Now, if you had asked me prior to this trip if I would ever consider going on a cruise, I probably would’ve said no. For one thing, I’m prone to motion sickness. For another, I was sure that such a vacation must be incredibly expensive. It turns out that I may have been somewhat misinformed (or at the very least, overly neurotic), and so on these and other points I thought it was worth taking some time to share our experience.
In the spirit of full disclosure, let’s make the following clear:
1) I didn’t pay for this trip. My father did, because he’s awesome.
2) Carnival has not asked for, paid for, or is in any way aware of what I’m going to say about them.
3) Once I knew about the trip, I did strike a deal with Patricia; she paid for my internet access while I was on the ship, in return for linking to her when discussing travel agents and full disclosure of our arrangement. (While Patricia didn’t book our trip, I have known her for years and am familiar with her work and have no qualms about recommending her.)
With that said, let’s move on to details!
Packing: I found Patricia’s tips to be incredibly helpful. I overpacked—because I always overpack—but this was mostly because I was worried about the whole “dress for dinner” thing. Patricia was absolutely spot-on that there were only two “formal nights” all week, and even they weren’t all that formal. We could’ve brought much less “nice” clothing.
The tip to bring a power strip saved us. I would’ve had no idea, otherwise, that each cabin has only one outlet. The strip allowed us to charge computers, camera batteries, and video games all at once (hallelujah).
The only thing Patricia didn’t mention which I wish we’d thought of was water shoes (also called aqua socks… something like these). We all had flip-flops, but 1) many shore excursions forbid them (due to possibility of them falling off during activity) and 2) the pool decks are really hot. Like, get out of the pool and OW OW OW hop to your towel kind of hot. My daughter was the only one who had waterproof sandals, even. We ended up buying water shoes for my son and husband, and I actually rented a pair when we went cave tubing. If we ever go cruising again, water shoes for everyone!
The accommodations: I was very pleasantly surprised by the size of our room. Everything I’d read about cruising led me to expect we’d all be jammed into a space roughly the size of a airplane bathroom. We had a king-size bed and the kids had twin bunks, and while I wouldn’t call it spacious, it didn’t feel cramped. Thumbs up for Carnival on that score. (My parents were in a fancy room on one of the higher floors, and they even had a sitting area and couches. There were twelve of us altogether and we were easily able to congregate there and hang out without too much tripping on the kids.) The bathroom was tiny, but it’s not like you spend a lot of time in the bathroom.
That said, I’m guessing we may have enjoyed our vacation a bit more if we weren’t sharing a room with the kids. Ahem. Carnival does offer adjoining staterooms (ours actually was connected to another one, though we obviously kept the door locked), but then you’re paying twice as much, and they also have an age requirement for each room (so even if we’d wanted to pony up for a second room, we would’ve had to register it as one adult and one child for each room, as the kids wouldn’t have been “allowed” to stay alone). We’ll consider this option for the next cruise. After I win the lottery.
Carnival does twice-a-day housekeeping service—both a daytime cleaning and a nighttime towel-changing and bed turn-down—and they make funny little animals out of towels and leave them on the bed, as well as leaving chocolates. Clearly I have been locking my children in a basement and beating them senseless, because the kids thought that was the highlight of the vacation. People who make towel animals and leave them chocolate? This must be heaven!
The food: Oh my goodness, the food. The endless food. There is food everywhere. It’s insane.
The good: Most of the food is really good, and there are so many options that surely there will always be something you can find that you like. The service is generally very good, as well. Our dinner waiter was amazing with the kids, to the point where they looked forward to dinner because they wanted to see him, not because they were hungry. Ha!
The not-as-good: When doing our pre-registration stuff, I was able to mark down that my daughter is a vegetarian and I am gluten-free. I thought this would somehow affect the food available to us, but it didn’t seem to. The dining room routinely offered just one vegetarian entree each night, which was kind of a bummer for my daughter when everyone else had 6+ choices. And I found breading in odd places (and sometimes the waiters didn’t know if things had wheat in them or not), although it wasn’t a big deal. With lots of choices available, I never felt like I went without. I ended up sending food back for unexpected wheat only twice, which really is probably pretty good.
Also, we did go to the steakhouse one night for dinner (the only place you have to pay more to eat at), and it was really delicious (even better than the dining room). But given how good the all-inclusive food was, I probably wouldn’t do it again.
The people: We did this trip as an opportunity to get together far-flung family in a way that would allow us to hang out as a group and let people kind of do their own things, too. I thought for sure we’d be the biggest group on the ship, but guess what? Apparently this is a very common thing on a cruise. We saw lots of other families doing exactly the same thing, with large multi-generational groups congregating at dinner. That was pretty cool.
That said, there were also quite a few “young adults” celebrating graduation (from high school? college? I don’t know) and acting like, well, frat boys. People sometimes ran through the halls whooping and hollering late at night. That was kind of a drag. It was the exception rather than the rule, but it was annoying. Every now and then we’d find ourselves sandwiched in a hallway with some young adults using very foul language, too, which is difficult when you’re there with young kids and people obviously don’t have the manners to watch their mouths.
Also? There were something like 3,000 guests on that ship. On at-sea days it was crowded everywhere. That was very hard for my son, who doesn’t do well with lots of people and lots of noise. But Mir, you say, they have great kids’ programs on these “fun ships,” don’t they? Well…
On-board kids’ programs: Theoretically, my kids could’ve attended kids’ activities (details here): my son could do Camp Carnival and my daughter could do Circle C. We never sent either child.
Camp Carnival really felt like glorified babysitting. And although we’d been assured that they could handle special needs and they would even assign someone to be with my son during the day, if necessary, we didn’t feel comfortable leaving him there. (It’s one thing to say something like “my kid’s in a wheelchair” and assume the staff will figure that out, quite another to say “Hey, my kid has Asperger’s and may accidentally say something inappropriate and then get very anxious when he realizes he’s offended someone,” y’know?) I think that if you have a relatively social, well-adjusted, neurotypical kid, Camp Carnival would be fine. I also think it would’ve been a disaster for my particular child, so we passed.
Now, Circle C had some really fun-seeming options, and my daughter was dying to go, but all of their activities were late at night. I mean really late at night. As in, they often had programming that didn’t even start until 10:00. Um, my kids are in bed by 9:00. I don’t know who’s allowing their 12-year-old to go play paintball at midnight, but I am not. So. (I really found that puzzling, though, I’ve got to say.)
Carnival advertises themselves as being very family-oriented. Honestly we were a little disappointed in the “camp” offerings after all the hype.
On-ship entertainment: There are shows every night. It’s sort of like Vegas. If Vegas was compacted and stuffed into a ship. It’s not Broadway, and a certain level of schmaltz appears to be compulsory, but it was entertaining.
On-shore excursions: Here I have to admit that you have the opportunity to look over and book various shore excursions even before you leave on your trip, and we didn’t do that. In retrospect I’m glad we didn’t, because we might’ve booked something every day, and it turned out that we very much enjoyed have some time to just hang out on the ship when most people were on shore doing other things.
Shore excursions can be awesome but they can also be a lot of waiting in line, traveling, and waiting some more. That can be hard with kids. The excursion I thought the kids would love (snorkeling with stingrays) ended up not having a great fun/not-fun ratio due to the time it took to get there and back. The excursion I thought might be a disaster (cave tubing) because it was a long day had a better ratio, and was overall more of a success.
I can also see where—if you’re the one footing the bill—it can feel kind of cost-prohibitive to do some of the “cooler” sounding excursions, when you’ve already shelled out the cash for the cruise. All I can say is that if you’re considering a trip like this, build an excursion budget into your plans. Although it’s lots of fun on the ship, you’ll want to do some other stuff.
There were a lot of excursions that required participants to be 12+. That was kind of a bummer for my 10-and-a-half-year-old, particularly when it was things like “ride a horse along the beach.” The places these cruises visit thrive on tourism and have countless excursion vendors; the abundance of no-kids excursions seemed odd to me. Surely someone offers more kid-friendly options?
Motion sickness: We were blessed with very calm seas for our trip. My daughter is even more prone to motion sickness than I am, and so we’d gotten a prescription for a patch for her before we left. She wore it for about two days before complaining of blurry vision, which would’ve freaked me out if I hadn’t had several people tell me that’s a common side effect (ack). We took the patch off of her, the blurred vision cleared, and other than one less-than-perfectly-calm day when she asked for some Dramamine at bedtime, she never needed any other sickness preventive.
The rest of us never experienced any problems. Most of the time I nearly forgot we were at sea. The one not-so-calm day I did start to feel a little queasy when we could feel the ship rocking and we were sitting in the balcony at the theater, but I think that’s more a function of my fear of heights than the motion thing. Heh.
So what’s the bottom line? I got the impression from my parents that Carnival was very easy to deal with in terms of bookings and requests, and they were upgraded to VIPs I think because our group was so big (which meant they got a room upgrade, and we got some preferential treatment when it came to boarding and disembarking the ship). Everyone in our group agreed that it was a once-in-a-lifetime vacation, for sure. There was no shortage of things to do, and it was a great way to have “family time” without being forced to spend every minute of every day together.
Carnival gets big points from me for the cleanliness of the ship, the friendliness of the staff, and the quality of the food.
Carnival gets a so-so rating from me on the actual “family friendliness” of their on-ship programs and some of their excursions. (As for loud people in the hallways and the crowdedness on at-sea days, well, they can’t help that.) If we were to cruise with the kids again, I might look into a different cruise line—I hear some offer “family suites” which would allow us a separate room for the kids that’s still part of our room. On the other hand, if we were to take a cruise without the kids, I’d head back to Carnival without hesitation. (But again, it wasn’t a huge problem—we traveled with tweens and my stepbrother’s family brought their toddler and preschooler, and we all managed. We kept the little kids one morning while they went on a no-kids shore excursion, no one went to the kids’ programs, and we all still had a great time.)
The only thing I really didn’t like about cruising—and I can only assume this is the same everywhere—is the fact that people are in your face constantly to take your picture (in the hope that you will then go to the gallery and buy the pictures they took). That part I could’ve done without. But in the grand scheme, that’s pretty minor.
We had a really good time. And on the last night we bought overpriced, foofy drinks that came in cups shaped like the Carnival “signature winged funnel” (that weird tailfin-looking thing on the top of the ship), and I told the waitress we were drinking for the children. She looked confused, but I tell you what—the kids were more excited about having those cups to take home than they were about the towel animals. True story.