We are VERY experienced cruisers. We have been on most cruise lines, have cruised most North American ports and have done them all with children in tow. So if you are a family seeking cruise insight, always watch our reviews. I am a national TV personality (not revealing who, for obvious and some less obvious reasons why) and so we have the funds to travel where and how we choose. HOWEVER, we opt to cruise somewhat economically so as to keep our children connected with the real world. So I believe our insight will help those wanting to cruise on a reasonable budget.
We just returned from a 7 day cruise on Carnival Valor, for Easter week. This is not our first Carnival cruise nor is it our first time to cruise Carnival on a major holiday. So the problems we encountered cannot be attributed to cruising over a holiday. These issues are a deeper problem either within new Carnival policies or simply poor management. I will separate this review into 4 sub-sections to make it easier for you to peruse: 1. Over-ALL 2. Warnings/Tips For Would-Be Cruisers 3. Suggestions For The Cruise Line
1. OVER-ALL: The staff of The Valor seemed over-worked and burned out. Cruise line employees sign "contracts" which are generally 4 to 6 months in length. It is easy to spot the people who have been at Sea for several months because they seem tired, lack enthusiasm and are generally worn out from dealing with tourists. The staff of The Valor is clearly filled with people near the end of their contract. Chief amongst them is the Cruise Director, "Felipe". This guy is as fake and scripted as any Cruise Director I have EVER experienced in 20 years of cruising. Every comment he makes, every joke he tells, every "compliment" he pays, are sooooo rehearsed, so insincere and so lacking any credibility. He wasn't well spoken, his staff confidentially confided in me how "unliked" he is by fellow staffers, he makes CONSTANT references to drinking, being drunk, getting drunk, etc and MOST of all- he NEVER speaks unless he is trying to SELL you something. He doesn't even TRY to be the "cruise cheer leader" that is hired to make the "fun Ship" FUN. He has gone 100% corporate and it shows. He and his staff have certain financial goals to meet in every cruise and he make it VERY OBVIOUS that he needs YOU to BUY, BUY, BUY. Truly, you will NOT hear a single announcement from him that is not geared towards pressuring you to buy something. Brace yourself for SEVEN DAYS of hard selling, fake enthusiasm and staged "spontaneity". This is NOT a personal attack on Felipe, not at all. It is simply a note to Carnival corporate that they have the wrong person in the Cruise Director position on The Valor OR the pressure they have put on their Cruise Director's to SELL has broken the user experience. Either way, it needs to be addressed. His focus on SALES has permeated thru the entire staff and the ONLY time you will physically SEE the Assistant Cruise Director's or him in public is when they are SELLING. They are at poolside events pushing the drink specials, they are at all pre-shows pushing you to play Bingo (for a fee) they push the art auction, the sale on jewelry, the excursion trips, they even push your young children to pay to play laser tag, game room, etc. PREPARE TO BE PRESSURED TO SPEND, SPEND, SPEND. All courtesy of your Cruise Director staff.
2. WARNINGS/TIPS FOR WOULD-BE CRUISERS * Warning- Do NOT book shore excursions thru the ship. They will TRY and scare you into doing so by telling you the same scare pitches they have used for decades. Like "if you don't book thru us, we can't guarantee your personal safety" or "we give you a better experience than the locals can give you", etc. ALL UNTRUE. See next line.... * TIP- BOOK YOUR OWN EXCURSIONS!! With modern Internet technology and of course, TripAdvisor.com, you can now confidently shop and book SAFE, AFFORDABLE excursions at every cruise destination on earth. (My suggestions for Western Caribbean are below). The cruise excursions are actually LESS eventful than the ones you can book yourself. We witnessed it first hand as we did excursions side-by-side with the cruise ship-sponsored excursions. If you have ready any reviews on this site from experienced cruisers like us, you will clearly see this is true. Save a fortune, see and do MORE. The only way the cruise line will EVER be able to compete with the ones you can book yourself, is to become financially competitive, which they are not. You will generally pay DOUBLE and sometimes TRIPLE what the actual excursion would cost if you booked direct. * Warning- The ART Auction is NOT a wise purchase. Don't take my word for it. Google "CNBC Inside The Cruise Industry" and see for yourself. The art is WAAAY over-priced and is set at very HIGH limits. HOWEVER... * TIP- do sign up for the art auction and go WATCH IT. Why? Because they give away a lot of raffle stuff, including free art. :-) * Warning- The Photographers will get you! Now, to be fair, their pics are really great. They snap shots of you everywhere you go (meals, getting on and off ship at every port, etc..) HOWEVER, here is the warning- the pics are pricey, they play a little pic sizing game that effects your price. For example, a pic taken of you during dinner will sell for a minimum of $9.95 per print, while a pic taken of you along the hallway (back drops) will cost you a minimum of $21.95 per pic! Soooo... * TIP- Invest in a digital camera and and take it everywhere. Fellow cruisers are ALWAYS willing to take any pic of you ever want of you/your fam as long as YOU will do the same for them. And YOUR pics can be taken home and printed in an size, uploaded to facebook, emailed to family, etc. The cruise ship is still stuck in the 90's. No digital copies, no print-as-you-go, etc. They offer paper pics and shred what you don't buy. So out of date. * Warning- The drinks will eat your wallet! And I'm not talking about alcohol. If you want anything to drink beside water, lemonade or juice, you will invest a LOT of money. Our children (and us) enjoy a diet coke or sprite from time to time. $2.50 per 12 ounce can. Bottle of water in your room- $5. Sooo... * TIP- PACK SODA! They will try and discourage it, but we confirmed you CAN take your own soda pop with you! Load a hard side suitcase with your favorite beverage and check it at curb. We saw man people do it and even saw a family take a cooler thru the security check point metal detector. The cooler was checked and then they carried on board. We spent $200 just in soda and virgin drinks! BUT, BIG TIP here- when you go to the evening shows, sit on the first floor and order virgin mixed drinks! Well worth the $4 price and WOW, do I recommend the Mango Daiquiri!!
TIPS FOR WESTERN CARRIBEAN EXCURSIONS: 1. Grand Cayman- This is a shopping tourist trap. Do NOT be suckered. Their "deals" are NOT better than what you can get in the U.S. Any trip to Walmart, Sams Club or BJ's Wholesale will get your better diamond pricing than anything you will find in the Grand Caymans. So do NOT go here to shop. But DO book yourself on the Stingray City visit! You will see it mentioned everywhere you go and it is true! No matter what your fears may be, you will have a fantastic time. The water is so stunning, clear and blue, blue, blue. The sand is soft, the boat ride is beautiful and the stingrays are SO indoctrinated to humans, they are tame, mellow and well fed. (Not off humans, just the squid you will hand feed them, LOL) Book this excursion yourself. Just check the ratings for numerous vendors on TripAdvisor.com. 2. Isla Roaton- There are TWO things you MUST do in Isla Roatan- the zip-line and a tour of the entire island. This place is so beautiful, we are now buying a condo on the island! Our favorite spot in the entire Caribbean. But ONLY book thru BoddenTours.com. Victor Bodden is the owner, we met him, his family OWNS the zip-line experience and the tour vehicles, all AMAZING! A dozen zip-lines all connected as you and your family go zipping thru the forest canopy, outstanding!! (The cruise line owns their own zip-line which is now closed due to safety issues. We have done zip-lines in other places, NOTHING has ever compared to how much fun we had jumping from zip-line to zip-line here! DO THIS! 3. Belize- This is another tourist-trap shopping mecca, so be careful. Cheap goods passed as "local hand made items" which are actually bought in China. The excursion to do is the Cave Tubing! Extraordinary experience too beautiful to describe. The actual tubing was just floating SLOWLY and sometimes being drug by your guide thru shallow water, but the visual feast as you ride thru these caves is something you will not forget. We used cave-tubing.com and had a safe, affordable experience that was awesome. $45 for adults, $25 children. 4. Cozumel- This was our least favorite stop, which USED to be our favorite in past cruises. It is, sadly, no longer the destination it was just a few years ago. Storms have destroyed most of the reef and tourists have beaten up the rest. The city itself is FILLED with hustlers who will rip you off. We encountered dishonesty at every turn. Even simple things like the 7-Eleven store clerk tried to change the exchange rate on our U.S. dollars, charging us extra high on our cokes. We disputed it, he told us off. Street vendors pushing "real silver" while warning you everyone else's silver was fake, taxi's quoting one price when you get in, then changing it when you arrive, etc... no real governing law keeping people min check. Just a desperate money-grab attempt from the moment you walk off the ship until you walk back on. My advice, charter a boat and go snorkeling or scuba diving. get away from the city immediately. When you arrive in port, walk thru the shopping village built by the cruise line, go ACROSS the street to the area in front of the Chinese restaurant. There you will find reputable vendors (as rated on TripAdvisor.com) and book a private glass bottom boat. We got a private boat, with a guide and a boat captain for us and our 6 children, for $240 for 4 hours! We cruised around, stopped and snorkeled in three different spots on the reef, then he dropped us downtown. If you can find a cruise that does NOT stop at Cozumel, I'd say do that. It is NOT the Cozumel it once was. The cruise line keeps taking people there because they invested so much in their shopping village.
3. SUGGESTIONS FOR THE CRUISE LINE Dear Carnival, I know you have internal people reading these reviews ( a staffer at your Miami office told me so herself) so I am suggesting some changes for your company based primarily on the experience we just had this week on The Valor: #1. Child Care Check-In and Check-Out. This may be the most flawed system on the entire Valor ship. Out of date, low tech and a significant point of contention amongst the hundreds of cruisers with their children. STOP telling parents that the 30 minute wait to drop off and pick up is "because we take your child's safety seriously." BULL. It is because you are low-tech and disorganized. Your staff was NOT prepared for the large number of children on this cruise (bad management and lack of communication). The delay in picking up/dropping off children was a 15 to 30 minute experience all week long, at peek times. There was only ONE staffer doing ALL check-ins, despite the 5 staffers SITTING around a little table behind her, staring at the children at play. The check-in process is all paper, all on a single clip board, requiring manual sign in and sign out, plastic name tags, so low tech and out of date. SWITCH to matching bracelets for parent/child, card scan, etc, ANYTHING besides the HORRIBLE system you are currently using. I addressed the issue with Abbey, the head of their department and she said it is a VERY common complaint, but corporate won't invest in modern solutions or provide adequate staffing. (My advice to all cruisers with children is to cruise a line other than Carnival until they rectify this MAJOR system flaw. You will waste an hour or more a day getting your children in and out of the Kid programs. If and WHEN this experience changes, I will post it on this website and on my facebook fan page and Twitter account) Until you see an update from frequent cruisers like me, beware.) #2. Disembarking at ports. This is by far, the worst part of the cruise experience and the area most in need of improvement. The strategy of rewarding people who book excursions thru the ship and penalizing those who do not (by making them sit on board longer) is unprofessional and ineffective. My tip to cruisers, book an early excursion on your own, tell the ship you need off early and insist they let you off. They will. To the cruise line- GET THE PEOPLE OFF THE SHIP FASTER!!!! Charter more boats, open up more gangways, wake up more staff, do what you have to do to get people off the ship faster. #3. Not Everyone wants to get drunk! This may be the hardest concept for Carnival Cruise Line to understand. They refer to themselves as the Fun Ship, but Carnival defines FUN as massive amounts of alcohol. FAMILIES are sensitive to the CONSTANT references to getting drunk. The cruise director speaks of it in every public appearance, the activities (including family events) always include drinking games, challenges, etc. Prepare to have to expose your children to drunken idiots no matter where you go on board. (This is a Carnival issue. Not all cruise lines are so consumed with non stop drinking.) Here is the dilemma as I see it- most of the cruise ship staffers are SINGLE. Their definition of family values is based on... well.... nothing. Additionally, virtually NONE of the cruise staff is American. They all come from countries where the drinking age is low or simply not enforced. So the references to massive consumption of alcohol is normal and strongly encouraged. Again, a constant focus on SALES. Dear cruise line, find a happy median. Have activities and public events with all of the same fun and energy as you put into drinking games, Master Mixology, etc. Families are NOT looking for alcohol-induced "fun". Broaden your horizons AND your definition of Fun Ship. Or just admit you are the Las Vegas of the high seas- NOT family-friendly.
In summary, I believe you CAN have a really memorable time on a Carnival "Fun Ship" with your family, but you will need to prepare them for the ugly-side of life too. They will see HUNDREDS of people behaving in ways you would never condone at home and these people will be interacting with your family whether you like it or not. The entire ship is a booze-cruise. BUT there are bright spots such as some great shows (a couple of not-so-great shows too) some fun pools and water slides, some kids club activities, some wonderful food and some EXCELLENT service in the dining room (YAY VIKTORIA!). And in the various ports, you can book your own exciting excursions and have some amazing fun as a family. I am a huge fan of cruising, I just am not sold on Carnival yet. Too many other cruise lines who are more family-friendly and still go to the SAME ports. If I do find a family-friendly ship in the Carnival cruise line, I will be the first to shout it from this website IN DETAIL as well as on my TV show. But alas, the Carnival Valor is too risque to be considered family-friendly.
This review has taken me over an hour to write, but I did it because it was what I wished others would have told me BEFORE I went. Please take the time to do the same when you come back from your next cruise. And watch my username for future updates.