The Carnival Dream cruise ship, docked in St. Thomas, USVI

My First Experience On A Caribbean Cruise

I recently I took a 7-day Caribbean cruise. A friend and I took a cruise on the Carnival Dream (which is the largest ship in Carnival Cruise Lines and the 10th largest cruise ship in the world) and we went to the Eastern Caribbean. We debarked from Port Canaveral in Florida (just south of Cape Canaveral—we could actually see Kennedy Space Center from the boat) and headed out to the Caribbean islands. In this case, our trip to the “Eastern Caribbean” meant we would stop at these three places:

  1. The Bahamas (a British-controlled collection of over 3,000 Islands)
  2. St. Thomas (one of the US Virgin Islands, a territory of the USA)
  3. Sint Maarten (the lower half of an island half owned by France and half owned by the Dutch)

Here’s what that looks like on a map:

Map of Eastern Caribbean Cruise Route

My experience on a cruise ship was interesting: “taking a cruise” has long been on my bucket list, so it was good to finally give it a try. I learned all kinds of things about cruises, and I’d be happy to share some of those things below. Below are just some of the things I learned while taking a cruise.

You’ll Either Take Just One Cruise, Or Fifty

Taking a cruise is not like any other travel experience I know of. You’ll either become one of the “cruise people” if you like it, or you’ll try it once and call it good. In my case, I think I fall into the latter category: I certainly had fun, but I think this was the only cruise I’ll take. In contrast, I met several people on the ship who take cruises frequently. I met one man who said he’d been on 42 cruises in the past six years. He liked them so much that he had already booked himself on the next cruise out on the same ship, so as soon as we got back, he got off the boat, then boarded back on it again to head out for his next trip.

Cruise Line Employees Are Incredibly Diverse

Cruise ship employees are from just about every country, except the USA. You can always tell because they have their home country printed on their nametags. And I’m talking every country. Even countries you forgot existed. Seriously: when’s the last time you ever met someone from Grenada?

I met people from all over the world: the Philippines, Bosnia, Peru, Mexico, Bulgaria, Indonesia, Jamaica, Thailand, the UK, and many more. In the seven days I was on the Carnival Dream, I saw exactly one staff member who was American: the cruise director. One staff member I met and got to know a little bit was from Macedonia. He was a lot of fun to talk to, was kind of a joker, and told us all about how the working environment on a cruise ship is. Which leads me to my next point…

Working On A Cruise Ship Is Shockingly Awful

Working on a cruise ship is ridiculously hard, tedious, non-stop work. Actually, the whole industry is becoming somewhat infamous for how bad the working conditions are, and that’s probably a good thing. Here’s the dirty secret that you as a passenger would never know: cruise ship employees work on a contract basis, but that contract is a seven-day-per-week-until-the-contract-is-over kind of contract. Literally: some employees work nine months, seven days a week, without a single holiday or day off.

One staffer I met was on a seven-month contract. I asked him how he felt about it, and while he wasn’t excited about how long his contract was, he happily told me that when it was over, he’d go back to his home country and take three months off. It’s all a very strange arrangement. Surely the only way cruise lines can pull this off is because they aren’t subject to the local labor laws, like we have in, say, the USA. And who would want to work such grueling shifts? Remember the nametags? Ding ding ding: people from poorer countries who have few employment opportunities there. That’s who would sign up for a nonstop nine-month contract out to sea without a single break.

A Cruise Ship Never Stops Rocking Back And Forth

The ship rocks. Constantly. A giant cruise ship like the Carnival Dream doesn’t get tossed violently back and forth in the waves, but it still does rock from side to side, slowly. And it never, never stops rocking unless you’re in port. You eventually get used to it—your coffee cup at breakfast slides across the table to the other side, and you think nothing of it. But it definitely takes a while to get used to.

A strange side effect about this is just how long it took me to adjust AFTER the cruise was over! My body kept swaying back and forth trying to compensate, for at least two days after the cruise. I watched my body in the mirror in the bathroom after a shower and noticed that I was moving back and forth, slightly, but I didn’t notice it until I saw it.

Cruise Ships Are Gigantic, Like A Floating City

There are people packed in, everywhere, all the time. The Dream holds nearly 4,000 people—that’s the size of many American cities. This means that you will always be standing in line for everything. If we wanted to use the elevators, we had to wait in line. When it was dinner time, we had to wait in line. When we were in port and it was time to go on an excursion, we had to wait in line to get off the boat. When we were done with our excursion, we had to wait in line to get back on the boat.

I’m not really complaining about this, just stating my observation. I think it was so noticeable because, in many other travel experiences you have, you can find ways to avoid standing in line. If you’re at a hotel, for example, you can just take the stairs if you don’t want to wait for the elevator. Or if you don’t like driving in rush hour traffic, you can try taking a train or bus. On a ship, though, you’re a captive audience and you just have to wait your turn.

Most Of Your Trip Is Wasted Just Getting There

Large ships move painstakingly slow, and a majority of your time spent on a cruise ship is spent just waiting as you head toward your destination. Very little time is actually spent at your destination. It only took us one day to arrive in the Bahamas after our launch from Port Canaveral, but it took us more than two full days “out to sea” to get back from St Maarten. And if you’re claustrophobic or get cabin fever, that is a really, really long time. It’s no wonder cruise lines have to invent silly games to try to break up the monotony with weird entertainment. Would you ever attend an “International Men’s Hairy Chest Competition” on dry land?

There are lots of things to do on a cruise ship: pool games, stand-up comedy shows, musical variety shows, and other things of that nature, but all of them are clearly attempting to distracting you from the fact that you’re stuck on a boat a thousand miles away from land and there’s nothing you can do about it for days.

Water, Water As Far As The Eye Can See

There’s nothing to see when you look out a cruise ship window, except for the occasions where you pull into port. Otherwise, when you’re out in the ocean, there’s not a darn thing to see. It’s just dark blue water as far as the eye can see. This isn’t a problem, but it’s just something that you’ll never be able to compare it to if you haven’t been far out to sea before. It’s just a shocking realization that you can be so far away from civilization without seeing anything but water for several days. The ocean, in a sense, is like a desert that way: it’s a vast plain of absolutely nothing. Every once in a while we’d see the occasional ship from another cruise line going the opposite direction, but that’s it.

Cruise Ships Are Very Easy To Get Lost In

Ships designed to hold, feed, and entertain 4,000 people have extremely complex floor plans and layouts. It is surprisingly easy to get lost in them. We got lost nearly every time we left our cabin, even up to the very last day. There are all kinds of hallways, doors, elevators, and staircases that all look exactly alike, so easy to get disoriented. There are even floors that are dis-contiguous: (for example, on deck 3, you couldn’t walk straight from the back (aft) of the ship to the front (bow) in one shot–halfway through, you have to go up to the fourth deck for a bit, walk for a while, then go back down the stairs to the third deck to continue). We never got used to this.

All The Food Is Included, Yes, It’s All Free!

The food is all included, and it’s all-you-can-eat all the time! I can’t think of another experience I’ve had where this is the case. You never have to pay for food: and there’s always food available somewhere. There are multiple food joints, buffet lines, and restaurants, and nobody ever asks you to pay. There was even a 24-hour pizza joint with free pizza, as much as you want, whenever you want. How cool is that?! We loved it.

The food options are pretty amazing: there was a chocolate bar (where you could get dozens of chocolate treats), a grill (with cheeseburgers, hot dogs, and the like), a pizza joint (as I said—open 24 hours!), a sandwich shop (with about 15 different kinds of sandwiches, and it was also open 24/7), an Indian place (which was my favorite—I had a lot of Tandoori Chicken, Fish, and Naan here), and much much more. This is really one of the best parts of taking a cruise.

There Are No Laws Against Gambling And Smoking In Cruise Ship Restaurants

Remember how I said cruise ships are like floating cities? In some cases, it feels like that city is Las Vegas, Nevada. If you’ve ever been there, you know that they’re famous for their smoke-filled casinos where people gamble while cocktail waitresses bring mixed drinks to your table. So if you like gambling and smoky bars, you would LOVE a cruise ship. If, however, you’re underage, or you’re not into smoking, drinking, or gambling, you’re days at sea will be spent watching LOTS of TV in your room in the evenings.

Beware The Discrepancy Between Island Time and Boat Time

This is a big issue that can ruin your vacation if you’re not careful. “Island Time” and “Boat Time” are two different things. If you have any excursions planned on the island, make sure you find what time it starts, and ask whether they’re talking about island time or boat time. For example, I wanted to go scuba diving in USVI, so I scheduled a boat dive for 9:00 am the day we would be in St. Thomas. Everything was set: I did my research early, found a dive shop I wanted to use, and prepaid for my dive weeks in advance. They told me they’d even come to the ship and pick me up. Score!

So when I got off the ship at 8:30 am, I felt good about showing up early. But after waiting for a while and not seeing anybody, I called the dive shop to find out where they were. They told me “Oh, we already came for you at 9:00 and you weren’t there. We waited for a while, but had to leave since we couldn’t keep the other divers waiting.” Wait, what happened? Aha: I arrived at 8:30 am boat time which was actually 9:30 am island time, so I actually showed up a half hour late.

How is it even possible for a professional dive shop full of people who make their living selling dive trips to tourists who arrive via cruise ships to forget to mention this difference? I’ll never know. But in my case, after I panicked and my head spun for a while as I tried to figure all this out, it turned out okay. I got a refund from the dive shop and was (miraculously) able to find another dive shop that was about to take a boat dive and I was just in time.

Lesson learned: be very careful to find out if your excursions are set for island time or boat time. In my case, it turned out okay. It could have been a very frustrating and expensive lesson though.

For A Good Excursion, Go Far Away From The Ship Itself

The trick on a cruise is to find the spots where the tourists don’t go when you’re on an excursion. What I found out is that many of them don’t go far from the ship. Great example: when the 3,000+ patrons were herded like cattle off of our ship onto the dock in Nassau, Bahamas, there were all kinds of vendors hawking their wares, and outfitters who wanted to take people on tours of the islands and scuba/snorkeling adventures. Hundreds, maybe thousands of people went to Junkanoo Beach, not even one mile from where the ship was docked.

We didn’t take the bait in the tourist traps. Instead, we got on a bus and paid a whopping $1.25 for a ride across the island, and when all the other tourists got off at Junkanoo Beach, I asked the driver if he could take us somewhere where nobody else was. So the driver (who had one eye) keep on driving for about four more miles, and stopped in the middle of a road and pointed to a fence and said: “go there.” Feeling like I had maybe been tricked, I followed his instructions anyway and was delightfully surprised: we found a secluded area on Cable Beach by a restaurant called The Poop Deck. It was perfect: there was nobody else there.

Lesson learned: the further away from the ship you go on your excursion, the fewer people and the better the options. Also, ask the locals where they’d recommend you visit.

Relaxing on Cable Beach, Nassau, Bahamas
Beautiful secluded beach in The Bahamas

You Can’t Use Your Phone On Most Caribbean Islands

Cellular coverage in the Caribbean is horrendous. It’s just not worth bringing your phone: not only will you pay outrageous roaming charges (I’m talking several dollars per minute and over $20 per megabyte of data transfer!), the plain and simple fact is you just can’t get reception. I even paid for the “international plan” on my iPhone for the month to help cover roaming charges, but it didn’t help since I couldn’t get a signal, so it was essentially pointless.

Lesson learned: if you’re going on a cruise to another country, just leave your phone at home. Otherwise, you’ll lug it everywhere in your pocket for no good reason, afraid that you’ll lose it or accidentally jump in the water forgetting it’s there and ruin it. Plus, you’re on vacation. Go have fun!

Note: the only exception to this was in St. Thomas, USVI. Since it’s technically part of the USA, the cell coverage was good, and I even got data coverage and didn’t have to pay any roaming fees. Everywhere else, I kept my phone turned off the entire time.

You Can Use Your Phone On A Cruise Ship But It’s Exploitatively Expensive

In my entire trip, there is really only one mistake I made that cost me a chunk of money. That was taking a phone call from my wife on the ship. There’s (obviously) no phone service out on the ocean, so if you want to make a call, you have to connect to the ship’s wireless “advanced roaming network.” It works just fine, but DANG is it expensive! One night, I was tired, and my wife was getting weary of being at home without me so she called me. Foolishly, I answered the call and we talked for something like 10-15 minutes. Normally, in the USA, you wouldn’t even give this a second thought. But get this: you know how much I paid for that phone call? Over $75.00! It wasn’t even an important call: just a relaxed conversation about “what did you do today?” and things like that. That’s makes it the most expensive phone call of my life. No offense to my wife, it was not worth it.

Lesson learned: do not use the ship’s cell coverage or internet. It’s just too expensive. And you can’t tell ahead of time what it’s going to cost you because it depends on your cell provider’s agreement with the ship. Better solution? Wait until you’re at an excursion and go to a coffee shop or somewhere like that with free wifi internet (if you can find it) and Skype or FaceTime using their internet.

My Conclusion

In all, it was a great trip, and I’m glad to have added it to my list of things I’ve done. And I’m sure going to be more educated if I ride a cruise ship again. Having said that, I can’t really see why I would go on another cruise. There’s just too much wasted time getting to and from your destinations. As I watched planes taking off and landing at Maho Beach in Sint Maarten, I thought to myself: “Next time I come here, it’s going to be on a plane.”

I’m much more interested in the doing of the activities once you’re at a fun destination. Cruises, while they have their place, are much more about taking a very long time to get to a destination and trying to make it fun in the process. I’d rather pay more to just get there quickly so I can set out my beach chair, put on my shades, and have a nice cold Corona in my hand. But that’s just me.