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15 things I wish I knew before setting foot on a Carnival ship


Growing up as a devout Royal Caribbean cruiser, I was hesitant to sail with Carnival. Not only was I worried that I wouldn't like the party atmosphere, but I had heard mediocre reviews of the food. Cruising with Royal just felt comfortable and familiar. 

Last October, I decided to finally step out of my comfort zone and book a Carnival cruise. After 7 nights onboard, I thought I had a good understanding of what makes the cruise line so appealing; however, after two additional cruises, I found myself feeling like a first-timer on each one! 

Here are 15 things I wish I had known before setting foot on a Carnival ship. 

Read more: I took my first Carnival cruise on its newest ship. Here are my honest thoughts

To get the actual Carnival experience, you'll want to book a sailing on an older ship


When comparing my experiences on Carnival Celebration and Carnival Conquest, it almost feels as though the two ships were operated by different lines. 

The overall vibe on Carnival Celebration was more akin to what you might find on Royal Caribbean ships (i.e., more families and children), whereas the atmosphere on Carnival Conquest was definitely more party-like. 

If you want to cruise with Carnival but are hoping to avoid — as much as possible — the partiers, consider cruising onboard an Excel Class ship. On the other hand, if you're seeking the vibe that Carnival has a reputation for, a shorter sailing on one of their older ships will be a better fit. 

Read more: 17 Carnival Cruises Tips & Tricks (2024)

Carnival is great for those with sensory issues


Carnival Cruise Line is the first line to be certified "sensory inclusive" by KultureCity, a leading nonprofit dedicated to accessibility and inclusion for individuals with sensory and invisible disabilities.

Every ship has a limited number of sensory kits that are complimentary to use. They come with noise-canceling headphones, fidget tools, a visual feeling thermometer, and a lanyard that's labeled "KultureCity VIP" to help crew members easily identify guests. 

When sailing on Carnival Conquest, my friend decided to check out one of these kits out from Guest Services, and within hours they proved to be an invaluable asset that made her cruising experience much more enjoyable. She was able to wear the headphones during louder events, such as sail away and when there were performances in the Main Dining Room

Speaking of the Main Dining Room, you cannot make reservations ahead of time if you selected the flexible dining option


Set dining isn't for me. While having the same wait staff throughout the cruise is an advantage of traditional dining, I like the ability to eat early one evening and later the next. 

With Royal Caribbean, I'm used to having to make reservations on the Cruise Planner prior to embarkation. Even though you can simply show up whenever you're ready to eat, there's usually a wait. Reservations mean that I'm promptly seated. 

Carnival's flexible dining works differently, and I think their system wins. Rather than making reservations in advance or having to wait in line on the cruise, you can check in via the HUB app when hunger strikes. This means that I was able to check in while getting ready in the cabin or while sipping on a pre-dinner drink at the Alchemy Bar. 

Read more: Guide to flexible dining vs traditional dining on a cruise ship

The quality of the Main Dining Room food was better than I expected it to be


Cruise ships don't always get a good reputation for food, so I'm always prepared to encounter a few hits and misses. Overall, however, the food onboard Carnival Celebration, Vista, and Conquest exceeded my expectations. 

In mid-2023, Carnival began testing new menus onboard Carnival Dream, and they were soon rolled out fleetwide. All of the changes in the Main Dining Room were done in consultation with Carnival's "Chief Culinary Officer," Emeril Lagasse. 

Every aspect of their offerings was evaluated to ensure the best dining experience possible, and while I cannot speak to what the Main Dining Room was like prior to these changes, I am definitely a fan of the menus. 

Carnival's suite perks aren't anything to write home about 


When I cruised onboard Carnival Vista, I decided to splurge on a suite. Considering I usually sail in interior rooms, the extra space and large balcony were definitely appreciated; however, the perks that accompanied the suite weren't all that great. 

They don't have a "ship-within-a-ship" concept like other mainstream lines, such as Norwegian, Celebrity, and MSC. Aside from a larger room, priority embarkation/disembarkation, plush bathrobes, and pillow-top mattress, there isn't much value in paying extra for a suite. 

If you are planning on booking a suite on your next Carnival cruise, I'd suggest trying to secure one of their specialty suites (i.e., Havana, Family Harbor, and Excel). They aren't available on every ship, though. 

Read more: Carnival suite perks: Are they worth the cost?

There's not as much to do at Half Moon Cay compared to other cruise line private islands, such as Royal Caribbean's Perfect Day at CocoCay


Half Moon Cay is Carnival's private island in The Bahamas. While there's no denying that it's beautiful, I was disappointed that there weren't too many activities ashore. 

Whereas Royal Caribbean's Perfect Day at CocoCay has an upscale beach club, water park, hot air balloon, freshwater pool, and more, Half Moon Cay really just has the beach. There are excursions that you can purchase; however, the majority are centered around the ocean (i.e., kayaking, horseback riding on the beach, jet skis, etc.). 

Moreover, Carnival's CHEERS! drink package doesn't work on the island, so it's essentially useless once you step on the tender. Those wanting to enjoy a tropical beverage will have to pay extra, even if they've already paid for the drink package. 

Read more: Royal Caribbean’s CocoCay vs Carnival's Half Moon Cay: Which should you choose?

You have to print your boarding pass ahead of time

carnival celebration boarding

When you finish the online check-in process for your cruise, you'll be able to download your boarding pass. Sometimes, you can save it to your mobile phone. Carnival, however, requests that you print it ahead of time. 

While printing boarding passes feels a little bit archaic, it is part of Carnival's embarkation procedure. After speaking with a port agent, they'll stamp the pass and write a specific number on it, which lets other agents know which individual checked your documentation. As you move throughout the terminal, other agents will glance at your pass to ensure it has been stamped. 

If you happen to arrive at the terminal without it, you can expect your embarkation process to take longer than those who came prepared. 

Read more: The extra step you should take so you aren't delayed getting onboard a Carnival cruise

The vibe is extremely casual 

elizabeth onboard carnival celebration

It wouldn't be a fun ship if you had to adhere to a specific dress code, would it? Don't feel like you have to pull out your nicest cocktail dress or suit for elegant night onboard a Carnival ship. While there were definitely people dressed to the nines, there were just as many who took a more casual approach. 

While you can't show up to the Main Dining Room in swim trunks and flip-flops, you do not have to be wearing anything over the top, either. A simple t-shirt and pair of jeans or shorts will suffice, and you certainly won't feel out of place! 

This is a little different from other cruisers I have been on where the majority of passengers tend to dress to each night's theme, such as White Night, formal, etc. 

While it's easy to make pre-cruise purchases through Carnival's website, the app is essentially useless before boarding


I'm a huge fan of Royal Caribbean's app because I can use it in the months leading up to my cruise to familiarize myself with the deck plans and get a better understanding of what each venue has to offer in terms of food and drink. I'm also able to browse certain cruise add-ons and purchase them from my mobile phone without having to navigate to the website. 

Carnival's app, on the other hand, won't show you a list of what's available until you are onboard and connected to the ship's Wi-Fi. As soon as you've booked your cruise, you can only browse add-ons through the website. If you try and purchase something from the app, you're redirected to the web browser on your phone. Personally, I'd rather just deal with the site from my computer. 

Knowing that, you'll still want to make sure that you have the app downloaded before arriving at the terminal, so you can connect the second that you get your folio number. 

Read more: After 6 Royal Caribbean cruises this year, I tried Carnival for the first time — here’s what I liked and didn’t like

There are so many delicious complimentary dining options, especially on the newer ships

guy's burger celebration

If you like a variety of quick dining options, you'll love sailing with Carnival. From Guy's Burger Joint to BlueIguana Cantina, Guy's Pig & Anchor Bar-B-Que, and Big Chicken, you are never far from fresh eats. 

As is standard in the cruising industry, the newer ships are outfitted with more options than older ones; however, that doesn't mean you'll go hungry if you choose to cruise on a Fantasy, Spirit, or Conquest Class vessel. 

Even Carnival Elation, the oldest ship in the fleet, has BlueIguana Cantina and Guy's Burger Joint onboard for casual bites by the pool. Each also has its own toppings bar, so you're able to customize your food to your liking. Whether you're a fan of hot salsa on your tacos or want a little chili on your fries, you don't have to settle for pre-made dishes. 


These dining options usually have limited hours, though, so you'll want to check the HUB app to make sure you don't accidentally wait too long! When I was on Carnival Celebration, BlueIguana Cantina tended to close around 3:00pm; however, it was open a little bit longer on my Carnival Conquest sailing. 

Read more: Pros and Cons of sailing on an older Carnival cruise ship

Most activities onboard are included in the cost of your cruise fare


Even if you aren't willing to shell out a ton of extra money on top of your base fare, you won't be bored on your Carnival cruise. From Playlist Production shows to parties on the lido deck, trivia, mini-golf, water slides, and more, there are so many included activities that will keep you occupied. 

Some, however, do incur additional fees, such as BOLT, Carnival's roller coaster at sea on Excel Class ships. On ships with an IMAX or Thrill Theater, tickets cost extra, as do spa treatments, martini tastings, the video arcade, and Build-A-Bear Workshop at Sea. 

If there's anything that you have your heart set on doing, make sure that you cross it off of your list as early as possible. Inclement weather can cause certain things to close down. When I was on Carnival Celebration, for instance, BOLT's opening on the last day was delayed due to high winds, so they paused ticket sales until they could confirm when it would be operating. Later on, afternoon ticket sales were completely canceled to allow those who purchased morning timeslots the ability to ride. 

Read more: Are Carnival cruises all-inclusive: here's everything that's included with your Carnival cruise fare

It is incredibly easy to meet people, even if you're traveling alone

elizabeth celebration san juan

While sailing alone on Carnival Celebration, I met two cousins from North Carolina during dinner. We were all seated at the same time, although at different tables, but bonded over the shared experience we had of an exceedingly long wait time. Throughout the sailing, we ended up dining together three more times and even attended a show and gambled in the casino. 

When I was sailing with a friend on Carnival Conquest, we met another girl on the first night who was traveling alone for her birthday. We got her number and reached out the following day. She accepted our invitation to enjoy a couple cocktails in the hot tubs and then watch Barbie underneath the stars! 

There's no denying that taking a solo cruise can be a little lonely. If, however, you're willing to push yourself out of your comfort zone a little bit, you can end up meeting some incredible people! 

Read more: Going on a cruise alone? Here are the 8 best solo cruise cabins

Be prepared for a show in the Main Dining Room


From singers to choreographed dances performed by the wait staff and even magicians, you are always in for a treat while you're dining. 

When I sailed on Carnival Conquest, my friend and I were approached by a magician twice. He placed a wallet on the table and then proceeded to ask us random questions like each other's favorite colors and numbers. After we gave our answers, he picked the wallet up and had my friend pull out a small piece of paper that read "Blue, 7, 17." My friend's favorite number is 7, mine is 17, and my favorite color is blue.

I'm sure that there's some sort of trick to it, but we were both taken aback. We definitely didn't expect to experience that in the middle of a three-course meal! 

Adults will love Serenity 


On ships that seem to be partying just about all day, there's something special about nuzzling into a clamshell bed in the adults-only retreat. The music is toned down and everyone genuinely seems to be focusing on relaxing, rather than day drinking and dancing on the lido deck. 

It's complimentary, too, so you won't have to worry about paying for a day pass to catch up on some much-needed adult-only time with your partner while your children are at Camp Ocean. 

Since there aren't any children around, it's the ideal spot for those cruising without kids, too. 

Line up early for shows, especially if you want a good seat


Unlike other cruise lines, you cannot make reservations for onboard events and shows. If you want a good seat, you will have to wait in line. 

I've found that arriving thirty minutes prior is usually sufficient; however, some guests will wait an hour, especially if it is for an original production like "The Most Magnificent Circus" or a comedy show in a smaller venue, such as the Limelight Lounge. 

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