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10 lessons learned after trying Carnival for the first time


Whether you've been loyal to one cruise line for some time or are new to the industry, stepping foot on a new-to-you line can be daunting. 

My partner, Sarah, and I recently returned from a 5-night spring break cruise onboard Carnival Elation, a Fantasy Class ship that debuted in 1998. Although I've had prior experiences with Carnival, it was a first for my partner. During our time onboard, she kept track of things she wished she had known beforehand. 

Having only been on one cruise before our Elation sailing, it was easy for her to put herself in a first-time cruiser's shoes. From a lack of variety at the buffet to the ship's intimate atmosphere, here are 10 things she learned after trying Carnival for the first time. 

Having sailed out of Miami, Jacksonville was much less organized


Sailing out of Jacksonville was a first for us both. Despite being a small terminal, we were both surprised at the lack of organization. While parking was a breeze, the chaos began as we approached the building, as numerous large groups were standing around creating confusion. 

One employee told us that there were actually two lines; however, we were only able to find one, as there weren't any clear markers of where the second began, if it even existed. 

Personally, I thought the embarkation process was rather lengthy, as it took us close to 40 minutes to go through security, have our documents checked, and board the ship. Sarah, however, didn't mind the wait as much. 


"The boarding in Jacksonville was pretty unorganized and, at times, chaotic and overwhelming," she said, "There did not seem to be many designated lines, especially in the outside area of the port. Once we made our way inside, it felt slightly more organized with ropes and distinctive lines, but I felt it could have been neater."

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of sailing out of Jacksonville was that Sarah thought parking was pretty cheap. While this was her first time driving to a cruise port, she expected the daily rate to be in the $20s, rather than just $17 per day. For our 5-night cruise, we spent $85 on parking, which was a steal considering flights from Charlotte to Jacksonville were around $400 per person at the time we booked the cruise. 

Read more: Guide to Jacksonville Cruise Port (2024)

There wasn't as much variety at the buffet


Sarah felt that the ship was lacking in one particular area: the buffet. She noticed a lack of choices, particularly during breakfast. Being someone who doesn't eat eggs or red meat, there were limited hot options for her to choose from. 

Throughout the cruise, she noticed one rotating selection, whereas the salad bar, deli, and pizza place had the same menu every day. Sarah remarked that she would have loved more variety and a later closing time, as once the buffet closed, the line for Pizza Pirate and the deli got substantially longer because they were the only options. 

Out of the two, she'd go for the pizza, as she didn't love the sandwiches. 

Read more: 28 first time cruise tips that really work (2024)

The overall vibe was very casual 


Compared to other cruise lines, Carnival tends to have a more relaxed atmosphere. If you don't want to dress up for formal night, you won't be the only passenger walking about the ship in jeans. 

Moreover, the majority of guests tend to show up to dinner in the Main Dining Room in anything from t-shirts and shorts to sundresses and nice blouses, whereas on other cruise lines, the latter is more popular. 

"There was never a formal feel on this ship when it came to wardrobe," Sarah remarked, "It always felt like I could go to dinner wearing a shirt and shorts or a nice dress! The casual feel of the dining room, bars, and other amenities like shows, made me feel at ease and little pressure to get completely dolled up if I didn’t have time."

Service in the Main Dining Room was slow


We ate in the Main Dining Room all 5 nights of our cruise. Each evening, we tried to request a table by 5:45pm, as we found the wait times were significantly shorter than those who tried to dine around 6:30-7:00pm. 

It wasn't uncommon for us to spend well over an hour and a half in the dining room. While there's nothing wrong with leisurely meals, she thought we spent far too long waiting. Being a fan of the dinner rolls, she found it frustratingly difficult to track down a waiter for seconds, as they seemed to disappear as soon as we were given our first. 

Furthermore, there was one night when we didn't have a server approach us until about thirty minutes after we sat down! There were long gaps in between courses, too, as they seemed to be serving everyone around us at the same time, despite having arrived earlier. 


Additionally, Sarah thought the majority of the dishes were just okay. One entrée she wouldn't order again is the grilled chicken breast, as she felt as though it and the accompanying vegetables were bland. 

Read more: Carnival menus 2024: Main dining room, specialty restaurants & more

Guy's Burger Joint had veggie burgers, but you had to ask for them


Initally upset due to her dietary restrictions, Sarah thought she wouldn't be able to experience the renowned Guy's Burger Joint on our Carnival Elation cruise. Thankfully, she worked up the nerve to ask one of the crew members if they happened to have any veggie burgers, and to her delight, they said yes!

Since they're only available upon request, you'll have to wait a little longer, as they don't constantly prepare them like standard beef burgers. 

While she's usually not a huge fan of veggie burgers, she was pleasantly surprised that the burger was dressed up the same way as a standard one. It was also a lot juicer than she thought it would be. 

There was more of an emphasis on safety


Beginning with the email we received in the days leading up to our cruise, Sarah knew Carnival Cruise Line would be taking safety and security very seriously. 

"You will be sailing with us during Spring Break, which is traditionally a period of high occupancy," the email read, "As part of our commitment to create the best environment to provide a fun and memorable vacation for all, we would like to remind you of our Have Fun. Be Safe. guidelines." 

It highlighted Carnival's strict ban on marijuana, as well as limitations on alcohol that could be brought onboard. 


When we arrived at the terminal, Sarah was surprised by the use of a K9 narcotics dog to sniff out any illegal drugs trying to be smuggled onboard. In fact, while we still aren't sure of the outcome, the dog was alerted by something inside the bag of the woman standing next to us. It served as a reminder of the measures taken to ensure safety and security in cruise terminals. 

Once onboard, Sarah noticed a drug dog in the atrium, too, as well as increased security personnel on the lido deck. 

"When we disembarked and when we tendered to the island, they were always making sure to emphasize that safety was their number one priority," she said, "Even when everyone was eager to get off the ship [at Half Moon Cay], the process was chaotic, but the crew member kept emphasizing that he didn’t want any accidents or anyone to be put in harm's way." 

Half Moon Cay's beach was small but relaxing 


On Sarah's first-ever cruise, she sailed to Nassau and Perfect Day at CocoCay onboard Royal Caribbean's Freedom of the Seas. Because she had previously been to one cruise line private island, she was eager to compare her experience at CocoCay to Half Moon Cay, Carnival Corporation's island in The Bahamas

Despite Half Moon Cay being a larger island, there's less overall square footage for guests to explore. The majority is occupied by the large stretch of beach, which is undeniably beautiful. Compared to CocoCay, though, the lack of amenities curated a more relaxed environment. 

However, before we were able to get ashore, we had to experience a hectic tendering process. After leaving our interior room on Deck 4, we were greeted by an abundance of people in the hallway; there wasn't any line structure, and a singular crew member was facilitating the process. 


"Once we got onto the tender boat, it felt safe and organized," Sarah remarked, "The ride was also quick. When we got to the island, we went to find a seat immediately since we knew that it would be crowded. There was not a lot of seating. By the time it hit 11:30-12:00, there was relatively no seating."

When it came to the buffet, she thought that the variety of options was nice; however, the quality of the food was average. Additionally, while the shops weren't very large, Sarah commented that they had some neat souvenirs. 


Having sailed to Half Moon Cay previously, I told Sarah that we could enjoy fresh seafood at the Lobster Shack for lunch. It, however, never opened when we were on the island, which was perhaps one of the greatest disappointments of the entire cruise, for both Sarah and myself. 

"Overall, it felt like a normal beach to me, I wish there were more amenities on the island than a basketball and volleyball court."

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

Lining up for shows is important  


One of the major appeals of cruising is the free entertainment. From original production shows to deck parties, live music, trivia, karaoke, game shows, and more, there's a wide array of options to satisfy everyone in your travel party. 

During our cruise on Carnival Elation, we attended quite a few events, ranging from Friends trivia to themed deck parties, Playlist Live production shows in the main theater, and comedy shows. 

A self-proclaimed Friends aficionado, Sarah assumed that she'd known the majority of the answers during trivia. To her surprise, it was much harder than she anticipated; however, she appreciated the challenge. Trivia was perhaps the only activity that we didn't feel pressure to arrive early for. Playlist Live and comedy shows, however, were much different. 


We would often try to arrive at least ten minutes before doors opened, especially for comedy shows, as Sarah had a strong interest in sitting in the front row. 

There was one instance where we spent a little too long in the casino and arrived a few minutes before the Love & Marriage Show was scheduled to begin. We couldn't find two seats together on the main floor of the theater. The two we could find on the upper level had an obstructed view due to a large metal pole. 

Overall, though, the nightly events were Sarah's favorite part about cruising on Carnival Elation: "The piano bar was by far my favorite part, it was an electric environment. The shows that the crew put on and the musical performances were also amazing. The staff is very talented and gave their all to these performances."

The ship's atmosphere was more intimate


Since Sarah's first-ever Carnival cruise was on the smallest ship in the fleet, she was able to appreciate the emphasis on family. Whenever someone came over the PA system, they'd address the passengers by saying, for example, "Good morning Carnival Elation family." While a small gesture, it made her feel more cared for and welcomed as a guest. 

Sarah particularly enjoyed the energy and presence of the Cruise Director, Zack. She thought he seemed to have a rather large presence onboard, hosting events like the Love & Marriage show and then rushing to the lido deck to help facilitate a fun deck party. 

It wasn't just the staff that felt friendly, as she saw familiar faces almost every day: "There were people we would sit next to at dinner who would be across from us on the pool deck the next day! This could have been because [the ship] was smaller, and there were fewer passengers."

The ship wasn't as clean as she hoped it to be


While an older ship, Sarah had relatively high expectations for the overall condition since it had received extensive renovations just a few years ago. 

Upon entering our cabin, however, she thought that it wasn't as clean as it should have been, particularly the ensuite bathroom: "The floor had already begun to fade, and the shower curtain had stains on it. It was also clinging to me as I was showering. On the second day, the shower handle broke because of the rust."

She noted that there was a lot of dust throughout the cabin as well, especially on the light fixtures. Unfortunately, the issue wasn't exclusive to our stateroom.

Read more: I stayed in the cheapest cabin on Carnival Elation. It was small and windowless, but for $145 a night, it was a great deal — take a look


When we got back on the ship in Nassau, Sarah went to order a drink for sailaway while watching stragglers return to the ship. The base of the glass was rather dirty, and she hadn't even set it on anything! 

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