My First Cruise! 15 Things I Learned On A Cruise To The Caribbean

A few years ago, I took a trip on a cruise ship with a friend—my first cruise ever—and for today’s episode, I thought I’d share my experience.

My friend and I flew to Florida to take a 7-day Caribbean cruise. Our ship was the Carnival Dream (which, at the time, was the largest ship owned by Carnival Cruise Lines). We debarked from Port Canaveral in Florida (just south of Cape Canaveral—we could actually see Kennedy Space Center from the ship) and headed out to the Caribbean islands.

(And by the way, I don’t know for sure whether it’s pronounced “cu-ribby-an,” or “care-uh-bee-an,” but “cu-ribby-an” is how Carnival Cruises pronounces it, so I’ll go with that).

In my case, our trip to the “Eastern Caribbean” meant we would stop at these three places:

#1: Nassau, Bahamas (the capital of a country that is a collection of over 700 Islands, which was formerly a British Crown Colony, and is now part of the Commonwealth of Nations).

#2: St. Thomas (one of the four islands in the US Virgin Islands, a territory of the USA).

#2: Sint Maarten (the lower half of an island half-owned by France and half-owned by the Kingdom of the Netherlands).

Map of the Caribbean Sea with a line showing the route of a cruise ship (Port Canaveral, Florida, the Bahamas, the US Virgin Islands, and Sint Maarten
A map of our 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. After my trip, I took extensive notes about the experience. So here are 15 things I learned while taking a cruise to the Caribbean.

#1: You’ll Either Take Just One Cruise, Or Fifty or Sixty

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 quite frequently. I met one man (who must have been retired) 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. As soon as we got back, he got off the boat, then turned around, and boarded it again for his next trip.

#2: Cruise Line Employees Are Incredibly Geographically 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 met someone from Grenada?

On my cruise, I met people from all over the world: the Philippines, Bosnia, Peru, Mexico, Bulgaria, Indonesia, Jamaica, Thailand, the UK, and many other countries. In the seven days I spent on the Carnival Dream, I saw exactly one staff member who was an American: the cruise director. That’s not to say she was the ONLY American, but she was the only one I saw.

One employee 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 the working environment on a cruise ship. Which leads me to my next point…

#3: Working On A Cruise Ship Is Shockingly Bad

Working on a cruise ship requires hard, tedious, non-stop work. Actually, the whole industry is becoming somewhat infamous for just 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 for seven days per week until it’s over. Some employees literally 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 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 labor laws like those we have in the USA. And who would want to work such grueling shifts, anyway? Remember the nametags? Ding ding ding: people from poorer countries who have fewer employment opportunities. That’s who would sign up for a nonstop nine-month contract out to sea without a single day off.

#4: 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 in the waves, but it still does rock from side to side, very slowly. And it never, ever stops 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 adjust to it.

A strange side effect about this is just how long it took me to adjust back to normal AFTER the cruise was over! My body kept swaying back and forth while standing on dry land, for at least two days after the cruise. I first noticed this while looking at myself in the bathroom mirror. I saw how I was moving back and forth, ever so slightly. How strange.

#5: Cruise Ships Are Gigantic, Like A Floating City

According to the Carnival Cruise Lines website, the Carnival Dream can hold 3,646 guests, and 1,367 crew members. That’s 5,013 people—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 waited in line to get off the boat. When our excursion was over, we had to wait in line to get back on the boat.

I’m not complaining about this, just stating my observation. I think it was so noticeable because, in many other travel experiences, you can always 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 heavy traffic, you can take a train or a bus. On a ship, though, you’re a captive audience and, well, you just have to wait your turn.

#6: Most Of Your Trip Is Spent Just Getting There

Large ships move painstakingly slowly, 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. I’m talking just a couple of hours in some cases.

For example, 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 Sint 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. 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 while out to sea: games at the swimming pool, stand-up comedy shows, musical variety shows, bars with jazz piano players, karaoke, and other things of that nature, but all of them are clearly attempting to distract you from the fact that you’re stuck on a boat, over a thousand miles away from land and there’s nothing you can do about it for days. Most people didn’t seem to mind this. But to me, that time felt wasted.

#7: Water, Water As Far As The Eye Can See

There’s nothing to view when you look out a cruise ship window, except for when you pull into port. Otherwise, when you’re out on the ocean, there’s not a darn thing anywhere. It’s just dark blue water as far as the eye can see. It’s a shocking realization that you can be so far away from civilization without seeing anything but water for more than a day at a time. The ocean, in a sense, is like a desert that way: it’s like vast plains of absolutely nothing. Every once in a while we’d see the occasional ship from another cruise line going the opposite direction, but that was about it.

#8: Cruise Ships Are Very Easy To Get Lost In

Ships designed to hold, feed, and entertain over 4,000 people at a time have 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 many hallways, doors, elevators, and staircases that all look exactly alike, so it’s easy to get disoriented. There are even floors that are discontiguous: for example, on one floor on our ship (I think it was the third floor), you couldn’t walk straight from the back (the aft) of the ship all the way to the front (the bow) in one shot. Halfway through, you had to go up one floor, walk for a while, then go down the stairs back to the 3rd floor to continue. We never got used to this. Many times, I would think I was about to walk out to the Lido Deck (the 10th floor) and accidentally popped out onto the Panorama (the 11th floor) and vise-versa.

#9: All The Food Is Included—Yes, It’s All Free! (Except for Alcohol)

The food is all included, and it’s all-you-can-eat all the time! I can’t think of another travel 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 wanted, whenever you wanted. 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 (this was my favorite: I ate a lot of Tandoori Chicken, Fish, and Naan here), and much more. This is really one of the best parts of taking a cruise.

The only exception to this was for alcoholic drinks: you always pay for those. Unless you bought an upgraded “beverage package,” where you’d pre-pay for drinks and just scan your room card, you always had to pay extra for anything alcoholic.

#10: 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 all night long 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, your days at sea will be spent watching LOTS of TV in your room in the evenings.

#11: 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 the US Virgin Islands, 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!

When I got off the ship at 8:30 am that day, 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 showed up a half hour late.

How is it even possible that a professional dive shop run by people who make their living selling dive trips to tourists who arrive via cruise ships to forget to mention this difference? I have no idea. 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 that 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.

#12: For A Great 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 nearly 4,000 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 offering to take people on tours of the islands and scuba or snorkeling adventures. Hundreds, maybe even thousands of people went to Junkanoo Beach, not even one mile from where the ship was docked.

My friend and I 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 that nobody else was. The driver (who only had one eye) keep driving for about four more miles, and stopped in the middle of a road and pointed to a break in a fence and said: “over 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 and it was perfect: there was nobody else there.

#13: You Can’t Use Your Phone On Most Caribbean Islands

Mobile phone 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 AT&T’s “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. I should have just left my phone in my room on the boat the entire time.

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 and didn’t have to pay any roaming fees. But everywhere else, I kept my phone turned off the entire time.

#14: You Can Use Your Phone On A Cruise Ship, But It’s Exploitatively Expensive

On 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. Obviously, there’s 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! Late one night, I was tired, and my wife was getting weary of being at home without me so she called me. I answered the call and, foolishly, we chatted for something like 10-15 minutes. Normally, in the USA, I wouldn’t even give this a second thought. But get this: you know how much I paid for that phone call? More than $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 entire life. No offense to my wife, it wasn’t worth it.

#15: You Can Buy Duty-Free Items On The Ship, But You Can’t Consume Them On The Ship

Cruise ships are like airports in that they have the ability to sell items “duty free” (tax free). You can spend time browsing in their stores which proudly advertise low-cost giant bottles of wine, rum, whiskey, and other alcoholic drinks, as well as tobacco products. If you’re into that sort of thing, you might look at a giant bottle of whiskey and say “Boy, are we going to have a party in our room tonight!” …but here’s the catch: you can’t actually use those items on the ship, at all.

They will literally take them away from you and lock them up until you’re back on land and your trip is over. To me, this is the most ridiculously self-defeating proposition ever. You can take a cruise to a tropical location, and literally buy gallons of rum on your trip, but can’t drink it until the trip is done. How silly is that? On the ship itself, you will absolutely pay top-dollar for your normal-sized boat drinks, complete with taxes and tips, and cry a little bit on the inside, knowing just how badly you’re being ripped off. And the tiny little bottles they stock your fridge with in your room, just like a hotel? Don’t even get me started on how expensive those are.

I really detest this whole operation. It feels to me just as silly as going to a restaurant and asking to buy a bottle of wine, but being told you can’t drink it there—you can only take it home with you, and that you have to buy overpriced wine by-the-glass during your meal. Why do they do this? Because they can! They’re in control and you’re a captive audience. We wouldn’t tolerate this on land, because we have choices. On a ship out in the middle of nowhere, though, you have no other options. In my opinion, it only makes sense to buy booze or tobacco like this if you’re trying to get a good deal and stock up for the year, or something like that. But who takes a trip on a giant ship across the ocean to tropical islands in order to buy discount liquor? Maybe some people, but I don’t view cruises as a good place to “save money” on shopping in bulk. Especially when people like me have to fly on an airplane to get to the cruise ship in the first place—if I showed up at the airport with a bag full of expensive alcohol that can’t be brought on the plane, now I’m paying for additional charges for more checked bags, making the whole process…. just so absurd that I’m going to stop talking about it now.

Oh, okay, fine, here’s one more thing I learned about buying alcohol on a cruise ship: if you think you can beat the system by buying alcohol off the ship on an excursion, that won’t work either. The airport-style security they have as you board the ship will find your purchase and confiscate it until the trip is over.

But here’s the funny thing: my friend bought at least two bottles of alcohol on two separate excursions. If I recall correctly, one was rum and one was whiskey. The first time we boarded the ship, they x-rayed our bags, and found the bottle and took it away. But the SECOND time, they somehow didn’t find that one, so, feeling like school-aged children, we snickered as we took our “contraband” bottle back to our room. (In this case, it was whiskey, which I don’t like, so I didn’t benefit, but my buddy sure was happy to not need to pay for the tiny single-shot fridge bottles anymore).

Four Travel Tips

To recap, here are some specific travel tips worth mentioning, if you ever take a cruise to the Caribbean.

Travel Tip #1: Time Zones

Be very careful to find out if your excursions are set for island time or boat time. In my case, the time discrepancy turned out okay. But the difference between the two times could have been a very frustrating and expensive lesson.

Travel Tip #2: Excursions

The further away from the ship you go on your excursion, the fewer people you see, and the better your options. Also, ask the locals where they would recommend you visit.

Travel Tip #3: Roaming

If you’re going on a cruise to another country, just leave your phone at home, or at least on the ship. 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!

Travel Tip #4: Phone Calls

Do not use the ship’s cell phone coverage. 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. For a better solution, wait until you’re at an excursion and go to a coffee shop or somewhere like that with free internet (if you can find it) and use Skype or FaceTime, using their internet connection.

My Final 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 like that.”

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. Due to the strict timeline of the ship’s schedule, it takes so long to get to the island you want to visit that you end up with something like 5 or 6 hours to do everything you want, then get back on the ship before it leaves.

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with this, but 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 and hang out for many hours, without having to worry about missing the boat. But that’s just me.

If you choose to go on a cruise, that’s fine! I won’t tell you not to. As I mentioned before, some people are obsessed with them and take one or more cruises each year. That’s totally fine by me. But hopefully some of the information I’ve shared here can help you either make a decision to take one (or not), and if you do choose to take a cruise, hopefully now you can make some slightly more informed choices to make your cruise that much better.

Ron Stauffer and a friend wearing sunglasses and smiling while standing next to the water at Cable Beach, Nassau, Bahamas
Relaxing on Cable Beach, Nassau, Bahamas
The Carnival Dream, a giant cruise ship, sits docked at a port in St. Thomas, US Virgin Islands
The Carnival Dream cruise ship, docked in St. Thomas, USVI
People standing on a beach and swimming in the ocean pointing up at an airplane flying overhead at Maho Beach by Simpson Bay in Sint Maarten
Airplaines Take Off and Land at Maho Beach, Sint Maarten
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