On all of our past sailings with Carnival, we’ve always opted for dining in the late seating to ensure everyone in our group would be able to dine together – regardless of shore excursions, on-board activities, etc. that may run into the late afternoon making it difficult to herd everyone together for the early seating. Since the summer of 2010, Carnival has offered “Your Time Dining” on its entire fleet, and we decided to try it on our last cruise.
When booking, one has the option of early seating (6pm), late seating (8:15pm), or your time dining. Carnival’s literature indicates that your time dining is available from 5:45pm to 9:30pm, though from experience, the preferred time is between 6 and 9. On the first day, when our cabin stewardess introduced herself and reminded us about our dining choice, she indicated the best time was between 6 and 9 because of how the kitchen works. We’re not sure if she has friends in the kitchen that just prefer this, but this advice would likely serve you well in any land-restaurant, too. If you go in 10 minutes before close and spend two hours having dinner with five appetizers and two entrees (you know who you are), the staff may have some choice words for you – but they’ll still serve you with a smile.
Carnival’s dining options guide also says you may have to wait up to 20 minutes for a table. It was our experience, eating anywhere between 6:45 and 7:45 with a party of 7, we never had to wait longer than 5 minutes, and most night the longest wait was just getting everyone’s cabin number entered into their system (you can’t just walk in and say you’d like a table for 7, each guest must provide their cabin number before being seated).
The hostesses (assistant maître ‘ds?) can even take special requests – such as where you’d like to sit and if you prefer a specific waiter or waitress. We enjoyed sitting in the atrium area of the dining room, but we also requested a specific waiter a few times that we had on our first night who knew us by name. Even with special requests, the wait-time was minimal or non-existent.
We were very happy with the implementation and flexibility of Carnival’s your time dining. We rarely had any kind of wait, special requests were always accommodated with speed, and the flexibility was priceless – especially when traveling with a larger party.
The cruise industry calls it “Wave Season” and the rest of us call it “Hurricane Season.” It’s the time of year in late summer and early fall when cruises in the Caribbean are available at bargain prices due to the higher probability of your vacation being interrupted by Mother Nature. Depending on how you look at it, I was either fortunate enough or unfortunate enough to have a cruise planned for the Bahamas and Key West at the exact time Hurricane Irene was delivering between category 2 and 3 winds on those islands.
I was on the Carnival Conquest which set sail from Galveston, TX on the 21st for a seven day itinerary to the Bahamas and Key West – an Eastern Caribbean itinerary I had not experienced. The vast majority of sailings from Galveston, which is the closest port to our home in Austin, TX, are only to islands we refer to as the Holy Trinity of Western Caribbean cruises: Jamaica, Grand Cayman, and Cozumel.
Upon boarding, we were told by the captain that they were keeping a keen eye on the weather in our scheduled ports, but that no changes had been made. Since every forecast model had Irene blasting through the Bahamas in just a few days, we suspect the determination had been made to not proceed to the Bahamas and that representatives in the home office were scrambling to find ports that were both available and out-of-dodge from Irene.
It was no doubt a busy time for Carnival, as we were only one of eleven ships that required an itinerary change. In all, over 24 ships from Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Norwegian Cruise Line, Celebrity, and Holland America had itinerary changes.
About mid-day through our first day at sea, the captain announced that we would not be sailing to any of our original ports of call, and that we would instead be visiting three ports in Mexico: Costa Maya, Cozumel, and Progreso.
We were on deck near the shops when the announcement was made, and there was a huge array of emotions among the other passengers. Several were excited about the new ports, and some were disgusted. “I’ve already been there!” “Progreso is a dump – don’t get off the ship!”
Admittedly, we were a little bummed that we would not be sailing on our original itinerary – but those are the chances you take when taking a cruise during hurricane season. And considering, at that point, Jamaica and Grand Cayman could potentially be affected, staying on the other side of the Gulf was the only reasonable decision both for the safety of everyone on board – and being able to enjoy ports of call that weren’t experiencing 115 sustained wind speeds.
Benefits of Booking a Cruise during Hurricane Season (Wave Season)
The biggest benefit to booking a cruise during hurricane season is the price discount – the same itineraries in peak months can run several times higher than those in late summer and early fall. The price is lower, but the guarantee of sticking to your original itinerary diminishes significantly.
Not far behind is the oft forgot benefit of mobility. If you had planned a normal vacation to the Bahamas (flight, rental car/taxi, several nights at Atlantis), you most likely would have had to cancel your trip and received minimal money-back unless you had purchased some form of travel insurance. Even if you got all your money back, timing a vacation between two jobs and kids’ school can be anything but easy – so rebooking something else in the last minute can be daunting at best.
Cruises have the benefit of just turning and going somewhere else – your itinerary may have changed, but you don’t have to re-pack, look for available last-minute lodging and travel arrangements, etc.
Booking excursions through the ship is always a safe bet – but as with any safe option – the price is always a little higher. We’re fans of booking outside the cruise lines to save a little money, but you may want to re-think during hurricane season.
For those who booked excursions through Carnival on the original itinerary, cancelations were immediate and credits to the ship account followed. For those booking outside – many were left paying high on-ship telephone or internet rates to make cancelations for trips they had booked themselves. The deposit/refund policy is different for every private vendor – but undoubtedly some folks lost a few bucks by going on their own.
We had one excursion planned (Horseback riding in Freeport), though they only take cash on the day you leave – so no money had exchanged hands. Once we returned home, we had an email from the vendor letting us know horseback riding wouldn’t be available during the hurricane.
I normally spend quite a bit of time searching and reading about excursions prior to booking outside of Carnival, but when the itinerary changes mid-cruise, you are nearly entirely at the will of the cruise’s excursion desk. In Carnival’s case, excursions can be viewed and booked from the TV in the stateroom – and we found that clicking through this was a quicker way to spend $600 than even the Casino. The only problem was availability – since so many choose to book on their own, and with everyone on-board forced to go through Carnival for excursions, many were quickly sold out and lots of people who waited to sign up were left with nothing to do.
We would have loved to go on our original itinerary to the Bahamas and Key West – but we gambled when booking during hurricane season and lost. In the end we weren’t surprised, but pleased that even though our plans were changed we could still relax on warm sandy beaches, enjoy quality excursions in each port we went to, and enjoy the on-board activities and dining with our family – which was ultimately our main goal.
Some strange weather patterns have been circulating around Texas the last few weeks, and its caused some disruption among those traveling by air, land and sea. Fog in the Port of Galveston has forced several Carnival and Royal Caribbean sailings to be delayed – both departing and arriving. Passengers need to realize that when piloting a floating city, safety is going to come first and convenience second.
Carnival was forced to change it’s 7 day itinerary to accommodate the delay, canceling a stop in Jamaica and substituting a closer option: Progreso, Mexico. Carnival gave cruisers the option to cancel with a full refund, or receive 25% off this cruise AND a future similar sailing.
Some on board thought they should get to go on the adjusted itinerary AND get their money back.
“I would say it was a nightmare. We want the corporate office to either refund our money or take us to Jamaica,” said passenger Thuy Kau. “Progreso (Mexico) is not a consolation.”
Nothing is set in stone where safety of the ship, passengers and crew are concerned.
Carnival made the right move by modifying the existing itinerary to include a total of three ports that they had the time to visit. Had they not substituted Progresso, the same people might very well have moaned that they got shorted a port.
They did have options. They could have taken advantage of Carnival’s unique Vacation Guarantee
To further highlight the dangers of the foggy port – the very same ship was hit by a barge – further delaying it since the Coast Guard was called to inspect the ship. Please – don’t be too unreasonable when it comes to the safety of thousands. We’ve cruised on the Conquest before (happily), and are considering another sailing this year. Carnival should be commended for the way they handled this situation.
Hurricanes have wreaked havoc on cruise ship ports in the last few years. Hurricane Ike demolished Galveston, TX to the tune of 3 Billion dollars in 2008, and New Orleans is still recovering from Katrina in 2005. However, Carnival Cruise Lines is sending the message that these two ports are back on the map, most notably by announcing Galveston as the new home for the Carnival Magic.
The Carnival Magic is part of the cruise line’s Dream Class of ships and is set to debut in Barcelona next May for a few seven to 12-day Mediterranean cruises before making the 16-day trans-Atlantic voyage to its home port of Galveston, Texas in October.
Carnival Magic will have seven-day itineraries to the western Caribbean (Montego Bay, Grand Cayman, Cozumel) and eastern Caribbean (Nassau, Freeport, and Key west).
For shorter voyages, CCL will move the Carnival Triumph to the port of Galveston as well, making it the largest ship to operate a year-round short cruise program from that port.
The two ships currently calling Galveston home, the Carnival Conquest and Carnival Ecstasy, will reposition to New Orleans – bringing Carnivals pre-Katrina cruise levels back to the embattled city.
This news is exciting for those of us outside of Florida, who are far more likely to take a cruise if the port is just a few hours away driving distance – and to have the ships include one of the newest and largest ships from Carnival – that’s not so bad either!