Like shopping in your typical suburban Big Box store, taking a Carnival cruise will give you a great value for dollar spent, but won't provide the luxuries of a high-end boutique.
Last week, the five of us road tripped to Jacksonville from the Washington DC area (saving a couple grand in airfare). We departed on Saturday, stayed in Jacksonville on Sunday, and departed Monday for the cruise. On Sunday, we visited Jacksonville Beach and St. Augustine which is about 45 minutes away. There are plenty of family-friendly hotels and restaurants in Jacksonville if you opt for this.
We'd done a lot of homework ahead of time and save a fortune by checking out Cruise Critic and Trip Advisor as well as some of the usual books from the library. I'll tell you what worked first:
1) Skip the Carnival Shore Excursions. In Key West, we took the Old Town Trolley tour, but bought our tickets at a kiosk a short walk from the ship. $19 each and the kids were free. So $40 for a family of five compared to about $150 if we'd bought identical tickets on the boat. In Nassau we followed the advice of many and rented a room for a night across the street from Atlantis at the Comfort Suites which got you 4 passes to use all the waterpark facilities at Atlantis (except for the dolphin swim). This was easier than we expected. We still had to buy one extra ticket for my third child at Atlantis, but that was $80 compared to $150 from the ship. So, total cost of Comfort Suites was $220 (with the government/military discount) plus $80 for addl ticket, plus $40 in cab fare = $340, plus $45 for lunch. We figured the Carnival Excursion price to be $789.75 (but you got a hot dog/chips/Coke from a surly attendent thrown in for that). So the key message is: shop around.
2) Bring your own soda/wine. It's annoying, but you can bring a 12-pack per person of soda, and a bottle of wine per adult on board. Saves you $6 bucks per day for the soda card and about $8 a glass for wine. Speaking of drinks, if you decide to go for the $7.50 (or more) cocktail in the funky plastic glass, make sure to hide it when you're done. Otherwise, the happy cruise people will be on you like white on rice to get you to buy more. Bartenders in the actual bars tend to make better drinks.
3) Go see Jay host karaoke in the Passage to India. He's a hoot. The rest of the shows including the comedians and the nightly show in the theater were adequate. The "family comedy" show was PG-rated, but I think most of the jokes would have flown over my kids' heads (11, 9, 7).
4) We got two rooms across the hall from each other which was a better deal than a suite and we got two bathrooms that way. Felt very safe on board and having my kids out and about. We did buy Walkie Talkies which worked pretty much throughout the ship.
5) Take a power strip! You only get one outlet per room and if you want to recharge your digital camera, charge your cell phone, whatever, you'll want the extra power. We brought nightlights for each room, but probably didn't need them.
6) I read a thousand suggestions on extra stuff you should take and I took a lot I didn't or couldn't use: clothespins (just hung swimsuits on the line in the shower), magnets (nothing metal really), over-the-door shoe holder (couldn't get it to hang on any door, and didn't really need it anyway), dress slacks for dinner each night (outside of formal night, you'll wear shorts - everyone else does), speakers for my Ipod (never used them).
7) Stuff I did take and I'm glad I did: flashlights, first-aid kit (stubbed my toe at Atlantis and needed a couple of bandaids and some neosporin), duct tape (seriously), name badge holders and lanyards from Staples (to keep track of our Sign & Sail cards -- very handy), extra sunscreen (you can never bring too much and it costs a fortune on board or in Atlantis), cash (you'll need singles for tips here and there), a waterproof wallet like the ones they sell in major sporting goods stores (I brought two and used them both. They hang around your neck and you always know they're there), Bonine (whole family save me got one as we left Jacksonville into a bumpy night).
8) Stuff I wish I'd brought, or brought more of: Water shoes for Atlantis (no one wants to keep track of flip-flops between water slides and lazy river, but you can seriously burn your feet on the pavement just walking around if you're not very careful), few bottles of water (water taste was hit/miss on boat), a DVD player with some DVDs (my daughter was sea sick for about 12 hours and while there is a TV, the channel choice was limited. There are RCA -- red, yellow, white -- jacks on the back of all the TVs so you can plug in your own, or you can bring a stand-alone DVD player or game console -- remember your power strip and maybe an extension cord). You'll also want an alarm clock (I couldn't get anyone to answer for the Wake-Up Call on board and cell phones seem to mysteriously change time -- mine reset to 1999 -- once you leave Florida. They warn you about this onboard, but there's a certain Bermuda Triangle vibe to the whole thing).
9) Read the stuff they give you on the boat each day -- there are some cool activities listed there that you might not otherwise know about.
10) If you're driving, here's a parking tip -- there's a guy named Alex who has bought an old convenience store at the foot of the drive to the dock in Jacksonville. He parks cars in the fenced lot for $5 a day vs the $15 a day you pay for at the port parking lot. Then he drives you right to the front door in a van to unload your luggage, and you don't have to schlep your bags across the vast parking lot at the port. Google "Jacksonville Cruise Parking" and you'll find him. He advertises $10 per day, or $8 per day, but when you make a reservation, he'll give it to you for $5 a day. Car was very safe and secure there.
11) Don't miss out on the dining room. Sure, it may seem formal for some, but the food there was the best on the ship. The Coconut Grove buffet and the various grills are adequate, but certainly not stellar. Skip the line for the Mongolian grill. And if you're looking for a burger, hot dog or chicken strip, there's a center line next to the Mongolian line which no one seems to know about and you can skip the long line on the left and grab your burger and fries quickly.
I know that's a lot of info, hope you can make some use of it! Bon Voyage!