Things to Know About Carnival Cruise for First Time Cruisers

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A Vacation on a Carnival Cruise Line

Vacations on a huge boat in the middle of the ocean. Sounds somewhat intriguing right? In 2016, I took a family vacation on a Carnival Cruise line to The Cayman Islands and Cozumel, Mexico. Yes, it’s 2018. Yes, I’m two years late.  However, I had been planning for just that long to do a travel blog. I just needed to actually do some traveling. Stick with me.

Here we are in 2018, and my memory from two years ago is still just as good. I have detailed my experience along with some things to know about vacationing on a Carnival Cruise.  I’m going to break it down into smaller subjects so hopefully, it’ll make it much easier to read what you need. I mean, who reads an entire blog post anyway?

Please keep in mind, the perspective of this post is the experience of a 20-something year old with no kids. I also traveled with my parents who are seniors. My Lenz may differ from others.

Check out the guide below. Start at the top or choose a topic to jump to it quickly.


Booking a 5 Night Western  Caribbean Cruise

Booking for three adults on a cruise was relatively easy. Once we decided on a month, trip length, and where we wanted to go, we looked for cruises that fit the description. We opted for an end of August cruise for 5 days leaving from Florida and one that would dock at two different destinations.

I did not book our cruise directly through Carnival’s official website. For my three person family cruise, I booked via a website called about a month in advanced. 

If you’re interested in finding the best cruise deals, then make sure to read my post about using Cheap Cruises for the first time HERE!


  • Booking was fast and easy.


  • Nothing

SEE ALSO: How to Find All Inclusive Cheap Cruises

What Are the Costs to Go on a Cruise

For three adults (1 adult, 2 Seniors) the cost came to a total of $1,087 or about $362.33 per person.

This cost included one State room cabin (See Room + Service section for details) + Port fees only (About $25).

Keep in mind that with the hundreds of people working on the ship, there is a mandatory gratuity fee that is charged per day and that will be reflected on your bill upon return. Gratuity will run about $13.95 per day, per person. Of course, you are encouraged to tip more at your discretion if you so choose.


  • The price you pay before you sail will get you on the ship.


  • Extras can run up a bill.
  • Carnival is paper free. So, if you thought you could budget by just bringing cash, it won’t go. Your *Sail & Sign Card acts like your onboard credit card. Any purchase you make is made through this card. Everyone on the ship will have one. It’s super easy to lose track of how much your spending.

*Sail & Sign Card – A card that can be activated with all your information on it, including an active credit card

What Legal Documents are Needed for a Cruise?

Passport - What legal documents are needed for a cruise

If you’re taking a cruise into international waters, you need to bring one of the following:

  • U.S. Passport (Or passport from your country)
  • U.S. Passport card
  • Birth Certificate + Valid picture ID – Last  I checked, cruises still allow you to utilize this option. If you wanted to take a last minute cruise and don’t have time to go through the process of getting a passport, this will do!

Check the U.S. Customs and Border Protection site for the latest rules of Documents needed to take a cruise HERE

Tampa, Florida Cruise Ship Port

At the time I was living in Atlanta, Georgia, so the cruise port we chose was Tampa, Florida. We drove down the day of the departure and had no problems.

Before going, we did get an idea of where a parking garage would be. Conveniently, there are multiple covered parking locations across from the boarding station. There are plenty of signs indicating where to go and park.

It costs about $8/day to park.

Embarkation Day for Carnival Cruise

Depending on your cabin location, everybody has a specified time in which they can board the cruise ship. You can get there early but prepare to wait. When you first come in to the boarding station, they will check your ID and boarding passes to verify you are where you should be. From there, you can have your bags checked if you need or, carry on yourself. I don’t believe there was a bag size limit. Later on, I will explain why I would NOT check my bags in the Room + Service section below.

It’s a long line that you must wait through and a few different checkpoints. Of course, if you want to be safe, you have to follow proceedure.

Once you’re inside the boarding station, you wait for your room section to be called. This will be on your boarding pass.  When you are called, you gather your belongings and you’re able to board the cruise ship.  But after you just sweated your clothes as you were waiting in line, please make sure you pose for the family photo they will try to sell you later as you’re boarding. Yes, they want to capture the moment before you enter. It may be a cute family photo, however, we were hot and bothered and just wanted to put our luggage in the room. So, as you can imagine, we did not purchase that picture.


  • The process moves swiftly. It’s a wait, however they have it down to a science so you do progress through every checkpoint.


  • It’s like going through airport security. You don’t have to do a body scan but no liquids and other TSA unapproved items can get through.
  • While in line, it can get hot. Florida weather mixed with waiting in lines that stretch outside is exhausting. Oh, and be prepared for the quick rain shower that will most likely happen while your waiting outside.

5 Day Cruise Itinerary

Here’s the itinerary of our 5 Day Western Caribbean Cruise:

  1. Tampa, Fl – Depart @ 4 PM
  2. Fun Day at Sea
  3. Grand Cayman – Arrive @ 8 AM – Depart @ 3 PM
  4. Cozumel – Arrive @ 10 AM – Depart @ 8 PM
  5. Fun Day at Sea
  6. Tampa, Fl – Arrive @ 8 AM

Looking for a similar cruise from Tampa, Florida? Check HERE and enter the dates in the search to plan your next vacation!

The Carnival Paradise Cruise Ship

Any time you sail on a Carnival Cruise, you board a unique ship. There are many different cruise ships that offer different on board activities and amenities. We boarded the Carnival Paradise. Overall a nice cruise ship but it was a bit dated. I do believe that this ship has sense been upgraded.

The Carnival Paradise was very beautiful and an open layout in the main atrium. For my first time, I was impressed.


  • Good size ship.


  • The ship was a bit dated and could use some upgrading.

How Are the Rooms and Service on a Cruise Ship?

We opted for an interior stateroom. This is a room with no window or balcony. We chose this option because we didn’t expect to be in our room that much anyways. As long as we had a bathroom and a place to rest, that’s all we needed. However, if you suffer from claustrophobia, do not stay in an interior room.

Carnival Cruise towel animal (bear) in cruise room

For this room cabin selection, You have the option of choosing two twin beds and a pull out, or a Queen bed and the pull out. They will arrange this before you get to your room so you must select this option ahead of time. The room was not very fancy but it’s what we wanted. Honestly, there’s so much going on during the cruise ship, we were barely in the room and I don’t remember turning on the TV once! This definitely forces you to get out and explore the ship.

Oh, remember when I said I wouldn’t recommend checking bags ahead of time? Well, the reasoning is when you first find your rooms, all checked bags are lying outside of the respective room door. For me, that’s just too many people walking by bags and bad things can happen. If you have no choice, then do it and lock your bags, but be cautious!

Also, each cabin hallway has a dedicated room service attendant. This man or women will help you with anything you need and help answer questions. This is also how you get the cute towel animals.  Our attendant was super nice and helpful.  He took the time to introduce himself and even remembered our names any time we saw him. I thought this was a nice personalized touch and great service provided by Carnival.


  • Room service attendant very attentive to your needs.


  • Room is just a room. No extras. Can be a bit tight with more than 2 people.
  • Bags are left outside of your room in the open upon arrival.

The Activities on a Cruise Ship

There are tons of activities and places to check out on the cruise ship. As long as you are out of your room and open to having fun, you should NEVER be bored.

Always make sure to listen to announcements on the ship and grab an on board itinerary. We made the mistake of not getting one so we missed some of the on board activities the first couple of days.

There are daily shows, contests, family activities, dance parties, etc. Stop by the casino to win (or lose) some money. Go to the karaoke bar and listen to some wannabe singers. I suggest just getting up, walking around, and you will find something to do or meet people to talk to. Check out the pool and there’s a game room in a couple of places. Again, you should not be bored.


  • Always something going on


  • If you don’t have an itinerary you may miss some events.

Eating the Food on a Cruise Ship

Carnival Cruise Asian food prepared by wok in buffet line

I’m a big food person. I love food. I consider myself a self-proclaimed food connoisseur.  The food on Carnival was sometimes good…and sometimes bad.

One thing that must be taken into context is most of the cruises’ staff consisted of employees from all over the world and many vacationers are not just from America. So the food options are plentiful and host a wide variety to suit everyone’s taste.

You have the option of attending the main dining hall or various restaurants throughout the ship. Again, if you’re looking to save money, stick to the main dining hall that is including in your cruise purchase. Unfortunately, I did not venture out to some of the restaurants so there’s not much I can comment on that.

If you stay at the main dining hall, it’s buffet style. They have different grill options, sandwich stations, and pizza. Pretty much enough food to satisfy everyone in your family.  I found some of the food to be very bland. I’d suggest trying different food options within reason to expand your taste buds.

The dining hall serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner at specified times. If you miss any of those, the pizza station is open at all times. You can also get unlimited water, lemonade, hot chocolate, and ice cream.


  • All you can eat option at the main restaurant.


  • Food was bland and only open certain times.

Choosing Your Cruise Ship Excursions

Excursions are what can enhance your cruise experience but it’s also where you will spend the most money. Most excursions I saw were no less than $50 per person. Plus, if you have a tour guide you’ll be expected to tip. For a family and multiple island ports you’re docking at, that can get expensive. I suggest look ahead at what is offered that way you have an idea of what you may want to do.

You have the option of booking excursions before the cruise or during your cruise. It’s possible if you wait to book that all slots will be filled. However, we booked once we were on the cruise and had no issues.

To be honest, looking back, I don’t think I would even book an excursion. Research the port you are stopping at and see if there’s things to do locally. Of course, be safe. You don’t want to branch too far off from the tourist spot.

Also, keep in mind most excursions will last the entire time the ship is docked. So, if you were hoping to do an excursion and walk the town, you may be out of luck. Choose wisely!


  • Excursions can be booked ahead of time or during your stay on the cruise.


  • Slots can fill up on excursions if too many people book the same one.
  • Excursions can be expensive for a family and take up the entire time you’re docked at the destination.

What to Expect When You Dock at Your Cruise Ship Destination

When you dock to your destination, the process is very smooth. They have everyone line up and sometimes you are grouped by the excursion you are going on. The ship will let you know the day before where you should meet to get off. Follow the crew and bring your Sail-and-Sign card. You shouldn’t have to bring your passports since typically that is all checked even before you get on the cruise ship. Once you’re properly counted and off the ship you are free to do what you want. Upon return to the ship at the scheduled time, they will check you in again and check your belongings.

Using Phone Service and WiFi on a Cruise

Unless you have the best phone service in the world, chances are you will have absolutely no service on board. You can purchase Wi-Fi plans for as low as $5 a day. This is a good option if you are vacationing with a lot of friends/family and need to get in contact. Personally, I think you’re on vacation to disconnect from your life anyways, why ruin it with someone trying to whine to you on your vacation. Plus, your boss can’t reach you if you have no service. Think about it.

The Cruise Experience for Adults


If you’re going on a cruise to loosen up and have tons of liquid libations, you’re definitely in luck. The alcohol packages on the cruise ship are relatively inexpensive. If you know you want endless alcohol options, adults can purchase an unlimited alcohol package for their cruise. It’s priced per day and runs about $50-$60. That’s a great deal if you know that’s what you want.

You can also just buy as you want while you’re there. However, make sure you keep track of how much your spending because it’s all done through you Sail-and-Sign card and it’s easy to keep going. I’d hate for you to get the bill at the end of your trip and be surprised that those $3 beers added up to a significant amount.

You are not able to bring alcohol on the ship. I believe for special occasions you are able to bring a bottle but it must be held by staff. If you purchase alcohol while you are off the ship during the explore days, you must then check it in when you return and the ship will hold it until you officially disembark from the ship.


  • Alcohol is plentiful.


  • The alcohol package can be expensive

The Adults Only Section (21+)

If you’re going on a cruise and worried about a bunch of kids running in your way, well don’t worry because there are many options for just adults. Carnival hosts comedy nights and shows for the mature audience.  Stop by the karaoke bar at night and check out the casino.

My favorite part was the adults only lounge located in the back of the ship. There’s tons of chairs to sit out in, covered and uncovered seats, two hot tubs, and consistent service if you want food and/or drinks. Most important, no children allowed!


  • Adults only. Enough said.


  • At times it can get crowded depending on time of day.

Disembarkation Day on Your Cruise Vacation

A final invoice will be delivered to the room in the morning as you pack your belongings. If you need assistance with your bags, someone will be by to help. They release you from the ship again by your cabin room area. You will check through United States Customs first to declare any items you are bringing in and then you can be on your way!

Closing Thoughts

Carnival Cruise was great for my very first time. With no expectations in mind, I think the experience overall was great. There are things that I would’ve done differently, as mentioned in a few of the sections, but for the most part I’d do it again. Cruising on a budget is definitely possible if you plan ahead!

How to Find All-Inclusive Cheap Cruises
Grand Cayman: Things to Do While on a Cruise

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