13 Lessons My First Cruise (on Carnival) Taught Me

As someone who’s been roaming around as a seasoned traveler for the past decade, I’m just diving into the world of “cruising.”

Setting sail on my maiden Carnival cruise was an exhilarating and eye-catching adventure.

Following my inaugural journey, I’ve got a handful of tips to spill.

Some are tailor-made for those eyeing a Carnival cruise, while others cast a wider net for all cruising rookies. But below, I will go into detail about all of these and hopefully help you enjoy your first cruise with Carnival.

1. Understand The Carnival Brand, But Don’t Limit Yourself

Carnival prides itself on delivering a fun, lively, and affordable cruise adventure. The brand focuses on cultivating an ambiance that blends spirited entertainment with relaxation, offering an array of family-friendly activities and amenities.

Don’t get me wrong there are still quite a few activities for adults, with adults-only areas and 21+ activities. But in my opinion Carnival embodies the classic “family vacation” setting.

Although I embarked on this cruise alongside my immediate and extended family, totaling over 20 people, this type of vacation vibe doesn’t align with my preferred travel style.

And while I’d recommend to thoroughly research the cruise line before booking to ensure its brand aligns with your expectations, I’d also argue that a cruise on Carnival is ultimately what you choose to make of it.

In our group, we had a mix of travelers, including small kids, teenagers, young adults, singles in their 50s, and married couples in their 70s. It looked like everyone found a way to have a good time in their own unique way.

2. Strategically Learn the Ship’s Layout

Navigating a cruise ship’s layout can initially feel like a maze, but try your best to quickly learn your way around the ship.

Each location on the ship should tell you the deck it’s found on and if it is forward, middle or aft (back). Some venues may span multiple levels so it can get a little bit tricky.

Refer to the cruise line’s app for a detailed map, and begin your exploration from there. Dedicate some time on your first day to casually stroll around, making mental notes of the ship’s layout.

Pay attention to things like distinctive artwork and aim to develop a basic familiarity with the ship. This initial orientation will prove valuable as you continue to explore, allowing you to piece together the ship’s layout more seamlessly.

3. Understand Ship Time Versus Local Time

One valuable lesson I quickly picked up on was the significance of distinguishing between ship time and local time. A common error, both by my group and observed in many others, was showing up at events at the wrong time due to confusion between local and ship time.

Many activities, events, and meal schedules operate on ship time, so staying mindful of both can ensure you don’t miss out on exciting opportunities or, on the flip side, arrive excessively early.

This distinction becomes especially crucial when venturing off the ship onto land.

Time is of the essence, and it’s imperative to be aware of which time you’re relying on, particularly if you opt for a third-party excursion. Being well-versed in both ship and local time can make the difference between seizing the moment and encountering unnecessary delays.

Tip: Check your cruise ship’s app for the ship time.

Carnival Dream

4. Have a Backup Plan for Excursions

While pre-booked excursions can be a fantastic way to explore port destinations, the reality is that unforeseen circumstances might force cancellations or adjustments.

Having a contingency plan or being open to spontaneous alternatives ensures that you can make the most of each port visit, even when faced with unexpected hiccups.

Here are some back-up plan tips.

If your excursion involves traveling over water, be mindful that rough seas might come into play. Consider having a backup plan on land, such as at a beach club or another indoor venue near your disembarkation point.

Or if you’re booking an island adventure consider having a back up plan on the other side of the island where water conditions might be more stable.

This foresight can save you from scrambling at the last minute and help you maximize your time at each port.

Doctor Dive scuba boat

5. Be Prepared to Deal with Crowds

Perhaps it was due to the holidays but my first Carnival cruise experience on the Dream was a little bit too crowded for my liking at times.

Patience becomes a prized virtue as you navigate through the occasional chaos, whether it’s during the hustle of embarkation, the bustle of disembarkation, or the buzz of popular ship events.

Expect slow-moving folks, crowded doorways, elevator logjams, and queues for meals that resemble rush hour traffic. I really appreciated having priority when boarding the ship but other times we were forced to just deal with the crowds, unless we were okay with waiting to disembark or boarding later.

Tip: Be on the lookout for alternate lines/stations for some of the places you’re trying to go as sometimes there are non-obvious lines people don’t flock to which can be 2 to 3 times quicker.

Cruise port

6. Carnival Can Be Hit and Miss with Dining

Carnival, on the whole, manages to provide a pretty satisfying culinary experience, considering the cost. However, it’s not all smooth sailing, with a fair share of hit-and-miss moments.

I discovered that while certain dishes (especially paid ones) were impressive – like the surf and turf, fried shrimp, crab legs, broiled lobster, and tuna tartare – others, such as the lobster rolls, left a lot to be desired.

The desserts and pastries, unfortunately, spanned from average to below average with a couple of them like the crème brûlée luckily not disappointing.

Don’t set your culinary expectations too high and you won’t be overly disappointed.

lobster on dinner plate

7. There’s a lot of Diverse Daily Activities

One of the highlights of a Carnival cruise is the plethora of daily activities.

From trivia sessions to live shows and music performances, there’s always something happening on board. Planning your day and making the most of the diverse offerings ensures you’ll never be bored during your cruise.

I’ll admit that many of the daytime activities didn’t quite align with my interests. Not being a gambler, I steered clear of the casino and Bingo sessions. Karaoke and activities like photo sessions or jewelry sales didn’t really grab my attention either.

On the flip side, I did discover some intriguing trivia sessions and caught a few entertaining shows.

But given the abundance of options, even if just one or two events pique your interest each day, it’s enough to lure you out of your room. My advice is to at least try to pop in to a few of these just to see what they are all about.

Carnival Dream pool

8. There’s Definitely Value in Drink Packages

Opting for a drink package of some kind can be a smart move, especially if you’re someone who enjoys beverages from sunrise to sunset.

From my own experience, I discovered that even non-alcoholic choices, like sparkling water, can tally up expenses, making a drink package a financially savvy decision.

Brad and I, for instance, guzzled about $60 worth of non-alcoholic drinks per day, mostly sparkling water (in the form of club soda with lime). Surprisingly, we were only shelling out around $20 per day (total) for the Bottomless Bubbles package, so we definitely got our money’s worth.

As a side note, it was intriguing to discover that Carnival offered a variety of non-alcoholic beer options, including brands like Samuel Adams and Coors – a rarity for someone like me who opts for non-alcoholic drinks.

9. Wi-Fi Can Be a Problem

Staying connected can be a challenge on a cruise ship, with Wi-Fi availability varying throughout the vessel.

In my case, the Wi-Fi in our room, which was a suite on the Carnival Dream was horrible, and finding quiet places to work became a mission. Understanding the limitations and planning accordingly can help manage expectations regarding work or communication needs.

If you have a data plan that allows for free data when in Mexico you can connect from the ship when near the mainland and that might do you some good but otherwise if you’re hoping to get work done be prepared for the reality that it may not be very practical.

I don’t feel like we got our money’s worth with the Wi-Fi package we purchased.

Carnival Dream Serenity Deck

10. Inconsistent Service Experience

A crucial aspect of any cruise is the service provided by the staff, and while many workers on the Carnival cruise were friendly and welcoming, I couldn’t help but notice the inconsistency in service quality.

The initial warmth during check-in and boarding was overwhelming and in my opinion set the bar a little bit too high. I was truly impressed and thought “no way it’s going to be like this entire time.” Well, I was right.

As I explored the ship’s amenities, I encountered servers who seemed indifferent, making minimal eye contact and displaying the bare minimum of enthusiasm. In some instances, I even encountered rudeness.

While it’s natural to expect some bad apples due simply to the sheer number of workers, I found the percentage of less-than-friendly encounters to be higher than expected.

There was also the issue of delayed service. The amount of time it took for drinks to come in was staggering at times. I’m probably about as patient a traveler as you will ever find, so if you have me complaining about wait times you know they are bad.

At the same time, we had excellent service from our stateroom steward who was prompt, friendly, and very on-point. So just be prepared for an inconsistent experience.

11. Don’t miss the sunsets

Every evening aboard the ship, I was taken aback by how many folks seemed entirely oblivious to the breathtaking sunsets.

The vantage point from nearly any deck on the cruise ship is nothing short of spectacular for watching the sun dip below the horizon, casting its reflection over the sea or painting the clouds with vibrant hues.

Surprisingly, only a small minority of people were actively soaking in the sunset or snapping beautiful photos.

Consider setting a reminder for sunset times and getting situated about 20 minutes prior to sunset.

Also, seize the potentially rare opportunity to witness the elusive green flash—I managed to catch it on the first night of our cruise!

12. Don’t underestimate seasickness (even if you’re “experienced”)

I had both the good and the not-so-great fortune of encountering some rocking waves for a few days during our cruise. On the positive side, it provided a firsthand experience of what rough seas can be like on my maiden cruise, which turned out to be quite enlightening.

However, it also posed a challenge for some, including myself.

I was proactive in warding off potential seasickness by consistently popping Dramamine pills and munching on ginger chews, a combo that proved pretty effective in keeping any bouts of seasickness at bay, with just a fleeting moment or two.

Interestingly, I overheard discussions from others who, despite having a wealth of cruise experience, found themselves grappling with seasickness for the first time. It’s a reminder not to underestimate the potential for seasickness to strike, even if your previous cruises have been smooth sailing.

Some other tips that might work:

  1. Choose the Right Cabin Location:
    • Opt for a cabin in the middle of the ship and on a lower deck. These areas typically experience less motion, reducing the likelihood of seasickness.
  2. Wristbands for Acupressure:
    • Consider using acupressure wristbands, which apply pressure to specific points on your wrist to alleviate nausea. These are available at most drugstores.
  3. Green Apples:
    • Keep green apples on hand, as the natural compounds in the skin may help ease nausea. Take a bite or two when you start feeling queasy.
  4. Ginger in Various Forms:
    • Ginger has anti-nausea properties. Try ginger candies, ginger tea, or ginger capsules. Some cruise ships also offer ginger-infused dishes.

13. Have a Small Fund for Emergencies

Cruise ships can be hotspots for accidents and illnesses. If you find yourself in need of emergency or near-emergency care, a visit to the ship’s care center may come with a price tag of a few hundred bucks, depending on the time of day or night.

While your insurance could potentially reimburse you, it’s important to be prepared for immediate billing. We had several people in our party who had to unexpectedly seek medical care, so planning for this potential expense is a wise move.

Also, related to this if you are in doubt about bringing a medication on board, just bring it. Trust me.

Final word

All in all, my inaugural cruise proved to be an enjoyable experience. While the classic family vacation cruise may not be my preferred choice, my love for travel and the novelty of being on a cruise ship were sufficient to make it a positive venture.

The added bonus of exploring some beautiful destinations, even if the schedule felt a bit tight, certainly enhanced the overall experience for me.

My top takeaway from this cruise experience is that a Carnival cruise is what you make of it. With a plethora of activities and a variety of excursions to choose from, you can tailor the experience to suit your preferences.

The culinary options while sometimes lacking are still diverse, allowing you to explore different flavors, and the pace of the trip is entirely in your hands – whether you prefer a laid-back vibe or a more fast-paced adventure.

While I have my eye on something like a National Geographic cruise for the future, hanging out with family on a Carnival cruise still offers a good time. It’s all about personalizing the experience to match your style and enjoying the journey.