During the COVID period when international travel was all but impossible, I leapt at the only escape available: Cruises to nowhere.
I ended up doing two of these, one on Royal Caribbean’s Quantum of the Seas and another on Dream Cruises’ (now Resorts World Cruises) World Dream. Both had their pros and cons, though on the balance I’d say I’m definitely more a fan of the former than the latter.
When borders reopened in late 2021 I got back on the road, and didn’t board a ship again until earlier this month, when I checked out Royal Caribbean’s Spectrum of the Seas on a 3N cruise to Penang. Since Spectrum is about 80% similar to Quantum, I wasn’t even planning to write about this- until I unexpectedly scored an upgrade to a Grand Loft Suite.
Forget all you know about cruising, because this is a completely different experience.
What are the different types of suites?
A quick refresher for those of you unfamiliar with the Royal Caribbean Suites programme.
Royal Caribbean splits its suites into three tiers: Star, Sky, Sea. Singapore Cruise Society has helpfully put together the following table showing which suites are under which category.
Sea is the lead-in category, but the perks are rather underwhelming. You get all-day access to Silver Dining (which is really just a slightly more private buffet), upgraded bed linens, bathrobes and in-room coffee. There’s no concierge to help with bookings, no priority boarding and disembarkation, and no free internet.
Sky is the next step up, and adds all-day access to Gold Dining (think Coastal Kitchen on Quantum of the Seas, a private dining venue with a la carte ordering), priority dining reservations, complimentary VOOM internet, priority boarding and departure, and Gold Lounge happy hours (where most of the onboard wine and cocktail menu is available for free).
Star is the highest tier, where Royal Caribbean pulls out all the stops. You get complimentary gratuities, deluxe beverage package, speciality dining, plus a Royal Genie to handle all your onboard needs. It is, in a word, life-changing.
How did I get a Grand Loft Suite?
My original booking was for a Junior Suite, which doesn’t have a whole lot of perks.
But Royal Caribbean has a bid-to-upgrade programme called RoyalUp (which is run by PlusGrade, the same company behind the upgrade schemes run by airlines). Emails for RoyalUp go out roughly 2-3 months before departure; you can always visit this webpage at any point to check your eligibility.
The interface will be familiar to those of you who have bid for airline upgrades before. You drag a slider bar to adjust your bid, and the system tells you the strength of your offer (it’s obviously calibrated to nudge your bids higher).
All bids are priced on a “per guest” basis, based on two guests per stateroom for the entire length of the cruise. In other words, even if you have three or four people in the room, the amount you pay will be based on two guests.
If you’re looking to make the jump to a Star Class suite, do remember that this category receives complimentary gratuities, specialty dining and deluxe beverage packages. Assuming you were going to buy a dining and beverage package anyway, you should factor that into your bid.
RoyalUp bids may be accepted anytime up to 48 hours prior to departure, and once the bid is accepted, it cannot be cancelled (you can go back and cancel/modify it as many times as you want prior to acceptance, however).
|⚠️ Know before you bid!
Just because the system lets you place a bid for a particular stateroom doesn’t mean there’s availability. RoyalUp is a way for the company to hedge against last minute cancellations, so if everything goes as planned, that room you’re bidding for may never become available.
Also, there are situations where an upgrade may not be an upgrade. That’s because you have no control over the new stateroom’s location- your ocean view room may be upgraded to a balcony room, but it may be near the elevators (noisy), or on a higher level in the forward area (more movement and worse for those prone to seasickness), or have an obstructed view.
Minimum bids apply. For my particular 3-night cruise to Penang, the minimum bids were:
|Grand Loft Suite
|Owners Suite- 1 Bedroom
|Grand Suite- 1 Bedroom
|Sky Junior Suite
My standard strategy is to bid slightly higher than the minimum, and I honestly had no expectation to get anything beyond a Sky Junior Suite (basically the same room I currently had, but with Sky Class privileges). So imagine my surprise when a week before departure, I got an email confirming my S$1,030 bid (S$2,060 total) for a Grand Loft Suite had been accepted!
After I got over the initial shock, I did some quick sums. I paid S$1,840 for my Junior Suite. Taking away the gratuities (which are free for Star Class guests), that came down to S$1,693. My total damage was therefore S$3,753.
Is that a good deal for a 3-night cruise? It’s slightly below half the asking price, so I suppose you could see it that way. That said, I’ve heard of people getting successfully upgraded for less than S$1,000 a head, so YMMV.
Grand Loft Suite
There are four Grand Loft Suites on Spectrum of the Seas, located in their own little enclave alongside the Ultimate Family Suite. You’ll need a suites-level keycard to access the area, giving it that extra bit of exclusivity.
As the name suggests, Grand Loft Suites are spread over two decks: 15 and 16. You enter on Deck 15, stepping into a 775 sq. ft. space with wooden floors, tasteful décor, and a soaring ceiling that makes you forget you’re on a cruise ship.
I mean, it’s almost surreal. The room was bathed in natural light from the two-storey high windows, creating a spacious living area that’s a (nautical) mile away from your stereotypical claustrophobic cabin. This kind of vertical space would be hard to find in an apartment on land, let alone on a ship.
Technically speaking, the Grand Loft Suites can accommodate up to four adults. However, two of the four will have to use a pull-out sofa bed on the first level, and they won’t have much privacy because of the open nature of the living room. It’s probably fine if you’re with your kids, less so with other adults.
Also on the first level is a dining area, where the Genie put up some decorations to mark The MileLioness’ birthday. She also prepared some cookies, fruits, canapes and a birthday cake, plus a welcome bottle of Moet & Chandon champagne.
As an aside, Star Class guests can order room service from any specialty restaurant onboard- though a maximum of one restaurant at a time. Waiting times can be up to an hour, however, so be sure to order in advance. There’s no upcharge even for premium items like lobster.
Star Class suites come well-stocked with bottled water, and not just any bottled water. We had 10x 1-litre and 12x 500ml bottles of Evian on the counter and mini-bar, plus San Pellegrino sparkling water and assorted soft drinks. There’s also a Lavazza coffee machine and pods. All beverages are replenished daily, and it’s virtually impossible for a couple to exhaust the supply.
Outside the first-floor bathroom was a wardrobe with bathrobes and a digital safe. The bathrobes felt plush, and are supposedly an upgrade from the ones you’ll find in a regular stateroom. By the way, Star Class guests enjoy complimentary laundry with same-day return for clothes sent before 11.30 a.m, so be sure to make full use of it.
The first-floor bathroom had a toilet, vanity area and jacuzzi tub. The tub is small, but don’t underestimate the novelty of having one in your own room. We tried the hot tubs in the public area and never went back after a young kid with mucus dripping from his nose wandered in.
Wall-mounted shower amenities from Malin+Goetz are offered for Sky and Star Class passengers, versus the regular Royal Caribbean-branded amenities for everyone else.
The balcony area has a total of three lounge chairs, though two of them (the black ones) weren’t particularly comfortable due to the awkward positioning of the cushions. It wasn’t particularly spacious either- at 81 sq. ft., it’s the same size as the balcony in a Junior Suite.
Up the stairs was the bedroom, which had a king-sized mattress. Most double beds on RCL ships are simply two single mattresses pushed together, so you’ll feel a slit where the beds join. However, the Grand Loft Suites get a genuine king mattress, which really improves the sleep experience.
For additional privacy, another set of curtains could be extended to block off the bedroom area from view. Unlike the curtains on the windows, however, these had to be operated manually. The cabin attendant would automatically draw them as part of turn-down service.
Just outside the bathroom was a dressing area with a backlit mirror, dressing table and wardrobe. If you’re thinking of working on your laptop here, however, do note that the chair is very low relative to the table, so downstairs is a much better option.
Speaking of work, Star and Sky Class guests receive a complimentary internet package that covers one device. It’s relatively straightforward to circumvent that limitation, however. I just connected on my Android phone and turned on the hotspot feature to share internet with my laptop.
Wi-Fi is provided by Starlink, and I consistently managed to get decent speeds of approximately 9 Mbps down and 4 Mbps throughout the cruise (though YMMV, depending on course and cloud cover).
Inside the master bathroom was a full-length standing mirror and, surprisingly given the size, a single vanity. I felt they could easily have extended the vanity area to accommodate his and hers sinks, though at the very least countertop space was abundant (which isn’t the case for most cruise ship bathrooms).
But who needs dual vanities when you have dual showers? This was, without a doubt, the highlight of the suite for me. The setup of the Grand Loft Suite’s master bathroom almost mandates couple bathing, which is either very romantic, or a traumatic reminder of your prison days.
There’s a total of two rain showers, six wall jets, and two handheld showers- and you can turn them all on at once. I was worried this might flood the bathroom, but the drainage system did an excellent job.
Standing under a deluge of hot water from all angles and thinking about how much this must be annoying Greta Thunberg gave me a sense of zen-like bliss.
All in all, I think the Grand Loft Suite was amazing- as well it should be, for the asking price. There were a couple of annoyances worth highlighting though.
First, the television screen which hangs from the ceiling can be quite the safety hazard with its sharp corners at head-level. Fortunately, you can retract it at the push of a button on the remote. I’d recommend doing it as soon as you get into the room; if you want to watch TV, the one in the living room is much bigger and better quality anyway.
Second, it feels like a bit of an oversight not to have any USB outlets by the bedside, and just a single US-style 110V socket. What this means is that you won’t be able to power any Singapore-voltage devices like a CPAP machine or hairdryer. European-style 220/230V plugs are available, but only in the dressing area.
Third, while the climate control panel includes a master light switch setting, the lower and upper floors are not networked. That’s to say, you can’t turn off the lower floor lights from the upper floor and vice versa. This proves a minor annoyance when you’re turning in for the night and realise you need to climb down the stairs to shut everything off (talk about first world problems).
Fourth, I wish cruise ships would consider putting bidets in at least their suites. It doesn’t have to be the fancy Japanese electric kind, even a hose would be welcome by those of us in the wash-don’t-wipe crowd.
Fifth and finally, the staircase is positioned along the corridor to the bathroom, so it’s highly advisable to leave a light on to help safely find your way back to bed after using the loo in the middle of the night.
The Grand Loft Suite was unlike any experience I’ve had on a cruise ship. There were long periods where I just stood there shaking my head at all the real estate, which was almost comical. That said, I would never pay full price for it as it’d put pressure on me to “hurry up and enjoy”, if you know what I mean. I think it would be quite stressful to feel like you needed to milk every cent out of your fare, instead of just chilling.
Of course, a Grand Loft Suite is more than just a room, because the Star Class experience extends beyond the cabin itself. One of the highlights is the Royal Genie experience, which I’ll discuss in an upcoming post- stay tuned!