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

The author in front of the Carnival Pride.
The author in front of the Carnival Pride.Lori A. May
  • I've been on so many Carnival cruises over the years that I consider them a home away from home.

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

  • Here are the mistakes I see on Carnival cruises, from overpacking to buying drink packages.

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

A woman posing for a selfie while standing on a white stairway with an orange drink in her hand.
The author in the Lido buffet on board the Carnival Radiance.Lori A. May

I'm a frequent cruiser who has spent more than 100 weeks at sea on cruise lines such as Holland America Line, Norwegian Cruise Line, 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, and it's become my favorite choice for budget getaways.

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

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 making 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 a Carnival ship.

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

The author smiling while holding up a plate with a burger and fries on it in a fast-food restaurant with a decorative red surfboard on the wall.
The author enjoying a burger and fries 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 noticed that most people head to the buffet for a bite. While Carnival has a large buffet that can accommodate several hundred people, I think embarkation day can feel unwieldy because 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 many restaurants 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 have a half dozen other places to eat on board that incur no extra charge.

The choices differ from ship to ship, but most include 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 charge extra for dinner but not lunch. Many cruisers don't know this and miss out.

Two dishes loaded with barbecue foods placed on a wooden table in a restuarant.
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 complimentary dining that's easy to miss.

Many of Carnival's specialty restaurants charge an extra fee for dinner, but most first-timers don't know that lunch is included in their ticket price.

The Italian spot Cucina Del Capitano charges $18 a person for dinner but offers a free modified lunch menu. JiJi Asian Kitchen similarly 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 such as brisket, pork butt, and sausage, along with sides such as mac and cheese and potato salad.

I think 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.

An outdoor deck on Carnival cruise with sunbeds facing toward the side of the ship.
Carnival's Serenity Retreat is an adults-only space with no extra charge.Lori A. May

I'll admit, I'm a little reluctant to share this tip because every time I've visited Carnival's Serenity Retreat, I'm surprised at 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 Retreat is an adults-only area nicely tucked away on an upper deck, away from foot traffic, so only those who want to find it do. I think it's a wonderful escape from daytime pool-deck parties and kids running around with melting ice-cream cones.

In my experience, many cruise lines charge extra for access to a similar adults-only space. The full-day rate for enjoying The Sanctuary on Princess Cruises is usually $40 a person for a full day or $20 a person for a half day, according to Cruise Critic. Cruise Critic also says Norwegian's adults-only Vibe Beach Club, which has a private bar, a 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 a free, adults-only space on Carnival.

The Serenity Retreat is available across 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 21 can 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 many quiet spaces on Carnival ships that go overlooked.

The author posing for a selfie on the deck of a Carnival Cruise ship while wearing a blue top and pink sunglasses.
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 activities. And there are many places on Carnival, such as the Serenity Retreat, where cruisers can find it.

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 paperbacks, 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 I've never seen this outdoor space packed with people on all my cruises on Carnival.

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

A sign for Happy-Hour specials aboard a Carnival Cruise ship.
Some of Carnival's bars have daily happy-hour deals.Lori A. May

From booking time until the sailing date, Carnival guests receive 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 plan to have a drink here or there.

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

Instead, I take advantage of on-board promotions such as 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 to 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.

A designated smoking area on the deck of a Carnival cruise ship.
Every Carnival ship has designated smoking areas, but marijuana is prohibited.Lori A. May

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

But recreational drugs are not allowed on board.

No matter which state you're sailing to or from, marijuana is illegal under federal law, and those laws govern cruise lines, Cruise Critic reported. Passengers found with weed on a cruise ship can be subject to fines and removal from the cruise.

Carnival's drug policies follow federal laws prohibiting cannabis products, as noted in its guest-ticket contract all guests must agree to before boarding.

I think Carnival provides a fun cruise vacation with so much to do, but that makes it easy to never take a break.

Cruise-ship passengers attending a line-dance party on the pool deck of a Carnival cruise ship that has waterslides off in the distance.
A line-dance party on the pool deck of a Carnival ship.Lori A. May

Carnival cruises are bursting with so many fun things to do day and night that it's no wonder they're called the "fun ships." From deck parties to ropes courses, waterslides, and 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 to do too much, especially in one day. When first-timers try to take advantage of everything on board, they might depart their cruise needing a vacation from their vacation.

This would be a shame — I've always found a cruise one of the most relaxing trips I can take. Sure, there's always something to do on Carnival cruises, but I love the 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 so I don't forget, but I don't live by a day planner. It's a vacation, after all.

Instead, I try to visit each activity area of the ship and pick an afternoon or evening activity for each day I don't want to miss. The rest of the time, I relax and enjoy the 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.

The author looking out to sea while wearing baseball cap and sunglasses with a green boogie board in her hands.
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 destination.

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

Over the years, I've found that Carnival offers some of the most affordable excursions for simple activities — such as 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 for as low as $14 a person.

But if you want to go to a local beach to snorkel or boogie board, an official cruise-ship excursion usually costs 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, but so have many other cruisers. But there's no need to since most Carnival ships have self-serve laundry rooms.

The author posing for a selfie next to an open washing machine in the laundry room of a Carnival cruise ship.
The author doing laundry on board a Carnival cruise.Lori A. May

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

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

But Carnival cabins start at as small as 185 square feet, and sharing that space with others makes it feel smaller — 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, dryers, and a vending machine for soap and fabric softener for $2 a packet, though I tend to bring travel-size supplies from home.

For one load of laundry, I paid $3.50 for a washer and $3.50 for a dryer. I find that price reasonable compared to overpacking and perhaps paying extra to check 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.

A collection of animals made from white towels on the deck of a Carnival cruise ship.
One morning during each cruise, Carnival passengers can find a towel-animal takeover on the pool deck.Lori A. May

As a repeat cruise guest, I 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 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 can easily miss this; in my experience, it's usually on the last morning of the cruise.

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

This story was originally published on March 21, 2023, and most recently updated on February 28, 2024.

Read the original article on Business Insider