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ASR

Age: 44

Occupation:Accountant

Number of Cruises: 2

Cruise Line: Carnival

Ship: Carnival Conquest

Sailing Date: 04-17-2008

Itinerary: Western Caribbean

March 22-29 - Fun, great beaches, not cheap

This was our 2nd cruise. I've written this mainly for anyone planning a 1st cruise vacation.

We had an excellent time on the Carnival Conquest on its voyage from Galveston, Texas, to Montego Bay, Jamaica, then Grand Cayman, then Cozumel, Mexico. It was very relaxing and there were plenty of fun things to do if we wanted.

While some reviewers have listed every dish they ate at every meal during their cruise, I'll spare you that detail. I'm not even interested in what I ate, so I can't imagine you would be interested. I had heard some negative reviews about the food on Carnival compared to other cruise lines (i.e., it was a lower class vessel with food to match), so my expectations were fairly low. That first lunch was a little disappointing (both in terms of selection and my perception of the quality of the food). After that point, however, I was very satisfied with the food and I would say that overall, the food definitely exceeded my expectations. Of the three meals, I would give the buffet lunch food the lowest rating (compared to the buffet breakfast and the dining room dinners). But it still exceeded my expectation. We had lunch in the Cezanne buffet on three of the four non-port days. The only exception was the day we ate lunch at the pizza bar.

Overall, the dinner food was excellent (in fact, it was above excellent). There was great selection (which changed every day) and the dining room staff were generally very pleasant to deal with. Our waiter was very personable, although he sometimes seemed to question our selections (e.g., "really?" and "are you sure?)." On most nights (and perhaps every night except the first), there was an interruption to the dinner while they played music and the waiters sang or danced. It seemed like an odd contrast to the formality of the room and I could take it or leave it. But I suppose some passengers enjoyed it, as a "fun" diversion.

On Monday, we had breakfast in the dining room, but this was a mistake. The portions were small (see my tips below) and service in a full-service dining room is necessarily slower than getting food from the buffet. Every other day, we ate breakfast at the buffet in the Cezanne. My strongest endorsement in terms of food goes to the breakfast buffet. Scrambled eggs, pancakes or French toast, sausage, bacon, ham, cheese, oatmeal, grits, all the fruit you could want, cold cereal, toast, muffins, pastries. I'm still probably missing something. Yes, I think there was an omelette station. The food was plentiful, it looked good and there was a very wide selection. For some reason, you could not take your own bacon. You had to have it served to you by the buffet attendant. I never figured out why that was. It certainly wasn't for rationing because you had to specifically ask if you only wanted two or three pieces. Otherwise, you'd get seven or eight or more.

I was very impressed with the quantity of storage room on board. There were far more cupboards and drawers than we could use. The bed seemed at least queen sized. The bathroom was naturally small with a shower and no tub, but we knew that going in. Overall, other than the severe lack of electrical outlets (see below), I was very impressed with the staterooms. In addition, it was very convenient having rooms on the 8th deck. It was just a deck below the 9th floor where the pools and buffet restaurant are. When we weren't in our cabin, or the dining room, we probably spent 80% of our ship-board time on the deck with the pools and restaurant.

Monday night, we saw the song-and-dance show called "Point and Click". It was mildly entertaining, but wasn't anything I would have felt bad missing. It certainly is impressive that the cast/dancers are capable of doing the different shows. But it is a style of entertainment that really doesn't capture my attention or imagination.

Thursday, we saw the song-and-dance show called "Formidable." My impressions were similar to those of "Point and Click." The singers / dancers were certainly talented, but the style of entertainment just didn't engage me. But it was fun enough and I had a good time.

Information on ports of call - Similarly, if you are interested in information on the ports of call, you should do that research before you leave. I was very interested in the destinations we'd be visiting and did some research before we left. Personally, I find it a little rude to be a guest in a foreign country and not know basic things like their currency and value, who their political leader is, and a bit of history about how their country developed. Unfortunately, the cabins do not contain any such information (although you'll get a 220-page book about available shore excursions). Each evening, the ship provides you with a one-page sheet about the next day's activities. It may contain one paragraph about the destination, but it is unlikely to contain basic historical or other information. Do your research before you leave, print it out and bring it with you. Foreign currency - I believe the information from Carnival will tell you that vendors in each port accept US dollars. Not only do they "accept" US dollars, in fact they quote all their prices in US dollars. I found it odd to arrive at the terminal in Jamaica and to see posted prices for soda and bottled water in US dollars, rather than in Jamaican dollars with a conversion. I suppose they go out of their way to cater to the cruise ship tourists. Even in the Cayman Islands with its modern economy and strong currency, the shops charged my credit card directly in US dollars.
Booking shore excursions - we booked both our shore excursions in advance through Carnival. Not having taken a cruise in more than fifteen years, we were reluctant to try to figure out those things on our own. Unlike most vacations, you don't really get a second chance if you make a mistake (i.e., you miss your ship when it sails). I'd recommend booking through Carnival unless you know what you're doing. On the other hand, if you're experienced, you can likely save hundreds of dollars by venturing out on your own. As for booking excursions in advance, we couldn't see any advantage to waiting and were a little worried that our preferred excursions might sell out. We did not find out one way or the other whether our excursions still could have been purchased on board.

What time is it in port? - Every reference to time on board and in relation to Carnival-booked excursions is to what's called "ships time." Although the ship is theoretically passing through different time zones as it travels east and then west, for convenience, the ship maintains the time zone of the home port (i.e., central time, Galveston, TX). On our trip, ship's time and local time only differed in Cozumel. If you are booking your own excursions (and even if you are not), you should ensure you know what the ship's time is and not rely on the time provided by locals in port. Otherwise, you may make your way back to the dock to find that your ship has already left.

Structure of review - I've divided this review into sections. The first section, like most reviews, sets out how each day went. The next sections are aimed at vacationers planning a first cruise. The first of those provides a list of items you might want to consider bringing with you on a cruise. The second provides tips on things to do, or to avoid, when on board. In the final section, I provide some general impressions about cruise vacations and make some specific suggestions about areas for improvement.
For background, we are a family of four with a 14 year old daughter and an 11 year old son. My wife and I were on one previous cruise, although it was only three nights and was more than 15 years ago. As we live in a cold weather city (near Seattle, WA), our typical "big ticket" vacation would be going to Hawaii for ten days, which we had done three times in the last four years.
The cruise week - We flew in to Houston on Saturday night and stayed at the Doubletree Hotel Houston Intercontinental Airport. I highly recommend this hotel for travellers coming in through IAH airport the day before. The shuttle service from the airport was very prompt (we arrived to a full shuttle, but only had to wait maybe five (and certainly less than 10) minutes for the next empty shuttle to arrive. The hotel was nearby, but I don't have any recollection of aircraft noise. There is fast food and a grocery store within a three-minute walk. The total cost, including all taxes, was $98 per room (we had two rooms).
We had pre-booked a town car to pick us up at the hotel on Sunday at 11:00 am. It arrived on time and took us to Galveston for $109, plus a $25 tip. The drive took about an hour and dropped us off at the terminal. The terminal is very industrial looking and it took us a while to figure out where exactly to go. Crowds were milling about and we had been dropped nearer to the luggage porters than to the passenger entrance.
We entered the terminal at about 12:20 pm and proceeded up into the terminal and into a first line where we had to put our bags through X-ray machines and walk through a metal detector. This was the only point where they would have screened for alcohol or soft drinks. See my comments below about how to circumvent the limitations in Carnival's beverage carry-on policies.
The next line was a check of tickets and ID. One thing that hadn't been clear to me was what documentation I actually needed to (a) check in and, (b) check in quickly. When you book your trip, you're directed to Carnival's website to complete the "fun pass." The name implies that the end product is a "pass," which you will need to board when you arrive at check-in. I had printed out copies of the passes, as well as copies of the information that had to be entered to generate the pass. However, on arrival, the only thing required was the tickets that Carnival had subsequently mailed to us. We did not need any of the fun pass documents we created and it was never clear what the purpose of the "fun pass" requirement was. Also, I had been under the impression that check-in would be significantly swifter if the fun pass was completed in advance. The only savings appeared to be the time required to provide the information. The fact that I had pre-completed the fun pass didn't appear to get us into any quicker entry lane or allow us to by-pass any stage of the check-in.
The next line was the line-up for a check-in agent to issue us our ship ID/room keys. There they took my credit card information (for on-board charges) and gave us our cardkeys and then sent us to the next holding area. In this part of the terminal, there are signs posted prohibiting the use of cameras. While I can see security reasons for prohibiting cameras in the security clearance area, there didn't seem to be any valid reason to prevent passengers from taking pictures or shooting video in this part of the terminal. I concluded that Carnival just doesn't want people to see pictures of how their "guests" are lined up and herded into holding pens during the check-in and boarding process.
We missed an opportunity at this stage to jump ahead of the line. As you leave the check-in desk with your room keys, you'll be directed to a seating area with various sections. Passengers are held here and taken in groups, by section, to the next stage of the boarding process. When you arrive in this area, before you sit down, try to figure out which section was seated first and which section is just starting to be seated. If you can find a couple empty seats in the section that was seated first (even if it means dividing up your party within that section), take them. It will save you time because you'll be ushered to the next stage of boarding ahead of the next group. They don't monitor these seating sections particularly closely.
The next stop was the boarding photo. Initially, I was annoyed because it appeared that the entire delay in boarding was so that they could take posed photos of every passenger or group before they boarded. These photos aren't free and they aren't cheap either. On exiting the photo area, we joined the line of passengers slowly ascending the gangway to the ship. This stage was probably 20 minutes long and it became clear that the photo station wasn't the bottleneck.
We arrived on board and got to our deck at 1:22 pm - almost exactly an hour after we had entered the terminal. On the whole, the boarding process seemed slow and inefficient. However, I appreciate they need to process 2,000+ passengers and I couldn't see any obvious ways of doing it faster (other than having a bigger facility or more staff).
We took our bags to our rooms (we had side-by-side cabins). As the cabin stewards had not yet finished preparing them (see my tip on this below), we left our luggage there and headed for the Cezanne (buffet) restaurant for lunch.

After lunch we went back to our cabins and began unpacking

We spend the rest of the afternoon relaxing and walking around the ship.
We had dinner Sunday night in the dining room. There are two formal dining rooms, the Monet and the Renoir. Seating was assigned and ours was at 6:00 in the Monet. When we walked in, it was not obvious how the seating worked, so we just wandered around looking at table numbers and soon found the table number that matched the table listed on our room key. It would have been a little more convenient if they had posted a floor plan, but it wasn't a big deal. Overall, the dinner food was excellent (in fact, it was above excellent). There was great selection (which changed every day) and the dining room staff were generally very pleasant to deal with. Our waiter was very personable, although he sometimes seemed to question our selections (e.g., "really"? and "are you sure?)." On most nights (and perhaps every night except the first), there was an interruption to the dinner while they played music and the waiters sang or danced. It seemed like an odd contrast to the formality of the room and I could take it or leave it, but I suppose some passengers enjoyed it as a "fun" diversion.
Monday and Tuesday were days at sea as we made our way though the Gulf of Mexico toward Jamaica.

Both days we found deck chairs near the mid-ship pool and stayed there most of the day. As I mention below in my "tips" section, it is a good idea to claim deck chairs early. It was sunny with cloudy periods and warm out of the breeze. But there was a bit of a wind and the ship effectively creates its own wind because it moves at 21-23 mph. At different times, different parts of the pool deck seemed to be in or out of the wind. Generally, the higher areas are exposed more to the wind. But it wasn't always the case that the higher deck areas were windier.
On these days, we mostly stayed by the pool. I played some mini golf, shuffleboard and generally hung around with my kids. On Tuesday, I ran 10k on the "jogging track." You won't find a description or photo of this track on the website, but it is a 161 metre track on the top deck. Unfortunately, it is not well marked and it surrounds the mini-golf, shuffleboard, volleyball and basketball areas. Most passengers did not appreciate that they were wandering across the track so I was constantly dodging people and calling ahead to them to clear the track. It would have been nice if the ship had placed more prominent signs around the track reminding passengers to stay off it unless they were using it or quickly crossing it.

Wednesday we arrived in Jamaica. It was fun watching the ship dock, although I suppose if you've seen it many times, it is something that stops being new and exciting after a while. With the exception of the early arrival on the last day of the cruise, the ship docked and departed on schedule. I was actually a little surprised at how close they were to the itinerary, but I guess they know exactly what they're doing as far as that goes.
We had heard numerous reports about Jamaica that referenced safety and crime. It is not a wealthy country and I suspect that some tourists are put off by being exposed to poverty. In any event, because we didn't want to take any risks, we pre-booked an excursion through Carnival rather than trying to venture out on our own when we arrived.
The tours in general are all well organized. You disembark and find the sign in the terminal building corresponding to your tour. We had booked the day at the Negril Beaches Resort. Interestingly, I had read a previous review that said the reviewer arrived in Jamaica and called the Ritz-Carlton to book a room for the day. This had sounded extremely snobby at the time. If you're going to Jamaica, what's the point getting a hotel room for the day at the Ritz? Couldn't you do that anywhere and, in any event, don't you want to go see some of Jamaica? And is it really good value for money to pay $200 for just a few hours? But when I look at it, what we ended up doing was not much different and somewhat more expensive. This excursion cost $456 for the four of us. It included an hour long drive in a bus to the resort, and then full use of the facilities there. We were told that the one-way cab ride would have been $100 (although I've since seen other information indicating that the cost of a return trip could probably be had for about $80), so assuming a day rate of $200, perhaps we were not better or worse off from a price standpoint. There may be other less expensive options like the Ritz nearer to Montego Bay, although it still seems to me that booking a hotel room at a property near the port defeats the purpose of going on a cruise.
Our tour was excellent. The guide provided commentary and answered our questions during our drive. There is no real way in a six hour port call to even attempt to get to know what a country is really like. But I think by driving through the part of the country we saw, we got at least a bit of an idea. In addition, we had a chance to chat with the tour guide alone later on the beach at the resort. She let her guard down a bit (from the typical "show" that guides do for tourists) and talked about local politics, the economy, etc. It was very interesting to learn about her country and her way of life there.
The resort was excellent, the food was good, the Red Stripe beer was included and we had a good time. We had to leave far sooner than we wanted and this became the theme for all the ports (i.e., we wished we could have stayed longer). This excursion wasn't particularly adventurous, but coming from a cold weather city, we were highly motivated to spend as much time as possible relaxing on the beach, in the blazing sun, during our port days.
Re-boarding the ship was always easy. One thing that was never clear to me in advance was the extent to which you have to clear customs - either leaving or returning to the ship. We never had to show a passport and would generally just have to show our door key/security card) and never had to fill out customs declarations even though we were arriving on foreign soil. At Grand Cayman, we had to show a driver's license to get back into the dock area. I don't remember having to do this at the other two ports. On the three port days, we always left the ship more or less as soon as we could and always returned in the last hour before the ship was to depart.
The only check we ever encountered (leaving or re-boarding) was the security check once we were back on board. They would put our bags through an x-ray machine and we would walk through a metal detector. I suspect that these were as much focussed on liquor control as on weapons and dangerous goods. I read a previous review from someone who said he always picked up a six pack of beer at each port and had no trouble getting them on. I can see how that would be true. If you were inclined to bring back liquor, I imagine you would have no problem taking a water bottle (particularly an opaque, sports-style bottle) ashore, filling it with wine or hard liquor and brining it back on board. There were no hand inspections and certainly no one opening bottles.
Thursday, we awoke at 7:45 am to find that we had already arrived at Grand Cayman. The ship "anchors" rather than docking, but the "tendering" process to get to shore is quick and easy. It was probably a total of 20 minutes from the time we headed down to the lower deck to when we were standing on the dock. The dock area of Grand Cayman is very different from Jamaica. It is in a shopping area of the city and there are tourists and stores right there. Unlike Jamaica, where you are in a gated area and it looks a little dodgy on the outside, the port area of Grand Cayman is open, bustling with tourists and inviting.
We had not made any plans for Grand Cayman in advance. Since we had pre-booked shore excursions for both Jamaica and Cozumel, we wanted the flexibility to do whatever we felt like at the time. We hired a mini-van/taxi to take us to seven-mile beach, which is really no more than a long walk away. We paid an average of $20 each way, but it was the only cost (other than lunch) that day and seemed like a bargain compared to the cost of getting to the resort in Jamaica (even though the actual drive was probably not much more than 10 minutes).
We settled at a public access point near an open-air, bar-style restaurant called "The Reef Grill". There were public washrooms for changing and the beach was great. The weather was perfect, the water was turquoise and we had an excellent time. We had lunch at The Reef (total cost was about $60 for four, including a Cay Brew beer for me) and then took a minivan/cab back to the dock. There were probably a dozen vans waiting at the beach access, so you would have no problem getting transportation back to the ship. Once again, we really didn't want to leave, but we didn't want to miss our ship either. We got back to the dock in enough time to go into some of the shops and we bought some t-shirts, clothes and souvenirs for a total of $86. This was the only port where we had any opportunity to shop, so I was glad we could find what we were looking for. The tendering back was easy and we were on board in about 20 minutes of arriving at the dock. Excluding souvenirs, the total cost of this port stop was about $100 for the four of us.

Friday, we arrived in Cozumel. We had booked the trip to the Mayan ruins at Tulum, which was the port activity I was most looking forward to on the trip. The cost of this tour was $308. The day was long on travel. We stepped off the ship just after 10:00 and found the sign for the Tulum excursion. We were quickly directed to the ferry that takes passengers back to the mainland (from the Island of Cozumel). The ferry was full and cast of by 10:30. The waters between Cozumel and the mainland were rough and are always so (we had been here once before). When we arrived on the mainland (at the resort town of Playa del Carmen) around 11:15, we were walked immediately to our bus, which was a modern motor coach. My references to the time of day are to "ship's time", not local time. This was the only port where the two were not the same. See my tip below about the importance of understanding the difference.
The tour guide began the tour as we drove the hour or so toward Tulum. At about 12:15 We stopped at a tourist shop approximately 10 minutes out of Tulum. We were told the main purpose of this stop was to allow the group to use the restroom and that we would only be there about 15 minutes. But it became obvious that the tour company or the cruise line have an arrangement with this shop and the point was to have us buy souvenirs from the store. We were there about half an hour, which is consistent with the description of the excursion on Carnival's website. Unfortunately, this was time that ultimately came off our beach time at Tulum.
We arrived at the site of the ruins around 1:00 and the guide continued his presentation as we walked toward the main part of the ruins. Once there, he gave an interesting 30-minute talk, although it focussed a little more on the Mayans and what happened to their civilization more so than it did on the details of the ruins themselves.
At 1:35, he finished his talk and we were free to wander among the ruins and stop at the beach at the bottom of the cliff. Unfortunately, because of the need to be back to the ship on time, we only had about and hour and a half at the site and on the beach after the guide's presentation was over. Again, this is exactly how the excursion was advertised.
We walked around a bit and took some pictures of the ruins, but we didn't have a lot of time to even look at all the main structures. We went down to the small beach and stayed about 30 minutes, where we ate our lunch of leftover breakfast food we had brought along (see "tips" below). At 3:00 pm, we headed back to the bus, and were actually a little late getting there on time for 3:15. The guide provided us with pre-packaged snack food and I bought a bottle of local beer from the bus driver (who was selling them out of a small cooler - for his own profit, I assumed).
We drove back to Playa del Carmen and, arriving at about 4:15, were immediately ushered into line for the ferry over to Cozumel. This ride was even rougher than the first and along the way a window on the boat was smashed wide open (and one or two passengers were injured from flying glass) because the boat's side inflatable bumper (which was attached to the boat via a long rope) flew up because of the rough waves.
On arriving at Cozumel, we only had a few minutes to board the Conquest for its scheduled departure. We considered stopping in one of the nearby shops, but we would have been very pressed for time and we didn't want to be late.
Saturday was the last full day of the trip and was a sea day. We again claimed deck chairs by the pool very early. However, this day was a little windier and a little less sunny than the first two sea days and people were on and off hiding under their towels and putting on long sleeve shirts.
I attended the disembarkation presentation, but didn't find it particularly informative, so it wasn't a great use of the limited time we had left. The cruise director spent as much time cracking jokes as he did providing information. They also had an awards ceremony for staff and the captain made a speech. But on the whole, I would have preferred to have stayed out on deck. Indeed, the most critical information (if there really was any) could have been printed and provided in a one-page briefing sheet.
Sunday morning, we arrived in Galveston. The itinerary will tell you that the arrival time is 8:00, which may lead you to believe that you will probably disembark around 9:30 if things go quickly and you're in a hurry to get off. However, the ship actually arrived around 6:00 am and they made it fairly clear at the previous day's presentation that they wanted the passengers out of their rooms by 8:00.
There are two ways to disembark. Either you can pack your suitcases the night before and leave them in the hall (in which case staff will collect them overnight and take them into the terminal for you to pick up after you leave the ship), or you can "self-assist", in which case you simply carry your own bags.
The "self-assist" passengers were given priority to disembark (following any passengers with a short window to catch a flight), so we chose this option. Our deck was called just after 8:00 and we left our cabin and got in the short line to disembark at 8:40. We left via the gangway and arrived to the long customs line in the terminal. At this point, there was another opportunity to move through quickly. If you hired a porter, you would be directed to a shorter, faster customs line. Otherwise, you remained in a very long line with everyone else. This line is like a very long line at an airport check-in counter (or at a theme park ride), which means that every minute or so, you drag your bags forward 5 feet and stop. It seemed here that the port authorities could have lined people up in lanes and had them stay in their lane until it was called. This would have eliminated the need to have a slow line moving continuously. Eventually, we arrived at the customs officer's desk and we passed through with little trouble. We were outside the terminal about an hour after we left our cabin to disembark. Again, it seemed slow and inefficient at times, but I didn't see many alternatives for improvement that didn't involved more customs officers. I suppose if you really wanted to avoid the line and were prepared to leave the ship as soon as it was cleared by the port authorities, it wouldn't be too difficult to print up some fake airline documentation showing an early flight. That was all you needed to show the ship's staff to give you priority departure access.
From there we took a taxi up to the car rental near Houston Hobby airport ($95 plus $15 tip), we visited the Houston Space Center, had dinner at Landry's Seafood House on the boardwalk in the town of Kemah and stayed the night at the Holiday Inn Express near Houston Hobby. While the staff at the Holiday Inn were fabulous, they have an inferior property and I would not recommend it as a place to stay.
Tips - Before taking our cruise, I scoured the internet for tips on what to bring along or what to do to get the most out of the cruise. We maintain a very detailed packing list that is comprehensive enough to cover a simple business trip, a week camping in a tent or a ten-day vacation in Hawaii. What I was looking for were suggestions on what to bring specifically on a cruise that we might not have thought of on our own. I was also looking for tips on how to get the best value on the cruise, what pitfalls to avoid and what secrets to take advantage of.
There wasn't much helpful on the web. There were typical generic packing lists (sunscreen, bathing suit). In addition, any "tips" I found on any travel-related sites seemed heavily weighted toward promoting cruises rather than being particularly useful. For example, when I read "tips" on what to wear in the dining room, those sites would be more along the style of "Why not have fun and wear a tuxedo?," rather than telling me what I really wanted to know, which was what I could get away with.
Ultimately, I did find some tips that were useful, but nothing truly comprehensive. Here's a list of things we brought (and at least one thing we should have brought), along with an assessment of whether or not they were useful.
Two bottles of champagne - The cruise lines don't want you to bring along your own liquor, purchased at a reasonable price. They want to be able to gouge you as a captive customer. However, Carnival does permit you to bring on two 750ml bottles of wine or champagne (but apparently no beer or hard liquor). We brought two bottles and it was one of the best moves we made. It ended up being the perfect amount for the three sea days and the evenings of the port days. I often mixed the champagne with the ship's delicious, free lemonade for refreshing cold drinks all day. Just remember to bring a couple temporary corks with you because you'll never get a champagne cork back inside the bottle once it is out!
Two 12-can cartons of soda - Again, Carnival permits passengers to bring on a "reasonable" amount of soft drinks. As there were four of us, we didn't think that a six-pack each could be considered excessive. In an effort to make the soda last for the whole trip, we budgeted too frugally during the first portion of the cruise and ended up bringing some soda home with us. That may have been because the free lemonade was so good.
With the soda and the champagne (and free lemonade), we did not have to purchase any beverages during the entire week. We did not see or hear of anyone having beverages seized at embarkation. While there were many stages to the boarding process, there was only one security screening and no other point where they did a manual search for beverages. I suspect that at the entry point, the screeners are more interested in weapons and dangerous items than they are looking for liquor. We also realized that we probably could have doubled our carry-on amounts simply by splitting up our party before going through security (i.e., I carry on two bottles and say they are for the both of us if anyone asks, and then a few passenger groups later, my wife carries on another two bottles). We probably could have each brought on two dozen cans of soda as well. Alternatively (or in addition), we could have placed two bottles into checked bags and two more into carry-on bags. There did not appear to be any system that coordinated and cross-checked the screenings of the checked bags with the carry-on bags.
Soft-sided cooler - The six-pack cooler was very useful for the "sea days" when we were just sitting by the pool. We could keep our drinks cold with the ice available near the juice dispensers in the Cezanne restaurant.
Water bottle - We took a sports-style water bottle, mainly because I thought they would object if we brought our bottle of champagne out on deck. I filled the sports bottle with champagne in the cabin and brought it out and left it on ice at the side of the pool. As I mentioned above, I think you could also use this type of sports bottle to transport liquor back on board from the ports of call.
Duct tape - There are always uses for duct tape. We used it to tape the curtain to the wall at night (to keep the room darker in the early morning), to tape the phone cord to the floor (to avoid tripping over it), to secure the cork to the champagne bottle (they keep popping out) and in packing up some boxes before disembarking.
Zip lock baggies - One of our excursions was the trip to Tulum from Cozumel. This is a six-hour excursion and lunch is not included (although a light snack is provided for the bus ride back). We were somewhat wary of purchasing food in Mexico because of the different food production and handling standards. Our solution was to bring our own food from the ship. We didn't want to bring any meat or cheese products, but we were able to bring a variety of muffins, bread products and even pancakes from the breakfast buffet. The only problem was that we also packed four bananas. As we left the ship in Cozumel, the security officer asked us not to take any fruit ashore. That would have been nice to know before we packed them because we would have brought more banana bread. I also suspect they just threw out the bananas we surrendered, rather than returning them to the buffet.
Walkie-talkies - we brought along a pair of reasonably good Cobra walkie-talkies. I thought there might be a situation with our kids where we might want them to use them on board. It turned out that we never tried using them. I had read two earlier reviews where one recommended them and one said they didn't work very well on board.
Wall map and GPS tracker - I brought a wall-sized map of the western Caribbean and a watch with GPS to track our progress (the watch provides coordinates of latitude and longitude). The ship has a large map on one of the decks. It shows the progress of the ship with a series of small bulbs that light up. However, it wasn't obvious to me whether it showed the actual route traveled, or merely the standard path of the cruise. There is also a TV channel that cycles through a variety of information, including a map, and the ship's coordinates, which did match what my GPS watch was telling me. We taped the map to the stateroom wall and a couple times a day I would plot our location using my GPS. There is a point on the way down to Jamaica that you pass within a few miles of the tip of Cuba, but because it is so flat, you wouldn't know it's there if you didn't know where and when to look.
Power bar/extension cord - there is one outlet in the cabin (one single outlet, not a double) and one in the bathroom. There is no clock radio in the cabin, so if you want to know what time it is at night, bring your own (we brought an illuminated clock). You may want an extension cord, as well as a power bar, because the outlet is not conveniently located next to the bed. At various times we needed power just to keep various batteries charged (camera, video, cell phones, GPS watch).
Bungee cords - Two sources suggested taking bungee cords, but I never found a use for them. One reviewer had suggested using them to keep the balcony door open, but our door had a "fixed open" position. I used it once to keep the main cabin door open, but there was a door stop that worked just as well.
Hole punch & lanyard - I never had a problem keeping my (cabin) cardkey in my pocket, even in my swimming trunks. But depending on what you normally wear and if you have pockets, you may prefer to wear your room key around your neck. This was particularly useful for children and they punched holes in their keys to make them easier to clip on and wear.
Wire hangers - I didn't bring hangers, but wish I had. The room came with 6 or 8 hangers - two of which were taken by the supplied bathrobes. Between my suit jacket and shirts for the dining room, I was running out of room. Your own hangers also give you flexibility because the supplied hangers are "hotel style" hangers that are fixed in place.
Bottle opener - one reviewer said he was forced to buy a $15 Carnival bottle opener because he didn't bring one along. I brought one but didn't use it. I'm not sure what bottles he was opening. Obviously, if you bring wine, you'll need a corkscrew.
Flashlight - I took one and never had an occasion when it might possibly have been useful.
Here is a list of other tips you may find useful: Speak to a Carnival agent when booking - The agents are very good at picking out rooms. They can match you up to your needs. They know things like which rooms adjoin (and/or have attached balconies), where they are located (vis a vis elevators or other amenities that might be important to you). They will think of and point out things you haven't thought of (is your room directly below the floor of the disco?). Unless you know exactly what you're doing, I wouldn't suggest trying to book your room online on your own. Balcony, window or inside cabin - Of course this is largely a question of affordability. However, in terms of value for money, here are my thoughts. In planning our trip, we had considered everything from inside cabins to balcony staterooms. We had a family of four and ended up with adjacent balcony rooms. For us, part of the decision was cost. Because we were travelling a long distance (airfare, transfers, two nights of hotel accommodation), the difference in total cost between balcony and inside cabins was still a small portion of the overall trip cost. The cost of the cruise alone (including the standard gratuity, excluding on-board purchases and excursions) was $4,055. The cost of the entire trip (including transportation to Houston, two hotel nights, meals and other activities) was about $7,400. I've read reviews from travellers who report that they spend very little time inside the cabin and for them, a window or balcony is an unnecessary expense. I'm sure that's true for them. But I found there was enough time that we were in our rooms at the beginning of the day, end of the day, or just unwinding before dinner that the window (at a minimum) was invaluable. I don't think I would book an inside cabin, or even a cabin with a small porthole. It was a nice part of the trip to be able to see where you were going, not to mention being reminded what direction the ship was moving (to know how to get to the front or back of the ship), what the weather was, whether the sun was still up, etc. We spent some time sitting on the balcony almost every day, but if we'd been on a colder climate trip, I think the balcony would probably be a waste of money. It was also very convenient for us to go back and forth between cabins via the adjoining balconies, rather than having to go through the corridor and worry about taking card-keys or leaving the doors open (or ajar).
Balcony - We really enjoyed our cabin's balcony (on the 8th deck) for the late-afternoon sun. However, for much of the ship, the 9th floor deck actually overhangs the 8th deck, which means that the sun has to be quite low before it actually hits our balcony. Because of the angle, the impact of this overhang is less on the 7th deck, so if you have a balcony on a lower floor, you are less likely to have the sun blocked by the 9th deck overhang. Of course, the whole point is moot depending on the position of the sun, which depends on the direction of travel and the exact time of the season (i.e., during our cruise, in early spring, the sun was still slightly south and therefore exposed to the starboard side of the ship on the way out and the port side (our side) on the way back. That said, the cruise route takes the ship below the Tropic of Cancer, so there will be some cruise weeks when the north side of the ship gets more sun than the south side (i.e., the opposite of what is always the case in North America). If you like to enjoy your balcony in the sun, consider the season and the direction of travel when booking your cabin. A Carnival booking agent can help sort this out for you. Multiple rooms - We called Carnival before booking solely to ask about booking two rooms (one for us and one for our kids). Basically, what I wanted to know was whether we could put our kids in one room and, if we did, would we have to maintain a facade throughout the whole cruise that there was an adult sleeping in each room. I believe their website implies that children can't be booked into a room on their own. The Carnival agent was completely upfront that there would be no problem if we put our kids in one room. The only thing they would do would be to book it on paper with one adult and one child in each room. However, we didn't have to spend the whole trip pretending that one of us was in each room. The only initial problem was that we realized that the room's access keys would only open the rooms they were assigned to. We went down to the service desk on the first day to ask them how we could access both rooms. We weren't yet brave enough to explain that we had two kids in one room and two adults in the other. We just said that our family had two rooms and we wanted to know how we could access each other's room. Their system couldn't seem to set the keys so that they accessed more than one room, but they did print us two spare cards, one to access each room. That solved our problem. Booking flights - I read one review that strongly cautioned against flying in on the day of departure. Common sense also suggests that flying out on the day of return might be similarly risky. I believe when you book your flight through Carnival, they will take some responsibility for ensuring you get to your destinations one way or another. However, if you book flights on your own, you don't want a delayed flight to cause you to miss your cruise (or miss your flight home because your ship was fogged in and couldn't dock on time). We booked our own flights (on points), so we arrived the night before (Saturday) and flew home the day after the cruise (Monday).
Transfers from Houston - whether you are arriving directly from the airport or from a hotel in Houston, consider your options for transportation to Galveston. Carnival offered us seats on their shuttle bus at the cost of $40 per person, each way. However, because we were a party of four, it didn't make sense to us to pay $160 for a one hour bus ride. Taxi rides are about $100, depending on where you are coming from. I attempted to book a limo, but despite my best efforts to get a favorable rate (I emailed dozens of Houston limo companies for a quote), I wasn't offered anything lower than $175, all in. We opted for a town car for $109, excluding tip. The additional benefit compared to the Carnival shuttle bus was that the town car picked us up from our hotel, so we didn't have to pay for a taxi to take us from the hotel to the shuttle bus.
Checking bags - I had read another review that explained that we were not required to check our bags when we arrived at the terminal. When passengers arrive, the vast majority (95%?) checked their bags with a porter (for a fee) and had the bags delivered to their cabin. Based on the recommendation of that review, we kept our bags and took them with us through the check-in procedure. Initially, I thought we were very clever because we wouldn't have to wait for our bags to be delivered. However, after dragging the bags through the various stages of the check-in for an hour, it seemed like more hassle than it was worth. When we arrived on board, we were able to take our bags to the cabin, unpack completely and do whatever we want. Even then, it still seemed like it had been more trouble than it was worth. However, bags were still being delivered to cabins well into the evening and I was very happy that we'd already been able to unpack. If you do check your bags, be thoughtful enough to remember to take any key items (e.g., drinks, bathing suit, toiletries) in a carry-on so that you're not stuck with just your street clothes for the first evening of the cruise.
Accessing your room - I believe Carnival tells passengers they won't be able to access their cabin until 1:30 pm. When we arrived on our deck (with three suitcases and four backpacks) we were met with closed doors to the corridors containing the staterooms. There were also signs posted indicating that the rooms were not yet ready. If this happens, try the doors, you'll probably find one that is unlocked. You can proceed to your cabin and, even if it has not yet been made up, you can leave your bags and use the bathroom if you want. Once you are on your cabin deck, it is extremely unlikely that anyone will tell you to leave. These are the same staff who are relying on you to tip them at the end of the cruise so they are highly motivated to accommodate you. In our position, with all our luggage in our possession, I'm not sure what we would have done if we couldn't have accessed our cabin at that point.
Getting around the ship - Rather than waiting for elevators, use the stairs, it's much faster - even if you're going up/down five decks. In addition, near the atrium/lobby, there are two separate sets of elevators (one is a regular bank, the other is the glass elevators). They share a common elevator waiting area. If you have to use the elevators here, hit both "up" or both "down" buttons for the two sets of elevators and take whichever one comes first.
Fountain / soda cards - They will sell you a card that will allow you to have free soda for the whole trip. I believe the cost was about $5 per day (slightly less for children). Our initial plan was to buy two, then three, then one card for our party of four. Ultimately, once we got the two cases of soda on board, we decided we didn't need the soda card. One drawback to the card is that you can only use it at the bars. You still have to pay for soda in the formal restaurants, via room service, or if you have a pool-waiter take an order and deliver it to you. My daughter met friends who had cards and they didn't seem to have any problem sharing one card between multiple passengers.
Kids' club - I highly recommend the kids' programs they have. I'm one to sign my kids up for programs just to get them out of my hair. One of the reasons I go on vacation is to spend time with my kids. The programs worked out great. Our kids signed up and attended the activities that interested them - basically checking themselves in and out as they pleased. They met people and made friends. They have different groups for different ages (15+, 12-14, 9-11, etc.). Both my kids were initially disappointed by the age groupings because they were at the old end of their groups (i.e., they'd rather be with older kids than younger kids). But they gave it a try and both of them found the activities very well suited to them. Kids 11 and older can check themselves in and out. Kids 10 and younger need to be checked in and out by a parent or other responsible adult. There is no charge for the regular activities. I believe there were charges for some activities that took place later than 10:00 pm. Reserving deck chairs - There are signs around the pools instructing passengers not to "reserve" deck chairs (i.e., arriving early, placing towels on chairs, leaving and coming back two hours later to claim them). Despite this, everyone does it. You might want to do the right thing and not do this, but you will be the only one. I'm generally one to follow rules that make sense (and this rule certainly does make sense), but it became obvious with a group of four that if we wanted four deck chairs together anywhere out of the wind and within sight of a pool, we'd need to "reserve" them early. Even though you're on vacation and may want to sleep in until 9 or 10, there will be hundreds of people up as early as 7:30, or even 6:30. If you have a large group, you'll probably need to reserve your chairs by 8:00. If you are just a couple, you might find something a little later. It also depends on the weather. Pools - There was a lot of deck area around the pools, but the swimmable pool space was really very small. You certainly couldn't swim laps anywhere. There is a giant "jumbotron" screen in the main pool area. It was fun going out at night and watching the late night movie (Indiana Jones, one night). I kind of wished they had played more of those reliable, action-adventure movies because the venue makes it a little difficult to pick up the audio at times. But the setting was perfect for those movies that you've seen before and are always fun to watch again. During they day, however, the big screen mostly played music videos. The small "nit" I have about this, however, was that they showed the video portion of the music videos without broadcasting the audio portion. Instead they had taped music playing over the pool's loudspeakers (when the live calypso/reggae band wasn't playing). I couldn't understand why they didn't just play the audio portion of the music videos they were showing on the huge screen. What is the point of showing a music video if you can't hear the music?
Ship layout and amenity information - Research the ship and print out relevant information in advance. There is little or no information about the ship in the cabins. There is a binder with limited information in each room, but no detailed deck plans and no directions. This binder will tell you there is a burger bar and may mention what deck it is on, but it won't tell you where it is or what its hours of operations are. I was very surprised that I had far more access to information about the ship from home on carnival.com than I did when I was actually sitting in my stateroom. Dance shows - There a number of "song and dance" shows in the Toulouse-Latrec lounge. The costumes on the female performers were very revealing. Our waiter joked that "there is more skin at the pools on the Lido deck", but I'd actually disagree. It was all fine with me (and, I take it, consistent with what is typical for a Las Vegas style show-girl act), but it might make some parents uncomfortable if they have their children with them.
Sports Bar - They have a small "sports bar" on board with a number of TVs. It was as full as it could get for one night during the NCAA basketball tournament when I peeked in. However, I had been hopeful that the bar might have access to sports programming other than what I could get on the TV in my own cabin. However, all they seemed to get were the same channels I had. I had hoped to catch at least part of a hockey game on Saturday night, but no luck.

Laundry - Surprisingly, the laundry facilities were very reasonable, although fairly limited. I think there were only three washing machines on each deck. Laundry detergent was $1, the wash was $2 and the dryer was $2 (for 90 minutes!). They provide a laundry service one day where they will do a large bag of laundry for $15, but it was hard to justify the extra cost, especially considering you're on the ship so it's not like you're going anywhere that you can't monitor your wash load. Internet - there is a room containing maybe a dozen computers. I never had any problem finding one available. In fact, I think the busiest time I was there, there were three other people in the room. Unfortunately, the cost of access is very high. The first minute the first day you use it (i.e. and set up your access) costs $4.70. Each minute after costs $0.75. It may not seem like much, but when you spend 15 minutes checking sports scores and reading two emails and see that your bill for the session is $12, you think twice about doing it again. They have payment plans that started around $50. We spent $32 during the week for four sessions (lasting 16, 11, 6 and 4 minutes), so we never contemplated signing up for the more expensive plans. Carnival advertises that some of its ships had full wi fi access throughout the ship. I saw conflicting information about whether this service was available on the Conquest. Since we chose not to bring a laptop, I never found out. Although the Carnival website is unclear, I suspect this access is not free (i.e., you still have to pay the same fees, you just get the pleasure of doing it from the comfort of your own room). Meals - Don't bother eating breakfast in the dining room. We had breakfast in the dining room on the first morning. My wife ordered the waffles. She got (and I'm not making this up) a very fancy plate with exactly two quarter-pieces of a waffle. I'm not sure who got the other half waffle. It is a lot of trouble to go to the dining room to get a near-empty plate. I'm sure we could have ordered a second plate, but that's not really the point. Dessert - If I had a minor complaint about the buffet food in the Cezanne, it would be the lack of dessert foods. I like a piece of cake or pie or something after dinner, but there was no late night dessert buffet for after dinner. However, some time around 10:00 pm, I take it they would bring down leftover desserts from the Monet and Renoir. Sometimes they had them; sometimes they didn't. Or maybe we just missed them. But it was nice to find a chocolate melting cake at night!
Tracking on-board expenses - at any time, you can check on the status of your on-board account through the menu options on your cabin's TV. When I discovered duplicate charges for the standard gratuity, I reported it to the service desk. However, they explained that the on-screen statement for the adults will include the charges for the children (the children's statements will just show their own charges). As a result, the amounts I was seeing were correct and I was not being double-charged. Our total charges for the trip (excluding the $280 gratuity, which we elected to leave on) were $94 ($32 for internet access, $22 for a photograph, $14 for a bottle of sunscreen, and $26 for one of the late-night kids programs that wasn't included in the fare). If you have a lot of charges (especially drinks), it is probably a good idea to check your account every day or every second day.
Don't eat so much food - I realize (as I've mentioned above) that you've already paid for all the food you can possibly eat. But there is really no benefit to overeating. Just because there is enough food to fill three plates, doesn't mean you have to. I read a review from someone who said that you could order a meal in the dining room and if you decided you didn't like it, you could send it back and order a different meal. To me, that is just wasteful. Be adventurous, but choose carefully. If you order it, you should live with it. Similarly, I saw many people filling more plates of food than they could possibly consume and it clearly wasn't because they were getting plates for other passengers. Take only what you're planning to eat. If you're not going to eat it, don't take it. If you haven't taken enough from the buffet, you can always go back. Again, it is wasteful to take food you know you can't eat. Finally, as I said just off the top, don't eat it just because it's there. It's not healthy and does you no good just because it is a week-long, all-you-can eat buffet.
Thoughts on cruise ship vacations - going on a cruise is a unique way to take a vacation. There are numerous advantages as well as disadvantages compared to more conventional vacations. This review may focus more on the negative, but it shouldn't detract from the fact that the overall experience on the Carnival Conquest was significantly positive. I would definitely take a cruise again, but I'm just as certain that it is unlikely that I would go on a cruise again in the next year or two (unless I found some screaming-great, less-than-half-price deal). We prefer to do different things, plus we like having the flexibility to set our own agenda. In addition, there were a few things about the cruise that struck me as odd or unfortunate. When you take a cruise, you are paying for a level of service that you don't necessarily want. There is no option for 3-3½ star service for 3-3½ star price. The cabin stewards provided great service. But you are paying for them to be in your room not once, but at least twice each day. They clean the room once, then they come in later and make a "towel animal". They stock the ice bucket with ice. That's great, but would you usually pay for that when you go on vacation? I appreciate that these staff are not paid a lot. But there is a cost to having someone make you a towel animal and fill your ice bucket each night. Similarly, you're paying for five star (ok, maybe four star) dining room service every night, whether you use it or not. If my family is on a regular vacation, how often do we choose to go to a restaurant as fancy and with service at the level of the ship's dining room? Probably zero or one time in a 10-day or two-week vacation. Of course, you have no obligation to eat any meals in the dining room, but psychologically, it is very difficult to pass up the four star meal that you've paid for, even if you'd rather have a burger or a slice of pizza. You've already paid for the dining room service, so it feels like a waste not to use it. In general, I just don't get the whole dining room thing with cruise ships. The dining room has a dress code - not just on formal nights. Again, if you're on a regular vacation, how often do you go to a restaurant that has a dress code? Again, the answer is probably zero or one time. Formal nights are even worse. This is the first and only time I've ever packed a jacket and a tie to go on vacation. And once again, you have no obligation to use the dining room. I just wonder why the formal dining room is the "rule," rather than the exception. The only alternatives are buffet or fast-food. And once again, those options are only available once you've already paid the fare that includes the four-star dining room service. Another thing I don't get is the cruise director. He was an enthusiastic and entertaining enough guy, but I read some reviews that mentioned that one entire cruise was much better because of such-and-such a cruise director instead of so-and-so. I can't imagine that the identity or personality of that employee would have any bearing on whether I enjoyed my vacation. He's the guy who introduces the shows and makes announcements over the P.A. system. Other than that ... I don't get it. The ship has all sorts of entertainment options. We attended two "song and dance" shows and a part of a "passenger participation" game show. My first impression was that there seemed to be a lot of entertainment options. Again, it's hard not to think that you're paying for it and I wondered whether the experience would have been any worse if there were fewer options. I don't think I really would have noticed if there had been no evening entertainment. But I suppose different people have different things that interest them (magician, piano bars, bingo, etc.). On the other hand, maybe people just want to be able to do something and it really doesn't matter too much what. And speaking of people, we found everyone (passengers and crew) to be friendly and courteous. I had read some reviews that complained about rude behavior, but I can't think of a single example during the whole trip. Most people seemed to keep to their own groups, but there were a few people here and there who seemed to enjoy socializing and it was nice to meet them.
I have one pet peeve about the ship. When you go up and down staircases or in and out of elevators, or go through a maze of halls, bars, casino, etc, it is very easy to get turned around. A simple solution to keep people oriented on the ship (i.e., in terms of fore/aft and port/starboard) would be to have arrows posted on the walls prominently pointing to the front of the ship throughout the vessel. I don't know how many times I started off in one direction to find myself turned around and backtracking. Another more annoying thing was the constant "buy, buy, buy" message. From the moment you walk on deck, they try to sell you drinks. The first time a drink was thrust in front of me, I asked if it was free. Slowly, the roaming bar staff figure out who will and who won't buy drinks and eventually they leave you more or less alone. They are constantly taking your picture (at dinner, when you exit the dining room, when you board the ship, when you leave at each port). And the photos are not cheap. They are also constantly announcing sales at the on-board shops, trying to get you to put money down on a future cruise, etc. It's not hard to say no, you just would hope they'd give you a break at some point.
I also thought it was odd that so little attention was paid to things like geography and the identity and history of the ports of call. On Monday night, I sat out on the top deck at night and watched as my GPS told me the point at which we passed into the tropics (we passed the Tropic of Cancer at 10:41 pm). I had half expected an announcement or at least a mention in the daily fact sheet. Similarly, I expected there to be more attention to, and information about the geographic and historical background to the countries we visited. There wasn't a single mention of the fact that we came within viewing distance of Cuba at 7:15 am Tuesday morning. I'm sure many passengers would have got up to see Cuba if they'd know. My sense was that the cruise line sort of treated the ports and geographic information like unnecessary details (i.e., it doesn't matter that we're in Jamaica and what its rich history is, what matters is that you sign up for the "Rum runner's excursion" for the low, low price of …). And sure, it was certainly not that difficult to do my own research in advance, but surely there must be enough passengers who actually care about where they're going to make it worthwhile for Carnival to do some basic research and print up the information for each cabin. The cabin staff were excellent and friendly, but another pet peeve of my mine was finding an ice machine. When we arrived, I searched unsuccessfully for an ice machine. We asked a cabin steward where we could get ice and he indicated he would have someone take care of it. However, I figured out later that he wasn't our cabin steward and it didn't get done. Eventually, after asking once or twice more, they did deliver ice. However, I really didn't need delivery, I just wanted to know where the ice machine was so I could go and get it myself. Eventually, I figured out that I could go into the restaurant and fill a container with ice from the dispensers there. But those dispensers were designed for cups, not large containers and it always seemed a little awkward to be using them. That said, for the rest of the trip, our ice container was generally stocked with ice by the cabin steward and after a couple days, we arrived back to our room to find a larger plastic bucket filled with ice (because there wasn't much room in the regular ice bucket for both the champagne bottle and the ice and at some point, my soft-sided cooler started leaking in the room).

My greatest concern was that the cabin staff always seemed to act as if they thought that the passengers believed they were better than the employees. They would apologize for just about anything, including simply being in the corridors if you were passing by. It was very unsettling and I wonder whether this is something they feel is considered to be "good service," or whether this attitude is something they've learned from previous passengers. I would much prefer that the employees just treat the passengers like the regular people we are.

As for the whole tipping experience, I remain someone who is not a fan. Given the captive customers and the standardized level of service, I would far rather the cruise ship advert.

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