I'm going to spew alot of information here so that other first timers thinking about going on this trip will be well informed. First I had never cruised before and i'm a bit of an analysis freak and try to get all of the information before I get there. Alot of this info was gathered from various sites, confirmed or denied on this trip, and outlined here.
First thing was that I booked through priceline cruises. I had spoken to Carnival when I was in the planning stages, but their prices were beat by Priceline during a small deal window I had. Otherwise, it was cheaper (on a normal day) to go through Carnival. I booked this as a family trip that was a summer trip that would be outside of hurricane season, so yes more of a spring trip, but we will not be taking a summer trip now. We were also cellebrating our 14th anniversary. I have 3 girls, ages 8, 9, and 12 that went with us. I booked 2 cabins, 1 was a balcony, and the other an inside to save costs. I was able to get 8301 and 8299 which is just across from each other so that the 3 kids could stay together and not be far. Booking that was not easy to do, but with 2 months time to sail, and agents that could read off available rooms while I looked at the floor plans, we were able to get it done without too much hassle.
With the tickets set, I planned the rest of the trip around this. First, parking at Galveston Park N Cruise was the way to go. $45 for indoor parking right across the street from the terminal can't be beat. Book it online and print your receipt. You won't be sorry.
I planned on arriving early, by 11:30 to be exact. We were driving from Houston, so planning can be done to arrive this early. If you're flying in and taking the transfer bus, you will have no control over this, so either suck it up or get other transportation to be there this early. I pulled right in to the front of the port, dropped off the family and luggage. If you have your luggage tagged already, they will put it from car to ship, otherwise you'll have to drag it around. I tipped the guy a fiver and went to the parking lot. I dropped the car off and walked back to the terminal within 5 minutes. We went right through check in. Have your passport and printed tickets in hand. Check in way ahead of time. It's easy to do online, and if you are checked in, have a credit card attached, and your kids already signed up for Camp Carnival, Circle C, or whatever, you will not be waiting long. Again, in and out in 5 minutes with our cards in hand and headed to the ship. Here is the straight up deal with security. Leave your questionable junk at home and don't try to sneak it on board and you'll be fine. The real deal on sneaking alcohol in. Don't think that these guys are dumb. If you bring in bottles of gatorade with broken cap seals, I promise it will be dumped out. If you are smart about it, it will get on board. They do not check SEALED bottles of wine. Corks and seals can be obtained easily and cheaply at any home brewing store or online retailer, just be clean about it and there will be no problem getting it past security. Speaking of this, once you're onboard, get a corkscrew from roomservice delivered to your cabin, they're free and no corkage fee.
We were on the lido deck eating lunch and having a drink by noon, so 30 minutes arrival to deck for a family of 5 if you follow my advice.
You cannot go to your cabin until 1:30, so grab a table and hold it until that time. At 4 we were all called down to the life boat drill. Your card will have a noted Muster Station letter on it, proceed down to deck 4 and look for your letter. You'll have to wait there until the drill and instructions are complete. If you are uncomfortable standing with a bunch of people, then get there early and get a side spot next to a doorway, those have to remain clear so at least you'll have some breathing room. This took us about 20 minutes because of stragglers and we did not get to sit on our balcony while we left port, which sucked..
We went to very few shows while onboardm so I can't say what to avoid (some are like time share sales as others will tell you) We waited for our luggage, unpacked, and got comfortable until dinner. I will say that as a family, dinner in the dining room was a must, and we did this every night. Dinner was great, the food was mostly good, the service was great. If you're there every night, and have an assigned seating time, there is no problem getting the same wait staff, or the same table. Our waiter Percy was outstanding and really made everyone feel comfortable and pampered every night. A+
Our room was cleaned twice every day and what few problems we had, they were immediately addressed and corrected to the best of housekeepings ability. Thanks Carlos! He was the best and was always there to help. Again staff A+
The rooms need to be completely redone, anyone will tell you in these reviews, the miami vice motif was out of style when they put this stuff in the ship in 1999, now it's just out of style and heavily worn. I had no problems with cleanliness of the linnens at all. Both of our cabins needed to be vacuumed above eye level though as there was lint seemingly everywhere along the ceiling, why this is never cleaned I don't know but it was the same in both cabins so I assume all of them are like that.
I won't bore you with the exacts of the sailing parts of our trip, yours will be different depending on preference, weather, etc.. Just know that the food is on lido deck (9) starting mid ship, then going aft. The main buffet is in south beach dining area (we called it the south beach diet..) and is standard buffet food. All the way aft is another small pool, and one side is fried food during the day, the other side of this is pizza, which was always open and not too bad. In the main buffet area, you can usually find dessert, and fruit late at night. Lido center are two buffets that are smaller than the main but are shorter lines. Standards are here breakfast, lunch, and dinner but close early.
Speaking of food, avoid the cake, it's all dry, especially the "guilt free". On beverages, the bar is very high, $6.15 for a beer, and 8.50-12.50 for a mixed drink. I needed endless cokes to mix with my JD (wine) so I bought a bottomless bubbles for myself and 2 of my 3 kids. #3 does not drink any kind of soda. That was a complete waste of money. A coke at $1.50 each cannot equal the cost of the bottomless deal. The bartenders are sooo slooow that it's impossible, and I don't care how much you drink. You still are charged for the port days in Progresso and Cozumel too. Buy them individually.
The last day: We woke up at 6 to get ready and pack. You can pack the night before, and have your bags picked up at 11 pm, or carry your own bags off like we did. If you want to get out as early as possible, then self assist, which is carry your own bags off. You have to exit the cabin by 8:30 and wait on deck. Our level was called at 8:20 so we did not have to wait on deck, we went from room to leaving directly. Have your customs forms filled out. If you buy booze onboard, you can pick it up from the gift shop after 7pm the night before. Either way, 1l of alcohol per adult is allowed without taxes. More than that and you're asking for a long wait with customs. It took us again 30 minutes from cabin to car. We all walked across the street to get the car this time since the port was already backing up with cars picking folks up. Have your passport and customs form in hand and you'll go right through. Birth certificates take longer even though the lines are shorter. Also forgot to mention. The night before, make damn sure that your credit card will cover your expenses. If it won't, you can add another to your account from the kiosk machines found around the glass elevators on 5 across from the gift shop, or 3 next to guest services. If you have to settle the bill, it will delay your departure and the TV menu system did not ever work for me the 3 times I tried it. If you're paid up, you walk right off without delay.
1 more point to make. I stayed on 8 center for a reason. deck 8 is the only deck where you have direct access to any elevator or stairwell on the ship, fore, center, or aft so getting around was easy. If we were going from dining in paris to drop the younger kids off at camp carnival, take the aft stairs to 8, stop by our cabin, my oldest would go to circle c (fore elevator all the way up) and we would go to a show (center stairs deck 3,4,or 5) we were all within 5 minutes no matter what. 2 minutes to lido for late night snacks, tea, coffee, or ice cream.
I'm going to say sorry up front if anyone is offended, but we did venture down to 1 and 2 at one point to move across the ship quickly, and it was a whole different world down there. There was alot of noise, and alot of people wandering around. I can see why alot of folks have negative reviews of this ship when they are on the lower decks. If you want to get the lowest price possible, don't expect to have the best accomodations. If you plan on spending any kind of time in your cabin, I cannot recommend enough that you spend the extra $$$ for one of the higher up decks.