I sailed on a Carnival cruise for the first time and saw why they’re so popular for budget vacations

Carnival’s latest 5,245-guest Firenze is great for budget cruises, so long as you’re okay with the mediocre food and abundance of potential upcharges.

Carnival Corp experienced record bookings in the second quarter of 2024. Its latest and 27th ship, Carnival Firenze, is a great budget option.But the food was mediocre, and the enticing upcharges could quickly push guests past their budget.

I love falling for the hype, whether it be clawing for a table at a new buzzy restaurant or queueing for a limited-edition clothing drop.

Unfortunately, the one craze I can’t get fully behind is Carnival, specifically its new 5,245-guest Carnival Firenze ship. Because as much as I like a bargain, I love a quality vacation more.

Carnival’s floating hotels have never been this popular. Bookings for the rest of 2024 are “the best on record” with higher occupancy rates, fares, returning cruisers, and new guests compared to the year prior, the cruise line’s parent company, Carnival Corp, said in its second-quarter earnings report in June.

And it’s looking like business will only get better from here, with the cruise giant already reporting stronger booking levels at higher prices for its 2025 voyages.

Carnival is beloved in part for its affordability.
A woman was denied boarding on the Carnival Luminosa as she was in her second trimester, per 9News.

Like other cruising powerhouses, Carnival Corp has been raising ticket prices amid a boom in demand. But even with this jump in fares, its eponymous cruise line’s cheapest 2024 itinerary starts at just $246 per person for a three-night Australia sailing on Carnival Luminosa.

To compare, competitor Norwegian Cruise Line’s most affordable three-nighter in 2024 is $553 per person for a Caribbean voyage, while Royal Caribbean International’s is $352 per person for a roundtrip cruise from Los Angeles to Ensenada, Mexico.

With these price differences, it’s easy to see why travelers have been clawing at Carnival’s voyages.
Josh Weinstein, president and CEO of Carnival Corp, told analysts in late June that Carnival Cruise Line will make up 37% of its parent company’s portfolio by 2028.

Inflation has been hard on many American’s household finances.

So, if you can afford to travel this year, wouldn’t you want to spend your precious, hard-earned cash on an enjoyable and relaxing vacation — instead of one that could have you stressing about your budget throughout the day?

Carnival acquired Firenze and its sister ship from fellow Carnival Corp-owned Costa Cruises in 2022.
A spokesperson for Carnival told Business Insider that Firenze underwent a two-month refresh to “install the Carnival Fun Italian Style Concept.”

Two years (including a two-month dry dock) later, the Italy-themed ship’s naming ceremony was held in early April, “triggering a step up in bookings,” Josh Weinstein, the president and CEO of Carnival Corp, told analysts in late June.

Firenze set sail on its maiden voyage shortly after, marking the 27th vessel to join the cruise line’s fleet.

The new ship’s fares may be relatively affordable, but you get what you pay for.
My interior cabin was spacious but dated.

Firenze’s cheapest 2024 itinerary is a four-night roundtrip voyage from its homeport in Long Beach, California, to Catalina Island and Ensenada, Mexico, starting at $90 per person and day.

It’s the same sailing I did, although I paid double that for my solo interior cabin booked last-minute.

The complimentary food was second-rate, but the free, family-friendly amenities were plentiful, and there were ample opportunities to splurge.
Firenze is Carnival’s second ship with the “Carnival Fun Italian Style” theme.

About half of the ship’s 16 dining venues are complimentary, a ratio that’s become increasingly commonplace on new mass-market cruise ships.

But there are some caveats to Firenze’s list.

Two free eateries — the salad bar and grill — were closed until the last day. Others, like the pizza stand and buffet, had tempting up-charged dishes.

Some new cruise ships have complimentary food as good as, if not better, than the specialty restaurants.
Carnival Firenze had two main dining rooms. Pictured is Michelangelo.

But none of Firenze’s free meals wowed me — even in the main dining rooms, where I had all my dinners.

Crowds assembled in front of the restaurant’s doors every night before opening. But the hype never matched the quality.

My fried calamari was chewy, the desserts were too sweet, and I found a piece of plastic in my clams and linguini.
I found a small piece of plastic in my clams with linguini.

Kids could love the dining experience.

Service was interrupted nightly by some variation of a loud announcement, louder music, photo ops with pirates, or, on one night, a waitress who serenaded the restaurant with her rendition of “Perfect” by Ed Sheeran.

It was confusing and jarring but, for the most part, entertaining.

The dinner buffet served the same dishes as the dining rooms.
The cost of wings ranged from six pieces for $5 to 24 for $18. Make sure you eat them at a booth that isn’t stained.

But it wasn’t exactly a hot spot for great food during the day. Nor was it pristine, thanks to some of the stained booths.

The honey mustard dressing from the lunchtime salad bar was unbearably sweet. But at least it was edible, unlike the dry-as-a-rock chicken.

You could stroll to the buffet’s chicken wings station for better poultry options — where you’ll pay $5 for six pieces.

Popular cruise lines like Royal Caribbean and Carnival have been increasingly outfitting their newest ships with pay-to-play amenities. Even then, I’ve never seen a cruise buffet with paid options.

Breakfast at the buffet and dining rooms were average.
Breakfast options in the main dining room included chicken and waffles. The bourbon maple syrup was heavy on the bourbon.

The same goes for the breakfast burrito at the Italian-Mexican fusion kiosk.

Annoyingly, if you want a vegan breakfast from the dining room, you must order it the night before.

But if your only requirement is a quick morning meal, I suggest grabbing one of the biscuit sandwiches from the chicken stand, which becomes an upcharged seafood shack at night.

You’ll have to pay $4.50 for a morning latte with your breakfast sandwich.
Spiked coffees and milkshakes cost more than $9 and $7, respectively.

The buffet has free black coffee, Lipton, and Bigelow’s green tea. If you’re craving any other pick-me-up, you’ll have to buy it at the onboard coffee shop.

For lunch, there’s the pizza, Guy Fieri-branded burger, and Italian sandwich stands.
Guy’s Burger Joint’s fully-loaded burgers and fries were decent, as far as cruise ship burgers go.

If you didn’t second-guess your budget for the buffet’s chicken wings, you might at the pizza stand. The $6 teriyaki chicken and Korean barbecue steak pies could catch your eye amid the sea of free pepperoni and four-cheese slices.

Fortunately, there were no paid options at the burger or Italian sandwich counters. Grabbing a plate at the latter will involve playing a round of sauce roulette, with the truffle mayo being one of the yummier bites on the ship and the salsa verde being one of the worst things I’ve eaten recently.

The grilled vegetables at La Strada Grill were a divine and necessary counterpart to the ship’s heavy meals.
The buffet-style La Strada Grill offered options like mac and cheese, a quinoa and chickpea salad, and grilled vegetables.

Unfortunately, the open-air stand remained closed until the final afternoon of the voyage.

In retrospect, I wish I had paid for the specialty restaurants. Maybe my meals would’ve been more memorable.

I could’ve spent $40 for the teppanyaki lunch or snacked on the $1.50-a-piece empanadas.
Specialty restaurants on Carnival Firenze include Italian, teppanyaki, sushi, steakhouse, and chef’s table restaurants. The seafood shack and “empanada and pie” stands also had an à la carte fee.

A $30 sushi boat dinner for two didn’t sound too bad, either.

But would it still be a truly budget cruise if you end up splurging on specialty dining?

After all, a 2024 Firenze cruise starts at $90 per person and day, and dinner at the steakhouse would add another $50 to that day’s cost.

There are plenty of free, family-friendly amenities.
Carnival Firenze had a mini-golf course scattered around the open-air deck.

Competing cruise lines have started charging for simple activities like mini-golf. (I’m looking at you, Norwegian).

But besides the arcade, none of the ship’s top-deck amenities required additional payments.

You could spend all day at the mini-golf course, adrenaline-pumping ropes course, sports court, and waterslides without paying a cent. If that gets boring, there are foosball and ping-pong tables, too.

I’ve seen flashier versions of these amenities on Norwegian and Royal Caribbean ships. But unlike its competition, all of Firenze’s were free.

Or, you could spend your time splashing around the two pools.
Carnival Firenze hosts nightly movies by the indoor pool.

The indoor one doubles as the nighttime movie theater, where you’ll encounter your next budget roadblock — $4 bags of popcorn.

Movie time snacks aside, there are more than enough free activities to keep your family entertained during sea days, especially if you plan on catching nighttime shows like the “Dear Future Husband” song-and-dance production.

Onboard programming like trivia, dance classes, and karaoke also helps pass the time, free of charge.
Art of Tea bags (right) were $1.50 each during Tea Time. Bigelow’s green tea (left) was free.

But if you’re on a budget, I suggest avoiding the “Deal or No Deal” game show, which starts at $25. And if you plan on joining the afternoon tea event, ask for the complimentary tea bags from the buffet. Otherwise, you’ll have to pay $1.50 per bag.

Or, save your money for a few fun beverages.
The atrium hosted entertainment like live music and DJs.

Firenze has plenty of places to drink, from the bubbly-forward Frizzante bar to the live music-centric Piano Bar 88.

Craving a Negroni? Head to Amari. Looking to catch the latest game? Heroes Tribute Bar and Lounge is for you.

But be warned: Cocktails hover at around $13, while beers and seltzers are about $9.

If you don’t want to pay for the bars, casino, or spa, you could escape the kids by going to the adult-only lounge.
Guests 21 years old and older can lounge at Firenze’s Serenity Adult-Only Retreat.

Just be ready to trade the sound of screaming children with loud music. (The ship is devoid of any quiet spaces.)

And whatever relaxation you manage to sneak in will quickly be gone on port days, thanks to an unnecessarily confusing disembarkation process.
Guests who didn’t book an excursion could take a $4 shuttle from the port to downtown Ensenada, Mexico.

I admittedly don’t have the best sense of direction. It didn’t help that there were no signs pointing guests to where they could disembark the ship.

A crew member even accidentally led me in the wrong direction, seemingly unsure of where to go, too.

I wasn’t annoyed. Firenze is a 1,061-foot-long vessel, after all.

However, I was annoyed when I stepped off Firenze in Ensenada, Mexico, and saw that the provided portside bus to downtown would cost another $4 per person.

Carnival Firenze could be great if you’re planning a tightly-budgeted family vacation.
There’s a children’s water play area near the waterslides.

Its cheapest $90-a-night option is still far more affordable than its competitor’s newest ships. (This year, Norwegian Viva’s most inexpensive cruise is an 11-day voyage for $138 a day, while Royal Caribbean’s Icon of the Seas starts at $221 a day for a weeklong sailing.)

It takes buying a latte or two, reserving a steakhouse dinner and teppanyaki lunch, snacking on a half-dozen wings, and having two beers daily for Firenze’s per-day cost to be closer to Norwegian’s.

So, there’s no denying that Carnival’s latest ship is a good deal, even if the food is lackluster, and you’ll have to think about your spending at almost every turn of the vacation.

With that being said, if you have some cash to spare, I’d suggest going with another ship or cruise line.
Norwegian Prima’s mini-golf course, left, is $10 per person, while Carnival Firenze’s, right, is free.

Royal Caribbean and Norwegian’s newer ships are undeniably pricier, but both had complimentary meals that were better than the specialty options. And yes, their pay-to-play activities can be steep — like a $15-per-person go-kart track on Norwegian — but they’re more modern and flashy than Firenze’s amenities if that matters to you.

I don’t blame you if Carnival’s latest ship lures you in with the affordable fares. But a word to the wise: Pay for a specialty restaurant or two, and save some cash to spend onboard. It’ll make the trip more memorable.

Read the original article on Business Insider

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