Carnival Cruise Lines
We took our very first cruise in June 1996. Perhaps those reading this who are thinking of taking their first cruise would enjoy hearing our experiences.
Having never taken a cruise before (and not knowing exactly what to expect) we decided to make our first cruise a short one... a three-day cruise out of Los Angeles down to Ensenada, Mexico. We all had a lot of fun, although there were a few things we learned the hard way as we went... now that we're experienced cruisers we won't make those mistakes again!
We sailed with Carnival Cruise Lines aboard the MS Holiday. Our departure was from the Port of Los Angeles on Friday afternoon, June 21st. We drove to the dock and it was easy to find, with signs from the freeway directing us perfectly to the right spot. (It was a good thing since I knew only that it was located somewhere in San Pedro!) Actually, even if you miss the signs, it would be pretty hard to miss the dock because the ship is BIG and you just can't miss it from the freeway... it's quite a sight! There was plenty of parking. The cost for parking was about $20.
Boarding began at about 12:30 PM and the ship sailed at about 5 PM. We arrived around noon. There were about 200 people waiting when they began the boarding process. It took a while for them to process all those people in that first rush... so my advice would be to arrive a little later after they have had a chance to work through the first wave of people. I think I would try to arrive after 1 PM if I was to do it again. When processing through, you must show your birth certificate and your drivers license. We traveled with our kids and, of course, the kids only needed the birth certificates. It takes a little time to have them look over all this stuff and fill out the paperwork... if you have a passport it goes faster. (But it costs $60 per person to get a passport!)
One thing we learned by accident that worked out really good was about baggage. I figured we would just check it in with a porter, but when we arrived with the first crush of passengers all the porters must have been busy because none asked to take our bags. It wasn't immediately apparent to us where we were supposed to put them so we just carried them with us as we processed in. This worked out well, aside from the slight inconvenience of having to lug them. (But we had packed fairly light so it wasn't too bad!) The good part was that since we were carrying them, we had them as soon as we got on board and found our room. This allowed us to unpack right away and then proceed on with exploring the ship and finding some lunch. If we had checked the bags with the porters it would have been a couple of hours before our bags found their way to our room.
I'll tell you about some of the negative parts of our cruise, but first let me share the positive parts! One of the things we liked was the demographics of the crowd we were cruising with... this was a lively crowd with the majority probably in the 20-40 age group. Of course, there were people of all ages on board. We saw everything from a baby that looked to be about a month old to an old woman who could barely walk. The majority of the passengers looked to be married but there were also literally hundreds of singles, too. From what I've heard from my parents (who do a lot of cruising) this was a much younger crowd than your normal cruise attracts.
Basically, there was a party atmosphere throughout the entire cruise. During the day, the party centered around the pool and the bar that sits beside it. We're talking babes in bikinis, and plenty of them. Watching the flirting and the attempted pick-ups was pretty good entertainment in itself! At night, the action shifted to the lounges and bars inside. Our favorite was the Karaoke party... what a riot! All in all, there is LOTS of fun to be had on board.
Another great thing about the cruise was the entertainment. Each night in the main lounge there was a different musical show. Our favorite was the talent show, where actual passengers came on stage to perform. Some were quite talented! The highlight of the talent show, however, was a musical comedy skit performed by the crew that was incredibly funny and original! And I must say that the cruise director, who acted as master of ceremonies for all the shows, was a fantastic host... very personable and humorous. In addition to the nightly musical shows, there were also things happening on-stage throughout the day. One that was very memorable was a game show called the "Newlywed/Not-so-newlywed game". They brought up three couples from the audience. One had just been married that week, one had been married for about 15 years, and the other had been married for about 30 years. Each member of the couple was asked a question and then the answers were compared. Of course, the couple married the longest got almost all the questions right, and the newlywed couple barely knew each other at all! The questions were mostly suggestive and the host was able to turn the answers in to jokes with hilarious results. We laughed ourselves silly at quite a few of the shows. Excellent entertainment!
As I mentioned earlier, we traveled with our kids who were aged 10 and 12 at the time. They found plenty to do between the pool, the arcade, the volleyball and shuffleboard on deck, and the TV in the room. Speaking of the TV, one really nice surprise was to find free in-room movies on the TV. While we stayed too busy to watch a whole movie, we did enjoy at least a little bit of a couple of movies, and the kids watched a few all the way through. Another great surprise on the TV was to find home movies made aboard the ship. A crew member with a camcorder was assigned to cover all major ship events including the shows and some of the wacky stuff like the poolside hairy-chest competition.
We ate three meals a day. There was a late-night buffet which we never stayed up late enough to check out. We are a family of early risers. Our favorite meal was breakfast... especially the omelets made to order, and the croissants. Really nice! We are a VERY informal family, so we chose to eat our lunches and breakfasts in the very informal cafeteria-style dining area on the Lido deck, but if you prefer something fancier you can eat all your meals in the formal dining room. But could you believe on a cruise to Mexico they served not one bit of Mexican food???
Which leads me to the negative aspects of the cruise. First off, the weather really didn't cooperate... we found out that the coastal low clouds that blanket the coast each summer here in our central California home also plague the Mexican coast. We had a solid blanket of clouds overhead for most of the time we were at sea, with the exception of a few very welcome hours of sun here and there. I've got a feeling that spring and fall are probably better times to take this cruise than summer! The captain tried his darndest to sail us to warmer weather on Sunday, but there was none to be found. Of course, Carnival Cruise Lines has no control over the weather... I only mention it here so you will be prepared for the possibility if you plan on cruising this area during the summer months.
Something which I found astounding was that the pool was unheated and the water in it was saltwater, not fresh! No wonder I only saw a handful of adults in it during the cruise. The kids were a little more brave, though! They spent quite a bit of time enjoying the pool and the waterslide that drops in to it. But I expected warm water in the pool... am I asking too much?
Another thing that really irked me was the price of drinks. Basically, you can drink ice water, iced tea, and fruit juice for free... anything else will cost you. Want to drink a margarita by the pool? $4 for a very small one and $7 for a "large" that wasn't really very big. ($5.98 plus tax plus mandatory 15% gratuity added on to every drink order, even when you order a coke and pick it up yourself at the bar.) Speaking of Coke... if your kids want to have a coke with lunch or dinner be prepared to pay for it... even though meals are free, a soft drink with your meal is NOT. Each Coke the kids ordered set us back about $1.50, as I recall. Personally, I think they ought to give each passenger a limited number of "drink tickets" so you could at least get a few drinks out of the deal. Also, in the cafeteria-style dining area, which is very casual, there ought to be a soft drink dispenser with free refills like they have at many casual restaurants these days. And speaking of things that should be free... maybe I'm being unrealistic, but I think the video game arcade should have been free for the kids.
Then there was the TV in the room. I mentioned earlier about the free movies and the home videos, but these were really almost painful to watch on the lousy TV provided. I used to sell TV's. I know how to adjust them. The TV in our room was beyond adjusting. This was quite simply a cheap TV not up to the standards one would expect even in the worst motel room. Remember though, that our cruise was in 1996. I know this ship went through a remodel some time after that... so maybe they replaced the TV's at that point. (Let's hope!)
A very important tip that I wish someone had stressed to me before departure is to bring formal clothes! We packed only our most comfortable clothing... the jeans, the t-shirts, the tennis shoes. I told you we're a VERY informal family! The orientation brochure they send to you before the cruise mentioned that one of the nights would be formal night, but somehow I didn't get that this meant they closed down all the other alternative dining areas during this night. If you don't bring your formal clothes with you, you have two options: order a sandwich (or a salad) from room service and hide in your room for the evening, or rent a tux for $100. So, learn from my stupid mistake and be sure to bring some formal clothes! (What can I say, I had never cruised before...)
As for the total real cost of the cruise... this was an expensive couple of days. Forget the advertised teaser rate of $249 per person and kids for $49. This is only for certain dates and on a very limited number of cabins. We booked the cheapest inside cabin possible on the date we wanted to go and still ended up spending a total of about $1400 between the four of us... the basic fare (for 4) was $800, then there were port taxes of $300, sales tax, parking, and then the on-board costs such as drinks, the arcade, the casino, the cost of a guided tour in Ensenada, and the strongly-encouraged tips. If we had booked a slightly nicer cabin I'm sure we could have easily added another couple of hundred on to our bill. (And boy, having a window sure would have been nice!) We tipped extremely lightly, about half of what was suggested, but still ended up tipping about $50. What can I say... we're not made of money... OK? If you're in the same boat... (pardon the pun!)... I think the best suggestion I can make to help lower your costs is to leave your kids home! We figure we could have spent under $1000 on this trip without the kids. Overall though, how did this vacation experience rate as far as "bang-for-the buck"? Well, I did have a good time. We're talking a pretty good size bang here. But at the same time, a lot of bucks. If you're looking for a cheap vacation, this isn't it... but if you're looking for a heck of a lot of fun and a vacation you will never forget... book your Carnival cruise now!
In spite of all the whining I just did here, let me just clarify that all-things-considered we really enjoyed the cruise! We loved the entertainment, enjoyed the food, and most importantly WE HAD A TON OF FUN! If it's in your price range, give it a try! And if your bank account would allow it... I think the seven day cruise deeper in to Mexico probably would be an even better bet. For one thing, the water's GOT to be warmer in some of those areas further down south on the Baja peninsula. And the other reason is that the seven day cruise is on a much nicer, newer ship... one of the best in the Carnival fleet.
Before I wrap this up, I'd like to mention one more thing for you to keep in mind. Our cruise was in 1996, and a lot may have changed since then! For one thing, I know that the ship had some remodeling and improvements done shortly after our cruise. So it might be a good idea to read some comments from people who have sailed on the Holiday more recently than we did. May I suggest you take a look at some of the reports by recent cruisers over at www.cruiseopinion.com? Just follow that link, and look for the "comments" section, which features reviews from average cruisers just like you and me.
Also, if you've read this far, I'm guessing you enjoyed hearing about our experiences. Maybe you'd like to read about our second cruise. It took us almost 12 years to get all of our ducks in a row for another cruise, but we finally did it in January of 2008... and we loved every minute. Read about our 2008 cruise To Cabo San Lucas on the Carnival Elation.
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The Cruise Ships We've Been On
If you've enjoyed this page, you would probably also enjoy reading my web pages about:
Our August 2012 cruise on the Carnival Magic
Our Caribbean cruise on the Carnival Glory
Our many cruises on the Carnival Spirit
Our February 2010 cruise on the Carnival Splendor
Our April 2009 Carnival Paradise cruise
Our January 2008 cruise on the Carnival Elation
Our April 2008 cruise on the Norwegian Star
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