I have been sailing on Carnival for a number of years and am a gold member. I agree with other cruisers that the quality of the food is less than what I have experienced in the past. Despite, this, I had a great time. I like to read these reviews to get some tips and will share some of my experiences. We flew in the night before from Atlantic City on Spirit Airlines. We flew to Fort Lauderdale as it was far cheaper than flying into Miami. There is a train that runs from FLL to MIA for about $5 per person each way with a short free shuttle when you get to FLL. You can also rent a car for $25 for the day and take it to MIA and leave it there. We chose to rent the car as it gave us the opportunity to purchase a few items including the bottle of wine each that Carnival allows you to bring on the ship. I had arranged to stay at the Hampton Inn near Miami's Doral Mall. It is a little further out but they offer a free shuttle to their hotel and to the cruise port. It is a very clean hotel that offers a free breakfast as well. In addition, the mall is within walking distance. There is a Cheesecake Factory and other nice restaurants close by where you can walk. The area seemed safe as well. I have stayed near the airport and was afraid to leave the hotel in the past.
We bough the Faster to Fun pass for the additional $50. My boyfriend hates lines and this got us onto the ship immediately where our cabin was ready. Our bags were delivered within a half an hour. Having immediate access to the room allowed us to bring out own soda, water and wine without having to drag it around the ship waiting for our room to be ready. In addition, I was able to change immediately and start my vacation. We were also the first ones off the ship and made our way through customs very quickly at debarkation.
In the ship, I highly recommend going to brunch. The pork chops and cheese grits were the best things that I ate all week. Yummo!!!! In addition, you can not go wrong with the warm chocolate melting cake in the main dining rooms. In the breakfast buffet, I found the salsa to be amazing.
As for the ports, we did not have the best weather in Key West but had fun anyway. We decided to forgo the bar crawl and did one of our own. Schooner's Wharf which is about a quarter of a mile form the ship has a happy hour that starts at 8AM. Of course we hit that hard. Drinks were $3. The Key West Winery and Rum Distillery both have free tastings that start at 10am. Of course we went to Sloppy Joes for drinks and bar food. I found out they have a webcam. I posted an update on Facebook and my sister saw me eating my nachos and drinking some wonderful drinks.
Cozumel was beautiful. We did the BEST excursion, La Casa en La Playa. They only allow 32 people per cruise to join that excursion. Buy it before the cruise if you want to do it or else it will be gone. The tickets will say bring a towel but you don't have to. They supply one. It is $119 per person but well worth the money. They take you by taxi to this house where they treat you like their honored guests. They have waiters, a bartender and chef there to serve you. When you arrive, they greet you with a cool non-alcoholic lemonade. Then you hit the beach and the drinks start flowing. They have all top shelf liqour and will make you whatever you want. I chose the rum punch. It was incredible. They made them doubles. They provide tapas upon your arrival and later homemade nachos with very good pico. For lunch, they will set you up at a private table under the trees or serve you right on the beach. There are hammocks, beach beds, loungers and chairs all for your enjoyment. They provide umbrellas, showers and bathroom facilities. They will teach you to make guacamole. For lunch, we had the fajitas. They were wonderful. The chef also made us nutella crepes. We did shots of kahlua with them. Very good. One tip, the water is rocky. Bring water shoes. All non-motorized sports were included. There was some awesome snorkling. We could not kayak because the surf was rough that day. I will go on a cruise again to Cozumel just to do this excursion. The staff was so gracious.
I have to add that on the ship, the love and marriage game was hillarious. The commedians were hysterical and towel puppet theater would be great if you have kids. I agree that the cruise director was not as present as I have experienced with other cruises but it did not detract from my experience.
We stayed in an inside cabin on the Empress deck. The cabins are older but the beds are very comfortable. Calling home is now only $1.99 a minute which is reasonable. Internet access continues to be very expensive. I like that Carnival continues to give you chocolates at bedtime and makes towel animals every night. This is something that Norwegian has cut back on.
When we got back to port, I took SAS transport back to FLL. Steve the owner is very accomodating, reliable and easy to deal with.
The cruise was a huge bargain. We paid nder $550 for both of us. January cruising is very reasonable. I just did the Norwegian Breakaway In November and had a much different experience. The food and entertainment on the the Norwegian Cruise were higher quality but I also paid four times what I did for this cruise. I hope this helps when you are making your plans.