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BEFORE YOU GO

Review: Carnival Cruise Line Dining Room

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The amount Carnival Cruise Line dining options on a typical sailing can be overwhelming. There are a lot of things which will impact your cruising experience, but few are as important as the main dining room. There are people who will spend the entire week eating at either specialty restaurants or the buffet, but for the vast majority of us, at least a few – if not most – of our meals will involve heading to the main dining room (or MDR as they’re often referred to on message boards). While the experience can vary slightly from ship to ship within the fleet, we thought it might be helpful to offer up a guide as to what you can expect when you walk into the main dining room of a Carnival cruise ship.

Carnival Cruise Line Dining Room Review

Carnival dining

First Impressions

There are people out there who think that all cruise lines are the same. Of course, those are people who’ve either never gone on a cruise or have only experienced the ships within one line’s fleet. One thing that distinguishes the various lines is their dining rooms. So what can you expect from the MDR’s aboard your typical Carnival ship? Comfort.

The general atmosphere is a little bit more casual or relaxed than you might find on some other lines. A while back, Carnival made the decision to remove linen tablecloths from the tables which, to the chagrin of some cruisers, adds to the casual feel. (Don’t worry, the tablecloths still make an appearance on formal nights!) Remember, these vessels are dubbed “fun ships,” the line prides itself on being family friendly and – perhaps most important – waiters occasionally hop up on tabletops and boogie to pop music. You come here for a fun evening, not white-glove service.

What’s On The Menu?

Carnival Dining

First introduced to some ships in 2013 and slowly rolled out across the Carnival fleet in the years since, the American Table and American Feast menus offer an array of food choices similar to what you’ll find on comparable cruise lines. American Table is the casual dining menu, while American Feast is offered on formal nights. There are two main differences here, however. The first is that the menus feature region-specific options based on your ship’s itinerary.

For example, if you’re visiting the port of Cozumel, Mexico, that night’s menu might suggest you order a margarita to accompany a chicken tostada appetizer and a steak taco entree. These are, of course, simply suggestions, and the menu is full of other options for those wanting something more traditional. And for the adventurous, there’s always the Rare Finds suggestion of a “food you always wanted to try, but haven’t yet dared.” Items which commonly show up here include alligator fritters and sesame crusted shark.

The past several years have seen more and more cruise lines offering fewer and fewer opportunities for passengers to dine on lobster, and Carnival is no exception. On cruises of five nights or fewer, the steak-and-lobster option is no longer available on formal nights. (Those who find this an important tradition can still order the lobster or the surf-and-turf combo, but it will come with an additional $20 surcharge.) I wasn’t a big fan of this change at first, but during a recent 4-night cruise I decided to splurge and order the lobster, fearing it would not be of as high a quality as can be found in the actual steakhouse.

To my surprise, it was perfectly prepared – every bit as succulent and buttery as you could hope. And given that even with the charge, it was still $15 cheaper than going to the actual steakhouse, it felt like a win/win to me. But even if you forgo the upcharged lobster on shorter cruises, there are numerous American Feast options that might serve as a pretty good substitute, including the blue crab ravioli and the eggplant parmigiana. One of my dining companions had the roasted duck, and declared it a hit.

Overall, the food in Carnival’s main dining rooms tends to be hit and miss, and it can vary wildly from ship to ship within the fleet. I sailed on Carnival Triumph out of Galveston in November of 2015, and the food was subpar at best, lacking its usual zest and leaving me underwhelmed. Even the blue crab ravioli, usually one of my favorites, was downright bland.

Since then, I’ve sailed on three different Conquest-class ships and have ordered the exact same dish, and it was almost like I had ordered something entirely different. In fact, it was so good on Carnival Valor that I ordered a second plate of it. It’s also worth noting that one bad meal in the MDR does not necessarily mean that you should fear it’ll be a rough week, cuisine wise. During a 2016 sailing on the Carnival Sunshine, my meal the first night was pretty awful. Yet every other meal I had during that 7-night voyage was top-notch.

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How Dining Times Work

Conga line in the main dining room.

Carnival passengers have the option of Traditional or Anytime dining. With traditional dining, you sit at the same table with the same people each night, and can choose between the early seating at 5:45 p.m. or the later seating at 8:15 p.m.

Many cruisers like this option as it means that they don’t have to wait to be assigned a table each night, but rather can simply show up when the doors open and go directly to their assigned seat. Because you have the same servers each evening, it also allows you to develop a personal relationship with them. By the second or third night of a week long voyage, they’ll likely have learned enough about your likes and dislikes to make recommendations.

LEARN MORE: Pros and Cons of Anytime Dining

It’s worth noting that Carnival has been experimenting with asking those who arrive more than 30 minutes late for their assigned time to eat elsewhere. And this makes sense, given that dining rooms devoted to the Traditional style of dining need to operate like a well-oiled machine, especially at the early seating. Those arriving 30 minutes or more late throw everything off, as everyone else at the table (and, theoretically, in the dining room) will already have perused the menu and likely placed their orders.

The Your Time Dining option allows much more flexibility and can be great for people who want to plan their meals around their activities and not the other way around. Of course, the downside to this option is that it generally involves standing in line and/or waiting around until a table becomes available.

LEARN MORE: Pros and Cons of Traditional Dining

While both options have their pros and cons, I personally always book the late seating at 8:15. For me, 5:45 is too early to eat, especially on port days when I am just getting back on the ship and want a little downtime before heading to the dining room. Plus, as a big believer that there are few things in life more beautiful than the sun setting on the ocean, I like being out in the open air for the big event. I do, however, prefer the late seating to the Your Time plan, as I like having the same servers each evening. You’d be surprised how quickly and easily you can bond with the staff over the course of a week!

Service With A Smile

One thing you can almost always count on in a Carnival dining room is great service. Yes, you’ll read horror stories on message boards about people who got the wrong appetizer or weren’t served water. These things will happen in even the finest restaurants in the world, and those places aren’t trying to feed thousands of guests over the course of a few hours. But I’ve found that overall, the level of service in Carnival’s dining rooms is top notch. These are people who want to do everything in their power to make your experience a great one. Don’t believe me? I once had the headwaiter apologize to me because – on night two of our cruise – he couldn’t remember my folio number when I wanted to order a drink. “Santiago,” I said, “I don’t even remember my folio number, and I only have to remember my own, not those of people sitting at 30 other tables!”

Which brings us to a final, but quite important, topic regarding the main dining rooms: tipping. We are constantly asked whether or not people should tip their waitstaff in the dining room, especially given that the cruise lines already charge a daily gratuity fee. This is, of course, a personal decision. For me, it comes down to the quality of service. I almost always tip the wait staff a little something extra at the beginning of the trip and, assuming the service was everything I expected, again on the last night. One thing I have never done – and will never do, under any circumstances – is go to guest services to have the prepaid gratuities removed from my folio. The staff of the ship, including many people who you never actually see, work incredibly hard for the money and deserve every penny of it.

What do you think of the Carnival Cruise Line dining room? 

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BEFORE YOU GO

13 Things to Do at Galveston Cruise Port

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Galveston Island is the perfect getaway for a pre or post-cruise stay. The island offers a ton of food, culture, attractions, shopping, and more, making it more than just a place to drive through on the way to your cruise vacation. Next time you sail from Galveston, consider spending time there to take advantage of these 13 things to do.

1. Shop on The Strand

Located right across from the cruise terminal, “The Strand” is a historical district full of shops and restaurants. In addition to the various clothing and gift shops that line Strand Street, there is also a giant chess set for playing in the adjacent Saengerfest Park as well as a running trolley for transportation.

Photo via Galveston CVB

2. Drink beer at Galveston Island Brewing Co.

If you’re into craft beer, or if you like beer at all, a visit to Galveston Island Brewing Co. is a must. It’s a quaint brewery with a quiet spot on the island, and their facilities include an indoor bar and seating, souvenirs, tables with board games, as well as outdoor seating and decking, a small stage for live music, picnic tables, and cornhole. It’s kid-friendly and dog-friendly, and they serve up some of the best beer you’ll ever taste.

3. Enjoy a drink at Murdoch’s

Murdoch’s is a Galveston treasure. Now a gift shop with a bar, it has been rebuilt several times over the years after being devastated by hurricanes – the most recent being Hurricane Ike in 2008. You’d never know it though, because its unwavering spirit survives every time. The bar serves frozen daiquiris and piña coladas as well beer, including local craft brews from the island. Because the shop extends out over the water as a pier, you can enjoy your drink on its back porch while sitting over the water.

4. Walk the Seawall

On the south side of the island, you’ll find the seawall. The 10 miles of beach along the seawall are all public, so feel free to park along the wall and enjoy a day under the sun, walking along the wall or enjoying the beachfront. Parking costs only $1 per hour or $8 for the day and can be paid via the Pay By Phone app on a smartphone.

5. Ride the rides at Pleasure Pier

Galveston’s Historic Pleasure Pier is hard to miss, extending out from the island and over the water like a beacon. The pier boasts a roller coaster and rides in addition to food, shops, and carnival games. All-day ride passes vary for kids based on whether they’re shorter or taller than 48 inches, but four all-day passes for a family, all taller than 48 inches, costs $100. There are discounted tickets available for seniors, active military and veterans, and through local hotels for guests.

Photo via Galveston CVB.

6. Adventure Through Moody Gardens

Made up of three large pyramids, Moody Gardens is easy to spot from the bridge while driving onto the island. Moody Gardens is a museum and adventure park in which each pyramid hosts a different attraction: an aquarium, a rainforest, and an MG 3D theater. It also functions as a resort, complete with on-site dining, spa amenities, a golf course, as well as a splash pad, river, wave pool, and man-made beach.

7. Visit Schlitterbahn

Schlitterbahn is a year-round water park located on the island that features everything from water slides to a lazy river to a swim-up bar. Tickets in the summertime run $51 per person for a day pass or $39 for children and seniors; however, prices are nearly half that in the spring (March to mid-April).

Photo via Galveston CVB.

8. Grab Some Grub

If you’re looking for a good place to grab grub in Galveston, the choices are endless. Gaido’s Seafood Restaurant on the seawall has been an island hallmark since it opened in 1911 and serves up some of the freshest seafood around. The Spot, also on the seawall, serves locally famous burgers as well as fresh seafood and has four individual, unique bars inside: a tiki bar, tequila bar, rum bar, and general backyard bar. Of course, if you’re looking to stay closer to the cruise terminal, Fisherman’s Wharf and Willie G’s are both popular spots for fresh seafood and other bites.

9. Sunbathe on Pocket Beaches

If you’re willing to travel a bit further south, Galveston Island has several pocket beaches that are open to public access but are not nearly as busy as the public beach at the seawall. If you’re looking at sites like Airbnb for a pre or post-cruise stay and want more quiet beach time, look for properties closer towards the Jamaica Beach area to avoid the crowds.

10. Visit Historic Homes

Another fun thing to do in Galveston is to tour the historic homes on the island. One of these is Bishop’s Palace, which was built in the late 1800s and is an example of Victorian architecture. Inside, the “palace” features unique details like marble columns, stained glass windows, and a mahogany staircase. Another home to visit is Moody Mansion. Also built in the late 1800s, the mansion has 31 rooms, including a ballroom, and was built in the Romanesque style.

Photo via Galveston CVB.

11. Visit Museums

Galveston Island is bursting with museums. Two of the most popular among tourists include the Ocean Star Offshore Drilling Rig & Museum and Galveston Railroad Museum. The Ocean Star Museum is a retired jack-up rig that you can board to learn about the process of extracting oil offshore. The Galveston Railroad Museum operates rail rides, and many of the rail cars can even be boarded and viewed on the lot.

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12. Tour the Tall Ship Elissa

Docked at Pier 21 next to the cruise terminal, the 1877 Tall Ship Elissa floats proudly as a Galveston attraction and is still a functioning vessel. To learn more about the history of the ship’s commerce and history, you can visit the adjacent Texas Seaport Museum and even board the ship to wander its decks.

13. Watch the Ships Leave

Photo via Heather Baxter.

If you arrive the day before your cruise (or stay the day after) and there’s a ship in port that day, it’s always fun to watch the ships leave from Pier 21. There’s plenty of open deck area to simply hang around and watch the ships. But if you feel like snacking while you wait, the restaurant Fisherman’s Wharf offers outdoor seating with prime views of the ships sailing off. Just ask the hostess for a seat outside; they are always happy to accommodate.

Photos via Galveston CVB


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BEFORE YOU GO

5 Ways to Protect Your Passport

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Protecting your passport is one of the most important things to do on your vacation. Your passport is truly your passport to the world and back again. Without it though, you may run into some unplanned problems.

5 Ways to Protect Your Passport

passport

1. Copy It

Don’t leave home without a copy of your passport. Before you leave the country, make a copy of the main page of your passport. Take one copy with you and leave one with a trusted friend or family member. You can also scan a copy and email it to yourself so you’ll have a digital copy accessible. Keep your copy away from your passport while you’re traveling. In the event your passport is lost or misplaced, you’ll be asked to provide: Issue Date, Issuing Agency, Passport Number and Expiration Date. With a copy of this info, it’s much easier to replace your lost/stolen passport.

2. Know It

Know who to call or contact in the event of a missing passport. In the United States, call the National Passport Information Center (NPIC) at 1-877-487-2778. If you’re overseas, contact the nearest embassy or consulate. Check out the location list at www.usembassy.gov and keep it with you when traveling overseas.

3. Hold It

Don’t just hand your passport over to anyone who asks for it. Be very sure you’re giving it to a trustworthy person. Thieves and con artists have gotten clever and dress up as officials to try and get your info and identity. If you’re unsure at all of who’s asking for your passport, use a different form of ID first. Remember, you don’t need your driver’s license to get back into the US; you do need your passport.

4. Insure It

You know we’re firm believers in travel insurance, but here’s another great reason why you should always have it. If your passport is lost or stolen and has to be replaced, travel insurance can help cover the cost of replacement. They’ll help direct you to the nearest embassy or location to get a new photo taken. Travel insurance can also help with the cost of any itinerary changes due to the lost passport.

5. Wrap It

Starting in 2006, the United States has started issuing passports with an RFID (Radio-Frequency IDentification) chip. These chips consist of data and a small antenna. The problem is that your personal data can get read from your passport from thieves without ever opening, touching, or even coming close to your passport. It just takes you walking by someone with a scanner.

Consider buying a wallet with an RFID shield or a good home remedy is to wrap it in aluminum foil. Amazon sells an affordable Smooth Trip Passport Holders with an RFID blocker for under $10.

Hopefully these tips help you avoid a travel horror story! Have you ever lost your passport overseas? What are some ways that you protect your passport? We’d love to hear from you with any tips on keeping your passport safe and sound!

Photo via Flickr

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BEFORE YOU GO

How to Break Down Your Cruise Fare

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This post was inspired by someone very close to me, my sister. She was trying to tell me that she found a cruise for $229 and not a penny more.

The Email

My Bahamas cruise initially said $229 per person but when I went to book it, it was $646.54!!! Why did the advertised price say one thing and when I booked it was another? What gives??

Screen Shot 2015-04-16 at 2.59.55 PM

Attractive Pricing

Buying a cruise can be compared to buying a car: The pricing looks very attractive until you start adding on the tax, tag and title.

Based on Double Occupancy

A cruise ship is a big floating resort with the exception that the cruise fare you see is based on double occupancy. If you see a price for $229, double that for two people, triple for three and so on. Some cruise lines give pricing breaks for more than two people per stateroom.

Words to Know:

Carnival_Sunshine_NewOrl-1

To the untrained eye, it’s almost rocket science breaking down a cruise fare. But before we do that, let’s get familiar with some cruise ticket terminology.

  • Base Fare: the cost of the stateroom before any other fees are added. This is the price you will typically see advertised. This rate is associated with the accommodations you choose.
  • Gratuities: if you choose to prepay, this will be added in the total price of your cruise. Gratuities generally run between $11-$14 per person per day.
  • Vacation Protection: better known as travel insurance offered by the cruise line. You can also buy travel insurance from a third party provider. Cruise line policies are typically blanket policies while third party policies are done on an individual basis.
  • Taxes, Fees and Port Expenses: the cruise line has no control over these charges. Port Fees and Government taxes are charged and controlled by the country the cruise ship is visiting and are passed straight to the guest.
  • Service Fees: if you are booking on an online booking engine like Priceline you will find a $24.99 convenience fee added to your cruise booking.
  • Total: the sum of all the above fees added together. This could either be just the base fare and port taxes or all listed, depending on how you book your cruise.

The Structure 

The three-night Bahamas cruise had a price point of $229 but had a final price tag of $646.54. So why the prices difference?

Let’s look at the screenshot.

Cruise Fare BreakdownScreen Shot 2015-04-16 at 3.03.32 PM

Cruise Fare – $458.00 (remember double occupancy)

Port Taxes and Fees – $188.54

Total – $646.54

Consider the Extras

  • Pier Parking
  • Transfers
  • Vacation Protection
  • Pre-cruise Hotel Packages
  • Shore Excursions
  • Specialty Dining
  • Drink Packages
  • Spa Treatments
  • Internet Package

Final Thoughts

Compared to a land vacation, the value of a cruise vacation is amazing. Where else can you unpack once and experience a sampling of destinations? You really can’t.

An inexperienced cruiser will take the sticker price as the final price. Gather all information before booking your cruise.

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