So you are ready to take a cruise? You could seek out a travel agent, but Carnival Cruise Lines makes booking your own adventure fairly easy. The site includes information about each ship and allows you to compare up to three to make sure you get everything you want from your vessel of choice. If you are more interested in the destination, they have a list of all the ports of call and the excursions available. Have a particular port in mind? Pick one of twenty-four locations and start from there. How you pick your trip is up to you, but hopefully we can offer a couple of suggestions to help.
Find Your Cruise
Where you sail from is likely one of the first considerations when booking a cruise, especially if you do not live near a port. Being from KY puts severals ports within an 8-12 hour drive. I usually start by narrowing my search to New Orleans, Charleston, Mobile, Jacksonville and Tampa.
When you sail is generally not as flexible unless you are retired, so dropdown the calendar and choose your available time frame. There are certainly some dates that are better than others for your particular style of cruising. If you are looking to relax, Spring Break may not be the best time to book. Hurricane season is certainly something to consider as well. Safety is usually not a concern as the cruise lines do a great job of keeping you out of the storms, but your trip may be extended and you may not arrive at all of the ports you expected to. Conversely, you may have perfect weather with a far less crowded ship in addition to lower booking rates. We cruise in February and October/November while kids are in school and the fares are slightly lower.
The length of your cruise is usually determined by some outside factors as well. How much time do you have for your vacation? Are you arriving at port a day in advance? Will you spend an extra day to travel home? Can you squeeze in a 3 day trip with a long weekend? Is a 5 day trip too short or a 7 day trip too long? Are you ready to book a back-to-back trip (B2B)? This is where the calendar gets a workout, but the website makes it easier by allowing you to choose the duration of your cruise to narrow it down when your time is limited. Or, if you have plenty of time on your clock, you can search thru all available trips from 3 to 10+ days and put together a B2B or even sail two different ships from one port.
Where you sail to is likely very high on your wants list, but your needs list may dictate otherwise. Some ports of call may not be available when you are. After having filtered the list this far you can scroll through the available trips and drop down the dates that are available for each one. The list will show you the price per person, but does not include taxes or port expenses. Though it doesn’t show the full cost, this view helps you find the lower fare based on the itinerary. Once you have gone through all of the options, pick your trip and pick your stateroom.
Choose your cabin wisely
While your budget will largely dictate your cabin choices, there are still some considerations to take into account. Ship location is number one and if you don’t pay attention, you may end up under the galley where some folks claim to hear quite a bit of noise, or over the casino where it may smell a bit like cigarette smoke on some ships. Even balconies are not immune to location concerns as some are located with obstructed views and others are below the common areas where other passengers can see your space clearly. Suites include extra perks and Deluxe Ocean View cabins have an extra bath space including a tub. Whether there is an adjoining cabin may be a security concern for some while others may be looking for more accessible cabins due to disabilities or mobility issues.
Carnival offers the chance to explore the ships on their website, and if you choose your ship and go to Deck Plans, there is a downloadable .pdf version of the ship’s layout. I highly recommend downloading the file and using it as a reference when choosing your cabin. Furthermore, I suggest studying the ship’s layout because you will get lost trying to navigate these floating behemoths. I study the maps, watch videos to familiarize myself with the ship and then still get turned around once I get on board.
While there are only five stateroom types, they are broken down into thirty-three different categories, so the pricing varies wildly. You can have a spa balcony, or cove balcony and they are completely different experiences. When booking an interior room, you start with an over/under arrangement and upgrade from there. You won’t spend a lot of time in your cabin, so keep that in mind when booking. Unless you are claustrophobic, a balcony may not be necessary. If you are traveling with a larger group a suite may be more fitting.
Once you have your cabin and deck figured out you will arrive at the final billing page. Everything has been added now except your gratuities. Prepaying your tips make a lot of sense if you want to get as much paid in advance as possible. It is at this point I recommend putting your trip on a 48 hour hold. It is a complimentary option that will come up if you try to close out of the booking window. This will give you time to plan your trip to port.
Do your research
Before taking that final leap, be sure to look around for reviews on your cabin choice. Do an online search for the ship and cabin and you may get a video to help you make your final decision. While a room may look good on paper, a proper review from someone with experience in that “corner cabin” may reveal some issues you could not otherwise foresee. Look at the maps again and decide if you are happy with your location – too far aft and you will walk more on the bigger ships, too far forward makes some folks a little queasy due to the motion of the ocean. Do you want to be on a higher deck to be closer to the Lido action, or a lower berth closer to Dining and entertainment options?
Plan your arrival for embarkation
You are ready to pull the trigger on the cruise vacation of a lifetime, but you need to take a breath here and find out what else is going to be involved. Will you be arriving the day of your trip, or the night before? Getting a hotel room can be a whole other logistical nightmare. For instance, if you are cruising during peak travel season, rooms will be more costly and harder to find. If your cruise leaves from New Orleans during Mardi Gras or Halloween, then you’re certainly going to find it tough to stay in the French Quarter.
Are you driving or flying in? If you fly you will need to find a transport shuttle service from the Airport Terminal to the Cruise Terminal. If you are driving, how much will it cost to park your car for the week? Port of NOLA charges $20 per day. Will you rent a car? How much gas money will you need to budget? These additional costs should definitely be factored into your trip as well as any dining, fast food or otherwise. Take along snacks are great, but we still end up buying a meal or two along the way.
One option that will save you time and money is to find a Park and Cruise package through a hotel or off-site parking lot. Port Canaveral has several hotels with Cruise Package deals that include shuttle service to and from the Port and parking on-site while you are at sea. If you are leaving out of Charleston, it is not as easy to find a hotel that will let you leave your car, so plan on booking early. New Orleans has plenty of hotels offering Stay and Cruise packages, but most are across the river or on the outskirts of town as parking is at a premium in the Crescent City. BONUS – Having a shuttle drop you off at the curbside porter is much more convenient than parking in the garage and dealing with your bags while sucking in the exhaust from the line of cars in front of you. We have not used a shuttle service in Charleston yet, but it has got to be easier than that line through the parking lot.
What time are you scheduled to board? Carnival allows you to select your boarding time in an effort to streamline their embarkation process. If you are assigned a late boarding time and you show up early, you are going to sit and wait. Sometimes they will not even let you into the terminal building until you are closer to your boarding time, so don’t show up early. I have read time and time again that those folks that come at 2pm spend far less time in the terminal than the folks that come early and try to buck the line. Also, you need to check the local event schedule, especially in NOLA where a parade may block the port entrance for long enough to create havoc on those travelers trying to get to the port terminal or parking garage. Leaving during Mardi Gras we heard stories of panic some passengers endured while they sat and waited until the floats were finally moved from Mardi Gras World and the staging areas out into the parade routes.
What else to consider? The true cost of cruising.
I will start with the obvious – the extras. Depending on how you book, your travel to and from the port will need to be considered. Taking a taxi, or uber? Shuttle service or airport transfer. Driving in the day of? Staying an extra day? The fuel, food and lodging for your trip to and from the port will need to be factored.
Once on board your budget can, and probably will, get a workout. While tea, coffee and some juices are included with Carnival’s all-inclusive offering, should you want soda, or booze then your pocketbook is going to take a hit. Sodas are canned and about $2.25 without a package. A Pina Colada is about $7.95 for the basics. Get a top-shelf Margarita and you could drop $12 or more depending on the “shelf”. All of this adds up to a nice profit for the cruise line and is therefore monitored very closely.
To offset this Carnival offers a Bottomless Bubbles package for soda drinkers and the CHEERS package for those that want to enjoy adult beverages without a big shock at the end of the cruise. CHEERS includes 15 alcoholic beverages per day, as well as unlimited soda, bottled waters, specialty coffees, milkshakes and fresh juices. At $52 per day the break even point is about 7 drinks. That isn’t as easy for some as it is for others, but I am pretty sure if I tried to cruise without it I would have a much bigger bill at the end of the trip.
By the “bill at the end of the trip”, I am talking about settling up your sail and sign account. While doing your online check-in you will attach a credit card to your booking that they will use to charge all of your onboard expenses. This “Sail and Sign” account is used for anything you purchase on board. From the Fun Shops to the Specialty Restaurants, all the extras get put on your account. If you don’t have a beverage package and you get drinks, they will be charged as well as any gratuities you add to your slips.
There are plenty of opportunities for shopping, dining or even gambling while you are at sea. And while there is no question you can go on a cruise and end your trip with nothing additional on your tab, we prefer to relax and enjoy ourselves and so we plan on spending a few hundred dollars on board. We budget for the specialty dining reservations, photos from the Pixels Gallery, some souvenirs (both on the ship and at ports), excursions, dining at the ports when we don’t have excursions and any additional gratuities. If you do not prepay your gratuities, they will also be added to your sail and sign account at the end of the trip.
Before you go
“Why do we buy new clothes to go on vacation? Nobody has seen the clothes we wear at home.” – Unknown
How true is that? And probably more so for us when we cruise. I will sport linen pants and Hawaiian shirts that I would never wear at home. And while at this point I am pretty much set with my cruise attire, my dear wife has bought more dresses and outfits “for the next cruise” than I ever would have imagined possible (curse of the internet). And since it never fails that we come home with the tags still on a few of those items, it becomes an add-on that can quickly turn costly. It is by no means a necessity, but the cost is very real in our household. Happy wife = Happy Life.
Luggage is another consideration. Our first cruise we did okay with bags we had collected over the years, but on debarkation day when we struggled to the car with our assortment, I realized it was time to grow up and get some real luggage. We invested in some soft sided rolling bags. We don’t fly and our bags are usually only handled twice during our trips, so we don’t need the top of the line stuff that is out there. We also purchased packing cubes. I won’t go into the specifics, but they work and I highly recommend them if you plan on cruising a lot. So luggage is another cost to take into account, but not one you will get hit with every time.
Choose your dining time and arrange your beds
After you have confirmed your booking there are a couple of things left to handle. Your dining and your bedding. Bedding is simple, do you want the beds pushed together or left as twins? Other configurations will pretty much be dictated by the number of guests in your cabin. The main thing to worry about is to avoid accidentally booking an over/under cabin if you and your partner want to sleep together.
Dining is a big topic of conversation on the different cruise pages I visit. Carnival allows you to choose Early, Late, or Anytime Dining. We usually opt for early dining unless we have reservations that will keep us away from our table more nights than not. Dining early gives you a chance to pick which showtime you want to attend for most performances. Also when I am traveling, I like to eat early, and then grab a little snack later on if needed so this works best for us. Anytime Dining might be the most popular option as it allows you to be seated when you are ready to eat. You check in and they will buzz you when your table is ready. Very convenient for those that don’t want to be held to a particular schedule, or don’t want to eat with strangers.
Book your excursions
Shore excursions are available at the ports of call offering various types of adventures, tours or simple relaxing beach days. The safest bet is to book your excursions through the cruise line. Carnival guarantees you won’t be left behind if you are on one of their shore excursions. Some excursions sell out early and you need to book them as soon as they become available. Faster to the Fun sells out on every booking and I highly recommend it if you are not booking a suite or otherwise have VIP Boarding.
There are other ways to book excursions and you will probably save money, but with savings your risk level is increased. Check for back to ship guarantees and read reviews carefully. There are plenty of cautionary tales out there, but it is in everyone’s interest to get you back to port in time to make your departure. The vendors don’t want to be known for being the cause of “Pier Runners”.
When is the best time to book?
In closing I think I should point out that the best prices on a trip are usually further out. Contrary to popular belief, the price does not go down closer to sailing. The best time to book is when you can get a price match guarantee and the sooner the better. After you book you can do mock bookings and if the price goes down, the cruise line will either reduce your fare, or provide on board credit for the difference. Finally, the cheapest fares we have been able to book have been by taking advantage of the 2 week deals offered after you cruise. You can book on board, or you will get an email after you return. Either way, you will save considerably over a regular booking. So, Happy Booking and Good Luck!