Taking a trip aboard Carnival? Whether it’s your first cruise or you’re a Platinum level customer, there’s always more to know. To help you out, we’ve rounded up our best tips for taking a Carnival cruise. The advice below can help you save money, save time, or generally just have a better trip.
1. If you’re a Carnival stockholder, you can get free onboard credit
It’s a little-known perk for investors. If you own at least 100 shares of Carnival’s stock, then you are eligible for free onboard credit. Your benefit is $50 for cruises fewer than 7 days and $100 for trips of 7 to 13 days. Take a cruise 14 days or longer, then you’ll get $250 in free onboard credit. Learn how to take advantage here.
2. Don’t like standing in line? Check out Faster to the Fun
Ever think that you’d pay money to skip lines? If so, then Carnival’s Faster to the Fun may be of interest. The program allows you to pay a fee (between $50-$80, depending on the length of your cruise), and get priority in everything from check-in to dining to Guest Services. Only a limited number of spots are available, and they usually fill up months before sailing. Still, if you snag one of these spots, then consider yourself fortunate.
3. BlueIguana Cantina serves breakfast burritos
While BlueIguana Cantina — a mexican-themed restaurant on the ship — is known for lunch, most people don’t realize that it also serves some fantastic breakfast burritos. Fill up a tortilla with sausage, eggs, ham, and potatoes and you’ve got a hearty (and free!) breakfast that will keep you from being hungry all morning, no matter how active you are on ship or in port.
4.Bring a lanyard for your Sail & Sign card
If you’ve never taken a cruise before, it might surprise you how often you use your Sail & Sign card. Not only is it your cabin key, it’s also how you make purchases on the ship (used like a credit card tied to your onboard account), and you show it when you exit and enter the ship. In other words, you’re always digging out your card. Many people choose to bring a cheap lanyard to keep their card handy.
5. Costco member? Try booking your next cruise through them for cash back
Truth is that every website has the same prices for cruises. However, if you buy through a third-party site (as opposed to Carnival.com), then you might get extra incentives like onboard credit. Costco has some of the best incentives. For cruises booked through CostcoTravel.com, the store will give you a Costco Cash Card potentially worth hundreds (amounts vary by cruise). That’s much more than what other booking sites will give you.
6. The drinking age in most ports is 18 years old… but 21 on the ship
If you are sailing from the United States, then you have to be 21 to drink alcohol on the ship. But if someone isn’t quite of age, they can drink when in most ports. Places like Mexico and The Bahamas have drinking ages of 18. That means people underage in the U.S. can still drink legally when in port.
7. Carnival offers a 110% “Best Price Guarantee” on excursions
If you’re worried about getting the best deal on an excursion, don’t. Carnival offers a 110% guarantee. If you find the same excursion for cheaper somewhere else, then they will refund 110% of the price difference as onboard credit. That doesn’t mean you can’t find cheaper things to do, but know that if you do buy an excursion through the cruise line, you’ll be covered.
8. Kids under 2 can’t be in kids clubs
Cruises are great for vacations with kids, but know that if you take a kiddo under two years old, then you’re going to be watching them almost all the time. In-room babysitting is available at some hours, but kids under two aren’t allowed to be dropped off in the ship’s kid clubs.
9. Trying to budget? Sodas cost $2.25; Beers cost $5.50-$6.50
This isn’t so much a tip as just a heads up on what you’ll spend. Sodas run about two bucks. Beers will set you back about $6. Don’t forget to add in 15% gratuity, which is automatically included to the price.
10. If sailing from Galveston, be prepared for tax on imports
Enticed by duty-free shopping? It can be a good deal. However, if you sail from Texas, then be prepared to pay some taxes on what you bring back. The amount isn’t that much, but it is a few bucks on a bottle of booze. Wine, beer, liquor, and cigarettes are all hit with the tax by the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission. You pay when you leave the ship.
11. Wait for sale before shopping on the ship
If you have your eye on a souvenir or gift in the onboard shops, have some patience. With a boat full of potential shoppers that have a lot of time on the ship, the stores run sales regularly. Use the first couple of days of the cruise to see what catches your eye. And then spend the rest of the time waiting until it goes on sale to save some money.
12. Be prepared for poor cruise payouts in the casino
It’s common sense that with a boat full of people looking to be entertained, the casino should make money hand over fist. And with a captive audience and no other casinos around, the onboard casinos aren’t generous with their payouts. Expect blackjack that pays 6-5 (instead of the usual 3-2) and video poker machines that pay 6/5 instead of the optimal 9/6 payout.
13. Guy’s Burger Joint is popular. Try it for dinner for shorter lines
Haven’t heard of Guy’s Burger Joint? That will change. The free restaurant is on most Carnival ships and serves up some great burgers. It’s also extremely popular. Hours are 12-6 p.m. and lunch can see long lines. If you don’t want to wait in line, check it out before it closes for the evening. Most people eat dinner elsewhere, so the lines are much shorter.
14. Get ready to be marketed to… constantly
Think you’re done spending money once you get on the ship? Think again. The name of the game is sales on cruise ships these days. From art auctions to spa treatments, you’ll be be sold to constantly on the ship. It’s never pushy, but there are always reminders of places where you can spend money.
15. Room service is free (sometimes)
Go ahead, live like a king or queen. Order room service. It’s complimentary for many dishes such as breakfast and sandwiches. Cruise lines — including Carnival — have moved toward charging for some premium items. It can be $5-6 to get a plate of wings or a pan pizza. It’s still a deal compared to what you’d pay on land, but not as nice as when everything was on the house. Be sure to tip your room service attendant a couple of bucks, too!
16. Save that deck chair… but only for 40 minutes
Chair hogs. Perhaps no one draws the ire of cruisers more than the person that goes down early in the morning and puts a towel down to reserve a prime location by the pool… only to leave it for hours. Yes, you are allowed to save chairs, but the official rules are for only 40 minutes — enough time to go grab a bite to eat. After that time the cruise line employees can remove your items to let someone sit in the chair.
17. The age limit to gamble on a Carnival ship is 18
While you have to be 21 to drink on the ship, gambling is a different stories. Carnival allows those 18 years and older to play in the casino.
18. Formal night? Where what you want, except these items…
What to wear on formal night can be stressful. The truth is, you can get by wearing most anything, as long as it’s not too casual. You don’t have to wear a tux or an evening gown (but many people do). The official rules from Carnival explicitly say not to wear jeans, sleeveless shirts, shorts, t-shirts, sportswear, baseball hats, flip-flips, or bathing suits. In other words, anything outside of what you’d wear to the beach is just fine.
19. Sorry, there’s no more topless sunbathing
Rumor has it that years ago there used to be a top deck reserved for topless sunbathers. Those days are gone. There’s no more topless sunbathing on the family friendly ships. You can get away with untying the back of your swimsuit top when laying on your stomach. However, going “European” isn’t going to be a hit with most other passengers.
20. Cruise insurance is important, but buy third-party
When you book your cruise, Carnival will give you the option of buying the Carnival Vacation Protection. It’s definitely worth it to have some insurance for your trip (recent hurricanes emphasize the point), however, we think you’re better off going with a third-party insurance policy. These policies are usually the same or cheaper in price than Carnival’s policy and cover more. For more on cruise insurance, you can read our article here.
21. Poker pro? The cruise is full of fish
If you like playing poker, then you can potentially make some money on the ship. The casinos host poker games regularly throughout the cruise. It’s an unintimidating place to play and you’ll find lots of beginners trying their hand. If you’re a pro, take it easy on these players. You don’t want to ruin their vacation!
22. Every Carnival ship has a coin. See if you can find it
It’s tradition for Carnival to place a coin on the ship when under construction as a good-luck charm. It’s a fun pasttime to explore the ship and see if you can find the ship’s coin. It’s usually located on an upper deck in a public area where anyone can find it.
23. Take your drinking into port to save some cash
Want to drink but not break the bank? Just head into port. While drinks on the ship can be pricey — $6 for a beer and $8-10 for a cocktail — the bars in port cater to thirsty cruisers with cheap drink specials. Just taking a walk down the pier can save you up to 50%, while also getting to enjoy the local scenery.
24. Leave your passport in the safe, but take a copy with you
It’s a smart idea to have a passport when you take a cruise. It makes it much easier to get home should need to leave before your cruise is through. However, when you bring your passport, keep it in the cabin safe. Take a color copy of the front page of the passport (the page with your passport number and photo) to bring with you into port. Should you need your passport on land, this will suffice until your actual document can be retrieved from the cabin.
25. Don’t worry, you don’t need to learn another language for ports of call
It can be intimidating going to a foreign country. After all, most people don’t speak a foreign language. The good news is that cruise ports are built for tourism. Most people speak English, so you don’t have to struggle through trying to speak another language. In addition, U.S. dollars are widely accepted.
26. Short on cash? Carnival offers $50 deposit sales regularly
If you’re short on cash but have plenty of time before you book your cruise, then keep an eye out for Carnival’s famous $50 deposit sales. During these times, which usually occur a couple of times a year, you can book your cruise for just $50 and then pay off the rest later. It makes it affordable to book that trip you’ve had your eye on.
27. TV channels are limited… don’t expect much
Want to watch Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead on your cruise? Then you’ll want to download them beforehand. The stations on a cruise are limited (you can see the full lineup here), and most of the big channels you get at home aren’t available.
28. Don’t show up to the port until you are scheduled to board
Over the past couple of years Carnival has moved from open boarding (when everyone shows up when they want during the boarding period) to staggered check-in. Now you select a 30-minute window of when to board. This keeps things running smoothly and avoids having too many passengers show up at once. If you show up before your boarding window, you’ll be turned away. If you show up after your boarding window, they will still let you board.
29. Ordering a pack of water is a smart move
Before you board, go online and order a pack of water. It costs about $4 and it’s nice to have in the room. Passengers aren’t allowed to bring on bottles in their luggage (cans/cartons only), so you can’t bring on most water containers. Plus, having some water in the room is nice to keep from having to head to the dining room to get a drink.
30. Save your keycards to make this cute frame
Don’t toss out your Sail & Sign cards after your cruise. You can use them to make a cute picture frame to remember your trip. Full instructions can be found here.
31. You can bring on some drinks, so take advantage
While a bottle of wine or a 12-pack of soda may not seem like much, it definitely makes a difference in your budget. Considering that a glass of wine can cost $8-12 and a soda costs more than $2 a pop, it’s worth it to bring what you can to keep costs down. Plus, if you have a favorite brand, it makes sense to bring it because it might not be available on the ship.
32. A $5 outlet adapter is worth its weight in gold
Cruise cabins are notorious for having limited outlet space, despite the fact that people travel with more devices than ever. Typically there is only one outlet per cabin. Bringing a cheap outlet adapter can be a lifesaver, giving you multiple plugs. Best of all, they are only a few bucks and don’t take up much space.
33. Book excursions online to save time
If you plan to take a shore excursion, you can book it on Carnival’s site ahead of time. If you do this you’ll get the same price you’ll find on the ship, but you have some advantages. First, you don’t have to spend your precious vacation time waiting in line on the ship to book. Second, you get to book before everyone on the ship. If there’s limited space on an excursion, this could be the difference between getting the excursion you want or having it be sold out.
34. Bring cash, but ATMs are available on the ship
It’s better to bring all the cash you need, but don’t worry if you get an a jam. Carnival has ATMs on the ship where you can get some extra money. Be warned: the charges are high — $6 per transaction.
35. Headed to Cozumel? One of the top excursions isn’t a great deal
The “All Inclusive Chankanaab Beach Day & Sea Lion Show” is listed as a favorite for Cozumel, but it isn’t a great deal in our opinion. Priced at $85 per person, it includes transportation, access to Chankanaab Park and all the free activities included with park admission. It also includes a buffet lunch and open bar.
However, if you just head to the park yourself, it’s $22 per person for admission. In other words, you’re paying $63 per person for lunch, drinks, and transportation. A couple headed out on this excursion would pay an extra $126! Unless you plan to drink and eat your fill, it’s likely better just to head to Chankanaab yourself and buy drinks a la carte.
36. Make sure your flip-flops have tread for walking on the ship
Do you wear a pair of old flip flops where the tread has been worn off? If so, it’s time for an upgrade. Decks on cruise ships can get slippery and if you don’t have sandals with grip then it’s not just a nuisance — it’s downright dangerous. You don’t want a slip and fall ruining your vacation.
37. Even in the warm Caribbean, bring a jacket
You might not think of it, but the nights in the Caribbean can get cool, even in the summer. This is especially true when the ship is underway, which makes the breeze much stronger. Do yourself a favor and bring a light jacket to wear in the evenings. Even if you plan to stay inside on the ship, the air conditioning can get cool in many places.
38. Be prepared to wait awhile (1-2 hours) to debark
For as efficient as it is to get on the ship, it the exact opposite getting off when you return. That’s because you have to go through immigration to return. That causes delays in leaving the ship and it can take hours before it’s your turn to leave. Be prepared to hang out for a while and find a nice comfy spot to settle in.
39. Carnival ships cater to families with kids. Take advantage of included childcare
If your child is over two years old, then they can be dropped off at Camp Carnival on the ship. Not only does this give mom and dad a chance to vacation without having to watch the kids, it gives the kids some time away from parents with activities that they will enjoy. The kids clubs are broken up by age and best of all, the service is included in your fare.
41. Navigating the ship can be confusing. Only some floors go straight through
If you want to head from the back of the ship to the front of the ship, you might have to go up or down a few floors to make your way from aft to forward. Things like the dining room and theater cut through multiple floors and keep you from being able to get through. Stick with the main promenade deck (usually deck 5) if you want an easy way to go back and forth.
42. Wait for people to get out of the elevator before you try to enter
Elevators are the heartbeat of the ship. They are used thousands of times daily and are typically busy as people travel around the ship. Since there are usually plenty of people on the elevator, it’s common courtesy to wait and let anyone get off at your floor before you try to get on.
43. Don’t like lines? Look for out-of-the-way restaurants on the ship
Guy’s Burger Joint gets packed at lunch, as does the buffet. If you want to grab a bite without waiting, look for restaurants that aren’t located in prime central locations. For example, on some Carnival ships the pizza parlor — Pizza Pirate — is located at the back of the ship and most people don’t realize it’s there. There’s rarely a line despite offering up some great pies.
44. A $15 dry bag is perfect for beach days
What do you do with your keys, wallet, or phone when you hit the beach? Leave it on shore and you’ll have one eye on the beach all day. Take it in the water and you have to figure out how to keep it dry. A dry bag is the perfect solution. They are cheap and roll closed to keep your stuff dry and secure, even in the water.
45. Air freshener is a must. Cabins don’t have bathroom vents
We’re not sure why, but most cruise cabins don’t have vents in the bathroom. Foul smells, small cabins, and no ventilation are a bad combo. Pack some air freshener with you on your next cruise. Your cabin mate will thank you for it.
46. The cheapest cruise prices are when school is in session
Are you flexible with when you can sail? Then you can save a lot of money. Prices are lowest when school is in session and families have a tougher time sailing. The difference between the lowest fares and the highest fares can be hundreds — if not thousands — of dollars for the same cruise simply taken at different times of year.
47. Want to party? Short cruises are for you
In general, Carnival has a more festive atmosphere than other cruise lines. If you really want to kick it up a notch, check out shorter cruises (five days or fewer). The shorter the cruise the more likely it is to be filled with a younger — and more festive — crowd as they are significantly cheaper.
Have more tips for sailing on Carnival? Let us know in the comments below.