This morning, I left the Carnival Pride after 10 days of cruising from Rome, Italy to Santorini, Greece; Kusadasi, Turkey (Ephesus); Athens, Greece; Katakolon, Greece (Olympia); Messina, Sicily (Italy); and Naples, Italy before returning to Rome. We were also scheduled to visit Mykonos, Greece, but we were unable to dock there due to high winds (we got an extra day at sea and a refund of those port taxes). I’ll soon write up a full trip report / longer review of the cruise, but today I wanted to publish my first impressions (which still aren’t short, but I’ll review the details of the cruise ship itself in a separate post). I have to say that I was very surprised. Cruises never really appealed to me before this trip, but we walked away convinced that we will definitely cruise again. Again, I’ll publish a more detailed post soon — but take it from me and the several Frequent Miler readers I met on the ship this week, this Carnival cruise was pretty good and well worth the price of admission.
The price was right
I’ll include a more detailed breakdown of our costs in a longer post, but you can read this post for the basic gist of it: Status cruising: Saving $2K+ on a cruise to Europe, Alaska, etc with a match. That Carnival match is still going on and you can still get a free cruise starting with just the right credit card (direct link to the match program here, but read the previous post linked above and the comments for more info first). Again, more to come in the longer form review, but for now that post has most of the information you need about how to get your “free” cruise (note that they advertise it as “free”; it isn’t really free but rather deeply discounted (and you can slice and dice it a bit further).
In the end, our net cost for a balcony room on a 10-night European cruise for a family of four (which added significant cost since my wife and I were “free”, but our kids weren’t) was less than $1,000. Considering that included a room with a balcony, all the food we wanted, and various non-alcoholic drinks like coffee, tea, water, hot cocoa, and lemonade, and transportation to some great ports of call, that seemed like a terrific value that we look forward to repeating.
The port stops were great
This cruise was packed with great ports of call. Carnival sells a range of excursions at each port, but those willing to do it on their own can likely save a lot of money (particularly if traveling with multiple passengers; note that you won’t necessarily save over the Carnival excursions if you’re a solo traveler, though you gain a bit more time flexibility).
I’ll let a couple of photos from each port of call tell part of the story (I put the major attraction in parenthesis on a couple of the ports).
My wife and I had been to Santorini before having kids, so we didn’t feel pressure to see anything in particular here. After the cable car up from the where you disembark the water taxi, we hopped on the bus to Oia and walked around with the kids until we found a spot with a beautiful view for lunch.
Kusadasi, Turkey (Ephesus)
Kusadasi is a port town in Turkey that serves as the gateway to Ephesus, some of the best-preserved Greek/Roman ruins we’ve seen outside of Rome and Athens. The Temple of Artemis, one of the original seven wonders of the ancient world, leaves a single column standing nearby, though there isn’t much to see at that site (you could easily skip that column and spend more time at Ephesus or strolling the shops in Kusadasi, which seemed to be the world capital of replica Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Air Jordan, and various other fashion and wristwatch brands).
Unfortunately, I have no pictures of Mykonos. Because of rough seas / strong winds, we weren’t able to dock here. I wasn’t entirely surprised; the same taxi driver who knew that we wouldn’t depart until midnight also told me that another ship in port that day had been scheduled to go to Mykonos but couldn’t because of the winds, so I wondered whether we may suffer the same fate. We ended up with a sea day and the seas were much rougher than I’d have anticipated. We took Dramamine and my kids were fine, but my wife and I were not feeling wonderful for much of the day, but neither did we get sick (though I heard some people did).
Still, I’d call this a win. Things smoothed out by 6pm and I heard from a friend on the ship who had a friend on another ship that some ships had gotten stuck in Mykonos unable to leave and some people had gotten stuck ashore when water taxis stopped running and their own cruise ships had to leave. While I was initially disappointed to miss Mykonos as we haven’t been before, I was glad to have skipped the potential headaches. I have no idea whether winds are a common issue there.
We took it pretty easy in Athens. My wife and I had been before (and visited the major tourist sites), so for our stop in Athens we hopped on a bus directly opposite where the cruise ships dock (bus X80) and rode to the Acropolis stop, but walked to the National Gardens for a relaxing stroll. Then we went to a place called Opos Palia for lunch. I had scouted it out while walking the gardens and boy am I glad I did. The meatballs were possibly the best you’ve never had (assuming you haven’t been there!). They use cumin and there was just a very unique spice blend / flavor. The place didn’t look like much, but it was mostly locals eating there, which is always a good sign.
Katakolon, Greece (Olympia)
Our next stop was Katakolon, Greece, which is the gateway to ancient Olympia. I’m a big fan of the summer Olympics, so seeing ancient Olympia was awesome. My kids won’t appreciate the races we did on the original field for years to come, but I loved it. I believe that Carnival sold excursions for $60 per passenger (which we’d have had to have paid for the kids I think). Taxis immediately at the exit of the boat wanted 120 Euro. We walked into town a bit and negotiated with a driver for round trip transportation to Olympia and two hours of wait time (the taxi waited for us) for 70 Euro.
In Messina, we stumbled on a classic car show (with Fiat and Alfa Romeo cars), climbed to the top of the clock tower in the main square, and climbed the hills of the city to reach a nice vantage point. We came across a bakery with locals lined up in their Sunday church clothes waiting for trays of pastries (the cookies were tasty!) and we ended up at a small local restaurant where the owners didn’t speak English and the menu was entirely in Italian. Enthusiasm was in high supply as they made us a terrific lunch.
In Naples, we climbed the biggest staircase we’ve ever attempted with two strollers and two toddlers (and I doubt we’ll eclipse that any time soon) to get to an incredible view of the city. This gave us the chance to discover many small side streets on the way to and from the staircase to get to the Castel Sant’Elmo.
Convenience factor was huge
My only previous cruise experience was a single Caribbean cruise for a family member’s birthday in the years before we had kids. Cruising never really appealed to me for a number of reasons. In part, it was my dislike of boats (I get seasick easily). In part, it was a perception I had that the main focus of a cruise was alcohol and I’m not a big drinker. In part, it was because I was guilty of what Tim calls “punk rocking” my travel: I thought a cruise was too easy and not really traveling. Thankfully, I can now laugh at myself over how silly all of those thoughts were: seasickness can be mitigated both by a large ship and a number of remedies available at any pharmacy, you certainly can imbibe to your heart’s content on a cruise but there are also plenty of other things to do on a large ship, and heck yeah it’s easier not needing to lug around all your stuff and yet still being able to visit six or seven different places.
That last point really sold me on the idea of cruising throughout the course of the trip. Boarding the ship with all of our (excessive) luggage one time, unpacking, and not needing to touch our bags again for a week and a half was wonderful. It stood in stark contrast to the week before the cruise, when we stayed a couple of nights in Paris, a couple of nights by Paris Disneyland, and a night in Rome, moving two strollers, three checked bags, two rolling carry-ons, a backpack, and a diaper bag to three hotels over the course of a week (and up and down more flights of stairs than my right arm will allow me to forget for a long time). Traveling by cruise made it possible to visit far more places with far less difficulty.
There was also plenty of entertainment a few floors away at night when my wife and kids fell asleep earlier than I was ready. And if the kids got cranky at the restaurant, we could always go back to the room and refocus and head to the lido deck for a second swing at dinner if necessary. There was also a kids club that we used a few times, giving us an hour here or there to enjoy a little peace while our kids had a blast enjoying activities with other kids.
Overall, it was a win.
Bottom line: It wasn’t all wonderful, but it beat expectations
I want to recognize that not everything about the cruise was wonderful. The food was better than we expected but still not great. The ship is showing its age. Entertainment ranged from surprisingly good to cheesier than a cheese whiz sandwich. The time in port was certainly not long (we arrived at most ports between 7am-9am and typically had to be back on board by 4:30pm or 5:30pm. However, there was enough variety that we never felt very disappointed and with two young kids we have become accustomed to doing one big thing a day anyway, so the time in port worked out fine for us. We eased into each day with breakfast foods that more or less matched what we’d eat at home (fruit, cereal, an occasional omelet / pancake / French toast, croissants/bread, etc), made it a point to find a delicious meal for lunch in port and then we knew we could always get a decent pizza on the lido deck at night if we weren’t excited by whatever the main courses were in the restaurant or buffet.
I’ll have more detail about the variety of food in a full review, but suffice it to say that the ship matched or beat expectations in most areas. Service was significantly better than I may have expected. Just a few pics from the ship:
More details about the ship to come soon — as well as how this deal turned out even better than expected.
Has anyone waited a while after getting the offer to see if other cruises or dates appear? I have a ton of options but none for Europe except 1 from London to Portugal and Spain and 1 transatlantic, and I am not interested in either of those, plus it shows are balcony and oceanview are sold out. I am also interested in the Alaska Cruise but they also show all room types sold out except interior.
Nevermind – I read more on Nick’s other post about the match to Royal Caribbean and it answered my questions.
I’m doing the 9 Night Norway cruise in June on this same ship. Got a free interior cabin (with window and view of rescue boats) and used an Amex offer, so total it will cost me $150 for 1 person!
Do you get free drinks in the casino? Only when playing at a table/slot, or can you walk up to the bar and your room card is stickered/coded for free drinks there you can take with? Any insight for next years status match cruise to the Baltics is appreciated
Offer terms stipulate that you get free drinks while playing in the casino. I didn’t try walking up to the bar to order a drink, but I assume I’d have had to have played. Waitresses came by reasonably often.
Nice to hear that your opinions of cruising have changed. Your previous thoughts seem to be the mindset of many miles and points collectors. But truth be had, cruising is the best value in travel. I was a travel agent for almost 30 years, nothing can beat the ease, value, and general relaxation of taking a cruise.
The Points Guy is also doing many posts on cruising. I guess the tide has changed…
Do the cruise dates available tend to be off-season mainly? Is this doable for a family with school age kids?
The casino match from Caesar’s, has many dates and destinations, but only on Carnival. If you do a match from MGM, you can choose Royal Caribbean or Celebrity.
I have two small kids as well (2 and 4) and I’ve considered cruises but the tiny rooms always make me hesitate when the kids go to bed so early. How did you like the stateroom space?
I mean, it’s not more spacious than you anticipate. My wife isn’t usually a night owl anyway, so she generally just went to sleep when the kids did and I went out for a bit in the evenings and was quiet enough when I came back in not to wake them up.
There is a bunk that comes down from the ceiling and they have a metal bar to help prevent rolling out, but our kids were too young to sleep up there. Instead, our 2 year old slept in the main bed with my wife (which was surprisingly *very* comfortable). Our 4yr old slept on the sofa (which converts to a bed — we just left it made up in bed mode all week). I slept on the bunk that pulled down from the ceiling. Everybody was satisfied with that arrangement and while the room certainly is kind of cramped if you’re going to spend much time in it, the truth is that we didn’t spend much time in there since there is always something going on or something to do when you’re awake. We played a lot of mini golf and visited the arcade for a few games daily.
On the port days, we basically woke up and got dressed to have breakfast and then left the ship. We got back on board around 3 or 4 and by the time we got everyone a change / bathroom break and whatnot, it was basically time to head for dinner or maybe we’d go for a round of mini golf / basketball to burn a little energy and then head to dinner. After dinner, it was time to shower and get the kids ready for bed. There really wasn’t much downtime in the room.
We Love to cruise just not the Caribbean & Mexico as much and some places are great to see by ship (Alaska, New Zealand). Thank you for the travel hacking aspect! that is the hard part when cruising. We haven’t tried this yet as we are already booked for next year but are looking forward to doing so soon. Great review and thanks for a way to cut costs.
Great article Nic. 100% agree that carnival exceeded expectations. Having a few friends on board also added to the experience.
The trip sounds great. I did the match last year and get offers every week. All the cruise options have been to the Caribbean or Mexico. Any tricks for better options?
I used the casino match to get a 12-day European cruise for one at a hair over $600 including port charges and gratuities for a cruise that would have cost $3,900 at normal rates. In addition, I’ll get $100 to spend in the casino, free drinks while I’m gambling in the casino and $200 of shipboard credit. FYI – I can add another person by just paying the additional port charges.
Great “concise” review. I can’t wait for the full version! P2 and I did the carnival match last year and we have 2 connected oceanview rooms this Thanksgiving for Mexico (couldn’t get the time off for a European Cruise, which is what I wanted)
@Nick Reyes: Anyway, do you think there’s a way to leverage the fun match again this year or next year? I don’t know if they’ll match again or if it’s once in a lifetime (or maybe once per account)? Or maybe trying urcomped? Would love to try another cruise in 2023 or 2024, ideally Alaska or Europe. Thanks.
Yes, I am curious as well. Can we get matched again using a different casino loyalty program???
Or can we even match again with Carnival using the same Caesars account if we wait another year or two or just try again with a different email or VIFP account?
You can match Hyatt to MGM. The MGM program has cruise opportunities with Royal Caribbean and Celebrity.
I also had an aversion to the idea of cruising, but now see the value to unpacking once and seeing a number of cities. It’s a viable option for sampling a number of cities without all logistical hassles.
Love Napoli… I always spend a few days there when I’m in Italy.
In Messina, next time try Pizzeria Kairos (restaurantguru [dot] com/Pizzeria-Kairos-Messina). Wonderful!
I did this as match as well and had one of my favorite family vacations. I’m grateful to you for teaching all of us how to do this. Great blog.
I did a Caesars match, do you think it is possible to be targeted again adding a match for MGM?
My wife and I travel a lot (Hi from Glens Falls) and she is retiring in January. We’ve never been interested in a cruise although we have the Carnival deal but your great review might change her mind.
Glad to hear it went well, this site turned me onto the Atlantic City Status Match scheme that put me and my family of 4 onto a 12 night Baltic cruise July 2023 on the Carnival Pride for less than $2k for a balcony that retails about $6k for the group. Looking forward to the details, any info about the casino and additional benefits and/or expectations of playing since you’re on the casino promotion. I think the drinks are supposed to be free in the casino for example?
Carnival gets a bad rap. Their longer cruises 7+ nights are wholly competitive with the Royal Caribbeans (non oasis / odyssey class) and NCL. Food and service are solid.
Carnivals product and clientele is much different on 7+ nights (especially outside the Caribbean) than it’s is on short Caribbean, Mexico, Bahamas cruises – those are the party ships that get Carnival its reputation. But for their price, Carnival delivers often.
Glad you enjoyed.
Cruising isn’t my favorite way to vacation but you hit on a key part of why I still do them every now & then, the ability to see a new place every day without wasting time packing & traveling. My 2 best large ship cruises have been the Mediterranean and the Baltics & both times I don’t remember much about the ship. It was simply a great way to visit 5-6 different places in 8 days’ time. Now a European river cruise I learned is an entirely different thing, one that I loved even as one of the few below 50 years olds on the boat, but definitely not kid friendly.
I’m on a cruise ship now. It’s one of Holland America’s new ships. Our food is great and I love our balcony. Recently, there have been several fist fights on Carnival (during Caribbean cruises)….and my guess the reason for the fighting is their prices are so low and as you pointed out they constantly push alcohol. Carnival now has a $500 fine for fighting on board (so keep that in mind before you start a brawl ). I love Greg’s blog and congrats on the 3 card competition.
HaHa I stopped one when someone dropped a drink on him from an upper deck . By the pool after a long day, I saw the whole thing ..I’ll Buy U a Beer Forget about it we are all Mates..End of Story..
I’ll be anxiously awaiting the full review of your “free” cruise experience. That said, I’ve been on a couple dozen cruises worldwide and it’s a mixed bag. Some have been stellar, while others are mediocre at best. Like any situation though, going into it with a good attitude and being open to the possibilities is the best way to approach cruising. I don’t really think it has to be a “love it or hate it” decision. My one Mediterranean cruise was about like yours. 12 nights I think. We considered it a sampler player of places we’d return to if we liked them. You quickly determined the most luxurious part of any cruise. Having a home away from home for 10 nights, complete with predictable food, drinks, beds and the familiarity that comes with it. Congratulations on a successful voyage!
Great photos and a great Deal !!! Cruises are always a great Deal if u pick the right one for ur needs. Even if u pay cash like I did..
Coincidentally we were on the same cruise after following the steps to match Wyndham to Caesar’s to Carnival status. Great deal although the cruise had its share of drama with the ship turning back to drop some off for a medical emergency in Rome and the missed Mykonos port which caused a lot of grumbling among the passengers. We cruise a bunch but not Carnival usually and found it perfectly fine.
I canceled ($400) my last one 4* 1/8 to the West coast of Mexico like nothing in cost..BUT the virus kicked up again and I’m not worried about getting sick but the hassles.I missed Cayman twice so what because I stayed there before. I knew u Don’t do Cayman till Dec.but their my friends so I went. Been on 16 a great deal IF u do ur Homework.
The missed stop in Mykonos was a bummer for sure, but not really much they could do, especially considering as I noted that some people on other cruises got stuck ashore. Without any clothes or diapers etc that would have been a pain – sad to have missed it, but glad to have missed what would have been more drama if that happened. I didn’t mention the return to Rome that happened in the middle of the night on the first night for the kid who almost drown, but I didn’t even know about it until another passenger told me because I was asleep the entire time and we still made it to the first port on time. Didn’t sound like Carnival was to blame there as the kid needed medical attention. I wasn’t on deck, so I didn’t see how it was handled, but glad he got the help he needed.
It’s a Cruise anything can Happen we pulled into Tampa the Coast Guard came on Board (I have 200 hrs of CG stuff) TROUBLE. Three felons on board and a 18 year jumped overboard because his GF had a fight with him…None are to blame but there’s 2 to 7K on board So Shxt Happens so Be preparded.