01 of 05
Carnival Dream Review: Central America Travel Itinerary from New Orleans
Carnival is a major cruise line offering itineraries that frequently are budget priced. It provides options to budget travelers that might not otherwise be affordable.
But Carnival has had its public relations challenges. In 2013, Carnival Triumph was dead in the water for four days following an engine fire. A month later, Carnival Dream passengers had part of their cruise suspended because of a generator problem. They were flown back to their port of origination.
Carnival became a favorite punchline for stand-up comics. People wondered if the cruise line would survive all the bad publicity.
Carnival has done more than survive. It is an established leader in low-cost cruising. So it’s important for budget travelers to keep tabs on Carnival logistics and service.
Carnival Dream, one of the ships involved in the 2013 mishaps, is operating as of this writing out of New Orleans. There I boarded the ship for a seven-day itinerary including Cozumel, Mexico, Belize City, Belize, and Roatan... Island, Honduras.
Carnival Dream is a huge ship, with a length exceeding 1,000 ft. and accommodations for more than 3,600 passengers. When you add the crew numbers, Carnival Dream becomes a city at sea, with the facilities for about 5,000 people.
For this trip to Mexico and Central America, I paid $839/person in spring 2016. That amount does not include on-board expenses or airfare. At that price, the stateroom was on the first deck, just above where the crew sleeps. It was equipped with neither windows nor balcony. Prices climb quickly if you desire those amenities.
The same itinerary is likely to be cheaper in the fall, when students are back in school and cabins are harder to fill.
We paid the company’s suggested $80/person gratuity for service staff on the ship. The tip money is a major source of income for dining room help and the people who clean your room each day. These and other shipboard expenses are tallied in an account called Sail and Sign, which is tied to a credit card of your choice when you book the cruise. Other charges to this account include shore excursions, purchases at ship stores, photography, drinks and meals not included in the price of the cruise, and Internet access.Continue to 2 of 5 below.
02 of 05
Carnival Dream Review: Food and Service
Carnival food can be described as plentiful, varied, and rather ordinary. Many families skip the linen napkins of the dining rooms in favor of paper napkins by the pool, where sandwiches, pizzas, salads, and other foods are served buffet-style. If you go to the dining room expecting haute cuisine, you’ll be disappointed. The appetizers, entrees, and desserts usually are acceptable but not memorable.
For a memorable dining experience, travelers are directed to the Chef’s Art steakhouse, where for $35/person, they dine on a four-course dinner of soup, salad, ribeye steak, and impressive desserts. Each night you partake, it actually costs more than $35/person, because you are giving up a dinner in the dining room for which you’ve already paid.
The Chef’s Art experience is worthwhile for splurges. A couple next to us was celebrating a 25th wedding anniversary. They were treated to extras in celebration of that milestone.
Before you complain too loudly about Carnival’s food offerings,... consider that this particular cost makes a big difference in the overall affordability of the trip. Carnival is allowing families and others on a tight budget the option of cruise travel, with all its benefits. A more upscale menu (and the corresponding higher prices), would exclude many of those travelers. In this regard, Carnival operates a bit like a budget airline, which offers the basics at the lowest possible price but charges premiums for additional expectations.
Service on our particular trip was slow at times, and in a few instances, even disappointing. Housekeeping staff failed to replace wet beach towels on several occasions, and the carpet in our stateroom did not appear to be vacuumed frequently. But the overall mood of the service staff is upbeat. Spontaneous requests are gladly fulfilled with a smile.
One thing I found striking involved the cruise director and staff. Years ago, shipboard announcements beckoned passengers to the backgammon tournament or food-tasting presentation. On this cruise, the vast majority of announcements were promoting new spending opportunities. Announcements like “come to the art auction at 1:30,” or “don’t forget to check out the jewelry sale on deck five” have taken on added significance for cruise directors. Be sure your sales resistance doesn't go on vacation during the trip.Continue to 3 of 5 below.
03 of 05
Carnival Dream Review: Central American Shore Excursions
On its Central American itinerary, Carnival Dream made three port stops: Cozumel, Mexico, Belize City, Belize, and Roatan Island, Honduras.
All three ports offered excellent snorkeling and diving opportunities. This region is situated on the largest reef in the western hemisphere. Budget travelers interested in underwater exploring will find this itinerary quite attractive.
Beyond the water, I can recommend a four-hour tour in Cozumel that explores Mayan culture at Kun-Che Park. The attraction is designed to show how ancient Mayans lived their daily lives. After some food demonstrations, a full-scale performance of POK-TA-POK is staged in a small arena. In ancient times, the game was played nonstop from sunrise to sunset. Winners were sacrificed to the gods, because the losers were deemed unworthy of such an honor. Kun-Che Park, which opened to Carnival passengers in 2016, also features some traditional war dances. During your traditional Mayan lunch, you'll watch a Mexican folklore... dance performance.
In Belize, there is the opportunity to tube through a nearly mile-long cave and explore the rain forest, with an added zipline option. All of this is located more than an hour by bus from the port, which means nearly 2.5 hours were required for travel alone. In this case, it is safer to book the trip through Carnival, which guarantees if your return is delayed and you miss the appointed sailing time, the ship will wait for you. Book this on your own and you are one traffic jam away from an expensive mishap.
In addition to cave tubing, Belize offers excellent beaches, snorkeling and diving that might be some distance from Belize City. The ship must anchor a considerable distance from the city's shallow port, so be certain to add at least 30 minutes of boat tender time in each direction to your itinerary.
On Roatan Island, Honduras, we skipped the Carnival shore excursions and simply connected with a recommended local cab driver. We agreed in writing to pay $100 cash for a five-hour tour of the island. We arranged to be back at the port 90 minutes before the ship's departure. In addition to the tour, he also took us to a local beach, which we were able to use for $10/person. Carnival tour/beach excursions for Roatan exceeded the $60/person price we paid.
Tip: If you hire a driver for the day, make your preferences clear before setting out.Cab drivers tend to take you to shopping opportunities, where they might receive compensation for delivering shoppers. Unless directed otherwise, you’ll sometimes bounce between souvenir stands.
Carnival docks at a relatively new Roatan development called Mahogany Bay. While modern and convenient, it does little to introduce you to the people and culture of the island. Try to get past this somewhat touristy area and deeper into the island itself, where you’ll find scenic beauty, wonderful people, and delicious food.
In all, Carnival offers more than 115 excursions in these three ports.
Consider shore excursions on a case-by-case basis. Definitely check out what Carnival is offering, note the prices and the time required for the excursion. Then check sources such as Viator and TripAdvisor to see what might be available outside of the Carnival offers. It's also possible to make arrangements on your own after arrival in port.Continue to 4 of 5 below.
04 of 05
Carnival Dream Review: Practical Considerations
As previously mentioned, the cruise industry is in hot pursuit of on-board expenditures from its guests. On a Carnival cruise, be aware of your Sail and Sign balance, which can be checked at any time at an on-board machine into which your card is inserted.
Be careful of little extras such as poolside drinks that add up quickly. We purchased the Bottomless Bubbles package for $47/person that provides unlimited soft drinks or juices anywhere on the ship. A similar pre-paid plan is available for alcoholic beverages. Remember that these selections are not included in your cruise expenditure. You can save money by drinking water, iced tea, or lemonade during the course of the trip.
Wi-Fi access is offered at several levels. At the time of this trip, the first allowed access to email accounts at $5/day or $25/week. A second level provided entry to everything online except for streaming music services and video conferencing such as Skype. That second level cost $16/day or $60/week. At... the highest level, with full online access, passengers paid $25/day or $125/week.
I tested the second-level access. When it is working, it sometimes is quite slow. For a number of hours near the end of the trip, it was not accessible.A subscription entitles you to access on only one device at a time.
When it's time to put the Internet behind you, there is plenty to enjoy aboard ship.
Carnival offers an outdoor movie experience each night, with the first feature geared for families at 7:30 and the second feature at about 10 p.m. You can lounge poolside and watch the movies as you munch on free popcorn, pizza, and other treats. During our cruise, the weather cooperated for this event each evening it was offered.
Families love the putting green and water slides on the ship. Whirlpools and swimming pools tend to be small and crowded during peak times of the day, especially on days with no port stops.
Carnival Dream is equipped with a three-level entertainment hall, and live productions unfold on the stage each night. Stand-up comedy is offered later in the evenings. Some of the shows are for mature audiences only.
Cudos to Carnival for its Serenity deck, an area limited to passengers 21 years of age and older. The cabanas and chairs here are upgrades from what is found elsewhere. Many passengers never discover this part of the ship. It’s a great place to spend days at sea and a wonderful vantage point for watching sunsets.
Embarkation for the Carnival Dream took about 45 minutes. Passengers are assigned a 30-minute window for check-in. Much of the required time is taken for security clearances, and given the size of the ship, these tend to be crowded spaces. Debarking was a simple matter of walking off the ship with completed customs forms. It seems to go faster if you leave the ship with all of your luggage rather than having the cruise line pick it up outside your cabin and deliver it to the customs area.
Even though departure was swift in our experience, it’s always a good idea to book a return flight in the afternoon in these situations. At worst, you’ll have some bonus time to enjoy the departure port.Continue to 5 of 5 below.
05 of 05
Carnival Dream Review: Bottom Line
The Carnival Dream's Central American itinerary from New Orleans offers three excellent ports and three “at sea” days. Service and food are acceptable, but not great. The ship is crowded and noisy at times, but it’s fun to see families traveling together and exploring new places.
In short, you have to understand Carnival's mission in the marketplace, which makes cruise travel fun and affordable for a wide audience.
Find ports-of-call you want to visit and use Carnival's reasonable prices to get to them.