It all started in February when I shouted, after a long teleconference from working at home, "I need a vacation!"
Truth be told, I haven't had a vacation where I went anywhere since Maui more than two years ago. Sure, I've done the "stay-cations" where I simply took a week off and stayed home, but then I ended up doing the mundane - housework, taking kids to school, make dinner. It was all well and good but getting out there, spending some money, and getting taken care of is what I needed.
The frustrating scream was heard by none other than my wife, who enticed by saying, "How about we take a cruise to the Caribbeans?"
Now, shes done more than 7 cruises all over the world. I've only done the one and only from our honeymoon 17 years ago. While my wife and I shared the very first cruise together (Carnival Imagination, on its inaugural cruise, for our honeymoon), she's since been on others for her family, our daughter's graduation (don't worry, I'll get one with our son), and various others. I looked up some itineraries and reviews from Cruise Critic, and decided lots of ports and islands is what I wanted.
We booked for April 22nd, 2012 sailing out of San Juan.
What I will then narrate here is my experience. There were some trials, but overall it was a great experience. My aim is to share what we did, how much it cost, what I felt about it, and in addition what I've heard from others during dinner and other mingling events.
Here we go.
Leaving Portland, Oregon:
From the quaint town of Vancouver, USA, we flew out of Portland, Oregon via US Airways. The plan is to go from PDX to San Francisco, Charlotte, then onto San Juan. Walking into the airport, after saying tearful goodbyes from our children, we see that US Airways counter is completely dark - no one was there. We paused, confusedly looking at each other wondering if we were a day early or worse, a day late. Luckily a United agent walked by and directed us to the United counter, stating that they would be able to help us.
At the United counter, a very busy and slow moving ticket agent helped us get situated. There was a problem with our ticket because we were booked on United from PDX to SFO, then the rest of the way is via US Airways. She had no way of figuring out if our tickets were confirmed. 25 minutes later she took our check-in luggage and provided us a ticket to San Francisco, and a few empty stubs instructing us to check at the gate so we are issued our tickets. This is due to the recent United merger with Continental, and they systems are new, and not quite all connected up.
No issues, we remained upbeat and headed to the gate. At the gate, we were informed the plane is very full and they would take any luggage and check it to our final destination sans charge. We were more than happy to hand over the two carry-on's as they were stuffed with our heavy clothing. You know, to avoid the 50lbs weight limit. We traveled with a single backpack holding our documents and electronics. Score!
Arriving at San Francisco, we had 50 minute to go from terminal 3 to terminal 2. We ran as we needed to take a tram. We went out of the gate, up a set of stairs, and looked at the signs. The sign says "<- To Terminal 3". I muttered out loud, "But we are at terminal 3." Looking around I met the gazes of several other passengers and collectively decided that the signs posted couldn't be less helpful. It turns out the tram is loop, and eventually if you start from terminal 3, you end up at terminal 3. Where most sane sign maker would label something like "<- To Terminal 1 and 2", San Francisco simply decided a Mobius strip type of direction is best. We gave a polite curse and took the tram to Gate 2.
Thank goodness we were able to move quickly due to all our bags were checked. We were the last two on the plane to Charlotte. All overhead bins were full, but no matter as we had only one partially stuffed backpack. A bit of turbulence, and a plane change, and we landed in San Juan.
So far, so good.
San Juan Airport:
It was a beautiful day, looking out the porthole as we landed at noon. We planned to get to the ship, drop off our luggage, and look around Old San Juan as was suggested by many reviewers here. This plan is predicated on the fact our luggage would arrive with us. An hour staring into the chute, we were missing 1 bag. The most important one - this contained all of my wife's bathing suits, our flip-flops, sneakers, dress shoes, and the industrial grade hair dryer and straightener. Talking to the US Airways rep situated near, she tracked the luggage in question as still being at San Francisco. She assured us that US Airways will get the luggage to St. Thomas, our first port, with no problems. She then handed me the missing luggage form for Carnival, and a claim form of loss or delay, just in case. I reassured my wife that these are multi-billion dollar operations and they should be able to get a simply back to a port, next day.
From San Juan Airport to the Ship:
We didn't buy the Carnival pickup plan. Instead we went to the taxi queue and was asked where we were going. "To the port for a cruise on the Carnival Victory!" I said. He handed me a slip of paper with the rates. It was $20 for 2 people, with some modifications for groups of 3, 4, and so on. It was safe, and cheaper than the Carnival bus. Our driver dropped us off right at the port, and I gave him 4 bucks extra.
Side Note - Cash:
I brought cash in small bills in anticipation that there will be lots of little things to purchase and tipping. I didn't want to take money our of the ATM's because of fees, and I didn't want a bunch of change in foreign money that I won't use for years. What I did is take a 1000 dollars, and had my bank break them down to this: $200 in 1's, $300 in 5's, $300 in 10's, and $200 in 20's. In some cases, this worked out great. But in retrospect, 20 one dollar bills and 10 fives would have been fine. Do take cash if you plan to gamble, as the ship will charge you 3% to cash in from your Sail and Sign card.
It was painless. Give the bags to the handlers. We forgot to print out the baggage labels and they simply tagged our luggage with a label with our room number on it. We got into our room by 2PM (it was cleaned) in less than 30 minutes.
Old San Juan:
We got something to eat at the Lido deck and went exploring. Right out of the dock and to the left are a bunch of dock side shops. Here you can sit and have a beer for about $3. We decided to venture into town and see El Morro, the main fort on the Northwestern tip of San Juan. Wear comfortable shoes and enjoy the old stone roads, it was worth the trip. There are lots of shops for goodies along the way, stop for a drink, or just people watch a bit. It's a good walk in the heat.
Side note - duty free and what you get to bring on board:
You get 2 bottles of wine, and a pack of soda. There is a $15 corkage fee for your wine if you want to drink it at dinner. If you are real nice to your waiter he will either waive the fee, or tell you that if you open it in your room and bring it with you there will be no charges. One thing I wanted to try is getting on and off multiple times and get additional bottles of wine or soda, since it appears that they only check you each time if you met the allowance requirements and not cumulatively. We didn't get to do this because we were tired of walking. Your liquor will be confiscated should it be discovered, and there was a while cart full of confiscated bottles. That said, there was no shortage of liquor brought onboard if you are creative, as my vodka and our dinner mate's rum both made it safely.
Side note - Food:
Burgers and hotdogs are available 24/7, and they are not bad. The pizza was serviceable and my wife enjoyed it. Breakfast buffet is on par with any hotel that offers eggs, sausages, bacon, and cereal. I do confess that the scrambled eggs tasted like reconstituted powered eggs, and stuck with hard boiled eggs or eggs Benedict when they had it. The sit down breakfast was nice, if you don't mind seating with strangers. We didn't, and met and spoke with many other cruisers throughout the trip. Lunch buffet is also decent. It's better than what my work cafeteria have, and you can always get a great sandwich from the side area (look for it). The Asian wok place (opposite side of the sandwich shop) is on par with Panda Express, with better sauces.
Okay, enough of the mundane, let's get to the ports.
We booked the Carnival excursion "Champagne St. John's Catamaran" (or something like it) and headed out. We were ushered onto an open air shuttle with about 20 other people for a 20 minute drive to the other port. WE thought it would be a small group but arriving at the port for the catamaran, there was another group already waiting. That said, the boat didn't feel like it was full. We were able to move about from bow to stern with no problems. We were taken to a beach in St. John's in about 30 minute, and was given about 1.5 hours to snorkel or just lay on the beach. The service was friendly, but the beach time felt short. It just did...feel rushed. Maybe it was because the beach is of pure white soft sand and the water a perfect turquoise? Alcoholic drinks were offered on the way back, and so were the t-shirt sales and pleas for a tip. We paid $89 per person for the trip, and tipped $20 total. They recommend 15%-20% of your booking, but the $20 I put in the jar was the the biggest denomination that I saw.
If you do shop, do it in St. Thomas. It was cheaper than St. Kitts, Barbabdos, and just about anywhere else.
We checked with Guest Services, who were in contact with US Airways about our luggage. US Airways said our luggage was in St. Thomas, but the Carnival agent went there, and couldn't pick it up. We call US Airways and they said it came by another airline and as we set said to Barbados, did not know where it was at.
Day At Sea:
We explored the ship and ate and drank all day. The shows are decent, not great, but not bad. We were entertained. The comedy shows were hilarious, but the music shows were just okay, in my opinion. It was still entertaining.
Sorry this is a bit long winded... I have to pause here and continue later.