My wife and I went on our first cruise ever this year. Prior to even booking said cruise, I was one of hundreds of people who scanned over the internet looking for answers to the dozens of questions that I had about the cruise and cruising in general. Some of the questions were big, like what the boat's like or what to expect when we arrive at each port, and other questions small like how much clothes to bring or how much drinks cost. The things I found to be the most helpful were when people detailed their own experiences after cruising on the same boat that I would soon find myself on. I decided that I would do the same. And while I'm sure that I'll fail to include every single detail of my experience, I will do my best to paint you guys a picture of what you could expect. (Warning: I sometimes get scatterbrained or ramble, so read this at your own risk.)
With that said, please try to keep these things in mind:
1. Everything I experienced was just that--my own experience. You will gain your own opinion and experiences once you board the boat on your own.
2. This will be a mostly positive review with some moments of honest criticism. It also may have splashes of counter-criticism against some of the other things I've read online.
3. Try not to take anything I write too seriously, but rather use it as just an example of one couple's experiences.
4. If you have a Smartphone (specifically an Android phone), go out and download the app called "Cruise Ship Planner". It's a little extensive at times, but it is the best little app for first time cruisers that need help making sure they've packed everything and have done everything they needed to do pre-cruise. Trust me--it's worth the $.99!!
Our boat: Carnival Magic
Date of sail: January 6th, 2013
Where did we go?: Montego Bay (Jamaica), Cayman Islands (Grand Cayman), and Cozumel (Mexico)
Here was our vacation experience:
Friday, January 4th: My wife and I live in Kansas City, Missouri, and the Carnival Magic leaves from Galveston, Texas. Galveston just happened to be where we spent our honeymoon three years ago, so it was especially special for us to revisit that place. We decided to drive down there with two of our friends and take turns on who pays for gas. This seemed to cut our cost of travel in half (as opposed to flying), but it also explains why we left a few days before the cruise set sail. If you can afford a few extra days prior to the cruise, and you don't live a million miles away, I would HIGHLY suggest driving. The drive from Kansas City to Galveston is about 13 hours, but by taking turns driving (about 3-4 hours per person) it was a piece of cake. We even created a bit of an MP3 road trip playlist together to help pass the time. We left around 8:30AM and arrived around 10:30PM or so due to a couple stops for gas/food/etc.
Saturday, January 5th, Galveston: We took the opportunity in Galveston to explore the island a bit. When my wife and I went there last, it was still pretty heavily torn up due to Hurricane Ike--but the rebuilding process has been spectacular. Most, if not all, of the shops and restaurants are open for business--and a lot of new stuff has been added! This includes a spot called the Pleasure Pier, which is on a pier that used to have a hotel sitting on it before it was destroyed by Ike. The Please Pier is kind of like a little theme park, with roller coasters and ferris wheels and things of that nature. It costs $10 per person to enter and I think around $5 or so for each ride, of you can buy an all-day, all-access pass to the pier for around $24 per person or so. We ended up not doing this because the weather was a little too poor to spend too much time outside (cold rain and wind). Instead, we walked up and down the Strand, popping into random shops and having a good time. We also snuck into the Fisherman's Wharf, a seafood restaurant right next to the cruise ship docks, and grabbed ourselves a couple fruity vacation-themed drinks and cocktails while watching Houston beat Cincinnati in the Playoffs (which was pretty cool, since we were in a city fairly close to Houston and the locals were definitely into it). We went to Wal-Mart at one point to grab a couple of extra things for the cruise. These things included:
- Two "Big Bubba" insulated mugs (very handy for making cocktails in your room and carrying them around with you on the ship to save some money)
- 24 16.7 oz. sodas (12 per person). You can bring up to 12 bottles of non-alcoholic beverages with you, so a lot of people just go out and grab a couple twelve packs of soda. But what you may have overlooked is that the bottles can be up to a maximum of 20 oz. each! We couldn't really find any 20 oz. sodas, but they have plenty of 16.7 oz. six packs! We mixed and matched (6 Coke Zeros, 6 Dr. Peppers, 6 Mtn. Dews and 6 Orange Sodas) and put them all in a separate bag to carry onto our boat.
o I kept reading things from people suggesting bringing something to carry all of your soda in. THIS IS INCREDIBLY GOOD ADVICE!! We brought an extra empty duffle bag simply to put our soda into. You HAVE to carry your soda on, so make it EASY on yourself! Bring something with wheels or something that you can throw over your shoulder. You don't want to be the guy juggling 24 cans/bottles of soda/water while waiting in line to get on the boat! Not fun!!
- A couple float straps for our sunglasses (which we never used)
- Two bottles of wine (you're allowed one bottle of wine per adult, up to 750ml).
o For those of you who like to drink bourbon and want to try something, a friend of mine showed me a bottle of Corner Creek Bourbon (http://cornercreekbourbon.com/) that you might find interesting. It's a bottle of Bourbon whiskey that they put in what appears to be a wine bottle-shaped container! The best thing is--it LOOKS JUST LIKE WINE! Swap out a bottle of actual wine for a bottle of this bourbon and I'd be curious if they'd even notice!
o For those of you who want to play it safe and actually bring wine, I would suggest making it easier on yourself and buy a bottle that has a screw-off top instead of a cork. That way, you don't have to worry about their "cork fee" and you don't have to pack your own corkscrew.
We ended the day eating at a restaurant off of Seawall Boulevard near the hotel we stayed in (which was the La Quinta Inn. There's a Denny's right in front of it. We were set.). Galveston was almost like a mini-vacation-before-the-vacation, and I think it's worth staying there for a couple of days before or after your cruise.
Day 1 (Sunday, January 6th, Embarkation Day): The La Quinta Inn that we stayed in offers free parking to anyone who stays in their hotel for at least two nights prior to the cruise. They had me fill out a form and park my car behind the hotel in a secure, semi-fenced in area. Cruise parking otherwise costs about $40+. The hotel called a taxi for us that drove us to the cruise docks. Taxi fare from the Seawall to the port was about $20.
Getting on the boat/getting through security:
1. Although it was cold in Galveston when we went, try to wear a small amount of layers. They will ask you to remove any hats/jackets/coats/hoodies/etc.
2. It is WAY EASIER than airport security. They WILL shake your waters/look through your sodas/etc, but aside from that it's pretty in and out.
a. If you get caught with booze, they just keep it. Don't panic.
b. If you want to sneak booze on, USE RUM RUNNERS and DO NOT PUT THEM IN YOUR CARRY ON! You're a fool if you try to sneak booze on your carry on.
i. Seriously, though--rum runners are amazing. We filled up about 1.5 liters worth of rum spread out within 6 of them; put two of them in our check on luggage and two of them in our friends check on luggage. What did we do with the other two? Get this--the other two were smaller, so my wife managed to put them IN HER BRA!! HA! They're all plastic and curve in a way that made it look VERY natural, and no one suspected a thing! GENIUS!
c. Simply make sure you don't have any metal on you and you'll be fine. You'll only have someone scan you/pat you down if you set off the metal detectors twice. Be smart and you'll be in and out of there in no time.
3. There will be lines, and it's OK. It will take roughly about 30+ minutes to get on the boat, and that's OK. Just go with the flow.
4. Once you get past the initial security, you move on to a bit of a guest services area where you get hooked up with your Sign and Sail cards. I think this is the last time you'll need your passports until the end of the cruise, so feel free to put them away once you get your Sign and Sail card. Your S&S card doubles as a sort of passport now, so no need to risk losing the real thing.
a. You can also choose to add wifi/internet options at this point. We chose not to.
5. Once you get your S&S card, you get in line that leads to boarding the boat. They make it very clear that you need to keep your S&S card out and visible at all times during this, so keep it handy. Before you enter the boat, they take a quick picture of you (for security purposes) and then a photo of you and your group (for souvenir purposes). Then you walk up the ramp and get on the boat!
On the boat: I received a few Carnival Gift Cards for Christmas that I wanted to make sure I had added to my Sign and Sail account. Guest Services was right next to our entrance to the boat (which happened to be on Deck 3), so I hopped right in line and got that straightened out. Everyone on the boat is INCREDIBLY polite and VERY eager to help. Within minutes we already had drinks in hand.
It took roughly about 30-45 minutes until we were allowed in our rooms. Our room was on Deck 2 (Cove Balcony), and it was AWESOME. I would HIGHLY recommend a cove balcony, as you get all of the benefits of a balcony with more privacy and a lower price (due to the "obstructed view" of the life boats, which wasn't really bad at all!). Our checked luggage came to our room about an hour later and we didn't have any red "we searched your bags" tags. Snugglin' the rum runners was a success! (I shoved one in one of my tennis shoes and wrapped the other one in a t-shirt. Once they got to our room, I stored them in our safe.)
We decided to explore the ship (and it's quite a big ship). I would go into detail on each and every floor, but it would seriously take me a while to type it all up. Let's just say that it's a REALLY big ship. We ended up grabbing a plate of grub at "The Grill", which is a buffet that serves hot dogs/burgers/potato salad/fries/etc. ...It was delicious.
It was hard getting used to the general rocking on the boat. I always felt like I was drunk because I couldn't really walk in a straight line. Even now, days after stepping off the boat, I feel my world rocking and swaying a bit in my head.
Day 2/3 (Two Days at Sea, Jan. 7th/8th):
Every night they put a little Fun Times flyer in your mailbox outside your stateroom that outlines the activities for the next day. The boat has a crap ton of things to do that'll keep you busy, or you can just be lazy. That's the beautiful thing about it--you already paid for all of your food, so keeping yourself entertained is all up to you! Just be ready to say "No thank you" to a lot of people, as they will be roaming around trying to sell you drinks or take your photograph and stuff like that. They're all incredibly polite, so a simple "No thank you" will do. But you can do whatever you want!
Our Bon Voyage alcohol gifts to ourselves arrived the morning of the first day at sea. I ordered a bottle of Jim Beam to be in our room, which was around $55. I would advise doing this for those of you who are worried about spending too much on drinks around the ship. This way you know what you're getting yourself into!
I would suggest just about anything, to be honest. The comedy club was amazing and the art auction was interesting (plus you get free champagne and free art just for attending). If you don't like lines, get over it--there's gonna be lines! But who cares!? They move quickly, anyway.
Day 4 (Montego Bay, Jamaica. Jan. 9th): Interesting moment: Someone on our boat had some sort of accident/emergency that forced us to detour to Grand Cayman during our second day at sea. This actually didn't effect anyones plans, as we arrived in Jamaica right on time. Kind of interesting though.
We arrived in Montego Bay exactly as we were told we were. We didn't have any excursions planned for this port, so we decided just to get out there and try to find a beach. We exited the boat from Deck 0 and made our way to a large indoor area that's full of shops and people dancing and things like that. There are a LOT of beggars in this part of Jamaica, so be warned--you will have a LOT of people wanting to entertain you in various ways for a few bucks. (I'm kind of a sucker for beggars and let them dance/sing for a few dollars without issue. It's just as easy to say "No thank you.") Within moments I found myself asking someone where we could find a "free beach". I was told that none of the beaches are "free", and that most of them cost about $5 to access. Me being the biggest tourist ever and a first-time cruiser, I accepted that answer and wound up on a white bus that drove us to a beach. They had us pick between two beaches--one that began with the letter "A" that was $5 and one that was named "Doctor-something" that was "smaller, more private, but more expensive" at $7. We went to the cheaper of the two.
Here's the problem--there was a lot of confusion as far as the price this bus ride would cost us. Before getting on the bus, we were told that the bus ride is $5 per person and then the beach access would also be $5 per person. Being that it would be my wife and I, you would think that it would be $5 + $5 + $5 + $5 = $20, right? But when we arrived at the beach, they said the bus fare was $10 per person, but that it would cover our ride back to the port. (Being the first time cruiser, I assumed the initial $5 meant both ways--but apparently it only means one. They didn't tell us this until we were already on the bus.) So once we arrived at the beach, we gave them our $30 ($10X2 for the bus fare and $5X2 for the beach access) and were told to meet up at the same spot where they dropped us off at 3:00PM Jamaica time (2:00PM Cruise time). Seemed easy enough, right?
They gave us wrist bands to prove that we paid for our beach access, and we hit the beach. LOTS of beggars. LOTS of music. LOTS of dancing. It was a LOT of fun. The beach we were on was patrolled heavilly by security, but that didn't stop some brave souls from enjoying Jamaica's "plant" in the far corner of the beach. Otherwise, the water was nice and fun to snorkel in and the beach was a perfect spot to lay out and grab some sun. While snorkeling, I happened to see a bunch of fish, a stingray, a sea urchin and various other sea life. While laying out, we were approached by many people wanting to sing to us (Bob Marley, of course) or braid our hair (I let one braid my beard, $2 per braid. She even put beads in it. ...I have a big beard.). It's easy to say "No thank you" if you'd rather not tip/pay, but I'm kind of a sucker.
The beach had a shop, a bathroom, and a bar. The shop was pretty tight and you're constantly trying to be sold something. I bought a rum cake here, but I would highly advise waiting to buy a rum cake either in the shops near the boat or on the boat iself. You'll get them cheaper there. The bar was open, but they said their credit card machine was down (although it wasn't down in the shop). The feeling overall was that they would much rather be paid in cash than use any sort of credit/debit card. Keep that in mind.
We made it back to our spot for the bus about 20 minutes before we had to. The beach is surrounded by taxi/bus drivers that will hunt you down like sharks, so be prepared for a LOT of people to try to get you to get a ride of them. Our bus did NOT arrive on time (they were about 20 minutes late), so a lot of the other taxi/bus people tried to get us to ride with them. They went even so bold as to tell us to "make sure you take a picture of your bus/taxi next time, because they just took your money!" ...We felt stupid. HOWEVER, our bus FINALLY showed up and drove us back to the port as promised!
Once at the port, we did some light shopping, watched a Jamaican marching band play and march, and got back on our boat.
Some things to keep in mind about Montego Bay, Jamaica:
- Have a plan. You can get off the boat in Grand Cayman or Cozumel without a definte plan, but Montego Bay is a busy place. Not having a plan here can lead you to some trouble.
- Take pictures of your rides, no matter how silly it may seem. Get pictures of taxi numbers or license plates. Get pictures of your driver. Do what you gotta do, you know?
- Be prepared to say "No, thank you", and bring some extra cash just in case they tell you their card machine is down.
- Be safe. Perhaps travel in a group of 2 or more. Make a friend with someone else on the beach that's going to the same boat as you (which is what we did!). I didn't feel like I was in any danger here, but it is a very, very busy spot.
- WEAR A WATCH. This should be a no brainer for any cruise. Buy a waterproof watch and wear it every day. Get used to it. (I bought a $10 watch from Amazon.com that worked perfectly.)
Day 5 (Cayman Islands, Jan. 10th): You don't really port in Grand Cayman like the other ports. I think maybe the water is too shallow or something? I'm not sure. Instead, "boat buses" came up to our boat to take us in large groups back and forth to the port. (This is normal... I just didn't expect it.)
Grand Cayman is freaking beautiful. The water is amazingly blue and you can see right to the bottom. We booked two excursions here through one company--Captain Marvin's. (www.captainmarvins.com). *~I HIGHLY RECOMMEND THESE GUYS!~* Here is what our excursions consisted of:
- "Hell", Mexico: Many reviews call this place a tourist trap, and it is. But Captain Marvins makes it so much more special. They give you a tour on the drive to Hell, including parking by the Governors house and various other landmarks. But the best thing is their sense of humor. They're AWAKE, they're ALIVE. The tour guides of Captain Marvins aren't annoying or awkward--they live and breathe this place! It was incredibly refreshing to hop on a bus somewhere that you've never been and have the drive make you feel relaxed and welcome. At Hell, you can send a post card home, take pictures, and check out the really awesome sharp/pointy rocks that are formed there (which is why it got the name "Hell"). Very interesting, very much worth the trip!
- Turtle farm: I went here because the idea of holding a turtle appeals to me. It's worth the visit--and is almost overwhelming at times. Turtles, turtles, turtles everywhere. Many huge ones (500+ lbs), many small ones that you could hold. The tour guide explains the history if the turtle farm and the Cayman culture that surrounds that place. It's very interesting and very fun, especially for the young ones or the young at heart.
- Two stop Stingray/Snorkel Tour: The bus driver took us to Captain Marvin's private dock, where a group of 16 of us gathered on his boat and went out to two stops. We went to a reef and snorkeled, which was fantastic. I've never snorkeled before, so this was quite a treat. My only compalint is that the waters were a tad bit rough, so it was a little difficult keeping water out of my mouth--but otherwise, amazing! The reefs are booming with life. We snorkeled for about 30 minutes before heading out to Stingray City, where the tour guides helped educate us about stingrays, let us feed them and take pictures of them, let us kiss them (for 7 years of good luck!) and helped them give us back massaged. It was absolutely incredible and an experience I will never forget. We were there for about 30 minutes or so before gathering back on the boat and headed back to the dock.
From the dock, a bus picked us up and brought us back to the main Captain Marvin's shop where we started. This place is roughly only a block or two from the Carnival port, which is easilly walkable. We roamed the shops around the port area and bought another rum cake (and this place had samples!) before getting back on our boat buses and headed back to the ship.
Things to know about this part of the Cayman Islands:
- You can wing it here! The 7 mile beach is really only accessable by taxi, but it's a FREE beach that is BREATHTAKING! When I come back here, I will probably spend a good amount of time there.
- Look into Captain Marvin's! All of the stuff we did only costed us $137! That's $137 for TWO PEOPLE, TOTAL! That included our transportation, snorkel gear, the tour, water and punch--all for $137! For two people, that price is a steal (and it's a smaller group, so you get more personal attention).
- Take your time to enjoy it. It's a beautiful island, so take it all in. Take a lot of pictures and just enjoy yourself.
Day 6 (Cozumel, Mexico. Jan. 11th): When you get off the boat in Cozumel you have to walk up a long dock, and part of the dock is indoors. The indoor area is FULL of stuff that you can buy--most of which will be very cheap. Cheap liquor, cheap cigarettes, reasonable sourveniers--you can't go wrong! The best part? TEQUILA! Shots after shots after shots of free tequila samples await you here! I don't know if it's possible to get off of the port of Cozumel without at least a buzz.
We didn't really have a plan for Cozumel. We didn't book any excursions or anything like that. We simply walked around. The port of Cozumel is made for people who don't have a plan. It's flooded with shops, street performers, places to eat, and more tequila. We roamed the shops for a few hours, scouting the best deals (which are everywhere) before eating at the Three Amigos restaurant. The food was pretty good, but I'm pretty sure that you can get more authentic flavors if you venture deeper. We ended up walking left from the port (not sure what direction that is, but then again I was pretty hammered at that point) until we wound up speaking with a couple people at a booth outside a hotel who offered us access to their private beach in the back. It was $7 per person for the beach access, so we took it. (They also included a $10 credit toward drinks for this price, which was nice.) The beach was perfect and offered more opportunities to snorkel, and snorkeling we did. TONS of fish were here--WAY more than Cayman, even! We even found a sunken motorboat and anchor!! Very cool! After a few hours here, we walked back to the port, bought our souveniers and tequila, and got back on the boat.
Things to think about in Cozumel:
- You can get diamond jewelry here on the cheap. For example, we found a pair of .5 carat diamond earrings for around $300. (That's .5 carats per earring!) As far as I know, that's a pretty good deal. Correct me if I'm wrong.
- You can walk to a beach, so you don't really need a taxi.
- Bring your own snorkel gear to save some money and discover some incredible things.
- Be prepared to drink! ? Have fun with that.
Day 7 (Last day at sea, Jan. 12th): The last day at sea is a bit of a frenzy. I would suggest doing most of your on-boat shopping on this day, as many of the stores have a bunch of "last chance specials" where things are marked down quite a bit. For example, we attended a jewelry raffle that ended with a bunch of watches/necklaces/wallets/etc going on sale from $99 to $19.99. It was pretty crazy, but we ended up buying some usually expensive stuff on the cheap. Other than that, we spent most of this day eating as much as humanly possible because we knew that it was our last night to do so.
My little advice:
- Go ahead and set up your breakfast room service order for the next day. They'll deliver it to you before you need to get off your boat.
- Depending on when you left, be prepared to dress a little warmer on this day. Going from 87 degrees and sunny to 50 degrees and rainy is kind of a shock.
- Make sure you have everything packed up for tomorrow and that you're ready to go.
- Enjoy yourself! ? You've just spend 7 freaking days doing stuff, so use this opportunity to REST!
Day 8 (Debarkation day, Jan. 13th): A lot of people worry about debarkation day, but it's really not a big deal. You get some slips of paper the night before from customs that you fill out, letting them know what all you're bringing back to the country. It has some limitations (two cartons of cigarettes per person, two bottles of liquor per person (I think?)), but it's pretty easy to fill out. On debarkation day, we awoke to the knock of room service and enjoyed our last morning of free bagels with cream cheese, pastries, juices, coffee, toast, and so on. We decided to take our luggage off of the boat ourselves rather than placing the tags on them so they can take them out for us. Because we were on Deck 2, we were able to leave at 7:30AM. We did just that.
Debarkation day is basically a big day of walking. We packed everything the night before, so we simply ate our breakfast, took our showers, and headed out. (On a personal side note, I have 90+ Facebook notifications and about 18 voicemails. It felt so good to be disconnected for a while!!) We hit the elevators and went up to Desk 5 (the lobby area where we boarded the boat). We simply got in line and made our way off the boat (they scan your Sign and Sail card one last time), walked through the ramps, got to customs, showed him our passport (and all he did was ask us to verify our full names), and then made our way outside. All in all, it took maybe about 15-20 minutes. No big deal!
I called a taxi and we went back to the La Quinta Inn in Galveston. The far was $15 this time. The taxi driver dropped us off at our car, where we loaded it up and began our drive back home.
We actually stopped in Dallas to meet some of my family, spent the night, and then went home the next day... but I don't think anyone needs to hear about that stuff. ? That sums up our Carnival Magic vacation! I'm not sure if this whole post will come in handy for anyone or if it's just me rambling, but still--it was a BLAST! If you're planning on going on the Magic, ENJOY IT--IT'S FANTASTIC! If you're on the fence, DO IT! YOU WON'T REGRET IT!! Thanks for reading!