Warning: this is a LONG post about our Carnival Cruise experience. There was so much to write about and I wanted to make sure you had ALL the information you needed. I am by no means a cruising expert, but I got tired of searching for cruise reviews and not finding anything specific. Feel free to bookmark this page and come back to it when you are ready to start planning your own cruise. If I remember anything else, I’ll add it in later.
I’ve cruised three times in my life. The first one just got my feet wet with a 3 day cruise to Mexico. We stopped in Ensenada, not a huge tourist destination, but it was fun and got me hooked on cruising. The second cruise I took was to Alaska. It was amazing, although I had three little kids with me at the time so all I remembered about the actual ship part was the fact that I was running after my kids the entire time.
The third cruise was this past December, a Carnival Cruise from New Orleans to the Western Caribbean. This time, the kids were old enough to have their own room, meaning I really got to experience the ship without being tugged on the entire time. There was a lot of good… and a little bad… and I kept wishing I had read some better written (and more honest) reviews before we set sail. Not that we wouldn’t have gone… it would just have been nice to be better prepared.
So, since nothing on this trip was sponsored, I’m sharing the things I wish I had known.
This was my first time sailing on Carnival. I’ve been on Royal Caribbean and Princess before, but the rooms on the Carnival Dream were the biggest so far. Our room had the two twin beds pushed together to make a king bed, and we had what could have been the 3rd bed as a sofa. What struck me most was that there were TWO bathrooms in the room. One had a sink, toilet and stand-up shower. The other had a sink and a tub/shower. Although it would have been nice to have two toilets, the fact that both my husband and I could get ready at the same time in the morning was a really nice bonus. The bathrooms are way too small for two people to be in at the same time. There were also two separate closets, another storage area where kept all our luggage, and an area with shelving for clothes. That was in addition to more drawer space and a desk. There was also a safe and a mini fridge. Pretty swanky. We had the opportunity to ask for bathrobes as well, but we decided we didn’t really need them. Oh yes… and the room had a hair dryer as well. One of the things I loved was the full dispenser of shampoo and body wash attached to the showers in both bathrooms. You don’t have to worry about carrying soap and shampoo with you… unless you want to. I still needed my conditioner.
My three girls had the room next to us. It looked exactly the same expect for the twin beds were left apart and the sofa was turned into a 3rd bed. Worked out perfectly!
One thing I wanted to add was that my in-laws were up on the 6th floor (we were on the 2nd) and they had a balcony room. Our room had an oversized window, which was great. It wasn’t a tiny porthole like we had on Princess, but they were able to actually sit out on the balcony of their room. Sounds great, right? Not so fast. How often do you really use the balcony? Unless you are spending the day in your cabin, it doesn’t get that much use. Also… the rooms with balconies were considerably smaller than our lower floor cabins. And they only had one bathroom!
Let’s talk food! When you are on a cruise, all the food is included. Kind of. There are other options for eating that actually DO cost money. On the Carnival Dream, there is a steakhouse where reservations are required. The price was $35 per person (not including beverages) and you could choose an appetizer, main course and dessert for that price. We thought about eating there one night instead of the dining room, but we ended up not doing it. The steaks that we had in the main dining room were actually really good. They were small, but the greatest thing about eating in the dining room or buffet is that you can order as many dishes as you like. If you want two steaks, you can order two steaks.
There was also a coffee bar that cost you money as well. You know, for those of you who can’t go a few days without your fancy coffee house drinks. My advice? Get creative. We went into the buffet room and filled a mug with half hot chocolate and half coffee. Voila… you have a pretty decent mocha. And it was FREE.
Also at the coffee bar, they served gelato (for a fee). Silly really when you can go get soft serve ice cream (in a cup or a cone) 24 hours a day for free! Yep… 24 HOURS A DAY!
Okay, back to the food. You have the option of eating in the main dining room or eating at the buffet. There are also other included dining options like 24 hour pizza (and it was amazing), a pasta restaurant (also included) and a 24 hour deli. They had a Mongolian Wok during lunch and also a Tandoori place open for lunch on the back deck. Several of the days they even grilled outdoors… hamburgers, hot dogs, sausages, chicken. Yum!
We decided to have dinner each night in the main dining room. The food was good… not great. Except for the night we were in Belize and they served lobster tails. Phenomenal. I was a little disappointed in the food to tell you the truth. I guess I expected a little better quality. The menu changed each night, although staples like salmon, steak, and chicken were available every night. The desserts left a lot to be desired. The chocolate mousse was great, the creme brulee not so much. My favorite meals were the lobster tails (of course) and the Beef Wellington. Delish!
We ended up having lunch at the buffet a few times… nothing special. Breakfast was the same whether you ate in the dining room or from the buffet. It really was just a matter of whether you wanted table service or to get it yourself. Bacon flowed freely… for those bacon lovers out there.
Like I said, the pizza was fantastic… and the pasta place was also a treat. The kids had reubens from the deli one day and said they were pretty great.
I am putting this as a separate category because there is a drink plan that you can purchase either prior to boarding or once you are on the ship. You have the option of a soda plan or an alcohol plan. For $5 a day (kids) or $7 a day (adults) you can drink soda until you float away. You will have to show your Sign & Sail card every time you request a soda and you’ll have to sign for it… but the only requirement is that you order sodas at least 5 minutes apart. They are on to you… they know you’ll end up getting drinks for everyone in your party and they are trying to avoid that happening.
The sodas on board cost $2.00… so if you are going to be drinking more than 2 or 3 a day, get the plan.
The alcohol plan costs $50 a day. On an 8 day cruise that will wrack up to an extra $400. Only you can decide if it’s worth it. The price of alcoholic drinks vary depending on what kind you are ordering. So… a regular drink can be anywhere from $7 – $12. If you are only getting an afternoon cocktail and then one with dinner, it’s not going to be worth shelling out the money for the plan. Believe me, I’m sure there were people who could have easily spent double that had they NOT gotten the alcohol plan.
So… water is free.
Not exciting, huh? Well, iced tea and lemonade are free as well and they are actually pretty good. I’m very picky about my lemonade but I really liked what they offered. You can go to the buffet any time of day or night and grab water, iced tea or lemonade. Even better if you bring your own water bottle so you can fill up.
On Board Activities
Each day you will receive a Fun Times newsletter in your room sometime in the early evening. This will tell you all about the next day of your cruise. If you are stopping at a port, you will get the rundown of when to debark and whether you will be leaving via gangway or tender. The tender is a boat that takes you from the ship into port on days when the ship drops anchor offshore. We only had to do this in Belize. It took about 20 minutes to get from the ship to shore and you will have to wait for a tender (boat) if there are a lot of people exiting the ship. The gangways were easier…you can get on and off whenever you like. More about the ports later.
That same newsletter also will list everything that is happening on the ship, from dining times to show times to classes and seminars and even movies.
One of our favorite things to do was watch the evening poolside movies. They had two different movies each evening and we would get blankets and lay on the lounge chairs on deck. Popcorn was free (as well as pizza and lemonade) and the movies were really good. One night was a double feature of The Avengers: Age of Ultron and Captain America: Civil War.
The big push on the ship was the Fun Shops. There was a gift shop, a candy shop, and a jewelry store. The jewelry store was constantly pushing their diamonds and other gems. All duty free. Great if you are from outside the USA, but I didn’t see any better prices than what we get here. I did buy a pair of Swarovski crystal earrings, however. They were pretty.
I thought the shops on our Princess cruise were much better… more variety for sure.
Every day there were trivia contests in one of the lounges. These were fun… but when all you win is a ship on a stick, it gets a little old. There were also some music trivia dance-offs and a lot of singers/bands in various lounges throughout the ship. They were pretty good if you want to just sit inside and listen to live music.
We didn’t get to the karaoke room but if you’re into that, they’ve got it.
We did go to several of the comedy nights. They have two different types (the PG13 version and the R rated version). We took the kids to the PG13 shows and we all really enjoyed them. Very funny… much better than some of the comedians I’ve seen here in Los Angeles.
If shows are your thing, they have those too. We only saw one of the live shows and it was a country show… songs and dancing. Not a huge country fan, but it was great for what it was. My in-laws went to one of the other shows and said it was fabulous. You kind of need to decide what your “thing” is. Do you like live shows, comedy, movies, music? There is something for everyone but you really can only choose one or two a night.
All in all, the activities are only as good as you want them to be. If you like to meet new people and are a joiner, you’ll love them. I’m not a meet-new-people kind of person so I preferred to hang out on deck reading a good book. (I read two of them.)
Where do I begin? Excursions booked through the cruise line are expensive… especially if you are purchasing for a family of 5. The good thing about purchasing this way is that if there is any type of problem at all (we had one of our excursion cancelled unexpectedly) you are covered. For instance, we received an immediate refund of our excursion fee so we were able to purchase an alternate excursion. You do NOT need to purchase prior to boarding despite the push to do so. You can purchase excursions while on the ship. They will just be billed to your ship & sail card. Another benefit in booking through the cruise line is that if you get stuck on a trip and can’t make it back to the ship on time, the ship will wait for you prior to sailing. They will not wait if you book on your own. Also, when you are traveling to a strange area, it’s kind of scary to book excursions on your own. We had never been to these locations before so I was wary of booking direct with these tour companies. You just never know what you are going to get. My in-laws wanted to save money so they ended up booking direct and honestly, it turned out just fine. You might not get the exact same tour but you’ll get something pretty close… or even better.
To give you an idea, we ended up not doing an excursion on our first stop to Costa Maya, Mexico. We took a shuttle from the cruise terminal to downtown… although the “downtown” was just a strip along the beach with a bunch of the same shops you can find in downtown Los Angeles. The small beach strip was crowded and it’s not fun being solicited the entire time. Nobody told us we would be near a beach (when I think of “downtown” I think shopping area away from the beach) so we all wore jeans and sneakers. Costa Maya IS a beach town… book an excursion or bring your bathing suit and plan on having a beach day.
Our next stop was Mahogany Bay on Isle Roatan in Honduras. Beautiful place… must nicer than Costa Maya. We had booked a zip line and beach excursion and it did not disappoint. You absolutely can book this on your own or when you arrive at the port since the zip line place is literally right IN the port. We went on 6 zip lines and it was crazy fun. These went through the forest (and were really high… don’t do it if you are terrified of heights) and the last zip line dropped you off right on top of the beach restaurant. We brought our suits and sandals in our backpacks (that we were allowed to keep on our backs while zip lining) and we changed and spent the afternoon enjoying the gorgeous water of the bay. Super fun day!
Belize was up next and I was rather disappointed. I always heard that Belize was a fabulous resort destination, but the port where we docked was NOT in the resort area. We had booked an excursion to the Mayan ruins. Our original excursion was cancelled due to lack of participation, so we booked an alternate and it was probably a good thing. We had a great time at the ruins and had amazing, knowledgeable tour guides. We got to see a good part of the city too. The ruins made up for the fact that the rest of the city wasn’t very exciting. If I went back, I would probably schedule a snorkeling excursion instead.
Our last stop was Cozumel. One of my dreams has always been to swim with the dolphins. When I saw that this was one of the excursions, I booked it immediately. Now, there were a few different dolphin excursions you could book and I chose the one that also offered free snorkeling and water sports as well as a buffet lunch. Please be careful of what you are booking. Turns out, the “swimming” with dolphins was only a “wading” with dolphins and if you wanted to actually hold onto their fins and have them pull you through the water you were going to have to fork out more money. Even so, the ones that did cough up the extra $25 or so only were allowed one “swim” with them. We had a great time and the dolphins were spectacular. We got to kiss them and pet them and feed them… but no swim time. Also, our “excursion” was set at 4 hours meaning by the time we actually arrived at the location and had our safety briefing where we received our flotation device (come on… we barely stepped foot in the water) and then grabbed some lunch, we had used up our 4 hours and we didn’t even have time for the water sports. Sure, they were free BUT you had to pay for the use of the snorkels (unless you brought your own) and the paddle boards, kayaks etc. I’m sure we could have saved a TON of money just waiting until we were in port and scheduling this ourselves. One more peeve… the buffet was supposed to come with all you an drink (alcohol included) and nobody even mentioned that you had to go over to the bar to get the drinks (away from the buffet) and there was only one drink that was free. A margarita. Sheesh!
I do love a great massage. Too bad I didn’t get one on the Carnival Dream. In fact, I didn’t get one on the Princess cruise either. Prior to sailing, I had booked a couples massage for our last day at sea. I though it would be great to really relax before ending our vacation. While David enjoyed his massage, mine fell a little flat. It was relaxing, just not fabulous. I would give it a 6 out of 10. The real kicker, however, was that the spa got our appointment time wrong. We had booked it for 3pm and also got a confirmation on our first day for that 3pm time slot. The day of the appointment we got a call in our room at 2pm asking where we were. Huh? They told us to come to the spa right away. I was not happy as we were right in the middle of packing, but we went. The receptionist ended up giving us a 20% discount which was great… but I did NOT love the masseuses staring us down as we signed our receipt. FYI… 20% gratuity is already included in the price. Unless they did a phenomenal job (they didn’t) then don’t add any more to the tip.
My sister-in-law went to the hair salon twice and said she was happy with the service. The only icky part was them trying to sell her product. It’s a hard sell too… so be prepared to say NO. Or be prepared to pay an extra $50 for some special hair moisturizer that you will have to lug home in your suitcase.
Here’s a tip: save your money and grab a beachside massage at one of the ports. They were doing them at most of the places we stopped and I heard from other passengers they were fabulous.
Before you even show your passport and check in, you will be asked to smile for the camera. Photographers are all over the ship (and the gangway and the port) trying to capture all those wonderful memories you are making. Every single photo they take will wind up in the Pixel area of the ship… and you are welcome to purchase them for a small (ahem… large) fee. It borders on ridiculous. You’ll be eating dinner and someone will want to take your picture. You’ll be playing with your kids on deck and someone will want to take your picture. You will be asked when you get off the ship, when you get on the ship, photos with the Captain, photos with the pirate, photos, photos, photos. There are casual photos and formal photos. Make it stop!
We felt like we were always saying no to a photographer. We did end up purchasing the first photo we took as a family when we were boarding… and one formal photo of me and David, and another formal one of the girls. Lucky for us, we actually had a free photo since it was David’s birthday on board. The photos were okay. Good but not great.
Get to know the staff. The staff can make or break the trip… much like your waiter can make or break a dining experience. Everyone was very nice on Carnival, but there are definitely a lot of employees from other countries and many of them are not well versed in English. We had some communication issues with a photographer and one of the servers, but everyone else was friendly and spoke English well enough. The fun part was asking them about their home countries and why they wanted to work on a cruise ship. They are all very open to talking and getting to know you. Many of them have Facebook pages too so you can check out what other ships they’ve been on.
If you have questions about anything… please feel free to ask. I am very open to sharing our experience. Overall, we had a fantastic time. A much needed break and I really do love being on a cruise ship. Each one is a little different and there are a lot of choices out there. Happy to help if I can.