First time cruisers on a budget: (I'm very long winded but I hope I'm also detailed enough to help you plan your trip)
Our top 10 things to know for first time cruising: 1. If you plan your own excursion, know before hand the time difference between your ship time (same time zone as your departing port) and the ports of call. 2. Pack light. I don't mean to not bring lots of things to wear but put it all in a small suitcase that you can carry. You will be able to get on and off the ship easier. You can always do a load of laundry on board. 3. If your on a budget, do the research before and reserve shore excursions online, not through Carnival. You could save 50%. 4. Get to the ship early. You will beat the lines and get to eat lunch on board. 5. Plan for lunch on excursion days. If you are at a tender port, take a snack so you can eat a late lunch when you get back to the ship. When at a docking pier, get back onboard for lunch. 6. Order more than one dish (starter, salad, or dessert) at dinner. 7. If you are a single couple, ask your travel agent or cruise booker to sit you at a larger table so you can meet other people. (unless you plan on talking only to each other for the entire week.) 8. Plan a 4-5 hour excursion as a maximum. You will have plenty of time if you get confused with the time change and you will still have time to walk around and see the port. 9. Take naps. After getting back from the shore excursion, take a nap before dinner. (especially if you have the late dinner) The main shows don't start till 10:30 and they often have comedy around midnight. 10. Know how much money it will cost. The ticket price is only one of many cost of cruising.
Research on shore excursions: I had learned from reading other reviews that many of the excursions can be cheaper if you book them ahead instead of through Carnival. I found this to be true. I kept a copy of the excursion prices that Carnival offers so if anyone is interested in seeing it, email me. It is more research that you have to do at home and you need to make sure you have a copy of all the information with you. I've recommended some websites later in the information about each stop. The one very important piece of information if you are booking the excursions on your own is to know what time is local time for each stop! Once on board the ship, Carnival doesn't want to tell you what the local time is because they want you to book through them. The ship time is Tampa time but the stops were either an hour or two (depending on daylight savings time). This is important because if you book excursions outside of Carnival they tell you what time to meet, local time.
Arriving at Tampa Port: We arrived at the pier by car as we were dropped off by family who lived near Tampa. Signs for Port of Tampa are clearly labeled and it was easy to find Terminal 2. (Leaving the pier was more difficult as the signs aren't as clearly labeled.) You can pay to park your car at the pier. I believe it is $84 or $94 for valet. Our tickets didn't come in the mail in time (they were waiting in the mailbox when we got home) but we had our email confirmation and there are plenty of people there to help. Its clearly stated with your ticket information but I'll stress this point&get to the terminal early!!! The ship doesn't leave until 4 pm but we got there around 1:30-2 pm and were able to beat the lines and we were able to get onboard the boat and get lunch. Getting on board the ship was very rushed but they know what they are doing so it was efficient.
Luggage/Packing: We decided to only have carry on luggage and this was a great idea. This meant we had to be able to carry all of our bags and they were small, similar to carry-on for an airplane. The great thing about this was, we didn't have to pay for the porter to take our luggage (recommended $1 per bag) and we had our stuff with us when we got to our rooms. We could change into bathing suits or something different for dinner. Some people were told that they might not get their luggage to their rooms until 8 pm that night! Three pieces of luggage was never found on our trip so its also nice that you know it will not be lost. So if you can pack light, I would suggest carrying on your own luggage.
Our Room: Since we are a young couple, we didn't have as much money to spend on the room so we decided to get a room with a window. We were on the lowest deck (Riviera). There are many balcony rooms on the Miracle and I think for the right price, it would be nice to have a balcony. Our biggest complain about the room is that the window does not open so you can't get fresh air. All the air conditioned air was giving us headaches by the end of the week. The room is a descent size and very efficient. We had a very comfortable queen size bed that was against the right wall and with about 2 feet off the wall on the side with the window and 3 feet at the foot of the bed to walk around the bed. There was a vinyl sofa that became a sofa bed adjacent to the bed. There was a vanity for putting on make up and a TV that swivels and a safe all in the same built in. The safe is free and you use an ID card of your own (ex. drivers license with a black bar code strip on the back) to lock & unlock the safe. The bathroom was also small but efficient. There is a single sink with lots of shelves. A toilet in one corner and stand up shower in the other. My boyfriend went to the gym and said the shower in the gym was great. So if you don't like the one in your room, go to the gym. The room décor was what we would describe as 70's but it was also a very comfortable room. Important things to know about the room: There is lots of closet space for hanging garments but only about 10 hangers. If you plan to hang more than 10 things, you might want to bring some hangers from home. There are also shelves and a few small drawers. The TV gets the main networks, ABC, NBC, CNN, FOX and TNT but local news cast are out of Denver, CO. They provide shampoo (Dove) and liquid soap (Lever 2000) in the shower. There is only one plug/outlet in the room. If you plan to have cell phones, curling iron, your own hair dryer (a small on is provided in the room) or other things to plug in, you might want to bring a three way plug splitter.
Beach Towels: The ship provides beach towels, one for each person. You can take them to shore with you but if you leave them, you are charged for them. ($30ish) So use them but don't loose them.
Cell phones: If you bring your own cell phone on board the ship, you will get a signal even when the ship is at sea. The crew doesn't know too much about how the cell phones work and can only tell you that you will be charged International rates. So depended on your plan, you might be able to use your own cell phone. We decided to turn them off to avoid anyone calling us and getting charged.
Fire Drill: Around 4 pm, right when we were to set sail, we were require to participate in a fire drill. Everyone was told to go to their rooms and get their life jackets, then report to their Muster station (where you would get on a lifeboat). So don't plan to take a nap at this time. I'm sure it is a site to see for all those on shore at Tampa watching us line up as if we were getting onto lifeboats.
Drinks: I believe you can buy a soda package for $40 per person. That would include all the soft drinks you want. As far as I know, there isn't a package for all you can drink alcoholic drinks. Each beer is sold separately or you can get 4 beers for $16 but don't quote me on that. If you are a light drinker and might want a couple drinks on board: buy the single bottles of hard liquor. You should be able to get by with them and if they confiscate them you will not be out much. Your ticket includes some drinks. Lemonade, water, coffee, tea, hot chocolate is available all day for free. They also have a juice machine which switches juices depending on the time of day. Orange juice available in the morning and it switches to fruit punch in the afternoon. They also have Apple all day. We bought some 20 oz. sodas when we were on shore and brought them back to our rooms to have when we wanted soda. Only water is free at dinner.
Dinner: We chose to do the late dinner that started at 8:15 pm. I believe most couples do the late dinner and families with children do the early dinner at 6 pm. Dinner is a served three course meal with dessert which takes between 1 ½ hrs to 2 hours. They give you a menu with about 6 appetizers, 3 salads, 8 main dishes, & 4 desserts to choose from. You can order more than one of each. You can even tell them that you would like to order meat from one and the side from another. The service was wonderful and very professional. The only bad part was that they would interrupt your main course with loud announcements and then make the professional wait staff dance for you to really cheesy music. We sat at a big table with 4 other couples. Three of whom were newlyweds. At first it was hard because we had to small talk with people we were forced to eat with. By the end of the week, I was glad to have someone other than my boyfriend to talk to. We would also run into these couples on the ship and off so it was nice to make friends. One of the couples ordered a bottle of wine each and was able to keep the same bottle for the whole week and drink it at dinner. The waitress would store it and have it back on the table at the next dinner until the bottle was finished. This was much cheaper than ordering a new glass of wine each night. The décor of the dinner room was not our taste either. My boyfriend said it reminded him of Metroid (anyone know what he is talking about?)
Fun Days at Sea: This trip has two Fun days at Sea, one of each end of the trip. Most people lounge around at the pool on the Lido deck and some of the sunny chairs get taken first. They also have a band play for entertainment. Carnival promotes their art auction heavily on these days. We weren't into the art and we found the activities on board to be a little cheesy. We slept in and took our time getting ready.
Formal Nights: Being a first time cruiser, I was very surprised at formal night when I showed up in my sundress and everyone else was wearing ball gowns. Most of the girls looked like they were going to the prom or were in a wedding. I'm not sure how they packed a dress with crinlin and didn't get it wrinkled. Most guys were suits (not sports jackets) or tux. If you have something that you were wear to a wedding, that would get good. Sundresses look out of place but they will not turn you away.
Laundry: About the third day, you get a flier about laundry. They will do your laundry for $15 a bag (no jeans, dresses or heavy garments). They forget to tell you that you can do your own laundry. There are four laundry rooms on the ship. They are small rooms with only 2 washers and 4 dryers. Look in the book provided in your room for locations. They are coin (quarters only) operated. $2 for wash, $2 for dry and $1 for detergent if you didn't bring your own. The washers are normal sized. You can get quarters from the Information Desk on Deck 2. You end up going through a lot of clothes and it was really nice to not come home with all dirty clothes. It would be a good idea to bring detergent for a single load.
Sign & Sail Card: Upon board the ship, each person gets a room key. This key is very important because it is also the way you pay for things on board the ship. Instead of needing cash, you hand the cashier your card and it is charged to your account. When you board you are asked to link the Sign/Sail card with a credit card. The Sign/Sail card is also needed when going ashore at each stop. (You don't need your passport) They have added security where they take your picture upon boarding. When you disembark to go ashore, you swipe your card and they can match up the picture to the person. This way they can also tell who has left the ship and who has not made it back.
Lunch: After we got back on ship, we could catch the end of lunch so we would plan to grab a snack (bananas from breakfast) to eat on shore and then eat a late lunch back on the ship. This worked perfectly since we had the late dinner. This also saved money because we had already paid for all the food on the ship and we didn't have to pay anything for lunch. One of our dinner couples thought they were getting a local experience by eating lunch on shore but most of the restaurants were so touristy that you couldn't getting authentic food so close to the pier.
Shore excursions: (example) The ship lets you off at 8 am (ship time) but its only 7 am on shore. None of the stores are open. Then the ship leaves at 5 pm but you have to be back onboard at 4 pm and it takes 30 min to tender so the latest you can stay is 3:30 or 2:30 local time. You don't have as much time on shore as it appears. You must carefully plan your excursions within this time. If you book your tour through Carnival, they give you a time (ship time) and place to meet on the ship so you don't have to worry about what time is local time.
Grand Cayman: The Cayman stop is a tender port (ship stops about ½ mile off shore and you take small boats to the shore). One of the most popular things to do here is to go to Stingray City (not a real city but a sand reef where you can swim with stingrays). Even with Steve Irwin still fresh in our minds, many people were okay with swimming with them. The boat guides teach you how to avoid getting hurt and the stingrays are used to people. We booked a Stingray tour through Moby Dicks tours. www.mobydicktours.com. We would recommend this company because it was very professional and a good price for the money. Our only comments are that the bathroom on the boat was gross and that they say they include punch and water but it was a 2 gallon container with 6 oz. Dixie cups to drink out of. No personal can or bottle. It was $35 per person. You can sign up on the website and pay (cash) when you arrive. All the tours that take you to Stingray city are the same and you aren't going to see anything different if you book this through the cruise. The price if you book it through Carnival is about $60. The best part about not book with Carnival was that our group was small and we could get personal attention with the guides. The carnival tours would pack twice as many people on to the same sized boat. At the pier there are many people holding signs with the company or tour names so it was easy to find them. You could also book a tour when you walked off the tender boat but you might pay a little more. The Moby Dick tour would be $40 if you didn't have any online reservation. Our tour also took us to a reef where we could snorkel without the stingrays. They take you to and fro the dock in an AC van and on the way back, you could asked to be dropped off at 7 Mile Beach. 7 Mile Beach is the closest beach from the pier and you can get a taxi for a few dollars back to the pier. If you have your own snorkel, you can snorkel right from the beach. At the pier there are many shops to walk around to. Most of them open at 8 am local time so if you want to do shopping, don't get there until 9 am ship time. The most popular shop to go into is a Tortuga Rum shop. They have rum cakes and rum to sample. If you buy liquor, make sure you are allowed to bring it all back by customs. There are a couple of their shops in Georgetown so you don't have to go to their factory if you just want to buy the cakes and rum. The rum cakes (small cake for $5) are great souvenirs and favor gifts, say for the person who dropped you off at the airport/pier. Tendering on the way back is very crowded. Carnival has an x-ray machine for all your bags so the line to get back onboard backs up. Other information: Close to the pier there is a shop where you can rent scooters. There are public bathrooms at the pier. $1 (US) = #1.25 (C.I.) Most stores close to the pier take US money but some might give you back C.I. money in change.
Cozumel, Mexico: Cozumel is a walk off pier so no tender boats. It makes is really easy to get back on the ship for lunch and back off again for the afternoon. There are many Mexican shops at the pier where you can get the typical souvenirs. Unless you want a bigger variety of the same Mexican souvenirs, you don't have to go to San Miguel (downtown). The Mexican shop employees are very push and harassing to try to get you into their shop. If you want to buy things here, haggle with them for the best price. You might also find better prices in San Miguel than the pier. It is a $6 cab ride from the pier to San Miguel and they have taxis waiting at the pier and the price clearly posted. Stay on the main street in San Miguel because it gets very rough just one block back. In the afternoon we went to Paradise Beach. From the pier it is about $15 ($18 from downtown). There isn't much to do in Cozumel but the beaches and this one was a free beach with lots of activities. It has a trampoline in the water and a iceberg inflatable climbing wall also in the water. The chairs were free and you can buy drinks and be served at your chair. You could also pay a small price ($8) to get unlimited use of rafts, snorkel equipment, and life jackets for the kids. They have wave runners you could rent. They have showers and bathrooms and taxis are always there ready to take you anywhere. We had planned to do a excursion on a catamaran but our reservation got messed up. I would recommend planning to do an excursion here. There aren't people here waiting with signs for tours you can book off the pier. Book tours ahead of time either through a website at home or through Carnival.
Mexican souvenirs: The most of the same souvenirs can be found at both Cozumel and Costa Maya. Costa Maya does have silver that Cozumel doesn't. If you are trying to find something different than their typical souvenirs, your going to be out of luck. We were trying to find chocolates to bring back for our office and couldn't find them anywhere.
Belize City, Belize: Belize is a tender port and they have small fast boats to get you back and forth. Belize is 2 hours different (check on daylight savings time) than our ship time so we were really early for our tour. The pier had many shops so that's what we did while waiting for our tour. These aren't like the Mexican hagglers. You could also find other souvenirs here. They have some shops that are more like gift shops that are very different from the tacky Mexican shops. We booked a tour to the Altun Ha Mayan ruins through X-stream tours at www.belizecruiseexcursions.com. They were at the pier with signs with their company name so they were easy to find. This company makes you put down 20% with a credit card online. If your ship doesn't come to port it is refundable. But if you miss the time, you are at fault and they will keep your money. Make sure you have all your paperwork with you. You pay the rest in cash when you sign in. The company was very professional but we didn't like putting down 20% deposit. (We used the same company to book a tour in Cozumel and they gave us the wrong time to meet the tour. They said 12:30 AM!...They also were not waiting at the pier and we had to find our way down to another pier. We ended up missing the tour. Just be careful with the 20% down rule.) Our tour to Altun Ha started at the pier. There were 9 of us who got into a 15 person AC van. Our driver was the tour guide and he was excellent. He talked as he drove downtown and pointed out different buildings, plants and other points of interest. It was a great way to see the city and to understand what it is like to live there. They speak English in Belize as they were once a English territory. The road to Altun Ha was really bumpy so don't set in the back if you get car sick. The ruins were really great. I haven't been other any other ruins but we thought this was a great site. They had some ruins that were excavated and some that were still mounds of dirt. We were able to climb up the biggest ruin. Our guide was really knowledgeable about the site and was able to answer any questions we had. Just outside of the ruin gate were small shops where we could buy souvenirs. The prices were cheaper here than at the pier. On the way back, we drove through downtown Belize where were could see where the locals shop. We wish we had saved more time at the end of our tour to walk back to the shopping area. It was only about 4 blocks away from the pier. I highly recommend booking this tour with a smaller local company rather than with Carnival. Carnival put 40-50 people on one bus with one guide. We got personal attention with our small 9 person group. The tours went to the same places but we paid less. We really liked Belize because it is a city and you could get somewhat away from the tourism. If you are not interested in the ruin tour, cave tubing is the other popular thing to do here. I believe that the same website listed above also does the cave tubing tour.
Costa Maya, Mexico: Costa Maya is a pier where you can walk off the boat. Costa Maya is different than the other stops because it is very new. The pier was built, we assume by Carnival, only 6 years ago. There was nothing there before the pier. Everything at this stop is new and is geared towards the cruise ships. There aren't any close cities that you could make it to in the time you have. What they call The Village is Majahaul, which is a $3 taxi ride from the pier, is a bunch of souvenir shops along the beach. This is where to go if you want a 30 min massage for $20 along the beach or 6 beers for $8 as you sit on the beach. Keep in mind that this is not your typical massage salon in the states. The massage place in two tables with towels on them under and tent with 2 Mexican ladies. It's a good deal if you want a massage for cheap by the beach. The cheaper deals on souvenirs (especially the silver) is at the village. Back at the shops at the pier, they were quoting me over $100 dollars on a bracelet that I got a quote for at the village for $30. If you don't want to go to the village, there is plenty of the same thing to do at the pier. There are at least 2 salt water swimming pools, one with a bar, plenty of restaurants with good drink deals, and souvenir shops. We came back from the village with an hour or two to spare so we hung around the pier and realized that most people had stayed at the pier and got started early on the drinking. It was like Spring Break! There were drunk girls in bathing suits dancing with grandpa aged men up on top of the bar for everyone to see. There were some excursions at Costa Maya that you could sign up for. We got off the ship early in the morning and went to a small booth (blue butterfly is their logo) where we signed up for a hour long snorkel tour for only $10 + $5 for the taxi ride ($30 total for two of us). The taxi took us to Tequila Beach where there is a small dock. You could go to Tequila Beach on your own if you want a place to relax on the beach with a chair and get drinks served to you. They have showers and plenty of taxis to take you back to the pier. At Tequila Beach we met up with the boat captain, our tour guide and a local girl who took our pictures as we snorkeled. Since it was only 9 am, we were the only ones on the tour. So we had a private tour and all the pictures were taken of us. It was a great snorkel tour. We saw spotted stingrays and lots of coral. They even had sodas (cans) or bottled water for us. They had the pictures for sale which they put on a CD for us to take home. After snorkeling, we got back on the ship to take showers and to get lunch before heading back out. Costa Maya is a nice stop if you plan to relax on the beach and get a cold drink.
Disembarking: If you can carry all your own luggage, you can get off the ship easier. If you have to check your luggage, you are asked to leave it outside your door the night before. Make sure to bring an overnight bag to put a fresh change of clothes and all your toiletries. This you will have to carry. There are videos that play on your cabin TV that explain disembarking. It is helpful in filling out customs forms which everyone must do. They inform you of how many cartons of cigarettes and how many liters of alcohol you are allowed to bring back. I believe it was one per person for each so don't buy too much on shore. You aren't allowed to bring fruit back either. So don't grab a banana at breakfast for a snack on your ride home. There are two different times that you can get off the ship. The earlier one is for anyone who is carrying their own luggage and didn't check any. If you have an early flight (before 12:30) and you need to check you bags, you can go to the Information desk Saturday to get special tags for your bags. These people can get off early too. Everyone else waits until the early people finish getting off. I don't know how long they had to wait because we carried our own bags. Getting through the terminal was a little confusing but quick. (don't wait in line for the elevator, take the escalator) The custom guy took our custom form and since we didn't had cigarettes or alcohol, we were waved through with no problems. We met up with our family waiting in a coffee shop next door. They had no problems parking at a meter on the street but they were really early.
Extra Charges: Your Sign & Sail card is linked to one of your credit cards because Carnival will charge $10 per person per day for tips for your room steward, dinner server and extra services. You can go to the Information Desk if you would like to adjust this charges but this are recommended and it is easier than leaving cash in envelopes. So buying the ticket is the first cost there are many to consider when deciding the budget for a cruise.
Expenses Total: Ticket: Depends on the room, time of year, length of travel: Can range between $300 (interior) and $700 (balcony) per person for the 7 night Miracle Soda package: $40 per person Air/Car/Hotel Travel: How are you getting to the port, do you have to stay overnight anywhere? Parking: $12 per day Souvenirs: depends on if you like their souvenirs Shore Excursions: depends on the activity: $40-$60 per person per stop Tips: $10 per person per day Meals off the ship: (can be zero) Gambling: (there is a casino on the ship (very smoky) Drinks on the ship: about $6/7 per drink Drinks on shore: cheaper