A year ago my wife and I were minding our own business, when my father gave us a cruise as a wedding anniversary present. Through his sweat and frequent flyer miles, he booked us on the Carnival Freedom for six days from Fort Lauderdale to Key West, Grand Cayman, and Ocho Rios, Jamaica. He paid almost everything, save some of the travel insurance and incidentals. Thus, I cannot assess the cruise on its value but I did not feel that things were overpriced.
We were booked in an inside stateroom and, this being our first cruise, were nervous about motion sickness and other unknowns of the sea. After arranging for the boys and our dog to be watched for the week, we flew in to Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood Airport without incident. We purchased the ground transfer from the airport to the dock through Carnival, although the distance was about five miles total. It did eliminate some concerns and I recommend purchasing this extra. We were greeted by a Carnival clipboard-toting receptionist at the luggage carousel who brought us to the point where the air conditioned shuttle motorcoach would pick us up (greatly appreciated at the airport). The bus arrived within minutes and we were soon at Port Everglades.
The first snag was the embarkation/immigration process. It was a series of lines, with the Homeland Security portion in the unair-conditioned basement of the port terminal. We were moved briskly along and up to Carnival's boarding process (and another line, called by sections). Then the boarding where we were directed to the main set of elevators (with virtually everyone else). In retrospect, we should have stopped in the bar-lounge as the crowd thinned. Disembarking was much better organized with people departing by deck level or whether they made special arrangements or not. There probably should be parts of embarkation that could be done in advance, but I cannot think of what more could be done before you arrive at the dock.
I also recommend making arrangements with the ship for getting to or from the dock and forwarding our luggage from the ship to our plane. The few worries on vacation the better. This became critical near the end of our cruise when extra assistance was invaluable.
We saw our stateroom. The pictures online showed an interior stateroom with a double bed, but we had a king-size bed. It was small (being an interior room) but my wife and I were not under each other's foot. Had we brought our three boys, we would have needed either a much larger stateroom or adjoining staterooms.
We had only one meal at the fancy main dining room, where the staff gave us a cake for our anniversary.
We were on the Empress Deck, which the elevator called the "Impress" Deck, as in I'm not impressed with your pronunciation. Another bit of confusion, the elevators used red lights for both up and down rather than a distinct color for each direction (white for up, red for down, for example).
Everything was on the Sail & Sign Card, so cash was unnecessary on board. The card could be funded by cash (I think a $200 minimum to start) or placed on a credit card, which I did. This was convenient and left cash for the excursions.
There were features of the ship I learned of the last days I wished I knew from the start. For example, Carnival has a newsletter with headlines. After two days at sea and out of satellite range you lose track of the outside world (which is one purpose of the cruise). Another think I found late was the game room, geared for pre-teens and teens, but my wife and I enjoyed the air hockey table. Each day with the neatly folded towels was the "Fun Times" the daily listing of on board and excursion activities.
The staff on board was all friendly and helpful and cosmopolitan. The ship was kept clean. Once in the Lido Deck dining room someone dropped their tray. Without fuss it was cleaned in a matter of minutes.
I love the Serenity deck, an island of calm from the hubbub of the decks around the pools. We found the game room late on the cruise, since it was focused on teen cruisers. We had fun there nonetheless.
The last night the blissful trip ends with my wife fracturing her toe on her left foot by kicking the chair in the stateroom. The late night medical staff was quite helpful and sold us crutches. My wife then was in wheelchair through our departure. Fortunately, the disembarking went smoothly so there was no wrestling with luggage, wheelchair, and crutches.