This budget-friendly cruise is well-suited to passengers of various ages and lovers of Dr. Seuss.
Cruising is not my first choice for a vacation. I took one cruise in my 20s and didn’t love it, but I remember thinking at the time that it would be a good way to vacation with a family. So when my mom told me that she’d booked a cruise on the Carnival Ecstasy, my family decided to join her and my step-father. Cruising is perfect for multi-generational travel! There was literally something for everyone - from my stepfather, who was just looking forward to relax and read, to my kids, who were looking to be entertained.
We booked a five-day cruise to the Bahamas. The ship sailed out of Charleston, South Carolina, where we live. From the moment we arrived, this vacation exceeded all of our expectations. The Ecstasy is one of Carnival’s oldest ships, but it has recently been updated. New additions include Guy’s Burger Joint and Blue Iguana Cantina as well as the Alchemy Bar, which was our favorite. The ship was very clean and didn’t show it’s age.
While we thoroughly enjoyed our trip, there were some lessons learned... lessons that I'm happy to pass along to you!
Where to stay?
We had a four-person stateroom with a window on the seventh floor. It had a king-sized bed for parents with a bunk above our heads and another one at our feet. As you can imagine, it was a tight squeeze, but truthfully, you don’t spend much time in your room. There are three large closets, so we unpacked all of our belongings and stored the suitcases under the bed to clear some floor space. Our room steward, Susanna, was amazing! The kids loved the towel animals that she left everyday.
KidTripster Tip: Packing for a cruise is a totally different animal. See KidTripster’s tips here. While you can pack multiple bags or even one larger bag, I wouldn’t advise it. Your room is tiny. One bonus: you don’t have the same liquid restrictions as you do when flying, so you can pack full-sized toiletries. If you’re not purchasing the drink package (described in next section), you can carry on up to 12 non-alcoholic drinks in cans or cartons; no bottles are allowed (including bottled water) with the exception of one bottle of wine or champagne.
KidTripster Tip: Head to a dollar-type store before you leave to buy lanyards for your Sail & Sign cards; I suggest buying a different colored lanyard for each person in your cabin. Every cruise passenger has to keep this card - which also serves as the room key - with them at all times. You also can use the card to make purchases and track the drink program.
Where to eat?
Even if you’ve never taken a cruise, you’ve likely heard about the food. There is lots of it and countless choices of cuisine. Quantity doesn’t always equal quality, so don’t expect gourmet (although there were some amazing offerings in the dining room); that being said, the food on our cruise was very good. All food is included in the cost of your cruise (except for the Green Eggs and Ham brunch and some select gourmet options) as well as water, coffee, iced tea, hot chocolate, lemonade, and juice. I couldn’t drink the coffee; it was way too strong for my taste.
We had purchased the drink package for everyone in our group. It’s a daily, flat fee. Bottomless Bubbles is the non-alcoholic option; it costs $4.95/day for kids and $7.50/day for adults. This package was disappointing; it only included soda, and while we allow our kids to drink soda occasionally, I didn’t love the idea of unlimited soda for the week. The Bubbles program doesn’t include bottled water or bottled sports drinks or even non-alcoholic cocktails, smoothies or milk shakes. If you buy the alcoholic version, it must be purchased for every adult in your cabin for every day of the cruise, regardless of whether they drink alcohol or not. It costs $49.95/day and includes all mixed drinks (top shelf), beer, wine, bottled water, sports drinks, coffee at the coffee bar (the only drinkable coffee on the ship, in my opinion), smoothies, milkshakes, and non-alcoholic cocktails. You’re limited to 15 drinks/day, and you can’t order a second drink until five minutes has passed. So in the morning, if you want to order a coffee and a bottle of water, you have to wait five minutes. The policy seemed a bit silly to me; I think that rule should only apply to alcoholic drinks.
The Lido Restaurant is the ship’s buffet option, serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It offers different, themed foods every day and always has a salad bar, dessert bar, deli, and 24-hour soft serve ice cream and pizza. The pizza is surprisingly good (and I’m originally from New York!), if you get it fresh out of the oven. We ate breakfast here most days.
KidTripster Tip: On days at sea, you also can eat brunch in the dining room. We did this once. It was fine, but I think the Lido Restaurant is easier with the kids.
Just outside of the Lido Restaurant is the new Guy’s Burger Joint. Carnival has teamed up with Food Network personality Guy Fieri on a poolside spot for burgers and hand-cut fries. Try your burger Guy’s way or visit the toppings bar to make it your own. This eatery was my son’s favorite!
My favorite casual dining option was the Blue Iguana Cantina, also on the pool deck. This casual Mexican restaurant is open for breakfast and lunch. It features freshly-made tacos and burritos with chicken, shrimp, fish, and pork fillings. There’s a salsa bar, so you can customize your order. The huevos rancheros were the best!
We ate almost every dinner in the dining room; there are two choices on the ship: Wind Song and Wind Star. You can choose early dining, late dining or “Your Time Dining.” We selected the 6 p.m. dining time. Cruise dining is not what it once was. While we tried to dress up in some way every night for dinner, gone are days of required suit jackets and formal attire, which makes it much easier for families. It was fun to dress up for the one formal night and take family photos.
The dining room is a sit-down, full service choice, and the food in these restaurants is the best on the ship. Our serving team included four servers: a drink waiter, our head waitress, Elizabeth (she’s amazing), and team waiters, Agus and Gede. The service is attentive and elegant. Each night, Elizabeth made new origami animals for the kids which was a huge hit!
One of my favorite things about cruising is the opportunity to try different cuisines. We don’t eat out all that often at home, and when we do, we rarely splurge on appetizers and desserts. On a cruise, you get to try everything (and while you try not to be wasteful, if you don’t like something, you can send it back and try something else). The appetizers are where we really branched out. One of my children is an adventurous eater, so he really enjoyed trying escargot, conch fritters, and kale caesar salad (my favorite!). For my less adventurous eater, there was always chicken and steak. For the rest of us, we loved choices like lobster ravioli, salmon, and beef stew. The kids’ menu is your typical fare, and honestly disappointing; our kids ordered off the adult menu.
KidTripster Tip: You must try Carnival’s famous Warm Chocolate Melting Cake. It’s amazing! And while we tried different desserts each night, it was everyone’s favorite. You can even find the recipe online. We’ll be trying this one at home!
I would recommend the special Green Eggs and Ham breakfast with The Cat in the Hat and friends for your families. Your kids will love the colorful tablescapes and unique menu: green eggs and ham, brightly-colored fruit, gravity-defying pancake stacks, funky french toast, moose and goose juice, plus much more. You’ll also have the opportunity to meet and greet the stars of Dr. Seuss and take photos. This breakfast is not included in your cruise price, but at only $5/person, it’s well worth it!
KidTripster Tip: Gratuities are automatically added to your account. We did tip extra for exceptional service (and we received a lot of exceptional service).
What to do?
The best part about cruising is the variety of activities to suit all ages.
While at sea, we spent time poolside, and my kids spent the days in the kids’ club. We could not get our kids out of Camp Ocean (ages 2 to 11, divided by age groups)! They loved it so much that once my daughter skipped lunch so that she could stay. My husband and I would pick them up each night at 10 p.m., and they would beg to stay for the Night Owls program (until 1 a.m., extra fee). I can only imagine what it’ll be like when they’re older and can hang at the teen lounges, Circle C (ages 12 to 14) and Club O2 (ages 15 to 17).
The ship pool is small and hard to get in and out of because other guests sit along the sides. It’s basically just good for cooling off. There are two hot tubs which didn’t seem too appealing on a hot sunny day. It’s very difficult to find seats together at the pool, especially since we were a group of four adults. On the last day of our cruise, we sat near the WaterWorks water slide and splash pad. I would highly recommend this area; there’s lots of seating, and it’s much cooler because the area isn't enclosed like the pool.
KidTripster Tip: When you get on the ship, download the Carnival Cruise app. It uses ship WiFi, and you can pay $5 to message your travel companions. It also gives you highlights of what is going on each day. But don’t bother to pay for WiFi. It’s expensive and barely works.
Other on-board activities include bingo, comedy shows, musicals, and Hasbro the Game Show (life-sized board games). There’s also a very smoky casino, spa, art gallery, and multiple bars. For the kids, you’ll find a candy shop, mini golf, Build-a-Bear workshop, and Seuss-a-palooza story time (best for kids 5 and under).
On our cruise, we made two stops: Nassau and Freeport in the Bahamas. My mother booked excursions through Carnival ahead of time which is super convenient; however many travelers will tell you that it’s much less expensive to book your own excursions privately. Carnival offers an overwhelming number of excursions that all have similar names. We booked the “Promo-Private Island Dolphin Swim & Beach Day.” It was amazing. We took a boat ride through breathtaking, turquoise water to a private Island with chairs and umbrellas on the beach and a private swim area with lots of tropical fish. The dolphin experience lasts about 30 minutes. After an orientation, you swim with the dolphins in deep water and get to pet and “dance” with them for about 15 minutes. Then you head to the shallow water for another 15 minutes of interaction and photos; no private pictures are allowed. We purchased the photos and video for a pricey $150; the food and drinks on the island are not included and are outrageously expensive.
In Freeport, my mother booked the “All-Inclusive Beach Getaway.” It was $79.99 for adults and $64.99 for kids (ages 4 to 12). I would not recommend this excursion. We had fun, but it was overpriced. After you get off the ship, you take a bus for 30 minutes to the beach. There, you’re greeted by a tourist market. It had a wide range of things to buy, and the vendors weren’t pushy which was a plus. The beach had Adirondack-type chairs; there was one man running around putting up umbrellas. It seemed like they were unprepared. The beach has an inflatable playground which was fun, plus hammocks and games like corn hole and chess. The bar had ready-mixed drinks, and the Bahamian buffet was mediocre.
This particular cruise left from our home city of Charleston, South Carolina. If you’re flying to the port, consider arriving a day early, so you’re not rushing or stressed. You'll find plenty to do in Charleston! Start here.
Priority check-in was a dream; it took us just 30 minutes to get from the car to the Lido deck! Carnival offers this “Faster to the Fun” express check-in for $50/stateroom; I would highly recommend purchasing it.
KidTripster Tip: You won’t have access to your luggage for several hours once you’re onboard, so be sure to pack bathing suits, sunscreen, and any medications in your carry-on bag so that you can head straight to the pool and water slide.
Passports aren’t required for cruises to the Bahamas but are suggested; if you had to leave the Bahamas on a flight for medical or other reasons, you wouldn’t be able to return to the U.S. without a passport.
When it’s time to disembark, you have two choices: Relaxed Debark or Self Assist. If you choose Relaxed Debark, you put your baggage in the hall on the last night of the cruise. You then will have to pick it up in the baggage area once you exit the ship. We chose Self Assist, where you carry your bags off the ship yourself. The advantage here is once you’re off the ship, you’re done. We grabbed a waiting taxi and were home in 10 minutes!
Stephanie Hughes Pratt is a former television reporter and mom to two kids, living outside Charleston, South Carolina. She is married to a fellow journalist, and the family has lived all over the U.S. She suffers from a severe case of wanderlust and is always looking for the next great adventure.