My wife and I have cruised on many cruises to Mexico, Hawaii, the Caribbean, and in Europe on Carnival, Norwegian, Princess, Celebrity, and MSC - the the cruise line we keep coming back to is Carnival primarily because the shorter cruises offer a great deal for a short 3 or 4 day getaway. Many reviewers have referred to the 3 and 4 night cruises on the inspiration as "booze" or "party" cruises, which is sort of like criticizing Denny's for being a coffee shop and not a steakhouse. The primary reason people go on these short cruises is typically because they are relatively inexpensive, offer decent entertainment and food, and a fake-feel of a tropical cruise while visiting Catalina and Ensenada. Comparing the Inspiration to a 7-plus night cruise on a larger ship and more comprehensive itinerary is comparing apples to oranges.
Embarkation is fairly efficient, although we are Platinum Club members so get priority check-in and disembarkation. Carnival recently started a system of assigning check-in times based I am guessing on loyalty points for past guests (Carnival refers to it as the VIFP club), so I have no idea if this is going to be a good or bad thing. My advice has always been to come really early & beat the crowd (like, around 11 a.m.) or later to miss the rush (after 3 p.m.), but this may not hold true any longer if they will not allow people to board until their assigned times.
The ship is smaller than the newer ships on longer itineraries, but they also have fewer passengers and consequently shorter lines and generally better service at the bars and dining areas than what we have experienced on Princess, Norwegian, and Royal Caribbean. Food is a mixed bag; we actually found the food on the Inspiration in the dining room better than the set menus on our last Princess cruise to Hawaii last year, but of course the larger ships have specialty dining for an extra charge not available on the Inspiration. Dining on the Lido deck is also hit-and-miss, although we generally prefer to avoid the buffet-style eating on most ships and when we do, enjoy the salad bar and sandwich kiosk, which is actually very good. In my opinion, the best meal on the cruise is the Sea-day Brunch, and breakfast in the dining rooms on in-port days always is a better bet than the Lido buffet. For a special treat, ask about the "Chef's Table." We do this special dinner every so often on the Inspiration, and it is well worth it. The $75 per person charge includes unlimited wine and an excellent seven-course meal served by the head chef - not as spectacular as the same offering on the Princess cruises, but still a real treat.
One tip for good service in the dining rooms: opt for "anytime dining" and tip your waiter or waitress the first night a few dollars. I know the tips nowadays are charged to your sail-and-sign cards or prepaid before the cruise, but it is amazing how well you are treated when taking care of your staff. The same advice holds true for the room stewards. The advantage of anytime dining is you can eat when you want, can opt for a small table for 2, or sit with a larger group. Service is less rushed, and if you tip the first night & request the same server on subsequent dinners, you will be amazed at how attentive the staff will be. And, I have never had to do this (at least not for wait staff) but if you do not like your service and wish to "take back" the tip, you can opt to have the tips taken off your bill or reduced by visiting the service desk. The same tipping advice goes for service at the bar. IF you like a "good" drink for want the bartender to remember your "favorite" drink, tip an extra buck the first time you see them and when they provide good service.
Several people have described the ship decor as "gaudy" or "bizarre", and the layout of the Lido dining room in particular is a bit... well, peculiar, I am personally not bothered by it. Like I said, this is a short cruise for those looking for an inexpensive getaway, so do not expect "J.W. Marriott" surroundings at a "Quality Inn" price. The Casino is always active, and something people either love or hate. Smoking is allowed through much of the casino as well as part of the adjoining "Violin Bar", so be advised. The pool and "Serenity" (adults only) decks are smaller than most other cruise ships and there is no, for example, large-screen TV to show movies; but, they also feel less crowded than the larger ships as well. One thing Carnival does better than most cruise lines is keep the kids busy with their children's clubs during the sea days; some other cruise lines seem to limit the kids activities to only certain times meaning there are times when kids run rampant, but that has not been the experience on the Inspiration. One negative is that Carnival pushes their special punch-type drinks in the pool area and Lido deck, but just let the services know you are not interested (assuming you are not, of course :)and they will avoid bothering you.
As for the ports; well, if you opt for a 3 or 4 night cruise out of Long Beach, it is assumed you are likely not on the cruise primarily for the ports of call. Catalina is pleasant enough but can be visited from Long Beach via ferries that run several time each day for much less than the Carnival cruise and the lines for tenders from ship to shore can be annoying. Ensenada is OK, for being in Ensenada. In my opinion the best excursion is the Winery Tour to the Guadelupe Valley, which is a Napa-like area with some surprisingly nice wineries about 45 minutes inland from the ship. The city is about a 20 minute easy walk from the ship, but there are lots of kids selling gum & begging for coins, and taxi drivers trying to sell you trips to La Bufadora or elsewhere. Walk past them to the main shopping drag, and they will not bother you. Shops do not open until around 10 a.m. in town, so there is not much point in walking into town too early unless you just want to stroll. Restaurants are OK along Blvd. Mateos (the main tourist zone) but the ones towards the end of the street near Hussong's are mainly for drinking. Lots of curio shops, trinkets, t-shirts, and pharmacies.
Entertainment is "so-so"; production shows are OK, some of the bands that play on the promenade deck in the evening are great; lots of family-oriented gameshow-type shows that I personally find boring, but sometimes the comedians in the evening are good. But, I personally find almost all cruise ship entertainment (with the exception of some shows on Celebrity) to be mediocre at best, and the Inspiration's is no better or worse than most.
Bottom line: for a quick getaway on the cheap, with all-inclusive food and Entertainment, it is a great deal, especially for those who have never cruised and want to see if it is something they like. Like I said, this is the cruise line and class of ship we keep coming back to because of the convenience and overall value, but do not expect White Star or Cunard service or amenities.
Rooms on the Inspiration are comfortable, clean, and room stewards are attentive. TV has movies, but no on-demand services found on newer ships. Carnival recently upgraded their bedding, which is surprisingly comfortable. Good water temp and pressure in the showers, but there only way to adjust the room temp is via a manual turn-the-knob vent in the ceiling; so it can be hard to get the temp just right. The room was always cleaned in a timely fashion (in the AM and during the PM; room service is very fast wit no extra charges, other than an expected tip.
A nice tour of 3 surprisingly nice wineries in the Guadelupe Valley. The excusion includes a bottle of wine for each guest. I particularly like the L.A. Cieto wines. Would recommend!View All 64 Winery Tour Reviews
Not a bad way to spend an afternoon, but Catalina is a place that is easily visited on a ferry from Long Beach and was never really meant to be a "cruise" destination. The Casino (really a dance pavilion) is definitely worth a visit!