Carnival it is! Now because you're all such seasoned cruisers, do you suggest booking directly with the cruiseline agent, or through a travel agent? Sorry that I seem so green about this whole process, but I really would like to arm myself with as much info going in as I can. And besides, I love coming on this site and seeing all the different opinions and responses. You're the best!
My humble opinion, use a travel agent. One that is a cruise specialist. Not only will they get you the best deal possible, but they will be an advocate for you. A good agent, will keep an eye out for the prices, too. If they drop, they'll try to get the new price for you. Sometimes, if they do a lot of business with the cruise line, they can even get better cabins for their clients (not often-but it does happen). The best thing is, they can make sure that they match your requirements to the right ship and take care of all the details. Especially, if you're having a large group, like linking the reservations together, getting the right size table(s) in the dining room, getting the cabins close to each other (or far apart in some cases ). Again, this is my opinion, but I personally think a good agent is worth their weight in gold.
Booking with a Travel Agent can be very beneficial. I don't know how many cabins you need, but the TA may start a new group for your party or add you to an already existing group they may have spaced block. Groups usually have added benefits of some type of amenities such as On Board Credit. The Travel Agent will be your one point of contact to speak with the same person each time you have a question. They also will have inside tips for you, and provide information on booking insurance and shore excursions through third party sources rather than through the cruise line. They will help make your organizing this cruise as effortless as possible.
You have a bunch of people going. Using a travel agent who specializes in cruises is a good idea. Many of our Carnival fans have developed good relationships with their PVP at Carnival. However it is not cheaper to use Carnival instead of an agent. Actually it is supposed to be a level playing field, with the prices being the same. Sometimes one can find a special deal at Carnival, but it is supposed to be available to the agents too. Actually, if you check around you might find an agent who has blocked out group space on the cruise you want. In that case it is usually going to be less expensive than the going rate for individual bookings.
Bear in mind that Carnival recently changed their cruise fare framework. They now have an "Early Saver" rate which can offer savings but also has restrictions such as a non-refundable deposit. Be careful of which rate plan you book under. Read about Early Saver here.
I wholeheartedly agree with the previous posts! Go with a Travel Agent that specializes in cruises. They are a wealth of information. As uncle Bob used to say "A Travel Agent Is A Knowledgeable Guide. An Experienced Traveler. An Invaluable Resource. A Fulfiller Of Dreams." Do some Agent shopping and don't be afraid to ask questions. Once you find an agent you like they can be of great value to you now and in the future. Ask around for recommendations for good agents.
To find a Travel Agency near you that is approved by Carnival look here.
However, having an Agent that is near you is not really all that necessary. I have friends that have an awesome Agent several states away from them. It is a good place to start though.
While at our travel agency today, a family peeked their heads in the door to say hello and to give a thank you to the TA whose desk we were sitting at. They had just returned from the very cruise that we were sitting their getting information for. We welcomed them over and picked their brains about every possible thing; they were still on a vacation high and enjoyed gushing over the great time they had. Needless to say, we were ready to book before we even got out of the car, but their enthusiasm really sealed the deal. Hmmm, wonder if they were a plant?? LOL, no.. the TA didn't even know we were stopping by today.
Now if I could just figure out how to make a countdown clock for my cruise! Carnival Miracle 7/18/2010. WooHoo