My wife and I just celebrated our 20th wedding anniversary with a cruise of the eastern caribbean aboard the Carnival Liberty. We are first time cruisers, and I am still digesting the experience with mixed impressions. The highlights were spectacular; the bulk of the cruise was not.
As a first timer, I am comparing the cruise ship experience to the most similar vacation option we have enjoyed- our many visits to all-inclusive resorts in Mexico and the caribbean. I believe we'll revert to the land-based resort option. The vacation experience was more consistently pleasant for us there.
What I expected from the cruise based on industry hype, reading online information, and talking with every person I came across about their cruise ship experience: Cruising is great- the food is wonderful. The service is fantastic. You get to travel to all kinds of exotic destinations and only have to pay for one flight to see them all, and you only need to unpack once, as your hotel room travels for you. There is so much to do you'll never be bored. These huge high-tech ships have all the amenities you could want, and they have stabilizers to keep them from rolling in the sea. You won't feel the waves and probably won't even notice that you're moving.
The truth of all the above was a mixed bag, though the room was a lot larger than I expected, and the pillows and bed were gloriously comfortable even as two twins pushed together rather than a one-piece king.
FOOD: The bulk of the food was on par with Old Country Buffet. The food in the more formal dining room is much better, but not magic and limited in selection. The food in the onboard steak house (requiring an additional fee of $30 per person) was the best I've had in a long time, and a welcome break from the other dining options. It was nice to see a valid vegetarian option available in every eating venue. When you are cooking for three thousand, I completely understand the state of the general fare. They tip the scales with clever presentation- sculpted melons and other decorative details, as well as energetic staff constantly working to bus tables and keep the dining areas clean. I am not one to uptick the quality of food simply due to quantity, so while the food may be no better than a good buffet, the experience is much, much better.
SERVICE: No faults here. I tip my hat to every person we directly interacted with in the service category. Our room steward made a bed you could bounce quarters off of and decorated the room with folded towel animals when he turned down the beds every evening. Our waiter had a great personality and a wry wit that made him a very entertaining addition to our other pleasant dining companions.
UNPACKING ONCE: True, we only had to pay for the one flight to see multiple ports. The effect for me was akin to the Griswolds visiting the Grand Canyon. We arrived, saw very little, and were gone in a flash. Sail and repeat. You can choose perhaps one excursion per port, get some souvenir shopping in, and then it is back to the ship. If you are selecting a cruise as a vacation, I would recommend considering the cruising experience as your vacation and holding the destination ports as icing on that cake. You are not vacationing in these ports, you are briefly passing through without skimming past the surface of what they have to offer. Don't get me wrong- we had a great time on the beaches. But each beach was relatively anonymous. And souvenir shopping felt like it was all the same trinkets with different names stenciled on them. We may well vacation in some of these ports in the future, but I doubt on a ship. I've gotten a whiff of the entree, but I haven't really gotten a taste.
YOU'LL NEVER BE BORED: If you are- it is probably your own fault. There were onboard activities all hours for all manner of interests. Sun and spa, trivia contests and bingo games. Bars and lounges, treadmills and whirlpools. In room movies - both free and pay-per-view. Group activities at the pool and full-blown game shows where you just might win a Plastic Piece of Ship on a Stick (the standard victory trophy for all onboard activities) and Vegas-style floor shows and comedy. Gambling and dancing. We saw just a fraction of it all, akin to our port experiences. I can understand why people return again and again. It isn't going to be "Oh- we already did that" from cruise to cruise.
HUGE SHIPS AND HUGE WAVES: The ship moved. A lot. We felt it. Constantly. I'd been aboard small ships in rough water in the military. I knew I'd be fine. We got a scopolamine patch prescription for my wife prior to cruising as a precaution. Hands-down the best decision we made. She was ill a half-hour out of port. I was angry at myself and ashamed for booking a seven day cruise as our first experience. This had all the makings of a "Vacations in Hell" essay. She put on the patch. Three hours later she went from "Please kill me now" to "I feel great. Let's explore the ship!" The doctor visit and prescription cost were peanuts compared to the cost of the cruise. Cheapest insurance you could ask for. If you don't need it, I am certain someone else onboard will.
THE PEBBLE IN MY SHOE, Or Death of the Vacation Value Argument: As a first time cruiser I was not prepared for the constant assault on my pocketbook. Remember- my prior experience was with all-inclusive resorts. I had heard about the high cost of alcohol aboard and came well prepared in that regard. But I had somehow missed the warnings about the terrible extent of the unending "spend more, spend, more, spend more..." drumbeat aboard ship. As we first toured the ship, the 'mall' area of ship's shops made me laugh. I never expected a tiny strip mall onboard. By the end of the week, it looked right at home.
Spending is made as easy as possible- your money is no good on the ship aside from leaving additional tips. Everything is 'paid for' using a plastic card that is your ID, room key, and credit card. They called it my "sail and sign" card. I called it the "sign and suffer card." Swipe the card, sign the receipt. It is added to your bill. Our end-of-cruise tab was very small; some of those for other cabins we saw were five and six pages long and looked like a credit card statement after an identity theft incident. Ouch.
To put it simply: expect to pay or be hit up with a sales pitch at every turn. My wife won a free acupuncture treatment. She loved it, but it ended in an herbal supplement sales pitch. We went to watch a free movie on the jumbotron. A gorgeous way to spend a relaxing night, but popcorn was $1.50. Hell, they give that away free in bars. But not on cruise ships. We heard the onboard child care program runs $6 per hour. Every land-based all inclusive we've been to offers that for free during the daytime. It was an eye-opener. The ship even has a professional 'shopping consultant' with all the oily charm of a used car salesman who leads seminars on where to get the best deals, but left us suspecting he was guiding us toward his best kickbacks.
Once we became sensitized to it, it really impacted our enjoyment of the cruise. As an example- the internet seems to be run through a telegraph key it is so slow. That would be irritating in any case, but when it is 70 cents per minute, I began to wonder if it isn't on purpose. With the one-time connect fee, The first email we sent cost more than $10.
The cabin had a mail box outside the door. Frequently sales flyers were placed in it. The ship itinerary read like a laundry list of extra-charge events such as spinning classes or bingo mixed in with seminars on how to spend even more money. And the cash bar is always open. For $5 beers, $3 waters, and $2 sodas.
In short, you can't leave it all behind on a Carnival cruise. The commercials follow you.