Pros: Value, service, entertainment
Cons: Noise, crowds, chewy meats
If you have the right expectations and like to party, you can have a great time on the Carnival Conquest. If you want to get lots of rest and quiet, you might want to try an Alaska cruise instead.
What I want to know before I travel is what to expect. That is the information I will try and present here. Specific suggestions are prefaced with Hint:. Our sailing date was August 17, 2003.
Note: The Conquest sails from the Port of New Orleans, but earlier this year when the river was too high for the boat to safely clear the bridges, it was sailing from Gulfport. People arriving were being bussed between the ports. In July 2003, it went back to New Orleans.
New Orleans is central to a lot of places in the US, and airfares there are moderate. On the down side, it is incredibly humid, and taxis are very expensive. Taxis go on a flat rate system, and our 10 block ride from the hotel was $28. It is $48 (for four) from the airport to the cruise terminal or downtown. A limo is only $55 and is available without a reservation, so treat yourself. Hotels in New Orleans can be expensive and unkempt. We arrived a day early and stayed at Embassy Suites on Julia Street. Its older, but clean, roomy and spacious. It is two blocks away from Riverwalk, an air-conditioned complex of restaurants and shops. And of course there is the French Quarter and Bourbon Street, a sweaty fifteen minute walk away. Hint: read reviews about the specific hotel you are going to choose, and check several travel web sites for prices.
The cruise terminal is modern and fairly spacious, right in the middle of the Riverwalk area, adjacent to the Convention Center. Access to taxis and transportation is plentiful. Hint: forget the bus transfers; taxis or limos cost about the same if you have two or more people in your party and there is no waiting.
When to Arrive:
Enjoy Riverwalk or some Creole cooking and wait until 3:30 or 4pm to arrive at the terminal. Trying to get there when embarkation begins could result in waiting in long lines, possibly even outside the door in the heat. When you arrive a spiffy porter will take your bags and put his hand out for a tip. Your bags will be delivered to your room (door), usually by 6-8pm.
The agents are nice but ours was maddeningly chatty without offering any really helpful information. Be sure to have your boarding cards all filled in before you get to the counter, and have the proper ID. Your next stop is to pick up your room keys/charge cards (which are pre-printed). Then its your embarkation photo, through the metal detectors, another photo for ID purposes, and youre on! Hint: take a lanyard of some kind (we bought shoestrings in the gift shop) and get your cards punched at the pursers desk to keep from loosing them.
A note about selecting a cabin this is a very personal decision. Some folks think they must have a balcony. Others need a window of some kind. In a way, its like two houses at the beach. One has a view, the other does not. Either way, you are still at the beach. In terms of square footage, even the bigger cabins are still smaller than many hotel rooms. My criteria was value (price) and location. You will pay hundreds more for windows and balconies. We selected two cabins on the 7th floor, mid-ship. Two floors up was informal dining or the pool deck. Three floors down was formal dining and the lounges. Because we booked 6 months in advance we were able to get a higher floor and select the location we wanted. Hint: try several on-line booking engines before committing to purchase. We got a fare lower than Carnival direct and lower than other competing web sites, and they all seem to access the same Carnival reservation system with real-time access to available cabins.
If I could do anything different, I would choose cabins square between the two elevator banks or at one end, just because it would reduce the noise from the elevators and (ahem) thoughtless passengers. We had 7331 and 7335, and were surprised that 7335 was actually a handicap accessible room, with a huge bathroom. It was also the noisiest. Every time the elevator arrived, you heard bing-bong.
Cabin decor is pleasant. There were some bugs; one of our overhead lights was never wired. The florescent panels rattled a bit, and the door pulls were a difficult-to-use rope loop. The TVs, although a decent 19 size, are an ugly Zenith throwback design. They have non-functioning AV inputs on the back, so forget about connecting your camcorder or video game. A small selection of almost-to-video movies is run over and over, but the communications staff does their best to tune in local stations and superstations when possible. The major networks were usually available too.
Our standard rooms had two skinny single beds. Large people will be laying on their own arms all night. Two nice but flat foam pillows per bed are provided. Beds are now high enough off the ground to put even large suitcases underneath, and closet storage is ample. Bathrooms are functional, clean and modern; bath gel and soap are provided, and a small basket of items that looked more like test marketing than real useful selections. A hair dryer and robes are provided, as is a safe that operates off your room card or any other magnetic strip.
Since we had two cabins, and we wanted access to both, we requested and got two additional cards from the purser. These cards were room keys only, not good for charging. There is no one to show you to your cabin (unless you ask), so study the floor plan before you get on the ship.
Be prepared for a fire drill around 5:30PM on the first day. Dont feel silly, everyone has to do it. Just put on your vest and march down to deck four with every one else.
If you or your kids are going to guzzle pop, buy an unlimited soda card on the first day, available at any bar. They are also good for Shirley
Hint: arrive at dinner at the appointed time or slightly before. If you come late you will be out of synch with the rest of the passengers and it will take you longer to be served. Yes, you can order multiple appetizers and even entrees. I found the food good with the exception that I did not have one cut of truly tender beef the whole week. Tasty, just not tender. Also, the drink guy will latch on to you and figure out if you are a regular bar or wine customer on the first day.
Two nights are formal. You can get as fancy as you want, but people are more concerned with the way they look then you look, so remember its not really a competition. On formal nights there are lots of opportunities to have photos taken. You can walk around all night after dinner in your duds (and go to the show), or change back to shorts immediately if you want.
The first nights show is usually a warm up. There were three major shows on our trip; two Las Vegas style sing and dance shows, and a magic/dancing floor show. All three were entertaining, but the Point and Click show was a little lame. Still, all the entertainers are very good and work very hard. Hint: show up 45 minutes early to get a (very) close seat, or 30 minutes prior to get a decent place to sit. I prefer the floor over the balconies. The costumes are plenty skimpy, so bring Grandpas heart medicine.
There is a (free) cocktail party for all guests one night before dinner (each sitting, early and late), and another free cocktail party for repeaters (previous Carnival passengers). We also got souvenir pins delivered to our cabins for being repeaters.
Your dining choices are staggering. You can have a sit-down breakfast or lunch as well as dinner, but if there are 3 or less in your party, you will be seated with others at a large table. Sit-down meals can also take a long time, so check the menu first to make sure you want to commit to it.
The alternative to formal dining is the buffet. A large variety of salads, entrees and deserts are an alternative to formal dining at every meal, except the breakfast buffet which was fairly repetitive. Coffee and hot chocolate are available brewed fresh in modern machines at all times. Juice, water and lemonade flow freely as well. Vegetarian alternatives are usually offered.
Not to be missed was the deli window, where excellent sandwiches (try the corned beef) are made quickly, and the line was never too bad. There is also a burger, dog and fries grill that operates during the afternoon, and 24 hour hot, fresh pizza. A Japanese food walk-up window and 24 hour soft-serve ice cream completes the offerings.
Also of note was an espresso and dessert stand (extra cost) and the midnight buffet spectacle, complete with photo opportunities and ice sculptures. There is even a premium dining opportunity called The Point where for an extra charge you can probably get a tender steak.
The Pool and Deck Areas
You get two towels in your room for off-ship excursions. Do not loose them, or you will be billed $22 each. For the pool area, you check out towels and return them the same day. These are also $22 if not returned, so keep an eye on them while enjoying the pools.
There are thee pools, two forward, and one aft, and two double hot tubs (one aft), and another single tub forward under the giant slide. I did not try the slide, but it was popular and looked like a guaranteed nose full of water. Pools are salt water, and get up to maybe 85 degrees. Hot tubs varied between 100-104. The forward pool seemed to get a little dirty, but the others were fine. Hint: go swimming on shore leave days before you go ashore and after you come back for the smallest crowds.
There are oodles of deck lounge chairs. The ones on the main pool deck fill quickly with possessions and towels, but there are many more on the other (side) decks, both in the shade and sun. Use sunscreen! Dont ruin your vacation on the first day.
The Spa and Gym
I didnt need a facial, but I did check out the gym. You do not need to register to use these facilities. Just walk right into the spa and enter through the appropriate locker room. There is a very nice selection of aerobic and resistance machines. There is even another hot tub in there.
Shore Excursions, Pictures, Gift Shops, the Casino and Drinks
I suspect that Carnival makes a significant portion of their revenue on these items. Now its up to you if you want to swim with the Mantas, but if you dont succumb to all these extras, you wont be so shocked when you get your bill Sunday morning. Will you really wear that garment once you get home? Fake gold by the inch? Starving art? Remember, this is a vacation, not Christmas.
Pictures can be a wonderful souvenir. We had photos taken of my son and are using a reprint for his senior picture. For $27 we got an 8x10 ($20) and a 5x7 ($7). A photo session back home could have run hundreds! 6x9 and wallet sizes are also available, but they make you buy the 8x10 before you can order reprints.
If you must try the casino, allocate a few bucks, blow it and move on. You probably have better gambling at home. It is a surprisingly large one, however.
A daily special cocktail is $3-4, more if you want the silly glass. Domestic beer is $3.25, and imports are $3.75. With the built in tip, a Heineken is $4.31. This adds up quickly. You can buy hard liquor in the gift shop at reasonable prices, but you cannot buy liquor on shore and consume it on board. They take from you and return it when you disembark (same with knives and machetes, by the way). They state no cases of beer may be brought on board. Taking them at their word, I purchased up to 8 individual beers in port and brought them on, right through security and the x-ray machine, no problem Mon. Ah, Jamaican Red Stripe beer. A person could also theoretically bring a small quantity of their favorite beverage on board in their luggage when they arrive. Theoretically.
Ill be brief here, but in all fairness these comments relate only to the areas close to the ship. Jamaica. You dock, $12 cab ride through heavy traffic and bad construction to Montego Bay. Busy, crowded, intense. We did a city tour and caught some hillside views. The beach strip is for folks that want to suffer short-term memory loss, and maybe their wallets. Grand Cayman. Must access via tender boats. Banks and diamond stores. Almost too sterile. Get your Hard Rock t-shirt here. Cozumel. Ah, just right. $6 cab ride to town. Wide variety of eating and shopping. Reasonable prices. Clean streets. Id come back here again. Even the duty free shops and plaza at the ship dock in Cozumel were nice. This was the first time Ive ever seen clearance tables in a foreign country.
Note that the cruise director will point out all the endorsed shopping opportunities and tout them as incredible values. My take is that you can get watches, tanzanite and diamonds off the internet as cheap as in these places. They have a silly price and workmanship guarantee for shops they endorse, but it did not look like a reason to make an expensive impulse purchase to me!
Tips and Service
Used to be that you brought cash and hand-delivered it to your waiter, assistant waiter and cabin steward. This was inconvenient and awkward, in my opinion. Now, it just shows up on your bill at the standard recommended rate, which currently comes out to $10 per person, per day total for all tips. For our party of four, that was $280. No small amount, but the service you get it is well worth it. You can go to the pursers desk and adjust the recommended amount if you wish, and they provide an envelope at the end for the head waiter, which is optional.
Speaking of service, treat the staff with courtesy and appreciation. They are going through this groundhog-day style nightmare week after week and anything you can do to make their job easier or feel appreciated has gotta be good Karma. Everyone on the staff we met in the halls or anywhere made a point to greet us and be helpful.
Cleanliness and Courtesy
Trays and food service items are picked up at lightning speed, especially in dining areas. Items left in halls and lobbies take a little longer. Even if you wanted to pick up after yourself, you cant. There are almost no open buss stations or trash cans in the ship. There is also almost no paper in use anywhere. This keeps garbage out of the ocean, I guess.
Smoking areas are clearly delineated by the presence of ash trays, and are generally well segregated. Smokers are not discriminated against, however and have their share of turf. Smoking on open windy decks is a bad idea though.
Ill finish with my pet peeve, and that is passengers who scream and yell, crash around, and behave in a disruptive manner in the cabin areas. Folks, there are enough places on the boat where you can act like a silly fool. In fact, its encouraged. I know that Carnival is a party cruise, but when Im in my cabin at 1:30AM, I dont want to hear Becky scream at Lloyd to go get her another beer, or whatever. And kids using the halls as a race track is another common occurrence. This might be one argument for a high-end cabin in one corner of the boat, but I have a feeling that inconsiderate people come in all categories. So bring ear plugs or join the sedimentary crowd in Alaska.
Easy. Fill out the customs card. Put you luggage out Saturday night before midnight. Hint: If you want breakfast buffet Sunday morning, get there early or expect long lines. You can wait in a common area or in your cabin until your bag tag color is called. Get off. Find your bags. Smile at the customs agent. Fight your way to the taxi stand. You are now drenched with sweat. As you swelter to the airport, reflect on the best vacation you ever had.