What I Wish I Knew Before I Sailed My First Carnival Cruise

I sailed my first Carnival cruise years ago, but it seems like it was yesterday when I took that trip aboard Carnival Valor.

Since then, I’ve taken more trips on the cruise line, including the absolute first cruise back after the pause in sailing, which departed Galveston, Texas. Each time I sail, I learn something new about sailing on Carnival.

From places that are off-limits on the ship to how to score a free lunch in specialty restaurants, here are the things I wish I knew before first sailing on Carnival. Hopefully these can make your first trip on the cruise line even better.

People Are Serious About Having Fun

Carnival cruise pool deck
Passengers on Carnival seem more ready to let loose and more outgoing than on other lines.

Let’s talk about the people on the ship. My first cruise ever was on Royal Caribbean. And to me there is a definite difference between a lot of the passengers you’ll find on Carnival and what you’ll find on other lines. (See our article on the differences between Carnival and Royal Caribbean here.)

Everyone on any cruise is going to be in a good mood, but it certainly feels like the average passenger on Carnival is much more serious about having fun. It’s hard to explain, but it’s just a vibe around the ship.

It starts with things like door decorations. I see way more of these on Carnival than other lines. And the general mood of people onboard is more outgoing and upbeat than what I feel I see elsewhere. Striking up a conversation with practically anyone is a cinch. You’ll see people dancing everywhere around the pool deck. Some of it caught me off-guard as I’m not a line dancer.

Carnival calls themselves the “Fun Ships,” and that’s not just some slogan. It seems like it’s a way of life onboard.

It’s Harder to Get Around the Ship

I’ve found that many ships are laid out to where it’s straightforward to get around the ship. There are usually paths that stretch the length of the ship through central areas.

With Carnival? Not so much. Every ship is different, but the ones I’ve sailed have always seemed much more chopped up. So instead of a nice clear way to get from “Point A” to “Point B,” it seems like it involves walking as far as you can in one direction, going up or down a floor, and then continuing on your way.

In fact, I’ve found that if you are at one end of the ship and want to get to the other end, it’s much simpler to find a deck that’s dedicated to cabins instead of public areas. These decks have long straight hallways that make it much simpler to traverse the length of the ship.

Free Eats at Specialty Restaurants

Specialty restaurants — love them or hate them, they are a fact of life on cruise ships. Carnival is no different, although they seem to have more free spots to dine compared to other cruise lines.

Even so, spots like JiJi Asian Kitchen or Guy’s BBQ Smokehouse charge extra to eat there in the evening. There’s also the steakhouse and sushi that are extra.

But one thing that you learn once you sail? Some spots — including JiJi and Guy’s BBQ offer lunch options that are free. Now, don’t expect the same menu and service as you get in the evening. For instance, JiJi serves up stir-fry dishes instead of the full menu.

Still, it does open up your options for lunch and it also gives you a chance to try some of these restaurants without having to pay extra.

Guy’s Burger Joint Has Limited Hours

If you talk to anyone that sails on Carnival, the chances are good that somewhere along the way Guy’s Burger Joint will come up. For those that have not sailed, this is an included spot serving burgers and fries by the pool. What makes it stand out is that the burgers are out of this world. And — I’m not making this up — the secret ingredient is Velveeta cheese sauce. May sound a little weird, but it’s delicious.

You’ll notice that the spot gets super busy, especially on days at sea. One reason is that it keeps limited hours. On trips I’ve sailed, it’s open from 12-6 p.m. So if you have your mind set on a burger for dinner, then you need to eat early.

As well, if you’re wanting one around lunch time, then don’t be surprised if there are lines for the first hour or so of opening. If you can wait until mid-afternoon, there’s hardly a wait at all.

Water to the Room Is a Lifesaver

Water bottles delivered to the room
Thirsty? Carnival offers 12-packs of water for about $5, meaning you don’t have to go far for a drink.

One thing I will never understand about cruising is why it’s so hard to get a drink of water. Typically your choices are to head all the way to the buffet or a bar to grab a drink or get it from the bathroom sink in the cabin. That just feels wrong.

You can also bring some with you when you board, but it needs to be in cans or cartons. You don’t often see water packaged like this. And even if you did, it means lugging around heavy water with you from home.

It wasn’t until a couple of times sailing Carnival that I realized they offer bottled water. For about $5 you can get a 12-pack of water delivered to your stateroom before you board. Now every time I sail I get a couple of these so there is always something to drink.

Carnival’s Prices on the Ship Are Cheap in Comparison

If you’ve ever taken a cruise, then you know the fare you pay is just the start of what you’ll spend. In fact, about 30% of what cruise companies earn in revenue comes from onboard spending, including drinks, wi-fi, specialty restaurants, shore excursions. The costs can add up.

That’s why one thing I love about Carnival is that they offer a lot more value than what I see on other cruise lines. Take the drink package, for example. On other lines this can be $100 per day and then you have the daily gratuity as well.

Carnival, however, charges around $55 per day plus gratuity. The same seems to go for everything from restaurants to Internet access.

Across all the lines I’ve sailed, only MSC seems to come close to offering the value for purchases on the ship as you see with Carnival. It makes it more comforting to spend on the ship knowing you’re getting a decent deal.

Serenity Deck is Paradise, But Havana Pool Is Off Limits

Havana pools
These beautiful pools at the back of the ship are for Havana guests only.

Unlike some lines, Carnival isn’t huge on having exclusive areas of the ship or restaurants where only some guests can enjoy. But there are a couple that you should know about.

The first is the Serenity Deck. This is open to all adults on the ship, but it’s closed off to kids. You’ll find hot tubs, a bar, and tons of loungers. So what’s the big deal? While the regular pool area is hopping, it can also be crowded and loud. But the Serenity area is much less crowded and much quieter. If you’re someone who wants to relax, it’s a gem.

On the other hand if you’re sailing a newer ship like Vista, Horizon, Panorama, or Mardi Gras, then you might notice some beautiful pools and hot tubs at the back of the ship, with seemingly few people around them.

The small crowd is because the area is reserved for Havana guests. This special section of the ship features different styled rooms but also exclusive access to the pools. If you’re not staying there, then you’re out of luck. Just one other thing to know is that if you book one of these rooms, all guests need to be 12 or older.

What Do You Wish You Knew?

I want to know what you wish that you knew before you sailed on Carnival. What surprised you? What didn’t you know? I’m asking because there are a lot of people reading this article who haven’t sailed the line before. If you share your experience, it could make someone’s cruise that much better.

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  1. I just returned from a Carnival and had BALL. I am made new friends. The only then I did not like was the day at sea. Before they had an Island. Where there was lunch served. No more. Now you pay to go to a little Island without lunch.

  2. We just came in from Carnivals Elation cruise, I had too go with broken Ankle but that made special arrangements, I had a great time,

  3. Carnival kids club is the greatest! We took our grandsons, ages 3 and 5, on a 4-day cruise on the Paradise. They couldn’t wait to get to the kids club after breakfast. One time I went to pick them up they were watching a movie or show on tv. When I called for them, they IGNORED ME! They didn’t want to leave! On the last day of the cruise, there was a little show put on by the kids, singing, doing a little dance and telling jokes. Although the grandsons are both teenagers and have been on a few cruises since then, they sometimes mention that trip and what fun they had. The 24-hour pizza kitchen was a big hit too!


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