Baltic Sea on Royal Caribbean's Serenade of the Seas

by Philip Greenspun, August 2016

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Why not simply fly to one or two cities, e.g., St. Petersburg, camp out in a hotel, and visit art museums and other sights in depth? A Baltic Sea cruise enables you to understand each of the countries in context. Estonia is a wonderful place to visit. Its capital, Tallinn, is a UNESCO World Heritage site. But you'll have a deeper appreciation for how people there feel if you also see the countries that have ruled Estonia at various times over the past 1000 years, i.e., Denmark, Germany, Sweden, and Russia.

Unlike other cruise lines that we looked at, Royal Caribbean offered a full two-week tour of the Baltic with three days (two nights) in St. Petersburg and stops at each of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Another good feature offered by Royal Caribbean, not shared by other cruise lines, is parking for one extra night at the departure and destination ends. This enables seeing the departure and destination cities without two additional hotel transfers.

This article is a review of a cruise that departed Stockholm on July 24, 2016 and arrived in Copenhagen on August 6, 2016. In between we stopped in Helsinki, St. Petersburg, Tallinn (Estonia), Riga (Latvia), Klaipeda (the port of Lithuania), Warnemunde (beach resort of former East Germany), and Fredericia (Denmark). I traveled with my 82-year-old mother.

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Getting There

Because the ship is simply parked for an entire day before the cruise there is no urgency about getting there. Thunderstorms delayed our flight from Paris, where we'd spent a week, to Stockholm so that we didn't get to the airport until nearly midnight. We simply jumped into a taxi, arrived at the cruise terminal, showed our passports, and were handed a stateroom key. The ship sailed the next day at 4 pm.

The Ship

The Serenade of the Seas was built in 2003 (Wikipedia), refurbished in 2012, and scheduled for another refit in 2017. She seemed to be in near-perfect condition on our 2016 cruise. I wish that we could get the Royal Caribbean folks to come over and maintain our house.

Every stateroom was booked for our cruise and the result was approximately 2,400 passengers from 52 countries and 850 crew from 64 countries on board.

We traveled in a basic oceanview room, which ended up being larger and much more usefully organized and equipped than our hotel room in Paris. That said, given that my mom could do only one activity per day and there aren't a lot of quiet indoor spaces on the ship (no library or reading room, for example), it would have made more sense to get a suite. We spent more time in the room than originally planned.

We paid about $4,000 for the cabin and then $894 in "taxes and port charges" and $25 as a "processing fee" through Orbitz. With gratuities, extras, shore excursions, etc., it worked out to about $6000 or $230 per person per day.


We weren't in heavy seas, perhaps 5' waves at the most, but 40' sailboats nearby looked like they were getting hammered. On the Serenade of the Seas there was no sensation of motion. If you closed your eyes you would imagine yourself to be on land. On an Atlantic or Pacific crossing through a storm it might be a different story, but at least for typical Baltic or Caribbean weather the ship's stabilizers create a rock-solid ride.

Nobody to whom I spoke complained of motion or motion sickness.

Shore Excursions

I didn't think of a cruise as a haven for intellectualism, but the guides on shore excursions were extremely well-informed and informative. You can learn a lot about a country during a short visit if nearly every minute you're hearing a thoughtful person explaining stuff. Many of the guides were English teachers on their summer break and the teaching background showed. Perhaps our favorite guide was Juris in Riga, Latvia on the "Jewish tour" (highly recommended and includes a lot of World War II as well as Soviet-era history).

Fredericia, Denmark is not a place a typical tourist would go and Royal Caribbean uses it mostly as a launching point for shore excursions, e.g., to LEGOLAND. However, I enjoyed the fact that the folks in this small town were delighted by our visit and turned out as volunteers, to park their classic cars, to dance and play in bands, etc. It was a good reminder of what it would be like to visit on a ship in the 18th century.

Two nits on the itinerary:

If you want to see and do everything in St. Petersburg, however, you should arrange a private tour ahead of time that leaves the ship at 7 am each morning and returns at 11 pm. Royal Caribbean's excursions try to get back to the ship (a 20-minute drive from the city center) by 5:30 pm so that people can change and then go back out for an evening event if desired. A friend with a large family group strongly recommends

In Helsinki it is a short walk to the nearest City Bike stand. Pre-register at and then bike around on your own to all of the major sites. There are similar services in a lot of the other cities visited, though in some cases the port is pretty far away from the city center and therefore you'll need to take a shuttle or a hop-on, hop-off bus (in most cities, the hop-on, hop-off bus folks would show up to the dock).

Internet Connectivity

The Voom Internet service is an honest 3 Mbits down and 2 Mbits up. That's 8X the measured upload speed we had in our Paris hotel. Pricing is comparable to what you'd pay in a luxury hotel for Internet service, with the difference being that Royal Caribbean actually has to pay for its satellite connection. As of 2016 the cost was $14-18 per day per device depending on the number of devices connected. I tested the service primarily with a Windows 10 laptop, an iPhone (iOS 9.3.3), and an iPad (iOS 9.3.3).

The engineers have done a remarkably good job of covering the ship with wifi. While on Deck 11, I started a FaceTime call with Domestic Senior Management. I then walked up to the top of the ship and all the way down to the cabin my mom and I are sharing on Deck 3. There was a slight hitch in the service just once or twice. The call dropped only once, which was when our button-happy two-year-old on the other side pressed the hang-up circle. The verdict from the other side, a Verizon FiOS link, was "better than any of the calls from Paris." (one of those calls was from a $600/night Hyatt hotel where a friend was staying) As we got closer to the end of the cruise and more passengers signed up for the service it became subject to more hiccups, but it always worked.

The ping time below is long, as expected given that each packet requires a trip up to space and another one back down. This is noticeable as an extra second or two before a web page is rendered (compared to visiting a domestic site from a high quality home broadband service). Also noticeable is the fact that web developers have larded up their non-mobile pages with so much JavaScript and graphics that even a connection that would have been considered great 10-15 years ago is now somewhat pokey.

As far as I know Royal Caribbean is far ahead of the other cruise lines. The result is that an extended stay on a cruise ship need not cut you off from videoconferences with family, work with Dropbox and Google Docs, etc. Based on the FaceTime calls, which are more demanding than typical business apps, it seems that the High Seas and the full possibilities of the Internet are now compatible.

[If you're planning to rely on public mobile networks in the various ports, note that my Verizon iPhone 6 Plus was unable to get LTE service in France and some of the other countries visited. Apparently the LTE frequencies used there are different and the phone may not have the radio capability to communicate on those frequencies. The result was being stuck on an ancient 3G network. Verizon's $10/day travel pass program does not work in Russia.]

Logistics of Getting On/Off

Friends who'd been on competitive cruise lines warned me about long lines to get on or off the ship. Royal Caribbean does put every passenger through a metal detector and every bag through an X-ray machine. However, the process was always swift and we never waited in line for more than a few minutes for this or anything else associated with the ship.

The Crew

We were taken care of by people from 64 different countries working together seamlessly. Anthony, the maitre d' for the specialty restaurants, was a typical exemplar of the kind of person you might meet. His home is in Kerala, India. He had been with Royal Caribbean for years, was spending a longer-than-usual 10 months on board so that he would be home for Christmas with his family. He was the embodiment of hospitality. Annie, who cut my hair in the on-board salon that is as nice as any place in Boston, was from northern Spain and had at least 20 years of haircutting experience on land before she took to the seas. Based on my experience managing an 80-person company I was impressed by the company's achievement in managing such a large and diverse workforce.

The Gym

The gym is fantastic and has a great view towards the bow from Deck 12. It was never crowded.


There are a couple of formal nights so in theory you need a suit or a tuxedo. However, you can rent a tux on-board and some of the passengers flouted the rules by showing up to dinner in polo shirts and jeans. They did not seem to be subjected to discipline, harsh or otherwise.

The ship's staff will do laundry at a reasonable price ($30 per small bag plus individual items at standard hotel prices). You could do this cruise with a standard carry-on bag and, as long as you have Global Entry, save yourself potentially a two-hour wait for the bags upon returning to the U.S. (if only Royal Caribbean could take over management of the Department of Homeland Security; the passport line at Logan Airport was more than an hour long and then even those with Global Entry had to wait for bags because they weren't put on the carousel until the bulk of the passengers from our flight were expected to emerge).


I used the cruise as an opportunity to test out a Sony A6300 mirrorless digital camera with an APS-C sized sensor. The photos accompanying this article were either taken with this camera and a Sony 16-70mm zoom (24-105mm equivalent on a full-frame camera) or an iPhone 6 Plus. At times it would have been nice to have a slightly wider lens, but I think that most people would be happy with just one camera and a midrange zoom. A state-of-the-art choice that is even more compact is the Sony RX100.

The Food

The main dining room is elegant and open for breakfast and dinner every day. If you order three courses in this dining room and don't snack you won't gain any weight because the portion sizes are modest. Unfortunately for those who can't resist temptation, there is also a buffet restaurant up on Deck 11 with about 50 different choices.

The modestly priced specialty restaurants don't have better food, but they are smaller, quieter, and if you get there early you can get a table right next to floor-to-ceiling windows.

If you're trying to kick the bread habit, our trip on the Serenade of the Seas was the place to do it. They bake everything from scratch every morning and yet somehow the donuts and croissants didn't work out at all. We stopped eating bread after a few days and consequently didn't gain any weight.

Food safety is the #1 priority and we didn't get sick nor hear of anyone who got sick. According to the staff with whom we talked, this safety is achieved by purchasing food from a limited number of vendors. The majority of the food comes on at the departure port and is held for 1-2 weeks as necessary. They're not getting fresh strawberries, peaches, and lettuce every couple of days the way that you would at home. The price paid for perfect safety, unfortunately, is that the chefs can't deliver spectacular and unexpected tastes. Keep in mind also the number of people that have to be served. The result is like a competently catered wedding, not a Michelin-starred restaurant with 50 seats.

Alcohol? I didn't see anyone staggering around drunkenly. People did seem to be enjoying the bars. I refrained from buying the unlimited drinks package and limited myself to one or two glasses of wine per day ($8-14 for regular wine; only about $6 for a Graham's port with dessert, plus 18% gratuity). For any given wine, the prices were comparable to what we would pay at a hotel here in Boston.

I'm not a coffee snob, but the regular drip coffee was pretty weak. I guess it is comparable to what would happen if you bought Maxwell House at the supermarket and ran it through a Mr. Coffee. There were some on-board espresso bars (prices similar to a Starbucks) but there didn't seem to be a Dunkin' Donuts equivalent with slightly stronger drip coffee.


The on-board entertainers were great. The band, mostly Eastern Europeans, could have played in any Broadway theater. I wished that they had done some longer performances, e.g., a full Broadway show or play instead of one hour of excerpts. We enjoyed the on-board entertainers more than the "headliners" brought in periodically. The theater itself is an impressive facility that, again, rivals anything you'd find in a big American city. The cinema is kind of weak. It doesn't look like a 4K projector and the lenticular screen impairs resolution. Maybe the 2017 refurbishment will address this.


We didn't take any children but the ones that we saw were having a great time exploring the ship and looked only slightly bored on the cultural shore excursions. There are day care options, kids-only clubs, and activities such as miniature golf (outdoors on Deck 13), a climbing wall, etc. See my video of girls feeding seagulls off Deck 11 for how giddily happy kids were.


The ship has an on-board clinic staffed with a doctor and two nurses. My mom had a minor issue and was favorably impressed. The ship generally stays within about 20 miles of shore and therefore it is easy for a sick passenger to be evacuated by helicopter from the pad on the bow (a great place to hang out on benches when helicopter operations are not in progress).


I would recommend this trip to anyone interested in the shared history of the countries around the Baltic Sea. I would strongly recommend the cruise for a multi-generational family trip with children. Most of the people we met on the ship were repeat customers of Royal Caribbean, so obviously the company is doing something right.

I signed up for this trip primarily because of my mother and her limited mobility. I never thought of myself as a "cruise person" but it seems that Royal Caribbean tapped into my "inner cruise person." I would do another cruise any time that I wanted to see a bunch of related places within a short time.


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