Had a lot of fun, despite some Carnival shortcomings: Carnival Magic Cruise Review by T. Advisor King

Carnival Magic 3
T. Advisor King
Member Since 2009
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Had a lot of fun, despite some Carnival shortcomings

Sail Date: July 2011
Destination: Europe - Western Mediterranean
Embarkation: Barcelona
We sailed on the Carnival Magic from July 17 to 24. We are a family of four and this was our third cruise as a family in the last three years. We booked extended aft cabins, with our teenagers in the cabin next to us.

Overall, I was quite satisfied with the cruise. There are aspects to Carnival of which I'm not terribly fond, but there are other things they do that make their cruises ideal. There was, unfortunately, a grievous lack of communication on board from Carnival about a significant last minute itinerary change. However, vacations rarely go perfectly and I think it is a mistake to do anything but bring your best attitude with you and roll with the punches. We had a fabulous time with great weather as well as fun and interesting ports. We enjoyed being on the ship immensely.

We had arrived in Venice a week earlier and flew to Barcelona two days before our sailing. When we arrived at the port by taxi, it was unclear what the system was for loading luggage. I'm More used to the "porter intimidation" system, where you are more or less forced to pay a couple dollars per bag to porters who will "strongly discourage" you from simply loading your own bags into the luggage bins. At the Barcelona port, the bags were loaded onto a long conveyor outside the terminal building. There appeared to be two or three porters "servicing" the taxis that arrived nearest to the conveyor. However, if your taxi stopped 30 feet up the curb and you walked up with your own bags, it was just a matter of throwing them on the conveyor. The porters did seem to be "shooing" passengers away from the conveyor, but they didn't seem to be directing them anywhere else. Nor did they seem to be intercepting passengers to take their bags from them (for a fee, obviously). We loaded our own bags and since we could see them run up the long conveyor and disappear through an opening into the building, we couldn't see any reason why loading our own bags might put them in jeopardy.

We entered the terminal building and went through the regular round of security screening and check-in. The process was very quick with no delays and no "holding areas". This is in significant contrast to our most recent Carnival boarding process in Galveston, which must have taken an hour and a half. The boarding photo was fast and efficient and didn't cause any sort of bottleneck. We were on the ship within 25 minutes of dropping off our bags.

The Magic is a new, large ship, but other than minor (in my view) details, it is largely indistinguishable from other large Carnival vessels. Compared to the Conquest, for example, the Magic is 1 deck larger (14 rather than 13) and only about 5% longer. As a result, it doesn't have the "feel" of being a monster ship (at least, not any more than the Conquest class ships do).

Overall, the Magic has exactly the same look and feel of other larger ships in the Carnival fleet. As we were on one of its first few sailings, I was actually a little surprised that there weren't more things that made it stand out as being obviously new. Had I been led into my cabin blindfolded, nothing would have jumped out at me to reveal I was in a brand new ship. Perhaps that just says something positive about the state of the rest of Carnival's fleet.

The food was excellent. We always ate breakfast at the Lido Buffet and dinner in the main dining room. With the exception of the sea day and one day when we just didn't get hungry in port, we ate all our lunches off the ship.

Our first two bags arrived within a couple hours. We found our third bag in front of another cabin a little later (three digits of the cabin number matched, but the second digit did not match). Our properly-numbered tag was still attached to the bag. My daughter's suitcase didn't arrive until late in the evening.

We go on cruises to spend time together as a couple and as a family, so we didn't attend any of the entertainment (other than watching about 25 minutes of a movie on the poolside big screen), so I can't really comment on the quality of entertainment. I go on cruises to have a good time and I always do. But having a good time does not depend on, nor does it have much to do with "being entertained".

Make no mistake about your European adventure on the Magic. This is an American vessel and you're signing up for an American experience. The fact that it was a sailing on the Mediterranean makes no difference when you're on board. All general announcements, as well as the safety briefing, are conducted in English only. Given that this is a sailing out of Spain that spends most of its time in Italy, I was very surprised that Carnival made no attempt to give the cruise any sort of international flavor. In fact, it wasn't so much that Carnival didn't give the cruise any European flavor; it's more that they suppressed any such flavor it might otherwise have had.

It was hard to get a handle on the demographic breakdown of the passengers. Initially, it seemed that English speaking North Americans far outnumbered Europeans and others. At other times, it seemed that languages other than English prevailed. When we boarded the port shuttle bus in Civitavecchia to return to the Magic, the bus was packed full and everyone was talking, but there seemed to be only a handful of English voices among the 70-80 passengers. If I had to guess, I would estimate that about half the ship's passengers were North American with the other half Europeans and a few others. Languages other than English seemed as prevalent as English. To a certain extent, Carnival's approach was disappointing.

Last year when we sailed with Louis Cruises out of Athens, the ship had much more of a European/international feel to it. All announcements were done in multiple languages (Greek, English and either French or Spanish, I can't remember - maybe both). There was no presumption that your fellow passengers spoke English, so if you started a conversation with a stranger, it always began by identifying your language. There was similarly not a presumption by the crew and staff that you were English speaking. The Magic had none of this and I imagine that local (i.e., European) passengers may have felt somewhat like second-class citizens.

And even though I appreciate that the Magic is, other than its flag, an American ship destined eventually for an American route that just happens to be currently sailing in Europe, I was still not expecting the laundry facilities to require American quarters (which required me to go to Guest Services, which sent me to the Casino, which would not accept my Euro coins and would only issue quarters charged to my account with a 3% service charge at a $20 minimum). I realize that Carnival isn't going to get its washers, dryers and coin dispensers re-keyed to European currency for six months in the Mediterranean. But when you're in the middle of three weeks in Europe, you're not expecting to need U.S. quarters to be able to do your laundry.

Overall, the cabin and dining room/buffet service was excellent. One of the buffet staff members made a special effort to get some fruit for me late one night so I would have something to eat the next morning (which was a problem because I had to be up well before the breakfast buffet was open).

Although I was happy with the service, there are some areas in which I think they overdo it. Having received the on-line, post-cruise survey, it is obvious that Carnival devotes a lot of effort to generating high service/satisfaction ratings in these surveys. As a result, they devise crew practices that seem designed to generate the desired survey results, whether or not the practices actually result in better service. That is, they want to put you in a position where you can't help but give high ratings to questions about service, even if what they are actually doing is a little annoying and sometimes intrusive.

For example, the dining room wait-staff practically hover over you during your meal. More frequently than you could ever possibly want, they ask whether you want something replenished (e.g., bread or water). Similarly, if you walk down the corridor to your cabin, every crew member will stop what he/she is doing to greet you. I'd probably criticize them if they were too far on the opposite end of the spectrum, so I don't want to be too harsh. However, after a while it is hard not to start feeling that the "service" is really more of an "act" or "performance", not so much designed to give you the best experience possible, but rather designed so that when you respond to the post-cruise survey, you have no choice other than to answer Carnival's carefully-worded questions in a manner that gives them the ability to posture about their high "service" rating. When I go to a good hotel or restaurant, I get good service. But I never feel as if the employees are making a show of things. On the Magic, I think they were overdoing it. That's not a criticism of staff. I'm sure they're doing exactly what they're being asked to do by management. The staff do an excellent job.

Our cabins were great. We enjoyed the aft balconies, although the extent of the "extension" is fairly limited, especially with the angled balcony railings cutting into the usable space. If you get an aft extended balcony, get it for the "aft" part, not the "extended" party. I wouldn't necessarily turn down an aft balcony again, but I'm not sure I'd necessarily seek one out. You have the advantage of being able to see toward both sides of the ship. But you're also looking backward all the time.

There were two single Type-B (i.e., standard North American) electrical outlets, as well as a single European socket in the main cabin. There was also a North American outlet in the bathroom (almost near the ceiling, I think), although I think it was a Type-A (ungrounded). As we had brought two 3-outlet extension cords, as well as a European socket adapter, we had plenty of outlets for our phone, camera, laptop, etc. This is the one area where the cabins have been improved. As usual with Carnival, there was more than enough storage space for suitcases, clothes, etc. I also found the shower design had been improved. Either the shower curtains were longer, or they had increased the height of the lip around the base of the shower stall. In any event, I didn't regularly flood the bathroom floor while showering, which has been a pet peeve of mine on past Carnival sailings.

Our two teenagers (16 and 13) enjoyed the Carnival teen programs - not so much for the specific activities, but rather as an easy way to quickly meet people their own age and make new friends. As five of our six days were port days, our regular routine was to spend the day in port, get back an hour or two before the ship sailed and then have dinner together. Our kids were free to hang out with their new friends before and after dinner, so we didn't see them too much during those times. Carnival does a very good job in creating a venue for kids to come together and meet each other. In addition, because Carnival has a reputation of being family-friendly, there are plenty of passengers the same age as my kids, so they find it very easy to meet people their own age. This is one reason we generally favor Carnival as a cruise line.

We attended the one elegant night. I'm not a big fan of "dressing up", because that's something I go on vacation to avoid. And I certainly wasn't going to lug a jacket, tie and dress/suit pants across to Europe just to wear for 90 minutes. Initially, it appeared that men who were more formally dressed up (jacket or tie or both) would outnumber the men who were not at our (early) seating, but mid-way through dinner I did a count and it was almost exactly 50-50. I saw no tuxes in our dining room, but we did see two on our way to dinner (they may have been in the other dining room, or just seated out of our view). I would estimate the breakdown of men's attire as 15% in suits, 15% in a sport coat/blazer and dress pants, 10% in a shirt and tie but no jacket, 10% in a jacket with no tie. The remaining 50% were in a range from khakis to dress pants and t-shirts through golf shirts to short-sleeve dress shirts. I didn't see anyone wearing anything I thought was inappropriate.

My single biggest disappointment with the July 17 sailing of the Magic was the manner in which the itinerary change was announced to passengers. Sometime around 2:30 on embarkation day, the cruise director, John Heald, came on to the PA to invite passengers to the port briefing at 3:30. He mentioned that there was a "minor change" in the itinerary, but that it was nothing to worry about. We decided that my wife and daughter would attend. The port briefing is usually a snoozer filled with over-promotion of the ship's excursions. But we find it is good to have someone there, even if it is just for that one nugget of important or useful information.

My son and I did not attend the briefing and stayed out on deck. However, when we overheard a portion of the briefing on the big screen on the Lido deck, we realized that the "minor change" in itinerary was actually a major overhaul of the itinerary. What they ended up doing (ostensibly to avoid bad weather) was reversing the order of the ports. Instead of touring the western Mediterranean in more or less a clockwise direction, starting with Monaco, we were heading for our last port first and doing it in a counter-clockwise manner (finishing with Monaco on our last full day). Given that we had made specific plans involving either train schedules or rental cars in four of the five ports and had two sets of museum/entry tickets, any change in plans would be a big deal.

My son and I immediately headed to the theater to try to track down my wife so we could agree on what plans to try to start changing while we were still in port and what new plans, if any, to make. But the theater room was packed full and it was standing room out to the door, with nowhere to budge. I spend the next 20 minutes trying every entrance and scanning the audience for my wife and daughter, all to no avail. But I did pay enough attention to hear the cruise director doing his usual thing, which included providing extremely misleading "advice" to try to steer passengers toward expensive ship's excursions.

Carnival is already infamous for telling Mediterranean passengers that if they want to visit Taormina, Italy from Messina, Sicily, they can't get there using public transportation. John repeated this statement at our briefing. They say that because the Taormina-Giardini train station is just outside the town of Taormina. However, even the train company's web site calls it the Taormina Station. There is a bus stop right in front of the station so it is a simple matter to take the train from Messina to the Taormina train station, then take the bus to Taormina. Saying you can't get to Taormina via public transportation is sort of like saying you can't travel by plane if you want to visit Manhattan. What Carnival gains from the few extra excursions it sells from this misleading information it must surely lose in goodwill from passengers who hear these things and know better.

In any event, since I couldn't find my wife in the theater, we had to wait until the CD's talk was over and our family had reassembled in our cabin before we could start trying to change our plans. It wasn't until after we had returned, if my recollection is correct, that they announced the itinerary change more generally by PA. They also announced that they were doing this to give us the opportunity to visit Monaco on the last day of the cruise (instead of the first full day, when it was scheduled) because otherwise the Port of Monaco would be closed due to bad weather and we would have to skip it.

This change was a big deal. We were still scrambling with internet connections and phone calls when dinner came at 6:00 pm. We took our laptop to dinner and worked on our personal itinerary changes through dinner. The phone calls and emails continued that night and well into the next day (a "day at sea").

My issue isn't with Carnival's decision to change the route. Seasoned passengers know that itinerary changes can happen. Passengers who let those changes ruin their experience will often be left disappointed. The fact that we were spending the first day at sea rather than in Monaco wasn't a big deal. That said, the decision to change the itinerary was really just a guess, which turned out to be wrong (more about that later). My issue is with the manner in which the change was communicated.

The cruise director first alluded to the change some time around 2:30 pm (which leads me to believe the new route was charted and laid out hours before that). However, the change wasn't announced generally until some time around 5:00 pm. During that time, the ship left dock (which we missed because we were scrambling to make changes to our plans). There are only two reasons I can think of why the announcement was delayed: either Carnival was oblivious to the needs of passengers to change their plans, or Carnival deliberately withheld the information for business/profitability reasons. I would like to believe that there was a third reason, because I usually find Carnival to be a customer-focussed organization, but I can't think what it might be. I invited Mr. Heald to respond to my concerns via a private message to his website, but after about 10 days with no response, I assume he's chosen not to comment.

I know that because of the delay, we didn't start making plans until we had left dock. So I wasn't able to use my pre-paid international cell phone plan minutes using the Barcelona/Spanish cellular system, nor was I able to use my smart-phone's 3G internet connection and my prepaid international data plan to send emails and make new arrangements. Instead, I had to use the ship's very expensive internet service and cell phone service. We spent $210 on internet service compared to something like $15 on our last cruise (when we didn't have to deal with planning changes). I also heard from other passengers who had made plans but realized they couldn't put together new plans at the last minute, so they just gave up and signed up for the expensive ship's excursion.

While the CD indicated that passengers could get help from guest services, this came with mixed results. Some passengers reported that guest services took their plans and tickets and did all the work to get them corrected. The only service they offered us was to look up telephone numbers for us, which ultimately wasn't useful. They refused to grant us internet access and while they offered to place telephone calls for us, they were not able to do so the one time we took them up on their offer.

Ultimately, the revised route worked out and we didn't miss out on any plans or incur any additional expense (other than the cell phone cost, which I have yet to see, and the $160 in shipboard internet charges, which I reluctantly paid). We did, however, end up spending 6-8 total hours revising our plans. Our car rental in Civitavecchia was easily changed. The Leaning Tower of Pisa and the Accademia in Florence (site of Michelangelo's David) both issued revised tickets for no extra charge. But that doesn't change my view of Carnival's communication and therefore their service related to this matter.

Making it somewhat worse is the fact that after we returned home, I checked on the fortunes of other cruise ships that were also scheduled to be in Monaco with us on the first full day of our cruise (i.e., when the port was supposedly closed due to bad weather). The Star Princess arrived in Monaco that day without incident. Passengers have posted here and elsewhere that it was a warm sunny day. I don't necessarily fault Carnival on their decision to divert. They made their best guess based on the information they had. It happened to be the wrong guess, but I can't expect them to always be right. My issue is that they failed to communicate with us accurately and on a timely basis and its hard not to be cynical and question their motives for the delay in communication.

This review contains many more words summarizing the problems we had than it does reporting on the positive things. However, I still view the cruise as an enjoyable, positive experience. It is just the way it is that we need more words to explain something that went poorly than we require to describe something that went well.

In Messina, we took the 40 minute train to Taormina-Giardini station, then took the public bus up to the town of Taormina. It was a simple journey and it is disappointing that Carnival actively discourages passengers from taking it. The bus segment is a slow 10-minute ride up a steep winding hill. Looking on a map, a healthy person might think this is walkable. It is, if you're in great shape and you don't mind hiking uphill at an aggressive pace for more than an hour. I don't recommend it.

Because there are so many people on the train and a limited number of busses, there is a long line-up for the bus at the Taormina train station. If possible, be the first off the train and dash through the train station to get to the bus stop. It is right in front of the train station (same side of the street, with busses coming from left to right). If you are not one of the first 30-40 people in line for the bus, I suggest doing what we did, which was to walk back (to your left, toward the oncoming busses) to the preceding bus stop (it is maybe a 5 minute walk). That will guarantee you a seat on the next available bus. We boarded the bus there and took it back to the train station, where people who had been on our train still couldn't get on and had to wait for the third bus. When boarding the bus, just make sure you ask the driver whether the bus is going to Taormina.

In Naples, we took the train from the Napoli-port station to Pompeii. We listened to an audio tour (downloaded from home) and generally toured the area for about 3 hours. Then we went to Herculaneum (Ercolano train station), which is a less well-known and much smaller, but better-preserved site than Pompeii. We got back to the ship at 4:15 pm.

In Civitavecchia, we rented a car (booked in advance) and drove to Lake Bracciano. We had been to Rome last year and didn't feel we missed anything. Not wanting to go back to see the same sites again, and not wanting to visit more obscure sites in Rome, we decided instead to see the countryside, visit the Orsini-Odescalchi Castle and generally have a low-stress day.

In Livorno our original plan was to take the train to Pisa and then take the train to Florence. We had tickets to go up the Leaning Tower at 10:40 am and tickets to enter the Accademia to see the statue of David at 1:45 pm. However, the CD announced the night before that there would be a train strike the next day. We spent a good part of the evening making alternate plans that involved renting a car in Pisa. However, the next morning we stepped off the ship on to the dock to find an Avis desk set up on a folding table with the rental cars sitting right there on the dock. We quickly snapped up a vehicle for 100 Euros and had a very-low stress day of driving rather than rushing for trains and worrying about buying the right tickets, finding the right platform and getting back to the port in time. The cost of the car worked out to about 35 Euros each, including gas and parking. But that was only about 15 Euros more than we would have spent each on train tickets and a whole lot more comfortable and convenient.

If you drive into Pisa or Florence, you need to know the zones (generally the city centers) where driving without a specific permit results in an automatic fine. For Pisa it was easy to stay out of the no-go zone and park within a 5 minute walk of the Leaning Tower. In Florence, we identified in advance a parkade where we would stop, which was about a 30 minute walk away from the Accademia. We walked from the parkade to the Accademia, but decided to take an 8 Euro cab ride to get back to our car a the end of our visit to Florence.

In Monaco, we just got off the ship and walked around. We happened to be not too far from the Prince's Palace at 11:30 or so when we realized the changing of the guard was at noon (11:55 am, it turns out), so we quickly made our way to the plaza in time to see it, albeit behind a bit of a crush of other tourists. We just enjoyed walking around Monaco and I went into the Grand Casino at Monte Carlo for about 5 minutes, just to say I did.

We had paid for eight hours of internet time and on our departure day, I still had 10 minutes left (90% of the remainder went to changing our port-day plans on the fly and checking train schedules). The Magic theoretically has "bow to stern" wi-fi, but it is extremely weak. In fact, we would routinely disconnect in our cabin until I realized that the signal would remain (barely) strong enough if I left my cabin door propped open. But that morning, instead of struggling with the spotty service, I went down to the "fun hub" (internet/computer area) and checked our flight for later that day and looked up laundromats in the area of Barcelona where we'd be spending the day. I realized there was a steady stream of customers coming to the internet service clerk to complain about their bill. Carnival does something very sneaky with their internet service charges.

First, they charge you something like $4.70 for the first minute. Complain if you like, I suppose, but if you don't like the cost, don't use the service. Then what happens is that you either pay by the minute (75 cents per minute) or you can buy a plan (37-50 cents a minute if purchased in 2 or 4 hour increments). However, if you've purchased a plan and are logged in when the time runs out, the terms of the agreement are that "for your convenience" (as they word it) the service continues at the per-minute rate (i.e., 75 cents per minute) "so that your browsing session will not be disconnected." The problem with this is that they don't tell you when your prepaid time is up. They just keep letting you use the system and they keep billing you at the high per-minute rate.

The obvious solution to the problem they claim to be trying to avoid with this price gouging would be simply to have a pop-up that warns you that your session is coming to an end and asks you if you want to extend. Most pay-for-use systems I've used have an applet that continually counts down your unused time so you can check regularly. But it appears that Carnival's "automatic extension" practice is more for their benefit than for any passenger's "convenience".

Even better, if you are logged in and end your session by shutting down your browser (i.e., without logging out), you are still considered logged in and your charges will continue to accrue (or your prepaid minutes will erode). This happened to us once, although we caught it immediately because we shut down our own wireless device and went to use the ship's computer and found we couldn't log in because we were already logged in. Of course at that point we couldn't log out either. The wi-fi instructions are that when you want to log out, you're supposed to type "logout.com" into the address bar. This is the only example I can recall of having to log out of a system by manually typing a URL.

On that last day, as I sat looking up laundromats, there was a line of passengers coming in to complain about the account statements they had received overnight. Each one of them complained about the same issue - charges accumulating without them knowing about it. One passenger was clearly very knowledgeable about IT systems and standards and even explained back to the clerk how Carnival's system did work, how it should work and how it was designed to gouge the customers. He was particularly incensed.

Disembarkation was a chore. We self-assisted because we were in no hurry (our flight to Nice, France was at 6:00 pm) and stayed in our cabin until the very last minute. As a result, it was so busy that we waited for an elevator on our deck for probably 15 minutes before giving up. Eventually, we just hauled our large suitcases and carry-ons down three flights of stairs to get into the long line to exit. I appreciate that everyone needs to be off the ship more or less at once, but I can't help but wonder if there isn't a more efficient way to do it.

Once outside, we got into the very large snaking line-up for taxis. We were in that line-up at least 50 minutes. With so many passengers heading either into the center of town, or to the airport, it is hard to believe that no one (the port, the city of Barcelona or Carnival) thinks they wouldn't be better off setting up a shuttle-bus service. The issue wasn't the cost of the taxis (we paid 17 Euros for our cab from the port into town) or even the time it took to get one. It was more the obvious inefficiency of having a giant line of people moved by individual car to the same place. I would have gladly spent 10 Euros per person for a shuttle into town. It didn't help that the taxi stand, although designed to accommodate at least 10 taxis loading at a time, was only loading two or three cabs at once.

All in all, we had a great time on the cruise. Other than the first partial day of the cruise, the weather was perfect. I'm not sure I'd sail the same route again, because there are so many new and different places to explore. I don't think I'd choose to go back to the same place first. But I really enjoyed the opportunity to see those parts of Spain, Italy and Monaco.

You can look at a cruise as either a great way to see Europe or as a very unsatisfying way. If the itinerary hits cities that interest you, then the cruise does all the work to get you there (at least, to the ports) and takes care of your accommodation. In that sense, it is great.

Alternatively, you may distinguish between "vacationing" and "travelling" and feel that a European cruise is trying unsuccessfully to be both. You really can't "see" a whole city by arriving in the morning and leaving in late afternoon. In addition, the choice between taking your time and enjoying things vs. rushing around to try to "see everything" is heightened.

So, for example, if you're only going to be in Rome for seven hours in your whole life, it doesn't make a lot of sense to sleep in and miss two of those hours. But given the heavy touring we did, it didn't make the trip particularly relaxing. Each day was sort of: up at 7:00, leave before 8:00, visit various sites with lots of walking all day, get back around 5:00, dinner from 6-7:30 or so, then we would have a couple hours to relax (although much of that time was spent re-jigging our plans for the next day) before starting again.

So, while in some ways a cruise is a great way to see a good part of Europe, you really have to make a decision as to whether you're taking the cruise to travel and sight-see, or whether you're going to relax. It can't be both.

All that is not a complaint, and it is more or less exactly what I signed up for. But when people ask me if the cruise was a good way to see that part of the Mediterranean, I explain that if they go, they will either see a lot, but it won't be very relaxing, or it will be very relaxing, but they won't see much. And there isn't really a compromise that gives you a good combination of both. Less

Published 08/15/11

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