I recently took my first cruise in nearly 23 years and my first actual vacation in over 3 years. I wanted to talk a bit about my experiences in the hopes that anyone thinking of taking a vacation of their own any time soon, might consider an all-inclusive cruise as an option!

My brother-in-law and I recently sailed on an 8-day cruise to the ports of Aruba, Bonaire, La Romana, and Amber Cove. To do so, we had to get COVID tests (both negative, no surprise) and we needed to present some form of identification that proved we were US citizens. Luckily, I have my passport, and he has his birth certificate and driver’s license. Once the technical issues were out of the way, we packed our bags and woke up bright and early for our 4-hour drive to Miami. Once there, we left our car with the company we paid for parking (8 days worth was $112. Much cheaper than the port’s proposed $25 per day.) and the shuttle bus took us to the port where we waited in line to have our documents confirmed and go through security.

When we arrived at the ticket counter, we were informed that there was a slight issue. Having booked the cruise a mere 24 hours before departure, we were required to go through extra security measures. After a brief pat down by security, we were cleared to embark. Honestly, my BIL and I were both comforted by the idea that anyone short booking a cruise like that needed to be screened by security. It made us feel safer, knowing that anyone who would do something like that for nefarious reasons would be put under the microscope. Once we took a photo for the ship’s facial identification system, we were able to board and made our way to our “muster station”. Our muster station was right near the entrance to the ship and after a very brief 5 minute presentation on life vest operation and emergency protocols, we were cleared to head up to our cabin.

Once we made it to our cabin, we quickly discovered a slight hiccup. For some reason, the two beds were pushed together, to make a queen bed. Now, I like my BIL well enough, but we’re not THAT close. A quick call to our cabin steward (along with requests for a few extra pillows and a fan) had our issued solved in less than 20 minutes. We went up to the lido deck to wave goodbye to our state as the ship pulled out of Miami and headed off for two days of sea travel.

A quick selfie on deck 12 to say goodbye to Miami for the next 8 days!

Before we pulled too far away, I downloaded the Carnival Hub app to my phone and set it to airplane mode. The ship had its own Wi-Fi, but without purchasing an internet plan, the only thing I could do was use the Hub app to look at the on-board activities and dining menus. There was also a chat feature available for $5 per person that would allow me and my BIL to be able to text, via the Hub app. Sadly, this feature didn’t work for us and after bringing it to the attention of the customer service desk, they refunded our purchase and told us to try again later. (Spoilers: we did not try again later.)

The first two days were spent at sea, en route to our first port of call, Aruba. The sea days were mostly spent sleeping in, and spending time exploring the ship as well as planning activities. The ship itself had PLENTY to keep us occupied. There were 12 restaurants, 9 shops, 3 stage venues, an IMAX multiplex, water slides, a gym, multiple bars to fit any kind of vibe you were looking for, an arcade, and a mini-golf course! This ship had no limitations when it came to finding an entertaining activity for everyone of all ages.

Our first port day was Aruba, and it was honestly a lot more urban than I had pictured in my mind’s eye. We docked at the port and spent the morning walking through the streets, poking our heads into the various shops and things. The cruise offered us coupons for various freebies at the local stores, which we took full advantage of. Then, we made our way to a few outdoor market stalls placed along the marina. It’s here where I purchased a few souvenirs (a deck of playing cards with a map of Aruba on the back, and a canteen to keep myself hydrated) before we loaded back onto the ship and awaited the next day’s arrival in Bonaire.

This outdoor mall in Aruba was one of the stops on our walking tour of the city area by the port.

Bonaire was… disappointing. Without having previously purchased an excursion away from the ship, there was shockingly little to do near port. There were around 5 shops open, with many more standing vacant, thanks to the absolute decimation that COVID-19 has had on the local economy. No tourism, means no tourists, means no business. My BIL and I had a very candid conversation about the situation with one of the local jewelry store employees about it, and it only amplified our pity for this small port town. We went back to the ship dejected, and eager to see what the next port would bring us.

Sadly, the next port, La Romana, wasn’t much better. It was another situation where if you hadn’t booked some kind of excursion beyond the port, there wasn’t much else to occupy your time. This port did have far more to offer in the way of shopping, though, as the port itself was a sort of open air market with plenty of vendors and restaurants available to peruse.

These decorative ships were carved from cow horn.

We bought a few more souvenirs for the family, and then it was back to the ship for lunch.

Another selfie just in front of the La Ramona sign that greets tourists as they enter!

Our last port was the Carnival owned “Amber Cove” on the north side of the Dominican Republic, near the town of Puerto Plata. This had slightly more to offer than the last two ports, but also had a very “theme park” kind of vibe. Plenty of shops and a water park, as well as a few interesting photo opportunities. But before long, we had seen everything there was to see, and we headed back to the ship.

This fun photo op at Amber Cove required a stop!

Another day at sea marked the end of our 8-day voyage. My BIL and I did our last minute disembarking prep, making sure we had everything packed and squared away, as well as settling our account balance on board and making sure we picked up anything we wanted from the shops on board as well. It’s here where I spent the bulk of my $100 in credit on two 750mL bottles of Jameson Triple Triple. A triple distilled, triple cask Irish whiskey that I had gotten a sample of and absolutely ADORED. I drink regular Jameson on occasion, and this “travel exclusive” version surprised me with it’s slightly sweeter notes and incredibly smooth finish. So, I took advantage of the duty-free shop’s deal and purchased two bottles for $60. And I’m glad I did, because I had no idea these were exclusive flavors you can only purchase from duty-free shops!

Sunday morning rolled in, and my alarm went off sharp at 5am like a reminder that the fun was over, and it was time to return to the real world. My BIL and I grabbed our liquor purchases from the duty-free store (you purchase at any time, but can only pick up on the morning of disembarkation), went to our last meal in the ship’s dining room, and then headed back to our rooms to wait for our group to be called to disembark. The whole process was simple. From the time our group was called to the time we were off the ship and outside the terminal waiting for our shuttle was, maybe, 20 minutes.

This cruise was a much needed vacation for me, and honestly, I think a cruise is an incredible way to spend a vacation. You get your destinations, room, food, and on board activities all for one low price. Not to mention, the fact that we were given $200 of on-board credit ($100 per person) and I was given an extra $50 of casino free play! For this entire package, with port fees, taxes, and pre-paid gratuities for the ship’s crew all included, my BIL and I paid $730 total.

You can’t even get a round trip airfare for 2 people that cheap, let alone an 8-night stay in a hotel AND food for a week! Cruises are the most bang for your buck when it comes to taking a trip, and I will absolutely be back on board as soon as possible.