We opted to take a cruise as a means to gather several family members together (mini-reunion) - and for that purpose, the cruise worked out well. Beyond that, I could never imagine spending my vacation on a ship again.
General Overview: I suppose since we are new to cruising, we were a bit unprepared for many of the factors that are probably just inherent to cruising. For instance:
- I felt like I was constantly being nickel and dimed to death. Art auctions, endless photo ops (both on the boat and off the boat), drink cards, drink "specials" in plastic cups, steakhouse, jewelry sales, spa specials, excursions specials, etc. Everywhere you looked, Carnival was trying to suck more money out of your wallet. It was beyond belief annoying.
- We felt like cattle being herded from one pasture to the next. Wait in line to get on the ship. Wait on the Lido for your room. Wait in line for dinner. Wait to get off the boat. Wait to get back on. Wait in the buffet line. Everywhere we went - we went with a thousand other members of the herd.
- Now I realize that Carnival (and no doubt other cruise lines) probably hire Indonesians and other SE Asian employees, because labor is probably extremely cheap - but have we no respect for some degree of labor laws? We were told during the disembarkation presentation that the room stewards work 7 days a week - sometimes 10 hours a day! This was told to us so we didn't feel bad about providing a gratuity to them - and it certainly worked. I had visions of indentured servitude and promptly decided my gratuity was the least I could do. Speaking of labor, I couldn't help but think that Carnival is catering to Americans and yet unemployment in America is through the roof. Too bad Carnival can't lend a hand in America.
- The biggest shock of the cruise was the gluttony. I have never seen so much food - or so many obese people waiting to feast upon it. I couldn't tell if some of the people were rolling or walking in the buffet line. Perhaps Carnival could cut the food free-for-all down just a bit, save some money, and instead relax on the nickel and diming over everything else. If for no other reason than the gluttony, I will never cruise again. We are outdoorsy, athletic people - and prefer our food in moderation.
Cleanliness: Our room was always in perfectly clean condition - and our room steward did a wonderful job of keeping everything neat and tidy. The common areas were a different story. Every time we went to find a table to play cards or a game, the table was always covered in some unidentifiable food / drink / gunk. Each time, we had to go hunting for someone with a wet rag to clean it up. The seat cushions in the various eating areas were covered in layers of stains / food - which pretty much made them disgusting.
Balcony vs No Balcony: Some of our family members had balconies; some did not. The majority of time, we were in the middle of the ocean with nothing really worth looking off the balcony at - thus I never really saw any great advantage to having the balcony. The vast majority of time is spent outside of one's room anyway. The non-balcony rooms were about half the price of those with a balcony - and given that difference I would recommend one take an interior cabin and save the money for other nickel and diming.
Excursions: These were definitely the hi-lights of our trip.
In Cozumel, we opted to snuba (via Carnival) - which was our first time doing this type of activity. It was absolutely awesome! The water was decently warm, the scenery was amazing, and we felt as though the price paid was worth the event. I personally can't wait to try scuba now.
In Belize, we used Major Tom (cave-tubing.net) to do cave tubing and zip-lining. Much as others have said - Major Tom's organization was delightful. We felt as though we were in great hands the whole time and would highly recommend them in the future. We paid MUCH less via Major Tom than we would have paid through Carnival - and since all the tour groups take you to the same place for tubing - I see no reason why to pay the cruise line premium.
In Honduras, we did a rather laid-back island tour and the semi-sub excursion. This worked out well - as we had an elderly member of the family traveling with us. The excursion was through Carnival and overpriced - however, we still enjoyed the tour.
In Grand Cayman, we took an excursion to see the sting rays and snorkel via Moby Dick Tours. I would definitely recommend them; however, I would suggest you try StingraySailing.com - who performs the same tour with a catamaran (instead of a motor boat). Do NOT book through Carnival for the sting rays - as this would be a definite waste of money. Water was very warm and enjoyable.
A few tips: - Do not put anything of value in your luggage while checking it onto (or off) the ship. One of our family members accidentally left her jewelry in one of the bags that was checked onto the ship. Everything was stolen during the check in process. Carnival refused to even admit the idea of theft. Instead, they referred to it as being lost by the family member. We encountered 2 other travelers who also had their jewelry stolen during the same process.
- Bring a watch. I personally no longer wear a watch and instead have gotten use to having my iPhone around for time. The iPhone is not so handy when you're running around in a swimsuit or doing excursions. A watch would have been much more useful.
- If you haven't booked a cruise yet and you're wavering on the whole idea - skip the idea altogether. Book a ticket to Costa Rica, stay in a resort of some type, interact with the locals, do all the excursions you want, and enjoy some R&R sans 3,000 others being herded around with you. We did this a few years back and would HIGHLY recommend it over cruising.
I know this review is very critical, but it does reflect honest thought. We had a terrific time being with family; however, in the future we will plan family trips far from cruise lines.