The Want Not Review: Carnival Cruises

By Mir
June 22, 2010
Category Product Talk | Travel

At long last I’m ready to tell you all about our big trip—we were on a Carnival Cruise for a week, seeing the western Caribbean. (Specifically: We were on the Carnival Valor.)

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.

I also want to thank Patricia once again for sharing her informative posts on how to pack for a cruise and how to save money on board. I’ll be touching on some points she shared, too.

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.


  1. Thank you for the thorough review! We’ll be cruising for the first time next winter. I also would’ve never thought to do it given other vacation options, but we got a cruise with our new kitchen cabinets. Because that makes sense. I’m kind of nervous about it because I like to know exactly how my travels are going to go and I’m not hugely trusting when traveling. So I need to remember to refer back to you and Patricia’s posts as we get closer.

    I didn’t know that your son has Aspergers. My brother (now 29) has Aspergers, although when we were growing up they just weren’t diagnosing it and therefore schools weren’t providing resources for these kids. Very frustrating for all. Glad that schools have come a long way on that front. His son, who is 2, is also on the spectrum. But because my sister-in-law had eyes wide open looking for it, he is getting the early intervention that my brother never had.

  2. Your review definitely changed my view of cruises and Carnival in particular. I had a negative view of Carnival based upon my wife’s cruise with them over 10 years ago (not fair, I know) and had written them off completely. I’d certainly consider them now based upon your experience.

  3. I love to cruise and have had two experiences with Carnival; one wonderful, and one terrible (no working shower for 3 out of 4 days). I found that the staff on the ship was wonderful and my only complaint was the shower ordeal and I did not think this was taken care of satisfactorily at all. In hindsight, I’d have argued and been even more demanding for satisfaction while on the ship, rather than just wait and try to deal with it by phone/mail when we got home. At that point nobody wanted to do anything about it and as a result of that, I’m done with that particular cruiseline. Disney is by far my favorite cruiseline and we are planning our second cruise with them in September. I’m uber excited! ๐Ÿ™‚

  4. Mir! Who knew you were an AutieMama? (doing secret handshake gesture, no really, I am.) One of my twins (six) has autism and I know, man, do I know, what it’s like to plan and prepare for all the magic that is life with a spectrum kid. We just returned for our first vacation in ten years (OBX) and when my sister in law asked “How they could help?” I must have sounded like quite a simpleton b/c all I could say was, “I have no idea. This is our first vacation with him as well.” Nice, Mommy. Everyone was impressed with my knowledge of the immediate area and the house (“oh yes, you DO have an outdoor shower AND there are 8 tvs and six dvd players and three decks and a moon roof, and and and) because I’d pored over the floorplan like jewel thief to check out just how many tvs/dvd players could be trashed…how deep the private pool was…how many doors there were (big house, we were totally sponging off generousity and maybe pity (?) of SIL.) Anyway, with the exception of far fewer autie moments than I’d anticipated, he did spectacularly! “What? a big, big sandbox hooked to a big big pool that has a big big wave machine? Sweet Mercy! I am home!” (well, that’s what he WOULD have said, based on his response, if he were a teensy bit more verbal) .

    I’m just now beginning to work with older kid aspies (hope that isn’t an offensive word, our online group is unofficially The Autism Underground, or Autie Undies, and we talk aspies, auties, and typs) and auties, since I have this piece of paper that says I was a teacher last century. My (metaphorical) hat is off to you–I often think that Aspergers is a much bigger challenge for everyone involved. Autism is, you know, hot, hot, hot, esp., when the autie is six and red hair and dimples, but Aspergers is (to me) harder in so many ways. How does GA rank in services in your opinion? Purely just my interest. We’re in Alabama…’nuff said, but we’ve been very, very fortunate. There’s a great site called Got Autism? where some fab shopping can be done for spectrum kids of all ages.
    Anyway, I think you’ll probably get more comments from autiemamas than from cruise survivors, but I would guess we’re just thrilled to know you’re “onboard.” (Little cruise humor for you, just to keep it topical.)–leslie

  5. Thanks for the great review! I haven’t cruised (yet) and it seems a bit overwhelming. Your review helped alleviate a bit of that feeling.

  6. I, too, really appreciate the thorough review. I have not booked a cruise yet, but we will be once the kids are a bit older and we can afford to do it right. There’s pretty much no way we can afford separate rooms so it is nice to know that 4 to a room is do-able. And that the dining room food is just as good as the food you pay for, or at least almost.

    The crowds might put me off – I get very claustrophobic when there are too many people milling about. Wonder if I could get a doc to give me some Xanax for the trip!

    One thing I would like to know, if you don’t mind addressing it, and anyone else who has been cruising as well, because this is a huge roadblock to cruising for me – I’m terrified of water, like lakes and oceans and such. Pools I am fine with, and I did surprisingly well snorkeling in Jamaica, but the water was very clear and I could see the bottom not far below. People tell me that you don’t even notice that you are on the water, but I’m envisioning having to walk along the side of the ship with that dark scary water right over the side. Are the pathways to get places on ship generally inside corridors, or do you actually have to walk along the edge of the ship? Is it possible to avoid getting anywhere near a railing the entire time at sea?

    Yes, I know I’m a freak, but I just can’t seem to help it! ๐Ÿ™‚

    Glad that you had a great experience over-all!

  7. Hee hee. I’m acquainted with a noisy-hall-mongerer who is also a passionate cruiser. Of course, she’s in her late 60’s and is post-polio so it’s not so much running up the halls as cruising her walker at top speed, giggling like mad and making inappropriate comments to the wait staff.* I admit, I’m not sure I could survive a cruise with her and her fantastic sister – but your review is making me at least consider it!

    *Note, to my certain knowledge she was whooping it up on dry land during your cruise so it is NOT HER FAULT. This time.

  8. Christina, you can ABSOLUTELY stay away from railings pretty much the entire time you’re on the ship. In fact we had one day when I remarked that I was pretty sure I hadn’t been outside the entire day (oops).

    That said, keep in mind that at some ports you don’t actually dock—instead, you drop anchor a ways out (the water closer to shore is generally too shallow to accommodate the ship, in those locations) and take a smaller boat in to shore if you want to disembark. That involves a small walkway and a bobbing boat and might be hard for you.

    I’d suggest you talk with Patricia or another agent who specializes in cruises so that you could select the trip least likely to put you face-to-face with deep water. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  9. Chris: the one thing I can tell you about Carnival is that it is a polarizing cruise line. In the 70’s (and really into the 80’s), they were very much the party cruise line. One of the people I know was on one of their first ships and mentioned that literally the guests were drinking the bar dry at night. They didn’t enforce rules, they weren’t strict about age limits and such — thus they have a lasting poor reputation of the Party line. Today, Carnival has worked very hard to change that image and certainly have many more rules. I find them one of the strictest with age minimums to sail alone — which does make for far fewer frat boys. That said they haven’t given up the flashy party atmosphere — I’m betting one of the hardest things for Mir’s son to deal with was the incredible amount of LEDs flashing and color changing. The interiors (except for the cabins) can tend to be very bold/loud/wild in decor (ok, so my husband once asked my Carnival rep what drugs Joe Farcus (the designer) was taking and if someone could taken them away from him) and I often find the cabin to be the restful spot to be for my eyes and my ears.

    I have a few clients who have issues with water — and yes, you won’t have to go near a railing unless you choose to — except (as Mir pointed out) if you tender to a port. This can be controlled with some planning. Will you know you are on a ship — well, I will promise there is some motion — not much, but it isn’t solid ground. But you never know, it might really help you face this fear if you try a short hop cruise (like 3-4 days) to see if you can stay calm.
    But I really wanted to tell you about the cabins. Carnival boosts some of the largest in the industry by category, often being half again larger than their competitors. I’ve done the oceanview on Carnival with three and we had as much space as I’ve had in some balcony cabins. For the record, I think Disney boosts the best bathrooms (with most categories having 2 1/2 baths (sink and toilet in one AND a sink and tub in the other)).

    Anyone else with questions —

    I am here to answer whatever you need. You can call or e-mail and I promise to answer or find out what details you need to make the most of your next cruise.

  10. If you pay more and book a room higher up the people are generally better behaved. Also cruise in feb. or oct. not many kids big or small its much more relaxing.

  11. We love cruising! We’ve done 4 – all with Carnival. We’ve sailed in March, July, Oct and Dec. March was a definite party time (due to spring breaks). Oct and Dec was definitely calmer. We feel cruising is the best vacation. We love the water and tropical feel and on a cruise ship, you are totally spoiled. They take care of everything for you. You’re only requirement is to relax and have fun. That’s a vacation to us!

    Last Oct, we took our 2 1/2 yr old and he had a blast. It did limit our excursions but we had already been on 3 cruises so we were okay with it. If you want to avoid the cost of excursions, you can get off the ship and have a taxi take you to the closest beach (or ask on the ship which beach would be best). We did this in Mazatlan and had the best time than any other port we have been to. There was food, drinks, boogie boards and snorkel gear to rent and they were offering inexpensive paragliding on the beach . We did it but of course in the event that something happened, the individuals were not endorsed by Carnival so we took a chance. We had a blast just having a day at the beach and it wasn’t expensive at all.

    We are now living in Europe and will start planning a cruise over here for next summer. Hopefuly Carnival will be sailing here next year but if not, we are willing to try another line.

  12. Shantel:
    Carnival is returning to Europe — they completely pulled out, but I believe it is 2011 when they return.

  13. We went on a cruise for our honeymoon (12 years ago) We went with Norwegian Cruise line since I am teacher and I requested a “kid free” vacation ๐Ÿ™‚ We loved it. Hope you and your hubby get a chance to go alone sometime too. On the other hand, I would LOVE to take my kids on a Disney cruise someday….

  14. Mir, I hate that the maitre d did not touch base with you about the meals. Granted I verbally let them know about my allergy when we went to request a table for two during the time the maitre d was available on boarding day. He sent a hostess over each night to review the menu with me so I would know what was safe.

    I have also found that sailing out of the smaller ports has major perks. I sailed out of a major port in FL and had a similar experience as you. This past time we sailed out of Mobile, AL and had no crazy frat boys, etc. It was much more family friendly – lots of families and older couples. The ship is quite a bit smaller, but it definitely felt less crowded. We had no problems finding lounge chairs on our at sea days.

    Charleston wouldn’t be tooo far away for you to try a smaller port and ship. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    Glad you overall had a wonderful time. ๐Ÿ™‚

  15. Patricia

    That is fantastic news! We don’t mind experimenting with another cruise line but Carnival has been great to us. They even upgraded us to a balcony room once. Other cruise lines may offer this but we also get a military discount with Carnival which is nice.

  16. We love to cruise & this past Feb introduced our three year old to it and he loved it as well. No diapers, but yes, one suitcase was dedicated to toys, his blanket, his potty chair, and a collapsable fabric box/drawer to act as a toy box.

    He absolutely LOVED Camp Carnival. He made something every time he was there & he loved movie nights. After 10 pm, they charge a $6 per hour babysitting fee (charged per quarter hour) and I paid for it 2 nights just because he wasn’t ready to leave yet (it ws vacation, lol). I joked with them that he was dropping “us” off so he could do his thing instead of the other way around.

    I don’t know why Circle C didn’t have any daytime stuff, but I’d say the 10 pm activities were to allow the parents time to basically have a date while the kids had supervised activities.

    Cruises can actually be very affordable if you shop around. We live in FL where there are 4+ ports, so we don’t have to add in airfare. Parking averages about $10 per day and I think gratuities for the staff average about $7-10 per day per person (including children). Sodas and alcoholic beverages are extra. You can usually purchase an almost idenitcal excursion on shore cheaper than via the cruise line.

    You can also do a search for the cruise ports you’ll be going to in order to get a heads up on what there is to do there. Sometimes there’s enough to do and see w/o excursions. We rarely do them. Also, consider the length of time in port versus the length of the excursion – you may not have enough time for the excursion AND shopping / sightseeing.

    Great advice on the power strip… I always forget before the next trip! Extension cords are great too if you want to use something plugged in across the cabin.

    Great write-up!

  17. Thank you so much for explaining cruising with kids to me! My parents want to go on a cruise with the whole family รขโ‚ฌโ€ unfortunately, we will have to pay for our fare ourselves รขโ‚ฌโ€ sigh. Assuming we can afford it, I was really wondering how much fun we’d have (and if it’s worth the steep price tag). You really covered a lot of the things I was wondering about, like the kids’ programs and the motion sickness (mine is really bad, and I know I can’t afford a fancy room with a luxury like a WINDOW, ha ha).

    I’ve thought before about how cruises aren’t as family-friendly as they’re cracked up to be, when we were thinking of going another year when my son was even younger (he’s 3 now). All the pools require kids to be toilet-trained, even Disney and other family-oriented cruises, even the baby paddling pools รขโ‚ฌโ€ no swim diapers allowed. Which was odd to me. I couldn’t imagine explaining to my son, who loooves the water, why everyone else could swim but he couldn’t. Fortunately he’s potty trained now so we’re past that hurdle, but I found it restrictive even just thinking about it.

    I thought some of the kids’ programming sounded odd, too รขโ‚ฌโ€ a lot of late nights, as you were saying. And I know my son wouldn’t do well being dropped off all day, but that’s ok. I don’t mind hanging out with him รขโ‚ฌโ€ as long as we can swim!

    Would water sandals work as well as water socks? We all have sandals we can wear into the water, and I was wondering if we needed to invest in the sock-kind, too.

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