Background: This was our third cruise - second with Carnival. And our second tour of Europe (first on a bus tour). We traveled with 2 s and 2 teens (14 and 15). We chose a cruise largely because our kids wanted a cruise and my wife wanted to go to Greece so a cruise through Greece sounded like a great combination.
Travel to port of embarkation: We arrived 1 day early and stayed 1 extra day. We stayed in a hotel (Hotel Morgana) near the main train station (Roma Termini) so we could take another train directly to the port. They have one train directly from the airport to Termini and then another from Termini to Civitavecchia. Coming back, 2 of us took the shuttle with luggage to the airport then walked to the hotel (Airport Hilton) to check in. Then we took the shuttle into town to meet the other 2 at Termini. Tip: The Hilton Shuttle drops you off near the Coliseum which is fairly far from Termini, so this plan didn't work out so great.
Hotel Info: We stayed in Hotel Morgana the day before we left. VERY nice - 3 beds for 4 people (superior quad) and very near Termini. I would definitely recommend it. Upon return, we stayed at Hilton Rome Airport hotel since our flight left at 6:30AM and you can walk to the airport (although they had a shuttle at 4:30AM too). VERY nice (duh, it's a Hilton), but overpriced and far from the action.
Stateroom: We had a balcony room (our first) with 4 beds (one bunk) and it was really great. Very comfortable. Tip: Be careful with cabin selections - some are right across 24 hour laundry and lounge singers are very loud near mid-ship elevators with center shaft that goes all the way down. Cabins near front of ship (like ours) are a bit of a walk to get to anything since they have no forward stairs.
Ship Info: Very nice ship (although some areas are hard to access unless you take the right elevators). One nit is that you have to walk through the Habana cigar bar (which really stinks) to get to the internet - rather unpleasant especially for kids.
While you technically can't bring any alcohol on board, they don't check your checked bags so feel free to sneak a bunch in - apparently a fairly common practice. We also bought several bottles at every port (for post-cruise party) and had no problem bringing them back on board - even the 12 bottles of wine we bought from Florence.
As a side note - while Carnival advertises a minimum drinking age of 21, they do a terrible job checking ID. A number of 15 year olds were regularly served liquor by bartenders (whose job is complicated because most people only carry their sail-and-sign cards that don't list age groups - an easy fix for Carnival if they actually care). So, if this is a concern, watch out.
More disturbing, Carnival Security also let several 15 year olds into only clubs (mostly 70s club) and we know of at least one that regularly had 30+ year olds buying them drinks (who assumed they were legal since they got in). This seems like a very dangerous situation on many fronts. I reported this and personally think the security staff at the 70s club should be fired or Carnival should decide to take ID checking a bit more seriously.
On a broader scale, there's a lot of age mixing from the 15-25 year old crowd and pretty easy access to liquor for 15+ kids that want it. (Drugs seemed pretty scarce).
Activities/Entertainment: Despite some rave reviews here, we were really disappointed in the activities and entertainment. It's great if you like singing/dancing shows or sitting in a bar listening to lounge singers all night, but they only had one comedy act and one magic show in 12 days.
ALL of the movies on their one outdoor screen and in the rooms can be found in the Blockbuster bargain bins. I definitely expected first-run movies. Or at least play these lame movies in a much smaller venue like the International Lounge and then decent, new movies on Lido. (And, while the outdoor screen sounds really cool, it's VERY noisy on the Lido deck and the weather was rarely ideal). (We love to relax and watch movies, so this wasn't so great).
It would've been great if they had a lot of smaller comedy shows or smaller movies and acts in the international lounge. The entertainment on our Caribbean cruise was far better.
In addition to many more smaller acts, I would have liked a lot more smaller activity areas like shuffleboard court, pool tables, or ping pong in non-windy areas.
That said, the cruise director John was fantastic. However, I read with some shock in another review that described the talent show as follows:
"The highlight of the trip was talent night when one of the "ladies" responded to the cruise director and knocked him down and pretended to have . She rumpled his clothing, he actually lost a shoe, broke his suspenders and his pants dropped a bit."
This is EXACTLY what happened on our cruise in late June, so it's obviously a staged act (including her pretending to sleep before being picked).
The gym is very nice and most equipment is usually available. Spa was great was well with daily specials (except on Sea Days).
Service: Service was impeccable from the dining room staff to the housekeeping. Staff was friendly and remembered our drinks/preferences. The service was definitely a significant highlight of the cruise.
Dining: Overall, dinner food in main dining rooms was excellent. Lunch was ok. Breakfast was quite boring and pretty much the same every day. Dining room steak and prime rib were delicious. The lobster on formal night was terrible. Appetizers were good but often VERY small (like 1-2 shrimp). You can just order 2-3, although you kind of feel like a pig. Open buffet dining on Lido was generally pretty terrible - same stuff most days and pretty boring. Our previous cruises at least had considerable variety on the open seating food.
Overall, deserts were ok, but anything with a cake base was very dry and flavorless. I suspect they use pre-cooked, frozen cakes. They really need a desert chef that knows how to make cakes since this is a base for 75% of their deserts and it really ruined most of their deserts.
As a side note, we have 2 kids and Carnival sat us with 3 retired ladies. Very nice people, but I expected to be seated with a more compatible family like previous cruises.
Tips: They have a deli hidden on the port side of the Lido deck with great grilled Pastrami sandwiches. Fresh calzones from late night pizza place are pretty decent. If you have a sit down breakfast/lunch/dinner, you get Cappuccinos for free (otherwise you pay on Lido). Breakfast room service is free (with limited menu) - less social, but convenient.
Children's Clubs: Overall, Camp Carnival and the teen club O2 were the biggest disappointments on the whole cruise (because our kids were expecting them to be really fun and hangout places for kids their age). It was terrible - lots of kids on the first day and almost abandoned after that. Most of the time, 9-11 year old activities mixed with the 12-14 year and the activities themselves were pretty dull. (14 year olds have little in common with 9 year olds). Club O2 was similar - and usually empty.
Both my kids met others outside of the camps and ended up hanging with them most of the trip and enjoyed the trip despite the lameness of Camp Carnival. (Actually, kids said cruise part was mediocre). We met several parents that complained their kids hadn't met anyone, so it's easy for shy kids to get lost. Virtually everyone with teenagers complained about Camp Carnival's lameness.
Shore Excursions: First we planned this cruise at the last minute (June 4th for a June 17th cruise). I really wish we'd found cruise critic much earlier because we would've done a lot of private excursions. We met several couples who did this and they had some really great experiences (especially Instanbul). This review lists the Carnival excursions we attended:
Rome: None. We also used the trains to get in and out of Rome.
Naples: We took the Pompeii, Sorrento, Capri tour. In retrospect, this was way too much stuff. Only 30 minutes of shopping in Sorrento and too little time in Pompeii. We also had to wait 1 hour for a ship from Capri and 45 minutes for a lost passenger so we were really rushed in Pompeii. I would recommend doing any 2 of the 3. Also, our guide was terrible and very hard to understand.
Tip: If you want to buy Limoncello for a gift, get it in Sorrento - good prices and lots of touristy bottles. If you want it to drink, get it on the ship AFTER this excursion. They have large bottles for $15 that you get after the cruise.
Rhodes: Wife went on best of Rhodes with our son (which she quite enjoyed) and I just walked to town with daughter to relax.
Izmir: Ancient Ephesus tour was excellent - 4 hours is a good amount of time without being too exhausting.
Istanbul: Treasures of Istanbul (Blue Mosque, St. Sophia, and Palace). Decent tour, except you're on your own for lunch. We ordered lunch at an open cafe at the palace and paid $80 for 4 drinks and 3 lousy sandwiches. Bazaar is nice and Carnival offers later shuttles if you want to stay after your official tour ends. We sent kids back on tour bus and took a later shuttle.
Tips: We heard a number of stories from other passengers about attractive blond women being followed or groped in the bazaar - even very young s. Several folks felt quite uncomfortable and left early specifically because of this. (We also met on couple that were stalked including a man that literally took a taxi to follow them back to port). Pretty creepy. Turkish Raki (liquor) is EXCELLENT, but you can only buy this in duty-free shops and the ship doesn't sell it, so plan to buy this early. Rug demonstrations are really boring unless you plan to buy a rug. If you are, attend one so you'll know the different materials/quality. We met some folks who took a private tour of the underground in Turkey and really enjoyed that. We would recommend this over the above tour.
Many folks uniquely enjoyed Turkey because it's just so different from European countries.
Athens: Athens and Acropolis. While interesting, the acropolis part of the tour was terrible. With 2 large ships in port, it was unbelievably crowded in sweltering heat - often walking very slowly in baby-steps. A number of folks fainted or nearly did. Despite terrible conditions, it was very interesting. Shopping in Athens was pretty dull and the city itself seemed surprisingly generic given its rich history.
Katakolon: Ancient Olympia and Village. The cruise director seemed to try and talk folks out of taking any excursions here, but we quite enjoyed this one and it has a lot of historical significance. The village is an easy walk back to the ship. Tips: Buy your olive oil in the village - it's MUCH cheaper than in Olympia and very delicious. apparently, most Italians prefer Greek olive oil over their own.
Livorno: Beautiful Tuscany. We'd already been to Florence a few years ago, so my wife and daughter took the 10 hour beautiful Tuscany tour. Both of the LOVED it and kept saying how beautiful it was. Florence by train. Based on several recommendations about how easy it is to take the train to Florence, my son and I did this. Carnival offers a shuttle (for 1 euro) to center of town. From there, you can catch another bus to the train station or walk 20 minutes (like we did). The train to Florence is 80 minutes. Overall, we left the ship at 9:00AM and got to Florence at 12:20. That's ridiculous. Although it's much cheaper than the $79 per person Florence On Your Own, wasting 2 extra hours wasn't really worth it and we had to take a taxi from the station just to make it back right at closing time. Taking the train to Pisa is realistic since that's much faster, but we wouldn't do it to Florence again.
As a side note, we bought lots of tourist stuff so we ended up buying 2 new suitcases. We bought a large metal one for only 25 Euro near the train station and a smaller second one in Rome for 20 Euro - much cheaper than shipping.
Disembarkation: This seemed fairly smooth, although the numbers and colors were not called sequentially (so be careful if you're trying to pace your breakfast) and de-boarding times were fairly vague. Overall, pretty easy with shuttles immediately available.
Summary: Overall, we all enjoyed this vacation. It was a good compromise between the s wanting to see Europe and the kids wanting to cruise so they could hang out with new friends.
I asked my kids and both of them said the cruise part was mediocre (although they had fun it was almost despite Carnival, not because of it). They both quite enjoyed and appreciated seeing Europe.
We (the s) felt the cruise part of the ship could've been a lot better with some fairly minor adjustments - particularly the entertainment and Lido deck food. If you like bigger dancing/singing shows and lounge singing, then you'll be happy. If you like movies made in the last 4-5 years, shuffleboard (or pool), comedy acts, or just other stuff, it's pretty weak.