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Rex Ungericht

Age: 47

Occupation:Technical Writer

Number of Cruises: 1

Cruise Line: Carnival

Ship: Carnival Elation

Sailing Date: June 26th, 2005

Itinerary: Western Caribbean


Preparing For the Trip

In February 2005, our family (two adults, 15-year-old girl) and some good friends (two adults, 9-year-old girl) booked a trip through a travel agent aboard the Carnival Elation for June 26 through July 3. This cruise departs from Galveston, Texas and travels to Progresso, Yucatan; Cozumel, Mexico; and Belize City, Belize.

This was our first cruise, so I immediately started looking at reviews and information on the Internet to help us prepare. Some of the helpful sites I found are:

http://www.tips.devisland.net/index.html
http://cruiseclues.com/carnivalcruisereviews.htm
http://www.gofox.com/cruises/tips.php
http://www.cozumelmycozumel.com/index.htm
http://www.freetraveltips.com/Cruises/

The following sections (organized by topic) provide information we discovered or found useful during our cruise.

Children Traveling Without Both Legal Parents

A couple of weeks before the cruise we received a notice from our travel agent. It said that children traveling to Mexico without both parents had to have a permission letter from the absent parent. This is in response to a growing problem with child kidnappings, and in general I think it is a good thing.

For us, however, this caused some consternation, because my daughter is actually my stepdaughter. She was four when my wife and I started dating, seven when we were married, and fifteen at the time of the cruise.

My wife was convinced it would be difficult if not impossible to get a permission letter from the natural father. We spoke with Carnival, and they said it wasn’t an issue – it only applied if we were stopping at a Mexican port for over 24 hours. Still, we had concerns about this, and started investigating options. Then we discovered that the father’s name was not on the birth certificate, which gives my wife sole legal custody. So although this turned out not to be an issue for us, it may apply to you.

If you have this issue, see the U.S. Department of State Consular Information Sheet on Mexico at http://travel.state.gov/travel/cis_pa_tw/cis/cis_970.html  Here’s an excerpt from that sheet: “Mexican law requires that any child under the age of 18, of any nationality, traveling into or out of Mexico must carry notarized written permission from any parent not traveling with the child”. Other countries may require this as well.

Trip Insurance

I decided to buy travel insurance to make sure we were covered in case of illness, injury, lost luggage, cruise cancellation/interruption, and other mishaps. If you think you might want travel insurance, www.insuremytrip.com lets you compare policies from different companies. I wound up buying insurance from a company called Travelex. One of the main selling points for me is that they provide primary coverage – in other words, they pay off their coverage first, before you deal with any other insurance you might have.

This policy wound up providing only peace of mind, as we fortunately had no mishaps on the trip.

Packing

One of the first things to think about when packing is - the end of the cruise. Really. Here’s why: if you want to be among the first off the ship, you need to be able to carry all of your luggage off the ship by yourself. Carnival has what they call “Express Self Debarkation” which lets all those carrying their own luggage debark first (around 7:30 am).

Deciding whether or not to use Express Self Debarkation will help determine the amount of luggage you take on board, which can in turn determine what you pack (and don’t forget to leave extra room for souvenirs).

Another factor when packing is to consider using the onboard laundry facilities. The ship has two small self-service laundry rooms, and a laundry service. During our cruise, the laundry room rates were 75 cents to wash and the same to dry. There was a vending machine in the laundry room with laundry soap and other items, as well as an ironing board and iron. If you do some laundry during the trip, you won’t have to pack as much. The laundry rooms are closed when the ship is in port.

Some websites tell you only to use hard-sided luggage and to secure it with duct tape. Well, we checked a garment bag, three soft-sided suitcases, a duffel bag, and a beach bag (which is held closed by only a small velcro strap). We carried on a duffel bag, a small soft-sided overnight case, and a camera case. I don’t know if our experience was typical, but we had no problems with our luggage.

There are several websites with advice to help you choose what to pack. Some items that we brought that were useful for us included a small first-aid kit, an over-the-door shoe rack (which we used for toiletries and miscellaneous items, not shoes), a few games, post-it note paper, paper and pens/pencils, an alarm clock, a disposable underwater camera, a nightlight, and a power strip. I also wish that I had brought toothpicks.

Getting There

When we received our tickets, the embarkation time was listed as 1:30 – 3:30 pm. We live in Dallas, so we could have gotten up early Sunday June 26th and made the 6-hour drive to Galveston in time to catch the ship. However, we decided to drive down on Saturday and stay the night in a local hotel.

About a month before the start of the trip, I started checking with the moderately priced hotels that my research had shown were decent places to stay, and that offered free parking for our car during the trip. They were all booked full. So, we decided to stay at a more upscale hotel – the Moody Gardens. We enjoyed the hotel and surrounding attractions, but it cost more than I wanted to spend.

The morning of the cruise, the hotel staff gathered our luggage and put it in a van, which carried us and several other travelers to the cruise terminal. We arrived at the terminal around 12:30. Since the tickets stated that embarkation began at 1:30, I thought this might be too early, but it wasn’t – see the Embarkation section that follows. The hotel also gave us their number to call when we returned so that they could pick us up.

Embarkation

When we arrived at the terminal, several baggage handlers were collecting luggage in front of the terminal building. We handed over the five bags we wanted checked through, along with a five-dollar tip, and headed into the terminal with our carry-on bags.

Our first stop in the terminal was at a security checkpoint. After about 15 minutes in line, our bags were x-rayed and we passed through a metal detector. I expressed concern about passing my camera bag through the x-ray machine, but the security agent told me that the type of machine they use does not harm camera film.

Also, while we were waiting in this line, a Carnival representative handed us a notice that said we could board the ship, but we could not go to our cabins until 1pm. This turned out to not be an issue, since we did not get on board the ship until after 1.

After security, we were directed into the ticket processing line. This line was quite long (good thing we got there early) and took at least a half hour. However, once we got to an agent things moved very quickly. I had previously completed the Carnival “Fun Pass” registration on the Carnival website, so they already had most of the information we needed. They checked our passports, swiped our credit card (used for shipboard purchases) and gave us “Sign and Sail” cards. These are linked to your credit card, debit card, or cash deposit, and are used for almost every purchase onboard ship. Your Sign & Sail card is also your door key and your pass to leave and re-enter the ship.

>From there we moved to yet another line. This one was quick. We had to show our ID (in our case our passports), then move to a photo station to get an embarkation photo taken (which you can purchase later).

The final stop was at the entrance to the ramp that would take us onto the ship. Our Sign & Sail cards were validated by running them through a card reader, and individual photos were taken. These photos are for security use – they show up on the card reading machine each time you use your Sign & Sail card to enter and leave the ship. For some reason, they made me remove my glasses for this photo.

Once past that station we walked up the ramp and onto the ship.

Settling In

To save a few dollars we had originally booked an interior room, but our travel agent had managed to get us a free upgrade to an exterior room on the same deck. After boarding the ship, we found our room and began unpacking our carry-ons. Over the next couple of hours our checked luggage arrived – three bags were delivered to our room and the other two we found by walking out into the elevator lobby and perusing the luggage carts parked there.

As we were unpacking, we were summoned to “muster stations”. This is the security drill mandated by the U.S. Coast Guard that makes sure that everyone knows where to go in case of emergency. We grabbed the life jackets provided in our room and headed to the station listed on the back of our wardrobe door (which in our case was one of the ship’s lounges). There, we waited for everyone to reach their muster stations, were given some instructions, and put on our life jackets. Then we were led to a lifeboat deck, where we were packed together out in the sun, standing there for an uncomfortable 15 – 20 minutes before the drill was over.

The Room

The room was small as expected but adequate for the three of us, especially since we spent little time there when we weren’t sleeping. The window was well off the water, even though we were on deck 5 – the next-to-lowest passenger deck. If you listened, you could hear the engines, but it was never loud enough to bother us.

Furniture: There were two twin beds on the floor and one bed that pulled out from the wall above. The ladder to get into this upper berth was in the closet. There was also a chair, and a desk with a stool. A trashcan was located under the desk. In the corner was a table with a top that opened – the life jackets were inside. We also used this space to dump our dirty clothes during the trip. Above the table mounted up on the wall was a TV. There was a window ledge wide enough to hold some items.

Storage: There was room under the beds for suitcases. There was a small closet for hanging clothes, and a wardrobe that had a few shelves and another space to hang clothes. The desk had four drawers that we also used for clothes. The mirror in the bathroom was also the doors of a medicine cabinet, with narrow shelves for bottles, tubes and other toiletries.

Bathroom: The bathroom was larger than I expected, but it was still compact. There was plenty of room in the shower for my 6-foot, 195-pound frame. There are dispensers loaded with soap and shampoo. Towels are provided of course, and there is a sign that tells you to leave towels on the floor if you want them replaced – if you hang them on the towel racks it is assumed you want to reuse them. There is a small basket of assorted toiletries provided.

Other:
There was a safe on one of the shelves in the wardrobe: it’s open when you check in, and you slide your Sign & Sail card to lock and unlock it. There is one 115V and one 230V outlet next to the desk – if you need additional outlets bring a power strip. There are no outlets in the bathroom. There are bottles of water and soft drinks on the desk – if you open one it will be charged to your Sign & Sail account. There is also an ice bucket on the desk, which magically kept refilling itself (or perhaps it was the work of our room steward). There is a phone by the desk so you can call your steward, room service, or other shipboard services. You can also make ship-to-shore calls if you are willing to pay the charges – I think they were around $7.00 / minute. In the closet was a laundry bag – fill it up and for $15 the ship’s laundry service would wash the contents. On the table was a directory of ship services.

The Ship

The Carnival website has deck plans for all of their ships. I wish I had printed these and brought them with me. In addition, Carnival provides foldout cards with the deck plans, but in a different format from the plans on the website. Since you can see the deck plans online, I will only make a few comments about the ship in general.

The lowest decks (1 – 3) are the ships machinery, and crew quarters. Decks 4 – 6 are passenger cabins. Deck 7 is a mix of cabins and public areas. Decks 8 – 12 are public areas. There is an adults only / no cameras / tops optional sunbathing deck around the smokestack, which is only accessible by two small staircases.

There are four sets of elevators that get you between decks, as well as several staircases. The first day on board is a good time to explore the ship and get a feel for where everything is and how to get to it. For example, it’s good to know that the elevators at the rear of the ship travel decks 4 – 10, while those in the center of the ship only traverse decks 4 – 9. If I remember correctly, the front starboard elevators traverse decks 4 – 10, while the front port elevators span decks 4 – 12. There are also the glass elevators in the atrium that move between decks 7 and 12.

Currently, the plan for deck 8 of the Elation shows a Card Room. On our voyage, this room was used to display some of the art that was offered during the several art auctions held on board – it was not used as a card room. Instead, we played cards in the Library, which is always open (although there are only a couple of hours per day that you can check items in and out. From what I could see they had books and games available).

The Dining Room

You are assigned a table in one of the dining rooms, but this is for dinner only. For breakfast and lunch, the dining rooms have open seating, so you do not have to sit at your assigned table. There is a dress code during dinner -- no shorts or t-shirts are allowed. There are also two formal dinners with a more fancy dress code, and let me tell you, a lot of folks really go all out dressing for these dinners.

Each dining room serves an early and late dinner at staggered times. The Inspiration dining room serves early dinner at 5:45 and late dinner at 8:00, while the Imagination dining room serves early dinner at 6:15 and late dinner at 8:30.

You have a wait staff assigned to your table, so the same folks will serve you every night that you eat in the dining room.

Dinners in the dining rooms are full service and more upscale than the buffets on deck 9. Small children may not be able to find selections that they like on the dining room menu, which includes items such as “fettuccini tossed in a mushroom cream” and “pan-seared filet of grouper with caramelized shallot vinaigrette”. But, if you don’t care for the dining room selections, you can always head upstairs to the buffets.

The Buffets

Deck 9 has Tiffany’s, which has buffet lines both outdoors on deck and indoors. The indoor part of Tiffany’s also has a salad bar, a dessert bar, a sandwich bar, ice cream dispensers, and a pizza station. You cannot order custom made pizzas at the pizza station: they make a half-dozen or so types of pizza, and that’s it.

The buffet lines pretty much serve the same things at breakfast, although one of the lines has an omelette station where you can get an omelette made to order. For lunch, there are burgers and hot dogs outside, and different options inside. Same for dinner.

On some days, one of the buffet lines indoors is reserved for the “Camp Carnival” Kids Club.

Carnival Capers

Each day you receive a newsletter that lists and promotes the next day’s activities. This newsletter also contains inserts selling various goods and services on the ship. On days when you stop at ports of call, the newsletter contains an insert with information about the area.

You can use the newsletter to plan how you will spend your time aboard ship and in the ports.

Here’s the back page of one of the newsletters. It is in color, but was scanned in greyscale to save disk space:

The Casino


The Elation has a full casino on board that is open when the ship is in international waters. The slots and video poker machines generally are available each day about an hour before the table games open. The slots are available in denominations from 1 cent to 1 dollar. I saw video poker machines at 5 cents a play and 25 cents a play.

The table games include multiple varieties of blackjack, let it ride, Caribbean stud, 3-card poker, roulette, and craps. Minimum bet at table games is 5 dollars, although several of the games are set up with options for you to make additional bets.

We were hoping that with the current popularity of poker tournaments, there would be one or more held during the voyage, but there wasn’t. The casino did hold slots and blackjack tournaments, however.

Progresso

Since the Carnival excursions all started early (around 8 – 8:30), we decided to get up at our leisure and head into Progresso, and try our luck at finding a tour in town. When you leave the ship, you enter the terminal on the pier, which has several shops, including an auto rental agency if you want to head out on your own. There are tour operators here, but we bypassed them and boarded the free shuttle into town. (It is illegal to walk into town, but you wouldn’t want to – the pier is five miles long.)

The shuttle drops you off at a market square, where merchants in outdoor booths hawk various items for sale (with prices in U.S. dollars). We wandered the square and my wife and daughter bought brightly-colored fans for a dollar each. Later my wife would comment that this was the best purchase she made on the trip, since they were quite useful in the hot weather.

There were tour guides in the square, and we purchased a tour to the Dzibilchaltun Mayan ruins at almost half the cost of the same tour from Carnival. We boarded a modern air-conditioned bus and headed out to the ruins. The tour itself was only a couple of hours long, which was good in the hot and humid weather. There is a museum and gift shop on the grounds – we passed through the museum during the tour, but not the gift shop.

On the return trip, our guide gave us the option of stopping back at the market square in Progresso, but everyone was hot and tired and we all opted to proceed back to the pier. By the time we got to the terminal, the air conditioning in the bus had cooled us down enough that my wife and daughter spent an hour shopping before we returned to the ship.

Later, my wife talked to some folks who had left the market square and walked around Progresso. They said that they felt uncomfortable in the city.

Cozumel

Cozumel has been a tourist destination far longer than Progresso and Belize, and it shows.

There are two ports that I saw – the Elation stopped at the downtown port, which is far more touristy than the other port (which is a few miles away). In the downtown area there are lots of shops and restaurants, nearly everyone speaks English, and U.S. dollars are accepted. However, it appears that many of the snorkeling and other water activities take place closer to the other port.

When you exit the ship and walk to the end of the pier, the Carnival tour guides are there to start you on whatever tour you have signed up for. My wife and daughter had signed up on board for the underwater “helmet trek” where you put on a large pressurized helmet and walk around on the sea floor. She had also signed all of us up for a submarine tour of the reef for later on. So while they went off on their helmet dive, I did some exploring.

When you get to the end of the pier, you are routed upstairs into an alcohol & sundries shop, which exits to a bridge that takes you into a shopping area on the other side of the road. (It is possible to stay at ground level and walk around the shop and cross the street also.)

I walked through the shopping area, then walked from the downtown pier to the other pier, taking a few snapshots as I went. It turned out to be a longer walk than I expected, and by the time I reached the other pier I was hot and tired and decided to take a taxi back downtown. I had no problem finding a taxi and getting a ride – taxis are constantly driving up and down the street that goes from one pier to the other. Also, English seems to be a second language for everyone in the tourist area, so I didn’t have to tax my limited Spanish vocabulary.

After waiting at a downtown restaurant awhile for my family & friends (turned out their tour took longer than planned), I headed back to the ship for a quick freshen up. Then I headed out in search of my party, and lo and behold there they were at the end of the pier. While they were telling me how much they enjoyed their underwater walk, the tour guide for the submarine tour showed up and we were herded into taxis that took us to the appropriate pier. There, we boarded a tender that took us out to the submarine, which is built so that every seat faces out a window. We descended to 100 feet, passing amazingly close to the reef.

Everyone thoroughly enjoyed Cozumel. No one felt unsafe out on the streets, but none of us ever got outside the tourist areas. If we return, we will book our tours ourselves and not through Carnival to save money. Many of the attractions have websites where you can book tours.

Belize

Belize does not use daylight saving time, so on our summer trip we had to set our clocks and watches back an hour for the day we were there.

The waters around Belize are shallow, and the ship cannot move close to land without grounding. Because of this, the ship anchors offshore and passengers are debarked into transport boats (“tenders”) for the trip to the Belize port.

Belize is an English-speaking country, and the Belizean accents sounded to my unsophisticated ears similar to Jamaican accents.

The port is a gated and guarded shopping area catering to tourists. It is also a jumping off point to go on tours.

Many of the tour activities take place on islands off the coast. We did not book a tour through Carnival, but we considered booking one from a local tour guide like we did in Progresso. We met one guide who was hawking tours that did not interest us, but he told us that we could walk a few blocks away and catch a water taxi for a reasonable price. So, we headed out into the streets of Belize, and although we did find the water taxi station, we did not feel comfortable there or in the neighborhoods surrounding the shopping village. We later learned that the neighborhoods bordering the port are some of the most disadvantaged in Belize City. We do not recommend walking out into Belize unless you are the adventurous type.

We returned to the shopping village, where I used the internet café to check my email. I looked at some souvenirs, but the prices didn’t seem to be anything special, so I wound up not buying anything. My wife, however, did purchase some items.

By that time, we felt it was too late to head out on any of the tours. We walked back along the pier where signs had been set up to point tourists from different ships to the correct tenders. We found the tender for the Elation and headed back to the ship.

The Goodbye

On the last day of the cruise, Carnival holds a meeting where they give you the details of the debarkation process. Most if not all of this information is also provided in your copy of Carnival Capers.

This meeting is also used to promote the staff (and perhaps to get you to provide additional tips). They review the tip amount that is automatically charged to your sign & sail card – where it goes and how it is set. They also remind you of the separate tipping of the maitre’d (for which they provide a convenient envelope).

They then show a video of clips taken during the voyage, while “Times of Your Life” plays in the background. When the video ends, the screen raises and reveals crewmembers representing all the ship’s services. The ships captain then hands out awards to some of the crewmembers while everyone cheers.

Finally, they ask you to fill out the feedback forms left in your cabin, and make sure you commend anyone who has provided top-notch service.

Debarkation

Seven days after leaving Galveston we were back. We had too much luggage to haul it off the ship ourselves, so the night before we set it outside our room where it was picked up and taken to a holding area. Then, as soon as the ship docked, it was offloaded to the customs terminal.

On debarkation day, anyone willing to haul all of their own luggage off the ship gets to leave first – around 7:30 am. While they are doing that, all of the other passengers are routed to deck 10, or to the Mikado Lounge on deck 9. Once the self-debarkation group is off the ship, those left are called according to the color of their luggage tags (different sections of the ship have different-colored luggage tags).

This is the only time you leave the ship without signing out using your Sign & Sail card. We headed down the ramp and into the customs area, where no photographs are allowed and all the luggage was placed in sections according to tag color. We found all of our bags and wanted to have a porter cart them to the exit line, but there were only a few porters and they were all very busy. So, we grabbed everything and hauled it all over to an exit line ourselves.

We waited as each group in front of us had their documentation checked by a customs agent. Eventually it was our turn and we passed through with no problems, and exited the terminal. There we called the hotel to be picked up, and were told a van was already on the way. When it arrived, there was barely room inside for all the passengers and luggage – we almost had to wait for the driver to make another circuit, but he managed to squeeze us all in. Then back to the hotel, put the bags in the car, and we were headed home.

The Cost

This being our first cruise, we discovered that the amount you pay Carnival for the trip is just the beginning. Here are other costs you may incur during the trip:

Drinks: Carnival provides water, coffee, tea, lemonade, and assorted juices. Bottled water costs extra. Soft drinks cost extra. Specialty coffees/teas cost extra. Milk shakes cost extra. Alcoholic drinks cost extra. You can buy cards on board that let you have unlimited soft drinks: on our cruise these were approximately 35 dollars for kids and 45 dollars for adults. We decided to pay as we went, and did not spend nearly the 125 dollars on soft drinks that the cards would have cost us. Our friends, however, bought the cards and may well have gotten value from them, as they drank many soft drinks.

Tips: Carnival automatically charges 70 dollars per person to your Sign & Sail cards to cover tips for your room steward, dining room wait staff, and a few others. You can go to the purser’s desk and adjust this if you wish. In addition, Carnival provides an envelope at the end of the cruise to use for tipping your maitre’d. Other tips you may provide include baggage handlers (at the terminal and elsewhere), tour guides/drivers, room service on the ship, casino dealers, taxi drivers, and others. Bring along a bunch of small bills for tips.

Gambling: It probably comes as no surprise that you must pay for your gambling activities separately. Although our luck ran both hot and cold, in the end we lost money in the casino. The ship also hosted several bingo games during the trip that cost various amounts. My wife played a couple of these, and I joined her for the game where the prize was a free cruise. In the bingo games, you can pay with your Sign & Sail card.

Shopping: Carnival makes shopping a big part of the trip, both on board and at the ports of call. There are a few shops on board, including an alcohol/tobacco shop, a jewelry shop, and a souvenir/sundries shop. There is also an on board spa, and a golf pro who provides lessons. And of course, the photographs. Carnival photographers snap pictures of you entering the ship, leaving the ship, going to the formal dinners, participating in ship’s activities, etc. These pictures are posted in the photo gallery, which sells them along with related items such as photo albums. You pay with your Sign & Sail card for your on board purchases. At each port of call, you are first led through a shopping area. You pay with cash/credit/traveler’s checks etc. at the ports of call. At each port, there are shops recommended by Carnival. These shops pay a fee to Carnival to be promoted as recommended shops, and they also agree to provide shoppers with a 30-day guarantee. However, in order to get this guarantee, you must fill out a Buyer’s Guarantee form and submit it to Carnival. There are two ways to do this – you can fill out a paper form that Carnival gives you, or register online at http://www.ppigroup/PPFservice.htm 

Tours: At each port of call there are various activities you can pursue, such as snorkeling, visiting Mayan ruins, taking a submarine ride, etc. There are two ways to book tours: though Carnival or on your own. If you book them through Carnival, they cost more, but you don’t have to worry about dealing with a local tour operator, and they are charged to your Sign & Sail card. If you wait until you get off the ship and book a tour with a local tour guide, you won’t have the same assortment of tours offered by Carnival (although some will be the same), but they will be cheaper. For example, we booked a tour of the Dzibilchaltun Mayan ruins from a local guide at the Progresso shopping square. This was the same tour offered by Carnival (we know because our tour group was right behind the Carnival tour group as we walked the ruins), and it cost us 30 dollars per person instead of 55. Therefore, if you are flexible about what you do at a port of call, you can save money by booking tours locally. On our cruise, the shore tours from Carnival ranged from 26 dollars (child price for the Playa Mia beach break in Cozumel) to 235 dollars (golfing in Belize). Most activities were priced in the 79 – 99 dollar per person range. So it could be quite easy for a family of four to spend 1000 dollars or much more on shore tours – and at some ports you may want to take more than one tour.

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