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I've sailed on 10 Carnival cruises and think the Radiance is the best one for a cheap getaway. Take a look around the ship.

woman wearing dark sunglasses taking a selfie with a cruise ship
The author sailed on Carnival Radiance for a three-night cruise with friends.Lori A. May
  • I've sailed on Carnival Radiance out of Long Beach, California, twice in the last year.

  • Recently, I booked an interior cabin with a king bed and paid $460 inclusive of taxes and fees.

  • Here's why this ship has become my favorite go-to sailing for a budget weekend getaway.

I'm a frequent cruiser and have sailed with Carnival 10 times.

blonde woman posing for a selfie holding a glass with orange liquid and ice.
The author sailed on Carnival Radiance for a three-night cruise with friends.Lori A. May

While I've spent more than 100 weeks at sea across various cruise lines like Norwegian Cruise Line and Virgin Voyages, I'm convinced there's no better cruise at a cheaper price than Carnival.

I love sailing with them any chance I get and have cruised on Carnival ships throughout the Caribbean and along the Mexican Riviera, departing from ports in California, Florida, and Louisiana.

While the Panorama has been my long-standing Carnival favorite, the Carnival Radiance has more recently emerged as my go-to ship for a quick weekend trip that also happens to be super cheap.

I first sailed on Radiance last spring, for a couple's getaway with my spouse. I loved all the dining and activities onboard, and its Long Beach home port is a short flight from my base in Seattle, making it an affordable getaway all around.

Then, last fall, I joined a dozen friends onboard the Carnival Radiance for a wedding at sea on a cruise out of Long Beach to Ensenada, Mexico. The trip solidified the Radiance as my new favorite pick for an easy getaway on a budget. Here's a closer look at what it was like.

I booked an inside cabin since it was a short sailing and I knew I'd spend most of my time enjoying the ship with friends.

Shot of an interior cabin on Carnival Radiance cruise ship freelancer photo
The author booked an interior cabin with a king-size bed.Lori A. May

Since I was familiar with Carnival Radiance from a prior sailing, I knew an interior cabin would serve my needs. I planned to spend most of my time on the pool deck and socializing with friends.

It was also the cheapest option.

I booked my sailing directly on Carnival's website to get the best pricing available for frequent cruisers. First-timers may also sign up for Carnival's VIFP, or, Very Important Fun Person program, to start receiving deals immediately, even before their first sailing. I've been a VIFP member since my very first sailing on Carnival five years ago.

The best rate I found was for an interior cabin, and chose my exact room location for no added fee. The stateroom cost $416.86, inclusive of port fees and taxes. I also pre-paid $43.50 for crew gratuities, so my total for this voyage was $460.36.

There was no single supplement fee as a solo traveler, and in fact, this booking cost less than when I sailed with my spouse and paid $599 for the two of us in a similar interior room.

I've found the best time to arrive for check-in at the Long Beach cruise terminal is 1 p.m.

Carnival Radiance Long Beach cruise terminal
Inside Carnival's Long Beach cruise terminal.Lori A. May

I've taken around half a dozen cruises from Carnival's Long Beach cruise terminal and I've noticed that most people tend to arrive for check-in between 11 a.m. and noon.

To avoid crowds, I usually time my arrival for 1 p.m. instead, when in my experience, there are little to no lines. I'm often boarding the ship by 1:30 p.m.

For my first few cruises out of Long Beach, I would arrive earlier and then wait in a line for a half an hour or more. Since an earlier arrival hasn't sped things up for me, I prefer arriving in time for a late lunch after first checking out the pool deck.

I think the Radiance has one of the largest main pool decks in Carnival's fleet.

Woman wearing dark sunglasses taking a selfie with a cruise ship freelancer photo
The author enjoying the pool deck on Carnival Radiance.Lori A. May

Based on my past experiences, I've come to appreciate how large the pool decks are on Carnival ships. And in my opinion, Carnival Radiance has one of the largest main pool decks in their fleet.

The Radiance has poolside seating and loungers spread across four tiered decks, and I think each of those decks provides easy access to the pool and great views of the action happening next to it. With so many seats, I've never had a problem finding space.

There are two pools on Carnival Radiance, along with several hot tubs.

Shot of Carnival Radiance pool.
Carnival Radiance has two large pools and several hot tubs.Lori A. May

Carnival Radiance has two large pools on the Lido deck, which is deck nine, with one centered in the middle, and another at the back of the ship.

The main pool is family-friendly and central to all the activities, with easy access to free dining spots like the nearby buffet. The aft pool is reserved for adults.

Alongside each pool are two large hot tubs, so there are four hot tubs in total.

There's also one more extra-large hot tub on deck 13, in the adult-only Serenity Retreat, which is free for guests aged 21 and over to use.

Near the main pool, Carnival Radiance waterslides are open to all ages with two large slides and one for little kids.

Shot of a waterslide on Carnival Radiance cruise ship.
There are two main waterslides on Carnival Radiance.Lori A. May

One of my favorite activities onboard a cruise ship is zipping down a waterslide. I've loved the thrill of waterslides since I was a young kid, so I appreciate that Carnival Radiance has a few options for all ages to enjoy.

On Radiance, there are two waterslides for kids and adults, plus a kiddie slide and spray features for the smallest children. The waterslides and kiddie splash area are located toward the front of the ship, separated from the main pool, but just a few steps away.

Since this particular sailing had some cloud coverage on our sea day, I never had to wait in a line to get on a waterslide and took several turns down the two slides.

While in port in Ensenada, there was more sun, but even then, I only had to wait in line after one or two people before it was my chance to slide.

Carnival's adult-only Serenity Retreat is free for adults aged 21 and over. I love this quiet space and think it comes with a great view.

Woman smiling for a selfie in front of a sign that says "Serenity: Adult Only Retreat."
Carnival Radiance has decks dedicated to the Serenity Retreat for adults.Lori A. May

On every Carnival ship I've been on, there is an adult-only Serenity Retreat, which is free for guests who are aged 21 and up. I am always thrilled about this secluded space for quiet relaxation, usually located at the front of the ship on the upper decks.

And I'm constantly amazed there is no charge to enter.

When comparing cruise lines with adult retreats, such a space can sometimes come with an added surcharge, like Norwegian's Vibe Beach Club, which is their upper deck retreat area for guests 18 and up that, according to Cruise Critic, averages $99 per day or $209 for unlimited use over the course of an entire cruise.

Yet Carnival's Serenity Retreat is a free space for adults at all times. The retreat has a privacy fence where beyond that, adults can lounge on any of the plush loungers or take a dip in the oversized spa tub.

There's also a dedicated bar and towel service in this space. On Carnival Radiance, the adult retreat has two decks of lounge space, and I always found more seating available than was necessary.

I always have fun balancing my way across the ropes course at Carnival's SportSquare.

Ropes course on Carnival Radiance cruise ship
SportSquare is an all-ages recreation zone with a free ropes course.Lori A. May

I've sailed on Carnival Panorama four times now and that was where I first discovered Carnival's free ropes course in SportSquare.

While many Carnival ships have this attraction, not all do. Thankfully Radiance does, and I was glad to again test out my balancing skills once again.

The ropes course is free and first-come, first-serve, but I have never seen a line form. It's suitable for most ages, according to Carnival, and has two routes. One is easier, with ropes placed within reach, and the other is more challenging that requires a bit more core body strength to make it from one platform to another.

I admit I tend to use the easy route as my arms just don't have as much reach for the advanced option, but I love the challenge and still find it to be a bit of a workout.

I think Carnival Radiance is one of the best ships to watch a poolside movie on the big screen.

Mega TV screen playing a movie above a pool at night on Carnival Radiance cruise ship
Dive-In Movies offers free outdoor films on the pool deck.Lori A. May

On every Carnival ship I've sailed on over the years, Dive-In Movies — films screened poolside — are shown day and night on the pool deck.

Yet, depending on the ship and its pool seating areas, I've found it's not always easy to sit front row, particularly if the weather is nice and lots of guests attend.

However during my Carnival Radiance sailing in October, since there was so much poolside seating across four decks, I never had a problem finding a seat with a view of the big screen. I even thought it was easier than on any other ship, and loved curling up underneath a free-to-borrow Carnival blanket to watch a movie under the stars.

Most nights, though, I prefer the main stage performance from Playlist Productions.

Stage with dancers lit with multicolored lights on Carnival Radiance cruise.
Playlist Productions is Carnival's main stage entertainment.Lori A. May

Playlist Productions is Carnival's fleetwide main stage performance group, putting on song and dance productions a few times each sailing.

Even though my cruise on Radiance was only three nights, there were two different shows featuring choreographed dancers performing to hit songs.

The shows take place in the Main Show Lounge at the front of the ship with theater-style seating to accommodate several hundred guests. There's ADA seating on the ground level and in the mezzanine, and while most seating is typical for a theater, there are a few spots in the front with cocktail tables. These appear to be first-come, first-serve, though I saw a few were reserved for guests who perhaps won VIP seating passes.

On both occasions I visited the theater, I had an easy time securing my preferred seating and noticed many seats that were still open throughout the show.

Carnival's Punchliner Comedy Club is a popular venue to see featured comics. I suggest arriving early to secure a seat.

Interior shot of crowded comedy club room on Carnival Radiance cruise ship
Punchliner Comedy Club offers free comedy showcases every night on Carnival Radiance.Lori A. May

Without fail, on every Carnival cruise I've taken, Punchliner Comedy Club is one of the most popular entertainment venues, as evidenced by a packed house every single night. I've missed out on so many comedy shows simply because I don't arrive early enough to secure a seat for the 45-minute set.

My advice, based on these experiences, is to arrive at least 30 minutes before the doors are scheduled to open. Otherwise, despite wall-to-wall seating, the room will most likely fill to capacity, and they don't allow standing room.

Thankfully, there are several nights of comedy, and often two shows nightly, so if you miss one time slot, there's an opportunity to make it to the second show.

The Piano Bar is another popular venue where it's easy to pop in and out for a few songs.

Shot of piano bar room on Carnival Radiance cruise ship
The Piano Bar performer takes requests all night long.Lori A. May

The Piano Bar is one of my favorite Carnival venues for hearing popular songs by request, performed by a seasoned pianist. I always see guests inside, but rarely have I ever shown up to find it full to capacity, making it easy to pop in for a few songs before or after dinner.

I still think it's a lively spot though, as guests tend to enjoy the singalong aspect after requesting their favorite tunes.

I particularly enjoy hearing the unique variations of a song based on however the pianist feels inclined to perform. So you might hear a normally fast song performed slow and deliberate, or perhaps a bluesy rendition of a pop song. On my recent sailing, I requested Lady Gaga's "Poker Face" and the pianist played it beautifully, almost like it was a slow ballad.

Music is also often performing in the centrally-located Atrium Bar.

Shot of a man playing a red guitar in front of a crowd on a Carnival Radiance cruise ship
Carnival's Atrium Bar is a great place to grab a drink and hear a featured musician.Lori A. May

No matter which way you're headed on the ship, I often pass by the Atrium Bar.

It's a central hub that becomes a focal mid-ship point for me, with most decks offering an opening from a balcony overlooking it.

In my experience, there's also musicians typically performing here, who can be heard on several floors above, day and night, thanks to that open layout. During my recent sailing, I saw a folk singer with a guitar, a violin trio playing rock songs, and a country band performing popular songs.

While I usually only see a few dozen people actively lounging at the bar here, more often, I notice people pausing on balconies to listen, or even watching from the glass-enclosed elevators next to it.

Like every cruise ship, Carnival Radiance has onboard stores and services for shoppers and deal hunters.

blonde woman posing for a selfie in front of a large, white sign that says "don't you just love free stuff?"
Deals can be found throughout the ship on photo packages and souvenirs.Lori A. May

Carnival Radiance has a handful of shops including a jewelry store, duty-free shop with perfumes and liquor, a candy shop, and two stores where cruisers can buy Carnival branded clothing and souvenirs.

There is also a photo studio where passengers may pose for portraits throughout the cruise, and purchase photo packages if they wish. Guests can skip this entirely, of course, or buy anywhere from one to a hundred or more photos they like in a package deal.

I tend to steer clear of these stores as I don't need to overload my baggage for the trip home.

As far as I'm concerned, the best deal on Carnival Radiance is all the included dining.

Shot of a burger bun and fried chicken in a white, square bowl with the words "bok bok" written in orange lettering.
Carnival has so many free specialty dining options, including Shaq's Big Chicken.Lori A. May

One of my favorite things about cruising with Carnival is that they offer so many free places to eat, including specialty restaurants.

That's not always the case. Some cruise lines like Royal Caribbean have only a small handful of eateries included with the cruise fare. While I've found Royal's dining selections to be excellent, I often spend a lot of extra money to try them and much prefer having as much free dining venues as possible.

On Carnival Radiance, there are 15 eateries, and only six of these are specialty restaurants with an evening dinner surcharge. Free options include the main dining room, buffet, and several standalone venues. But even some specialty restaurants that charge extra for dinner are free for lunch, like Italian eatery Cucina del Capitano. There, dinner is $18 per person, but the lunch menu is free.

Other free standalone eateries are quick serve-venues and they're also some of my favorites. I love Shaq's Big Chicken, which has crispy chicken sandwiches, chicken strips, chicken biscuits, and a bunch of sides like homestyle potato salad and jalapeno slaw, all at no extra charge.

But my favorite free meal on Carnival has always been at Guy's Burger Joint.

Shot of a burger dripping with melted cheese.
Guy's Burger Joint from celebrity chef Guy Fieri.Lori A. May

On every Carnival ship I've sailed on, I've looked forward to lunch at Guy's Burger Joint. This classic burger spot from celebrity chef Guy Fieri serves burgers, cheeseburgers, veggie burgers, and fries.

Plus, there's a self-serve fixings bar where you can add pickles, mushrooms, crunchy potato crisps, and all the usual condiments, in addition to Guy's signature sauces, including my favorite, Guy's bourbon brown sugar. I think it adds a nice complement to a juicy grilled cheeseburger.

Guy's Burger Joint is free for lunch, which is served until 5 or 6 p.m., so some days, I'll even choose this as a quick, early dinner.

For breakfast, one of my go-to spots is the free eatery, Blue Iguana Cantina.

shot of two open burritos on a blue and white checkered tablecloth
Blue Iguana Cantina offers free breakfast and daytime burritos and tacos.Lori A. May

Blue Iguana Cantina is another free eatery I go to for breakfast burritos and huevos rancheros.

It's located alongside the pool and while there's usually a short line for afternoon tacos, I never have to wait for the breakfast bar.

Even when there's a line, the fresh ingredients and customizable tacos that are made to order are worth it to me. It's a light, savory meal that always satisfies.

I was so glad to join friends on Carnival Radiance for a special celebration. I'd go back any time I want a cheap weekend getaway.

A woman posing in front of a podium.
The author in The Punchliner Comedy Club, which transforms into a special event venue in the daytime.Lori A. May

For this sailing on Carnival Radiance, I joined a dozen friends as we celebrated a vow exchange between two pals. Their ceremony took place in The Punchliner Comedy Club, which transforms by day into a special event venue.

But as much as I was onboard to celebrate, I also had plenty of time to enjoy all of the ship's entertainment and dining options.

It left me once again convinced that Carnival Radiance is an excellent budget getaway for weekenders. For my cruise fare of $460.36, I saw multiple main stage shows, comedians and other performers, while also enjoying a great assortment of dining. Plus, the pool deck and adult-only retreat space was welcome for unwinding after all the fun.

It's certainly possible to spend more on a cruise, especially when booking a balcony or suite, but not once did I feel shortchanged by booking an interior cabin. After all, other than sleeping, I spent so little time in my room. There was just too much fun to be had elsewhere on the ship.

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