Carnival Victory sailing January 23rd 2005 from Miami - Eastern Caribbean Itinerary - Cabin 7243

 This was our 7th cruise, and our second aboard a Carnival ship. If you have read any of my previous reviews, you are probably surprised that we took another cruise on Carnival as I have consistently rated them at the bottom of the cruise lines we have tried. Good news for Carnival - things are looking up. A little anyway.

Starting at the beginning, I will note that embarkation was pretty quick and efficient. This was no doubt partly due to arriving a bit later in the afternoon on sailing day. Perhaps the bulk of the crowd had already boarded so we missed the crush. We did notice when we disembarked a week later that there was a rather large crowd awaiting the OK to go aboard for the next trip, so I recommend: show up a little later. You will doubtless save a lot of standing-in-line time. It took us about 5 minutes - no kidding. I suppose this process was also shortened by filling out the boarding information on-line. This process is available on the Carnival web site (other cruise lines have a similar process), only takes a few minutes, and cuts way down on the pencil work on sailing day. I recommend you do this if at all possible. One slight oddity; we signed up for a "guarantee" room, and I was told as late as the Friday before sailing on Sunday that they couldn't tell me which cabin we had been assigned because that wasn't decided until we actually showed up at the pier. I know that isn't exactly true because they had imprinted sign & sail cards printed up and waiting for us at the dock. Wasn't a big deal really as they were able to match our luggage up with a manifest and deliver it to our proper cabin. Which took an hour or two. This seems to be about the average. We have had luggage times ranging from bags showing up at our cabin BEFORE we did (NCL) to bags showing up about 4 hours after we did. One demerit here: Although we bought airport transfers from Carnival, we had to reclaim our luggage at the dock after it was unloaded from the bus, then be subjected to a blatant request for tips from both the bus driver AND the dockside baggage handlers. On some (not all) other cruise lines, the dockside baggage handling was INCLUDED with the airport transfer and no tips were solicited. I do get a little tired of paying a premium price for something direct from the cruise line, then having to keep putting cash into outstretched hands.

The obligatory mustering drill was NOT nearly so nice as the last one we attended on Princess. We were forced to walk down 3 flights of crowded stairs then STAND around on a very crowded deck area for 15 or 20 minutes while the crew did ---- I don't know what. Waited for everyone to show up I guess. The Princess muster drill was far, far superior. On Princess we were bunched up in an on-board room with CHAIRS, given an explanation of what the drill was about, then sent on our way. We were NOT made to walk up or down several flights of stairs (my wife has an injured knee and this was especially difficult for her.) and were NOT made to STAND around in a crowd for some time. Aside from the knee injury, my wife is quite uncomfortable in very crowded spaces. She didn't actually have a panic attack. Not quite. Carnival definitely needs to study the Princess way of doing this. Now that they own Princess, it shouldn't be too difficult.

The ship itself is very nice. It's no longer brand new, but still in pretty good repair. I didn't notice anything too ragged or ratty. The carpets definitely show some wear, but they aren't threadbare or anything. The decor on this ship is vastly better than we found on our previous Carnival trip on the Paradise. The marble matched the decor and colors were pleasantly harmonious. The ship was mostly pretty clean. Although there were some serious exceptions to this. My wife claimed she saw dirt everywhere. Claimed the whole ship was dirty. I didn't think it was all that bad - except - any time I went into a men's room in a public area, the floor around the urinals was BADLY in need of mopping. I'm not going to go into any more detail, but you know what I mean. And this was ALWAYS the case, each and every time I went into any public area facility anywhere on the ship. I swear the men's room at the airport was better kept. And that's saying something! I also didn't notice the crew constantly running around the ship cleaning everything as I have on previous cruises. I did see some crew cleaning stuff sometimes, but it wasn't so obvious to me that a strict shine-and-polish regimen was in effect. Carnival really needs to address this - especially the part about swabbing the decks in the men's room.

Another thing that was upsetting aboard this ship that we had never experienced on a cruise ship before was a strong sewer gas odor in some areas. When we first boarded it was bad in the hallway outside our cabin, in the bathroom in our cabin, and in some spots on Lido deck by the pool. I reported this to the purser and was advised that it had something to do with the wind. Bull! If it has to do with anything other than broken plumbing, it's a dry trap. I am as sure as I can be that those multi-million dollar ships are NOT designed to smell of sewer gas when the wind blows a certain way. There was a really bad sewer gas smell in the restroom area near the aft elevators that was there the entire trip. And, although I called this to their attention, nothing was done. The smell in and around our cabin DID go away however - so at least we weren't subjected to it for the entire trip. I think I'd have gotten off the boat in St. Thomas if it hadn't improved. Really sickening at times.

Our cabin was a guarantee "8A" balcony cabin (we got spoiled for the balcony on a previous cruise). I don't know if it was originally intended this way, but the cabin we were assigned (7243) was, I guess, a "mini-suite" with a (fold out) couch, chair, large-ish balcony (with 2 tables and 4 chairs), TWO windows, separate dressing/desk area, two large closets, and a whirlpool tub in a VERY fancy bathroom. I think that getting aboard and finding ourselves in such a really nice cabin probably contributed to the overall feeling we ended up with that we did, in fact, have a very nice time aboard this ship. If you can get into one of these cabins, do it - it's really a much nicer trip when you can walk around your bed without tripping on something. We discovered from our dining companions that they had paid the same amount we had for a smaller cabin with only a window on the second deck looking out the back of the ship. They said they had a lot of engine vibration from time-to-time. They are going to have a serious talk with their travel agent when they get home.

The food aboard was actually better than I had expected. The food served at the 24 hr. grill did not seem excessively greasy and there was more variety available on a 24 hour basis than we've found on previous cruises. In fact, the food served was (in general) all fresh and well prepared, and the variety of selections in the formal dining rooms was sufficient to keep me fed. I'm what you might call a picky eater and won't touch a lot of fancy cooking. Other ships we've been on have had "back-up" items on the menu such as plain old steak or chicken just in case the fancy stuff didn't appeal. Carnival doesn't have this. On our previous Carnival trip that was a problem. This time it wasn't. Luck of the draw? Careful planning on the part of the executive chef? Don't know. There was always plenty to eat though. Maybe too much -- I gained about 4 pounds during the week.

The entertainment aboard, as usual, had it's pluses and minuses. On the plus side, the "Vegas Style" production shows that were presented on two occasions were an improvement over most of those we have previously seen aboard ships. Perhaps someone, somewhere has actually been paying attention to all the griping I've been doing (and sending to cruise line headquarters..) about the "old-folks" nature of onboard productions and entertainment. They updated themselves to take into account that their current clientele are probably "baby-boomers" that do NOT relate to the 20s, the 30s, the 40s and probably not the 50s. Good for them They also presented 3 comedians during the cruise - which also gave "adults only" performances at midnight in one of the larger lounges. These were attended to capacity (and maybe a bit beyond) so presumably they have noted this and planned accordingly. I found one to be very good, one about average, and one sort of lame. I suppose that's about par and is certainly personal preference. On the minus side, the dancers employed in the productions numbers looked like they were rehearsing for a high school play. They just could NOT get together, and a couple of them looked like they couldn't do a kick higher than about their waist. A couple of them also seemed pretty competent. Near the end of the trip, I found myself wondering why they don’t put on actual plays in these on board theaters. You know, like Cats, or Rent, or Phantom of the Opera, or maybe even some Shakespeare or something. They demonstrated an ability to have and maneuver some rather large and complex stage sets - why just throw together a bunch of oh-so-typical singing and dancing instead of doing something that’s known and popular? Too expensive for the royalties? Not enough talent?

Another bad thing: There was a band playing contemporary rock in the "red and black" lounge. We caught a couple of tunes one night and they sounded pretty good, but we couldn't stand to be in the room because the air quality was so damn bad. Seriously. The smoke in there was choking me just standing in the doorway. I can't believe they had such poor ventilation. Other entertainment - let's see... - there was a guy playing "singalong" tunes in one bar and it was always packed. We didn't actually go inside as it was too crowded, but it sure looked like everyone in there was having a good time. They had a trio playing in the main lobby several times and they were quite good, a piano player there at other times that was pretty good, a female singer/piano player playing off to the side of the bar in the casino most nights who was just OK (pretty nasal....), and Skip the cruise director who needs to cheer down just a bit. It must be simply exhausting to be so damn cheerful and happy all the time. It also occurs to me to mention that, although I grew up during the 60s and don’t mind LOUD music - SOME loud music - I found that in general the PA and background music levels were WAY TOO LOUD. JUST SITTING IN A LOUNGE YOU HAD TO YELL AT THE PERSON ACROSS THE TABLE TO BE HEARD. I THINK THE GUY AT THE CONTROLS WAS A LITTLE BIT DEAF. And of course the -bad- reggae band on Lido deck was WAY, WAY TOO LOUD. It actually hurt my ears to walk past them. Who exactly decreed that all Lido decks on all cruise ships MUST have a too-loud reggae band? I don’t like it. Also, whenever Skippy the cruise director barged onto the PA to make announcements (read this as “sell something”), HE WAS VERY LOUD. Even if you were in your cabin trying to nap, it was like he was standing next to you talking into your ear. We absolutely did NOT have this problem aboard any other cruise line. It was also the case on our other Carnival trip however. I say, “Have some manners you guys, keep it down a little....”

One night, we were bothered by a smoke odor in our room - apparently wafting over from some neighbor's balcony or maybe seeping through or under the wall somehow. I had a hard time sleeping that night. In fact, we had a lot of trouble sleeping. First - although it was a really nice room in most respects, the "king-size" bed is still just two twins shoved together. The mattresses, although they actually did seem a little bit better than some we've encountered, were way too "firm" as usual. And, although we might have been able to deal with the mattress, we could NOT deal with the big ridge running down the center of the bed between the two twin mattresses. Apparently NCL and Royal Caribbean have figured out how to put a foam adapter - or maybe just a heavy bedspread - over the two mattresses to smooth out the joint because Carnival (and subsidiary Princess) is the only place we've had a problem with it. Luckily, I had contacted Carnival before we left to make sure they had a foam pad such as was supplied on the Princess cruise we were last aboard that really, really made a difference in the comfort of the bed. Here's a warning to all readers: CARNIVAL DOES NOT HAVE ANY FOAM MATTRESS PADS ABOARD SHIP. Unless they change their policy, you are stuck with whatever mattress "firmness" you happen to find in your cabin. We, however, planned ahead. I bought up some king size air mattresses on sale at Target for practically nothing and took one along. After the first night I got it out and inflated it. It was something of an ordeal as I was sort of counting on the in-room blow dryer to help with inflation, but -- it was fastened to the wall in the bathroom. The cabin guys came in and helped out, but I guess the lesson is that if you're going to do this, take your own inflation device. At any rate, the air mattress fit on top of the regular mattresses nicely, and the cabin guys were able to deal with it satisfactorily as far as making up the bed. They had to sort of tie up the corners of the sheets to keep them in place, but it worked OK. Got rid of the big center ridge and softened it up all at once. Made the bed pretty high though... The thing was so cheap I just left it there when we left. Hope someone else gets some use from it.

Unfortunately, a bad mattress wasn't the only thing keeping us from sleeping. When they built the ship, the designers apparently were not aware that in a structure that size a certain amount of flexing is going to occur. We had some moderately heavy seas most days, and we experienced a LOT of creaking and groaning from the exterior walls and one spot in the floor. They sent up an "engineer" who barely stepped into the room before stating that the noise was due to rough water and high winds and there was nothing that could be done. Can you say, "expansion joint?" Anyone who has put up vinyl siding knows you have to allow for some movement. I guess when they were putting up the paneling in the cabin they sort of forgot. I mean, it was LOUD at night when the ship was mostly quiet. I complained but they could not offer us a different cabin. They did however apologize, offer us earplugs, follow up with a phone call, letter, and free bottle of "champagne", and offered us a discount on a future cruise. So -- I guess they did the best they could to handle the complaint without putting the ship in dry dock.

Service aboard was somewhat under par with other cruises we have been on. While standing in line for breakfast one morning, I overheard two other passengers discussing how disappointed they were with the service. Each related at least one example of specific things they found sub-standard. Each blamed the "auto-tipping" policy for the failure. I find myself in agreement. I guess most (if not all) cruise lines now automatically add the expected weekly "gratuity" to your cabin account right at the beginning of the trip. They make a big deal of emphasizing that you always have "complete control" over this. Which of course is pure crap. If you really had complete control, you could tell them right up front, "don't do it." This is not an option. You must make a trip down to stand in line to see a purser (and, they say, not until the end of the trip...) to "adjust" your "gratuity". Of course, they are hoping you will adjust it UPWARDS. The folks I overheard had the opinion, and I find I must agree, that the employees aboard now KNOW they are automatically getting the recommended "gratuity" (as suggested by American Express - so you KNOW it's too damn high anyway...) so they sort of .... slack off. Truly, why put forth a maximum effort if there isn't going to be any negative financial effect for mediocre performance? This policy essentially assures that the passengers are paying the salary of the service crew directly - a ploy to keep the base fare artificially low. Although I did not, in general, find the service provided aboard to be sufficiently bad to actually complain about, neither did I find it to be exemplary or especially excellent. In fact, to relate a couple of specific examples from our own experience aboard, let me just say that we never, ever, on any previous cruise, had any occasion where a cabin attendant came into our room unexpectedly while we were in it. The guys servicing our cabin did it on more than one occasion on this trip. They were nice guys -- friendly and personable, did an OK job I suppose -- but that has NEVER happened before. I think they did it three times this trip. Once when we were dressing for dinner. I suppose I must take part of the blame as I sometimes neglected to throw the inside deadbolt when we came into the cabin. They also never replenished the complimentary shampoo. If we hadn't brought our own, we'd have had really greasy hair by the end of the week.

Service in the buffet areas was pretty much non-existent. The people working there apparently are instructed that their only duties are bussing tables. No one, not once, never, ever so much as came around to the tables and offered a beverage refill. They even do that at the local Old Country Buffet for cripes sake. They did do a nice job of keeping the tables cleared though. I guess that's something. We also found that service during dinner was not up to the standard of "excellent"that we have often received on cruises. The wine steward(ess) seemed not to notice us the first 2 or 3 nights we were there. Once, my wife asked the regular waitress for a glass of wine. She allowed as how the wine person would get that. Neither the wine steward(ess) nor the wine ever showed up at our table. One night, the waitress just brought us all dessert without even offering us a dessert menu. When I asked for an alternate selection that I had noticed on the in-room menu posting, she ALMOST seemed perturbed that the baked Alaska wasn't good enough for us. My wife also wanted the Dutch Apple Cake. We did get it, but it just wasn't right having to beg for it like that. My wife also noted that although she regularly wanted coffee served WITH her meal, it took 5 days for the beverage waitress to recognize that and get it there without being asked. On most other cruises, the assistant waiter has taken note of that after being asked ONCE. My wife also had several occasions where her coffee cup ran dry and she had to beg for a refill. This is NOT excellent service. My wife stated - I wouldn’t dare make such a statement - that she was just SURE we had received better service from the male waiters we have previously had on cruises. I heard a rumor that Carnival had changed things so that each wait team had more tables. If this is indeed what has happened, it was an error – service has indeed suffered because of it. I was going to go through the trouble of reducing the "auto-tip" for these problems, but I didn't get it done. I took note that the amount automatically taken was actually less than 10% of the total ticket price (OUR ticket price anyway - I suppose it could have exceeded 15% for someone in a bargain inside cabin...for the same service) , and -- I just didn't get around to it. I'm sure they are counting on that. To be fair, I must point out that our wait team in the dining room was very friendly and personable. Veronique, the beverage waitress, was particularly charming. We teased her heavily every night, and she took it with good grace.

Disembarkation was a nice improvement over our previous experiences. Since we are US citizens, did not exceed out duty-free allowance, and did not join the trip in a foreign port, we did NOT have to check in with immigration prior to getting off the ship. In fact, Carnival now has a "self-help" program that - provided you meet the requirements - permits you to take yourself AND your own luggage off the ship. Those folks got the first disembark slot (after the tour groups, of course...) and it was apparently a very popular program. We were also not required to vacate our cabin until 8:45 AM. This procedure was a HUGE improvement over our previous experiences and really helped to leave a more pleasant memory of the trip -- instead of having to get up way too early, stand in a really long line to get a cursory glance from an immigration officer, and get crammed into a very overcrowded space for an hour or two waiting to get off. They also served breakfast until 9:00am. I will repeat myself: this was a HUGE improvement. Good job to Carnival (although, I think NCL actually started it...). Now - if we could JUST get that checkout time up to 11:00 am like a land-based hotel. I mean it, we really don't like to get up early while we're on vacation.

To summarize:

Good things included the food, the ship, the updated production numbers, Disembarkation, and

some of the other entertainment.

Bad things (let's say, "opportunity for improvement") include: Sewer gas problem, cleanliness problem (esp. public

washrooms), beds too hard with nasty center ridge, very bad air quality in Red and Black lounge, serious noise problem in cabin when seas not calm, service overall needs improvement, PA too loud, and – get some popcorn on the ship for crying out loud.

It looks like I had a lot of complaints here, but in fact at the end of the week we agreed that we had really enjoyed ourselves and once again noted that even the worst cruise we had taken (this wasn't it, but it WAS Carnival) was a pretty nice vacation. We would certainly cruise aboard the Victory again, but I do think this "auto-tipping" business should go away. Perhaps handing out 2 part vouchers the last day for passengers to use to fill in an actual amount to be added to the room tab would be a better way to handle it. That way there would still be no need to have a large amount of cash at the end of the week, yet the service personnel would know they had to be diligent to receive top dollar.