That said, Carnival Freedom fell very short of my expectations in most categories for the New Year's cruise. We did not partake in any of the ship's excursions, theatrical productions or children's programs, so I won't comment on those, but will instead focus my review on embarkation/disembarkation, food quality, food & beverage service, overall crew, layout/design of the ship, cabin service/amenities, and "Fun" factor.
EMBARKATION/DISEMBARKATION: I have no real complaints with these processes at all. We arrived at the dock around 11:00 a.m. by taxi and there was no waiting to check in--we were literally first in line. Keep in mind that it is likely cheaper to take a taxi to the port than to take the Carnival transfers--it is a flat $24 for the taxi, including all luggage, from the MIA airport to the ships. There is no wait for taxis like there are for transfers, and you don't arrive at the pier with a herd of people that you may end up standing in line behind to check in.
Embarkation was almost perfect--but for the minor delays we experienced waiting for the photographers to snap what they would like to make you think are mandatory photos. They aren't mandatory, so walk right on by them if you want to. (The only mandatory photos are those they take for your Seapass ID card).
We were on the ship by 12:00, very excited to hang out on the Lido deck until our cabin was ready at 1:30.
Disembarkation was also a breeze, as we chose the "self-assist" method where we took our own luggage and were off the ship before 7:00 am. We went down a little early (about 6:45) and were the first passengers off the ship (and first in line for Customs) at about 6:55.
FOOD QUALITY: We ate all but one dinner at our assigned table in the Chic Dining Room. Most lunches and the remaining dinner were eaten in the Lido Buffet. The dinners in Chic were above average, with the lobster tail being outstanding, and there was a good selection of entrees each night. Food selections in Lido were more repetitious, many dishes were cold or otherwise poorly prepared, and just didn't taste that great. We found ourselves eating the same things over and over and then getting sick of it all by about the 4th day. Lunch on Orient Beach in St. Martin was devoured!
FOOD & BEVERAGE SERVICE: This is where things started going really south on the Freedom. Our first disappointment was not getting the dinner time we booked--we booked a late seating and got assigned the 6:15 seating when we checked in. We were told we could talk to the Maitre D about switching tables, but that was a complete nightmare. There were hordes of people trying to do the same thing, and they had far worse problems than just a time preference--families of 10 were assigned to 4 different dinner tables! It was complete chaos, and I didn't see anyone getting anywhere with their request (some said they had waited 2 hours just to speak to someone and they still didn't get an answer), so we decided not to waste our vacation time or energy in that manner and resigned ourselves to eating early.
To add insult to injury, when we arrived at dinner the first evening, we saw that we were assigned to a "romantic" table for 2. Unfortunately, we were 2 single women traveling on New Year's to have fun and meet people, and had requested a large table. Of course, there was no changing that either, and to make matters even more ludicrous, our table was situated right in the middle of a main walkway so that we had constant foot traffic on both sides of the table.
The bright spots in the dining room were our waiter, Manolito, and his assistant, Alan. They gave the best service we received on Freedom, by far! They greeted us by name each evening and tried very hard to remember our preferences and make us feel special. They made the early seating and the tiny table bearable with their graciousness.
Conversely, there was NO service in the Lido. Dozens of tables went uncleared while passengers were walking around looking for a place to sit, there was no beverage service (even if you had the prepaid Soda package) or assistance with trays whatsoever. We didn't even see anyone trying to sell alcoholic beverages. Far worse than all that however, was the complete lack of any enforcement of decorum or addressing bad behavior. I know Carnival attracts all kinds of people, but when a woman is crass enough to go through the buffet line with nothing but a thong bikini on (cottage cheese, anyone?) and children are running back and forth through the restaurant, soaking wet and screaming at the top of their lungs, someone on staff needs to have a little talk with them or their parents. Same problems in Chic--they say "no jeans" but we saw people with cut-off SWEAT PANTS being led to a table. Either have a dress code and enforce it or don't have one at all and let people look as degenerate as they want to.
OVERALL CREW: The crew as a whole on Carnival Freedom the week of 12/29/07-1/5/08 was the least hospitable and most sour-faced bunch I have ever seen on a cruise ship. The bartenders were the most robotic, unsmiling, Un-FUN group of people I've ever encountered in ANY bar, at sea or on land. Come on, people, you're serving cocktails, not manning a nuclear submarine! The proof of their lack of charm and friendliness was in all the empty barstools all over the ship, but most noticeably at the pool bars on Lido. Yep, you could get a seat there anytime, day or evening!
After being on many ships where the crew bent over backward to extend a greeting and be friendly even if you were just passing by, this crew's lack of customer service really stood out. They seemed miserable, never had a smile or said a word, and would not go out of their way at all if you had a request that wasn't their "department".
THE SHIP: Personally, I found the design not only chaotic but completely dysfunctional. The decor is a matter of opinion, and I've seen reviews on both sides of the spectrum (I thought it was laughable), but to have to walk up one floor, down another and then up again to get to the dining room or to walk from one end of the ship to another is not functional! Signs consisting of pinhole-sized flashing lights that constantly change colors are not readable!
Here's a huge tip: Unless you enjoy feeling like you are on the business end of a giant jackhammer, do not book an aft balcony cabin. We were on deck 7 aft and every time the ship docked, our cabin literally shook enough to make us nauseous and the sound was so loud you couldn't have a normal conversation. This combination of noise and vibrations lasted anywhere from 30-45 minutes while the ship was docking. There's no hope of sleeping through it unless you are dead or comatose, but the good news is that wake up calls aren't needed for port days. Our question is: "How did this brand-new ship leave the shipyard like this?" We were laughing about it the last day, but only because it helped us wake up in time to be the first two people off the ship.
CABIN SERVICE/AMENITIES: I have to praise Carnival on their bedding, towels and robes. The thick, soft, terry robes are the best I've ever had on any ship, the towels were soft and plentiful, and the bedding was very comfortable. Everything about the cabin was clean and fresh, and our steward, while not especially friendly, was certainly efficient and took care of the one or two small requests we had. Other than the shaking and deafening noise while docking, the cabin was very nice.
"FUN" FACTOR: The New Year's Eve party on the top deck was the highlight of this cruise for us, but that's not a regular event so there's no use detailing it here. Since my friend and I don't really enjoy the "Broadway" style shows, jugglers or ventriloquists, and we don't gamble, we struggled to find entertainment in the evenings, especially between 7:30 (when dinner ended) and 9:30, when the piano bar opened. We did enjoy the piano bar quite a bit, and Ron (the piano guy) is very talented. That venue was our go-to place just about every night. I expected there to be more poolside activities on sea days too, but there didn't seem to be all that much planned, nor did the band play very much poolside. When they did play, they were very good, however. The "FUN" fell far short of our expectations for a New Year's cruise.
CONCLUSION: After avoiding this cruise line for years out of fear that it and its passengers would be loud and tacky, I jumped on a last-minute deal on the Destiny last May and had a blast--which is why I talked my friend into booking the Freedom for New Year's. She has only sailed Princess and RCCL, but I convinced her that Carnival was great. Shoot, I wrote a glowing review of that Destiny cruise on this website, calling myself a "Carnival convert!". Lo and behold, I should have reserved judgment. And to be fair, no cruise line is perfect all the time. But to have so many things that are controllable be wrong (poor service in too many departments and that shaking engine problem to name two major ones) is bad business. The bottom line is that for the first time in more than 40 cruises, I really felt unwelcome and I couldn't wait to come home. Those feelings won't be quickly forgotten, and with such great memories from other cruises, I can't imagine what would make me try Carnival again anytime soon.