“I don’t wanna be the one, but I’m gonna be the one.”Aja the Kween
Boarding/Deboarding: What to Expect
Your trip will start outside in the Miami heat, which comes with a nice kick of humidity. You can either give your bags to a porter who will toss it with the rest of the bags or you can bring them on yourself. I suggest you take them with you. Next, prepare for the checkpoint lines and for the love of all that's holy and sacred HAVE YOUR DOCUMENTS (e.g., boarding passes and passport) READY! Don't worry about your liquids (unless it's water and alcohol), it's simply to check for weapons and such. Something I wish I knew beforehand:
CRUISE ESSENTIALS TRAVEL KIT
First time cruiser? Or a vet that keeps forgetting to pack certain items? I got you. Don't be stuck in the middle of nowhere without your essentials again!
- Each adult (21+) can bring one unopened bottle of wine.
- Each person can bring 12 cans of soda or any non-alcoholic drinks that do not exceed 12 oz as long as they are not opened.
You can find their liquor and beverage policy here.
Once you get through, you'll need to get into another line to check in where you will drop off the health questionnaire and receive your Sail and Sign Card. This card is linked to your credit card on file and is also your key. DON'T LOSE IT! Then, just like boarding a plane, you'll need to wait for your group number to get called. There will be an area where you can take your picture before boarding. Have fun, take silly ones, or keep it moving. It's completely up to you. We took pictures, but didn't buy them. Don't worry there will be plenty of opportunities to take pictures.
Also, when you are docked at a port be prepared to show your Sail and Sign Card when getting off the ship, to get back on the ship and to get back into the port should you leave for an excursion. Pay attention to ship time, otherwise you are risking living at the port forever. I always bring a watch with me and this time (haha, no pun intended) it helped us since you can't trust your cell phone with this one. The location time and ship time are not the same! At Amber Cove we had to wait about 20 minutes for people who lost track of time. Don't be that guy or gal.
Your Stateroom: The Balcony is the BEST
Once you have located your room, check to ensure that all things are working. If something isn't right, call Guest Services right away or let your stateroom steward know. On the counter there should be a ‘Welcome Aboard' packet. Take the time to read through it, since it will answer most of your questions. Here's what your packet will probably look like.
If you are going to book a room, get one with a balcony. We had two twin beds, a small loveseat and coffee table in our room, but add two people and some luggage, and it starts to feel tiny. When I felt stressed out, I would just go outside do some yoga or chill and eat. I spent plenty of time out there thinking, relaxing, and just existing. I brought a bluetooth speaker with me (here's the model) to kick out some jams. You might meet someone, too. Our next door neighbor introduced herself by sticking her head out into our balcony and greeting us with a smile.
Planning to sit in your room and watch TV, just skip it. There's CNN, some ship channels that show you the location of the ship, a live feed of the deck, shopping, and some cartoons. Blah.
Just writing about the activities (or lack thereof) makes me angry. I waited for something to wow me, something that screamed, “OMG, if you don't do this, you will regret it.” Sadly, it never happened. I was starting to feel like Bill Murray in Groundhog's Day. My friend received a coupon for the spa with a laughable discount. We did attend a comedy show the last night at sea which was pretty good. Did I tell you this was a 5-day cruise?
Each day, the housekeeping staff you will leave a pamphlet with what you need to know for the following day. I should have known what to expect when the ‘top' entertainment is a selfie challenge, NFL football and half off at the arcade. You can download the full brochures here:
We went to the club a few nights and the DJ couldn't mix Nesquik into milk if he wanted. The music selection was all over the place. No wonder the dance floor was empty most nights. We tried the comedy club only to leave the first time around because the comedian was telling awful Dad jokes. To add insult to injury, our piña coladas were overpriced pineapple juice. Both my friend and I were looking forward to the Mega Deck Party. After spending an hour getting dolled up, we walked right into line dancing with one of the crew members yelling out dance moves into the crowd. I posted the video to my IG account.
What to Eat?
Let me start off by saying that if you hate buffets, you're going to hate the cafeteria. As with many buffets there are many unknowns. An item can look delicious, and end up being the grossest thing you have ever tasted. Looks are quite deceiving and trying to guess which one won't make your stomach do somersaults can get frustrating after a while. If I had to grade the buffet food, I would say D, the lowest passing grade. I couldn't give it an F, because I did have some good food items. Notice I didn't say MEALS? I think the final straw for me was when I was looking forward to an event they called ‘Chocolate Extravaganza'.
Narrator: It was not a chocolate extravaganza.
The menu does change daily. One day you might have an American food buffet and the next it might be French. Still, pretty much ass cheeks though.
There are other ‘restaurants' that you can choose from, but we only tried Guy's Burger Joint. Some cost extra, for example the sushi and coffee bars. I skipped the Chinese spot because I really have to be in the mood for Chinese food. The Mexican place was American-style Mexican food. A bit insulting to call it Mexican food. If I had seen one more fucking taco salad bowl, I was going to seriously lose my shit.
In the dining room (look at your Sail and Sign Card to see your assigned dining room), I remember having entrees and appetizers that were decent. Once in a while something would be really good and we'd spent the rest of the evening talking about it. Get an appetizer, hell get several! The beauty of sharing a meal with someone is that you can create your own buffet. Look closely at the right side of the menu, you might find that the menu options correspond to the ports of call. After Amber Cove, mangu was available as an appetizer. Also, try at least one exotic food. There will always be one item on the menu if you're a bit more adventureous. We had braised rabbit, escargot, and frog legs. The latter being my least favorite because someone in the kitchen went a little crazy with the salt.
Room service is going to save you for continental breakfast (housekeeping will leave you a form) and food after 10pm. Think deli food. I had mostly sandwiches, salads, and chocolate cake (yes, the same one from the cafeteria. It's that good). The menu is split in two as some items are only available before/after 10pm. There are things like chicken wings and even a donut sandwich for those late night munchies. Prices go up after 10pm, but still are moderately priced. Generally in the $5 to $10 range. To avoid the added surcharge, I would order cold food at about 9pm and keep it in the mini fridge. That way I had something to eat when I returned to the room. However, skip the pizza. It's the same pizza you can get for free from the 24 hour pizzeria located on the top deck. I'll save you the trouble though. The pizza tastes like wet cardboard slathered with ketchup. You're welcome.
Speaking of 24 hour food options, the soft serve machine. Not the best I've had, but it did it's job and cooled me off. After a few drinks, nothing beats a chocolate soft serve on a cake cone.
The Whirling World of Gratuities
I suggest you download the Carnival HUB App before you board and check your balance at the end of the evening.
The person who booked the trip paid gratuities upfront and I thought that included beverages. This doesn't seem to be the case, although Carnival doesn't really explain it either way. According to the Carnival web site:
“For beverage purchases, an automatic 15% gratuity will be added to the bill and the charges will be applied directly to the guest's Sail & Sign account. An automatic 15% gratuity will be added to the cover charge of the Chef’s Table and the charges will be applied directly to the guest’s Sail & Sign account. Room Service staff may be tipped as service is rendered.”
In other words, you can leave a tip, on top of whatever gratuities are already tacked on (shown in red). I mean would you leave a $5 tip on $10 drink? I guess I did and it adds up. Also, the gratituities don't extend to the food ordered through room service. So how is someone supposed to know this until they are disputing a charge?
While doing laundry, a woman was visibly upset when Carnival allowed her 14 year old daughter to charge around $200 on her own Sail and Sign Card. She had placed a hold in hopes to avoid the headache which was obviously ignored. Aside from the gratuities, my only gripe was when a charge for $8.63 (that's $7.50 for two 1.5 liter water bottles and a $1.13 tip) appeared on my account. The water bottles were on the counter unopened. I took a picture and went to sort the thing out at Guest Services. It isn't the thing you want to do on the last day at sea. The line wasn't too long, but there wasn't a day that went by where I didn't see people visit Guest Services to air their grievances about something. There was a kiosk that was supposed to alleviate the clusterfuck of people, but the user interface was so bad that many left more frustrated. Not a good look.
Why I would NEVER book a cruise again: A not-so-quick rant
First of all, the boarding process was a mess. I don't care to go through a TSA style checkpoint after leaving the airport. I don't know about you, but I'd like to get my vacation going ASAP. Additonally, I don't want to have to deal with rude staff members, followed by a scripted apology AND a sales pitch.
The goodies: a 12-pack of bottled water.
As mentioned in Cruising 101: What You Should Know Before You Book Your First Cruise, there were too many misses for me to call this a budget-friendly trip. I didn't expect to have to go to Target (which you know I love to pieces) to grab items before boarding. I also didn't expect gratuities being added to drinks after my friend who booked the trip paid for gratuities up front. The rooms are small (unless you get a suite of course); therefore, ship activities are all you have when you are out at sea. If those are not up to par, you end up walking around the ship frustrated as hell. I don't want to do things that I can do back home at the mall (e.g., Build-A-Bear Workshop) or feel like I'm in Branson, Missouri. I feel Carnival dropped the ball here. If I could offer a suggestion it would be to have wide range of activities suitable for different age brackets. While some like to gamble, others want to dance or eat great food. It's nice to have a gym and spa, but those are not activities worthy of the $700 price tag. Back home that's a trip to the local 24 Hour Fitness. A second suggestion would be that if a ship has been docked for a while, it needs to pass the CarMax Quality Certified checklist. My friend and I often wonder about the folks who got our stateroom after us.
To boot, only having a pair of hours to explore a place isn't really what I'm trying to do. When we docked at Grand Turk Island (Cockburn Town), all I could see was a block of overpriced shops. BORING. I rarely use that word, but goodness gracious! It was so hot we spent our time beneath a canopy. By the time we went to check out the taxis, we didn't have enough time to tour the rest of the town. I can't pin that on one Carnival. According to several people who had taken the plunge, the taxi ride averaged $5. While many were happy to have done it, they also saw the devastation from Hurricane Irma. My friend wanted to check out the spa services and we ended up back on the boat early. Disappointing.
At the next port, Amber Cove we did go into Puerto Plata proper, but it was EXPENSIVE ($60 round trip for two people. I guess my Spanish got us a $20 discount.) and we were at the mercy of the taxi driver who was part of a network of merchants. He was personable, so it was hard to knock his hustle. The conversation was lively and we got a glimpse of his personal life. I mean how often do you get the family album while riding through the D.R.?
Our first stop was a plaza in Puerto Plata where we were taken into a church and given a tour. We found it filled with other tourists who were stuck, too. After a 15-minute ‘tour,' the guide puts his hand out and asked for a tip. No more Mr. Courteous. He wants to get paid. This type of transaction was repeated a few more times.
- At the Fortaleza San Felipe, we were conveniently parked in front of souvenir vendors. These ones were pushy, too. I just walked away.
- While going up a mountain to see a view of the city, a woman suddenly appears asking us to go to her store to buy souvenirs. The driver informs her we are not there to shop and she leaves.
- Then we were dropped off at a restaurant near the beach. The place doesn't look like much and there were other taxi drivers hanging out. The food was decent and we did enjoy the beach, but at $32 (had I used my credit card they would have charged me $41) for mofongo, two Cokes, and some chicken wings it was pretty basic. Those are Los Angeles prices!
Imagine if we had taken his offer to go to the rum and chocolate factories? $$$ To put this into perspective, I spent less money on a day trip to Giverny from Paris, which included lunch, a ticket to Monet's Gardens, AND the shuttle.
Are you a staunch solo traveler who loves to create their own adventures? This could be a hit or miss. With that said, it was hard for me to rewire my brain. From allowing someone to book the trip to sharing a space, having a set meal time and having limited options, it was a bit overwhelming for someone who is like the wind. My tolerance for inefficiency, bad food, and overpriced anything is nonexistent. Being stuck on a ship with not enough to do killed the travel vibe almost completely. I'm too much of an adventurer to ever want to travel like this again. Seriously, if any of my friends and family members are reading this:
Understand that my travel style is different than yours. I travel to LEARN about the world. My souvenirs are the experiences and memories I create along the way. Imposing any limits on me will not work in your favor.
Which brings me to my final point: Sustainability and eco-tourism.
I'm always looking for ways to reduce my carbon footprint, at home and while traveling. I don't want my vacation to do more harm than good. Cruise ships pollute our beautiful blue orb. Do your research. Here, I'll give you a head start.
Glimmers of Hope: When Good Times Happen
I must admit I did enjoy one thing: the people. Don't get me wrong, we came across a group of folks who wanted to drive their political beliefs through our heads, even so, they were only one interaction out of many. For the most part, you will meet people from all walks of life. As an aspiring polyglot, speaking to the crew members was probably what salvaged the trip. I met people from Croatia, Ukraine, Philippines, St. Lucia, Thailand, Indonesia, Greece, India, and the list goes on. When time permitted, I would ask them to teach me simple phrases like ‘Hello' and ‘Thank you'. Their eyes would light up and soon enough we were on a first name basis. I started to learn things about culture and to an extent their backstory. It doesn't end with the crew, however. Sometimes sitting next to a group of people sparks up a conversation.
“Wow, that looks delicious. What are you having?”
On the last day at sea, we met some colorful characters at the laundry room. I still remember that delicious ill-gotten pineapple rum. At the Alchemy Bar, Nikola prepared a mean old-fashioned which he lit up Flaming Moe Style. He wasn't as chatty because he was busy, but his facial expressions were gold. One night after dinner we walked into a Motown ‘name that tune' contest. We sung our little asses off! Our next door neighbor was a sassy woman of Cuban and Dominican descent. Her laugh was contagious.
Whew! That was exhausting! Looks like I'll be planning another getaway soon. It isn't a good sign, when you need a vacation from your vacation. I do miss that 24 hour soft serve machine though.
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