Sunday, May 4, 2014

My Week on the Carnival Magic: Part Two --- Cost Saving Ideas

This is the second of my postings about my recent Carnival cruise aboard the Carnival Magic. Last posting I talked about the dining on the ship. Today, I want to make some comments on what I learned about the average Carnival cruiser. Most of the people I met were people who were traveling on a tight budget. That's one, if not the main, reason they chose a Carnival cruise . . . I'm speaking of price points.
I closed my last posting by pointing out that in my judgment the Carnival product is undervalued. That simply means that it is selling for less than the actual value of the product. It is that undervaluing of the product that makes Carnival so attractive to budget cruisers. The average cruise price on a Carnival cruise is at least $200 below the value of what is being served up. So if a Carnival cruise meets your expectations (That is, it is the kind of cruise experience you want) then you get a bargain.  

As I thought about the price of a Carnival cruise and the fact that it is underpriced for the value it provides, "There must be some additional ways to shave some more of the cost of this cruise. So, today I want to give you budget cruisers some ideas on how to save even more on your Carnival cruise. By the way, much of what follows will apply to any cruise line. Since your Carnival cruise has been purchased at less than  its market value the cruise line must make up the difference in order to achieve a per diem that allows them to put the ship to sea and make a profit. These are the very same things that can more than double the "real" cost of your cruise experience.

Truth is by minimizing your use of these "extra cost" items you can bring the cost of your cruise in line with your limited budget.  Remember, your cabin, food and entertainment are largely included in the price of your cruise ticket. However, drinks, specialty restaurants, Wifi, telephone, laundry, shore excursions, the SPA and shops are not. So here are some ways to keep your cruise budget balanced.

The first thing I noticed about my Carnival cruise was that If you're a big soda or bottled water drinker you don't have to spend the $5 per day per bottle of water for your room or for that Diet Coke you just can't do without. Carnival (as well as Holland America and Celebrity) will allow you to bring a twelve pack of water or soda per person onboard without charge (Size control is 12" x 12" x 12") .

Depending on how much you drink, a pre-paid soda/water package (special pricing for kids) is another option. The other option is to simply switch to the free stuff — such as iced tea, lemonade, coffee and juice from dispensers in the buffet area.

Another place to avoid is the bar. Alcohol on a cruise ship is expensive and everywhere. Frequent too

many bars and your cruise cost will soar. On distilled alcohol you have no choice. If you're going to drink it you will have to purchase it onboard.  So, if you can't say "No," then plan ahead for a set number of drinks each day/night. You are generally not allowed to bring your own liquor onboard (if you try it may be confiscated). Also, don't forget that gratuities are added to all alcoholic drinks purchased.

If you order a bottle of wine, ask that it be corked and stored so you can stretch servings over two
nights. Carnival (Celebrity Cruises and Holland America do as well) will let you bring one bottle per adult passenger on board for use in your cabin without a charge. If you decide to use it in the dinning room or other venue be prepared for a corkage charge. We have found that based on the price of a bottle of wine onboard the ship bringing your own wine is well worth the corkage fee.

Another area where you can really save some money is Shore excursions.  Cruise lines contract with local operators to organize tours that get you easily to key sights and activities at each port of call. These, when chosen wisely, can be the highlight of your cruise. The only real advantage to the cruise line sponsored shore excursions is that if your late getting back to the ship on one of them the ship will still be there waiting for you. They are often not the cheapest or the best way to see a destination. You can often hire a private car and driver for less and see thing more quickly and close up. The big thing about "doing your own thing" is making sure you get back to the ship well before the set sailing time because they will not wait on you.

Another popular feature and one that adds to your cruise costs is "Alternative" or
"Specialty" dining. The alternative restaurants on cruise ships are a bonus for foodies. It's your choice whether it's worth it to you to pay $10 per person for a delightful Italian meal in the Cucina Del Capitano, or enjoy a great meal at the Prime Steakhouse  ($35 per person) and a lot more for a gourmet Chef's Table experience ($75 per person upcharge). To cut cost stick to the free options. The main dining rooms are still great (though not as good as in the past) and the Lido deck is a great option as well. Scope out a quiet corner in the Market Place on the Lido deck for a date-night.
We live in a "smart phone" age and everyone feels naked when they don't have phone access or internet service. Use of shipboard phones and internet is expensive. In both cases you will pay by the minute and the internet will often be very slow.  Avoidance is your best bet. Per-minute fees for calls from your cabin phone are exorbitant. If your plan is to use your cell phone, check with your provider on international roaming charges. Horror stories abound of cruisers unwittingly racking up huge charges because they didn't turn off cellular connections. We turn our phones off.

By in large you should avoid the Onboard gift shops and ignore the ads that are delivered to your cabin promising all sorts of deals. Be aware, though, some of the pricing, such as for take-home bottles of booze, is actually quite good. Everyone on a cruise ending at a Texas port and not just Texas residents will be hit with a alcohol tax when you return to a Texas port. If you're looking for trinkets such as magnets and t-shirts, you may do better at onshore shops.

The Casino an eat your money faster than any other place on the ship so beware. There's a reason for th old saying, "The house always wins." It is because the house always wins!  This is a profit area for the cruise lines. Enter at your own risk. If you simply must gamble set a daily limit for yourself and live within it.

The spa is my favorite place on the ship but have just about priced me out of using them. Prices here are high and additional gratuities are expected (15% or more). Your ship's spa will be a lovely oasis for relaxing, with facilities including sauna and steam (sometimes even complimentary) and a full menu of soothing treatments – at prices often higher than at home. Be prepare for what may be a heavy post-treatment pitch for expensive take-home product.

Another area where you can spend a lot of money is on photographs. Everywhere you go on the ship you'll find photographers. This is especially true when boarding and disembarking the ship. You'll also stumble over their makeshift sets on formal nights. You'll certainly want some special photos but don't fall into the trap of buying every picture they take. Decide ahead of time what you want and limit ourself to those photos.

Carnival cruise lines began in an effort to make cruising affordable to the average family. When it comes to cruise fare they have largely succeeded. However, they can be the source of financial pain if self-discipline is not practiced. Just understand you will pay for just about everything.

Let me courage you

Thursday, May 1, 2014

My Week on the Carnival Magic: Part One - The Dinning Experience

Today I am beginning a short series of postings regarding my experience aboard the Carnival Magic. Launched in late 2011 the Carnival Magic and has been home ported in Galveston, Texas  from which she alternates between 7 day Western Caribbean cruises to Montego Bay, Jamaica, Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands, and Cozumel, Mexico, as well as 7 day Western Caribbean cruises to Mahogany Bay Roatán, Belize, and Cozumel, Mexico; and 7 day Eastern Caribbean cruises to Key West, Florida, Freeport, Bahamas, and Nassau, Bahamas.

I really don't intend to speak much about the physical attributes of the ship other than to point out her amenities are all geared toward the passenger having "fun." There are activities everywhere --- all of what is expected on a Carnival cruise.  Carnival's goal from the beginning was to bring cruising within reach of the average family and based on what I experienced on board they have succeeded in spades.
I want to begin this short series by talking  about the cuisine  aboard ship. Like all cruise ships the Carnival Magic offers a variety of  dining options. There are two main dining room one aft (Southern Lights) and the other amid ship (Northern Lights). Both of these dining rooms are split level. These two restaurants offer service that is comparable to a good four-star restaurant. The wait staff is friendly and attentive to the needs of the guest to the point of even remembering the names and preferences of everyone at a table.

 The food itself, while being well presented, was generally a little less than what I had anticipated when compared to my last Carnival experience. I had expected the cuisine to be a little better than what I found. That does not mean that the food was not good. It was in fact very good but not extraordinary. In fact, the food in the main dining room was not of the quality that I had experienced a previous Carnival cruises. Still, that being said, I would rate the food in the main dining room better than what one would find in most restaurants.

One of the disappointments for me was that breakfast in the main dining room was essentially a sit down buffet. By that I mean that breakfast and lunch in the main dining room was no better than what one could get at the buffet on the Lido deck. I might add that seating for breakfast and lunch in the main dining room was a rather random process for the guest.

In addition to the main dining rooms the Carnival magic also has a large buffet style eatery on the Lido deck (Deck 10) called "The Lido Marketplace." This is a large buffet style dining area that can accommodate hundreds of people at one time. The food ranges from rather ordinary to very good.  It appeared to me this is where most people were taking their meals.
I found it to be a great place late in the afternoon to spend a few minutes with friends over a cup of coffee and dessert. The buffet closed at 2 o'clock which left a small block of time in the early afternoon when the area was not crowded. This was especially true on shore days.

On the same deck, the Lido, there was a grill where one could get American-style hamburgers and hot dogs; a pizzeria where one should get custom ordered pizza and calzones; a deli where made it to order sandwiches could be had; and finally there was an Indian style eatery called the Tandoor. All of these eateries which includes the main dining rooms and all the food then use on the Lido deck are included in the price of your cruise. Simply stated there is no charge for eating in any of these they. 

There are also a few venues where there is either an à la carte charge or an up charge for eating those particular venues. Among these are the Red Frog Pub, the Plaza Café, the Prime Steakhouse and the Cucina del Capitano.

The Red Frog Pub offers a fine selection of English Pub Style dining and the calls is reasonable.

As for the prime steakhouse it offers some of the best beef available. The venue, the service, the food presentation, the food quality and staff are five-star. The needs from which you choose is USDA prime and cooked to your taste. You will not feel rushed or that someone is waiting on you to finish so that they can come in the restaurant. You must have a reservation. I have never had staying in a better but I'm not sure that it's worth the $30 per person up charge. The truth is being from Texas, custom to having good steak my wide variety of eateries. However I do recommend it for special occasions celebration. It really is a nice relaxing experience.

My personal favorite eatery was the Cucina del Capitano. This is an Italian restaurant on deck 11 aft Carnival Cruise Lines. Like the steakhouse this restaurant offers superb food that is pleasingly presented by wait staff that makes you feel welcome and unhurried. I should also note that while there is an up charge and a reservation is required for the evening meal. The restaurant does offer a noon eating experience that is included in the price of your cruise. If you choose the noon free dining I recommend their lasagna. Instead of ground beef is made with shredded prime beef.

The decor while being very Italian celebrates the history of Carnival Cruise Line.

Clearly, for me the best thing about the cruise was the many opportunities afforded us for dining with everything from fine dining to a quick something to eat being available almost around-the-clock. In fact, room service is available 24/7 at no charge.

There is even an outdoor grill on eck 5 where you can get cooked to order burgers and tacos as well as other popular grill foods.

There may be a number of things that you will be disappointed with the board the Carnival Magic but the food quality and quantity will not be one of those things. There's plenty of both. The dining opportunities aboard the Carnival magic are comparable to or better than that of their principal competitors. So based upon food and food alone I would not hesitate to purchase or recommend by family members to purchase a Carnival cruise.

There may be a number of reasons why a Carnival Cruise is not for you but the quality of the food and the service provided by the waitstaff will not be one of those reason. I need to say that while I found the food quality a little below my expectations I found the hospitality staff to be better than on past cruises. Serice levels have been, as Emeril might say, "Kicked-up" a notch.

 What I can tell you is that at the prices Carnival is selling their cruises these days the consumer is virtually getting a steal of a deal. Carnival is offering their brand at a price that does not reflect the value you're purchasing. Every cabin below the suite level is undervalued and should be priced at the least $200 per person or more than what they are.  Just keep in mind that the reason you now pay extra for things once included in the cruise fare is that the product is being sold below value.