Carnival Inspiration is an old ship with a young heart. The 2,056-passenger ship debuted in 1996 as the sixth of Carnival Cruise Line's eight Fantasy-class vessels, and are now the smallest and oldest ships in the current fleet. While the ship may be lacking in big-ship staples such as a sports court or plentiful balcony cabins, several refurbishments over the years have kept it fresh with new attractions, including a water park, themed bars and additional eating establishments like Guy's Burger Joint and the BlueIguana Cantina.
But it's the passengers who keep Carnival Inspiration feeling young. The ship's three- and four-night cruises attract a diverse crowd of passengers who have at least one thing in common: They are onboard to pack as much fun as possible into a short getaway. You will find more 20- and 30-somethings on this cruise than on longer sailings. It's popular with bachelorette parties and wedding-honeymoon combos, and offers plenty of cabins that sleep three, four or five, making the ship ideal for friend getaways and young family trips. But that doesn't mean older adults are left out; we saw plenty of grey hair in the thick of the action.
If the idea of a party cruise sends you running, you should know that in most cases, Inspiration is more festive celebration than debauched affair. People danced and shouted encouragement to karaoke singers, the night club was hopping before midnight, the comedy and theater shows were packed, cruisers enthusiastically participated in pool games, and trivia games routinely ended in impromptu dance parties. Whatever you wanted to do onboard, you never had to get the party started; it was already going. (Four-night cruises are slightly more laid-back than weekend sailings, with a somewhat older demographic.)
Inspiration has just enough onboard activity to keep you entertained for three or four nights. Any longer and you might be wishing you had a private balcony, more sports options or another sit-down restaurant choice. Thankfully, by the time you've fully explored the all the ship has to offer -- there's only one day at sea to fill, after all -- it's already time to get off. Yet Carnival does a nice job of packing that sea day with activities and events, so you have choices if your day isn't already booked up with sunbathing, spa appointments and waterslide races.
Service was pretty good for a ship of this size. Though we didn't interact much with staff, our room steward was accommodating about switching our bed arrangement and always said hello in the hallway. The main dining room waiters exceeded my expectations, and the buffet staff was constantly bussing dishes and cleaning up just-vacated tables.
Not everyone will be inspired by Inspiration. Devout foodies, design-sensitive folks who desire stylish accommodations over a hodgepodge of crazy public room decor, and fashionistas who demand elegant evening dress will likely find something to complain about. But if you just want to have a good time for a couple of days and are happy to do your own thing while other people do theirs, you can pack a lot of fun into a short timeframe on Carnival Inspiration.
Passengers are predominantly from the Western United States, especially California, Nevada and Arizona. The adults range in ages from 20s to 60s, and about 300 kids are usually onboard. (During the summer, that number can skyrocket to 1,000-plus.) You'll find folks of every ethnicity -- black, white, Asian, Hispanic -- and many people traveling in groups, from multigenerational families to bachelor/bachelorette parties, friend reunions of all ages, and common-interest groups such as dancers or seminar attendees.
Inspiration has a very minimal dress code. On casual evenings, anything goes; the only items banned in the dining room are cut-off jeans, men's sleeveless shirts, gym shorts, baseball hats, bathing suits and flip-flops. (If your flip-flops have rhinestones and are paired with a dress, no one will say boo to you.) On the one elegant night per cruise, cruisers are encouraged to get fancy with cocktail dresses, pantsuits or dressy skirts and blouses for women and nice slacks and dress shirt for men (sports coats suggested; suits or tuxedoes optional.) Jeans, shorts, T-shirts and sportswear are added to the banned list on these evenings. Those preferring not to dress up can eat at the buffet or order room service; there's no casual venue with waiter service. (The Brasserie buffet does require diners to wear at least shirts and some sort of footwear, including flip-flops.)
In practice, casual nights are really casual, and people might not change clothes for dinner if they're already in jeans or a sundress. On elegant nights, people do get gussied up; we saw a lot of coordinated outfits among groups, and folks posing for formal photos by the ship's photographers.
Carnival automatically adds a gratuity of $12 per person, per day, to your shipboard account. The guidelines allocate $6.10 to dining room services, $3.90 to cabin services and $2 per day for alternative services, which include kitchen, entertainment, guest services and other hotel staff members. The amount can be adjusted in either direction at the guest services desk. A 15-percent gratuity is automatically added to bar and spa bills. Tipping a couple dollars for room service at delivery is expected (and appreciated) by the service staff. Note: On sailings departing September 1, 2016, or later, gratuities will increase to $12.95 per person, per day ($13.95 for those in suites).