I'm back from the Explorer of the Seas 5/16 sailing and I thought I'd post what is *hopefully* useful information for everyone, particular newbies like I was on this cruise. I also had the benefit of traveling with an experienced cruiser (my girlfriend) and she was able to let me know about things that are "new" since her last cruise in 2000.
We got there pretty early for embarkation - about 10am or so. My girlfriend sais she'd never gotten there so early for embarkation before, but even without her input I would have been able to tell that it was a good idea. There's a little "waiting area" with chairs right where you have to go through those first metal detectors. They don't just let it get packed, though - after all the chairs were filled they pulled up those little divider ropes like they have at movie theaters and people started backing up in a line that circled back around and down the escalator (and presumably farther than that). Besides being a MUCH more comfortable wait, when they DID let us embark they wait until that seated waiting area is cleared before starting to let that other line go through. By the time they got inside, we were already registered and at the front of the line to board. Definitely better than getting caught in a big flood of people.
Almost on the ship:
After you get through the metal detectors you go to the counters to register and get everything set to get onto the ship. It's pretty easy - you just show your identification (birth certificate and DL, or passport), leave a credit card for your sea pass account, and give them your tickets. They give you your sea pass card and send you to a booth to get your picture taken. The booth is right at the place where the ropes begin for the line to wait to get onto the ship (yes, you do have to wait again). When you get to the booth they insert your sea pass card and a camera in the booth takes your picture and stores it in their computer. Everytime you get back onto the ship at a port they scan your sea pass and your picture pops up so they can make sure it's really you and not just someone with your card. My girlfriend said that much was new to her, but I think it's a pretty good idea. After the picture you just stand there in that line and wait until they start boarding passengers. They'll board their frequent cruisers (Crown and Anchor) first, but that doesn't take to long and then you're on your way onto the ship.
Getting on the ship:
Because we got there so early, the staterooms weren't ready when we got on the ship. This was the same for everyone - even the suites (we were on the same deck with the suites and they took just as long to get turned around by the staff). If you feel comfortable doing so despite the fact that the doors on the rooms stay open and unsecured until they're done cleaning you can drop your carry on stuff in your room anyway (probably a good idea to let the staff know you're doing that though). We just went ahead and carried our stuff with us since it was just our cameras and one bag. You can take your time touring the ship right then if you like, but I recommend going straight to the Windjammer Cafe (11th deck, aft of the ship - that's the back for all you land lubbers ;P). Since all the shops, casino, and eatery are still closed at that point and by then it's getting near to lunch time (still a bit early, but close enough that you can go ahead and eat without getting your schedule too out of whack), everyone flocks to the Windjammer to get food. Take my advice - go early to beat the crowd, then tour the ship afterwards. You've got plenty of time before the ship even begins to move from port.
Drink (soda) cards:
A HUGE waste of money! Unless you drink a soda about every 5 minutes I recommend against these. Even if you DO drink a lot of sodas, buy a couple of cases at the grocery store and bring them with you. Here's the breakdown - sodas from the fridge in your room cost $1.75 each (US Currency). The drink card ends up costing you $52.61 with tax and gratuity. Besides the fact that you could drink 29 of the overpriced sodas from the fridge for that same amount (4 a day, which is more than I usually drink anyway), you CAN'T use the card to get sodas from room service or the Champagne Bar on the ship. You also can't "share" a drink card (at least not if they know you're doing it - you only show them the card with the sticker when you get your drink so you could probably "sneak" around that limitation). If you want to drink something besides Coke, Diet Coke, or Sprite you're out of luck too - even though they have other "sodas" (ginger ale for example), the drink card doesn't apply to those. I saw a little girl go up to one of the counters wanting a ginger ale with the drink card her parents had purchased for her (admittedly, the drink cards for the kids are somewhat cheaper) and they told her should could only get Coke, Diet Coke, or Sprite with the card. Why?!?! It's still soda. The only thing I can come up with is that you can only get sodas "on tap" at the counters and not anything that would require them to open a can. Here's a MUCH better option if you feel the need for soda that much - take an extra suitcase and load it with 2 or 3 twelve packs of soda, put clothes or something around them to cushion them (the suitcases are all thrown together on big carts), ask the cabin steward to empty the fridge in your cabin when you get there (yes, they will do that if you request it), and stock up with your own drinks at about $.25 a can instead of $1.75. I just have to reiterate that I felt like this was a TOTAL rip off and it's not something I'll be doing again (I made the mistake of getting one this time).
Turn Down Service:
I just mention this because my girlfriend said this was something different than her prior cruise experiences. There was no turn down service the first night. In fact, we didn't see our cabin steward the entire first day. My girlfriend said this was very unusual because normally they make an effort to introduce themselves to you, and she's always gotten turn down starting the first day. It may have been a fluke, but in case it wasn't I wanted to mention it to any veteran cruisers so they'd be prepared for the change.
The biggest thing I can say about dinner (besides the usual "make sure you're happy with your tablemates", etc) is don't be afraid to order more food. If you like a particular appetizer, order two (or six). Can't decide between entrees? Order them both. They don't give you any hassle at all and it's a great way to sample new stuff. There were numerous times that I got something, liked it, but then saw someone else at the table with something else that looked good and said, "Bring me one of those too". As long as you don't mind gaining a few pounds you're good to go (I gained 5 pounds on the cruise). ;P Luckily we were blessed to have great dinner companions so we didn't have to get our seating changed or anything. I have to say that if we HADN'T had such great tablemates we definitely would have moved because our table locations S*CKED! If you want to see any of the little shows they put on during the dinners (not big productions, but entertainment nonetheless) then make sure you have a direct view of the grand staircase - they don't make much effort to bring the entertainment to you if you don't. It didn't bother me so much because we had great conversation at our table, but if you don't get lucky enough to have that then the entertainment could be a nice distraction.
Not much to say about this except that, when you go through the pictures they take of you on the cruise (they're displayed on deck 3), take any unwanted photos to the desk and tell them you don't want them rather than leaving them on the walls. They take a LOT of pictures and there are a LOT of people on board so those walls get crammed with photos in a hurry. Letting them know they can take some down really does help out with that (and makes it easier to find pictures you DO want).
On the western carribean route there's no tendering anymore. My girlfriend told me this was different from the last time she went. St Maarten in particular is one that now has a HUGE dock that it didn't used to have (we had to walk a 1/2 mile to get to the meeting place for our shore excursions there).
I don't know about jewelry because we didn't go looking for any, but if you want to shop for just about anything else do it in St Maarten. That's the port where you can "haggle" with the sellers, and it had the best prices to begin with anyway for the most part. If you're looking for tee shirts, souveniers, or a knock off Gucci, Louis Vitton, Kate Spade, etc, etc then this is the port to get it from. Be sure to bring cash, though, because half the proprietors use the line "I can give you a better deal for cash". Hmmmmm... I guess they prefer not to have a record of the transactions. ;P
This is also something new that's part of Homeland Security since 9/11. On the morning that you reach St Thomas you have to go through another immigration check because you're coming into the US Virgin Islands from a foreign territory (St Maarten). You have to have the same identification you did to get on the ship - either a passport or a birth certificate and DL. The line gets HUGE before they open the doors, which made me VERY apprehensive since we had an early shore excursion that morning, but once the doors open (they run the check in the dining room at the back of the ship) the line moves surprisingly fast. Everyone got out in plenty of time to make their excursions - even those at the back of the line.
This also reminds me - when you go ashore in the Bahamas make sure you take a picture ID in addition to your sea pass. The bahama police check them before they let you back on the dock to get back on the ship. They put a reminder in the daily ship newsletter, but I thought I'd mention it here in case anyone here doesn't tend to read the newsletter.
There were a couple of costs at the ports that we didn't anticipate. For example, taxis. The Explorer is a BIG ship, so even though there are now docks at all the ports and no tendering we don't really dock "close" to the best places at the ports. That means you either hoof it or shell out for a taxi. I'd probably plan for US$10 per person per port for taxis. This may be overkill depending on the port and how much you use the taxis (or for some people this could be low balling), but it's a good average number.
Hidden excursion costs:
Even once you've already paid for your excursions, you'll still want to take some extra cash with you on the excursions themselves. We mainly took water excursions (snorkeling, scuba, etc), and most of those had a "crew works for tips" sign up. Sometimes you'll get a really great crew and want to tip them, but you can't do it if you didn't bring any cash with you. You may also decide you want an underwater camera, tshirt, hat, or some other souvenier from the excursion and most of the time they only take cash for those as well. For our scuba trip, I wanted to rent a wet suit for my girlfriend because the water was only 78 degrees farenheit and she tends to prefer it to be very warm. It was only $5 which was pretty reasonable to me, but if you don't have any cash in that situation someone might end up being very cold in the water.
I mention this because it's something my girlfriend said was new. You can put your crew tips on your sea pass account now. When my girlfriend has gone before you always had to tip in cash, but now you can go to the customer service desk up until 8pm on Friday night and have them put the tips on your sea pass (they automatically put the "recommended" tip, though I'd imagine you could ask them to put extra on there). If you do it that way they give you a "ticket" that you put in the tip envelope for the applicable crew member (cabin steward, waiter, asst waiter, etc). You CAN still just tip in cash if you like, though.
I almost forgot about this one. There are a couple of "caveats" about some of the shore excursions. We took the "BOB" excursion in St Thomas and it was fairly disappointing. Not because of the BOB, but because you go on a boat with 34 people and they only have 8 BOBs. Consequently you end up taking "turns" in the BOB and the time you get is pretty short. They give you snorkleing gear while you're not in the BOBs so you're not just sitting there bored, but I enjoyed the snorkeling more then the BOB part of it because I could range further than we got to in the BOBs. Since the time's so limited and they want you to stay in a single file line while you're in them, you really don't get to go very far. I very much recommend saving yourself about $60 a person and just booking a snorkeling excursion instead. Similarly, with both the "Stingray adventure" and "Dolphin encounter" excursions you're in a big group of people that gets shepherded through an area with the animals. Your actual time with them is VERY limited and that takes a good bit of the fun out of it (at least it did for me). The stingray adventure isn't too much more than a snorkeling trip so you may still want to go with that one (because you do get to snorkel when you're not with the stingrays), but as much as I really like dolphins (they're what I wanted to see the most on the cruise - I think dolphins are totally cool) it really just doesn't seem worth the money you pay for it.
Sorry for being so long winded, but these are all things I learned from the cruise and I thought they might be helpful to others going on the same cruise. If any more come to mind I'll add them to the thread to give as much info as I can. Hopefully someone will find it useful.