This was my second cruise, the first having been in December 2011 on Holland America out of Tampa. This trip was booked in honor of my mother's 70th Birthday and was just a mother/daughters trip. We booked out of Galveston since one of us lives in Houston so our choices of ports & cruiselines were limited. We chose Carnival hesitantly since we had heard many negative things but there weren't many other options for Galveston. I have to say I was very pleasantly surprised. Other than the embarkation which took 2 hours from start to finish, the cruise was wonderful in every aspect.
The sail-away party was very fun & festive. I loved the music and party atmosphere on the main deck (with all the chairs & huge tv screen)and it was really fun to watch everyone dancing and really getting into vacation mode. Yes, the drinks are expensive but you just have to factor that cost into your vacation budget and there are specials each day that are a little less expensive.
Food - Having been on Holland America, which has a reputation of having some of the very best food in the cruise-line industry, I had low expecations of the food. We dined at the "Anytime" dining option in the London Dining Room every night and I found the food to be excellent every night. Our Head Waiter (Dalem) and his staff made our dining experience that much more memorable. Definitely ask for his section if you dine on the Triump. We took a bottle of wine for each of us ($10 corkage fee applies) and the staff happily opened them for us and then brought the bottles back the next night when the wine wasn't finished. The chocolate melting cake is truly the best dessert ever and I had it every night!!! We used the buffet a few times and it was fine - lots of options and the lines really weren't bad. The pizza/calzone station was delicious and worth the line there. We never had any experience with food we didn't like nor did we receive cold food. Dalem even brought us second lobster tails, observing how much we were enjoying the first ones.
Sea Days - our cruise didn't seem particularly crowded being mid-October and we never had problems finding lounge chairs. Carnival posts a policy that saving chairs longer than 40 minutes is not allowed and towels will be removed, but it wasn't an issue on our cruise so I'm not sure how it would be on a crowded cruise. Again, it was fun to sit near the DJ and listen to upbeat party music while lounging in the hot caribbean sun drinking tropical beverages, but the music does get a little loud after a bit. We simply moved to a different part of the ship - no problem and nothing to complain about. The pools are quite small but we didn't take a cruise with the purpose of swimming so it wasn't a big deal, just an observation.
Ports - Progreso has some nice, traditional shops that you would expect as soon as you get off a cruise... silver, tequila, souvenirs... definitely barter. The sales people will definitely let you know when they cannot go any lower on price! My mom, my sister and I all got some pretty jewelry that will be great souvenirs. Outside of the port shopping, it is pretty typical Mexico. Not too nice of a city, but again, I didn't expect it to be nice based on the research I had done. We walked a few short blocks to the beach where we had a delicious lunch looking out on the water. I can't remember the name of the restaurant but it was on the left as soon as you get to the beach.
We chose not to do any excursions because we only had about 6 hours in port and wanted to shop.
Cozumel - I had been to Cozumel on my last cruise with HAL but Carnival goes into a different port - Puerta Maya. There is a very nice cruise-line built shopping plaza there with plenty of shops for more souvenirs. You could spend the entire day in port shopping if you wanted. I did find that a few of the shops had trouble getting a credit or debit card transaction to go through based on internet service, so it's a good idea to take plenty of cash. We took a taxi out to a beach ($15 cost one way)just past Paradise Beach ("Charlies" or something similar I think it was called) and spent a couple of hours - free beach and really great tamarind margaritas). Beautiful beach and many shades of turquoise water...
Entertainment - the shows were pretty good - didn't go to all of them. Frank, in the piano bar, was amazing and very entertaining. Gerry, in the atrium, is flat-out fantastic. He's an older asain guy from Vancouver, Canada, who can imitate just about any singer but he focused on country music and Elvis. We watched him several times and the atrium was always filled with people whenever he sang. Very personable and he came around to chat with people after he performed. Really funny, talented guy.
I would have to say that on this particular cruise, there was really nothing to complain about. We had a tiny room on the Riviera Deck (4th level) but we were rarely in our room so it was fine. Our shower barely worked above a trickle but as soon as we called someone to fix it, it was taken care of immediately so I was fine with that. Our weather was about as perfect as it gets and the seas were very calm so I admit that helps make the trip that much better.
Will I try Carnival again? Yes - I believe it is a very good value for what you pay for. My mom, sister (first-time cruiser in early 40's) and I all enjoyed ourselves very much. I look forward to trying one of Carnival's newer ships with my own family.