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If you have never cruised before, read my in-depth first-time cruise review to determine if this is something you should pursue. If you like planned activities and the flexibility to participate in various activities without having to lift a finger, then cruising is the way to go.
Hire a travel agent; they know all of the tricks of the trade
I was fortunate enough to have been referred to a travel agent who specialized in cruise deals. Michelle Roman with www.buycruises.com, was accommodating in securing a fabulous deal with the Carnival Cruise line for me. At the time, the discounted rate for a cabin with a balcony was $799.00 pp; Michelle scored a price of $490.00 pp for me!
Of course, when you added the port taxes, fuel surcharge and various junk fees, the price jumped to close to 750.00 pp…c’est la vie! I was still a happy camper! We booked our seven-day cruise to the Western Caribbean for a December 6, 2008, departure!
Book your flight as soon as you’ve booked your cruise
As soon as that was taken care of, the next step was to secure a seat on a plane that would get me to the Miami airport before my ship left. Conventional wisdom stated that it was best to arrive the day before embarkation (when the boat leaves the port). There would be no possibility of my missing the ship due to flight delays.
To that end, I decided to see what type of fare I could get since I had three months of lead time. I recalled the great deal that I got from Spirit Airlines (www.spiritair.com) earlier in the year to Vegas (36.00 RT!!), so naturally, that’s where I pointed my browser. As luck would have it, they had a pretty decent fare for $100.00 RT to Fort Lauderdale (a short drive to Miami and thus cheaper fare), so we booked it.
Like all airlines, Spirit has now resorted to charging for checked bags, but you get a discount if you pay online. Make sure you pay before you print out your boarding pass. Otherwise, you will have to pay full price at the airport. Also, be prepared to pay 10.00-15.00 each way for selecting your seats instead of being assigned them. See how it all adds up in the end?
Plan to fly in the day before the cruise departs
Since we were arriving a day early, that meant we needed to book a hotel room. Michelle recommended a hotel close to the Miami airport so that I can quickly jet to the port for embarkation. I called the recommended Holiday Inn Miami Airport West but got a quote of $220.00 which was ridiculous for someone who wanted somewhere to lay her head for the night.
So, I did what I usually do when I need a nice hotel at a reasonable rate: PRICELINE (www.priceline.com)! This site can be intimidating to newbies who freak out at the mention of ‘FREE REBID,’ but it’s not that difficult at all. I’ve explained the ins and outs of how to use Priceline in this blog post.
Photo of the hotel room that we secured on Priceline.com
Anyway, I logged into Priceline and bid $45.00 as my first bid for the airport area, and it was accepted. The irony is that I got the very same hotel: the Holiday Inn Miami Airport West!! You will never know if a hotel has rooms slotted for PL, so it’s definitely worth the effort. The key is that you have to KNOW your limit so that you won’t blow your budget and WHAT area to bid for so that you won’t end up in Timbuktu.
We rented a car to explore the city among other things
Next, since we were flying into Fort Lauderdale, we would need a car to drive to Miami. We would need to pick up in FLL and drop off in MIA. Simple enough, back to Priceline we go. Once again, I got in on my first bid of $15.00 a day. It almost made me wish that I had more than a day to spend sightseeing in Miami! Just remember that Priceline tacks on their fee with every booking but you always come out ahead of the game.
After arriving in Fort Lauderdale, we caught the rental shuttle bus to Alamo car rental. We were told to go to the garage and pick out our compact car because the keys were already in the car. Next, we loaded up the car and performed a cursory review of the exterior and interior to check for dents and dings. As we drove out, our paperwork and mileage were confirmed as we drove out of the garage.
We headed for the freeway and decided to make a stop at the historic Vizcaya Museum, an Italian Renaissance-style villa and formal gardens built in 1916 as the winter residence of industrialist James Deering. The care that the county takes in preserving the structural integrity of this national landmark was impressive. It’s refreshing to see a concern for future generations’ enjoyment of the vast property. The general admission fee was 15.00 and 10.00 for students.
Take a little time to enjoy the port city before you sail off
Next, we decided to do a drive-by version of the Art Deco tour starting along Ocean Drive to view the various hotels and businesses of that architectural type. At one point, we were driving along with the art deco buildings on the left and south beach and the Atlantic to our right.
In between watching out for the sun-kissed couples sharing Vespa’s darting in and out in front of us and taking in scenic views on either side, it’s a wonder we didn’t get into an accident. I strongly recommend that you do not miss this pastel colored venue in the heart of Miami.
After grabbing dinner and a few missteps, we finally found our hotel, which was more beautiful than I would have thought. The service was excellent, and the room was impeccable. I wouldn’t hesitate to stay there again. After getting directions from the desk clerk to the airport, we were on our way.
Dropping the car off and hitching a Shuttle ride to the port
On the way, we filled up the tank and made our way to the marshaling yard for car returns. We got out of the car, let the guy check the gas gauge, and we were on our way. The bonus with renting from Alamo is that they provided a free shuttle to the Miami port.
As soon as we arrived and unloaded our bags at the pier, a porter quickly tagged the bags to be taken up to our cabin later. We kept our carry-on as we went through immigration and security. Next, we made our way to the check-in station before boarding the ship.
At this point, you must show them your fun pass, which is proof that all of the required paperwork is in order. You must present your passports and the credit card that you used to book the cruise.
Checking in at the Ship was easy as pie, but the lines can be long
After processing you, they will give you a deck plan of the ship that also has FAQs and a Sail and Sign card which is a combination room key and onboard credit card to make any purchases like alcohol or anything from their Fun Shop stores. They only have a cash-free system on the ship (except in the casino for apparent reasons), so be careful, it’s too easy to run up your bill this way.
You will be able to track your purchases via a unique feature on your television in your cabin. After making it up the stairs to take the obligatory picture with the Carnival photographers, we got to go on-board. It struck such an imposing figure, but excited me at the same time! As soon as you board, you can go to the dining room for a buffet lunch, which was scrumptious.
We could enter our rooms around 1:30 pm, which is about the same time that we finished stuffing our gourds to maximum capacity at Emile’s Restaurant. If you happen to be a significant soda pop enthusiast, you may want to invest in buying a Fountain Fun (Soda) card.
The cost is about $38.00 for the duration of the cruise and allows you to have unlimited sodas and juices (except via room service). I think it’s too costly, but as a former soda drinker, I can understand the temptation. Just note that you can get all of the coffee, lemonade, tea, and juices (during breakfast) that you want for free.
Our Cabin was adequate; the view was amazing!
Our cabin was slightly bijou but was as charming as any boutique hotel. As you walked in, there is a bank of closets to your immediate left and the bathroom with shower on your right. Right next to the cabinets were a desk with a mirror above and a television adjacent to it. On the right was a couch with two twin beds separated by a nightstand with a lamp right next to the large sliding door.
As we stepped out of the door that led out to the balcony, the view from the patio deck was beautiful. It had two deck chairs and a table. I could picture us enjoying breakfast as we sailed the high seas the next morning. My thoughts of devouring crunchy Danish were interrupted by a fellow balcony mate shrieking with excitement.
I held onto my glasses and leaned over to say hello. Before you knew it at least half of the balcony population was on the decks waving and saying hi to one another. Talk about a bonding love-fest with strangers!
Participating in our first Muster Drill
About an hour before the ship takes off, you are required to participate in their mandatory lifeboat safety drill called “Muster.” You are assigned to meet at a specific deck based on your cabin number. It takes roughly 30 minutes for everyone to assemble and less than five for instructions.
We headed back up our cabin on the Lido deck. Luckily, the pools, hot tub, and buffet dining room were on the same level. Since it was almost time to get ready to depart, people were lining up around either side of the ship to wave goodbye and then the fun began. Members of the crew started to lead those who dared, to a lengthy rendition of the electric slide. Carisa joined in on the fun while I cheered her from the sidelines.
Familiarize yourself with the ship; you will be there for a while
Afterward, we decided to walk around the boat to learn as much as we could about our home for the next seven days. We happened upon the vast Venetian Palace on deck three (four and five!) where all of the main shows are. It struck an imposing figure as I surveyed the center stage, which was framed by two larger than life court jesters on either side.
The colors were a tasteful blend of browns, reds, and blues and had a circus-like flair without being tacky. Later on that night, we were treated to a welcome speech by our cruise director, Steve Knisley and a comedy show featuring the talented, Eddie Capone.
We went back up to our cabin and noticed that what little mess we had made previously had been cleaned up and a flyer called a Carnival Caper was on the bed. The caper is a list of planned activities for the following day. However, since this was our first day we got one for that day and the next. We decided to try our luck in the casino.
Checking out the lay of the land, so to speak
We had already decided that we would be doing this purely for fun and would only spend 10.00 each day. On the first night, Carisa won 15.00, so we decided to hold onto that for tomorrow. We’d developed a fondness for slots since our trip to Vegas a few months prior….lots of fun and slight risk! Our night ended with another trip to the buffet for dinner and a visit to the Victoria Lounge for Karaoke.
The next day we sailed all day, so that would also be our first elegant night. Meaning we got to sit down in the fancy Golden Olympian Dining room in our finest threads. Be aware that for a seven-day cruise, there will be two elegant nights. You are not required to participate, but it is a pleasant experience, and you will enjoy it. You can choose to order room service or go to the buffet dining room instead.
We got to enjoy prime rib and lobster tails. Earlier in the day, we got to play trivia games, shop in the Fun shops, listen to the Piano Man in the main lobby of the ship, and attend a seminar on where to buy at our first port stop, Cozumel. After our meal, we ended our night with a stellar performance by the Carnival Liberty Dancers saluting the nations of the world.
Our First Port Visit, Cozumel, Mexico
We’d hired a tour guide at the port of Cozumel. Gerry came highly recommended via the www.cruisecritic.com boards, and he only charged 100.00 for a four-hour tour for two people. We enjoyed the trip where we got to see the span of the entire island, including the Mayan ruins.
He was kind enough, but I think his tour was too long as we only wanted the three-hour (80.00) tour and he seemed to drag it out by driving ever so slowly so that it would run over into the fourth hour. He seemed to steer us to people that he knew when it came to buying souvenirs, which wasn’t altogether a bad thing because we were pleased with the items that we got and the prices that we paid.
Gerry was pretty knowledgeable and proud of his island, and he even went a step further by entertaining us with a song. Luckily, he had the pipes! We were able to get great pictures, and he obliged us by snapping a few pics of us together.
Exploring the ship after our first port visit
We grabbed a late lunch when we got back and decided to treat ourselves to a leisurely nap in our cabin for a few hours. After visiting the casino, we checked out a couple of books from the library on deck four and got dinner.
We decided to take advantage of the nearby laundry room to wash clothes and since we tried to pack lightly, we’d gone through most of our clean clothes. There were two commercial washers, and four industrial dryers that cost $2.00 to operate and the vending machine detergent cost a mere $1.00. Carnival was kind enough to provide an iron and board since you can’t bring your own iron due to it being a fire hazard. Speaking of other forbidden things that I would have love to have : my trusty Thermophore heating pad!
Today is a sea day. We decide to take it easy on this day because we know that the next two days will be very active port visits. Carisa and I spent a lot of time resting, watching television, visiting the shops, reading, playing the slots, enjoying the various music ensembles throughout the ship and devoting a lot of time people watching and making conversation with fellow cruisers. One of the great benefits of cruising is the right to do absolutely nothing and or being self-indulgent. We permitted ourselves to do a little of both!
Our Second Port Visit, Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands
Grand Cayman was the second port stop. Since this port is a tender port, meaning we would have to be escorted off the ship via a small ferry boat to the dock, we decided to take a shore excursion hosted by Carnival and the company that they contracted with to give the tour. Our tour guide was very informative as he made the history of this British Commonwealth come to life.
Our first stop was at the Turtle Farm, where we got to see several varieties and even the opportunity to hold some of them. Next, we stopped at the famed Tortuga Rum Factory where we purchased souvenirs and bought a variety pack of rums that we had to pay for and they would deliver to our ship before we left port. A little side note, Carnival will not distribute your purchases to you until the last day of sailing.
Ostensibly, their reasoning is so that they can keep the number of drunk people to a minimum. Of course, you can always PURCHASE the drinks that they continually try to ply you with during the cruise. LOL! We were excited about the possibility of our visiting the town of Hell. There is a new gift shop located in the center of the city right next to the post office. We were able to mail postcards to friends and ourselves with the Hell postmark affixed. It makes a great souvenir.
We got back to the ship in time to grab lunch, and since there was an onboard special for using their internet café, we decided to spend some time catching up on reading emails. After our last shore excursion, we were feeling quite fatigued. We figured the best solution was to take a soak in one of the hot tubs. A fellow Atlantan and his aunt joined us, so we had an opportunity to not only soak away our aches and pains but indulge in an enjoyable conversation with two charming people.
After changing back into our clothes, we ventured into the fun shops to check out their $10.00 sale on watches, jewelry, scarves, and other accessories. Onboard shopping is how you can get into trouble with the sign and sail card. The charges will magically add up!
Our Third Port Visit, Ocho Rios, Jamaica
The next day was our shore excursion to Ocho Rios…..this port was the most aesthetically beautiful by far. The landscape was a series of terraced homes surrounded by lush, green tropical foliage. It looked like the ultimate tourist’s fantasy of paradise. Ironically, once you got to see the rest of the island where the native Jamaicans lived, it was as if I had stepped into a parallel universe. There was a weird juxtaposition of this idea of ‘paradise’ in the face of such abject poverty.
As I entered each store, I noticed that the owners were 90%+ of Indian ancestry. The employees were sometimes Jamaican…..which didn’t surprise me. It is instead the rule than the exception that natives in most developing countries or poor neighborhoods are squeezed out by others. Since the ordinary Jamaican citizen’s livelihood strongly depends on tourist dollars, we made a conscious decision to spend the majority of our funds with the natives who ran their storefronts out of the local flea market.
We decided to start packing when we got back so that we could spend the next day merely enjoying being on the boat. Later we went to the Venetian Palace for the ‘Just Rock’ song and dance revue by the Carnival Liberty dancers and vocalists, Taylor Phillips and Brandon Wright. We stopped to listen to a string trio for a few minutes before going up to our cabin to relax and turn in for the night.
A laid back last day of Cruise
The last day of our cruise was pretty uneventful. There were loads of things to do like dance classes, seminars, games, golfing, volleyball, basketball, trivia, scrapbooking, scavenger hunts, art auctions, and the second elegant night. But we were uncommitted to doing much of anything beyond relaxing while we were at sea.
If something happened to pique our interest, then we were more than happy to indulge in it. We noticed that the fun shops began slashing prices on certain items so you would be wise to take notice of this if you decide to take a cruise.
We returned our library books, received our Rum from our Grand Cayman excursion as well as our disembarkation information. Our luggage would need to be left outside of our cabin before 10 pm so that porters could take them to the port upon arrival. Otherwise, we could hang on to them and carry them ourselves.
The Disembarkation Process
To make things easier for us, we chose to place our luggage outside the cabin. We received our final bill that indicated any onboard purchases that we had made. If there were any errors, you were asked to go to guest services to have them corrected.
We arrived back in Miami around 7:30 am, so we grabbed breakfast and waited to hear our disembarkation number. This number was left the night before in our cabin and was mainly luggage tags that we had to affix before placing it outside the cabin door.
As soon as they called our number, we were allowed to exit the ship on zero deck. We picked up our luggage and sailed right through immigration where we turned in our declaration sheet which indicated what we had brought back from our travels.
I had brought back quite a few bottles of tequila and rum for friends. But they never checked it! So, there you have it. Did I enjoy myself? Yes! Would I ever do it again? Sure. It was something that I’d never done, and it was pleasant, so why not? The most significant benefit was visiting three different islands for a nominal cost. It would have cost much more to visit them separately, so in that respect, it was a win/win.