I arrived on the Dream with a big crew. Our family group consisted of 18 adults that ranged in age from 23 to 84 with various spending limits and travel interests. I served as the non-professional travel agent and coordinator of the group that was a hybrid of my extended family and my husband's extended family. I am 31 years old and my husband is also 31. All members of this group were traveling from Minnesota. This is the first time that the majority of my party have ever cruised. The Dream was my third cruise and my first trip on Carnival. My two previous cruises were to Alaska and Hawaii on NCL. The Dream cruise planning started with me circulating a Facebook event invite to about 15 households promoting the cruise about four months prior to my suggested sail date. I picked the ship, itinerary and the dates after doing a great deal of research. My husband and I decided that it would get too complicated if we gave a large group of people lots of options for dates or ships, especially because I was inviting a lot of non-cruisers that did not know where to begin with cruise research. Most of the family members that ended up committing to the trip were retired or students and they were very relaxed about the itinerary and the details. Interestingly enough, about third of group traveling with me were family members that I never thought to invite but heard about the trip through word of mouth and decided to join in. I found out the hard way that planning a trip in January for people that work in retail is not such a good plan.
When planning this trip I was focused aggressively on costs and value. Surprisingly, many of my historically cheapskate family members relaxed on budgeting for this trip and this was a big stress relief for me. I was truly scared to death that I would be blamed by my group if expenses ran higher than I originally proposed because I did feel that my group held me responsible for a lot of the details for planning this trip. I will say that costs did run slightly higher than I proposed in my original Facebook invite.
A couple of tips for other lay-travel coordinators:
*When discussing costs of the cruise for newbies I forgot to factor in gratuity fees.
*I talked about a group discount on cruise costs if we secured more than 8 staterooms and that discount never happened.
*I did explain to the group that cruise fees jump or dive in price over the course of a travel season, unfortunately I held out on an irrational hope that a last minute booking on Carnival would land our group a great deal and I think I made a mistake in this area.
My first call to book this cruise was with Carnival direct to arrange for a group booking and discuss what kind of discounts a group purchase could provide for my family. I found their Representatives to be fairly aggressive in their sales techniques; the conversations felt almost threatening. Although I may personally be extra sensitive in this area. One of my calls to the cruise line consisted of me telling the Rep that I had my credit card in hand ready to pay and the sales geek keep trying to up-sell me in such a confusing manner that I had to tell him that I was going to book on a different cruise line and I hung up. He lost a deal. The worst part about the Carnival travel agent experience was that I was constantly getting conflicting information and policies/costs seemed to change day-to-day and this process was incredibly frustrating. I think some of these hassles could have been prevented if I was booking a cruise group a year in advance instead of 7 weeks prior. I did not realize there were deadlines to qualify for group discounts on cruises, the deadlines given to me were never consistent when I started to ask about them with the Carnival Rep. I don't recommend booking on Carnival directly with the cruise line. In the end, none of the 18 members of our groups worked directly with Carnival. My group did book eight staterooms with 18 people on the Dream and we would have been eligible for a group deal with Carnival, but I found better rates online if we all booked our trips individually without a group discount. The hassle with individual bookings is that I had to coordinate with lots of households about how to book a trip. Again, I was dealing with older folks and a lot of non-cruisers and this was a big project to communicate the most basic steps. I attempted to also contact a local travel agent cold to assist me with this booking process and I found the service fantastic and prompt, but the package deal really skyrocketed in price once I got a real travel agent on the phone. The discount travel agency that handed my previous two cruises sadly went out of business last year. The majority of the members of my group ended up booking their trip through Priceline and were generally pleased with the process.
About half of our group choose to stay on the spa level for the cruise. Our room was 11220, an inside room on the Panorama deck. My parents and brother were across the hall in a balcony room. I am glad we booked the inside room, I don't know if I would have used the balcony much and their room was only slightly larger. Yet I think with three adults in one room that an upgrade was critical. The only reason why most of us booked a spa cabin was because Carnival was running a special resident rate and the inside spa rooms were twenty dollars cheaper than any other room on the ship at the time we booked. The space was generally quiet and I loved that smoking was not allowed. It's possible that our room experienced more ship movement than other staterooms since we were on the 11th deck, but it was not dramatic. My husband was pretty seasick for half of one day. Occasionally while sleeping we did hear a sound like the ship exhaust was "backfiring", it was a loud thump almost like someone dropping a heavy a barbell from the gym on the ground above us. We also experience other loud noises from our drunk neighbors engaged in a number of serious domestic disputes. We believe that these fights did result in violence. I am the kind of person that would report these crimes; but I did not know for sure the origin of the screaming or who to call for help. At first my husband thought it was just a kid crying and throwing a tantrum in the middle of the night, but later the vulgarity of the shouts revealed otherwise. The anger was only really disruptive the first two nights of the cruise. I will admit that it made my blood boil. The members of our group not on the spa level selected to go with Priceline with non-guaranteed staterooms and they were randomly assigned rooms on the second deck. This plan was actually the cheapest way to go, I think these rooms ran about $50 less per person than our pricing for interior rooms on the spa level. I actually thought this decision was a bit of a risk because I did not want my 84 year old grandmother to end up in a room with bunk beds or in a place of the ship with a million stairs to climb, but it turned out to be just fine. I did think that the second deck had some of the most frequent bouts of that sewage smell. The smell was in air sporadically and it never lingered in my experience, but it was enough of an issue where I can see why people have been commenting about it.
The spa was fantastic and never crowded. I would have paid extra to be on the spa level (and for me, that's a big deal). We used the spa 1-3 times a day. The showers were private and had three "jets". It was fairly easy for spa guests to sneak non-spa people in. I never saw any staff monitoring who was accessing the services. All the spa areas require a special key to enter, but there was nothing stopping anyone from allow others to be "shadowed in". I imagine that that the vast majority of people in the spa were legal, paying customers, but if you're curious, the security is weak.
The spa staff providing massages and other similar services were not professionally trained. Beware; a member of my family was severely bruised by her masseuse who I don't think knew what she was doing. The spa also sponsored many health scams that rubbed me the wrong way (weight loss pills, seaweed wraps to lose weight, etc). I guess they are just trying to make a buck where people are vulnerable.
I signed up to complete two Pilates courses on the first afternoon on the boat. It should be mentioned that spa residents only get yoga or Pilates courses for free with their room package. The courses are available for two per cabin, not two per person. These details I never saw published as policies, I was just instructed by staff. Also, the second Pilates course I signed up for on the last day at sea had only four people show up and the instructor said it had to be cancelled unless five people attended. Well, we lucked out because I called my mom from the fitness studio phone and she ran up the stairs and made the class viable at the last minute. The Instructor might have been annoyed that I recruited a fifth person. Later the Instructor explained that he had been injured and was not feeling very well that day. I will say that I enjoyed both Pilates classes despite the less than energetic Instructor. The fitness schedule was limited and I have a feeling that the classes were poorly attended. I happen to love exercise classes and I would have attended one every day if the boat did not charge $12 a person per class.
Grade F. Clearly I am not the audience for Carnival entertainment. I am young adult and I live in an urban center, I found the productions embarrassingly bad without exception. "Dancing in the Streets" reminded me of a junior high production. There was lots of lip-syncing and the dancing was laughable. I am greatly confused how I read such wonderful reviews about Carnival entertainment. Yet I will say that I imagine it's difficult to satisfy a very diverse, international audience. The majority of strangers I overheard at the major performances raved about the quality of the productions. The members of my group under the age of 40 hated every piece of entertainment that Carnival sponsored. I did enjoy the Second City comedy troupe on the NCL ship. I am not super picky about finding stuff to do, but the Carnival choices for entertainment really baffled me. The Carnival budget on entertainment had to be grossly under-funded. The actors, dancers and singers felt like they had just been plucked from the audience to perform. I was not impressed. Also a number of scheduled activities were cancelled due to performer illness or travel delays. The laser show was really lame, it was more a light show of very low production value. Comedians were blah. Entertainment is generally not a priority for me when cruising, but I feel I must comment on a serious Carnival weakness.
My Midwestern family was amused that a major motion picture was being filmed on the boat during our trip. A Production Assistant approached me to be an extra in the movie, but I declined when I found out I would not be paid for my time. The filming did become bothersome when the production took over pool decks and cordoned off hallways for filming, but I cannot say that it really made a big difference in my day-to-day. One of the actors from "The Office" was on the ship for the filming and he was really friendly and ate all of his meals and did his tendering with the regular folks. "The Office" is my husband's favorite TV show so that was a highlight. Jason Lee (an actor), apparently was a bit of a pre-madonna, but that's just gossip. My uncle managed to get lots of photographs of the filming with the actors involved in some action comedy that were pretty funny before he was shooed away.
The Carnival Valor and Legend cancelled their stops at Belize during our travel week due to some bickering with the tender boat operators. I guess Carnival's contract stipulated $5 a head to transport each guest to the port and the boat operators suddenly wanted $8 a head with only a few days notice. Well, as the ship gossip mill went, I guess Carnival leadership on the Legend and the Valor skipped the Belize port due to the bickering with the owners of the tender boats and Carnival refused to pay up. The Dream was able to stop in Belize due to guest outcries when word got around that Belize was going to be cancelled. Some vocal guests argued that Carnival should honor their commitment to the original itinerary and I guess some people even threatened lawsuits. Now, my story is all unsubstantiated and I was not a part of the conversation with the Captain about this situation, but I did see signs at the Belize port about the Valor and Legend last minute cancellations and our ship did catch up with the Legend and the Valor in Costa Maya when those ships were not scheduled to dock. The guests from the Valor and Legend told me on our Costa Maya excursion that their Captain explained that Belize was cancelled due high winds or unsafe conditions. The weather seemed fine to me our week on the seas. Belize was actually my favorite port of the trip. I suppose future travelers should be aware that Belize may be listed on the cruise itinerary but stopping there might not be a guarantee.
I have yet to read anyone comment on the ship "muzak" piped through most public spaces. The music really sucked. I am a bit of a music snob, but it was a real bummer that the bad 70's and 80's soft rock could not just be limited to certain areas. I thought it would be rude for me to wear earphones to drown out the noise since I was traveling with family. I just tried to ignore it.
Food is a pretty big deal for me. I will say right away that food quality and choice is superior on Carnival over NCL. My Minnesotan husband loved the idea of NCL Freestyle dining because did not want to be forced to sit and eat with strangers (not the MN thing to do) and that is why we previously only traveled only on NCL. He has now receded on his Minnesota stoicism and he thought the set dining times were actually pretty great. Making reservations and coordinating dinner plans was a bit of a pain in the butt on NCL. Our entire family appreciated the dinner hour; it provided structure to gather our group. Our table service was actually split with 11 members of my family at one table and 7 members of my husband's family at another table. The waiters were exceptionally patient with my special needs brother and did not back off when my brother gave them a hug at the end of the week. And once I thought I was choking on my food at the dinner table and the waiters were genuinely concerned that I was okay. The wait staff guys had really good hearts. I really don't have any other comments about food that haven't already been posted in other reviews. The food was generally exceptional.
Alcohol and soda policies were critical to my extended family (although not to me). Two members of my group emptied Listerine bottles at home and filled them with rum and packed them in their suitcases to save on the bar tab. These bottles were not confiscated by the ship. I did determine in advance of cruising that Carnival will allow each guest to arrive at the port with one twelve pack of soda and one bottle of wine. Security at the port seemed to have cared less about tracking, collecting and monitoring guests bringing on their own wine or soda. I did see three abandoned bottles of hard liquor sitting at the X-ray machines. These checkpoints were really pretty casual compared to the other cruise embarkations I have encountered. I did bring glasses of wine to dinner that I poured in my stateroom and many members of my group brought cans of soda to dinner and the wait staff did not say a word. I never asked cruise staff to actually cork my bottle of wine, that might be a different story.
In the hours of embarkation when the state rooms were not yet available to guests the crowds were suffocating on the ship. After about one thirty PM on the first day on the cruise I did not encounter another moment of serious crowds while on the ship. I will say that the Encore Theater was often full. My parents were really mad that bingo players got first priority on seating because bingo was always held in the Encore just prior to the major productions in the evening. If you don't play bingo, don't plan on getting a good seat for the evening Encore events. Again, in my opinion, you won't be missing much.
Will we doing it again:
The planning is already in the works. I am sure I am going to be the bossy leader again and coordinate all of the arrangements. Despite my critiques of Carnival, I don't think I'll go back to NCL. I will also mention that the level of trip anxiety was very high in my family and this factored into my experience. I urge first time cruisers to do Internet research in advance if you are prone to travel anxiety. Panic in my family sprung up surrounding the timing of flight arrangements, security concerns in port and some of the elderly members of my crew even refused to walk around the ship unescorted for reasons I am still unclear on. I personally did not encounter any reason to be worried about thief or crime on the ship. The cruise ship staff were friendly and gracious if you get lost. I also had a great time in port since I did my research in advance and I was very comfortable venturing outside the touristy areas. Thankfully, my in-laws were more laid back and they did not require such an intense amount of case management as my family. I think trip number two will provide for a calmer atmosphere since one trip is under our belt. I could write pages more, but I'll limit my purge to this. Feel free to contact me direct if you have any specific questions: Jcarlson27@gmail.com.