1. Arrive early at the port to board the boat. One of our clients is a cruising pro and she encourages everyone to arrive very early to board the ship. So your recommended time to show up was noon and we arrived around 9AM. The result is pretty much avoiding most of the onboarding lines and having a much easier time getting on the ship.
2. Take advantage of the Bottomless Bubbles program especially if you or your kids enjoy soda/pop/coke (depending on where you are from in the U.S. and whatever you call sugary carbonated water). It actually will save your family quite a bit of money and you will pay far less than $4.50 per day mentioned here: http://www.carnival.com/cruise-food/bottomless-bubbles.
3. For adult beverages it’s a good idea to think through how much you are going to drink. Our group found that it only took about 6 drinks a day for the cheers package of 15 drinks to be a good deal http://www.carnival.com/Funville/forums/t/271978.aspx. I’m not a drinker but those who are should definitely take advantage of this plan, but just so you know 15 drinks is a hard limit unless you find a “buddy” willing to let you use theirs (aka have them order for you). Realistically though who needs more than 15 drinks in a day (you know who you are)?
4. Book your excursions as early as possible to make sure you get the ones that you really want and think through very carefully what is best for your whole group. Maybe a snorkeling/beach combo in Cozumel or an all-inclusive beach-excursion in Progresso. The main reason these are great is that everyone will be able to participate. In addition, when it comes time to head off the ship for your excursion IF you meet in a lounge on the ship make sure you sit as far back as you can because the back of the room gets on the bus first.
5. While shopping at the ports, be sure to walk through the shops before buying anything because you will quickly find out that many of them have the exact same products but at wildly different prices. You may find NFL & college backpacks that ranged from $15 to $25 and no doubt most merchants will be willing to take $10. It’s not like buying items in the US so be prepared to haggle a bit and don’t expect a best price guarantee (you get one shot and once you buy it, it’s yours).
6. Make sure that you don’t push it to get back onto the boat after your excursion is over. We often hear of a couple of families not making it back on the ship (yes, they will leave you). Also, it may behoove you to get back on the ship an hour before you have to you will find a much, much shorter line. If you wait until the last minute you can expect a very long line to get back onboard.
7. If you want a good seat on the lido deck (aka by the pool where the action is at) be sure to get up early and stake your claim. Also remember that you can’t just set something there forever and expect people to honor that. If you want to have a day in the sun be there around 8am and take turns getting your breakfast, etc. If you wait, then realistically you could have a hard time finding deck chairs certainly with a view of the action.
8. Another great perk that is FREE (aka included in the price of the cruise) is the gym on the ship. Yes, you can pay to take some classes (cycling, etc.). However, general use of the gym is included and they have a wide selection of treadmills, universal weights, free weights, rowing machines, and much more.
9. Many of us are not shy about visiting the buffets onboard (I mean the food is pretty solid). Remember that there are almost always two sides to the buffet so check them both before getting in line and several times of the day there is a third area in the middle of the lido deck (on most ships) for breakfast that is way, way faster to get through. This holds true for many eating places on the ship (two lines). Don’t get angry if you chose the long line, that’s not the other cruisers fault.
10. Dinner times on the boat can either be pre-set or you can choose “your time dining”. My family split on this and I want to focus on “your time dining”. If you want some flexibility then this is a great option but keep in mind that everyone in your party needs to be there in order to be seated. If you want to eat early then you will want to arrive 15 minutes before that dining window opens up (yes, a line will already be started). You might find that showing up early can get you through the dining experience much faster (but allocate a good 90 minutes for each dinner).
11. It’s also a good idea to pay close attention to the programs being offered as they will tell you whether they are PG, PG-13, or R rated (adult only). They actually do a great job of warning you but in the end it’s up to you what you expose your kids to. In our case the love and marriage show (which is hilarious) resulted in a child running out of the room due to the content revealed by his parents as a part of the show.
12. When your cruise is over and it is time to get off the ship be prepared for some genuine chaos. If you want to get off the ship EARLY then you will have to choose the self-assist option (you take all of your bags off of the ship). You want to find the lounge on the lobby level where cruisers can congregate and again get as close to the back row of that lounge as possible as they exit last row first. You can dramatically reduce the time it takes to get off of the ship. If you are set to disembark by zone at 9:15am and if you leave your bags out the night before it might be10:40am. Instead you maybe off of the ship around 8:30am and headed back home a little after 9:00am after clearing customs and getting to your vehicle.
In general, the thing to keep in mind throughout the trip is “_________ is as fun as you make it”. For instance, boarding is as fun as you make it or waiting in line is as fun as you make it. Remember you are on VACATION. You don’t need to freak out every second or overly plan every single thing (which is harder for some of us than others). Just go with the flow and you will enjoy your cruise way more than if you treat it like your regular routine. You will have a blast and reconnected with family in ways that would have been impossible on any other type of trip. It is a relatively cost-effective way to create memories that will last a lifetime at least for your family.