean's nautical-themed Schooner Bar, taking requests until the wee hours. If you'd like to do the singing yourself, swing by the On Air bar outside Studio B; there are open-mic hours where you can strut your stuff onstage, as well as private booths for those a little less confident. The big screen here is the place to catch sporting events, too. For late night dancing, there's the two-deck Crypt nightclub, whose spooky decor features bar stools shaped like headstones.

Even with all of these options, we can never resist pre-dinner bubbly at the Champagne Bar, or a nightcap at Royal Caribbean's signature top-of-the-ship Viking Crown Lounge, here called Olive or Twist (there's a special martini menu, and it is a jazz club at night).

Fitness and Recreation

There are two main pools on the lido -- one for swimming and one for sports -- flanked by three roomy Jacuzzis. Here, as on balconies, tacky plastic ribbon deck chairs from earlier ships are replaced with nice mesh loungers. Just aft, children get a colorful water park, H2O Zone, complete with a kids-only pool, a cascading waterfall, and sculpture fountains and ground geysers that spew water. The setup is frankly so cool I wanted to splash around myself -- and it kept kids out of adult pool areas for the most part. The Solarium pool area is where you'll find peaceful hammocks and two whirlpools that are cantilevered, meaning they hang over the side of the ship; wide panels of glass give an incredible view of the ocean you're dangling above!

Grand old favorites like the rock-climbing wall and mini-golf course are back, and there's also a sports court, shuffleboard, Ping-Pong and a jogging/walking track. But the main attraction is the FlowRider -- the first surf park at sea. A three-inch sheet of water flows up the 32-ft.-wide by 40-ft.-long incline to create a wave-like reverse waterfall. There are designated hours each day for stand up surfing and boogie boarding (check on the Sports Deck for your itinerary's schedule). There's no signup sheet; however, passengers (and guardians for those under the age of 18) must sign a waiver every day to obtain the wristband needed to "hang ten."

Even if you are more of a sunbather than a swimmer, our advice is to get off the bleachers and try the easier boogie boarding option at least once. I was convinced to give it a go after watching a woman much older than me -- who walked with a cane -- jump right on in. Trust me: Once you're up there, it doesn't look nearly as steep (or frightening)! Professional photographers will be snapping away so your sopping-wet self can be immortalized pre-wipeout for a mere $15 ... it was worth every penny.

Really want to master onboard surfing? Passenger can book one-on-one private FlowRider lessons for $75 per person, per hour (up to 8 people per session). Individuals, or groups looking to "free-surf" without an instructor can book the FlowRider for $350 per hour, with no limit to the total number of participants (50 percent no-show fee will be charged if you don't cancel at least 24 hours in advance).

The Shipshape Fitness Center encompasses the entire forward area of the lido, and is packed with free weights, stationary bikes, treadmills and elliptical machines. Though we never had to wait for a piece of equipment, the gym does get packed before lunch, particularly on sea days. Get up early for prime real estate at the floor-to-ceiling windows. Within the fitness center is another first for Freedom, and the industry: a boxing ring. The boxing program is intended to promote physical conditioning (meaning you can't just throw your husband in there for kicks); sadly, it was empty on my two visits to the fitness center. It could be because it is not cheap: A personal one-hour session was $83. There are scheduled group workouts, however, for $10.

Additional fitness classes are offered -- some free (stretching, aerobics), some levying a $10 charge (yoga, Pilates).

One deck up is the full-service Freedom Day Spa, operated by London's Steiner Leisure. There's nothing new and unusual about the decor or the roster of treatments, which run the gamut from simple wraps and massages to acupuncture and teeth whitening. The prices, however, seemed high: The "entry level" facial was $120. We opted instead for pedicures at the adjacent salon. Look for discounts on port days, but ask questions -- oftentimes these treatments cost less because they are shorter in length.

Family

Freedom of the Seas is the best ship for families in the Royal Caribbean fleet, and a leader industry wide. The H2O Zone is a huge success -- the kids love it, and it keeps them out of adult whirlpools. There were a ton of kids on our Thanksgiving week cruise (1,029 to be exact!), but the ones we did see on the decks were well behaved. We have to give credit to the youth staff for keeping them occupied with age-appropriate activities.

Children are broken into five separate age groups that get not only their own activities but also their own private rooms. The Adventure Ocean Program includes several different groups: Aquanauts (3 - 5) might color and play games while Explorers (6 - 8) learn to make their own candies or kites; Voyagers (9 - 11) might take a backstage tour of the Arcadia Theater or participate in sports activities. Navigators (12 - 14) and older teens (15 - 17) can attend parties at Fuel, the teens-only club; hang out in the Living Room, a posh teen lounge that often looked packed; or chill on the Back Deck, a private outdoor area for teens. Challenger's Arcade offers modern games like Dance Dance Revolution as well as classics like Ms. Pac Man; there are also racecar games and three air hockey tables.

There are no supervised programs for children younger than 3 or non-potty-trained tykes. However, special Royal Babies (6 - 18 months) and Royal Tots (18 - 36 months) programs -- offered in conjunction with Fisher-Price and Royal Caribbean's youth staff -- are scheduled throughout the cruise for parents to attend with their wee ones. Babysitting for children age 1 and older is offered as a group activity; the cost is $5 per child. In-stateroom sitting is offered when personnel is available; parents or guardians must reserve this service at the Purser's Desk 24 hours in advance. The cost for this is $8 per hour for one or two children within the same family or $10 per hour for three children within the same family.

As well behaved as the kids were onboard, it was almost nice to see children acting childishly once in awhile. Our last night onboard, we were in the elevator en route to Sorrento's for one last slice of pizza. The elevator door opened on a random floor and a group of about four boys no older than 10 sang (loudly), danced and giggled until the door closed again. You knew that they were hitting the button over and over again to put on their little show ... but who cared? We wanted to get our last few kicks in before the end of vacation, too. It really summed up the whole experience: too much fun to be had, not enough time.

Fellow Passengers

With the FlowRider, H2O Zone, and age-specific children's facilities, Freedom of the Seas is an obvious choice for families. However, the ship also appeals to active couples, mainly in their 30's to 50's; we met plenty of fun-loving seniors as well. Our sailing attracted a large number of repeat Royal Caribbean cruisers (over 1,000). The majority of passengers hail from North America, though many guests on our cruise came from South America and Europe to see the largest cruise ship afloat.

Dress Code

Seven-night cruises typically feature two formal nights, and five casual nights (theme outfits are encouraged, but seldom seen). Many men don tuxedos for formal dining, though suits are just fine and quite common; women opt for cocktail dresses or gowns.

Gratuity

Royal Caribbean recommends $3.50 per person, per day to the dining room waiter; $3.50 per person, per day to the cabin steward; and $2 per person, per day to the assistant waiter. Envelopes are provided for those who wish to tip in cash, but passengers can also prepay their gratuities at the time of booking or have the amounts added to their shipboard (SeaPass) accounts. A 15 percent gratuity is automatically added to bar tabs; tipping for spa services is at guests' discretion.

--by Melissa Baldwin Paloti, Managing Editor; updated by Carrie Calzaretta

Overview

Like Freedom of the Seas?


Freedom of the Seas launched in May 2006 as the world's biggest cruise ship. The vessel introduced a new class of ship for Royal Caribbean, measuring just shy of 155,000 tons with a double occupancy capacity of 3,634 passengers (siblings Liberty and Independence of the Seas debuted in May 2007 and 2008, respectively). It surpassed Cunard's gargantuan Queen Mary 2 by 7,000 tons and carried 1,014 more passengers. (Of course, the Freedom-class ships have since been, er, belittled by Oasis of the Seas, the massive 225,282-ton, 5,400 passenger beast that debuted in fall 2009.)

Besides its size, Freedom of the Seas also made waves in other ways. It was the first ship to feature a surf simulator, a regulation-sized boxing ring, an interactive water park for kids and even a barbershop. Yet in many ways, Freedom was merely an evolution, not a revolution, of the Voyager class that made its own headlines when it launched with biggest-at-sea status back in 1999. The layout is nearly identical and the promenade is back, as is the rock-climbing wall, the ice-skating rink, Johnny Rockets, the Promenade Cafe, Ben & Jerry's, etc. It is almost as if Voyager of the Seas was simply super-sized, and beefed up with innovative spaces and concepts.

Which brings us back to our original quandary: Would the extra space, extra people, extra "everything" live up to the hype ... or leave us feeling claustrophobic?

We got off to a rough start: Embarkation took nearly two hours from curb to cabin, and because so many people were late coming on, the lido buffet was kept open an extra half hour and the time for the muster drill was pushed back; dinner was also delayed 15 minutes so everyone could settle in and get ready.

Surprisingly, in terms of lines and congestion, this was the first and last time we felt truly frustrated. Crowds elsewhere -- at the pool, waiting for elevators -- were equal to if not less than what we've experienced on Voyager-class ships. That's not to say that the ship (as well as Voyager and its siblings) wouldn't benefit from another bank of elevators. It's still a mass-market, big-ship experience, and there will almost always be a half hour or so wait to eat at Johnny Rockets on a sea day. You'll wait in a line (a short line, but a line nonetheless) to disembark at tender ports, and dinnertime can be a bit noisy with hundreds of others chowing down around you. At the same time, it's never hard to find quiet, private nooks -- we loved Cafe Promenade, Vintages wine bar and even the Solarium pool for getting-away-from-it-all moments.

We were also amazed by how personal the service was in general, despite the number of passengers. The two bartenders who worked every night at Boleros, Royal Caribbean's Latin-themed bar, remembered our names and our poisons, and on the last night swapped heartfelt goodbyes and hugs with numerous passengers who had imbibed there throughout the week. When our cabin steward noticed us coming down the hallway, he'd pop his key in the door and hold it open for us -- a nice gesture, particularly when we were coming back from shore with tote bags and purchases.

Size does matter, and in Freedom's case it is a plus, not a negative -- especially for families, first-timers and fans of Voyager-class ships that are ready for the next "big" thing.

Dining

The three-deck-high dining room (Leonardo, Isaac and Galileo) offers traditional, assigned-seating dinings during two sittings (6:30 and 8:30 p.m.) and My Time Dining, in which you pick a preferred mealtime (anytime between 6 and 9:30 p.m.), but can change your reservations on a daily basis. (Note: Those opting for My Time Dining will need to pre-pay gratuities.)

Though our meals were generally good (we especially liked the surf-themed menu exclusive to Freedom -- try the steak and shrimp with wasabi mashed potatoes), the logistics left much to be desired.

After embarkation, we visited the maitre d' to request a switch from early to late seating, which was handled quickly. Our first batch of dinner pals, a family from Florida, decided after the first night that they wanted a table closer to the middle of the dining room. Not wanting to sit alone at a table for eight, we asked to be moved again and were seated with another group of relatives traveling together, which went swimmingly ... until the next night when we arrived and strangers were in our seats! After forced interaction with two different families, we were loathe to repeat the experience a third time, and on Thanksgiving no less; we visited the maitre d' again who apologized for the "human error," and thankfully made it right. We asked to be seated alone and were placed at an empty four-top (there are just a few tables for two) where we remained for the duration of our cruise.

But who needs this kind of hassle on vacation?

One of the byproducts of table-hopping is the ability to compare service throughout the dining room -- and this was the only place we found service to be inconsistent. Our very first waiter was practically invisible, never cracked a smile and at the end of the day didn't even ask us if we wanted a cup of coffee with dessert. Our last waiter, on the other hand, couldn't do enough for us: When we asked mid-cruise if he could hook us up with Indian food, he said he'd "see what he could do"; on the last night, he brought us a shrimp curry that wasn't on the menu in the dining room or anywhere else on the ship. We're not sure if it came from crew rations, but it was delicious and we sure appreciated it. He was also at the ready with whatever else we needed: more sauce, more vegetables, more whipped cream for our pie....

Our advice? Make sure your travel agent or booking representative puts in any requests you may have pertaining to the main dining room (early or late seating, number of tablemates, etc.) early on.

Lunch and breakfast are served in the dining room open seating. At breakfast, the main attraction is eggs Benedict. Otherwise, we thought the fare in the Windjammer Cafe, Freedom's lido buffet, was far superior for breakfast and lunch. The Windjammer is set up like a food court, with one long self-service line of hot and cold items, plus stations toward the back for salads, pizza, fresh sandwiches, carved meats, petite desserts, etc. In the morning, an omelet station fixes made-to-order eggs; in the afternoons, we particularly like Jade, an area of the Windjammer that specializes in Asian dishes like sweet and sour chicken. A poolside grill offers up burgers, hot dogs and grilled chicken at lunchtime; Sprinkles self-service ice cream machine is open on the lido from 11 a.m. until 10 p.m. Squeeze is a juice bar that also blends up energy drinks ranging in price from $4 to $6 -- just choose your fruit (banana, strawberry) and your "power" option (fat burning, protein rich).

A casual buffet dinner is served at Windjammer as well; menu options generally mirror what's being served in the main dining room with the exception of Jade -- we visited for "sushi" night and it actually felt like a "specialty" restaurant. The tables were dressed with white cloths and soy sauce; shiny black plates with spaces for ginger and wasabi were at the buffet; and servers were quick to offer drink service.

If you crave a more gourmet experience, be sure to take advantage of Freedom's two specialty restaurants: Portofino is an Italian trattoria, and Chops Grille, a steakhouse-style eatery. Portofino offers caprese salad, fried calamari and carpaccio among its appetizers, with pasta, seafood and veal dishes rounding out the menu. A great option for dessert here is the sampler, which includes a small amount of flourless chocolate cake, tiramisu and panacotta. At Chops, expect tuna tartare and crab cakes among the starters, several cuts of steak, plus other grilled meats and fish like lamb loin and halibut. If you are a chocolate lover, do not, I repeat, do not miss the Mississippi Mud Pie. It is a huge slice of velvety goodness with a cluster of caramel-y nuts in the center.

A cover charge applies for each ($20 in Portofino and $25 in Chops), but is well worth it. If I could splurge on only one, I'd have to pick Chops -- both are intimate, but the cuisine and service there was just a touch more impressive. I loved the warm dark wood paneling and cushy velvet seating (and the Mississippi Mud Pie alone is almost worth the fee to dine there).

Johnny Rockets is identical in layout to those on Voyager-class ships, and serves the same yummy burgers, hot dogs, grilled cheese, chili, tuna sandwiches, onion rings and fries. We waited 30 minutes to eat here, but were given a pager that we were able to take into the arcade with us to painlessly pass the time; we were buzzed when our table was ready. There's a $4.95 cover charge for dine-in or take-out; drinks are charged separately.

Cafe Promenade is open around the clock with complimentary pastries and sandwiches, coffee and tea (the adjacent Seattle's Best coffee bar offers for-fee cappuccinos, lattes, etc.). New to Freedom, on the opposite end of the Promenade, is Sorrento's, an all-day pizzeria (check your Compass for certain times of the day when paninis are pressed -- yum). In addition to a variety of pizzas that switch up daily, there's a front counter where you can choose any combination of seafood salad, grilled Italian veggies, marinated mozzarella or feta cheese, hunks of bread, artichokes, olives, etc. It's a fantastic midday snack spot! Of course, Ben & Jerry's ice cream bar is available to satisfy your sweet tooth; the waffle cones are made fresh -- get one with a scoop (or two) of your choosing. Items are mostly under $5.

Finally, room service is available 24 hours, though the menu consists of just a few salads and sandwiches. We would have liked more options -- the last time I sailed onboard Voyager of the Seas, there were some snacks you could buy a la carte, like chips and guacamole. However, my tuna salad pita was tasty and delivered in the time frame quoted (30 minutes). You can order breakfast in via a doorknob hang card; Royal Caribbean still offers hot items and even omelets on its room service breakfast menu, which we appreciate, as well as Continental fare from cereal to fruit plates. Room service is free from 5 a.m. to midnight; late-night orders incur a $3.95 surcharge.

Fellow Passengers

With the FlowRider, H2O Zone, and age-specific children's facilities, Freedom of the Seas is an obvious choice for families. However, the ship also appeals to active couples, mainly in their 30's to 50's; we met plenty of fun-loving seniors as well. Our sailing attracted a large number of repeat Royal Caribbean cruisers (over 1,000). The majority of passengers hail from North America, though many guests on our cruise came from South America and Europe.

Gratuity

Royal Caribbean recommends $3.50 per person, per day to the dining room waiter; $3.50 per person, per day to the cabin steward; and $2 per person, per day to the assistant waiter. Envelopes are provided for those who wish to tip in cash, but passengers can also prepay their gratuities at the time of booking (they're required to if they opt for flexible dining) or have the amounts added to their shipboard (SeaPass) accounts. A 15 percent gratuity is automatically added to bar tabs; tipping for spa services is at guests' discretion.

--by Melissa Baldwin Paloti, Managing Editor; updated by Carrie Calzaretta

Overview

"Does size really matter?"

I considered this age-old question upon boarding Freedom of the Seas, currently the world's largest cruise vessel. Freedom, which launched in May 2006, represents a new class of ship for Royal Caribbean, measuring just shy of 155,000 tons with a double occupancy capacity of 3,634 passengers (siblings Liberty and Independence of the Seas debuted in May 2007 and 2008, respectively). It surpasses Cunard's gargantuan Queen Mary 2 by 7,000 tons and carries 1,014 more passengers.

Freedom of the Seas has also made waves in other ways. It is the first ship to feature a surf park, a regulation-sized boxing ring, an interactive water park for kids and even a barbershop. Yet in many ways, Freedom is merely an evolution, not a revolution, of the Voyager class that made its own headlines when it launched with biggest-at-sea status back in 1999. The layout is nearly identical and the promenade is back, as is the rock-climbing wall, the ice-skating rink, Johnny Rockets, the Promenade Cafe, Ben & Jerry's, etc. It is almost as if Voyager of the Seas was simply super-sized, and beefed up with innovative spaces and concepts.

Which brings us back to our original quandary: Would the extra space, extra people, extra "everything" live up to the hype ... or leave us feeling claustrophobic?

We got off to a rough start: Embarkation took nearly two hours from the curb to our stateroom, and because so many people were late coming on, the lido buffet was kept open an extra half hour and the time for the muster drill was pushed back; dinner was also delayed 15 minutes so everyone could settle in and get ready.

Surprisingly, in terms of lines and congestion, this was the first and last time we felt truly frustrated. Crowds elsewhere -- at the pool, waiting for elevators -- were equal to if not less than what we've experienced on Voyager-class ships. That's not to say that the ship (as well as Voyager and its siblings) wouldn't benefit from another bank of elevators. It's still a mass-market, big-ship experience, and there will almost always be a half hour or so wait to eat at Johnny Rockets on a sea day. You'll wait in a line (a short line, but a line nonetheless) to disembark at tender ports, and dinnertime can be a bit noisy with hundreds of others chowing down around you. At the same time, it's never hard to find quiet, private nooks -- we loved Cafe Promenade, Vintages wine bar and even the Solarium pool for getting-away-from-it-all moments.

We were also amazed by how personal the service was in general, despite the number of passengers. The two bartenders who worked every night at Boleros, Royal Caribbean's Latin-themed bar, remembered our names and our poisons, and on the last night swapped heartfelt goodbyes and hugs with numerous passengers who had imbibed there throughout the week. When our cabin steward noticed us coming down the hallway, he'd pop his key in the door and hold it open for us -- a nice gesture, particularly when we were coming back from shore with tote bags and purchases.

Size does matter, and in Freedom's case it is a plus, not a negative -- especially for families, first-timers and fans of Voyager-class ships that are ready for the next "big" thing.

Dining

Since our cruise, Royal Caribbean has launched its flexible My Time Dining program on Freedom of the Seas. For dinner, passengers can choose between assigned early (6 p.m.) or late (8:30 p.m.) dining, or opt for flexible dining, in which you pick a preferred mealtime (anytime between 6 and 9:30 p.m.), but can change your reservations on a daily basis. But on this voyage, the three-deck-high dining room (Leonardo, Isaac and Galileo) only offered traditional, assigned-seating dinings during two sittings -- at 6:30 p.m. and at 8:30. And though our meals were generally good (we especially liked the surf-themed menu exclusive to Freedom -- try the steak and shrimp with wasabi mashed potatoes), the logistics left much to be desired.

After embarkation, we visited the maitre d' to request a switch from early to late seating, which was handled quickly. Our first batch of dinner pals, a family from Florida, decided after the first night that they wanted a table closer to the middle of the dining room. Not wanting to sit alone at a table for eight, we asked to be moved again and were seated with another group of relatives traveling together, which went swimmingly ... until the next night when we arrived and strangers were in our seats! After forced interaction with two different families, we were loathe to repeat the experience a third time, and on Thanksgiving no less; we visited the maitre d' again who apologized for the "human error," and thankfully made it right. We asked to be seated alone and were placed at an empty four-top (there are just a few tables for two) where we remained for the duration of our cruise.

But who needs this kind of hassle on vacation?

One of the byproducts of table-hopping is the ability to compare service throughout the dining room -- and this was the only place we found service to be inconsistent. Our very first waiter was practically invisible, never cracked a smile and at the end of the day didn't even ask us if we wanted a cup of coffee with dessert. Our last waiter, on the other hand, couldn't do enough for us: When we asked mid-cruise if he could hook us up with Indian food, he said he'd "see what he could do"; on the last night, he brought us a shrimp curry that wasn't on the menu in the dining room or anywhere else on the ship. We're not sure if it came from crew rations, but it was delicious and we sure appreciated it. He was also at the ready with whatever else we needed: more sauce, more vegetables, more whipped cream for our pie....

Our advice? Make sure your travel agent or booking representative puts in any requests you may have pertaining to the main dining room (early or late seating, number of tablemates, etc.) early on.

Lunch and breakfast are served in the dining room open seating. At breakfast, the main attraction is eggs Benedict. Otherwise, we thought the fare in the Windjammer Cafe, Freedom's lido buffet, was far superior for breakfast and lunch. The Windjammer is set up like a food court, with one long self-service line of hot and cold items, plus stations toward the back for salads, pizza, fresh sandwiches, carved meats, petite desserts, etc. In the morning, an omelet station fixes made-to-order eggs; in the afternoons, we particularly like Jade, an area of the Windjammer that specializes in Asian dishes like sweet and sour chicken. A poolside grill offers up burgers, hot dogs and grilled chicken at lunchtime; Sprinkles self-service ice cream machine is open on the lido from 11 a.m. until 10 p.m. Squeeze is a juice bar that also blends up energy drinks ranging in price from $4 to $6 -- just choose your fruit (banana, strawberry) and your "power" option (fat burning, protein rich).

A casual buffet dinner is served at Windjammer as well; menu options generally mirror what's being served in the main dining room with the exception of Jade -- we visited for "sushi" night and it actually felt like a "specialty" restaurant. The tables were dressed with white cloths and soy sauce; shiny black plates with spaces for ginger and wasabi were at the buffet; and servers were quick to offer drink service.

If you crave a more gourmet experience, be sure to take advantage of Freedom's two specialty restaurants: Portofino is an Italian trattoria, and Chops Grille, a steakhouse-style eatery. Portofino offers caprese salad, fried calamari and carpaccio among its appetizers, with pasta, seafood and veal dishes rounding out the menu. A great option for dessert here is the sampler, which includes a small amount of flourless chocolate cake, tiramisu and panacotta. At Chops, expect tuna tartare and crab cakes among the starters, several cuts of steak, plus other grilled meats and fish like lamb loin and halibut. If you are a chocolate lover, do not, I repeat, do not miss the Mississippi Mud Pie. It is a huge slice of velvety goodness with a cluster of caramel-y nuts in the center.

A cover charge applies for each ($20 in Portofino and $25 in Chops), but is well worth it. If I could splurge on only one, I'd have to pick Chops -- both are intimate, but the cuisine and service there was just a touch more impressive. I loved the warm dark wood paneling and cushy velvet seating (and the Mississippi Mud Pie alone is almost worth the fee to dine there).

Johnny Rockets is identical in layout to those on Voyager-class ships, and serves the same yummy burgers, hot dogs, grilled cheese, chili, tuna sandwiches, onion rings and fries. We waited 30 minutes to eat here, but were given a pager that we were able to take into the arcade with us to painlessly pass the time; we were buzzed when our table was ready. There's a $4.95 cover charge for dine-in or take-out; drinks are charged separately.

Cafe Promenade is open around the clock with complimentary pastries and sandwiches, coffee and tea (the adjacent Seattle's Best coffee bar offers for-fee cappuccinos, lattes, etc.). New to Freedom, on the opposite end of the Promenade, is Sorrento's, an all-day pizzeria (check your Compass for certain times of the day when paninis are pressed -- yum). In addition to a variety of pizzas that switch up daily, there's a front counter where you can choose any combination of seafood salad, grilled Italian veggies, marinated mozzarella or feta cheese, hunks of bread, artichokes, olives, etc. It's a fantastic midday snack spot! Of course, Ben & Jerry's ice cream bar is available to satisfy your sweet tooth; the waffle cones are made fresh -- get one with a scoop (or two) of your choosing. Items are mostly under $5.

Finally, room service is available 24 hours, though the menu consists of just a few salads and sandwiches. We would have liked more options -- the last time I sailed onboard Voyager of the Seas, there were some snacks you could buy a la carte, like chips and guacamole. However, my tuna salad pita was tasty and delivered in the time frame quoted (30 minutes). You can order breakfast in via a doorknob hang card; Royal Caribbean still offers hot items and even omelets on its room service breakfast menu, which we appreciate, as well as Continental fare from cereal to fruit plates. Room service is free from 5 a.m. to midnight; late-night orders incur a $3.95 surcharge.

Fellow Passengers

With the FlowRider, H2O Zone, and age-specific children's facilities, Freedom of the Seas is an obvious choice for families. However, the ship also appeals to active couples, mainly in their 30's to 50's; we met plenty of fun-loving seniors as well. Our sailing attracted a large number of repeat Royal Caribbean cruisers (over 1,000). The majority of passengers hail from North America, though many guests on our cruise came from South America and Europe to see the largest cruise ship afloat.

Gratuity

Royal Caribbean recommends $3.50 per person, per day to the dining room waiter; $3.50 per person, per day to the cabin steward; and $2 per person, per day to the assistant waiter. Envelopes are provided for those who wish to tip in cash, but passengers can also prepay their gratuities at the time of booking or have the amounts added to their shipboard (SeaPass) accounts. A 15 percent gratuity is automatically added to bar tabs; tipping for spa services is at guests' discretion.

--by Melissa Baldwin Paloti, Managing Editor; updated by Carrie Calzaretta

Overview

Freedom of the Seas launched in May 2006 as the world's biggest cruise ship. The vessel introduced a new class of ship for Royal Caribbean, measuring just shy of 155,000 tons with a double occupancy capacity of 3,634 passengers (siblings Liberty and Independence of the Seas debuted in May 2007 and 2008, respectively). It surpassed Cunard's gargantuan Queen Mary 2 by 7,000 tons and carried 1,014 more passengers. (Of course, the Freedom-class ships have since been, er, belittled by Oasis of the Seas, the massive 225,282-ton, 5,400 passenger beast that debuted in fall 2009.)

Besides its size, Freedom of the Seas also made waves in other ways. It was the first ship to feature a surf simulator, a regulation-sized boxing ring, an interactive water park for kids and even a barbershop. Yet in many ways, Freedom was merely an evolution, not a revolution, of the Voyager class that made its own headlines when it launched with biggest-at-sea status back in 1999. The layout is nearly identical and the promenade is back, as is the rock-climbing wall, the ice-skating rink, Johnny Rockets, the Promenade Cafe, Ben & Jerry's, etc. It is almost as if Voyager of the Seas was simply super-sized, and beefed up with innovative spaces and concepts.

Which brings us back to our original quandary: Would the extra space, extra people, extra "everything" live up to the hype ... or leave us feeling claustrophobic?

We got off to a rough start: Embarkation took nearly two hours from curb to cabin, and because so many people were late coming on, the lido buffet was kept open an extra half hour and the time for the muster drill was pushed back; dinner was also delayed 15 minutes so everyone could settle in and get ready.

Surprisingly, in terms of lines and congestion, this was the first and last time we felt truly frustrated. Crowds elsewhere -- at the pool, waiting for elevators -- were equal to if not less than what we've experienced on Voyager-class ships. That's not to say that the ship (as well as Voyager and its siblings) wouldn't benefit from another bank of elevators. It's still a mass-market, big-ship experience, and there will almost always be a half hour or so wait to eat at Johnny Rockets on a sea day. You'll wait in a line (a short line, but a line nonetheless) to disembark at tender ports, and dinnertime can be a bit noisy with hundreds of others chowing down around you. At the same time, it's never hard to find quiet, private nooks -- we loved Cafe Promenade, Vintages wine bar and even the Solarium pool for getting-away-from-it-all moments.

We were also amazed by how personal the service was in general, despite the number of passengers. The two bartenders who worked every night at Boleros, Royal Caribbean's Latin-themed bar, remembered our names and our poisons, and on the last night swapped heartfelt goodbyes and hugs with numerous passengers who had imbibed there throughout the week. When our cabin steward noticed us coming down the hallway, he'd pop his key in the door and hold it open for us -- a nice gesture, particularly when we were coming back from shore with tote bags and purchases.

Size does matter, and in Freedom's case it is a plus, not a negative -- especially for families, first-timers and fans of Voyager-class ships that are ready for the next "big" thing.

Dining

The three-deck-high dining room (Leonardo, Isaac and Galileo) offers traditional, assigned-seating dinings during two sittings (6:30 and 8:30 p.m.) and My Time Dining, in which you pick a preferred mealtime (anytime between 6 and 9:30 p.m.), but can change your reservations on a daily basis. (Note: Those opting for My Time Dining will need to pre-pay gratuities.)

Though our meals were generally good (we especially liked the surf-themed menu exclusive to Freedom -- try the steak and shrimp with wasabi mashed potatoes), the logistics left much to be desired.

After embarkation, we visited the maitre d' to request a switch from early to late seating, which was handled quickly. Our first batch of dinner pals, a family from Florida, decided after the first night that they wanted a table closer to the middle of the dining room. Not wanting to sit alone at a table for eight, we asked to be moved again and were seated with another group of relatives traveling together, which went swimmingly ... until the next night when we arrived and strangers were in our seats! After forced interaction with two different families, we were loathe to repeat the experience a third time, and on Thanksgiving no less; we visited the maitre d' again who apologized for the "human error," and thankfully made it right. We asked to be seated alone and were placed at an empty four-top (there are just a few tables for two) where we remained for the duration of our cruise.

But who needs this kind of hassle on vacation?

One of the byproducts of table-hopping is the ability to compare service throughout the dining room -- and this was the only place we found service to be inconsistent. Our very first waiter was practically invisible, never cracked a smile and at the end of the day didn't even ask us if we wanted a cup of coffee with dessert. Our last waiter, on the other hand, couldn't do enough for us: When we asked mid-cruise if he could hook us up with Indian food, he said he'd "see what he could do"; on the last night, he brought us a shrimp curry that wasn't on the menu in the dining room or anywhere else on the ship. We're not sure if it came from crew rations, but it was delicious and we sure appreciated it. He was also at the ready with whatever else we needed: more sauce, more vegetables, more whipped cream for our pie....

Our advice? Make sure your travel agent or booking representative puts in any requests you may have pertaining to the main dining room (early or late seating, number of tablemates, etc.) early on.

Lunch and breakfast are served in the dining room open seating. At breakfast, the main attraction is eggs Benedict. Otherwise, we thought the fare in the Windjammer Cafe, Freedom's lido buffet, was far superior for breakfast and lunch. The Windjammer is set up like a food court, with one long self-service line of hot and cold items, plus stations toward the back for salads, pizza, fresh sandwiches, carved meats, petite desserts, etc. In the morning, an omelet station fixes made-to-order eggs; in the afternoons, we particularly like Jade, an area of the Windjammer that specializes in Asian dishes like sweet and sour chicken. A poolside grill offers up burgers, hot dogs and grilled chicken at lunchtime; Sprinkles self-service ice cream machine is open on the lido from 11 a.m. until 10 p.m. Squeeze is a juice bar that also blends up energy drinks ranging in price from $4 to $6 -- just choose your fruit (banana, strawberry) and your "power" option (fat burning, protein rich).

A casual buffet dinner is served at Windjammer as well; menu options generally mirror what's being served in the main dining room with the exception of Jade -- we visited for "sushi" night and it actually felt like a "specialty" restaurant. The tables were dressed with white cloths and soy sauce; shiny black plates with spaces for ginger and wasabi were at the buffet; and servers were quick to offer drink service.

If you crave a more gourmet experience, be sure to take advantage of Freedom's two specialty restaurants: Portofino is an Italian trattoria, and Chops Grille, a steakhouse-style eatery. Portofino offers caprese salad, fried calamari and carpaccio among its appetizers, with pasta, seafood and veal dishes rounding out the menu. A great option for dessert here is the sampler, which includes a small amount of flourless chocolate cake, tiramisu and panacotta. At Chops, expect tuna tartare and crab cakes among the starters, several cuts of steak, plus other grilled meats and fish like lamb loin and halibut. If you are a chocolate lover, do not, I repeat, do not miss the Mississippi Mud Pie. It is a huge slice of velvety goodness with a cluster of caramel-y nuts in the center.

A cover charge applies for each ($20 in Portofino and $30 in Chops), but is well worth it. If I could splurge on only one, I'd have to pick Chops -- both are intimate, but the cuisine and service there was just a touch more impressive. I loved the warm dark wood paneling and cushy velvet seating (and the Mississippi Mud Pie alone is almost worth the fee to dine there).

Johnny Rockets is identical in layout to those on Voyager-class ships, and serves the same yummy burgers, hot dogs, grilled cheese, chili, tuna sandwiches, onion rings and fries. We waited 30 minutes to eat here, but were given a pager that we were able to take into the arcade with us to painlessly pass the time; we were buzzed when our table was ready. There's a $4.95 cover charge for dine-in or take-out; drinks are charged separately.

Cafe Promenade is open around the clock with complimentary pastries and sandwiches, coffee and tea (the adjacent Seattle's Best coffee bar offers for-fee cappuccinos, lattes, etc.). New to Freedom, on the opposite end of the Promenade, is Sorrento's, an all-day pizzeria (check your Compass for certain times of the day when paninis are pressed -- yum). In addition to a variety of pizzas that switch up daily, there's a front counter where you can choose any combination of seafood salad, grilled Italian veggies, marinated mozzarella or feta cheese, hunks of bread, artichokes, olives, etc. It's a fantastic midday snack spot! Of course, Ben & Jerry's ice cream bar is available to satisfy your sweet tooth; the waffle cones are made fresh -- get one with a scoop (or two) of your choosing. Items are mostly under $5.

Finally, room service is available 24 hours, though the menu consists of just a few salads and sandwiches. We would have liked more options -- the last time I sailed onboard Voyager of the Seas, there were some snacks you could buy a la carte, like chips and guacamole. However, my tuna salad pita was tasty and delivered in the time frame quoted (30 minutes). You can order breakfast in via a doorknob hang card; Royal Caribbean still offers hot items and even omelets on its room service breakfast menu, which we appreciate, as well as Continental fare from cereal to fruit plates. Room service is free from 5 a.m. to midnight; late-night orders incur a $3.95 surcharge.

Cabins

There are four main types of cabins -- inside, oceanview, balcony and suite -- but within each are different configurations, including roomier options for families in all categories at different price points. There are 1,817 staterooms; 842 have private balconies and 172 have promenade views. All staterooms are equipped with keypad-operated safes, hair dryers, Wi-Fi Internet access, mini-fridges and flat-screen televisions featuring a range of channels (ESPN, CNN, Cartoon Network) as well as interactive programming (order shore excursions and room service, or check your portfolio).

Interior and promenade-view staterooms are on the small side, measuring 152 square ft. and 149 square ft. respectively; bathrooms are shower-only, though we appreciate that Royal Caribbean has stuck with sliding doors as opposed to those pesky curtains that always seem to float inward and invariably lead to flooding. Pumps in the shower are preloaded with shower gel and shampoo. Family interiors are nearly double in size (300 square ft.), and sleep up to six with two twin beds that convert into a queen plus a sofa and/or Pullman.

Oceanview cabins add a porthole and a smidge more space (these range from 161 to 200 square ft.); family oceanview staterooms clock in at 293 square ft., with a sitting area, two twin beds that convert into a queen, and a sofa and/or Pullman. Before moving into suite territory, there are two balcony options: Deluxe at 177 square ft. (balcony 74 square ft.) and Superior at 189 square ft. (balcony 68 square ft.). Decor in our balcony stateroom was teal, peach and white, with lighting overhead and at the desk/vanity, as well as bedside wall-mounted lamps; balcony furniture comprised of a small table and two loungers (metal with mesh covering) -- much nicer than the plastic ribbon variety.

Space and amenities increase as you ascend the suite scale. Some Junior Suites (287 square ft., balcony 101 square ft.) and Grand Suites (387 square ft., balcony 126 square ft.) have tubs; walk-in closets are standard in both. The Owner's Suites (614 square ft., balcony 209 square ft.) add a private sitting area separate from the bedroom; the one Royal Suite (1,406 square ft., balcony 377 square ft.) also features a whirlpool marble tub and shower, entertainment center, king-sized bed, baby grand piano, and a private hot tub on the balcony. Grand, Owner's and Royal Suite guests have access to a concierge who can assist with specialty restaurant reservations, spa treatments and the like, and the Concierge Club lounge, where pre-dinner canapes and cocktails are complimentary.

Four Royal Family Suites (610 square ft, balcony 234 square ft.) accommodate up to eight and feature a living area with a double sofa bed, two bedrooms with two twin beds that convert to a queen (one also features third and fourth bunks), a verandah with teak furniture and two bathrooms with showers (one with tub).

The new Presidential Family Suite (1,215 square ft., balcony 810 square ft.) is the granddaddy of family-friendly accommodations onboard, and exclusive to this class of ship. The suite can accommodate up to 14 guests and consists of two master bedrooms with private baths, and two additional bedrooms each with two Pullman beds and two twin beds that convert to a queen. There are two additional "standard" shower-only bathrooms. The huge private balcony is outfitted with a hot tub, teak dining set (table and chairs), and padded teak loungers.

One last "special" stateroom is 6305, a promenade-facing cabin with an obstructed view: the window is blocked by the, ahem, behinds of two cows that stand atop the Ben & Jerry's ice cream parlor directly below. The good news, though, is that cruisers who find a pair of derrieres pressed up against their window receive complimentary scoops from Ben & Jerry's every day of their cruise!

Whatever stateroom you choose, you'll sleep tight: All cabins feature Royal Caribbean's stylish, comfortable bedding -- a huge improvement from the glorified cots of old. There are pillows and shams, and duvets with cotton blend covers. Custom pillow tops are doubled over when placed atop twin beds, but when the beds are in the queen configuration they are unfolded across both (already) plush mattresses to eliminate the dreaded gap. Our room was set up with twins, but other passengers we spoke to assured us the queen configuration was comfortable and gap-free.

Fellow Passengers

With the FlowRider, H2O Zone, and age-specific children's facilities, Freedom of the Seas is an obvious choice for families. However, the ship also appeals to active couples, mainly in their 30's to 50's; we met plenty of fun-loving seniors as well. Our sailing attracted a large number of repeat Royal Caribbean cruisers (over 1,000). The majority of passengers hail from North America, though many guests on our cruise came from South America and Europe.

Gratuity

Royal Caribbean recommends $3.75 per person, per day to the dining room waiter; $5 per person, per day to the cabin steward (or $7.25 if you're in a suite); $0.75 per person, per day to the headwaiter; and $2.15 per person, per day to the assistant waiter. This totals $11.65 for those in standard cabins and $13.90 for those in suites. Gratuities can be pre-paid in advance (and must be if you opt for flexible dining), added to your onboard bill or paid in cash at the end of the cruise. A 15 percent gratuity is automatically added to bar tabs.

Cabins

Freedom of the Seas Cabin Photos

There are four main types of cabins -- inside, oceanview, balcony and suite -- but within each are different configurations, including roomier options for families in all categories at different price points. There are 1,817 staterooms; 842 have private balconies and 172 have promenade views. All staterooms are equipped with keypad-operated safes, hair dryers, Wi-Fi Internet access, mini-fridges and flat-screen televisions featuring a range of channels (ESPN, CNN, Cartoon Network) as well as interactive programming (order shore excursions and room service, or check your portfolio).

Interior and promenade-view staterooms are on the small side, measuring 152 square ft. and 149 square ft. respectively; bathrooms are shower-only, though we appreciate that Royal Caribbean has stuck with sliding doors as opposed to those pesky curtains that always seem to float inward and invariably lead to flooding. Pumps in the shower are preloaded with shower gel and shampoo. Family interiors are nearly double in size (300 square ft.), and sleep up to six with two twin beds that convert into a queen plus a sofa and/or Pullman.

Oceanview cabins add a porthole and a smidge more space (these range from 161 to 200 square ft.); family oceanview staterooms clock in at 293 square ft., with a sitting area, two twin beds that convert into a queen, and a sofa and/or Pullman. Before moving into suite territory, there are two balcony options: Deluxe at 177 square ft. (balcony 74 square ft.) and Superior at 189 square ft. (balcony 68 square ft.). Decor in our balcony stateroom was teal, peach and white, with lighting overhead and at the desk/vanity, as well as bedside wall-mounted lamps; balcony furniture comprised of a small table and two loungers (metal with mesh covering) -- much nicer than the plastic ribbon variety.

Space and amenities increase as you ascend the suite scale. Some Junior Suites (287 square ft., balcony 101 square ft.) and Grand Suites (387 square ft., balcony 126 square ft.) have tubs; walk-in closets are standard in both. The Owner's Suites (614 square ft., balcony 209 square ft.) add a private sitting area separate from the bedroom; the one Royal Suite (1,406 square ft., balcony 377 square ft.) also features a whirlpool marble tub and shower, entertainment center, king-sized bed, baby grand piano, and a private hot tub on the balcony. Grand, Owner's and Royal Suite guests have access to a concierge who can assist with specialty restaurant reservations, spa treatments and the like, and the Concierge Club lounge, where pre-dinner canapes and cocktails are complimentary.

Four Royal Family Suites (610 square ft, balcony 234 square ft.) accommodate up to eight and feature a living area with a double sofa bed, two bedrooms with two twin beds that convert to a queen (one also features third and fourth bunks), a verandah with teak furniture and two bathrooms with showers (one with tub).

The new Presidential Family Suite (1,215 square ft., balcony 810 square ft.) is the granddaddy of family-friendly accommodations onboard, and exclusive to this class of ship. The suite can accommodate up to 14 guests and consists of two master bedrooms with private baths, and two additional bedrooms each with two Pullman beds and two twin beds that convert to a queen. There are two additional "standard" shower-only bathrooms. The huge private balcony is outfitted with a hot tub, teak dining set (table and chairs), and padded teak loungers.

One last "special" stateroom is 6305, a promenade-facing cabin with an obstructed view: the window is blocked by the, ahem, behinds of two cows that stand atop the Ben & Jerry's ice cream parlor directly below. The good news, though, is that cruisers who find a pair of derrieres pressed up against their window receive complimentary scoops from Ben & Jerry's every day of their cruise!

Whatever stateroom you choose, you'll sleep tight: All cabins feature Royal Caribbean's stylish, comfortable bedding -- a huge improvement from the glorified cots of old. There are pillows and shams, and duvets with cotton blend covers. Custom pillow tops are doubled over when placed atop twin beds, but when the beds are in the queen configuration they are unfolded across both (already) plush mattresses to eliminate the dreaded gap. Our room was set up with twins, but other passengers we spoke to assured us the queen configuration was comfortable and gap-free.

Gratuity

Royal Caribbean recommends $3.75 per person, per day to the dining room waiter; $5 per person, per day to the cabin steward (or $7.25 if you're in a suite); $0.75 per person, per day to the headwaiter; and $2.15 per person, per day to the assistant waiter. This totals $11.65 for those in standard cabins and $13.90 for those in suites. Gratuities can be pre-paid in advance (and must be if you opt for flexible dining), added to your onboard bill or paid in cash at the end of the cruise. A 15 percent gratuity is automatically added to bar tabs.

Effective March 1, Royal Caribbean passengers are charged $12 per person, per day ($14.25 for suite guests). Gratuities can be pre-paid in advance or will be added on a daily basis to passengers' SeaPass accounts during the cruise. A 15 percent gratuity is automatically added to bar tabs.

Gratuity

Royal Caribbean passengers are charged $12 per person, per day ($14.25 for suite guests). Gratuities can be prepaid or will be added on a daily basis to passengers' SeaPass accounts during the cruise. Passengers can modify or remove gratuities by visiting the guest services desk while onboard. A 15 percent gratuity is automatically added to bar tabs.

Overview

Freedom of the Seas has an identity crisis. The 155,000-ton, 3,634-passenger vessel launched in May 2006 as the world's biggest cruise ship at the time, dwarfing the Voyager-class ships that influenced its design and introducing a new class of ship for Royal Caribbean. (Siblings Liberty of the Seas and Independence of the Seas debuted in 2007 and 2008, respectively). But in 2009, it was forced to hand over its "world's largest" title to sister Oasis of the Seas (and later to Allure of the Seas), Royal Caribbean's massive 225,282-ton, 5,400-passenger mega-ship.

So where does that leave Freedom? The ship -- which made waves when it launched with cruising's first surf simulator, a regulation-sized boxing ring and an interactive water park for kids -- received a makeover in 2011 to keep it current with Royal Caribbean's newest innovations and favorite features from the Oasis-class ships. Part of the first wave of the line's fleetwide revitalization program, Freedom got upgrades like a new nursery, an LCD Wayfinder system, a huge video screen over the family pool, a cupcake shop and DreamWorks characters roaming the ship, much to the delight of the youngest cruisers.

Plus, it retains Royal Caribbean hallmarks, such as the promenade and Promenade Cafe, rock-climbing wall, ice-skating rink, Johnny Rockets and Ben & Jerry's.

We weren't sure how Freedom would feel post-refurb and post-Oasis. Would it feel daunting and crowded, as it's still a huge mega-ship -- now with even more going on -- or would it feel just big enough after the immensity of Oasis?

The cruise didn't start off well. Embarkation took more than two hours from curb to cabin, with some frustrating lines and congestion, and cranky passengers-to-be.

Yet, surprisingly, in terms of lines and congestion, this was the first and last time the ship felt crowded. Crowds elsewhere -- at the pool, waiting for elevators -- were equal to if not lighter than what we'd experienced on Oasis. That's not to say that the ship felt empty or small. There will almost always be a half-hour or so wait to eat at Johnny Rockets on a sea day. You'll wait in a line (a short line, but a line nonetheless) to disembark at tender ports, and dinnertime can be a bit noisy with hundreds of others chowing down around you. At the same time, it's never hard to find quiet, private nooks. Cafe Promenade, Vintages wine bar and even the Solarium pool are great for getting-away-from-it-all moments, particularly on port days.

In general, service is very personal, since there are so many spaces in which you can become a "regular." Baristas at Cafe Promenade (now serving Starbucks coffee drinks) remember complicated beverage orders; the bartenders at Boleros, Royal Caribbean's Latin-themed bar, remember names and poisons; and even the waitstaff in Windjammer, the casual buffet, treat kids as the highest-order V.I.P.'s.

The upgrades on Freedom definitely help -- our favorites were the family pool movies and the easy LCD Wayfinder system -- but those who have enjoyed the neighborhood feel of the tree-lined Central Park on Oasis and Allure, where you can escape the madding crowds, will miss it if they really want some private time on sea days. As one of the main inside hangout places on Freedom, Cafe Promenade felt a little too small to accommodate all the people who just wanted to relax with a coffee and pastry out of the beating rays.

Dining

The three tiers of the main dining room (Leonardo on Deck 3, Isaac on 4 and Galileo on 5) offer traditional, assigned-seating dining during two sittings (5:30 and 8 p.m.) and My Time Dining, in which you pick a preferred mealtime (anytime between 5:30 and 9:30 p.m.), but you can change your reservations on a daily basis. (Note: Those opting for My Time Dining will need to pre-pay gratuities.)

Our three-course meals were generally very good. We especially liked the Fisherman's Plate with broiled lobster tail, and some retro desserts (like Baked Alaska) that debuted in the main dining room. Each night, there's a different regional theme, though there are always great standbys from the Chef's Signature Menu (like pan-fried pork medallions, broiled fish with vegetables and a filet of beef), which come with wine-pairing suggestions. We also liked all the information on the Vitality menu, which offers a three-course menu under 800 calories and, for better or worse, gives you the exact calorie count of everything you're eating. (Think sugar-free pot du creme at 125 calories -- not bad!) You can arrange in advance to eat kosher, and there are always vegetarian options and a kids menu.

Due to a seating request snafu, my 4-year-old and I were assigned late-seating dining when we needed early. (Our advice: If you love to eat at a consistent time and want the formality of a dining room, make sure your travel agent or booking representative puts in any main dining room requests you have -- early or late seating, number of tablemates, etc.) We ended up requesting early seating the first few nights of our cruise and did manage, after lengthy waits, to be placed at different tables. (It was awkward, so we generally settled with dining in Windjammer, the casual buffet restaurant.)

However, one of the advantages of table-hopping is the ability to compare service throughout the dining room -- and this was the only place service was inconsistent. Then again, since we never had the same waiters, we could hardly have expected the same rapport that regular dining room frequenters had established.

Breakfast (7:30 a.m. to 9:30 a.m.) and lunch (noon to 2 p.m.) are served in the dining rooms with open seating. The advantage over Windjammer: If you don't like the communal, serve-yourself nature of a buffet, you'll love this. Although you might expect a protracted eating experience, you can be in and out in 45 minutes. You'll still be able to customize, with favorites like Thai chicken lettuce wraps that come with lots of fresh toppings and two sauces; Caesar salad to which you can add chicken or salmon; and delicious and fresh composed Nicoise salad. At breakfast, the main attraction is eggs Benedict, though we loved the Huevos Rancheros and customized omelets.

We liked the fare and atmosphere in the Windjammer Cafe, Freedom's lido buffet, for its flexibility and endless variety -- ideal for families with little kids. Plus, the waiters went out of their way to bring us things from the buffet so we wouldn't have to get up -- stellar service, especially considering the format.

The Windjammer is set up like a food court, with one long self-service line of hot and cold items, plus stations toward the back for salads, pizza, fresh sandwiches, carved meats, petite desserts, etc. In the mornings, an omelet station fixes made-to-order eggs; in the afternoons, we particularly like Jade, an area of the Windjammer that specializes in Asian dishes and goes a bit off the beaten path with ever-changing fare that includes Indonesian and Vietnamese specialties. The buffet is open five times a day: continental breakfast from 6:30 a.m. to 7:30 a.m., full-buffet breakfast from 7:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m., lunch from noon to 2 p.m., tea and snacks from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m. and dinner from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.

A poolside grill offers up burgers, hot dogs and grilled chicken at lunchtime; Sprinkles' self-service ice cream machine is open on the lido from 11:30 a.m. until 7 p.m. Squeeze is a juice bar that also blends up energy drinks ranging in price from $4 to $6. Just choose your fruit (banana, strawberry) and your "power" option (fat-burning, protein-rich).

A casual buffet dinner is served at Windjammer, as well; menu options generally mirror what's being served in the main dining room, with the exception of Jade, which is attached to Windjammer and free of charge. Sushi chefs are hard at work every night, serving vegetarian and other maki rolls. The tables in this area are dressed with white cloths and small pitchers for soy sauce. Shiny black plates with spaces for ginger and wasabi are at the buffet, and servers are quick to offer drink service. In fact, this is the best room in the house. Even if you're not a sushi-lover, you can still visit the other buffet stations and take advantage of the spot-on service in the quieter Jade dining room.

If you crave a more gourmet experience, be sure to take advantage of Freedom's two specialty restaurants. Portofino is an Italian trattoria. It offers caprese salad, fried calamari and carpaccio among its appetizers, with pasta, seafood and veal dishes rounding out the menu. A great option for dessert is the sampler, which includes a small amount of flourless chocolate cake, tiramisu and panacotta. The cover charge is $20.

At Chops Grille, a steakhouse-style eatery, expect tuna tartare and crab cakes among the starters, several cuts of steak, plus other grilled meats and fish like lamb loin and halibut. If you are a chocolate-lover, do not -- I repeat: do not -- miss the Mississippi Mud Pie. It's a huge slice of velvety goodness with a cluster of caramel nuts in the center. The cover charge is $30. While both restaurants are intimate and worth the money, we found the cuisine and service in Chops to be a touch more impressive. We also loved the warm, dark-wood paneling and cushy velvet seating.

Johnny Rockets serves the same yummy burgers, hot dogs, grilled cheese, chili, tuna sandwiches, onion rings and fries as its land-based brethren. It operates from noon to midnight; while you'll likely wait about 30 minutes to be seated, you can take a pager to the arcade to pass the time until your table is ready. There's a $4.95 cover charge for dine in or take out; drinks are charged separately.

Cafe Promenade is open around the clock with complimentary pastries and sandwiches, coffee and tea. The adjacent Starbucks coffee bar offers for-fee cappuccinos, lattes, etc. This is a great option if you can't be bothered to go to the buffet or dining room and just want a light bite. Sandwiches include things like prosciutto on olive bread and egg salad on croissants.

Sorrento's, on the opposite end of the Promenade, is an an all-day pizzeria. (Check your Compass for certain times of the day when paninis are pressed -- yum.) In addition to a variety of pizzas that switch up daily, there's a front counter where you can choose any combination of seafood salad, grilled Italian veggies, marinated mozzarella or feta cheese, hunks of bread, artichokes, olives, etc. It's a fantastic midday snack spot!

Ben & Jerry's ice cream bar, across from Cafe Promenade and next to Cupcake Cupboard, is available to satisfy your sweet tooth. The waffle cones are made fresh -- get one with a scoop (or two) of your choosing -- from a rotating selection that tops a dozen flavors. Plus, they'll make floats and shakes and let you sample flavors before committing. Most items are less than $5.

As part of the revitalization, The Cupcake Cupboard, a vintage-style cupcake shop with a rotating selection of more than 30 cupcakes, replaced the original barbershop. The elaborate little cakes aren't cheap at about $4. Cupcake-decorating classes (for $15) pack in the little ones and make for a great photo op. Just make sure to reserve your space well in advance. We booked on the second day and clinched the last spot on the last day of decorating.

Finally, room service is available 24/7. The menu consists of just a few salads and sandwiches with fewer options than on other cruise lines. Still, a Mediterranean Chicken Salad with grilled marinated chicken and feta cheese, and the Seeded Rye Baguette with oak smoked salmon and brie were both winners, and they were delivered within 30 minutes. For nonmorning people, ordering breakfast via a doorknob card is a great option. Royal Caribbean still offers hot items -- even omelets -- on its room service breakfast menu, as well as Continental fare from cereal to fruit plates. Room service is free from 5 a.m. to midnight; late-night orders incur a $3.95 surcharge.

Public Rooms

The main artery that runs throughout the ship is the Royal Promenade, a Main Street USA-type thoroughfare where you can visit the purser's or excursions desk, grab a drink or a snack, people-watch or shop. The general store sells incidentals, duty-free liquor and edible souvenirs like rum cakes; a separate venue specializes in perfume and cosmetics, and there's a gift shop that sells logo items, T-shirts, Christmas ornaments, keychains and other odds and ends. You can also buy workout wear at the Get Out There store. (FlowRider paraphernalia is for sale up on the Sports Deck.)

A library with a view of the Promenade through floor-to-ceiling glass windows contains three walls of bookshelves and several cozy leather chairs for a quiet read. If you left reading material at home, just arrive early to check out a read from the decent selection -- and return it before you leave.

Above the library is Royal Caribbean Online, the ship's Internet cafe. The actual connection is touch-and-go; expect slowness unless you log on while most folks are sleeping or sightseeing. The charge is 66 cents a minute, but, if you buy packages, you can pay as little as 25 cents a minute. The commitment is steep: rates range from a 38-minute package for $24.95 to 1,666 minutes for $399.95. The same rates apply to Wi-Fi, which is available in cabins and in various public area "hot spots." On other ships, Royal Caribbean is testing $39 daily plans that include 24 hours of continuous access, and a $149 unlimited plan (one device only). At the time of our sailing, the packages were being tested only on Allure and weren't available on Freedom.

Some services aren't provided. For instance, there's no self-service laundry facility, but laundry and dry-cleaning can be sent out, and it's not cost prohibitive. We paid about $5 to launder a favorite blanket.

Contemporary art-lovers might enjoy the Art Gallery on Deck 3, where there's often a seminar to take in and a revolving selection of works to buy. On our sailing, there were lectures on Thomas Kinkade, a high-speed art auction in On Air (Deck 3) and contemporary art to buy in the Britto Gallery on Deck 5.

Even if you don't buy your pictures, it's a fun diversion to visit the photo gallery on Deck 4, where the staff display all the photos, from your boarding photo to formal nights and pictures with roving DreamWorks characters. You can buy a picture photo CD or even design your own photobook (a combination of your own photos and Royal Caribbean stock photos).

Up on Deck 14 by the Viking Crown Lounge, you'll find the Seven Hearts card and game room and Cloud Nine, which can be used for private meetings or parties. The Skylight Chapel, one deck up, is the spot for onboard weddings.

The LCD Wayfinder system, installed during the revitalization, utilizes a series of touch screens, placed throughout the ship, that not only show you how to get where you want to go but also tell you what's going on at that very moment.

Shameless plug: On Deck 5, across from the cruise director's office, look for the framed poem "Ode to Freedom," written by Cruise Critic members!

Cabins

Freedom of the Seas Cabin Photos

Freedom has four main types of cabins -- inside, oceanview, balcony and suite -- but within each are different configurations, including roomier options for families in all categories at different price points. Of the 1,817 staterooms, 842 have private balconies, and 172 have promenade views. All staterooms are equipped with keypad-operated safes, hair dryers, Wi-Fi Internet access, mini-fridges and flat-screen televisions that feature a range of channels (ESPN, CNN, Cartoon Network) and interactive programming (order shore excursions and room service, or check your portfolio).

Interior and promenade-view staterooms are on the small side, measuring 152 square feet and 149 square feet, respectively. Bathrooms are shower-only, though we appreciate that Royal Caribbean has stuck with sliding doors as opposed to those pesky curtains that always seem to float inward and invariably lead to flooding. Pumps in the shower are preloaded with shower gel and shampoo. Family interiors are nearly double in size (300 square feet) and sleep up to six with two twin beds that convert into a queen plus a sofa and/or Pullman.

Oceanview cabins add a porthole and a smidge more space (from 161 to 200 square feet). Family oceanview staterooms clock in at 293 square feet, with a sitting area, two twin beds that convert into a queen and a sofa and/or Pullman. Before moving into suite territory, there are two balcony options: Deluxe at 177 square feet (balcony 74 square feet) and Superior at 189 square feet (balcony 68 square feet). Our accessible balcony stateroom had quite a bit more room with 286 square feet (balcony 46 square feet, nearly as big as a junior suite) and wider turning spaces, as well as a fold-down shower bench, which turned out to be useful for a toddler.

Cabins are decorated in teal, peach and white, with lighting overhead and at the desk/vanity. There are also bedside wall-mounted lamps. Balcony furniture comprised a small table and two loungers (metal with mesh covering) -- much nicer than the plastic ribbon variety.

Space and amenities increase as you ascend the suite scale. Some Junior Suites (287 square feet, balcony 101 square feet) and Grand Suites (387 square feet, balcony 126 square feet) have tubs; walk-in closets are standard in both. The Owner's Suites (614 square feet, balcony 209 square feet) each have a private sitting area separate from the bedroom. The one Royal Suite (1,406 square feet, balcony 377 square feet) also features a whirlpool marble tub and shower, entertainment center, king-sized bed, baby grand piano and private hot tub on the balcony. Grand, Owner's and Royal Suite passengers have access to a concierge -- who can assist with specialty restaurant reservations, spa treatments and the like -- and the Concierge Club lounge, where pre-dinner canapes and cocktails are complimentary.

Four Royal Family Suites (610 square feet, balcony 234 square feet) accommodate up to eight people and feature a living area with a double sofa bed; two bedrooms, each with two twin beds that convert to queens (one also features third and fourth bunks); a verandah with teak furniture and two bathrooms with showers (one with tub).

The Presidential Family Suite (1,209 square feet, balcony 805 square feet) is the granddaddy of family-friendly accommodations onboard. The suite can accommodate up to 14 people and consists of two master bedrooms with private baths and two additional bedrooms, each with two Pullman beds and two twin beds that convert to queens. It also has a sofa bed. There are two additional "standard" shower-only bathrooms. The huge private balcony is outfitted with a hot tub, teak dining set (table and chairs) and padded teak loungers.

One last "special" stateroom is 6305, a promenade-facing cabin with an obstructed view. The window is blocked by the, ahem, behinds of two cows that stand atop the Ben & Jerry's ice cream parlor directly below. The good news, though, is that cruisers who find a pair of derrieres pressed up against their window receive complimentary scoops from Ben & Jerry's every day of their cruise!

Whatever stateroom you choose, you'll sleep tight: all cabins feature Royal Caribbean's stylish, comfortable bedding. There are pillows and shams, and duvets with cotton blend covers. Custom pillow tops are doubled over when placed atop twin beds, but when the beds are in the queen configuration they're unfolded across both (already) plush mattresses to eliminate the dreaded gap. Our room was set up with twins, but other passengers we spoke to assured us the queen configuration was comfortable and gap-free.

Entertainment

Royal Caribbean's 2011 revitalization has brought onboard lots of new features, such as the DreamWorks Experience -- life-sized characters from "Shrek," "Madagascar" and "Kung Fu Panda" that meet and greet and take photos with passengers. A kick-off event on the first day found them poolside, singing and dancing for the kids.

A final blowout parade on our last sea day had everyone acting like a kid. The "DreamWorks Move It! Move It! Parade Spectacular" brought everyone to the Promenade, where a dancing parade included Shrek and Fiona, King Julian, Puss in Boots, and Po from Kung Fu Panda, plus stilt-walkers and dragon dancers (in all, 150 members of the entertainment and cruise staff), moving to the theme song from "Madagascar." The excitement is virtually impossible to resist: we saw everyone from the oldest passenger and the youngest to the surliest teen dancing along with the music.

Daytime activities include the ubiquitous pool games and trivia contests, while Vintages wine bar hosts several tasting sessions throughout the week. Alfresco bars include the Pool Bar, Sky Bar and Wipe Out! Bar.

The main Arcadia Theater seats more than 1,300 people over two levels and is the venue for nighttime productions, both song-and-dance shows by Royal Caribbean's troupe and performances by guest entertainers. As part of its pair-up with DreamWorks, Arcadia now features 3D movies and films like "Rise of the Guardians," "Avengers" and "Madagascar 3."

Late-night comedians and magicians fill out the entertainment roster in Pharaoh's Palace, the secondary show lounge for musical combos and private parties.

The ice rink at Studio B also doubles as a secondary show lounge; it was the spot for the Crown & Anchor welcome back party, as well as the Quest, an adult scavenger hunt. There are free skate hours listed in the Compass. Freedom-Ice.com, the professional ice show, was the best we've seen at sea (and certainly captivated the kids). Tickets are free, but they need to be obtained in advance. Check your Compass for details on your sailing.

Casino Royale is open whenever the ship is at sea and features slot machines in a range of denominations, as well as table games and a bar. This area can get pretty smoky at night -- if you are sensitive to cigarettes, you might not want to pass through.

After hours, Boleros -- the hip Latin lounge found on many Royal Caribbean ships -- is one of our favorite bars at sea. Though the location (in a hallway, outside the casino, near a staircase) is not ideal, the two bartenders there were absolutely fantastic, made a mean mojito and juggled bottles and shakers for us. It felt like "Cocktail" without Tom Cruise. This venue also draws major crowds with live music and merengue dancing.

Nightly music is found in other areas of the ship, too. A guitarist/soloist performs rock tunes in the Bull & Bear Pub, and a pianist packs Royal Caribbean's nautical-themed Schooner Bar, taking requests until the wee hours. If you'd like to do the singing yourself, swing by the On Air Bar outside Studio B; there are open-mic hours when you can strut your stuff onstage, as well as private booths for those a little less confident. The big screen there is the place to catch sporting events, too. For late-night dancing, there's the two-deck Crypt nightclub, whose spooky decor features bar stools shaped like headstones.

Even with all of these options, we can never resist pre-dinner bubbly at the Champagne Bar or a nightcap at Royal Caribbean's signature top-of-the-ship Viking Crown Lounge (called Olive or Twist on Freedom). There's a special martini menu, and it's a jazz club at night.

Shore excursions on the alternating Western and Eastern Caribbean sailings are well organized and varied. On our sailing, passengers were able to sign up for a PADI scuba-diving certification course, which included classroom and pool training onboard, as well as open-water training dives in St. Maarten. Excursions like glass-bottom boat tours and parasailing in the Bahamas filled up quickly, as did open-air vehicle tours of St. Thomas and a whole-day sail to Christmas and Honeymoon Coves on a schooner. An underwater treasure hunt in St. Thomas was a blast for kids. If you plan to sign up for water sports, do it early. On this sailing, there were paid shopping excursions ($42 for adults), but we'd recommend researching shopping areas on your own; many Caribbean ports are easy to navigate, with plenty of transportation.

Fitness and Recreation

There are two main pools on the Lido, Deck 11 -- one for swimming and one for sports -- flanked by three roomy hot tubs. There, as on balconies, tacky plastic-ribbon deck chairs from earlier ships are replaced with nice mesh loungers. The family pool area packs in the crowds since the 18.5-foot video screen overlooking the pool was installed. Passengers secured their spots early to enjoy screenings of family-friendly movies, TV shows and concerts.

Just aft of the main pools, children get a colorful water park, H2O Zone, complete with a kids-only pool, a cascading waterfall, and sculpture fountains and ground geysers that spew water. Frankly, the setup is so cool it keeps kids out of adult pool areas for the most part (though the water was very cold on our sailing, so kids didn't stay in long). The adults-only Solarium pool area is where you'll find peaceful hammocks and two whirlpools that are cantilevered, meaning they hang over the side of the ship; wide panels of glass give an incredible view of the ocean directly beneath you.

Royal Caribbean favorites like the rock-climbing wall and mini-golf course can be found on Deck 13, and a sports court, shuffleboard, Ping-Pong and a jogging/walking track also satisfy active passengers. But the main attraction is the FlowRider, which debuted on Freedom as the first surf park at sea. A three-inch sheet of water flows up the 32-foot-wide by 40-foot-long incline to create a wave-like reverse waterfall. There are designated hours each day for stand-up surfing and boogie-boarding; check on the Sports Deck for your itinerary's schedule. There's no signup sheet, but passengers (and guardians for those younger than 18) must sign waivers to obtain the wristband needed to "hang ten."

Even if you're more of a sunbather than a swimmer, our advice is to get off the bleachers and try the easier boogie-boarding option at least once. Once you're up there, it doesn't look nearly as steep (or frightening). Professional photographers will be snapping away so your sopping-wet self can be immortalized pre-wipeout for a mere $15.

Really want to master onboard surfing? Passengers can book one-on-one private FlowRider lessons for $75 per person, per hour (up to eight people per session). Individuals, or groups looking to "free-surf" without an instructor, can book the FlowRider for $350 per hour with no limit to the total number of participants. (A 50 percent no-show fee will be charged if you don't cancel at least 24 hours in advance.)

The Shipshape Fitness Center encompasses the entire forward area of the Lido, and it's packed with free weights, stationary bikes, treadmills and elliptical machines. Though we never had to wait for a piece of equipment, the gym does get packed before lunch, particularly on sea days. Get up early for prime real estate at the floor-to-ceiling windows. Within the fitness center is a boxing ring, which also made its industry debut on this ship. The boxing program is intended to promote physical conditioning (meaning you can't just throw your husband in there for kicks); sadly, it was empty on our two visits to the fitness center. It could be because it is not cheap. A personal one-hour session was $83. There are scheduled group workouts, however, for $10.

Additional fitness classes are offered -- some free (stretching, aerobics), some levying a $10 charge (yoga, Pilates).

One deck up is the full-service Vitality Spa. There's nothing new and unusual about the decor or the roster of treatments, which run the gamut from simple wraps and massages to acupuncture, teeth-whitening and even medispa treatments like injectables and fillers. The prices, however, seemed high. The "entry level" facial was $120. The spa runs daily discounted specials during the cruises. (Look for them in the Cruise Compass.)

We tried an Elemis Tri-Enzyme Resurfacing Facial, discounted to $99 from the usual $125, and were disappointed with what could have been a relaxing experience that turned into a lecture about our "traumatized" skin, an aggressive sales pitch for $250 in skin products and a chatty discussion about crew shenanigans below deck. Too much information. Likewise, what was advertised as a group anti-aging seminar felt like a bit of a bait and switch. Attendees were taken individually into a room for a consultation (read: a hard sell for injectables and products). Don't forgo a spa treatment at sea if you're yearning for one, but we'd recommend telling the therapist straight up if you're not interested in buying products and want to avoid the hard sell. (Ours even called our stateroom the next day to ask when we'd be making our purchase!)

Family

Freedom of the Seas is a terrific ship for families, both within the Royal Caribbean fleet and industry-wide. The H2O Zone is now a classic feature, day-to-night activities on the sports deck keep kids occupied, Adventure Ocean not only entertains kids but also challenges older ones with science experiments, and the new partnerships with DreamWorks and Mattel mean that life-sized movie favorites are roving around entertaining kids all week.

Children are broken into five separate age groups that get not only their own activities but also their own private rooms on Deck 12.

The Adventure Ocean Program includes several different groups: Aquanauts (3 to 5) might color and play games while Explorers (6 to 8) learn to make their own candies or kites. Voyagers (9 to 11) might take a backstage tour of the Arcadia Theater or participate in sports activities. Navigators (12 to 14) and older teens (15 to 17) can attend parties at Fuel, the teens-only club; hang out in the Living Room, a posh teen lounge that often looked packed; or chill on the Back Deck, a private outdoor area for teens. Challenger's Arcade, which fills a long corridor between Adventure Ocean, the Nursery, the Living Room and Johnny Rockets, offers modern games like Dance Dance Revolution, as well as classics like Ms. Pac Man. There are also racecar games and three air hockey tables. It's a great place for families to get some in-depth kid time; both adults and kids are welcome.

Adventure Ocean will give parents a cell phone to call in and receive calls from the youth staff. Although the evening session ends at 10 p.m., there's a Late Night Party Zone for kids -- between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. -- a group baby-sitting arrangement that costs $6 per hour, per child. On certain days, you can arrange for your child to accompany the Adventure Ocean staff to dinner. Plus, for those on My Time Family Dining or on the early seating, staff will collect your child from the dining room after 40 minutes so you don't have to leave dinner early.

Tie-ins with Crayola and Fisher-Price provide the latest in learning toys and creative materials, and an "Adventure Science" program by High Touch High Tech teaches kids fun, hands-on science experiments at sea. The new Imaginocean! puppet show is a black-light show that takes kids on an adventure through the depths of the ocean to find treasure. Highlights for kids and parents include a pirate parade: Aquanauts (3 to 5) dress up and paint their faces, and Adventure Ocean staff march them on a spirited pirate parade down The Promenade. Freedom of the Seas also has the nascent Barbie Premium Experience with Mattel onboard, a special program for girls 5 and older that includes a specially decorated stateroom, plenty of Barbie loot and activities like a fashion show and Barbie clothing design class -- for a $349 premium.

There are no free, supervised programs for children younger than 3 or for non-potty-trained tykes. However, complimentary Royal Babies (6 to 18 months) and Royal Tots (18 to 36 months) programs in the nursery on Deck 12 -- offered in conjunction with Fisher-Price and Royal Caribbean's youth staff -- are scheduled throughout the cruise for parents to attend with their wee ones. (If you have a 3 year old who's not toilet trained, you may be able to take him or her to these parent-supervised sessions in the nursery.)

In addition, the nursery offers drop-off group baby-sitting for kids of 6 to 36 months at $8 per hour. Open hours vary by ship and day and are found in the Cruise Compass. On port days, the nursery will open at least 30 minutes prior to the first excursion and stay open until 30 minutes after the last excursion returns. It's also open nightly from 8 p.m. to midnight.

In-stateroom sitting is offered for kids, ages 1 and older, when personnel is available; parents or guardians must reserve this service at the Purser's Desk 24 hours in advance. The cost is $19 per hour for up to three children within the same family.

Fellow Passengers

With the FlowRider, H2O Zone and age-specific children's facilities, Freedom of the Seas is an obvious choice for families; there were nearly 800 kids younger than 17 on our sailing. However, the ship also appeals to active couples, mainly ranging from their 30's to 50's, and plenty of fun-loving seniors. (We eavesdropped on some World War II vets exchanging fascinating stories.) Many Royal Caribbean cruisers are repeat passengers. The majority hail from North America, though many on our cruise came from South America and Europe.

Dress Code

Seven-night cruises typically feature two formal nights and five casual nights. Theme outfits are encouraged but seldom seen. Many men don tuxedos for formal dining, though suits are just fine and quite common. Women opt for cocktail dresses or gowns. No one looks askance if you don't observe a formal night; plenty of families opt for a more casual experience, bypassing the formal nights for laid-back dinners in Windjammer.

Gratuity

Royal Caribbean passengers are charged $12 per person, per day ($14.25 for those in suites). Gratuities can be prepaid or added on a daily basis to passengers' SeaPass accounts during the cruise. (Passengers opting for My Time Dining must pre-pay gratuities.) Passengers can modify or remove gratuities by visiting the guest services desk while onboard. A 15 percent tip is automatically added to bar tabs. Gratuity envelopes for those who wish to reward extra service are delivered to staterooms on the last day.

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Jan-Feb-Mar 2015 Cruise Offers*** Inside Oceanview Balcony Suite
Jan 11 - 18, 2015 Special  - Buy One Guest, Get Second Guest 50% off.  Plus, if booking air, receive $500 off
$819
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Jan 25 - Feb 1, 2015 Special  - Buy One Guest, Get Second Guest 50% off.  Plus, if booking air, receive $500 off
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Feb 8 - 15, 2015 AARP Logo - Exclusive Senior Savings!Star - Kids, Teens & Families, A family vacation with something for everyoneSpecial  - Buy One Guest, Get Second Guest 50% off.  Plus, if booking air, receive $500 offExclamation - Up to $200 in OBC from ROYAL!
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For planning or booking assistance, please call a Travelocity Cruise Expert at 877-815-5446.


Cruise Details

Included: Shipboard Accommodations, Meals, Some Beverages, Onboard Entertainment and Daily Activities, Port Charges, 24-Hour Room Service

Not Included: Shore Excursions, Personal Expenses, Gratuities, Alcoholic Beverages, Specialty Restaurants, Spa Treatments, Some Taxes

Optional Add-Ons: Flights, Hotels, Transfers, Insurance


N/A: This stateroom type does not exist on this ship.

*All itineraries are subject to change without notice.

**Prices are per person/double occupancy. Additional Taxes and Fees - opens in a new window will apply.

***Some Cruise Offers are dependent on the type of stateroom purchased.

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Cruise ID:

78707