We just returned from a week on the Carnival Conquest. Because reading other reviews really helped us get ready for our trip, I wanted to be sure to post a review while everything was still fresh in my mind. I am sure you have no interest in my day to day activities and are more curious about overall impressions and experiences.
I want to say before anything, that we had an absolutely wonderful time. As with anything, some things were perfect and some things were not. I am going to give an honest review of what we observed. No one gets it 100% right all the time, and Carnival is no exception. However, the overall experience was amazing and we would sail them again in a heartbeat.
EMBARKATION: Getting on the ship was absolutely painless and very organized. I thought it would be a hassle and stressful, but Carnival had it down to a science. We are onboard by 11:30 and having lunch on the Lido Deck and pinching ourselves trying to believe our cruise was finally here.
ROOMS: The room was ready by 1:30 as promised. We booked an interior cabin and our family of 4 was sharing that one cabin. We were concerned that it would be too small and that we wouldn't have room for everything, but it was what we could afford. We were very pleasantly surprised at how efficient the space was. We easily fit everything in, and we severely over packed. The beds were comfortable, including the top bunks for our daughters. My one complaint about the room was that there was ONE plug in the entire cabin, and no plug at all in the bathroom. I am glad we had someone recommend that we bring a cord with us with more than one outlet. Had we not had that, it would have been a huge hassle.
BUFFET/LIDO DECK FOOD: The food had its ups and downs. We loved the deli, fish and chips, pizza, hamburgers and hot dogs. We thought the buffet at the Cezanne on the Lido deck was passable, at best. They are mass producing buffet food for thousands of people and it tastes like it. It wasn't horrible or nasty, it was just alright and not worth the calories. We would have loved to try the Mongolian stir fry grill, but unfortunately that line was always at least 30 minutes long, many times it was longer. It was not only very popular, they only had a few chefs stir frying all the choices, so it was very time consuming. I think they need to re-evaluate and have 2 windows for it.
DINING ROOM FOOD: This had many more high points than the buffet. Some things were downright delicious, some we just ok. It just depended on what you ordered. The only truly bad meal we were served the whole week was the turkey dinner on Thanksgiving. It was awful. Aside from that, we enjoyed our dinners every night. We also enjoyed breakfast in the dining room much more than the buffet. We had lunch twice in the dining room and it was good as well. The main issue we had was that the food was not always piping hot. It was never cold, but it was obvious that it sometimes sat for a bit before it made it to our table.
STAFF: These people work HARD. From what I could see, the majority of the wait staff, kitchen staff, security, cabin stewards, social hosts, etc, worked at least 15 hour days. Anyone who balks at paying the gratuities should be ashamed of themselves. Because we went over Thanksgiving, the ship was at more than 100% and it didn't feel crowded, rushed or hectic. Service and activities were smooth and there were no gaps in service.
CAMP CARNIVAL: I have 2 girls ages 15 and 11 and the main reason we went with Carnival over any other line was for their children's programs. It is ironic that this is the one area that fell flat for us in regards to our 11 year old. She was placed in the 9-11 age group and very quickly became bored, because the activities seemed to be skewed to the younger kids in the age group. She is almost 12 and all the friends she made were all in the 12-14 year old Circle C group, but we were told she was not allowed in Circle C. I don't want to give the impression that Carnival does not have an extensive kids program. The activities and facilities were amazing, varied and catered to many tastes. I just wish there was some flexibility for those kids like my daughter who fall between the age group cracks. Toward the end of the cruise, things became a little more lax in the evenings and she was able to do some of the parties and movie nights, because the staff stopped checking their cards and she just walked in. Our older daughter used Club O2 as a starting point to meet kids, but once she had her group, they seemed to do their own thing and that seemed to be the norm for the teenagers.
ANYTIME DINING: We chose this option because we wanted to be able to tailor our dining to the kids' activities, and the schedule of events on the ship that we wanted to attend. There were positives and negatives to this choice, though we do feel the positive outweighed the negative. We never had to wait for a table, and we went on one of the busiest times of the year (Thanksgiving week). The positives were the ability to eat when we wanted and choosing who we wanted to eat with. Most nights it was just the four of us, which was really nice. We were all over the place doing different things all day, so we enjoyed coming to dinner and spending time with just the 4 of us and not having to make conversation with other people we were seated with. We also were able to have dinner with friends we made on the ship a few times and it was nice to have that flexibility, as well. The major negative to this was that because you had a different server most nights, they weren't motivated to really go that extra mile for you. It was almost like they knew they would probably see you only once, so it didn't really matter as much. It isn't that the service was rude or poor, it was just detached. On the fourth night of our cruise, we had an outstanding team and requested them anytime they had room. Overall, we would choose this option again.
ACTIVITIES AND ENTERTAINMENT: If you find a Carnival Cruise boring, then you are seriously not doing something right. There is something for everyone every hour of the day. The staff knocks themselves out for you and the company works hard to ensure that everyone has something that appeals. We are not "show" fans, but our daughter is a dancer and she wanted to see them, so we went to a few. They are well produced and if Vegas style shows are your thing, you won't be disappointed. We loved the Blues Bar and Alfred's. Our favorite performer was "Groovy Tunes with Keith". Don't let the hokey title fool you. This guy is talented, has an amazing funny and acerbic humor and plays great music. We sought him out several times and every time he played, there was a core group of people that we always saw there. We were VERY impressed with Punchliners Comedy Club. They had top notch, cutting edge comedy shows there. They made a point to have family friendly ones earlier, than R rated ones for adults later. All shows were as good as I have seen at many top comedy clubs around the country.
NICKLE AND DIMING: We were disappointed in how many things had extra fees. We expected to pay for alcohol, gambling, pictures and spa services. However, there were a lot of things that had an extra cost that was surprising to us, especially fitness classes and laser tag. We also found Bingo to be very expensive. $10 for ONE bingo card! We also felt that we were constantly being sold to, whether it was the Cruise Director making announcements about ways we should spend our money, to the "sidewalk sales" on the Promenade deck in front of the shops. The absolute worst were the drink of the day guys on the outdoor decks. They would not leave you alone. I am not exaggerating when I say that we were approached by different servers (and sometimes the same ones!) at least every 2-3 minutes. These guys have a quota of drinks of the day they need to sell and they are very aggressive about selling them and they really become a huge bother. I really think Carnival needs to rethink how they have these guys selling. It isn't just bothersome, it is downright tacky and rude.
SHORE EXCURSIONS: Several people encouraged us to not go through Carnival for shore excursions, because they are a bit cheaper if you go on your own. I understand this thinking, however I am glad we went through Carnival. One, if something happens and there is a problem, Carnival holds the boat for you. If you are on your own and something happens, they will pull out without you. Also, if you have an early excursion, you meet in a lounge and they escort you off the ship first, which is VERY nice. Also, the companies that Carnival contracts with want to keep the business, so they REALLY go out of their way to make you happy. When we go again, we will definitely book through the ship and I think the few extra dollars were worth the benefits. Our favorite excursion was swimming with the stingrays in Grand Cayman....this is NOT to be missed!
DEBARKATION: Carnival has this down to a science. Just do what they tell you and you will have no problems. We did the relaxed option and we were off the ship, in our car and on 45 heading back to Dallas by 9:55 am.
OVERALL: Carnival is a laid back fun cruise for the masses. Yes, you will see shorts in the dining room and people not in ties on elegant night. You will have lots of kids riding the elevators and pigging out on 24 hour ice cream. However, the staff and crew could not be friendlier or more committed to providing you with a great experience. The range of activities for all ages cannot be beat. It is a more laid back and casual cruise than the formal cruises back in the day. If you are looking for a formal, intimate and extremely elegant experience, you may want to look elsewhere. For us, they had something for everyone and lots of fun in the sun. The guests and staff could not have been nicer and more friendly. We not only had a great vacation, we all met friends that we will continue to keep in touch with. We will be back.....hopefully on the Magic next Thanksgiving!