I went on my first Carnival cruise — these are the 2 reasons I might not do it again

  • I spent four nights on Carnival Cruise Line's new Carnival Firenze cruise ship.

  • The quality of the vacation reflects its relatively affordable fares.

  • I have two major gripes about my experience: the lackluster food and incessant upselling.

People love to hate Carnival Cruise Line. After sailing on the new Carnival Firenze, I now understand why: The food was as bad as the incessant upselling.

The company's ships have a reputation for being affordable but rowdy, so much so that it had once threatened to fine unruly travelers $500.

But this sour standing doesn't seem to be negatively impacting business. Its parent company, Carnival Corp, experienced "record" deposits and high-priced bookings in the first quarter of 2024.

Despite its growing popularity, I don't think I'll willingly book another Carnival cruise, or at least Carnival Firenze, again.

A busy indoor pool on a cruise ship.
Carnival Firenze has an indoor pool.Brittany Chang/Business Insider

And it's not for the reasons you might expect.

My four nights on Carnival Firenze weren't stellar — not because of the rambunctious crowd (shocker, I know), but because of the terrible food and annoyingly endless upselling.

Carnival certainly lives up to its reputation of having affordable cruises.

Carnival Firenze at a port.
Carnival Firenze, shown docked at Ensenada, Mexico, is the company's 27th ship.Business Insider/Brittany Chang

The cheapest Carnival Firenze itinerary in 2024 is a four-night sailing for $359 per person, including taxes and fees. That's less than $90 a night for a hotel room at sea, unlimited food, onboard activities, and the chance to see Catalina Island and Ensenada, Mexico.

Not bad, considering new ships typically have a steep pricing premium (Royal Caribbean's new Icon of the Seas mega-ship starts at more than $260 a night).

The fares can’t be beat. And the quality of the food reflects that.

A bowl of corn and poblano soup.
The corn and poblano soup was one of the few dishes I enjoyed with no complaints.Brittany Chang/Business Insider

Look, I'm not expecting caviar and freshly shaved truffles on every plate. I can respect a sloppy burger and simple pasta, as I expected for a Carnival cruise. And seeing complimentary dishes such as beef tartare was unexpectedly welcomed.

Unfortunately, everything I ate was mediocre.

A composite image of a salad heavily dressed with honey-mustard sauce and of the buffet station.
The buffet had stations for dishes such as salads and desserts.Brittany Chang/Business Insider

The best word to describe most of my Carnival Firenze meals is "sweet."

The honey-mustard dressing at the buffet salad station was so sugary it could've been a dessert. But even the thick, saccharine dressing couldn't moisten up the incredibly bone-dry chicken.

Sure, sure. Honey mustard is supposed to be jam-packed with sugar, and I poured it with a heavy hand. But I think a salad dressing shouldn't send diners into a sugar rush.

Some savory dishes were overpowered by unnecessary sweetness.

A plate of shrimp, fish cake, vegetables, and tomato sauce.
The shrimp and fish-cake dish at the Michelangelo dining room came with vegetables and an ultra-sweet tomato sauce.Brittany Chang/Business Insider

My main dining room entrée of shrimp and fish cake could've been great. The shrimp was perfectly bouncy, and while the fish cake was questionably mushy, it was seasoned well with a garlicky, oniony dried spice mix.

Unfortunately, the accompanying tomato sauce, sweetened like it was meant to be a sorbet, lost the dish all of its accolades.

A good tomato sauce strikes a delicate balance between sweetness and acidity. This was just sugar — and a profound ability to make decent seafood taste bad.

The dining room's clams and linguine could've also been a win if not for some major issues.

A composite image of a plate of linguine with clams and of the author's finger with a small bit of clear plastic on it.
I found a small piece of plastic in my pasta dish.Brittany Chang/Business Insider

I didn't love that it came with only four or five clams, but I do love pasta dishes with a contrasting texture!

Unfortunately, said "texture" was a hard, small piece of plastic hidden among the mound of noodles.

If the food wasn’t sweet, it was heavy.

A large burger and fries.
The burgers at Guy's Burger Joint came with a side of fries.Brittany Chang/Business Insider

The ship's Guy Fieri-branded burger joint accrued lines before it opened for lunch. I, drawn to hyped food places like a moth to a light, was excited by its popularity.

Unfortunately, I couldn't enjoy it for long. I hit a food coma about four bites into the decadently greasy pepperoni-pizza burger, served with a thick slab of fried mozzarella.

By day two, I began dreaming of light vegetables, freshness, and fiber.

A sandwich, salad, and grilled vegetables on a plate.
The buffet-style La Strada Grill offered options such as mac and cheese, a quinoa and chickpea salad, and grilled vegetables.Brittany Chang/Business Insider

But the two complimentary dining venues that catered to these needs — the Fresh Creations salad stand and La Strada Grill with sandwiches and sides — were only open during the last day of the sailing. At that point, the lack of fiber had already done its damage.

I even tried ordering off the vegan menu for breakfast one morning. Unfortunately, I was denied my meatless dish: The waiter said vegan breakfasts had to be ordered the night before, a restriction I've yet to see on another cruise.

The mediocre food marred my experience, but it wasn't the worst part of my Carnival cruise.

King prawns, lobster, snow crab, branzino fish, snipper fish, and oysters on ice with price tags.
During the day, the breakfast and chicken shack are complimentary. At night, the space becomes a seafood shack that sells $18 lobster rolls.Brittany Chang/Business Insider

That title goes to the incessant, in-your-face upselling, done with a persistent annoyance reminiscent of an annoying fly buzzing around your home.

On paper, Carnival offers some ultra-cheap cruise fares. In reality, once you board the ship, you're met with an unsavory number of pay-to-play options that could quickly double your vacation cost.

Mass-market cruise lines have been increasingly upselling onboard amenities and activities.

person on ropes course on Carnival Firenze
Complimentary activities on Carnival Firenze included an elevated ropes course.Brittany Chang/Business Insider

On Norwegian's newer ships, this includes slapping a $10 fee on the mini-golf course. On Royal Caribbean's latest vessel, this means paying $49 for a ropes course that could be completed in less than a minute.

But on Carnival, even complimentary venues had pay-to-play options.

For example, the buffet, where guests had to pay for chicken wings.

A composite image of a buffet and of a menu showing the prices of wings.
The cost of wings ranged from $5 for six pieces to $18 for 24 pieces.Brittany Chang/Business Insider

Or the free dining room, where breakfast juices — shown by a waiter at each table — could be purchased for $5.

Looking for a midday snack? You could hit complimentary venues such as Il Mercato for sausages or the pizza stand for, well, pizza. Just be prepared to pay $6 if you want a Korean barbecue steak pie instead of pepperoni.

The dreaded dollar sign followed me day to night, on and off the ship.

People watching a movie in a cinema inside a cruise ship.
The cruise hosted nightly movie showings near the indoor pool.Brittany Chang/Business Insider

The nightly movie screenings were free to attend. But if you want a bag of buttery popcorn, you'll have to pay $4.

That's the same price guests had to pay if they wanted to take a shuttle from the port in Ensenada to downtown.

Even scheduled onboard activities had unnecessarily gratuitous upcharges.

The author's hand holding a packet of Bigelow green tea.
Bigelow green tea was one of two complimentary options at "Tea Time."Brittany Chang/Business Insider

Tea bags during "Tea Time" were $1.50. Unaware of the price before being approached by the server, I declined on the principle of not wanting to pay.

A few minutes later, he returned to inform me that he did, in fact, have two free options stashed behind the up-charged ones: Lipton and Bigelow green tea — the only tea bags available at the buffet.

At breakfast, a server joked that my croissant and Lipton tea would cost $20.

A breakfast sandwich with a side of hashbrowns on a plate, with ketchup and a cup of Lipton tea on the side.
A breakfast sandwich with a side of hashbrowns.Brittany Chang/Business Insider

If I didn't know any better, I would've believed him. It seemed as if almost everything I wanted came with a sneaky price tag, as seemingly intended by Carnival's parent company.

Travelers spent more money aboard Carnival Corp's ships in the first quarter of 2024 than in the same time last year. To continue this success, Josh Weinstein, the president and CEO of Carnival Corp, told investors in March that the company would continue to "push and press" its cruise lines to "optimize and maximize both on the ticket and onboard spending."

In truth, the ship does have some redeeming qualities.

A composite image of cruise workers walking down a staircase dressed in Venetian masks and gowns and of Italian-style artwork.
A spokesperson for Carnival told Business Insider that Firenze underwent a two-month refresh to "install the Carnival Fun Italian Style Concept."Brittany Chang/Business Insider

The mini-golf course, waterslides, board games, and elevated ropes course were complimentary and a great way for families to pass sea days.

I arrogantly found the whole Italy-themed decor (it is called Firenze, after all) a bit tacky. But if you love the idea of a garish Las Vegas-ified Italy — think, the Walmart version of the Venetian — you could find some joy in the kitsch.

But these amenities weren’t enough to overlook the mediocre food and difficult-to-resist upselling.

The water slide and kid's water playground on the Carnival Firenze.
The fare includes access to amenities such as the waterslides and the kid's water playground.Brittany Chang/Business Insider

Cruises are meant to be relaxing and fun. There's nothing relaxing about having to think about your finances whenever you're met with a pay-to-play option, which felt constant on Carnival Firenze. Nor is there anything fun about chewing into a piece of hidden plastic.

If you want the vacation of your dreams on Carnival's new ship, be prepared to pay up. But at that point, you may as well save that money for another ship — or cruise line.

Read the original article on Business Insider