I was traveling with my three daughters, ages 13 and 8 year-old twins. I'm a single mom, so we're used to doing things on our own. We were also on a pretty tight budget. I booked it pretty much last-minute, about three weeks in advance.
I decided to stay overnight in Baltimore on Saturday, even though it's only a two-hour drive from home. I paid $145, which included the room, hot buffet breakfast (not very good!), parking for the week and shuttle service to and from the pier. It was a great deal, as we had no wait in traffic or long walks to the car, and it was only $40 more than the pier parking. We stayed at the Best Western and they had a nice indoor pool and jacuzzi, which we had to ourselves. If the weather had been nicer, we could have taken the free shuttle to the Inner Harbor.
We were picked up at 11:45 and got to the pier at noon. No lines at all. It was very organized and felt a little festive already! We had to wait until 1:00 to board, but we were sitting in a big room with everyone and it was fun talking and people-watching. After a few minutes, the nice people I was chatting with asked if I was from Cruise Critic roll call! It was Bonnie and crew, and we saw them on and off all week. We got on quickly after that, but were pretty lost when we first boarded. Somehow we made it up to the Mermaid's Grille and had lunch. Cabins were available shortly thereafter.
We left our cabin waited in the restaurant for a few hours. It was fine - I wasn't in any hurry to get home! I called the shuttle service and someone was there in five minutes.
I actually liked the dEcor! It reminded me of a Las Vegas hotel - very themed and over the top. I would give it four stars (not that I would know a five-star place from a hole in the wall), only because there were a few little tiny mars here and there. I especially liked how someone had scratched the wallpaper off the nipples in one of the elevators we rode regularly! My 13 year-old took a photo of the giant naked David in the steakhouse, and tittered a little about some of the art, but the twins were oblivious. Overall, it was very pretty and well-kept, and immaculate.
What struck me the most was how un-crowded everything was. We never had to look for a place to sit, either on the pool decks (my favorite place to sit, have my drink and read, while the kids played in the Jacuzzi) or the restaurants and lounges. Some of the public seating areas on the lower decks were just beautiful and completely empty. And at night, the outside areas were deserted, even on the warmer nights. There was a stunning full moon, and I had the entire upper deck to myself. The hot tubs and pools were mostly empty every night as well.
Our cabin was small, but served its purpose well. We all had comfy beds, it was very clean, the water pressure in the shower was wonderful. I miss that. There was enough space for our stuff in the cabinets. I would have liked a few more hooks on the wall, so next time I'll bring some temporary ones. We had an obstructed view (lifeboats) but it was nice to be able to open the door and have the natural light. I can totally see the value of having a balcony, though. It would have been great to have somewhere to sit outside in privacy.
Normandie Dining Room:
We only ate there three times. (We originally got the late seating, and had it changed after the first day to the early. It was just hard for us to eat at a certain time, so we ended up not going much.) It was very nice, attentive service, etc., but I thought most of the food was rather traditional and on the bland side. I did have the Indian selection one night and it was easily the best meal I had all week. As I am a vegetarian (who also eats fish) I cannot comment on most of the main dishes. We were in and out quickly, so missed the show the waiters put on.
Loved the variety! I particularly enjoyed the Asian food (also on the bland side), so appreciated all the choices of condiments to spice it up. There were lots of vegetarian choices, salads, a nice salad bar, deli area, etc. Everything was frequently replenished and the food always looked good. It mostly tasted OK, sometimes very good. I found the seafood dishes to be on the fishy-tasting side. I tried the sushi bar, and actually spit it out. Maybe it was a bad day, but I was not tempted to try again.
The pizza was great, and there was generally no wait. The outside grill (burgers, fries, nachos, etc.) was also a favorite. We really enjoyed being able to eat by the pool. I was able to get a veggie burger one day in about five minutes, though the next time I asked I was told it would be ten, so I skipped it. We made excellent use of the ice cream machines, and it was very good. I thought the free beverages were fine, and loved the strong coffee.
We ordered some breakfasts and snacks, and I had at least my morning coffee brought every day. It was usually fairly fast, and it was nice having that as an option.
I didn't pay for any extras or specialty foods, due to the budget, and felt that what was offered was fine. (Better than I would have had at home, that's for sure!) If I had had a nice place to eat, I would have gone to the buffet and brought the tray into the cabin - I saw a few people doing that.
I thought they were pricey, but the alcoholic ones seemed pretty strong to me, so I didn't drink much. I really enjoyed the Drinks of the Day.
We didn't go to many shows - only a couple of family-friendly comedies, which were pretty funny. We ended up paying for one movie in the cabin, "Megamind" on the Monday night when we were all feeling seasick. The "live" music scattered around the ship in the bars was a little cheesy - it was mostly musicians playing and singing along with a soundtrack, which was repeated several times during the week. I know there were more interesting venues, but we must have missed them.
I had thought we would make much more use of this, but my kids didn't much care for it. I really did not want them to be stuck inside so much anyway, and was happy to hang with them, though many of the other children on the ship apparently loved the camp. They also had a lot of night-time coverage which would be good if you wanted adult time.
Be prepared to do a lot of walking. There were lots of elevators, but the hallways were long. Long, long, long. And sometimes it was easier to take the stairs. And some of the staircases are really cool! I feel like I got some good exercise, actually.
Even at the end, I still got turned around on the Lido Deck. It's huge and everything sort of looks the same. I could never figure out where the front of the ship was without looking out the window at the water.
Everyone we met, crew, passengers and people at the port, was really friendly and nice. There was no drama at all. Lovely!
We liked the daily photos sessions - we took full advantage and ended up with two really good family photos. It was well worth the $34. We had probably 30 or so taken since there is no obligation at all. There were lots of backdrops - every day was different.
I wish I would have signed up for the Behind the Scene tour. It was sold out on the second day. I heard it was fascinating.
The ATM on the ship charges a $6 fee. There was an ATM right at the port in Nassau where I got cash for a $3 fee. Sunscreen (which I forgot to pack!) was $14 on the ship. They also offered to sell us water as were getting off, but you could easily find less expensive places to buy it right outside the ship. Other items in the shops were pretty reasonable, and you could buy silver and gold chain by the inch.
On Monday, there were 50 mph winds. A lot of people were suffering on Monday. I almost barfed in the long, long hallway, trying to find the cabin after taking the twins to their camp. The only public restrooms are in the main areas, not near elevators like in hotels.
We got a taxi ($20 each way for the four of us) at the dock to the Cocoa Beach pier. We played on the beach for a while then walked around. We went to Ron Jon's, but really it's just a big, expensive store. I preferred the regular beach stores, and we bought a few little things at one. Then we walked back to the pier and ate at one of the restaurants before getting a cab back to the ship.
In the morning we went shopping right by the port. Many of the places had the same stuff at the same prices. Mostly made in China! We weren't looking for jewelry, so we skipped buying stuff and walked back to the ship for lunch. Then we got a taxi which took us to Cabbage Beach (even though we had requested Paradise Beach) for $4/person. It was pretty but a very touristy spot, and I ended up getting a few braids. Also, the sun was going behind the buildings by 4:30 because the beach was facing north. I saw some photos of Junkanoo Beach, and think that would have been a better choice - less crowded, has a stand with food and drinks, and faces west.
We had signed up in advance for a half day of snorkeling at Paradise Cove. The price was $110 for all of us (I had been told on the phone my 13 year-old would be $20, but I was charged $35 when we got there), which included equipment and transportation. The kids didn't want to snorkel, and the water was on the chilly side (wet suits another $5) so we traded the snorkeling stuff in for two kayaks, and we spent about an hour paddling around. The other folks said the snorkeling was great. The beach was nice, and there was a little restaurant and bar. I was a little annoyed that I had to pay $6 more to use two beach lounges. Some people have complained about the flies, but they only bothered us for about ten minutes, and they didn't sting or bite.
Just FYI, there are a lot of people waiting to take you somewhere or sell you something every time you get off the ship. However, I never felt unsafe, even travelling with the kids.
Here's how my costs broke down:
Cruise - 4k cabin 1688
Tips for dining and steward 220
Room service tips 25
Refund of taxes -42
Travel agency credit -25
Bar tab and sodas 109
Movie in cabin 9
Gift shop 15
Baltimore hotel/shuttle/tips 156
Baltimore dinner 53
Port Canaveral taxis/tips 46
Lunch in Cocoa Beach 46
Beach store 36
Nassau taxis 32
Braids, drink on the beach 40
Paradise Cove day 110
Chairs, snacks, tips 20
If I had stayed home, I would have probably spent about $350-400 on food and utilities, so if you deduct that, the actual cost comes to about $500 each for 9 days/8 nights. That's great value for the great time we had!