So I finally broke down and took my first cruise. I have always been Mr. Adventure Traveler and resisted the total tourist experience of cruising. However, this was just too darn easy. The cruise line docks in Charleston about 15 minutes from our house. My wife Stephanie wanted to go. What the heck, I can have an adventure anywhere I told myself! Here is a breakdown of the experience.
1. Since you are crammed into a relatively small space with 2000 other people, this is a people watching extravaganza. If you are into human psychology or behavioral analysis like Stephanie, then you will have fun sitting back and watching humanity in action. I wasn’t into the hairy chest contest, karaoke or bingo, but you have to admit that watching the rednecks and the crazies can be entertaining.
2. The pizza was superb and served quickly. The food at breakfast and lunch was plentiful and was pretty darn good.
3. There is plenty of outdoor seating around the pool and other areas to soak up the rays. You could always find room where you were not crammed in with your neighbors (or you could cram in there like sardines if you wanted to). If you like to sunbathe then you will like the setup. There were also water slides and water park type setups for kids and adults.
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4. The onboard entertainment was not great but pretty good. We saw a couple of comedians and listened to a few one man bands. Again ok but nothing to base your trip around. Walking from your room a few hundred feet to a bar with a guy playing piano or guitar is pretty neat though. We did not go to other on ship entertainment such as karaoke, bingo or the casino. I noticed that the casino was small and contained gaming tables such as craps, blackjack, and some slot machines. It only opened when we were in international waters.
5. The shore excursions were diverse and a little something for everybody. There were adventure excursions such as boating, parasailing, Segway, kayaking, ziplining and jeep tours. There was also more sedimentary bus tours around the islands we stopped.
6. I think it is really cool to travel across the ocean to a new city that I have not been to so the trip did appeal to my adventurous nature.
7. I’ve heard the statement that “no one stays in your room anyway so don’t spend the extra money for a room with a window or balcony”. We got the room with a window. In hindsight, having a window was great. I think it would have been a little claustrophobic to have an internal room. Basically the room is a metal box and the window gave it a touch of class. I could look outside anytime day or night and see the weather and whether we had arrived at our port or not. However, if we had been on a strict budget, we could have absolutely lived with a room without a window and saved the $100 to $150. Our boat did not have balconies but I think it would be worth it to pay the extra for one if available.
8. Probably less than 5% of the people on the cruise use the gym but it is excellent. It has high quality weight machines, elliptical and tread mills and small free weights. The panoramic view off the front of the ship above the bridge is inspiring. Stephanie nor I went to the adjacent spa.
9. The sit down dining room was very well done particularly considering the number of people they serve on any given night. The food was diverse and tasted pretty good, not great but probably as good as you could hope for considering the setting. They had your typical beef, chicken and seafood and a few ethnic dishes. The wait staff was professional and pleasant. The lines to get in seemed long at times but always moved quickly. Carnival hands out beeper devices which is a great idea and allows guests to avoid the cattle syndrome and wait at the bar for their seats.
1. Without exception, throughout the trip, the coffee had a burnt or scalded taste like it was brewed the night before and sat in an urn for 12 hours. If you try to buy coffee that is fresh brewed from the bistro, you will be charged even if you paid the 1 time fee of $107 a day.
2. Carnival gets Internet from a satellite. It is very expensive and very slow. You pay for allotment times such as 45 , 90, 120 minutes etc.. I signed up for the 90 minute plan which I assumed would be plenty since all I wanted to do was occasionally check my email and check the stock market and headlines. For some reason, every time I would log in and then out, it would charge me an extra 10 to 15 minutes. What was supposed to be 90 minutes became about 25 minutes. Service was agonizingly slow which ate up extra minutes. A truly bad internet experience. It’s hard to believe Carnival can’t provide a better product
3. As with any trip where 100s or in this case over 2000 people are packed together in a relatively small space, you end up with the “cattle syndrome”. Every day you are standing in one line after another. In fairness, Carnival did about as good as could be possibly expected herding that many people. However, the reality is that you feel like a bunch of cattle many times during the trip.
4. I like things really simple. Carnival has a card system where each person is given a card to order drinks. Drinks including soft drinks cost money. Most food is included in the cruise fee. In our case, to keep things simpler, we got the lump sum deal where you pay $107 a day up front for beverages. The trouble is that you also pay for the last day that ends at 8:00 AM in the morning. Without realizing it, we paid this and figured out later we were getting ripped off for the extra day. Carnival is clever in that they give you scenarios on how many drinks you buy a day on a pay as you go basis versus the lump sum fee. They fail to factor in the last day where you must depart by 8:00 AM and are charged for drinks for that day.
5. The Carnival card system for buying drinks can be really annoying. You can only order for yourself. Therefore, you cannot go and pick up drinks for you and your spouse or kids. Each person has to order with their own card and be present at the time you order. This became really irritating when Stephanie and I parked our gear to get some sun. Good seats are hard to come by. Therefore, we couldn’t both leave to get drinks. Also, we ran the risk of leaving our gear open for thieves if we left something to hold our spot. We were then at the mercy of the wait staff. After 20 minutes of waiting, I finally went out and found someone to come and wait on us. Of course it took him another 20 minutes to finally bring our drinks. All in all, the wait staff is very professional. The negative part is the card system. I’m sure a few people game the system which has made Carnival become really strict on their customers. However, the current rules are draconian at best.
6. Carnival assigns a waiter for each room. He takes care of you. Our guy was really on the ball and gave us great service. Always pleasant and upbeat. Like many people, I own a camera, laptop and cell phone that need to be recharged. Every time we would leave the room, the cabin waiter would come in and unplug my devices. Since each room only has one plug, this can mess you up big time. Having a dead camera battery on the day of your shore excursion can drive you crazy! Again, this is not to blame the wait staff. They are just doing what they are told. This is a carnival rule that should be changed. Charging batteries for a camera, phone or laptop should be part of your fare and guests shouldn’t have to play cat and mouse with the wait staff to do it. One suggestion is to bring a multi-plug contraption for the electrical outlet. You must then religiously charge your devices whenever you go to your room. However, this can be a problem when you are 3 sheets in the wind at 2 AM but you must do it.
Anyway, survived a cruise with my sanity intact. I’m thinking a Mediterranean cruise or European river cruise might be pretty cool.