Have you ever wished you could have many of the perks that suite guests enjoy on Royal Caribbean without having to pay for a suite? You can! The Key on Royal Caribbean is a for-a-fee program offering priority boarding, private hours at onboard activities, preferred theater seating, and more.
On most cruise lines, there are only two ways to get priority status that lets you skip all of those long lines, enjoy exclusive dining, and generally be treated like the VIP you know you are. You could book a full suite, which is way out of the price range of the average cruiser. Or, you could reach a high level in the company’s loyalty program. That means taking tons of cruises with the same cruise line!
But on an RCI cruise, there’s a way to get these perks without spending lots of cash on a suite or waiting years to build up your loyalty status: The Key! Let’s take a look at what this program offers, and see if it’s worth booking for your next Royal Caribbean cruise.
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How does The Key work?
Booked guests on most Royal Caribbean sailings have the choice to upgrade to The Key, a program that offers enhanced benefits. For a daily fee (paid in advance of sailing) cruisers who join the program will have access to several exclusive perks throughout their cruise vacation.
Just by flashing your SeaPass, Key members can take advantage of lots of benefits that the vast majority of RCI cruisers don’t have. Look for signs in the cruise terminal on embarkation day and around the ship, or let a crew member know that you have The Key to take advantage of your benefits.
Since 2018, when The Key was rolled out as a pilot program on select ships, some benefits have been modified. If you purchased the program on a previous RCI cruise, be sure to carefully read the updated explanations of each perk listed below before you buy it for your next sailing.
What benefits do you get with The Key?
- Priority check-in and boarding on embarkation day
- Carry-on bag drop off and stateroom delivery
- Welcome lunch with a menu featuring Chops Grille on embarkation day
- Private hours for onboard activities, including Rock Climbing, FlowRider and more
- Priority tender boarding
- VIP seating for shows in the Main theater, Aqua Theater, Studio B, and Two70
- Unlimited high-speed internet
- Exclusive à la carte breakfast on disembarkation day
- Choice of departure time at disembarkation
1. Priority check-in and boarding
RCI cruisers who purchase The Key can enjoy expedited check-in, and are able to board the ship before the general boarding begins. If you want to get your vacation started ASAP, this is an amazing perk.
Planning to arrive at the cruise terminal a bit later in the day? This benefit might not be as valuable to you. Although you’ll be able to bypass the long lines at check-in, you’ll be boarding the ship (and waiting for those notoriously slow embarkation day elevators) along with everyone else.
2. Carry-on bag drop off
An interesting perk with The Key program is the ability to drop off carry on luggage (usually in the theater until 1:30 PM). Crew delivers your bags to your stateroom and leaves them in the room—not outside your door like regular checked luggage.
When I first heard about this service, I thought it was an odd perk to offer. I know I carefully pack my embarkation day bag with exactly what I’ll need for the day plus any valuables I need to keep an eye on. Everything else gets dropped off with the porters outside the terminal. I couldn’t imagine why anyone would carry on a bag, only to check it soon after boarding!
But, since RCI allows passengers to carry on limited amounts of non-alcoholic drinks and bottled wine (see my post about carrying on beverages for their current rules), you probably won’t want to be carrying those around with you all day. Being able to drop those off would be super-convenient.
Or, you might have small bags that could be damaged by the porters (have you ever watched them load up those big carts with suitcases?). Key members can drop those bags off with less worry about damage from rough handling.
Royal Caribbean does set some limits with this perk. Passengers can drop off up to two pieces per person, and items can’t weigh more than 25 pounds.
3. Welcome lunch
When The Key program was first rolled out, one of the perks was an exclusive embarkation day lunch at Chops Grille or Jamie’s Italian specialty restaurants. However, this benefit has recently changed. Now, the welcome lunch is in a main dining room with a menu featuring items from Chops Grille.
Although the menu offerings for the new exclusive lunch are elevated compared to complimentary lunch menus, RCI no longer offers the chance for Key members to enjoy the ambiance of lunch at Chops (a benefit that normally costs $21.95 per person).
4. Private hours for onboard activities
Another perk that has recently changed for Key members is the availability of private hours for several of the onboard activities. Initially, RCI set aside several one-hour blocks each cruise for VIP access to activities like FlowRider, rock wall climbing, ice skating, and the zip line.
Recent RCI cruisers report that most sailings now only offer one private hour per week for each activity for Key members.
Additionally, the private hours take place during off-peak times. This is understandable, since limiting super-popular activities to a small number of guests during the busiest hours could anger a lot of cruisers. But keep this in mind if you’re looking forward to enjoying this perk. You might not be interested in trying the FlowRider at 9 AM, or climbing the rock wall at 5 PM—but those are common times for Key private hours.
Private hours vary by ship and sailing, and the schedule is delivered to your stateroom on embarkation day.
5. Priority tender boarding
At tender ports, where the ship ferries passengers to shore using smaller boats, Key members can take advantage of priority boarding when going ashore. Tendering operations can often take hours to get all the passengers to shore, so this is a valuable benefit if your itinerary has multiple tender ports.
This benefit doesn’t apply to docked ports, or for tendering back to the ship. However, some RCI ships have started offering Fast Track boarding when returning to the ship, and Key members are eligible.
6. VIP seating for shows
Passengers with The Key are able to sit in a VIP seating area for many shows, including those in the main theater, Aqua Theater, Studio B, and Two70. This is usually balcony seating, so if you want seats right up front you’ll need to arrive very early to beat the crowds in the general-access seating.
Tip: Be sure to still make reservations for shows in advance and arrive at least 15 minutes before showtime. Crew often opens up the VIP seating area to all passengers a few minutes before the show begins.
7. Unlimited high-speed internet
Cruisers who purchase The Key can enjoy unlimited high-speed internet throughout the voyage. The package includes one device per person.
Royal Caribbean’s internet service, known as VOOM, is well-known for being very fast. RCI actually claims that it’s six times faster than any other WiFi at sea! You’ll be able to stream or download movies and music, or make FaceTime or Skype calls on the ship and on RCI’s private island CocoCay.
Arguably the most valuable perk included with the program, unlimited VOOM packages normally go for $17.99 per day for one device when purchased separately. (Family plans are available at a discount for additional devices.)
8. À la carte breakfast on disembarkation day
On disembarkation day, Key members can enjoy an exclusive breakfast in the main dining room before leaving the ship. Offerings usually include hot items like steak & eggs, crab Benedict, French toast, pancakes, and eggs made to order. Traditional continental breakfast items are also on the menu, like cereal, yogurt, pastries and fruit.
9. Choice of departure time at disembarkation
Toward the end of your cruise, keep an eye out for a letter in your stateroom detailing the disembarkation process. This letter also contains your Key luggage tags, ensuring that any bags you put outside your door on the last night arrive in the designated Key section in the terminal for pickup.
You’ll be able to choose what time you disembark, which is nice if you’d like to enjoy a leisurely private breakfast first, or if you need to hurry off the ship as soon as possible.
If you do choose to have the exclusive breakfast, a crew member should be available to escort you and your bags off the ship right from the restaurant when you’re done. If no one offers this service, be sure to ask!
Frequently asked questions about The Key on RCI
How much does The Key cost?
Pricing for The Key varies by itinerary. Since the program began in 2018, passengers have reported paying anywhere from $19.99 to over $35 per person per day. On my canceled October 2020 repositioning cruise aboard Brilliance of the Seas, RCI was running a 45% off sale. On this sailing, the price per person per day would have been a little over $12, the lowest price I’ve ever heard of for the program!
How do you buy The Key?
After you book a Royal Caribbean cruise and you can access your Cruise Planner, you’ll see a link to purchase The Key for your cruise. The program won’t be available to buy once you’re on board the ship.
Does everyone in your group need to buy The Key?
If one person in a stateroom buys The Key, all other passengers in that stateroom age six and over need to also purchase the program.
If you’re traveling with a group in more than one cabin, group members in another room that haven’t purchased The Key won’t be able to join you for preferred boarding, exclusive dining, or in the preferred seating at shows.
Can you purchase The Key for select days of a cruise?
Although RCI advertises the cost of The Key on a per-day basis, cruisers must purchase the program for all days of a sailing.
Can you get The Key for any sailing?
RCI currently offers The Key on all sailings on all ships except for Quantum of the Seas, Majesty of the Seas, and Voyager of the Seas.
When is The Key available for your cruise?
The Key will usually show up as an option for purchase in your Cruise Planner about 90-100 days before your sailing. If you’re thinking about purchasing the program, it’s a good idea to check around this time because it does tend to sell out.
How many The Key passes are available per cruise?
When The Key program first launched, RCI limited the passes to 100 passengers per cruise. However, some recent passengers report up to 200 passes sold on their cruises.
Royal Caribbean hasn’t announced a current policy for how many passes they’re now offering on any given sailing. But, given that many of the Key perks are also shared by suite and elite loyalty members, they might adjust the number of passes based on how many of those passengers plan on sailing.
This is just my own personal theory! But Carnival Cruise Line, whose Faster To The Fun program is very similar, determines how many passes they sell per cruise based on those figures.
How does the ship’s crew know who has purchased The Key?
When you receive your SeaPass card, you should see a small decal on the front indicating that you’re a Key member. This Key decal is how the ship’s crew knows that a guest is part of the program, so it’s important to have it on your SeaPass card. If you notice that your card doesn’t have the decal, visit the Guest Services desk on board and they can attach the sticker.
For some activities, crew will give Key members a wristband once they’ve shown the decal on their card. You can remove the wristband when you finish the activity, and get a new one later—there’s no need to keep the wristband on for your entire cruise.
Who shouldn’t purchase The Key?
Full suite guests already receive many of the benefits of The Key program as part of their booking. Cruisers who have booked any suite category (except Junior Suites) will already enjoy priority check-in, embarkation and tendering, private breakfast and lunch seating, reserved theater seating, and priority disembarkation.
Cruisers who have reached Diamond, Diamond Plus, and Pinnacle Club status in RCI’s Crown & Anchor Society also already get many of these perks as well. If you’re in any of these elite clubs, you’ll have priority check-in and embarkation, reserved theater seating, priority disembarkation, and a private departure lounge with continental breakfast.
Guests in a suite, and those who are Diamond level or above also might not need to purchase The Key because many of the benefits are already included. If you’re already planning to buy WiFi, The Key might make sense depending on how many devices you want to activate. The VOOM family plans come with a significant discount if you’re purchasing for three or more devices, so it may be cheaper to just buy the WiFi.
The only Key perk that’s not included with any of these programs is the reserved hours for select activities. But, ever since RCI cut back on those times, the value of this perk is less than it used to be.
Additionally, priority check-in and boarding are not available in Vancouver or at any ports in Australia, so keep this in mind if you’re cruising from these locations.
What time is check-in for passengers who have The Key?
Boarding for Key members usually begins around 10:30 AM, so if you want to be among the first to get on board the ship, plan to arrive a bit before this time to check in. Many cruise terminals have a special waiting area for Key members, and staff will call you for boarding just after suite and high-level loyalty members.
Is The Key like buying loyalty status?
The Key program is controversial among some high-level Crown & Anchor members. Some feel that offering many perks (that used to be exclusive to them) to anyone willing to pay a bit extra is essentially selling loyalty status.
I can see where they’re coming from! It takes a lot of cruise days sailed to reach these high levels. But, cruisers who buy The Key don’t have access to lots of perks that elite loyalty members have. Key members don’t have access to the Diamond or Concierge Clubs, exclusive events, and behind-the-scenes tours. They also don’t get upgraded amenities, exclusive gifts, or priority waitlist seating in the main dining rooms.
Elite loyalty members also board the ship before Key members, so they still have higher-priority access to the ship to get their vacation started early.
Is it worth it to buy The Key on a RCI cruise?
Whether or not The Key is worth the money really depends on your situation. If you’re cruising with kids age six and up, you’ll need to also buy a Key package for them at the same price charged for adults. But many kids won’t use or appreciate most of the included perks. Much of the value of the program is in the unlimited internet. Kids in the 6-10 age range (despite how much they use their tablets at home) probably won’t be online too much on a cruise.
You may also like: Cruising with Kids: 19 Essential Tips
Cruisers looking to skip the long lines, especially for tender ports, might get a lot of value out of the package. Without The Key, if you’re late reserving tender tickets, the earlier times will probably be gone. This can pose a problem if you’re meeting a self-booked tour (or if you just have lots of things you wanted to see and do in port). But if you’re booking shore excursions directly through RCI, you’ll already have priority tendering for those excursions.
Some people just love the exclusive perks that the program includes, and the per-day cost is absolutely worth the money. You could book the cheapest inside guarantee stateroom, but have access to lots of the benefits that suite and high-level loyalty members enjoy.
Ultimately, the value of this program is subjective. But if you’re already planning on purchasing the WiFi package for everyone in your stateroom, I think that upgrading to The Key is almost a no-brainer—especially if RCI is running a sale when you buy.
Be sure to check out these resources when you’re planning a Royal Caribbean cruise:
- 10 Rookie Cruise Mistakes to Avoid When Booking
- 37 Cruise Tips: What to Do Before Your Cruise
- The 19 Best Cruise Accessories You Need to Pack
Have you bought The Key on a Royal Caribbean cruise? What did you think of the perks? Let me know in the comments below!
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