I've been on seven cruises in the past three years, on Royal Caribbean, Norwegian and Celebrity. Through my travels, I've heard quite a few snide comments about Carnival and their reputation of being a sub-par experience. However, I've also heard from many Carnival fans as well. And when comparing prices, Carnival often seems to offer better rates.
So it was with some hesitation that I agreed to take a four-night cruise on Carnival Triumph over Labor Day weekend with a friend. Would I be disappointed by the experience, or pleasantly surprised? I figured if it was bad, well...it would only last four days.
I booked via an Internet agency that I've used before, reserving an Inside Guarantee. About a week later (and only a few weeks before the trip) I noticed that prices dropped -- I called the agency and was able to upgrade to an Oceanview Guarantee for only $10 more per person. My friend and I were eventually assigned cabin 1416, a Category 6B Oceanview on the first deck. There was also a promotion available at the time, where we were awarded a certain amount of "points" that were redeemable for onboard perks prior to the trip. I used them to buy eight bar credits.
Cruise day arrived, and my friend and I took Amtrak from Philly to New York. A quick cab ride from Penn Station brought us to the pier just after 1 p.m. It took no more than 15 minutes to go through security, check-in and the gangway. We first went to our cabin, and I was surprised by the roominess of it. There was a full-sized couch, a large window, plenty of closet and drawer space, and a large countertop in the bathroom. However, this was the first cruise I've been on where the cabin did not have a mini-fridge.
We then started exploring the ship, first stopping in the buffet for lunch. Here was my first negative -- the buffet area was rather small for a ship this size, and there were long lines. We opted to proceed to the New World area in the back of the Lido deck, where pizza and burgers are served around the clock. The pizza was quite tasty, with fresh baked crust.
The Triumph is ten years old, and underwent a recent refurbishment -- bedding and carpets were new, but some of the infrastructure was showing its age. A few elevators would often go in and out of service, or the doors wouldn't open when you got to your floor (you had to fiddle with the buttons to be let out!). It was very difficult to control the water temperature in the shower. And perhaps the biggest complaint among my fellow passengers was that ALL of the hot tubs were closed for "technical modifications." (According to other CruiseCritic members, they had been out of service for a few weeks.) I never saw anyone working on them during the trip, nor did we ever get an official explanation from anyone about their status. (Additionally, at least one passenger on our Roll Call called Carnival prior to the trip, and a representative erroneously told them that the hot tubs were in service.)
The best aspect of the ship may be the almost private-like areas at the front of the ship on the levels above and below the bridge. I think most passengers didn't know they existed. It was a great place to find some peace and quiet.
We had late seating (which I prefer -- fewer children) and we were seated at a table for eight. The other six seats were occupied by an extended family, so my friend and I felt a bit excluded from them. (They were very nice, though.) Our waiters were excellent -- very attentive service, and I don't think they ever forgot to replace a utensil or refill out water glasses. And the cuisine was very good -- although the dinner menu had a couple fewer options than I found on Norwegian, most of everything I tried tasted good. (The one exception: the broiled salmon filet was rather dry. However, I grill a mean salmon filet myself, so maybe I'm biased!)
Because we found the buffet so crowded on our first day, we opted for lunch in the dining room on both sea days. Service at the first lunch was excellent. Unfortunately, that luck did not repeat on the second sea day. We had befriended a couple we meet earlier in the cruise, and the four of us ate lunch together. We were served by a waiter and an assistant waiter. The assistant waiter did not deliver the iced teas we ordered until we reminded her to do so. And both waiters almost never checked in on us during the meal. After finishing our entrees, about ten minutes passed until the waiter returned. We asked about ordering dessert, and he told us that we were supposed to request it along with the rest of the order. (How were we to know this?) Ironically, once he brought back the menus, none of us liked any of the dessert options... We went up to the buffet to satisfy our sweet tooths.
I had almost forgotten about those eight bar credits I ordered before the cruise, but on the first night the maitre d' came up to our table and handed me the coupons. Each one was worth $5.75 towards the purchase of a drink.
We didn't see either of the two production shows on the trip, opting instead to hang out at the Wine Bar after dinner each night. The bartender here (Sam) was excellent, and mixed possibly the best Cosmopolitan I've ever had. He was also very friendly and shared some great stories about his 12 years of experience with Carnival. (Ask him about the "nude cruises.") The first sea day was cloudy and misty, so we watched the Newlywed-style show -- it's exactly the same as on every other cruise, yet still very funny and entertaining. (Example: the couple married for 50 years once got it on in a cemetery!)
Port of Call
Saint John, New Brunswick, was the only port of call on this short cruise. My friend and I walked to the "reversing falls" -- I read online that it was walkable from the pier, but it was farther than I thought it would be. But the weather was perfect and I didn't mind the walk. We also browsed the downtown markets and had lunch at Billy's Seafood Company -- which was okay, but nothing special.
So I came to the realization that Carnival doesn't get a questionable reputation from their service, food or offerings (which are pretty standard among all cruise lines), but perhaps for the slightly higher ratio of "bad eggs" or "whiners" among the clientele. I must say that almost everyone I interacted with on the cruise was very nice and friendly, but I did see more complainers on this cruise than on my others -- for example, the woman behind me complaining loudly during the muster drill that it was unnecessary and taking too long.
But on the flip side, I noticed how diverse the passengers were -- perhaps it's because most were local to New York City, but the clientele represented every color and flavor of the rainbow. I was really pleased to see this -- so often we think of cruise passengers as the stereotypical older, white, heterosexual couple. I hope to see more cruise lines market themselves more to persons of color and nontraditional families.
So would I cruise Carnival again? Yes, although for the right price. I'd still rank Carnival below the other lines I've sailed, but if I was comparing two lines' similar itineraries and they were about the same price, I would probably not choose Carnival. However, I now trust that Carnival can provide good service at a good value.