Cruising to Ensenada Mexico through Carnival does NOT require a passport. If you have a large family like us (six), that is a huge savings to travel to a foreign country without buying passports for everyone. You just need to bring a birth certificate (the website says photocopies are okay but our flight didn't say photocopies so we took originals) and for anyone over 16, a picture ID (driver's license).
When you book, I recommend calling and getting a personal Carnival booking agent to help (free.) Ours helped us get better rooms, right across the hall from each other that weren't available online. Then she also emailed me and I was able to ask her any questions I had. The responses were quick.
When you book, you'll be prompted to pay upfront for gratuities. What? It seemed like a huge additional expense but as soon as we got on board, I realized it wasn't enough. The workers were amazing. Our maid and dining room servers knew us by name and we learned theirs. They all had perfect English mixed with their beautiful accents. Everything they did for us was prompt, fun, and with a genuine smile. I even had one guy make me something special to accommodate my weird food allergies and brought it to my table in the cafeteria-style dining. There were hundreds of people in the room and he searched until he found me. I'd say bring extra money for tipping if you have it. I've never seen people working so hard and so happy. Their service makes me want to go again. Next time, I'll probably bring gifts to leave for our maids. They were that fantastic.
TO/FROM THE AIRPORT
We used a private shuttle from LAX to the drop-off in Long Beach. We used Payless Shuttle: https://www.paylessairportshuttle.com/
AMAZING! They were far cheaper than booking through Carnival, picked us up so fast, the van was clean, they brought car seats for my kiddos so I didn't have to lug those with us at all. Super convenient. They also shuttle to Disneyland. I would use them every time.
We had a scheduled time to check in but we arrived in Long Beach early. I did not pay extra for the Faster to the Fun pass but I'm glad we didn't. We arrived around1:30 p.m.and when we got through the line that took maybe fifteen or twenty, they told us our room was ready. I'm glad we didn't check our baggage. We took it directly to our room ourselves and got settled. Note, there are several areas with elevators on the ship. When you first enter there is a set, but don't wait for those as the lines will be long. Ask someone to direct you to another set further down and you'll save a bit of time.
I'd recommend bringing something to decorate your door. Why? To avoid another guest knocking in the middle of the night, drunk, and looking for friends or family. Yes, that happened. The doors all look the same and the corridor is long. Door decorations also help if you have little ones for them to find the room on their own. Our kids ran ahead of us every time. After our late-night wake-ups, we tied ribbons to our door.
With six people, we had to get two rooms. The max is five. We got an interior room and an exterior directly across the hall. We often left our doors open so it didn't feel like we were separated too much.
I'm the type of person that hates to live out of a suitcase and have clutter everywhere. I like to put everything away and not see my suitcases until departure day. There was enough room for all of our things.
There were two twin beds in our room when we arrived. But after we came back from dinner, our maid set up another so we each had our own mattress. I figured the kids would have to share so that was a pleasant surprise.
My husband called Carnival to check if there were hairdryers in the room and he was told no. So I took mine and ended up having to bring another bag to fit it. My room had two. Ugh. So yes, there are hairdryers in the room.
There are only two plugs in each room. One in the bathroom and one next to the beds. They are not like standard outlets at home with two plugs. Just one in each spot. Bring a three-way splitter so you can charge your phone and use another device (like a white noise machine) at the same time. With the white noise machine and the air turned on in the ceiling, we didn't hear a thing and slept amazing. Honestly the best sleep I've had in a year or two.
So there was a smell in our bathrooms. It's a cruise thing. My husband didn't really notice, but I have a sensitive nose. It bothered me a little but I just reminded myself we were on a floating palace. It couldn't all be perfect.
Oh my goodness, don't get me started. As a mom with several kids, the best part of the cruise was the food--and the fact I didn't have to make it or clean up after. I like to consider myself a foodie and there were so many things I loved. I have a lot of food allergies so I didn't have too many options, but I could eat one of the pizzas (which is seriously some of the best pizza I have ever eaten), modified burgers (super yum!) and the food in the formal dining rooms exceeded my expectations, especially breakfast. My oldest daughter's favorite food was the strawberry bisque. We loved being able to pick whatever we wanted from the menu. One night we even ordered every dessert and extra chocolate molten cake (loved it). I would go back in a heartbeat for the food.
We made several friends on the trip from people we sat with on shuttle boats to our dining room guests. We loved being seated with another family and getting to know them.
FROZEN YOGURT vs ICE CREAM
So my kids kept raving about the ice cream, but it tasted weird to me. Yeah, I didn't see the signs. One machine is frozen yogurt and one is ice cream. Rookie mistake.
We loved having late-night snacks brought to our room. The cookies look pathetic but I actually loved them. I'm kind of a cookie snob and they were buttery and perfect with milk. We also took advantage of breakfast items to hold us over until we made it to the dining room.
POOL & SLIDES
Our friends told us the pool was too cold when they went in May. In October, the water was so warm and we loved it. From what I researched, they pull water from the Ocean so it is very, very salty, but there were definitely heaters at the bottom of the pool. The slides were a blast. Our four-year-old went down the mini slides over a hundred times in an hour. The biggest slide was awesome, until the last ten seconds. I had to push myself out and so did my kids. Maybe we weren't heavy enough?
In Catalina, we opted for our own adventure. We played at a park, rented a six-seater golf cart, ate lunch and got ice cream from Scoops Homemade Ice Cream (expensive but really well made and worth the money).
The beach was amazing. We are landlocked in Utah so we love time on the beach. One of our daughters had a freak jellyfish incident and got a sting on her arm, but other than that, it was fantastic. They even have a foot wash station on the pavement near the sand.
We hired a private guide from Ensenada Massage & Excursions: https://www.ensenada-massage.com/shoreexcursion
AMAZING. We 100% recommend it. Once we got off the boat, we walked about 100 yards and Arturo had a sign with our name, waiting for us. The van pulled up within about a minute and we were introduced to our driver Pedro. They both spoke amazing English. We scheduled to go to the blowhole (La Buffadora) about an hour away. They told us about something on the way and I'm usually never one for an upsell, but we decided to take their advice and go to Pai Pai as well.
Pai Pai also smelled very clean. I've never been to an animal facility that smelled good. The workers all seemed to love the animals and several of them were volunteers.
Pedro drove us to La Buffadora, another thirty minutes or so away. We got to ask him questions about the area and the people and talking to him was one of the best parts. When we got to the market that leads to the blowhole, Pedro walked us in, showed us the best places to eat, and let us wander. The salesmen are quite aggressive, but we anticipated it. We bought some churros, street tacos for my husband and kids (my allergies prevent me from eating my favorite foods--sad!), and a few knickknacks. The blowhole did not disappoint. Super cool and misty.
So, I got seasick. I would have loved the trip if I could have felt better, but I'm one of those types that gets sick in the car. Ugh. I brought all sorts of medicine and patches and they worked sometimes. If we go again, I'll prepare with even more stuff and just expect to not feel well for part of it. A few of my kids had some difficulties but the medicine I brought for them worked great. I also got landsick when we came back. A few times a day I would rock for a couple hours. Not ideal but water and ibuprofen and rest seemed to help.
We were charged for the towels in our room, which we didn't take. Lame. It took three calls to get our money back.
The tickets in October were way cheaper than at other times. Since I work from home, we need to get out of the house for vacations so I've planned a lot. We got a lot of value through our Carnival Cruise.
Overall, an amazing experience.