We were 3 adults sailing the Carnival Valor on the March 16, 2008 7-night Western Caribbean itinerary. This was our 4th cruise in 18 months; the first 3 were with NCL; this was our first with Carnival. We have had the most pleasant vacations with NCL. Sadly, this was not the case on our first (and last) Carnival cruise. We could not help but compare the cruise to our NCL experiences and Carnival fell short in nearly every aspect.
Our cruise was arranged through a local travel agent that was able to bundle the cruise, flight (to FLL) and transfers to/from the Miami port through a 3rd party holiday travel agency (vs Carnival's own flight and transfer bundles). Once booked, I had the displeasure of using Carnival's website to complete the pre-cruise registration. This painful experience took a very long time due to the fact that the system kept giving me scripting errors (troubles with their system) or telling me my information was missing (even though I had entered it, but the system threw it away). I finally got it entered but had to return to the site a week before the cruise due to a change in my flight details. Again, what should have been a 5 minute job turned into over an hour, having to call their tech support (and wait on hold, getting the wrong person, waiting on hold some more) to find out that you can't change your flight information (despite the system allowing you to "edit" it). Instead, I was told you have to delete it all and re-enter the information with the new details. Why allow someone the option to "edit" when the system won't accept it? I also discovered that their system only wants the first 3 characters of our Canadian postal codes. Why not say so, rather than allow me to enter it all, and throwing away the last 3 characters leaving me to think there was an error in the system and keep retrying? Things were not off to a good start.
Trying to read the 15 or 16 page sailing contract that I had to acknowledge having read and agree to in a window in my browser that presented about 6 lines at a time was also unpleasant. I did discover a way to save the document to a file and read it in a standard page-at-a-time format. I was curious to see if the contract limited the amount of wine we could bring on board. It did not, which pleased me, since this is what NCL allows. You do have to pay a corkage fee, which is fine with me. Subsequently I found out that this contract that I had acknowledged through my digital signature was not the "correct" contract. In fact there is a different contract that does limit you to one bottle per person. Despite having signed the unlimited contract, I was told I had to abide the rules of another contract that would confiscate and discard wine over 1 bottle per person. Concerns of having to abide by a contract other than what I had signed fell on deaf ears. The call from the director of sales, that I was promised, to discuss these concerns was never received.
Travel and transfers, again, not arranged through Carnival, were smooth. Embarkation was also smooth (as good as NCL) although NCL has provided those of us waiting with snacks and drinks. I didn't see anything offered by Carnival.
We chose to carry all of our luggage on board with us, so by 4pm we were fully unpacked and settled into our cabin. It was a standard balcony room, mid-ship on the 6th (Upper deck) floor. Upon arrival we noted a sticky substance on the bathroom door and its handle, but otherwise the cabin was clean. It seemed more spacious than NCL's comparable cabin. I believe this was due to the trade-off between more living space and a smaller bathroom. Our 3 NCL ships have all had bathrooms with 3 separate compartments (sliding door to the toilet section, sliding door on the shower and central sink/storage area. Three people can actually be using the bathroom in each of the 3 areas at the same time. Carnival's bathroom had plenty of storage space. The shower had a curtain rather than a door. Only 2 people could effectively use the bathroom at once. The cabin itself had plenty of storage space, a mini-bar and safe. The safe required a card with a magnetic stripe to lock it. With 3 people sharing the safe, this made it impossible for anyone other than the holder of the locking card to open it. This was annoying since we were not always together and may have needed to get into the safe. I prefer safes that use a combination to lock/unlock. The door to the balcony was a swinging door beside a large window. We prefer NCL's wall-to-wall floor-to-ceiling sliding glass doors. The balcony had two chairs and a small table. It was typical in size to any balcony we've had.
The 3rd bed in our stateroom was to be a sofa by day and a bed by night. Our room steward always left it as a bed, never converting it back to a sofa. Similarly the other two beds were always left looking like a bed vs making it up in the morning with the bedspread. NCL always did these conversions in the morning to give us sitting/entertaining space when making up the room in the morning and converting it to sleeping quarters in the evening when turning it down.
As for the ship overall, it was the most confusing I've ever been on to get from point A to point B. Sometimes you were actually at a dead end, other times you only thought so. For example you might have been blocked by a dining room with a sign that said you need to go up two floors to cross over to get to the other side. Or you may have been taking the stairs, as we always do, to think you couldn't go any further only to discover that there were more stairs. This was not apparent because you would expect to continue to turn the same way at the bottom of each flight of stairs. On this ship, if you turned the other way, and walked a few steps you would discover additional stairs in a recessed area. Entrances from cabin corridors to stairwells or stairwells to venues were not very obvious. Going up the stairs to Rosie's, the buffet, it was hard to tell if you had arrived at another floor of staterooms or the restaurant. The entrance was also hidden.
The ship was very smoky. We avoided the mid stairwell because it was right beside the Casino that smelled of smoke constantly. Most every venue (except dining areas) permitted smoking. One of the few exceptions was the karaoke lounge, something that I'm not personally interested in. I would have enjoyed the piano bar, or the jazz trio, but the smoke was much too thick. This prevented my enjoyment and use of this type of entertainment.
On NCL our room steward asked our names on the first day and always greeted us with "Hello, Mr. ". The dinning staff on NCL also asked our names when they served us and acknowledged us by name on future visits when they noticed us as we walked through their section to be seated elsewhere. On one occasion an NCL server remembered our names when she saw us 3 months later on a different cruise. Our Carnival room steward never addressed us by our names, nor did our dining staff that served us every day!
We ate our evening meal in the Lincoln dining room; breakfasts and lunches in the Washington. Both had the tackiest decor I have ever seen: neon pink lighting with garish purple chandeliers (with several burnt out bulbs) that reminded me of upside down tarantula spiders with a few extra legs. We were assigned the 8:30pm seating which was too late for one in our party. We had requested the 8pm seating and tried to get it changed, but were told it was a very popular time and could not be accommodated. The only other option was the 6:15 pm, which was much too early. Our table was for 8 people, but we only had 6 for the first 2 nights. This made dinner conversation difficult, particularly for the 2 sitting beside the empty seats as the dining room was noisy so it was hard to hear conversations taking place on the other side of the table. NCL's freestyle cruising that allows you to eat when you want, with whom you want at an appropriately sized table suits us far better.
The food was good at best. I was worried after the first day of meals of bland boring food, but fortunately it seemed to improve (or our expectations were lowered, not sure which). I never had a piece of crispy toast in the morning. It was cool and limp. My eggs were only cooked correctly (poached with hard yokes, vs runny) when one particularly excellent waiter insisted that I get the eggs that I wanted. He also helped to ensure I got correctly cooked eggs the next day. The room service staff never got the continental breakfast order, that we left hanging on our door every evening, correct. Despite clear instructions that we only wanted bran or carrot muffins, each day was a surprise to find sweet pastries and/or anything but bran or carrot muffins. The orange juice was so bad (watered down) that I had a few sips to swallow a pill, but certainly didn't drink it for the enjoyment of it. Juice was provided all day long. NCL on the other hand only provided juice in the morning, but at least it tasted like juice. Personally I prefer good quality at one time of the day vs poor quality all day long. For evening meals, while I didn't expect the same level of choice as NCL due to NCL having so many restaurant choices and themes, Carnival's portions were large which meant wasting a lot of food or not sampling as many of the offerings. I opted for the latter. NCL's small portions for both the starters and the mains left room for more sampling or even dessert. I never had room for dessert on Carnival, but opted to try some a couple of times leaving me feeling uncomfortably full.
We attended a couple of shows in the Ivanhoe theatre. These were enjoyable. Calibre was comparable to that of NCL, but was more Pop music vs Show tunes, which I enjoyed more.
Carnival had an afternoon tea time on the sea days. This too was enjoyable and while it was in the cigar lounge, fortunately smoking was not permitted at this time. There was minimal lingering odor from the earlier cigar smokers.
I found it odd that the library was only open for a couple of hours each day. NCL's library is open nearly all day, if not always.
We took the 7 hour Mayan Ruins excursion in Belize. The length of this excursion left no room for anything else at this port, which was what we expected. The problem was the disorganization as we gathered for our excursions that day. Carnival had a very poor way of dealing with the hundreds of people that needed early tenders for excursions. With a 2 hour drive to the site and 2 hours back, any extra time lost due to disorganization on Carnival's part cut directly into our time at the Mayan ruins. This is exactly what happened. Had it been a beautiful warm day, I would have been particularly disappointed. As it turned out, it was a cool and rainy day, so I was just as happy to be back in the bus.
The towel policy was surprising. We were given 3 beach towels: one for each of us. If it was taken by accident, or left by mistake on the deck, we would be charged $22 per towel. NCL has unlimited towels pool-side, so you never need to worry about such charges.
Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the cruise for us was the "Friends of Dorothy" (or "FoD" for short) gatherings. For those unfamiliar with this term, Wikipedia states "The phrase dates back to at least World War II, when homosexual acts were more widely illegal in the USA. Stating that, or asking if, someone was a "friend of Dorothy" was a euphemism used for discussing sexual orientation without others knowing its meaning". Older generations might be familiar with the term, but anyone younger than mid-thirties is likely unfamiliar with it. While NCL uses the same term, they also indicate that the gathering is for "GLBT" (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgendered). We are living in the 21st century now. Carnival could keep the cute "FoD" tradition, but adding GLBT would make it clear for the younger generation. On NCL, we've seen 20 to 40 people show up for these gatherings, making friends during the cruise. On Carnival, nobody showed up. Even if somebody did know what FoD was, its scheduled time was particularly awkward. NCL and other ships typically time the gatherings at cocktail hour: around 5:30pm. Carnival scheduled theirs at 9:30 pm. What good is that for those who have an 8 or 8:30 pm dinner seating? My suggestion to change the time fell on deaf ears. On one cruise, NCL had scheduled some 7pm gatherings. One of our party suggested they be held earlier. The suggestion was taken and immediately adjusted for the remainder of the cruise.
The only thing I can give Carnival excellent marks for was their debarkation processes. Whether it is always this smooth or because we had an early flight that entitled us to the 2nd departure group, we were off the ship and on our transfer bus by 8:15am.
While the cruise itself was enjoyable just because we were on a ship and visited interesting ports, we will never cruise again on Carnival, at least until they adopt a stronger non-smoking policy, have a flexible dining option and do a better job of listening to their gay cruisers. Even then, I'd wonder how the food and service would be. When I choose to spend money on a cruise vacation, I'm more apt to go for the known quantity that NCL gives me. NCL costs about the same as Carnival but gives much better value by truly excelling in nearly everything it does.