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Understanding Carnival: Great deals or just cheap trips?

Carnival Cruise Lines always mystified me. It wins awards for outstanding children’s programs and spacious cabins, while holding on to a party boat reputation. Budget-conscious cruisers lap up its less-than-$100-per-night deals, but could Carnival deliver an amazing all-inclusive vacation for so little? I decided to investigate further.

My curiosity landed me on a five-night Bahamas and Grand Turk cruise aboard one of Carnival’s oldest ships, the Fantasy. From Monday through Saturday, I tested out a variety of food options, participated in various activities, appraised cabins, wandered through public spaces, and tried to understand what a Carnival cruise is all about.

In the end, I’d liken Carnival to an affordable name-brand hotel or a favorite chain restaurant. For a low price, you get everything you need: plentiful food, comfortable living quarters, daily entertainment, and transportation to an assortment of vacation destinations. But, Carnival doesn’t stand out or go above and beyond in many of these areas (though with some notable exceptions). The fun is largely created by you and your fellow travelers.

After five nights living the Carnival life, my advice is this: If you’re seeking a take-your-breath-away vacation, you should look to a more luxurious line. If you want to have a fun trip for a low price, Carnival may offer everything you need.

The ship: Private rooms and public spaces

The Fantasy debuted in 1990 and underwent a major renovation in 2005. Compared to Carnival’s entire fleet, the ship is on the small side. For example, the Fantasy is 70,367 tons and carries 2,056 guests at double occupancy; the Carnival Glory, which was docked next to us in Nassau, is 110,000 tons and carries 2,974 guests at double occupancy. The Fantasy doesn’t have all the amenities of the bigger ships, such as a Supper Club specialty restaurant, but it does offer more space per person than its larger counterparts. My review is based solely on this ship, so remember that newer ships may offer a different vacation experience.

I stayed in an oceanview cabin, but toured inside, verandah, and suite cabins during my stay. Inside and outside cabins are identical in size, and at 185 square feet, the rooms are spacious for mainstream-line staterooms. As a comparison, Royal Caribbean’s inside cabins range from a mere 117 to 165 square feet. Carnival’s cabin amenities include a TV, desk, hard-backed reading chair, and several closets. There’s no mini-fridge, and the closets don’t have deep drawers or plentiful hangers. The bathroom is typically small, but the shower is larger than its counterparts on other mass-market lines. On the Fantasy, cabin decor is simple with muted colors.

The verandah rooms are slightly larger, but the balconies are fairly small with uncomfortable looking chairs. The older ships have very limited balcony staterooms, so if a verandah is a must, you should look to the newer ships.

The “Carnival Comfort Beds” are the best part of Carnival’s staterooms. These consist of plush mattresses and soft, high-quality duvets, linens, and pillows. I never wanted to crawl out of bed in the morning, and a dinner companion told me she hadn’t slept this well in months. I give the Fantasy high marks on its simple yet comfy inside and outside rooms.

The Fantasy shows its age in its public spaces. The main atrium doesn’t impress, the furnishings in the Roman-themed Via Marina seem a bit shabby, and the karaoke lounge is essentially a conference room. The library has a pitiful selection of books, which are locked up except at certain hours each day. The ship does get it right with the Cleopatra piano bar (decorated with Egyptian statues and a piano-shaped bar) and the Cats Lounge (where giant-sized soup cans and boxes of laundry detergent line the walls).

Despite its size, the Fantasy manages to have three pools. The main pool is small, but redeems itself with a wicked waterslide. It’s next to the outdoor stage where bands play Caribbean and dance music throughout the day. For a quieter dip, the adults-only pool in the back of the ship lets you cool off away from the noise and the kids. A kiddie pool is located behind the Camp Carnival lounge.

The Fantasy had all the necessary public spaces, but I would have liked to see a quiet lounge that wasn’t the library, as well as a little more character in the Forum room, where they held karaoke and the art auction. The “fantasy” theme was a tad cheesy, but I hear it was a lot tackier prior to the ship’s refurbishment. I would guess that the newer Carnival ships have more memorable public areas.

The essentials: Food, drink, and fun

Carnival serves up more food than anyone can possibly eat. The line offers four dinner seatings—5:45 and 8 p.m. in the Jubilee dining room and 6:15 and 8:30 p.m. in the Celebrations dining room. The two dining rooms offer open seating for breakfast and lunch. On the Lido (pool) Deck, an outdoor grille, buffet restaurant, pizzeria, and deli are open throughout the day. Room service is always available, free of charge. A sushi counter opens up in the evenings on the Promenade Deck. For an extra fee, you can order specialty coffees and pastries at the Bistro on the Boulevard.

The dinner menus offered fancy fare, such as escargot, lobster tails, and foie gras, but the quality and taste were hit or miss. A grouper entree had my tablemates flagging down our waiter to order a different dish, while the teriyaki salmon got rave reviews. The first night’s chocolate decadence dessert was pure heaven, but a white-and-dark-chocolate pudding was not to everyone’s liking. Vegetarians have very limited options at the buffet and the main dining room, which made the 24-hour pizzeria a godsend. I would rate the food as average—neither fabulous nor inedible.

The Promenade Deck is home to the most bars, but you can purchase drinks by the pool, in the main lobby, in the show lounge, and at the piano bar as well. Most beers and tropical drinks cost under $5 and wine by the glass under $7.50, before the automatic 15 percent gratuity. Soda drinkers can buy an unlimited soft-drink card for $4 per night per child or $5.50 per night per adult. While Carnival won’t let you bring your own alcohol onboard, you can save money by bringing a cooler of soda or bottled water with you. The bartenders are exceptionally friendly, so you’ll get some lively conversation along with your drink. Teetotalers be forewarned: Drinking is a major activity on this ship.

I found Carnival to be lacking in planned activities. Perhaps that’s because most guests come aboard to lounge in the sun, hang out by the bar, and try their luck at the casino. Bingo was probably the most popular daily activity. The dance classes were clever, swapping boring ballroom for Austin Powers and Saturday Night Fever routines. Other options included trivia games, two art auctions, the Newlywed Game, and a seminar on making Carnival’s famous towel animals. The fitness center offered a few free seminars and one or two free classes, as well as Pilates, yoga, and spinning for an extra charge. But, there were long stretches of afternoon with no planned activities, and I found myself getting antsy. If you’re onboard just to relax, you might not see this as a problem.

The attitude: Family friendly or party hardy

As bizarre as this may sound, Carnival is both family friendly and a party boat. Even on this smaller ship, Carnival has a teen lounge and arcade, as well as a large kids’ facility. The Camp Carnival staff seems to keep their charges busy with crafts projects, kids-only karaoke, a costume party, sports, and video games. The program seems well run and much appreciated by the under-18s and their parents. The kids onboard my sailing were never running amok or annoying the older guests. The younger generations did take over the main pool, but you could easily avoid them by heading for the adults-only pool. If you don’t want to share your vacation with a lot of kids, avoid cruising during school holidays.

While parents will relish a vacation that keeps their kids happy, conservative moms and dads might object to the dirty dancing and raunchy games that do take place onboard. Carnival is definitely still a party line. The infamous “Hairy Chest Contest” takes place on the pool-deck stage and involves shirtless men gyrating to dance music while female judges rub them down with ice. The “Slutty Dance Contest” by the Margaritaville pool at Carnival’s Grand Turk cruise port was won by a booty-shaking, bikini-clad 16-year-old as both children and adults (and, it was rumored, her parents) clapped and cheered. Two late-night comedians were billed as too offensive and racy for kids, but I’m sure teens could easily sneak in.

That being said, many families will love a Carnival vacation. The ships offer something for everyone, appealing to both young and mature tastes. At the same time, adults can enjoy activities geared for them without feeling like they’re vacationing in a preschool. If you refuse to cruise with 500 children, sail when school is in session. If you’re concerned about your kids getting exposed to sexually explicit behavior, just choose to spend your time doing family-friendly shore excursions or onboard activities.

In addition to families, honeymooners flock to Carnival because its low prices and hassle-free vacation planning are such a relief after wedding planning. My dinner table companions consisted of three honeymooning couples and one pair celebrating their second anniversary. However, honeymooners looking for a lot of privacy may not enjoy such a social environment. I saw plenty of seniors on the cruise as well. Carnival is best for older adults looking to relax by the pool, sit in a lounge with a book, or gamble at the casino. Cruisers who prefer lecture series, bridge tournaments, and five-star cuisine should look elsewhere.

The price: Great deals and budget busters

Carnival’s biggest asset is its affordability. An oceanview cabin on a five-night Bahamas cruise costs between $319 and $599 per person (based on double occupancy), and many cruisers find deals under $100 per person per night. For these low rates, you get a complete vacation, though without the bells and whistles of fancier cruise lines.

Budget travelers should beware that not everything is included in a Carnival vacation. Shore excursions, soft drinks and alcohol, spa treatments, specialty gym classes, onboard purchases, and casino expenses can quickly add up. A tablemate spent over $2,000 in five nights, mostly on drinks and photos. The key to saving your vacation budget is setting limits. Allow yourself a certain number of drinks per day, cap your souvenir-buying at a specific dollar amount, and be reasonable when choosing shore excursions. Check your email at cheaper cafes onshore rather than using the ship’s Internet service, and don’t have your photo taken at every backdrop. Otherwise, your great deal might turn into a financial nightmare.

The upshot

Carnival offers a wonderful vacation at a low price. It’s fun, it’s social, and for many people, several nights of indulgent relaxation is luxury aplenty. I give the Fantasy its highest marks for spacious and comfortable cabins and an abundance of kids’ activities, as well as a friendly atmosphere. I would recommend Carnival for first-time cruisers, most families, budget-conscious travelers, young couples, groups of friends, and sun worshippers.

I was most disappointed by the inconsistent food, the ship’s wear and tear, and the meager activity schedule. I would not recommend Carnival for experienced cruisers used to the luxury levels of other lines, conservative folks who aren’t comfortable with sexy public dancing and a party atmosphere, or quiet couples looking for a serene getaway. If you’re considering Carnival, but are worried about a lack of options, you might find what you’re looking for on one of its bigger or newer ships.

Overall, Carnival impressed me with its ability to appeal to fun lovers of all ages. In many ways, it can’t be pigeon-holed into one category of cruise line. As a professional critic who’s seen her fair share of cruise ships, I can point to all the less-than-fabulous aspects of the Fantasy. But the real judges, the paying passengers who chose to make a Carnival cruise their vacation, loved their time aboard, despite dinnertime snafus and lingering hangovers. And that is the best recommendation a cruise line can get.

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