Smooth Sailing: Dos & Don’ts for the Best Cruise Experience

In 2020, our family planned and purchased a cruise as Scott’s 40th birthday celebration in May, and then…
the whole world came to a screeching halt. Three years later, we finally took our celebratory getaway aboard the Carnival Mardi Gras, Carnival cruise line’s largest ship along with its sister ship the Celebration, and among the top 15 ships in the world.

We embarked on a seven-day Caribbean cruise from Port Canaveral, the world’s second largest port just behind Miami. This was our fifth cruise, but our first as parents, and since then I’ve fielded a lot of questions about what it’s like to cruise with kiddos! Here are some of my dos, don’ts, as well as tips and tricks for cruising with kids and cruise life in general.

DO: Do your research ahead of time. We planned our cruise based on what ports we would like to visit, trying to snag places we had never been before. We settled on Cozumel and Costa Maya in Mexico, along with Roatan, an island just off the coast of Honduras. Carnival, and most cruise lines, now offer apps to navigate your vacay. Download it ahead of time, and explore it a bit so you know where to find everything. Check out your ports online ahead of time, as well as port excursions. You can even view a detailed map of the ship’s decks so you have your bearings once you board.

Once onboard, your app is your guide to everything on the ship, and works even if you don’t purchase the ship’s WiFi package. We ran into a lot of frustrated older cruisers who didn’t realize that everything is mobile now. Gone are the days of assigned seating in the dining room for dinner. Now, you can just pull out your phone when you’re ready and book a table at any of the included dining spots (our ship offered fine Italian dining, a Chinese-Mexican fusion restaurant called ChiBang! and the traditional dining room) or pay a little extra for specialty dining. Tables typically took around 10 to 20 minutes to open up, giving us plenty of time to get ready or finish up what we were doing before heading to dinner, rather than waiting at the door like those who didn’t use the app.

The app is also where you can keep track of the endless activities to do on the ship. Choose what you would like to do each day, and your phone will remind you of each thing coming up, where to be and when, and you won’t miss a thing.

DON’T: Don’t sleep on those excursions! If you see something you absolutely cannot live without, book it early as quite a few of them can sell out. Tours offer limited spots and times, so plan accordingly. If you are open to trying new things, take a look about two weeks before you set sail. We scooped up an incredible deal on a dolphin swim with Dolphinaris in Cozumel for a total of just $225 for our family (kids 5 and under are free!). By far, this was the most incredible experience of our trip and one of the best things we have ever done in our 13 years of exploring together.

Read the reviews for excursions before purchase and make sure you know all of the parameters ahead of time. Oftentimes, negative reviews are because people didn’t do their research and booked something too intense for their party or didn’t realize their kids couldn’t join them because of age restrictions. If you want to wait until you’re in port to see where the day brings you, that’s fine, too! We booked a last-minute independent tour of the aviary in Costa Maya after exploring and having lunch, and had a wonderful afternoon with the birds. In Roatan we booked the night before for an early morning tour of Gumbalimba Park, a jungle excursion offering meet-and-greets with iguanas, native parrots and monkeys.

Beware excursions offered outside of the cruise line and do your research carefully. Those working with the cruise are carefully monitored and know that bad reviews mean no business for them. Outside of that, some have fallen victim to insurance fraud scams when renting vehicles like mopeds, golf carts and so on. Bottom line – read the fine print and trust your gut. When in doubt, go with the sanctioned excursions for a great time.

CRUISING WITH KIDS: Our resounding answer to anyone who has asked if we would cruise with Avery again is a huge YES! Not only do we explore just about everywhere with her anyway, Carnival is known for being a, “fun ship” and being very family-friendly. A big misconception is that cruising is only for adults, or that kids won’t have anything to do on-board.

Our ship had 5 pools, only one of which was adults-only. The rest are either beach pools or tide pools, meaning they have a surrounding area of soft flooring and shallow water (about six inches or so) where kids can play safely or you can lounge and cool off without fully submerging. The top deck of the ship featured a large waterpark area with waterslides and activities for all ages, mini golf, basketball courts, an arcade, a ropes course that dangles you over the edge of the ship and even the world’s first seacoaster – an electric rollercoaster that zips around the top of the ship. Even though there were over 5,000 people on board, with so many options for activities, dining and entertainment, we never felt that things were too crowded.

All of the shows at either of the two main theaters were kid-friendly, OR offered kid-friendly versions earlier in the evening like the Family Feud Live! competition or the Love and Marriage Game Show. There are even PG-rated comedy shows! Unlike many cruise ships that have a central atrium that gives access to all the decks, the Mardi Gras has Center Stage, a three-deck open theater that’s unique design allows for amazing aerial stunts and stunning visuals. We got there early each night to snag floor seats and Avery went wild over the shows including a tribute to Vegas, a spooky tale of a New Orleans witch and a tribute to cultures around the world with a massive cast. Each night, movie screenings are offered on the lido pool deck as well under the stars.

If you do, however, want some time to yourself or want to check out some of the adults-only activities on board, there are several KIDS-only options for younger family members, too! Avery checked into Camp Ocean, a kids’ activity camp for ages ranging from infant all the way to 11. We were thoroughly impressed with the security protocol and were even given a free satellite phone to be able to stay in contact for the week anytime she checked in. She loved spending time with kids her own age doing crafts, having pirate parties, exploring science and having movie nights so much that we had to make a rule that she had to spend time with us first before she could ask for kids’ camp! She would check in for about an hour or so while we cleaned up for dinner or headed to the theater to grab the best seats, ensuring everyone got to enjoy exactly what they wanted. Older kids can hang out in their own pre-teen and teen clubs designed just for them.

Our long-awaited cruise aboard the Carnival Mardi Gras was an enjoyable experience for our family and we have memories to last a lifetime. Despite the initial disappointment of postponing our trip, it was worth the wait!

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