My only other luxury cruise was with Holland America and even though I decided later that I'm not really into cruises, it was a pleasant experience. I only went on this cruise from Galveston to Progreso and Cozumel because it was a family vacation with my mom, sister and nephews. This is only the second cruise I've taken, so I'm no expert when it comes to cruising. However, I do know poor service when I see it and with Carnival, I have a laundry list of complaints:
Lines! There were just so many lines. I don't remember ever having to deal with this many long and slow lines on Holland America. The lines began with check-in, where there were 30+ terminals available, yet only 10 people working. Lines and crowds continued with every debarkation, boarding, breakfast, lunch and shows. The only efficient line was the final one going through customs and immigration and I can't attribute that to Carnival.
Gratuities: The people with the most public contact--wait staff, stewards, bartenders--were often the least friendly. And why should they be? They have absolutely no incentive since every check automatically included an 18% tip. A gratuity is meant to be a reflection of the service given. I realize that the clientele on a Carnival cruise may be non-tippers, so the cruise line adds a gratuity to ensure their employees get paid. However, if they receive it regardless of the service given, then is it really a tip? It should appear on your check as a 10% service charge with the opportunity to give an additional 5-10% tip. This would encourage good service rather than the inefficient service lacking any warmth or goodwill that we received.
Service: with a couple of gratifying exceptions, service was slow and incompetent. On the first evening, our luggage arrived with only half-an-hour to spare before we had to change for dinner. Our dining room wait staff of 3 were slow and often absent. Water glasses remained empty through most of the meal. Room service was the worst I've ever experienced. Requesting a meal by a certain time was always late, if you even could get through to place an order. One evening, we ordered a bottle of wine for our room. The order came: one bottle of wine, no glasses, no corkscrew and no offer to open or come back with one. We ended up walking down a deck to a shop to get glasses and a corkscrew.
Excursions: the choice of excursions seemed a bit limited and the staff at the service counter for shore excursions didn't seem to have any firsthand knowledge of what they offered. With every question, they would keep referring you back to the description in the booklet. The excursion we went on was actually very good. The guide was very knowledgeable and well organized.
Food: The buffet food was as good (or bad) as one could expect from a buffet. There was even an occasional meal that was quite edible. Dinner was highlighted by the appetizers, which were often the best part of the meal. Entrees were hit or miss, especially the fish, which more often than not was overcooked and dry. Desserts were usually good. One of the best desserts was the cake we ordered for $9 for my sister's anniversary celebration.
Facilities: Carnival ships are somewhat old, less than modern, and the rooms reflected that. Minor things, such as lights, were in nonworking condition and there were lots of signs of wear. Windows were always dirty despite the washing equipment present. Climate control was a rudimentary lever to adjust AC flow. Televisions were as old as the ship itself. On Holland America, I don't remember seeing vacuum and carpet cleaners, service carts and crew occupying the hallways constantly throughout the day as they were on Carnival. Maintenance seemed secondary and pride in the facilities seemed almost entirely absent.
Entertainment: Don't expect Las Vegas quality on a Carnival budget. The shows were simply time killers on the days we were out at sea. I only wish they had a theater showing recent movies like you get on the airlines.
Communications: I can't comment on the speed or quality of Internet connections, they were a bit too expensive and slow for me to consider using them. I watched in disbelief as people used the Internet terminals that operated at 14.4 modem speeds. Phone calls were $2 a minute. You don't realize how much you rely on your cell phone to keep in touch until you can't use it to locate someone else on the ship. If cruise ships could offer limited onboard cell service to other onboard cell phones that would be a great service and convenience for families.
All in all, I can't really recommend Carnival Cruise Lines unless you're on a limited budget and you don't mind poor service and long lines. For a little more, Holland America offered top-notch service and elegant ships.