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Margaritaville at Sea sets sail on choppy waters: Why you should wait to book a cruise

June 09, 2022
15 min read
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As I stepped off the gangway and into the atrium for one of Margaritaville at Sea Paradise's first sailings, I saw a massive blue flip-flop sculpture surrounded by a white life buoy, both emblazoned with the name of the cruise line.

I knew going into this cruise that Margaritaville at Sea Paradise was a 30-year-old ship, previously run by Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line, that had received a multimillion-dollar Margaritaville-themed refurbishment. The atrium, though small, with its freshly painted light blue-and-white walls and subtle tropical theming, made the ship feel brand-new.

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As I explored the rest of the ship, my hopes were high that I would return home from my sailing with the recommendation that Margaritaville at Sea was the ideal weekend getaway for both Parrotheads and the not-yet-indoctrinated Jimmy Buffett fans alike.

By the end of my two-night voyage to Grand Bahama Island, however, I realized the best advice I could give to future cruisers is to hold off until the Margaritaville dream has been fully realized.

What I loved

The cost

It's hard to complain about a cruise that starts at just over $250 per person (before gratuities and fuel charges). That cost covers your accommodations; meals (aside from specialty dining); select nonalcoholic beverages such as water, coffee and tea; entertainment; and onboard activities.

(Photo by Tarah Chieffi/The Points Guy)

By the end of my cruise, I had racked up roughly $300 in extra charges for a shore excursion that included a day relaxing at a nearby all-inclusive beach resort, iced coffees, a burger from the 5 o'Clock Somewhere Bar, a souvenir T-shirt and, yes, a few margaritas.

You could keep costs down by cutting back on the add-ons or throw caution to the wind and go all-out. After all, you're on vacation — and at least this vacation doesn't consume too much paid time off.

Related: Parrotheads can soon earn perks on Margaritaville cruises, too

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The stateroom

I've never cruised before and wasn't sure what to expect from the staterooms other than assuming I'd feel like a canned sardine. I was relieved to find the cabins were spacious and bright, with crisp white bedding, tropical artwork on the walls and a large porthole that looked out over the ocean.

There was a minifridge, a flat-screen television in the corner, a large closet with plenty of storage drawers, a small seating area near the porthole and a desk with a large mirror. I found more than enough USB ports for one guest, but two or more people trying to charge their devices may get into a few scuffles.

The excursions

When we docked in Freeport, some guests grabbed a taxi to one of the island's public beaches, some stayed on the ship to enjoy an uncrowded pool deck and others, including myself, boarded a shuttle bus for one of the ship's prearranged excursions.

(Photo by Tarah Chieffi/The Points Guy)

You could swim with dolphins or the famous Bahamian pigs or visit one of two nearby all-inclusive resorts. I paid $99 for a day at the Viva Wyndham Fortuna Resort, which included beach and pool access, alcoholic and nonalcoholic drinks, lunch and use of kayaks, paddleboards and snorkel gear.

Our excursion left the ship around 9:15 a.m. and we had to be back on the bus at 3:15 p.m. to be back at the boat by 4 p.m. All in all, I felt it was a good value for a day on the beach and an escape from the crowds on the ship. The ship never felt too crowded (unless you were standing in line at the bar), but nothing feels as secluded as a long stretch of sandy beach.

The onboard entertainment

Aside from a day spent reading and collecting shells on the beach, the absolute highlight of my cruise was "Tales from Margaritaville: Jimmy's Ship Show," a musical production based on Buffett's bestselling book, "Tales from Margaritaville."

(Photo by Tarah Chieffi/The Points Guy)

The performers were phenomenal, the musical numbers hit all of Buffett's most popular tunes and audience participation was encouraged. The show even ended with a conga line through the theater. I was such a fan that I watched the show both nights and would do so again were I to sail with Margaritaville in the future.

(Photo by Tarah Chieffi/The Points Guy)

"Tales from Margaritaville" was certainly the headlining act, but it was far from the only live entertainment on the ship. Both days were packed with live musical acts, dancing, trivia and game shows, family programming and more.

(Photo by Tarah Chieffi/The Points Guy)

I'm not much of a gambler, but I did walk away with close to $100 from the ship's Par-A-Dice Casino after spending about 10 minutes at the penny slots, so the casino gets a thumbs-up from me.

The food and drink

Aside from the less-than-exciting buffet, which I can only assume is par for the course on most cruise lines, the food on Margaritaville at Sea was delicious and plated with care.

Margaritaville at Sea lunch buffet. (Photo by Tarah Chieffi/The Points Guy)

To be fair to the buffet, breakfast was totally acceptable, especially the made-to-order omelets. But after one lunch at the buffet, I knew it would be my last. The food that was meant to be hot was lukewarm at best and the food that was meant to be cold was room temperature.

One night, I had dinner at Fins, the included sit-down restaurant, and on the second night, I ate at the 5 o'Clock Somewhere Bar & Grill.

The fried cauliflower starter and braised short rib entree I ate at Fins were tasty and well cooked. Because it was included, I said yes to dessert and had a creamy, tangy lemon meringue tart.

Burger from 5 o'Clock Somewhere Bar & Grill. (Photo by Tarah Chieffi/The Points Guy)

My $15 burger and fries from the 5 o'Clock Somewhere Bar & Grill were equally delicious and I loved the addition of the shark fin toothpick in my burger. The menu also had nachos and a few other burger and sandwich options, all priced a la carte.

Aside from the buffet or the add-on breakfast at JWB Prime Steakhouse, it was tough to find food and drinks until late afternoon when the lounges, coffee shop and other dining venues opened for the day.

I was told by my steward there was room service, but I never received any information about hours or what was on the menu. I had the lunch that was included as part of my second-day excursion and I was glad I did. When I returned to the ship around 4 p.m., my only choices until dinner were pizza, salad or cupcakes from the coffee shop (or a margarita, I guess).

Booze in a blender at the 5 o'Clock Somewhere Bar & Grill. (Photo by Tarah Chiefii/The Points Guy)

I'm more of an IPA gal than a cocktail drinker, but I was a big fan of the margaritas (both frozen and on the rocks) on board the ship. The bars were almost always busy, but the bartenders were friendly and fast and the drinks didn't have that "straight out of a bottle of cocktail mix" flavor that makes me shy away from cocktails in the first place.

What I didn't love

The ship is still actively being refurbished

Though I hadn't sailed on this ship (or any ship) before, I could easily pick out which carpeting, furniture and wall colors were left over from the ship's prior life as Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line's Grand Classica. In fact, painters were actively updating the ship's Euphoria Lounge during my cruise (which I could both see and smell, though no areas were closed due to ongoing work.)

Previous Grand Classica wall colors. (Photo by Tarah Chieffi/The Point Guy)
Margaritaville painting in progress. (Photo by Tarah Chieffi/The Points Guy)

After chatting with other passengers, I learned that the ship is currently only in phase one of a three-phase refurbishment.

Because the inaugural sailing had already been delayed, I assumed that meant the ship would be fully renovated when I stepped on board. Because that wasn't the case, I asked the cruise line's public relations team what the timeline was for completion.

Updates are ongoing, they told me, such as the painting I witnessed during my trip. Here's what's changed in the couple of weeks since my cruise:

  • New carpet has been installed in the Euphoria Lounge.
  • Smokers were installed to provide cruisers with barbecue lunch options when they return from their shore excursions.
  • The styling of the buffet has been updated to match the Margaritaville vibe.
  • Back-of-house updates have been made to improve the guest experience in terms of air conditioning and sanitation.
  • Upgraded kitchen equipment has been installed to enhance the JWB Prime Steakhouse experience.

Margaritaville at Sea is also in the process of implementing wristband technology that guests can use to redeem drink packages on board and for entry into VIP "ticket-only" functions the cruise line has planned for holidays such as New Year's Eve and Valentine's Day. They are also installing a mobile pool bar for guests.

Fully rebranded area outside the casino. (Photo by Tarah Chieffi/The Points Guy)

If I'd known this in advance of my cruise, I would have waited to book until the rebranding process was complete for the full Margaritaville experience.

The ship is showing its age

On top of being nowhere near finished with renovations, or maybe because work is ongoing, this 30-year-old ship is showing its age, both in style and wear and tear.

There was a lot of wood paneling and furniture. (Photo by Tarah Chieffi/The Points Guy)

The wood paneling found throughout the ship, for example, felt dated and out of line with the beachy Margaritaville style. Paired with the matching furniture in the staterooms and common areas, it was a bit of oak-wood overload.

(Photo by Tarah Chieffi/The Points Guy)

Though the staterooms had been completely overhauled, it was obvious the bathrooms hadn't been touched.

Related: 22 cruise ship cabin hacks that will transform your voyage

Everything was in working order, but the bathroom fixtures and colors looked the same as photos I had seen of the ship prior to being refurbished. Even a palm tree-dotted shower curtain would have made the room feel fresh and on brand.

The ceiling was leaking in more than one spot at the buffet. (Photo by Tarah Chieffi/The Points Guy)

It wasn't just the style of the ship that snapped me out of my Parrothead paradise. Each time I passed through the buffet, I saw buckets catching water from ceiling leaks in different spots. On its own, I wouldn't have thought much of a little leak, but when combined with the ship's other shortcomings, it stuck out as yet another issue to address.

As with any new experience, changes are often made in the early days as customer feedback rolls in and real-time issues are addressed. The cruise line did not share specific details on plans to update the bathrooms or other cosmetic features of the ship, but I wouldn't be surprised to see it happen in the future.

The pools were tiny

(Photo by Tarah Chieffi/The Points Guy)

Margaritaville at Sea Paradise has two pools on board — the all-ages License to Chill pool and the adults-only 12 Volt pool. Both are small and square, and once 10 or so people were in the water, I felt there wasn't much room for anyone else. I loved that Margaritaville at Sea provided beach balls and floats (cheeseburger- and parrot-shaped inflatables, of course), but they took up most of the pool's real estate.

The atmosphere was not so family-friendly

While there were a few families with young kids on board, most passengers were couples, friend groups or families with adult children. There were three kids clubs for children of various age groups and a few family-centered activities each day, but this was definitely an adult-oriented ship.

(Photo by Tarah Chieffi/The Points Guy)

It was also obvious most people were there to party. Nobody was out of control, but the activities and dancing later in the evening were aimed at a mature audience. My kids aren't quite ready to see people "showing off their sexiest dance moves" or "pretending to give birth" — both of which were directives in the team scavenger hunt on the second evening.

Between the lack of swimming space and the dearth of activities until later in the evening, I'd be hesitant to set sail with my kids.

Who goes on a Margaritaville cruise (and what did they think of it)?

I spoke with a lot of my shipmates during the cruise. (They all hailed from Florida, by the way.) I wanted to know what drew people to Margaritaville at Sea and how they felt about the experience.

Some had been on the ship prior to the rebranding and wanted to sail again now that it had been updated. Some were celebrating birthdays or anniversaries and wanted to do something special to mark the occasion. A few lived so close to the beach that they could go whenever they wanted and were looking to shake things up.

(Photo by Tarah Chieffi/The Points Guy)

Everyone seemed to be having a good time and enjoying their "floating island vacation," but some were less impressed by the ship than others.

One guest told me she missed the "French elegance" the ship had before the rebrand. It is true that most ships have a formal dress-up night, which Margaritaville at Sea Paradise does not. In fact, save for Fins and the JWB Prime Steakhouse, there weren't any other areas where guests were required to change out of their swimsuits and flip-flops.

A casual vibe is on brand for Margaritaville, but if you're used to how other cruise lines do things, you might be in for a surprise.

(Photo by Tarah Chieffi/The Points Guy)

When a certificate for a free cruise showed up in my stateroom on the final evening, along with a letter inviting me back to "experience everything the ship had to offer," I wondered if this was normal for a cruise and asked other passengers if they received one, as well.

The general consensus was that there had been so many complaints during our cruise that everyone was given a certificate to come back and see it once more work has been done, though the cruise line said this was a special offering for guests who sailed over Memorial Day weekend in order to "recognize the holiday and delight guests."

Bottom line

I can have fun anywhere, and I had more than my fair share on Margaritaville at Sea Paradise, but I'd want the ship's upgrade and rebranding to be fully finished before I cruise on that ship again.

(Photo by Tarah Chieffi/The Points Guy)

I'd also do a few things differently if I were to sail on Margaritaville at Sea Paradise again. I would choose a cabin more toward the front of the ship to avoid some of the vibrations I could feel in my room and I'd pack snacks to make up for the lack of midday dining availability.

I'd love to see the ship again once the renovations are complete. I was told that the ship’s phased refurbishment should be completely finished in the coming weeks, though no specific date was provided, and I'd have to recommend that other cruisers find out if the ship is fully renovated before going "Fins Up" with Margaritaville at Sea.

Featured image by (Photo by Tarah Chiefii/The Points Guy)
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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  • Earn 60,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $4,000 on eligible purchases with your new Card within the first 6 months of Card Membership.
  • Earn 4X Membership Rewards® Points at Restaurants, plus takeout and delivery in the U.S., and earn 4X Membership Rewards® points at U.S. supermarkets (on up to $25,000 per calendar year in purchases, then 1X).
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  • Choose the color that suits your style. Gold or Rose Gold.
  • No Foreign Transaction Fees.
  • Annual Fee is $250.
  • Terms Apply.
  • See Rates & Fees
Apply for American Express® Gold Card
at American Express's secure site
Terms & restrictions apply. See rates & fees
Best for the well-traveled foodie
TPG Editor‘s Rating
Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
4 / 5
Go to review

Rewards Rate

4XEarn 4X Membership Rewards® Points at Restaurants, plus takeout and delivery in the U.S.
4XEarn 4X Membership Rewards® points at U.S. supermarkets (on up to $25,000 per calendar year in purchases, then 1X).
3XEarn 3X Membership Rewards® points on flights booked directly with airlines or on amextravel.com.
  • Intro Offer
    Earn 60,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $4,000 on eligible purchases with your new Card within the first 6 months of Card Membership.

    60,000 bonus points
  • Annual Fee

    $250
  • Recommended Credit
    Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

    670-850
    Excellent/Good

Why We Chose It

There's a lot to love about the Amex Gold card. It's been a fan favorite during the pandemic because of its fantastic rewards rate on restaurants (that includes takeout and delivery in the U.S.!) and U.S. supermarkets. If you're hitting the skies soon, you'll also earn bonus points on travel. Paired with up to $120 in Uber Cash (for U.S. Uber rides or Uber Eats orders) and up to $120 in annual dining statement credits at eligible partners, there's no reason that the foodie shouldn't add this card to their wallet. Enrollment required.

Pros

  • 4x on dining at restaurants and U.S. supermarkets (on the first $25,000 in purchases per calendar year; then 1x)
  • 3x on flights booked directly with the airline or with Amex Travel
  • Welcome bonus of 60,000 points after spending $4,000 in the first six months

Cons

  • Weak on travel outside of flights and everyday spending bonus categories
  • Not as useful for those living outside the U.S.
  • Some may have trouble using Uber/food credits
  • Few travel perks and protections
  • Earn 60,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $4,000 on eligible purchases with your new Card within the first 6 months of Card Membership.
  • Earn 4X Membership Rewards® Points at Restaurants, plus takeout and delivery in the U.S., and earn 4X Membership Rewards® points at U.S. supermarkets (on up to $25,000 per calendar year in purchases, then 1X).
  • Earn 3X Membership Rewards® points on flights booked directly with airlines or on amextravel.com.
  • $120 Uber Cash on Gold: Add your Gold Card to your Uber account and each month automatically get $10 in Uber Cash for Uber Eats orders or Uber rides in the U.S., totaling up to $120 per year.
  • $120 Dining Credit: Satisfy your cravings and earn up to $10 in statement credits monthly when you pay with the American Express® Gold Card at Grubhub, The Cheesecake Factory, Goldbelly, Wine.com, Milk Bar and select Shake Shack locations. Enrollment required.
  • Choose the color that suits your style. Gold or Rose Gold.
  • No Foreign Transaction Fees.
  • Annual Fee is $250.
  • Terms Apply.
  • See Rates & Fees