I do want to start off by letting everyone know that this was my very first cruise so I have nothing to compare it to. This was a 30th birthday celebration for me and my best friend of the last 15 years. We are both professionals in the healthcare field. She is a physical therapist at a clinic and I work the finance department of a hospital. I read many reviews before going on this cruise, and found them very helpful. As a result, I decided to write one in order to help others who are thinking of taking this cruise.
We took the Carnival Freedom Western Caribbean itinerary 05/02/10-05/08/2010. Ports of call were Key West, FL, Ocho Rios, Jamaica and Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands. We found a Really good deal on some plane tickets so booked the cruise on our own thru Carnival vs. using a TA. I'm not sure if this was the best way to go, but it worked for us and we didn't have any problems.
We are both from Seattle, WA so flew into Fort Lauderdale the night before. We stayed at the Courtyard Ft. Lauderdale Airport and Cruise Port. This was a fantastic pre-cruise hotel because shuttle service to/from the airport and to the cruise port are included in the price. The only drawback is that there isn't much within walking distance of this hotel. It still worked for us because we didn't get to the hotel until after 10:00pm so we wouldn't have done much anyway. However, if we were to get there earlier in the day or 2-3 days before the cruise, then a hotel that was closer to shops or the beach or something may have been better. However, it is a really nice hotel that was really clean and spacious. They also offered a really good breakfast buffet for around an extra $12.00. Overall, the hotel served its purpose of giving us a place to sleep for a few hours and free shuttle service to where we needed to go.
The hotel offered shuttle service at 10am, 11am, Noon, and 1pm to the Fort Lauderdale port. We opted for the 10am shuttle, because 1:00pm seemed kind of late and most of the hotel customers signed up for the 11am and noon shuttles and we didn't want to be in a huge crowd. We got to the port by 10:15ish and embarkment was a breeze. We left our luggage with the porters at the port and went thru the Carnival Check-in line and security. There was absolutely no wait that early in the morning and since we filled out our boarding passes online the actual check in process only took a few minutes. Since we did get there early we just kind of people watched until they let us get on the ship (between 11:30-noon). Around 11:00am the lines started getting really long so we were very happy that we got to the port early. Even though we still had to wait to get on the ship, it was a whole lot better to be sitting and relaxing then to be standing in a line filled with hundreds of people. Also another advantage of getting to the port early was that we were the second group to be called onboard. There were some VIPs and a wedding party that got onboard first, but we were able to get on right behind them.
Once onboard, I immediately went to guest services to put some cash on my sign and sail card. Carnival works on a cashless system where they give you a sign and sail card that is linked to your credit card and it that kind of works as a credit card. Every time you purchase something onboard that is not included in the cost of the cruise, you have to present your sign in sail card. At the end of the trip, you can either resolve your balance by authorizing them to run the credit card that is linked to the sign and sail card or you can give them cash to resolve it. I opted to have put cash on my sign in sail card upfront vs. linking it to a credit card because it was easiest for me to stay within budget and I didn't have to worry about my credit card getting swiped my mistake or anything. If your balance ever got to low (which mine didn't) you would get a note in your room letting you know to put more cash on the card. You can check the balance of your card anytime during the trip by either going up to guest services or thru the television located in the room.
After putting cash on my sail and sail card, we went over the other shore excursion desk to book our excursions. We did the Jeep Safari/Dunn's Falls excursion and the Fort Lauderdale Everglades excursion thru Carnival. ( We did these things first while there were no lines.
Once all that was done we went to the Lido deck and had a buffet lunch. Although it was pretty crowded with everyone trying to eat at once (and this was the ONLY time the ship felt crowded), if you walk around for a minute, it wasn't hard to find an empty table to eat. The ship also had ample staff walking around and clearing tables and stuff as people finished eating and more people boarded.
After lunch, we walked around the ship and found where everything was located and took tons of pictures. We were told that the room would be ready by 1:30. When we got down to our room at that time, the room steward was just finishing his cleaning so we left for about 30 minutes and came back to an immaculately cleaned room.
I knew the room was going to be pretty small, but it was larger than I expected. There was also plenty of storage (which was a nice surprise) and so it worked for us.
Our room was a category 1A with portholes on the main deck. It had a convertible couch and 1 twin bed. What attracted us to this room was the price and the portholes. It was forward on the ship, so I wouldn't recommend it for those that are prone to sea sickness (because you can feel the ship moving at times) or for those that are light sleepers or late risers (because you can hear the anchor going down on port days). Since both of us are early risers and a little motion doesn't bother us, it was the perfect room. We were able to save a couple of hundred dollars but choosing this room. Our first option was to book an ocean view room, but we changed our minds when we learned about this 1A with portholes. We were still able to see what was going on outside and had natural light coming in. We also spent very little time in the room, so a balcony or suite would have probably been a waste for us.
Our luggage still weren't ready at this time, so we just explored some more, did a tour of the spa and fitness tour and attended the muster drill. After that, was the sail away party on the Lido deck which was a lot of fun. When we went down to the room the 2nd time (around 5:00pm) our luggage was there so we unpacked and got ready for dinner.
Sea Days/Evenings Onboard
Sea Days were a lot of fun and relaxing. There was plenty to do, so you can be as active or lazy as you want. The busiest part of the ship and the spot that was hardest to find a lounge chair in the late morning and early afternoon was the mid Lido pool. However, unless you wanted to be right next to that particular pool and share personal space with your fellow cruise mates who were cramming that area, there were more than enough lounge chairs in other places throughout the ship. If something was going on around the main pool that you wanted to see, all you had to do was get up, watch the activity and then go back to your quiet lounge chair when the activity was complete. I never took more than a minute for me to find a good place to lounge around and I took advantage of many of the activities on board. Some of the things I went to during the day were a cooking demonstration by the chefs that work in the Steak House, a talk in the fitness are about weight loss and detox, saw an ice carving, watched the pool Olympics, played mini golf...etc...For night activities, I went to all the shows and musicals in the Victoriana lounge, a talent show, went to three comedy shows (the first comedian Allyn Ball was fantastic, but the second one wasn't so great), karaoke, watched movies on the outdoor screen while sitting in the hot tub....etc..
I do have to admit the pools were really small and crowded during the day. However, if you don't mind waiting until later in the day to get in the water, it actually wasn't that bad. I participated in the daily activities and lounged in the morning and afternoon, and jumped in the hot tubs and pools later in the evening when people were off getting ready for dinner or participating in evening activities. The pools didn't close until 8:00pm-10:00pm (depending on which one you wanted to go to) and the latest hot tubs were open until midnight. That gave plenty of time to take a dip in the water if you weren't too picky on what time of day you did it.
I read many reviews were people hated the ship dEcor, but I actually love it. The ship was also kept clean and I was surprised since so many people were onboard. Everywhere you turned, there were workers picking up garbage, cleaning glass, vacuuming or shampooing carpets, clearing tables...etc. The ship was very large and a little confusing to get around at first, but the more you walk around, the more you get the hang of it. Also, as mentioned above, even with over 3000 passengers, the ship never felt crowded aside from the first afternoon.
The staff was really nice and did a fabulous job. Our room steward knew our names by the first day and cleaned our room twice a day. They must have a camera or something to be able to tell when people are coming and going, because he slipped in and out when we weren't around. He was never in our way and we were never in his. He did such a fabulous job by keeping the room clean, that we left him an extra tip on top of the prepaid gratuity. The pool staff, buffet staff, dining room staff...etc...also did a fabulous job and were always available if you needed something.
We opted for Any Time Dining. Since this is my first cruise, I can't really compare it to Traditional dining, but will probably always chose Anytime Dining on future cruises. It worked like a regular restaurant. You just show up to your assigned dining room between 5:45-9:30pm and are seated. We only had a wait one time which was on the 1st elegant night. That wait was more than reasonable and was only for about 15 minutes. We ate breakfast and lunch on the Lido deck everyday, but had dinner in the dining room almost every night except for the second Elegant night.
The second elegant night was the night we came back from Jamaica. We were tired and didn't feel like getting dress up so just ate the buffet dinner which was really good. I have no complaints about the food I ate and there were literally all sorts of food to satisfy any taste bud.
After reading some reviews, I was concerned unnecessarily about water, so we did bring some bottled water onboard. However, the water on the ship was really good and tasted better than what I had at home. The bottled water did come in handy when getting off the ship in ports, but the water on the ship was very refreshing. The ship does offer soda cards for $6.00 a day. We didn't purchase those and unless you drink a lot of pop (like more then 3 cans a day), it seems like it would be a waste. I took advantage of the free lemonade and water. I never even purchased any soda and didn't miss not having it.
Debarkment day was a breeze. The ship offered self assist debarkment, but we opted to set our luggage out the night before and let the Carnival staff get it off the ship for us. Even though the cruise information stated that we wouldn't be back to Fort Lauderdale until 7:00am, we got back way before that, so they started letting the self assist people off the ship before 6:30am. We ate breakfast and then went to the lounge we were assigned to wait until our zone was called to get off the ship.
Since we had a late flight we booked a Fort Lauderdale shore excursion. Our number was called to get off the ship by 8:15am. (we were the 3rd group to be called) Had we not book an excursion we would have been the 24th group to be called. Carnival calls your zone off by your flights and excursion times, so the people that have early flights or excursions can get off before the folks that have later flights.
When getting off the ship, there is a mass of luggage everywhere. It is harder to find your luggage in this room than it is to find it at the airport. Fortunately for me, although my luggage was black, I had placed a couple of ribbons and a bright green scarf on my luggage so was able to spot it right away. My friend had bright blue luggage and ribbon so found hers with ease also. Some people who didn't make their luggage stand out were having a lot of trouble finding it in the sea of baggage. There were port workers there trying to help people locate their stuff, but just a little word of advice, debarking will go 1000x's smoother for you if you either have a unique color or patterned luggage, or add some ribbons, cloth, colored tape...etc...to make it stand out so you can spot it right away. The debarkment lines were kind of long but moved quickly. We got our luggage quickly, hopped into the line, went thru customs and were outside quickly to meet our tour bus. All of this happened within ten minutes of our # being called off the ship.
Believe it or not, the most irritating wait of the whole trip was after the cruise officially ended. Our post-cruise excursion couldn't leave until everyone was ready to go. This wasn't the fault of Carnival but of fellow cruise mates moving slowly. Like I said people had trouble finding their luggage and stuff, so even though my friend and I were on the bus by 8:30, others didn't get on until after 9:00 for one reason or another.
We finally did pull away from the port around 9:15 (an hour after our # was called off the ship) and enjoyed our post cruise excursion. We took an airboat ride on the Florida Everglades and watched an alligator show with a man interacting with alligators (kind of like what you would see on Animal Planet). It was a lot of fun and a great way to end the vacation. It also provided us something to do that morning since our flight wasn't until 3:00pm and we didn't want to sit in the airport all day or lug our luggage around while trying to sight-see. The tour bus got us to the airport by 1:00pm and we headed back to Washington State from there.
A few pointers for fellow first time cruisers
1. Bring LOTS of small bills. They will come in handy because you will be handing out A LOT of tips (shuttle drivers, porters when you embark, room service, taxi drivers...etc). Since I opted make my sign in sail card a cash account, I bought some larger ones with me for Carnival. Everything else was 1s and 5s. This also worked really well when buying things in the foreign ports. I found it easier to pay for everything at the exact price. Almost everything I bought was quoted in exact dollars, so coins weren't really needed.
2. It's good to plan ahead, but don't plan too much. Have some flexibility because once you get onboard you will probably find things to do that you never dreamed of doing. Make a list of the things you really want to do or see, other than that, I found it nice to kind of go with the flow especially when it came to sea days.
3. I already mentioned the luggage thing. Unless you do self assisted, it is very important to make you luggage stand out or it can be more than a little overwhelming trying to find it at the end of the cruise.
3. Don't over pack!!... I packed a few "just in case" outfits, but honestly you only need a few bathing suits and maybe 2 outfits for each day (one for daytime activities and a fresh pair of clothes for evening dinner and activities) and necessary toiletries, vitamins...etc. I personally like having fresh clothes when hopping out of the shower, but if you don't mind wearing shorts or pants or whatever more than once, then you could probably get away with packing even less than two outfits a day. Since we flew, I kept everything confined to one luggage and a carry on, and found that I didn't even use everything I brought, so one luggage may have been sufficient. You'll need the extra space to take back souvenirs, so the less you pack the easier your life will be if you are flying because of the weight requirements.
4. Lastly, make the most of your vacation. I'm a laid back kind of person so this was not a problem for me. Just remember, that Carnival, your tour guides, etc...can only do so much, but how much you enjoy your vacation is going to depend on you. I found that on the cruise you can do as little or as much as you want. Don't sweat the small stuff and just sit back, relax and enjoy the cruise.
Overall, I had a FABULOUS time and would definitely sail this ship and Carnival again without hesitation. Concerns I had from reading reviews and horrors stories ahead of time were unfounded for me. My friend and I already said we would do another one when we turned 35, but I will probably do one with another set of friends or family before then. I really can't think of any major complaints. I enjoyed from the moment I step foot in the Fort Lauderdale Airport to the moment I was boarding the plane back home.
If you have any specific questions, feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will answer them for you.