Published Feb 21, 2009

I like vacations. I’d actually kind of forgotten about that, but I like them. So I’ve tried to take more lately. Cruises had popped up on our radar a few months ago; prices have been dropping dramatically as cruise lines have desperately tried to keep bookings up. Looking around for things to do for Valentine’s Day, a 4-night Carnival cruise to Catalina and Ensenada was actually so cheap as to be competitive with a nice dinner out. So I bought my honey one.

On the Boat

I wasn’t sure quite what to expect when I got on our cruise ship, the Carnival Elation. On the one hand, when I’d seen these ships before they looked enormous; on the other, when I started to learn about everything they claimed to offer on board, I didn’t see how they could fit all that in such a small space. Plus, would I be surrounded by complaining 50-year-olds?

Well, the news is that Kathie Lee doesn’t lie: this cruising thing sure is fun. Our stateroom was great — we got an interior cabin, with no view, and it was as large as many European hotel rooms I’ve had, with a totally sufficient bathroom, and no window meant that we weren’t inspired to stay in our room. And, while the bed may not have been as plush as a Heavenly Bed, there’s something to be said for being rocked to sleep slowly by the waves.

Out of our stateroom, there was plenty to do. Bars had drinks at prices that would be ridiculously low in LA, and sodas and juices were free if you bought a special unlimited drinks card for $18. There was 24-hour dining on the top deck, including a delicious panini station, and the sit-down dinners were quite tasty enough. Plus, the waiters called us by name and remembered what we liked — I ordered mint tea after dinner the first night, the second night they were out of mint tea bags by the time they got to me, but the third night our waitress slipped me a mint tea bag 3/4 of the way through dinner to make sure I’d get my first choice before they ran out.

Entertainment was also plentiful. There was an OK comic and a brilliant hypnotist,1 some surprisingly good live musicians, and all manner of Now, we got slaughtered at the casino, but the outrageously good hot stone massage in the spa more than outweighed that.

Overall, the Elation was a monument to what even a Vegas casino designer might’ve called “bright colors.” The ship also shared the Vegas casino designer’s preference for a lack of clocks, strange as there were so many scheduled events on-board. Still, it all was nice enough in a “hey! we’re on vacation!” kind of way:

Our first day out, we ran into some bad weather — in fact, we were supposed to land at Avalon on Catalina, but 40-knot winds2 and 10-foot swells made that too treacherous, so, instead, we sailed around all day looking for sun. (The original itinerary was for our third day out to be a day at sea.) While neither I nor the AIG DJ L’il Bit3 suffered any ill effects from it, I know others did, and the ride was much bumpier than I’d expected in a ship so large.

Catalina & Ensenada

In a lot of ways, our cruise was like a Vegas vacation, except the casino went somewhere. Now, if you’re after the best gaming possible, then Vegas can’t be beat, but I for one always wish there was somewhere to go outside in Vegas. Well, there is on a cruise! We got off the boat on the small island of Catalina, and in the famous Baja California tourist trap of Ensenada.

Catalina was beautiful, relaxing, and fun. DJ L’il Bit rented us a golf cart — the locals don’t drive cars, they drive carts — and took us for an hour-long spin around the island to check out the views. We also got to walk around the small town of Avalon that passes for Catalina’s population center.

Ensenada was a different trip for me — usually I like to walk around a city I visit, using my camera to within an inch of its life, and that’s what we planned to do. But we had some party fun time friends on the cruise, so we promised to meet them at Papas and Beer briefly, just to be polite. Somehow a few minutes and a drink turned into all afternoon, probably because of the college students of all genders4 doing tequila body shots off of each other.5 I know I missed out on the real Ensenada… but man it was fun!

Cruise Advice

So the great thing about the idea of this cruise was that, at a bit over $200 per person for 4 nights including all meals, it was cheap enough that we didn’t have to like it. If we did it once and didn’t much care for it, well, little was lost at the end of the day. But we loved it! It was as corny and fun as a Vegas vacation at a quarter or less of the cost.6 Everything was easy and taken care of. They made enchanting little beings out of the towels in our stateroom.

Overall, it was great fun. If you decide to book a cruise yourself, here’s a few things I would recommend:

  • Book as late as you can stand. Our friends who booked a week later than us — well less than a month before the cruise — saved $20 over even the low price we paid, and it seems like those who booked months earlier paid much more than we did, for the same or worse cabin.
  • Buy the free soda and juice cards, they’re a great value.
  • Buy a cheap bottle of wine with a screw top. Drink the wine. Fill the bottle with the liquor of your choice. Smuggle on board (you’re allowed to bring a bottle of wine.) Mix with said free sodas and juices.
  • Cheap out on the cabin and just don’t spend much time there! Plus, the lower in the boat you are the less worry of seasickness.
  • Bring a power strip since the cabin only has one outlet for all your camera, phone, etc. chargers.
  • Go to the sit-down dinners — they matched us with great table mates, and our friends did even better.
  • Explore the ship on the first day, there’s plenty of time if you show up a bit early to board (boarding’s quick and painless).
  • Take your time debarking, the line is long and you may as well enjoy your last free meal!

I got to go on a fun ship, holy cow! And I already miss it. I will be going again! Now someone just needs to help me figure out if my next vacation is to Panama or Colombia.

1 Yes, I did get up on stage and get hypnotized. I might blog about it, I might not.

2 !!!!

3 The AIG is hereby being renamed to DJ L’il Bit, which is already her rapper name. It’s been brought to my attention that the name “Actual Irish Girlfriend” compares her to past girlfriends whereas she is, in fact, incomparable. Thus the renaming.

4 “All genders” sounds better than “both genders” and also has the bonus that I don’t have to figure out if there are actually genders numbering greater than 2 of which I should make myself aware.

5 Yes, I do have video. HD.

6 Unless you’re prepared to drive there and back and either forego the hotel room entirely or fit 8 people into one room, both of which were fun at 22 but maybe not so much now.


“Buy a cheap bottle of wine with a screw top. Drink the wine. Fill the bottle with the liquor of your choice. Smuggle on board (you’re allowed to bring a bottle of wine.) Mix with said free sodas and juices.”

Ooo, that’s clever! I don’t think that would’ve occurred to me, but bringing one’s own rum could save a lot of money, especially if there’s free juice and soda (after $18) and what you usually like to drink is juice, soda, and rum. At two drinks a day, for four days, that’s $2.25 a drink. If I ever go on a cruise, I’ll have to remember that.

I’ve chatted with Xta about maybe doing a Mediterranean cruise as a honeymoon (whenever we get around to that), but one of the ones that’s not on the gigantic “fun ships” — I was thinking something a bit smaller, with more focus on the land portion of the experience. But maybe the big ship actually would be worth it. (We’ve also discussed going to Chile, to see Lake Llanquihue.)

Right. And let me assure you that you’re likely to have more than 2 drinks a day! For a 750ml bottle of rum, if you’re pouring an ounce and a half into your soda, you’ve got almost 17 drinks in that bottle — just over $1/alcoholic beverage.

We’ve also thought of the smaller cruises, and I always assumed that the smaller cruise would be more fun than the big cruise. I think that they’re really just different beasts, not substitutes for each other at all. The big cruise is a moving full-service casino with the bonus of having the option to visit exotic locales from time to time; the small one is a unique hotel you stay at on a long trip focused on the many destinations.

Have you been to Chile before? I seem to recall you have.

Well, two drinks per day, for two people, for four days would be 16…

And yeah, I think they are very different. I’ve always sorta thought I wouldn’t like the big cruise ship, though you make it sound more appealing than I would’ve thought.

I should note I’m not much of a Vegas fan. I don’t gamble, and the whole blinky-lights-and-beeping-machines thing is overwhelming; I have enough of the AD/HD thing that I find it really difficult to even hold a conversation anywhere around those machines. Not that I want to play them (the market is enough risk for me, thanks) but they’re so shiny.

I do want to go back and see the Cirque shows that are resident there (we saw “O” when we were in town to canvas for Obama), but I might just try to crash with friends again. It’s cheaper to buy friends dinner than to rent a room. Also, my experience has been that cigarettes are inescapable in the casinos, which makes me miserable.

Christa and I investigated options for going to Chile for a 2-3 week trip, a while back, but ultimately didn’t, because that year we wanted to use our vacation time to vist each of our families, and somebody was getting married, and so on.

wow, you do make it sound appealing. $200 for four nights? unbeatable! thanks for the tips. i might have to sweep my own sweetie off to sea and rock out.

If cigarettes are a big problem, you should be aware that smoking on the big cruise ship I was on was much less limited than it is in most of the US. I wasn’t much bothered by the amount of smoking but there were a couple of people smoking in many of the bars and in a few places abovedecks.

There’s a lot of shiny distracting stuff. That’s half the fun, if you ask me. But most isn’t as distracting as a Vegas slot machine, which is frankly designed to prevent you from doing something else and compel you to play it.

Basically, the price is in fact ridiculously low. Now, it’s easy to spend more — we got those great hot stone massages, which weren’t cheap — but you can actually get away with it for the list price + the soda card if you don’t drink or smuggle your own aboard. It’s a great vacation if the vacation you’d like is more indulgent than exploratory but your price is more stay-at-home than jet-setting.

Tell us if you plan a cruise, Milla!