What to Expect When You Go on a Carnival Cruise Vacation

When the excitement of booking and planning your very first Carnival cruise vacation dies off, you're suddenly hit with the realization that you have no idea what to expect once you board that cruise ship. Don't worry! We're here to help! Read this article for more insight, tips, and tricks for your trip!

Affiliate Disclaimer

Nearly 14 million North American travelers will take a trip on a cruise ship this year. If you’re one of these passengers and a newbie to cruises, you may be curious and excited about what to expect, particularly when you book a Carnival cruise vacation.

Carnival Cruise Line operates more than two dozen cruise ships around the world, which currently makes it the largest cruise line. Exactly what you’ll find on board will differ slightly depending upon the ship and trip destination, but all ships offer fun activities, a variety of dining options, comfortable cabins, and more.

Disclaimer: Some of the links below will earn us a commission if any purchases are completed.

If you’re interested in setting sail with Carnival, what can you generally expect when booking a cruise vacation with this popular company? Get the inside story, as well as some cruise advice for first-timers, to help your trip go as smoothly as possible.

Getting Ready for Embarkation

Before the big day arrives, you will need to gather your travel documentation. A valid passport is the most convenient option, but travel documents can vary depending on your country of origin, embarkation port, and the ports of call you will visit.

Double-check with the Carnival website or your travel agent to confirm what paperwork you need to board, because without it, you won’t be permitted on the ship.

Along with your travel documents, don’t forget to pack any medications and other critical items in your carry-on bag, as you may not have access to all your luggage for several hours after boarding the ship.

Be prepared and check all of these cruise accessories first.

Carry-on luggage, according to Carnival’s regulations, should be no longer than 16 inches high by 24 inches wide. What to bring depends on your cruise route and the weather, but layers and good walking shoes are a must for any cruise.

Don’t forget your sports jacket or little black dress; although dress code on a cruise ship is casual, some Carnival ships feature a Cruise Elegant evening which gives passengers a chance to dress up. While dressing up is optional, you don’t want to miss the opportunity for photos in your finest attire.

If you are traveling a considerable distance to reach your cruise, it’s advisable to arrive in the embarkation city a day before the ship departs, just in case there are flight delays or other problems getting to the ship on time.

The ship will check your bags until two hours before it departs. If you arrive later but still within the boarding window, you will need to carry all your bags on board yourself.

Cruise Ship Embarkation
Photo By: Russell Otway


Carnival accepts gratuities for several services and as it’s customary for passengers to give tips to employees, you may want to bring some extra cash on hand for this purpose. Tips can also be paid through your onboard ship account, which you can link to a major credit card if desired.

Carnival suggests each guest reserve nearly $13 daily for tips if they’re staying in a standard stateroom, and nearly $14 if they have booked a suite. These totals get broken down to tip the housekeeping and dining room staff. Stateroom stewards, dining room waiters, and assistant waiters are some of the employees that receive a gratuity.

You may also want to have cash available to tip for room service, babysitting, or other special services on board. An automatic 15 percent gratuity is added to all beverage purchases.

Gratuities can be prearranged and prepaid if desired, and for cruises that begin in Barbados, they are automatically added to the booking charges.

You can learn more about Carnival’s gratuities policy here.

Plenty of Dining Options

Be prepared for plenty of dining options for every palate on a Carnival cruise trip. The buffet is always a smash hit with several entree selections, salads, and desserts, but most ships will also offer burgers, sushi, steak, Mexican food, sandwiches, and pizza.

Grilled salmon filet, prime rib, grilled lamb chops, and broiled lobster tail are some of the delicacies you may be able to indulge in on a Carnival cruise, though menus vary by ship, destination, and time of year.

Vegetarian options are available at each meal, and special diet requests can be made in advance. Caramel cheesecake, chocolate covered strawberries, and an all-you-can-eat chocolate buffet are among the treats to satisfy your sweet tooth.

The buffet is not available 24 hours a day but the pizza is, as well as room service for your cabin and self-serve ice cream and frozen yogurt.

Drinking Options

While Carnival provides plenty of alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverage options on board, it does have rules about what you can bring onboard if you prefer specific brands. The company’s liquor and beverage policy was updated in 2015 to curb passengers’ sneaking alcohol onto its ships.

This means water, soda, and other non-alcoholic beverages packaged in glass or plastic bottles are not allowed to be brought onboard.

You may bring up to 12 unopened sealed cans and/or cartons of non-alcoholic beverages (including sparkling water) in your carry-on luggage. Adult guests are also permitted to bring one unopened bottle of wine or champagne in a carry-on bag.

You are, however, allowed to pre-order bottled water to be delivered to your cabin via The Fun Shops and you can order water from room service or your stateroom steward. Free water is also available in the dining areas 24 hours a day, and there are drinking fountains in different public areas of the ship.

Carnival does offer several free non-alcoholic beverage options throughout its ships. Regular and decaf coffee, hot tea, hot water, and hot chocolate are available in the dining and buffet areas. Milk, iced tea, and lemonade are also free, and a variety of free juices are available during breakfast hours.

If you can attend the Captain’s Meet & Greet party you’ll be treated to a free glass of champagne. If you take a cruise with Carnival again, join the Welcome Back party (offered on sailings five nights or longer) to score a free cocktail.

Other than that, prepare to pay to imbibe. For a per-diem fee, Carnival does offer CHEERS!, an all-inclusive beverage program that includes some free and discounted alcoholic beverages during your cruise.

There is also the Bottomless Bubbles program, which is a similar per-diem program for sodas and fruit juices, though other non-alcoholic drinks are not part of the program and will be billed separately.

Always drink responsibly on a cruise ship for your own safety and that of other passengers.

Areas to Take a Dip

All Carnival ships are equipped with refreshing swimming pools and relaxing hot tubs; exactly how many depends on the ship you book but most feature at least two pools and three or more hot tubs in different areas.

Several ships also feature the top-deck WaterWorks water park for kids and the young-at-heart. Each WaterWorks offers slides, fountains, sprayers, and more. The Carnival Horizon’s WaterWorks has a Dr. Seuss theme and features a Cat in the Hat water slide. Other ships have less of an overall theme, but all the WaterWorks areas are decorated in bright, fun colors.

Please note that per Carnival’s rules, all children must be toilet trained to access a ship’s pool or WaterWorks ride; no diapers or swim diapers are allowed. Height restrictions may also apply to different waterslides.

Carnival Horizon Lido Deck
Photo By: Russell Otway

Shore Excursions

Carnival offers many fun shore excursion activities such as snorkeling, parasailing, horseback riding, cooking classes, shopping tours, dolphin encounters, and more, depending upon your itinerary. The key here is to reserve your spot for these adventures ahead of time.

They tend to fill up quickly, and you don’t want to find yourself disappointed on a trip you may never take again. Shore excursions are not included in your cruise fare and will be billed separately.

Take a look at these water shoes which are must for many excursions.

Don’t forget that the ship is on a schedule, so it’s imperative that you return before the ship leaves for its next destination. Carnival employees cannot make the ship wait for you. Bring a watch, or set the alarm on your mobile device so you make it back on deck on time. If you are late and the ship has already departed, you will be responsible for expenses to catch up with it at a later port.

The Possibility of Motion Sickness

One of the downsides to a cruise getaway is the possibility of motion or seasickness. Unfortunately, there’s no way to predict how smooth the seas will be during any given cruise so it’s a good idea to pack some over-the-counter motion sickness medication for your cabin.

Find essential motion sickness bands from Amazon right here.

Everyone’s body responds to a ship’s motion differently, and what makes one person queasy may not bother another. Some people feel ill after slight rocking while others who are cruise veterans report never getting sick.

Taking a dose of reliable medication ahead of time or wearing an anti-motion sickness patch when you board the ship is a good proactive way to help prevent any ill feeling. Avoid eating or drinking to excess and minimize spicy or greasy foods if you are susceptible to motion sickness.

If you’re loyal to Carnival Cruise Line then take a look at all of these items.

Other Carnival Cruise Vacation Tips for First Timers

  • Your kiddos will never be bored. Besides the WaterWorks water park, many ships offer crafts, games, live shows, cruise camp, Build-A-Bear workshops, video game arcades, miniature golf courses, movie nights, dance parties, and candy shops.
  • Most Carnival ships feature a casino as well as table games. There are also games of chance on board that offer the opportunity to score cash payouts or other prizes, such as electronics. Always gamble responsibly.
  • Spend a holiday on a Carnival cruise vacation; the ships host Halloween costume parties, Christmas celebrations, special holiday menus, holiday-themed entertainment, holiday decorations, and more.

You can find plenty more Carnival cruise vacation tips and advice here on Cruise Hive to fully prepare you for your first cruise experience. Bon voyage!

Haiyan Ma
Haiyan Ma
I absolutely love cruising with my favorite ports of call being in the Caribbean. As a former crew member for Disney Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean, and Carnival Cruise Line I can continue my passion by sharing my experiences with readers. Find out more about us here.


Free expert cruise tips and news from Cruise Hive! We'll send you the latest cruise updates daily to your inbox.

Cruise Boards
1.4K Share
Copy link