My family (2 boys 5 & 7 yrs old) did our 3rd annual late summer cruise with Carnival Cruise Lines. Having done the 5 day cruise on the Ecstacy in August 2007 and Fantasy in August 2008, we chose the last local ship, the Conquest.
Embarkation in Galveston I always dreaded long waiting lines so having read from many people's experience, 11:30am seems to be the earliest that general boarding begins. I aimed to arrive at the port with enough time to finish checking in by 11:30am. Here's how it went at each step:
11:00am pulled up to dock 11:05am bags dropped off and entering check-in part of building 11:10am initial paperwork (FunPass) checked and thru x-ray 11:15am checked in and received sail sign card. sat down to wait as part of group #3. 11:30am group #1 called to line for embarkation souvenier photo then onto ship 11:40am group #3 got up to enter line 11:45am done with picture and started up gangway 11:50am board ship for Sail & Sign photo 12:00pm eating lunch on Lido deck
Eventhough it was 50 minutes from drop off to setting step on ship, it wasn't bad as it was broken up in several pieces instead of just one long line of waiting. I could probably shave off some of the 25 minutes while waiting as part of group #3, if I timed it right but this particular experiece is plenty good.
Since our room wouldn't be ready for another 1.5 hours, off to the Cezanne Restaurant (Lido Deck buffett) we went. I didn't get to try to fish and chip I've been reading about since it was booked for a private party. No biggie, still have most of 7 days to try it. After finishing lunch at 1pm, we wanted to wander the ship but didn't want to drag the carry-on bags so we took the stairs down to Main Deck (#2). The large doors by the elevators were still closed with a sign stating that rooms wouldn't be ready until 1:30pm. We walked thru the doors anyways and saw that our room was ready so we dropped off bags and headed out for our self guided tour. It was really nice to have already started our vacation by 1pm while many were still in the process of checking in.
Muster Drill was around 4pm. Unlike our Ecsatcy and Fantasy, our (and probably most Muster Stations) were on the outer deck of the ship right next to the line of lifeboats. I prefered this over being stuffed into one of the bars or lounges. We didn't sail very far before losing normal cell phone signals so that's where our texting to friends ended.
Camp Carnival was much bigger than what we've seen before. Our boys spent maybe a total of 8 hours there in those 7 days only when there was activities that interested them. While they complained every time we checked them into Camp, we've always found them playing very happily when we came to pick them up. On a related note, we were told that of the 3000 or so passengers, about 1050 were kids. Initially, I was concerned about all of those kids running wild but overall didn't witness anything bad at all so I would have to say they were very well behaved.
Evening Dining We were assigned table 525 which is at the back end of Monet's upper deck. It had a great view out the back window to view the sunset on days when we were headed eastward. A family of 6 were assigned to our table but they weren't there for several nights.
Monday, first full day at sea We hung around the pool area in the morning. For lunch, I tried "Sur Mer" since I'm a big fan of bouillabaise and fried seafood. I wasn't impressed with this seafood as I didn't go there again for the rest of the cruise. The kids we in Camp for about 2 hours in the afternoon. Dinner was Elegant Night #1. The Captain's welcome reception was before dinner. Free drinks and I did see a group of yound men downing probably 10 drinks there. My wife asked for a glass of red wine at the end of the reception and took it to the dining room without being stopped. While unpacking on Sunday, I realized I had forgotten to pack my dark suit...rats. So khaki slacks and dress shirt + tie it is. The range of formalities went from tuxedo to t-shirt, yep I did see 1 person in t-shirt. My non-suit seems to be average for the night. Show for the night was "Point & Click". My boys enjoyed the song and dance. On the menu was lobster. Our waiter, Ilham (24 year veteran) and assistant, Devi (on 4th contract tour) were great. Ilham "exceeded expectation" by bring out a second helping of lobster for my wife and I without being asked to do so. I thought he had made a mistake but he just said to enjoy the lobster.
Tuesday, second full day at sea More pool and water slide for the kids as well as a few hours of Camp. Our table mates didn't show up for dinner this day which we found out later was that they showed up 1 hour late and was turned away. They seemed to accepted the rule without complaint. The show was Motown singer Ron Joseph. While he was entertaining with calling for volunteers on stage for many songs as well as serenating around the audience. My boys seemed to be bored with all of these old timer songs. The Deck Party was on this night. I turned in early while the wife and kids enjoyed the dancing on the Lido Deck.
Wednesday, Jamaica Arrived on time to Montego Bay. Conquest was the only ship at this port this day but other ships were supposedly docked at other places around the island. Having read some scary stories about the locals, we only stayed within the duty free ships on the dock. My goal was some Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee and some rum cake. We were back on the ship by 10:30am. The kids enjoyed having the water slide to themselves for quite a while. We heard some excursions that required driving thru the mountain passes were cancelled due to road way problems. The ship was almost 1 hour late in departure from Montego Bay which rumors were about some Carnival excursion groups were late in getting back. If you're booking excursions on your own, it'll be wise to give yourself plenty of time to not miss the ship. Evening show was magic show by "Lady Hellevi". Great show!!! We had front row seat and I thought I might be able to figure out some tricks but...no chance.
Thursday, Grand Cayman Royal Caribbean's Freedom of the Seas that was also at Jamaica the previous day, had beaten us to Grand Cayman. We booked the infamous Sting Ray City tour thru Carnival. We booked the shortest tour to this place which was 2.5 hours. About 30-40 people were loaded onto our boat that was part of Kelly's Watersport. Of the 2.5 hours we got to spend about 30 minutes at Sting Ray City. We could have had more but the captain was a little timid (or overly safe...which is fine) in jockeying for a spot to park the boat. Probably spent 15+ minutes waiting for some other boats to leave. I used the word "timid" as 2 other boats that were behind us on our trek out were able to find a spot before we did. Nevertheless, the crew of 4 were extremely helpful and friendly in holding sting rays and bringing them around to all of the guest to pet, kiss, rubbed on back, etc... We were also told by the crew that Carnival no longer allowed customers to feed squid to the rays as there was supposedly a bad incident in the past. I didn't think this took away any from the awesome experience. We were back on the ship for late lunch and nap time for the kids. The tender process was very quick. Even with 2 cruise ships, there was always 2 tenders at dock and 2 at the each ship so no waiting. Evening show as "Formidable", a French them song and dance show.
Friday, Cozumel Again Royal Caribbean's Freedom of the Seas beat us here. The downtown pier was not used for some reason. Us, Freedom, and Carnival Valor all used the dock at Puerto Maya. We did our standard beach time at Mr. Sancho's beach. The cabs were much more organized compared to the past. There was a sign with cab ride costs to a list of attractions around the island. One way trip to Mr. Sancho was $15 for up to 4 people. Evening show as a double show of juggling of Manuel Zuniga and ventriloquist of Marc Ruben. The kids loved the shows, especially the juggling. When heading to dinner this night, we saw lapel pins on the cart of the cabin stewards so figured we would get pins and invite to repeat cruiser reception. Neither was in our room when we got back from dinner. I've heard about budget cuts so figured that perhaps the pins and invite were restricted to Platinum members. We found out the next day from other guest as well as cabin steward that many repeat guests were left out. The cabin steward got us our pins and suggested we complain with the front desk. My wife went to the front desk where she got a simple appology and 4 free drink coupons.
Saturday, last full day at sea We enjoyed the pool and a game of bean bag toss while lamenting the approaching end of our vacation. The midnight Chocolate Buffett has been replaced by 1/2 of the Cezanne Restaurant during lunch time was filled with all kinds of dessert. I didn't care for this approach as the normal hot food lines were extremely long. The evening show on this last night was late with show time of 10:35pm. We opted to watch a movie on Lido and then getting back to the room to pack our luggage.
Sunday, Galveston We chose the self debarkation route as I'm always fearful of lost or damaged bags. We were shocked to have Main Deck being called to leave first. Other ships seems to call from top floors to bottom. We had only sat down for 5 minutes at breakfast when our floor was called. Needless to day, the lines at custom was very short for us. We were thru the lines before 8am. This was so early that we didn't have time to coordinate with my brother in law for pick up. We ended up having to wait over an hour to get ahold of him and for him to get to Galveston.
Pros Having been on 70,000 tons ships before, this 110,000 ton ship was far more stable. Light vibration was experienced at the most but definitely no hugh swaying as was normal with our other experiences. Since I have a weak stomach, this was definitely a plus. Our waiter and his assistant definitely went above and beyond with remembering our drinks every night, ordering extras of good dishes without our asking, and entertaining my kids with origami and napkin animals on nights when they were not too buzy.
Cons Way too much smoking. Practically, all public gathering places besides Atrium, had people smoking. My 5 year old have overly sensitive nose and vomitted 4 times during the week when exiting a restaurant to cigarette smells. Most times we had to pick our way with elevators and crossing certain floors to avoid cigarette smells. We could also smell cigarette in our hallway. This was our worst experience to date on this topic. Carnival should really crack down on smoking in only designated areas. The cabin's safe deposit box is another oddity, at least for me. Unlike all other hotel room type box that you enter a 4 digit number every time you lock and unlock, this one required either a driver's license or credit card to be swipped to lock AND THAT SAME CARD must be used to unlock. The Sign & Sail card cannot be used for this purpose. The bad thing is that if I were to lock the box and leave the room, then my wife comes back to the room without me, she cannot unlock the box now. I've never seen this type of box before.
Overall, we would sail with Carnival again. A large part of this decision is because Carnival is the only game in town for me living in Houston. Had there been other cruise lines during these summer months, I would seriously consider sailing with them. Carnival definitely don't provide pampering like what we experienced on Celebrity Cruise Lines but then comparing them is like comparing apples and oranges.