47 Best Carnival Cruise Line Tips & Tricks for 2021

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Looking for some Carnival tips and advice for your vacation?

Whether it’s your first cruise or you’re a Diamond level passenger (the highest tier of Carnival’s loyalty program), there’s always more to know. Meanwhile, the cruise line is constantly innovating, making changes, and improving.

To help you out, we’ve rounded up our best Carnival cruise tips. The advice below can help you save money, save time, or generally just have a better trip.

Carnival ship whale tail

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.

Just know that it’s not without risk. Shares of Carnival have been all over the map following the health crisis.

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-$120, depending on the length of your cruise and the ship), 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. It can save you some time and make you feel like a VIP.

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.

BlueIguana breakfast menu
BlueIguana’s breakfast menu

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. This card is issued to you at boarding check-in. 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 on Carnival, 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 (called Camp Ocean).

Have a kid older than that? Then the kid’s clubs offer childcare for free while you go enjoy the ship. Definitely take advantage. After all, it’s your vacation too!

9. Trying to budget? Sodas cost $2-$3; Beers cost $6-$8

This isn’t so much a Carnival tip as just a heads up on what you’ll spend. Sodas run about two bucks. Beers will set you back about $6-8. Don’t forget to add in 18% gratuity, which is automatically included to the price.

Worried about the bill? Carnival also sells CHEERS! drink packages that give you access to whatever you want for one daily price. They are convenient and can help you budget.

10. Where to find the cheapest beer on the ship

Pour your own beer

Six bucks for a beer can be tough to swallow. If you want the cheapest beer, then head to the buffet. Some ships (not all) have self-serve beer stations. At these spots you simply swipe your card, and then you pull the handle to dispense beer. 

Brews are sold by the ounce, and a full-sized glass runs about $4 (the price on our most recent cruise was $5.25). Options are limited as for as the brand of beer, but if you don’t care what you drink, it’s a good way to save money.

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.

blackjack payout marker on carnival cruise

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 normally 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. If you’re an early eater, than grabbing a burger without a line is a smart move.

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. But 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 on Carnival, 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 story. Carnival allows those 18 years and older to play in the casino. So while you might not be old enough to play in Las Vegas, you can still play the slots, roulette, or blackjack on the cruise ship.

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, just about anything outside of what you’d wear to the beach is just fine.

Our suggestion is to try and dress up some, but don’t stress. And if you don’t want to change out of shorts and sandals, it’s your cruise. You can skip the formal night dining altogether and just eat somewhere other than the main dining room.

19. Avoid kids in the Serenity adults-only area

Serenity Deck

Some people don’t mind kids. Others want to relax without them running around. If you fall into that second group, check out the Serenity area on your Carnival ship.

This spot is for adults 21-years and up. It features some cozy and comfy seating you won’t find elsewhere on the ship and often has its own dedicated bar area and hot tubs. 

Even if you don’t care about kids one way or the other, you’ll often find the Serenity area less crowded than the pool area and has more cozy, private spaces. 

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. Ordering a pack of water is a smart move

Bottled water on Carnival Cruise

Before you board, go online and order a pack of water. It costs about $5 for a dozen bottles 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 or buffet to get a drink. It’s always right there waiting for you.

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 $8-12 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 tons. Beers for $2-3 are common, so you can easily save 50% in some cases, 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 finished. However, when you bring your passport, keep it in the cabin safe.

We suggest taking 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. This way you don’t have to worry about your real passport getting lost or stolen while you are off the ship.

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 in ports 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 few times a year, you can book your cruise for just $50 down 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 your favorite show on your cruise? Then you’ll want to download them beforehand. The stations on a cruise television are limited (you can see the full lineup here), and most of the big channels you get at home aren’t available.

In fact, most of the time the channels are specific to the ship, like info about port shopping or safety information. 

28. Don’t show up to the port until you are scheduled to board

Carnival has moved from open boarding (when everyone shows up when they want during the entire boarding window) 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, such as right when the ship opens up to passengers.

If you show up before your boarding window, you could be asked to return later. If you show up after your boarding window, they will still let you board.

29. Every Carnival ship has a coin. See if you can find it

Carnival Horizon Coin

Want to have a treasure hunt on your cruise? It’s tradition for Carnival to place a coin on the ship when under construction as a good-luck charm. It’s a fun pastime to explore the ship and see if you can find it. It’s usually located on an upper deck in a public area where anyone can access it.

30. Buy the drink package early to save money

Carnival offers passengers the option of buying the CHEERS! drink package. For one set price per day, you can have your run of just about any beverage on the ship — alcoholic or otherwise. 

Now, this drink package isn’t for everyone. You definitely want to run the numbers on how much you’ll drink before you buy and if you’ll get your money’s worth (see our drink package calculator here). But if you do decide to purchase it, be sure to do so before you sail.

Carnival discounts the package $5 per day — or about 9% — if you buy the package online before you board.

31. You can bring on some drinks, so take advantage

Carnival allows you to bring some drinks on the ship with with you. You can bring a bottle of champagne or wine (standard size), and up to 12 cans or cartons of non-alcoholic drinks.

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 each, 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. (Carnival ships serve Pepsi products.)

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 in many older ships (newer ships are getting better at offer more outlets).

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.

Cruise ship cabin tap
This compact plug gives you a spot for three devices.

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. And that amount is before anything that your bank might charge you to access your money.

Carnival ATM charge

35. Look for deals on older Carnival ships

Carnival is always rolling out new ships. And while the pace of newer vessels will likely slow following the pandemic, the cruise line still has a number of new ships. Mardi Gras, Panorama, and Horizon have all been introduced in recent years. Rightly so, many people are eager to sail these newer ships.

But if you want a deal, look at the older ships in Carnival’s fleet. The vessels are still fantastic to sail, but don’t generate the buzz like a new ship does. Often you can find cruises for hundreds of dollars less, giving you a great vacation for less money.

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. Between rain showers, splashes from the pool, or cleaning by the crew, there are lots of times you’ll find wet decks. 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. Not only do thousands of passengers all want to get off at once, but you also have to go through customs and immigration to return.

This causes delays in leaving the ship, and it can sometimes 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 on many Carnival ships. 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 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. Otherwise there’s an easily avoidable traffic jam.

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 del Capitano — is located at the back of the ship and many 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.

Dry bag sitting in sand

Best of all, when not in use, these bags fold into a small footprint so that you don’t have a lot to carry around.

45. Air freshener is a must. Cabins don’t have powered 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 or questions about sailing on Carnival? Let us know in the comments below.

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