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This is the final installment in TPG’s Family Travel Series: Cruising, written by TPG Director of Operations, Danielle. Other posts include: Choosing a Cruise While Maximizing Points, Is the Disney Credit Card Worth It For A Cruise?, How to Choose a Cruise Based on Points, Using Frequent Flyer Miles for Cruise Flights, How to Get a Passport for Your Child and Cruising – Anchors Aweigh.
So far readers have joined my family and me while we contemplated our trip, considered the Disney Visa, picked our cruise line, found award flights, applied for passports for our toddlers, and made our way to Port Miami for embarkation – all the while trying to maximize any points and miles earning and redeeming opportunities. So now at long last it’s time to share my review of the Carnival Destiny and throw a giveaway to thank everyone for all of their invaluable feedback and help during this process!
Although it still felt a touch crowded, we were very happy with our choice to book an Ocean Suite for our stay aboard the Carnival Destiny. Since our children are still nappers, we knew we would be spending more time in our cabin than the average cruiser, so the extra space (and the bathtub verses a shower stall) proved to be invaluable. We even decided to order from the complimentary room service menu and eat in our stateroom for our first meal, since we’d had an exhausting time boarding the ship. The room service fare wasn’t amazing, but the convenience far outweighed our palates at that moment and we were grateful to have it as an option during our trip.
Hands down the best part of our vacation was Camp Carnival. Many of you recommended it, and it didn’t disappoint! We went to the orientation the first evening and were relieved to hear you are provided with a cell phone while your child is in the Camp so that the teachers can alert you at any time if there’s a problem. We also learned about the different activities the kids would be engaged in; everything from paper snowball fights, dance, music, story time, face painting, a pirate party, a bug hunt, dino dig, sand art, and more was on the munchkins’ agendas.
There actually weren’t many rugrats on our cruise, so the Camp never felt overcrowded. And much to our surprise and delight, the counselors even assisted with potty-training and he left his diapers behind after a few days with the other Destiny kids. Coincidence? Perhaps…but we’ll take it! Word to the wise, however: the hours for the daycare were much more limited than what we were lead to believe online beforehand. Camp didn’t open until 10am every day and it closed intermittently for lunch, dinner prep, and other staff breaks. Although we only ever wanted to drop the kids off for 1-2 hours at a time, if we had had longer engagements it could have been a problem.
We also enjoyed many of the other activities aboard the Carnival Destiny. Every morning we received a newsletter outlining the different things to do each day, and the range was quite wide. Art auctions, karaoke, bingo, games, contests, shows, comedy acts, lots of music, gambling, spa treatments, seminars, exercise classes, shopping and more – though none of it was really kid-friendly outside of the Camp Carnival, which did hamper us. Still, the husband and I are actually content just finding a nice spot to read and people-watch so although that doesn’t seem to be the typical cruisers activity of choice, we did “manage” to enjoy ourselves.
Although we aren’t avid gamblers (other than the weekend family Texas Hold ‘Em games with TPG’s parents and siblings), the casino on board was an interesting place to hang out, and we also made use of the gym facilities onboard. Since our island time was cut short due to weather, I did some shopping in the “Fun Shops” and came home with some nifty souvenirs for the grandmas, and we both got a tremendous laugh at all the incredibly staged “photo ops” that were available each night. Mike even made his way to the Carnival Spa for a haircut on board and was pleasantly surprised by the reasonable price.
Inexperience played a large role here. It seems as though there are a lot of things about cruising that take some getting used to. Mainly, our dining experience was lacking. We selected an evening meal time (not realizing that they are set in stone) that did not coincide well with our kids’ schedules and the Camp hours and so that made eating in the nicer restaurants next to impossible. We were able to bring the kids to the “better” dining areas during open seating for breakfast and lunch, however, which was a nice alternative to have over the cafeteria-style buffet that was our main dining option. We also were under the impression that there was a children’s food menu available whenever needed – instead our 4-year-old was served apple juice in a wine glass during breakfast, and we found ourselves haunting the poolside grill to scavenge chicken nuggets and fries several days in a row. Destiny didn’t exactly deliver in this department.
In terms of the ship’s facilities, we found the pool and the water slide quite disappointing. Aside from the fact that the weather was almost 100% muggy and wet, the two open pools (there was a third one that was inexplicably covered by a net the whole time) were both very squat, square, and totally unappealing/unsafe for any small kids who may be unable to swim on their own yet (though you’d think every 10-12 year old onboard had sprouted fins). We never found a wading area or any sort of kiddie pool or sprinklers and since the kids were a couple inches too short for the water slide (and Mommy & Daddy couldn’t accompany them) we had to watch the revelry from the sidelines. But, then again, the fact that we had our own balcony to hang out on when we wanted fresh air was a good alternative to spending a lot of time on deck anyway. However, we weren’t exactly surprised to learn that this particular ship will be undergoing an extensive renovation in Italy next February and renamed the Sunshine in 2013!
One of the other big drawbacks for me was that Internet access was pricey. That wasn’t a surprise at all since expensive and spotty cruise ship internet access is well documented, but I ended up paying over 30 cents a minute to stay connected at a rate of $160 for 480 minutes. On the upside, the WiFi in my room worked great.
One more quick tip: if you’re not a big-time soda drinker, there’s really no need to buy the “bottomless bubbles” soft drink package that was extensively pushed the first 2 days. We really could have made due with just one enrollment and pocketed the extra $36 since Mike preferred the free iced tea and lemonade to carbonated beverages. Oh well – lesson learned. At least we didn’t sign the kids up for it – juice and milk are also complimentary.
The other unexpected expense we had was that washers and dryers were pretty expensive. Each cycle cost $3 plus detergent, and you have to march through the casino to obtain quarters – not such an awesome experience when it’s 2 am and you have a sick toddler (see below for more details) and desperately need to wash pajamas.
Unfortunately our vacation came to a very unpleasant end when our family became ill. We experienced poor weather the whole week – obviously that can happen and it wasn’t the cruise’s fault – that culminated on the 4th day when we were supposed to visit Grand Cayman (the port we were most excited about) but instead had to spend another day at sea because of a tropical storm. Note: if your port call is cancelled, the cruiseline will refund all excursions booked through them and will also return any taxes the ship would have paid for docking. We received about $18 back per person for not pulling into Grand Cayman.
Far worse, however, occurred that night when our Conor became very ill…repeatedly getting sick in his sleep. However, the next morning he seemed much better so we assumed it had been a bout of sea-sickness or something he’d eaten, and let him go to Camp. Twenty minutes after drop-off we were called back because Conor hadn’t been able to keep down his breakfast and we were served with a notice that he was to see the ship’s doctor before returning. Visits start at $125 for the exam plus any medicines or procedures. We immediately took him to the infirmary and found it closed. Mid-morning.
Regardless of what the doctor says, your child is still not allowed to be re-admitted to Camp Carnival within 24 hours of a sick notice, and we would be getting off the ship in Miami the next morning, so at the time we shrugged off the fact that we couldn’t get him in right away to see a professional assuming things would pass shortly and Conor would feel better. We took him back to our cabin for some TLC. A few hours later though, with Conor still very much under the weather and unable to hold anything down, we were back at the door to medical services – and it was closed again. Needless to say we thought this was very strange and disturbing. We have since learned that we could have banged on the door and there was supposedly a nurse practitioner “on call” during their off-duty hours, but there was no notice or sign anywhere indicating this. We had called information before heading down the second time and the hours that were listed in the automated message didn’t match what was posted on the door. It did not make for a very pleasant experience on our last full day aboard the Carnival Destiny.
Our travel plans home also took a hit since, one after the other, each of us (except Mom!) became sick over the course of the next day when we disembarked in Miami. Eventually I took everyone into a local South Beach ER where the doctors suspected we had picked up norovirus on the ship – though there’s no way to confirm that, and it could have just been some sort of stomach bug. However, traveling home while everyone was so sick wasn’t going to be a possibility, so I called British Airways (since we used Avios to book our tickets) and change our flights from Saturday morning to Sunday. Luckily, the British Airways rep I reached sympathized and so we were able to change our award flight home on AA at the last minute (I called a mere 90 minutes before our departure time) after paying BA’s change fees.
It’s too bad our cruise ended on a sour note, but in the spirit of making the best of it (and looking back and laughing) we want to invite TPG readers to enter a giveaway contest. A family-wide travel bug is awful, but do you have a story that can top ours? Tell us about your worst travel experience for a chance to win a treasure trove of prizes we brought home with us: Tortuga rum cake, a Carnival coffee mug and Caribbean ground coffee, a Grand Cayman t-shirt, bracelet from Jamaica, and a “sea glass” dolphin (picked out by Miss Keira herself) along with a couple other small goodies including 10,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points. And all this comes packaged in a The Points Guy signature beach bag (just in time for summer travels)! A winner will be selected and announced by the end of the week so hurry and tell us about your less than spectacular experience.
Thanks again to everyone who weighed in and helped make our cruise happen!