How Celebrity combines luxury and family hand in hand
Traveling by cruise ship is a great way to knock a lot of locations off your travel bucket list without the hassle of constantly unpacking and repacking along the way. That’s exactly what has drawn my dad to cruising over the past decade. After cruises to Antarctica and Alaska, he came up with a memorable trip to include the kids and grandkids: an 11-day journey of the Mediterranean Sea aboard Celebrity’s Reflection, which launched in 2012. He picked Celebrity specifically because of its reputation for being both luxurious and family-friendly with organized kids’ programs that cater to all ages. It did not disappoint! With eight family members in our crew ranging from age 8 to 72, we all soaked up our little slice of cruising paradise.
Our trip was billed as “Best of the Western Mediterranean,” starting and ending in Rome with stops in La Spezia (Italy), Villefranche (France), Barcelona (Spain), Malaga (Spain), Gibraltar (United Kingdom), Cartagena (Spain), and the island of Ibiza (Spain), plus two, much-needed days at sea to relax and recharge along the way.
The boat was sold out with nearly 3,500 guests and a crew of 1,300 to take care of your every need. I had cruised before but never on a ship with so many passengers, so I boarded with a bit of apprehension over whether it would feel too big. It quickly became clear that Celebrity is all about service, and the crew’s attention to every detail is their secret sauce. A few years ago, my husband and I took a cruise where the crew to passenger ratio was 1:1, and we agree that our time on Celebrity rivaled that personalized experience. The service was impeccable! While our trip was everything that we had hoped for, there are nuggets of cruise knowledge that we wish we’d known before setting sail - nuggets that I’m happy to share with you!
Where to stay?
Okay, I’m not going to beat around the bush here. There are several levels of staterooms as options, but my dad likes to travel high-end, so we were all spoiled by staying in suites that included several extra perks. The suite featured a king-sized bed, a couch that pulled out to a double bed (perfect for kids), and a comfortable balcony with a table and two lounge chairs. There were plenty of drawers and closet space in the room to comfortably unpack and store luggage under the bed. The bathroom was amazing, complete with a bath tub and rain showerhead. Our suite was a very nice place to be and one of my favorite rituals was to relax on our balcony early in the morning for sunrise and late at night.
KidTripster Tip: Don’t bother packing shampoo and conditioner as the bathroom is fully stocked twice a day. And in the suites, the toiletries are even nicer than what we use at home! The only amenity that drove me crazy was the ship-provided hair dryer, which was the type where you had to keep a button pressed down for power.
The extra perks started with our butler, Adriana, who was beyond wonderful! She introduced herself upon our arrival and told us she was there to serve us however we needed anytime - day or night. She wasn’t kidding! From bringing my husband chicken broth and crackers on the one night when he was feeling under the weather to delivering anti-seasickness pills to my daughter after the lone rough night at sea (which worked magic in short order), Adriana made our ship life seamless. After the first few days, she let me know (with a smile!) that she worried we weren’t using her services enough, so I tapped into my inner Downton Abbey and finally made Adriana happy! She made, changed, and canceled dinner reservations and spa appointments, had key cards that demagnetized fixed to keep us from standing in line, and even had my daughter’s favorite sweater dry cleaned and delivered within a few hours so she would have it for dinner. While it was admittedly extravagant, having a butler for the first time in my life was downright delightful!
Another plus was access to Michael’s Club, a private gathering spot that includes a concierge service exclusively for suite guests. The biggest bonus of all was unlimited use of Luminae, the intimate restaurant dedicated to the suites. More on that in a bit.
All in, the “suite” life cost just under $10,000 for our family of three (just under $1000 a day). That’s nearly twice as much as it would have been had we selected a standard family room in another part of the ship, which wouldn’t have included the complimentary extras for two people that are included in the suite price and add up to more than $2,700 in savings: prepaid tips ($17/day per person), the upgraded premium alcohol package ($715/adult), complimentary unlimited WiFi ($299/person), and $300 in shipboard credit.
KidTripster Tip: Pack smartly and bring enough under garments to last the entire time as laundry aboard the Reflection is convenient but not cheap. There was no option to do laundry yourself, and the shipboard service adds up quickly. They do have a laundry special in the final days for anyone who doesn’t want to head home with a suitcase full of dirty clothes: a flat fee of $50 for as much laundry as you can squeeze into a modest-sized laundry bag.
From the specialty coffee bar to themed restaurants, there is no shortage of places to find great food whenever you want. Like most cruises, the challenge is being selective so that 11 days at sea doesn’t turn into an 11-pound weight gain!
The Oceanview Cafe is the main buffet for breakfast and lunch with plenty of options for everyone, including made-to-order eggs for breakfast and made-to-order stir fry for lunch. It’s easy for kids to pick out what they want. My favorite part was the stocked salad bar for lunch.
My favorite breakfast place was the Aqua Cafe, a specialty, health-focused spot in the adults-only solarium that had several options of yogurt parfaits and smoothies.
Opus is the main dining room for dinner where you have the option of locking into the early or late dinner seating or having the flexibility to come whenever you wish, understanding that you may have to wait for a table at busy times.
We never ate at Opus because of Luminae, the more intimate dining experience exclusively for suite guests. We became fast friends with the staff there, and they always had our favorite table for eight waiting for us. The dinner menu was fantastic and changed nightly. And just in case there was something on the menu at Opus that appealed to you even more, there was always the option of ordering from both menus at Luminae. The kids’ menu included a hidden gem that even adults were ordering by the end of the cruise – a 4-ounce filet mignon with mashed potatoes. It was seriously good!
Celebrity also features a handful of specialty restaurants for an additional fee: Tuscan Grille, Murano, Qsine, The Lawn Club, and Sushi on Five. The price tag is hefty if you only go once or twice, but - just like a ticket at a theme park - becomes more reasonable if you buy a package of three or more nights. For example, most of the restaurants are $45 per person, but if buy a package of four for $125 per person, it brings the price down to just over $30 per visit.
The kids’ hands-down favorite spot was Qsine, a quirky and creative spot which is appropriately compared to dining in the world of Alice in Wonderland, starting with chairs of different sizes. The kids loved flipping through the iPad menu, and the food choices were unique in their presentation - from sushi lollipops to the disco shrimp that came delivered in a glass lit up in blue. In between dinner and dessert, our server brought the treat of strawberry fields - basically a box of grass that had strawberries on sticks covered in chocolate and sprinkles. The kids had to solve a special puzzle box (think Rubik’s Cube) to get to dessert, and the favorite choice was the decorate-your-own cupcake with all the fixin’s.
We found the most memorable dining experience at Murano, the French cuisine restaurant where they cook lobster tails and filet your fish tableside. It was truly special! The cover charge is slightly higher than the other restaurants at $50 per person, but we found it well worth it. It was also the only specialty restaurant that charged $10 for kids. While we did include our 8-year-old daughter, I would recommend sending the kids to the dinner program at the Fun Factory (details in next section) and making it a date night spot. Make sure to finish off your meal at Murano with the chocolate soufflé. Sinfully delicious!
We were told before the trip that the toughest reservation to get was at Tuscan Grille, the Italian restaurant, so we booked two nights in advance. We ended up canceling the second night after finding the first night to be disappointing. The food was good, but all of us agreed, it wasn’t as good as Luminae and wasn’t worth the nearly $360 in additional charges that it cost for all eight of us to eat there.
The Lawn Club is an outdoor restaurant on the top level of the ship, but we didn’t go there as the menu also didn’t seem unique enough to warrant the additional fee. While we are a family of sushi lovers, we also steered clear of Sushi on Five because of the potential high price tag given the à la carte menu. It seemed that those rolls would add up quickly! We did try the one other restaurant that was outside of any package – The Porch, a small covered restaurant on the upper deck that featured seafood and Mediterranean fare. It was slightly discounted at $30 per person. The food was good but, again, not worth the extra cost.
If we had to do it all over again, we would have purchased the three-night dinner package for $109 per person and dined at Qsine once and Murano twice.
KidTripster Tip: Figure out whether you plan to buy a dinner package up front, before making reservations. While reservations can be changed easily on the ship, it’s more difficult for them to retroactively convert single reservations to a package. We found this out the hard way when our final bill arrived, and we had to sort out being double charged for meals that we had reserved in advance at Tuscan Grille and the package we upgraded to on the ship. The staff was very helpful in resolving the errors, but it was a bit of a hassle on the final day of our trip.
KidTripster Tip: Murano is the only restaurant that you need to reserve either in advance or early in the trip. It fills up quickly as it’s the smallest restaurant and tends to feature the longest dining experience. We were lucky to score a last-minute reservation late in the trip, but several people who heard how great it was were unable to get in, as it was sold out during the final few nights.
There are also several options to purchase beverage plans. We had the premium package, which included any cocktail up to $13, the upper-tier wines by the glass, drinks at the coffee bar, and bottled sparkling and still water. As I mentioned earlier, it was a complimentary, add-on to the price of our suite. While it was fantastic to not worry about paying for any drinks on the ship, I think that you’d need to be a dedicated drinker to make it pencil out over 11 days, if you purchased the premium package separately, advertised at $69/day.
Photo courtesy: Celebrity Cruises
What to do off the ship?
Celebrity offers a smorgasbord of onshore excursions at each port, which is convenient for travelers who don’t have the bandwidth to research and line up their own itinerary in advance. With seven stops in ten days, it’s a challenge to plan it all yourself, especially if you’ve never been to any of the places before (like me!). But to be honest, we ended up preferring to explore on our own at most ports. In the two biggest cities – Nice (Villafranche) and Barcelona – we experimented with a private tour in one city and a group ship tour in the other. With a traveling party of eight, it proved to be more affordable and a better experience to use a private tour guide that we arranged in advance. Here’s how we spent our time at each port and what (if anything) we’d do differently next time.
La Spezia, Italy
This stop on the Italian Riviera is a short, 10-minute train ride to one of Italy’s most popular coastal attractions – Cinque Terre, the five, small beach towns that have become famous for their breathtaking scenery, as well as the hiking trail that connects them. We planned to spend our day at one of the towns until we read horror stories online about overcrowding to the point that you could hardly move in the villages. Instead, we decided to travel by train past Cinque Terre to Sestri Levante, a quaint coastal town about 30 to 60 minutes by train (depending on whether you get a non-stop or local train) where the Mediterranean surrounds both sides of the town. On the train ride home, we realized that only the southernmost Cinque Terre villages closest to La Spezia were actually overcrowded, so we ended up regretting not spending our day in one of the two northernmost villages, Vernazza and Monterosso, although we were glad that we didn’t take a planned excursion here as it was easy to navigate our way up the coast by train.
The two most popular excursions from La Spezia were Florence and Pisa, but we felt both were too far away for kids as they involved an hour or more bus ride each way.
KidTripster Tip: Don’t make the same mistake that we did if you plan to go to the beach. Remember to ask your room attendant for towels to take along with you. They’re complimentary and work a whole lot better than air drying following a dip in the Mediterranean Sea!
Villefranche (Nice), France
Nice is the one stop where we lined up a private guide for the day, which worked out perfectly for our group as it included a Mercedes van that held all eight of us. Our guide met us at the port and whisked us off to Monte Carlo and Monaco. Our guide summed up the region perfectly when he said, “This is not a place for the rich. This is a place for the very, very, very, very, very rich!”
We drove along the route of Formula One’s Monaco Grand Prix, stopped by the famous Casino Royale, visited the Prince’s Palace, and drove up the remote road where Grace Kelly, the American actress-turned-Princess of Monaco, died in a car accident.
We also spent time at Eze, a small (and darling) medieval village atop the hillside. Our day ended with lunch at an oceanfront cafe in downtown Nice. All in all, it was a perfect day on the French Riviera, and we wouldn’t have changed a thing. The private tour with Alcyon Riviera Touring worked out to $100/person all-inclusive with transportation and tip, which seemed very reasonable compared to the ship group tour offerings. With the distance between locations and the hilly terrain, it would have been difficult to have such a full experience on our own without a car.
KidTripster Tip: The Monte Carlo Casino boasts pricey entrance fees of €17 (about $20)/adult and € 8-12 (about $9-14)/child to tour inside. Or, as our guide enlightened us, you can get a sneak peek for free by letting the front guards now that you’re just popping in to use the restroom. You obviously get a much more limited view this way, but at least you can get a feel for the place without paying Monaco prices!
This was admittedly our big miss of the trip. Since none of us had been to Barcelona before, we decided to book a full-day excursion through the ship that cost $129/person ($79/child). The trip took us 45 minutes to Montserrat, a Monk mountain retreat. While interesting, the group tour didn’t allow us to soak up the area’s breathtaking trails.
When we signed up for the excursion, it indicated that the afternoon portion in Barcelona included a tour of the cathedral, which we mistakenly assumed would be the famous La Familia Sagrada, the masterpiece of Antoni Gaudi that’s expected to be finished in the next decade after being under construction for 135 years! While the bus drove by the one-of-a-kind church, it disappointingly did not include any type of tour outside of the bus. In fact – stunningly – none of Celebrity’s onshore excursions included a tour of La Familia Sagrada, which generally sells out 2 to 4 days in advance.
With the ship in Barcelona overnight, we tried to score tickets by showing up at the box office on our second day in the morning. But we were greeted with announcements to not bother hanging around as the next availability was in three days. Rats! We settled for the consolation prize of taking the tour of Casa Batllo, another Gaudi masterpiece. The self-guided audio tour took 90 minutes and was well worth the $25 admission price, but we still left Barcelona disappointed that we’d missed out on seeing the inside of La Familia Sagrada and are now determined to return.
We also left regretting that we used up our first day on a tour that we felt was very overpriced for the experience. Instead, we wished that we'd booked La Sagrada Familia tickets directly online in advance, which is very easy to do, and explored Barcelona on our own.
For KidTripster's recommendations in Barcelona, click here.
KidTripster Tip: This is the one stop where the ship stays overnight, so don’t miss the opportunity to head into Barcelona for dinner. Given our multi-generational group, we left the grandkids on the ship to have dinner alone with grandpa – which they all enjoyed – while the four parents got one night away to soak up the Barcelona dining scene. It was a highlight!
This port was a pleasant surprise and, upon departing Barcelona, we learned that it was the gateway to another spectacular sight – the Alhambra, a fortress and palace complex that dates back to 889 AD. It’s such a draw that the concierge on board told me that some people choose this Celebrity itinerary specifically for this attraction and that all onshore excursions to Alhambra are sold out months in advance. Who knew? While we had a moment of regret that we were missing another big attraction, we decided that it was for the best when we found out the bus ride was nearly two hours each way.
By this point in the cruise, my 8-year-old daughter was so exhausted from all of the activity that she needed a break and asked to stay on the ship all day. This is the day that we were most thankful for Celebrity’s Fun Factory, Celebrity’s version of a kids’ club where the kids have fun doing arts and crafts and playing with other kids. The Fun Factory is available on most days from 9 a.m. to 1 a.m., with an extra charge of $6/hour during lunch and dinner periods while the ship is in port and for the slumber party option from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. Our daughter happily spent the day there while we explored Malaga on our own, taking in some of the local artisan shopping and lunch at an outdoor cafe. It was a lovely day and exactly what we all needed!
Gibraltar, United Kingdom
There is just one attraction here – the Rock of Gibraltar – but it certainly is memorable! If you are in reasonably good shape, don’t miss the opportunity to climb the Mediterranean Steps to the top. I have done a decent amount of day hiking in my life, and it was one of the most exhilarating ascents that I’ve had. It’s a challenging workout that is definitely not for kids. My sister and I climbed to the top while our husbands and kids took the gondola, where we all met up for an up-close look at Gibraltar’s most famous inhabitants, the wild monkeys. They are everywhere! And if you’re not careful – or if you’re adventurous like my teenaged nephew and invite it – you’ll find one on your head!
While the ship offers excursions to the Rock, it’s easy to get to on your own. It took my sister and I about 45 minutes to walk from the ship to the base of the Mediterranean Steps and then a little under two hours to reach the top. By the time that we returned to the ship by foot more than four hours after leaving, we had walked nearly 10 miles!
KidTripster Tip: We visited Gibraltar on a cool day, but it can get very hot. Make sure to bring water with you if you decide to hike to the top, as there’s no water along the way.
This naval port city is one of the smaller stops where you can easily find your way around on your own. We were determined to find the perfect paella this day, but my sister’s family decided to stay aboard the ship and relax. If you were to do that at any port, Cartagena is the right choice!
I knew that the Mediterranean island of Ibiza is a favorite party spot for celebrities with a legendary nightlife, especially in summer, but I didn’t expect it to be such a darling, family-friendly city by day with fantastic shopping in styles straight out of the 60s! We loved Ibiza and were glad that we left our shopping for family and friends back home to the end. Skip any tour here to explore on our own.
What to do on the ship?
There simply weren’t enough hours in the day to indulge in all that Celebrity's Reflection had to offer. From the adult-only solarium and impressive workout facility to the pool and Fun Factory for kids, there was a constant stream of activity, and we ended each day wondering where the time went.
My daughter’s favorite part was the nightly entertainment, especially on the evenings when the in-house entertainment company performed. They were fantastic and made you feel like you were experiencing a professional production on Broadway.
We also had fun soaking up the late-night dancing scene, which was very family-friendly, including unleashing a storm of balloons on kids to get 70s night kicked off! From family bingo to camp night featuring s’mores for younger kids and drone contests for teenagers, there was always something to do.
My favorite part was the Canyon Ranch Spa. I treated myself to two massages, and they were two of the best massages that I’ve ever had. The only criticism that I heard about ship life was how overrun the outdoor pools usually were with kids. One gentleman remarked that this was the big knock on Celebrity, that there’s no adult-only outdoor pool. And while the indoor adult-only solarium is very inviting, it didn’t fit the bill for some adults who preferred to soak up the sun. We, of course, have a child, so this wasn’t such a big issue for us.
KidTripster Tip: If you want a seat by the pool on one of the two days that the ship is at sea, you'll need to reserve chairs early in the morning.
Photo courtesy: Celebrity Cruises
The departing and arriving port is about an hour away from the Rome airport. The cruise does offer transportation, but it can get expensive at $75/person each way. We added on a three-day Rome package through Celebrity on the front end of our trip that covered those costs both ways.
In fact, you'll want to add a few days in Rome either on the front or backend of the cruise. We chose to book through Celebrity for convenience, especially in transporting to and from the ship, but we ended up regretting this decision as it felt expensive for what we received. The price was $1,229/person for transportation from the airport to the hotel, three nights at the Grand Hotel Palace, two tours that included one lunch and one dinner, and transportation to the ship and then back to the airport at the end of the cruise. Every detail was covered, but at more than $3,000 for the three of us, we felt like we could have planned it on our own for much less. Also, while we loved our tour guide in Rome, we felt the cruise-planned tour was lacking some of the extras that you definitely want in Rome, specifically the Vatican tour that includes the Sistine Chapel (it wasn’t part of our experience) and the Colosseum tour that includes going to the top and bottom for different perspectives; we were limited to the general public areas.
KidTripster Tip: When flying to Europe, it’s very convenient to arrive in Frankfurt, Germany, which has a speedy customs line. We were through in 5 to 10 minutes, while my sister’s family waited for more than an hour to clear customs in Rome.
Katy Brown Troftgruben was bit by the travel bug in college during a three-month journey around the world as part of the Semester at Sea program. The trip also inspired a 20-year career in broadcast journalism. She loves living in Oregon but looks for every opportunity to explore new territory with her husband and their 8-year-old daughter.
This writer received some complimentary excursions for the purpose of this review. However, all opinions expressed are solely her own.