I've been on 11 Carnival cruises and always see first timers make these 10 mistakes, from buying drink packages to booking beach excursions

Woman posing for a selfie in front of Carnival Pride cruise ship Lori A. May mistakes first time cruisers make
The author in front of Carnival Pride.Lori A. May
  • I've been on more than 10 Carnival cruises in five years and consider them a home away from home.

  • As a frequent Carnival cruiser, I've noticed first timers repeat the same mistakes.

  • From overpacking to buying a drink package, here are the mistakes I see on Carnival cruises.

I cruise on Carnival so often that its ships have come to feel like a home away from home.

Woman posing for a selfie with an orange drink in hand Lori A. May mistakes first time cruisers make
The author in the Lido buffet on board Carnival Radiance.Lori A. May

I'm a frequent cruiser with more than 100 weeks spent at sea across various cruise lines, such as Holland America, Norwegian, and Virgin Voyages.

But I keep going back to Carnival Cruises. I've sailed with Carnival more than 10 times in the past five years, as it's become my favorite choice for budget getaways.

I've cruised with Carnival to the Mexican Riviera and Caribbean out of ports in California, Florida, and Louisiana, on everything from smaller ships accommodating 2,600 passengers to larger ships that can accommodate up to 5,282 guests.

I'm planning on more cruises with Carnival this year. This summer, I'll sail with it to Alaska.

Each Carnival ship is a little different, but I think all sailings are consistently positive, and I come out of each cruise with new favorite things to do.

Yet each time I embark on a Carnival vacation, I see first timers make the same mistakes that I think detract from the overall experience.

Here's what to watch out for so you can be a savvy sailor the next time you find yourself on board a Carnival ship.

On embarkation day, I notice that most cruisers head straight to the buffet for their first meal. But Carnival offers so many other free dining options with fewer crowds.

Woman posing for a selfie with a hamburger Lori A. May mistakes first time cruisers make
The author enjoying a free lunch at Guy's Burger Joint.Lori A. May

In my experience, many passengers board their Carnival cruise just before lunch.

After they check in and find their staterooms, I've found that most people will head over to the buffet for a bite to eat. While Carnival has a large buffet that can accommodate several hundred people, I think embarkation day can feel unwieldy when everyone seems to show up in the same venue at the same time.

That's why I love diverting to one of the other free dining venues, which have shorter lines on that first day.

And there are many free restaurants to choose from that are included in the base cruise fare, no matter which ship you're on.

In addition to the main dining rooms and buffet, Carnival ships always have a half dozen or so other places to eat on board that incur no extra charge.

The choices differ from one ship to another, but most include options like a walk-up pizzeria, a taco and burrito bar, and unique eateries like Shaq's Big Chicken and Guy's Burger Joint from the celebrity chef Guy Fieri.

Carnival also has specialty restaurants that do charge extra for dinner but not lunch. Many cruisers don't know this and miss out.

An overhead photo of two dishes loaded with barbecue foods.
Guy Fieri has a barbecue restaurant on some Carnival ships that's free for lunch only.Lori A. May

In addition to the main dining room, buffet, and stand-alone venues, Carnival has even more free dining that's easy to miss.

Many of Carnival's specialty restaurants that charge an extra fee for dinner are free for lunch, and most first timers don't know this.

For example, the Italian spot Cucina Del Capitano charges $18 a person for a dinner but offers a free modified lunch menu. JiJi Asian Kitchen also charges $18 a person for dinner but offers a free Mongolian-wok lunch.

Another one of my favorites, Fieri's Pig & Anchor Smokehouse, has an à la carte menu throughout the day that costs extra, but on sea days, it has a free outdoor-barbecue menu serving best-selling items like brisket, pork butt, and sausage, along with sides like mac and cheese and potato salad.

I think that many first-time passengers miss out on Carnival's adults-only Serenity Retreat, which is exclusive to cruisers age 21 and over and has no surcharge.

Outdoor deck on Carnival cruise Lori A. May mistakes first time cruisers make
Carnival's Serenity Retreat is an adults-only space with no extra charge.Lori A. May

I admit I'm a little reluctant to share this tip because every time I've visited Carnival's Serenity Retreat on multiple ships, I'm surprised how sparsely populated the relaxing space is.

I don't want to spoil the oasis-like feeling, but it's one of my favorite places to go on a Carnival ship, and I think you're missing out if you don't take advantage of it.

Serenity is an adults-only area that's nicely tucked away on an upper deck, away from foot traffic, so only those who want to find it will. I think it's a wonderful escape from daytime pool-deck parties and kids of all ages running around with melting ice-cream cones.

In my experience, many cruise lines charge extra for access to a similar adults-only space. According to Cruise Critic, the full day rate for enjoying The Sanctuary on Princess Cruises is usually $40 a person, or $20 for a half day. Cruise Critic also says Norwegian's adults-only Vibe Beach Club, which has a private bar, lounge space, and its own hot-tub area on a quiet part of the ship, can cost $100 a person for a day pass or about $209 for a weeklong pass.

So in my mind, there's no better value than having an adults-only space on Carnival for zero dollars.

The Serenity Retreat is available throughout the Carnival fleet. It's often two levels at the front of the ship and remains out of sight for the most part thanks to a privacy fence.

I think many guests may assume it has a cover charge or is available only to suite guests. That is not the case, and anyone over the age of 21 can come at their leisure to relax on loungers, sun beds, daybeds, and hammocks. I always find plenty of fresh towels and love to take a dip in one of the oversize spa tubs.

A light lunch of fresh fruit, salads, and wraps is usually available, alongside a quiet bar area, where soft music plays in the background.

The pool and upper decks are always buzzing with activities, but there are so many quiet spaces on Carnival ships that go overlooked.

Woman posing for a selfie on the deck of a Carnival Cruise ship Lori A. May mistakes first time cruisers make
The author enjoys a relaxing stroll on the exterior promenade deck of Carnival Valor.Lori A. May

I love a good pool-deck party with '80s music and dancing. I also appreciate having some relaxing quiet time away from all the activities. And there are many places on Carnival to find that besides at the Serenity Retreat.

That's why I always reacquaint myself with the ship layout during my first day on board. As I stroll through each deck, I remind myself of the less-busy atrium bar, the quiet library stocked with paperback books, and, my favorite, the outer promenade deck. Available on most of Carnival's fleet, the promenade deck often wraps around the ship on the third or fourth deck, and it's where I like to take in the sunset or enjoy a cocktail.

The promenade deck isn't fancy. It's a wide-open space with chairs and loungers, but mostly it's a serene place to breathe the salty air and appreciate being on vacation. I look forward to returning to it again and again, and on all my cruises on Carnival, I've never seen this outdoor space packed with people.

Many Carnival cruisers buy the drink package, but in my experience, it's not usually worth it.

Happy Hour special aboard Carnival Cruise Lori A. May mistakes first time cruisers make
Some of Carnival's bars have daily happy-hour deals.Lori A. May

From the time of booking right up until the sailing date, Carnival guests will receive friendly emails offering them a chance to save money by prepurchasing a drink package.

If you plan to drink a fair amount of alcohol, it can be a mistake not to buy the drink package before sailing, as Carnival offers a preboarding discount where guests can save 10% compared with buying the package once on board.

Yet in my experience, a drink package isn't the best deal if you're planning to just have a drink here or there.

And when I'm on a cruise itinerary with a port destination every day, I don't spend as much time on the ship, and then I think it doesn't make sense and often goes unused.

Instead, I take advantage of onboard promotions like daily happy-hour deals, which I've found can save you 50% on each drink.

The best way to learn about these deals is to scan the daily activity program left in your stateroom for the details, or pop by your favorite bar and ask when they offer happy hour, which varies by venue. I've saved a lot of money by purchasing drinks à la carte and doing so exclusively during happy hour.

Carnival has designated smoking areas for cigarettes, cigars, and vaping. But bringing drugs on board, including marijuana, is not only a big mistake but also illegal.

Designated smoking area on Carnival cruise ship Lori A. May mistakes first time cruisers make
Every Carnival ship has designated smoking areas, but marijuana is prohibited.Lori A. May

Carnival has a reputation as being a superfun vacation experience with late-night deck parties and a relaxed vibe.

But recreational drugs of any kind are not allowed on board.

According to Cruise Critic, no matter the legality of where you're sailing to or from, marijuana is still illegal under federal law, and those laws govern cruise lines. Every single cruise line also has a rule prohibiting weed, and bringing any on a ship can lead to fines and being removed from the cruise.

Indeed, Carnival's drug policies follow federal laws prohibiting cannabis products, as noted in its guest ticket contract that everyone must agree to prior to boarding.

The travel-industry website Cruise Hive recently reported Carnival Cruise Line was taking security measures up a notch this year, introducing drug-sniffing dogs and adding more-intensive luggage screening.

I think Carnival is a fun cruise vacation with so much to do all the time. But that makes it easy to never take a break.

Line dance party on pool deck of Carnival cruise ship Lori A. May mistakes first time cruisers make
A line-dance party on the pool deck of a Carnival ship.Lori A. May

Day and night, Carnival cruises are bursting so many fun things to do that it's no wonder they're called the "fun ships." From deck parties to ropes courses, waterslides to mini golf, I think it's impossible to be bored on a Carnival cruise.

But I think that also makes it all too easy to try and do too much, especially in one day. When first timers try to take advantage of everything there is to do on board, they might depart their cruise needing a vacation from their vacation.

This would be a shame, as I've always found a cruise to be one of the most relaxing trips I can take. Sure, there's always something to do on Carnival, but I love that there's also an opportunity to slow down and disconnect.

To find balance in my day, I set time aside to review the activities I want to do: waterslides, mini golf, main-stage entertainment, comedy shows, and so on. Then I make a little note to remind myself of these things while sailing so I don't forget, but I don't live by a day planner. It's vacation, after all.

Instead, I try to visit each activity area of the ship and pick an afternoon or evening activity for each day that I don't want to miss. The rest of the time, I just relax and enjoy a salty breeze in the sun by the pool.

Carnival offers many shore excursions, and it may seem easiest to book one through the cruise line. But if you just want to hit the beach or snorkel, you'll save so much money if you go on your own.

Woman wearing baseball cap and sunglasses holding a green boogie board on a beach Lori A. May mistakes first time cruisers make
The author rents boogie boards or snorkel gear at the beaches she visits during a cruise.Lori A. May

If you haven't cruised before, it can be hard to know what to expect once you've reached your port destinations.

Carnival aims to make it easier by offering many hosted group excursions, where a representative from the ship will take you to a place or activity where all transport, and often meals, are included.

Over the years, I have found Carnival offers some of the most affordable excursions for simple activities, like visiting a bird sanctuary in Costa Maya, Mexico, or a shipwreck museum on St. Thomas in the US Virgin Islands, and have seen them advertised as low as $14 a person.

But if you just want to go to a local beach to snorkel or boogie board, an official cruise-ship excursion will usually cost at least $50 a person.

That may be fine in an area where a beach isn't close, but I find that I can often easily walk to a nearby beach or take a cheap taxi and can rent a boogie board or snorkel gear from a local on-site vendor, often spending only $5 to $10 for a few hours.

That's been my experience in the Caribbean, Mexico, and Hawaii, so I never pay five times that for an official cruise-ship excursion. I suggest you don't, either. Just do some research before you arrive as to what beach you'd like to visit, flag down a taxi, and enjoy your day while saving money.

Over the years, I've been guilty of overpacking, so have many other cruisers. But there's no need to since most Carnival ships have self-serve laundry rooms.

Woman posing for a selfie next to an open washing machine on Carnival cruise Lori A. May mistakes first time cruisers make
The author doing laundry on board a Carnival cruise.Lori A. May

If you've never cruised before, it's understandable to not know exactly what to pack or what not to pack on a cruise.

Days at sea can offer unpredictable weather, and for a weeklong sailing or longer, the clothing needed can add up, making it easy to overpack in preparation.

But Carnival cruise cabins start at as small as 185 square feet, and sharing that space with others will make it feel smaller — not to mention you'll also be sharing limited closet space.

Experienced cruisers like me know that most Carnival ships offer self-serve laundry on each guest floor. These launderettes have washers and dryers, along with a vending machine for soap and fabric softener for $2 a packet, though I tend to bring my own travel-size supplies from home.

For one load of laundry, I've paid $3.50 for a washer and $3.50 for a dryer. I find that price reasonable compared with overpacking and perhaps paying extra for checking luggage with an airline to and from my cruise.

It may seem like a small detail, but many first-time Carnival passengers don't know about the towel-animal takeover, and in my opinion, it shouldn't be missed.

Animals made from white towels on the deck of a Carnival cruise ship Lori A. May mistakes first time cruisers make
One morning during each cruise, Carnival passengers will find a towel-animal takeover on the pool deck.Lori A. May

As a repeat cruise guest, I've come to expect a cute towel animal in my stateroom after the steward tidies my cabin for the day.

But I love that Carnival takes this small detail a step further by hosting a towel-animal takeover one morning of each sailing. That's when the crew makes hundreds of towel animals and fills the pool deck with their creations.

Late risers will easily miss this, so take note that on all my Carnival cruises, it's usually been on the last morning of the cruise.

I always smile when I wander to the Lido deck en route to the breakfast buffet and am greeted by a deckwide spread of towel animals. They come in all shapes and sizes, all artfully crafted by the imaginative crew, and are a small reminder to me of how fun it is to sail with Carnival.

Even if you make these mistakes, remember, a first-time cruiser is a first timer only once.

A woman taking a selfie on a top deck of a cruise ship.
The author on board a Carnival ship.Lori A. May

Once you board that second cruise, you'll become much more knowledgeable about what to do on a Carnival cruise and will likely acclimate much faster.

So have fun, explore, and find your own ideal places on board to enjoy your first cruise getaway.

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