This review is meant for the first time cruiser. It's not so much a review of the Inspiration, but rather information a person taking a Carnival cruise for the first time would find helpful. Was it the price, the recommendation of a friend or travel agent, or its "fun ship" reputation that made you consider booking a Carnival cruise? If you're like most people, it was probably a combination of all of these. In general, all Carnival ships are very similar; they utilize the same menu, sell the same products, produce the same type of shows, and have similar cabin decor. Service and staff varies from ship to ship, but in general, everyone is trained to provide a uniform high quality of service. Even the ships layout and decor in public areas are very similar.
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As you know, many people love the experience they get on a Carnival ship, but just as many do not. Carnival has definitely had its share of problems. There have been fires, engine problems and passenger assaults to name a few. But despite the negative press, people still keep coming back for more. The cruise line I'm told, has more available cabins in the Caribbean than it can fill, and often deeply discounts their own cost to fill these ships. Carnival has introduced so many new ships these past few years, that demand hasn't kept up with the availability. This is good news for those of you looking for a bargain.
Our cruise aboard the Inspiration departed out of San Juan on a seven night Southern Caribbean itinerary. It made stops in St. Thomas, Guadeloupe, St. Lucia (my favorite stop), Grenada and Santo Domingo, before heading back to Puerto Rico. As I have been on her sister ships before, many things about the Inspiration were familiar. Our cabin, located on the Upper Deck (U67) was towards the front of the ship. We encountered a friendly staff and had a great cruise, not unlike the others we have taken in the past (check out my other Carnival reviews for more information). I have a young son, who participated in the Camp Carnival kid's program. We found the kid's staff on this particular ship inadequate, occasionally leaving the kids totally unsupervised. As staff changes often, this may not be the case when you sail, but I thought I'd mention it anyway. Otherwise, many of the same elements that make up a Carnival cruise were present here. My expectations were to have a good time, check out ports I've not been to and spend time with my son and husband. This trip exceeded my expectations, despite the issue with the kid's program.
So what is realistic to expect from a Carnival Cruise? You can expect great service from the staff, as their motivation is your tip. The food, on the other hand, is good, but simple. Don't expect lavish buffets or gourmet food. You'll find plenty to choose from, but if exceptional cuisine is what you are looking for, you won't find it on a Carnival ship. Drinks are very expensive, especially those you get in souvenir glasses, however, they have a decent wine list and prices comparable to restaurants back home.
The variety shows and entertainment are actually pretty good. But my complaint is that if you're a returning passenger, you've seen one, you've seen them all. You will find a disco, big band music, dancing and other forms of entertainment on each ship. You'll find more of a party atmosphere on three and four night cruises, than you will on seven night or longer ones. The ages of the passengers varies with each sailing, but my personal observations have been that Eastern and Southern Caribbean sailings tend to draw an older crowd, where as the Western Caribbean and Bahama itineraries tend to have more families and younger passengers. I have not been on longer sailings, nor have I been to Bermuda, Alaska or Europe by ship, so I can't comment on those.
So how does Carnival compare to Royal Caribbean, Norwegian and Premier? I've been on all four cruise lines, and have found them to be very much alike in most areas. I feel the food is slightly better on both Royal Caribbean and Premier. I find the cabins more comfortable and larger on Carnival. The shows and entertainment on both Royal Caribbean and Norwegian change more often, they book established well known performers and produce Broadway like shows (on Norwegian); I personally find them better than what Carnival has to offer. Premier has great prices, but their ships are older and smaller. Norwegian's ships (with the exception of the Norway) are smaller and more intimate. All four of these cruise lines have a similar pricing structure, with Premier being somewhat lower and Royal Caribbean being somewhat higher. Personally, I prefer Royal Caribbean over the others, but often my choice is dictated by price, and thus far, Carnival and Premier have had the best deals afloat.
I did not compare Carnival to Princess, Celebrity, Holland America or others because I feel these cruise lines are a cut above all four I previously mentioned. Although I often see excellent discounts on these cruise lines as well, they tend to be priced higher. I've never had the pleasure of sailing on one of these ships, but my in-laws do quite often, and speak very highly of them.
Cruises are an inexpensive way to vacation, but there are some hidden costs when considering a cruise vacation, that many people do not take into account. Factor in airfare, the cost of drinks (both alcoholic and sodas), shore excursions and tips and you could come away with a more expensive trip than you bargained for. A few years ago, I compared the cost of our cruise with what we paid for a trip to Hawaii , and I was shocked our land based vacation was considerably less, just the opposite of what I would have expected. Over the years, I've learned to cut some of these costs, making cruising a more cost effective way for us to vacation, but if you're taking a cruise for the first time, chances are you'll be hit with a considerable bill at disembarkation.
Some cost cutting tips include limiting your shore excursions to ones you do on your own and being careful about your alcohol consumption. I have never had problems bringing beer and soda on board, and if you're comfortable with that, it can save you from having a large bar tab at the end of the cruise. You can prepay your gratuities, when you check in, on most ships, which can help with budgeting. You can also order wine for dinner and prepay for photographs in advance (by calling the 800 number in Carnival's travel document package).
Have fun in planning your trip. If I didn't answer your questions, please feel free to send an email. Good luck!
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