DH and I have made it home from our first ever cruise. Cruise Critic was so helpful in our planning process so I thought I would shareour experience and possibly help out any other first-timers. So here wego!
Our cruising group consisted of myself and DH. I am 28 and teach 7th grade English. DH is 35 and works as a paraprofessional and is also an ordained minister and pastors three churches. Don't let that fool you--we love Jesus but we are not the stereotypical stuffy pastor and pastor's wife. We've been married for 3.5 years and live in Delaware with our two dogs. We also just bought our first house not long before embarking on our adventures.
The Initial Planning Process:
I have wanted to try cruising for a while but never had. DH and I had originally planned to do a honeymoon cruise but decided not to because we thought it would be ridiculously expensive. Then we were going to take a short Bahamas cruise for our second anniversary... and didn't due to a financial crap storm that occurred in the lead up. Then I announced spring/summer 2016 that we were going--come heck or high water--on a cruise for my Master's graduation. I spent quite a bit of time researching different cruise lines and had it narrowed down to NCL or Royal. I knew that summer 2018 would be our time to go and because we were still paying for my tuition and anticipating that I would need 3 months off work as a paraprofessional to complete student teaching in the lead up to the cruise so we wanted as much time as possible to pay for the cruise. In the end, NCL won out mostly because they had their Summer 2018 itineraries posted sooner.
We booked directly through NCL for the reason that they were running a $50 deposit sale that the online TAs I looked at weren't offering...and I, not realizing they run that sale all the time, felt that we needed to go ahead and book. Again, with things being a bit tight financially, we were trying to minimize costs so I booked a mid-ship inside and the UBP as our free perk. Our sailing was to be an Eastern Caribbean itinerary, sailing from Miami on August 5th. We were to visit St. Thomas, Tortola, and Nassau.
I started doing my homework on our ports to determine a)what we were going to do and b) how much money to scrape out of our tight budget. For the most part, I wanted to visit beautiful beaches, maybe do some snorkeling, and not waste too much port time in transportation if at all possible. We didn't book anything because I wanted to pay off the cruise first but I had a plan. In St. Thomas, we would visit Coral World and Coki Beach. In Tortola, we would take a Catamaran to Jost Van Dyke. In Nassau, I was determined to do Aquaventure in Atlantis. I know, Iknow... it's expensive, you don't get a ton of time there, etc etc. The heart wants what it wants, though. I don’t foresee us ever doing a land vacation there (SO expensive).
I also started doing my research about onboard offerings. I was slightly disappointed that“Legally Blonde: The Musical” was no longer playing on board. From what I can tell, I’m the only person disappointed but I loved the original movie and I enjoy the musical. I also quickly became obsessed with the thermal suite and determined we would be booking passes. We also decided that we wouldn’t do a ton of specialty dining and planned to do “Moderno” since we wanted to try a Brazilian steak house. The rest of the nights… we would save the money and dine at included venues.
We also decided at one point that we would plan to drive to port rather than fly. The drive was intimidating for me since it would take 16-18 hours without stops to get from our home in Delaware to Miami but DH was quite determined. If we wanted to fly, it would involve flying from our regional airport in a propellered puddle jumper to a larger regional hub. DH and I are both of “fluffy”bodily proportions. We are fine on a standard Air Bus A320/ Boeing 737 seat but the seats on the puddle jumpers are tiny and uncomfortable. Plus, driving would allow us to see some sights on the way down, maybe make a road trip out of it. This decision would prove to be critical during the evolution of this vacation.
The Evolution, Part 1:
DH and I are both big Harry Potter nerds so we decided fairly early on that we wanted to make a stop in Orlando on either the way down or the way back. We settled on the way down… and then I decided that I also wanted to do Disney as this was supposed to be our last big trip before buying a house and (hopefully) having babies. Although I had been three times as an adult with my Mom before she passed, DH hadn’t been since 1999. It was a major expense to add but I am fortunate that I have an aunt and uncle who are Wyndham and RCI members and are very generous in allowing us to use their points to get a condo. We figured that we would plan to save money by doing breakfast and lunch in the condo most days. While we had a particular resort in mind,they were booked up and we wound up with a 2 bedroom condo at the Holiday Inn Vacation Club Resort at Orange Lake- North Village.
And in the middle of this planning… life happened. In a really big way. For more background, I was pursuing my Master of Education degree with a focus in Special Education. My undergrad is not in education. Back in 2012, after moving home from college to be with my terminally ill mother, I discovered that there were not many jobs for someone with a degree in music. I had originally planned to go straight to graduate school to study music history and opera but put those plans on hold to be with my mom in her final years. At the recommendation of a friend, I began substitute teaching. After taking a long term position as a chorus teacher, I learned that while I loved music and I loved teaching, I did not love teaching music so an “alternate routes”certification wasn’t going to work since I didn’t want to teach music. To be sure, I took a job as a paraprofessional and fell more in love. While I intended to start my degree to become a certified teacher as soon as possible,life happened. I met my husband, married him, had a false start at a different university, survived the passing of an uncle and then my mother, moved into and out of a cockroach infested apartment,moved back in with my dad to minimize my graduate school loans, and eventually started my degree after a mix up at the university. Whew. Due to changing requirements, my graduation date kept shifting but one thing remained consistent: I would need to take a semester out of my job to fulfill the student teaching portion of my job. Ouch. It looked like this would be happening in Fall of 2017 and I would graduate in January 2018.
Then life punched me in the gut.
In April 2017, I learned that the specific job I had done for four years, the job I LOVED, was being eliminated. I had seniority so I was being transferred to an elementary school to an unknown position with people that didn’t know me or my skill set. I realized that I was going to have to delay student teaching to spring 2018 because I just didn’t feel comfortable (and wasn’t sure the district would allow) missing the first half of the school year and essentially coming in halfway through the year. I actually almost cancelled the cruise at this point because I was so concerned about the finances of going immediately after being unpaid for three months.
I spent summer 2017 rounding out my degree requirements. In August 2017, I received an unexpected email from my previous boss. He let me know that there was an opening for a special education teacher and that HR had told them that there was a chance that since I was so close to finishing my degree, I could fill it. Would I like to come in to talk about it? Um, yes! I went in for a meeting, the principal asked me if I wanted the job if they could make it happen. Again, um, yes! I was in limbo for almost two weeks and was about to lose hope when the Friday before teachers were to return I got the call from HR offering my the position. I asked about student teaching and was told that I could fulfill the requirements while working and getting paid. YES!!!!!!!! Another incredibly pleasant surprise occurred a few days later when I was informed that my salary would be almost doubling as I moved from a para position to a teaching position. Oh! And I would be eligible for another raise in January when I finished my degree.
In December, my husband made a major switch in church denominations and moved to a different church that came with a larger salary. It’s a little more complicated than that but I’ve written a novel about my graduate school at this point. In January, my raise came through, followed by a large tax refund in February (thank you to our accountant who makes the most out of educational credits and other tax incentives). Even with buying a house—a six month process and novel unto itself—we found ourselves in much better financial shape. So, how might this impact our cruise? Well let me tell you…
The Evolution, Part2:
The decision to do an inside cabin was a financial one when we booked the cruise. As I saw pictures and watched videos of the inside cabins on Getaway, I wasn’t super happy and decided to look into a balcony cabin. This was a while ago and I don’t remember specific prices to be honest but as I looked, it occurred to be that we should consider a spa balcony since we wanted thermal suite access anyway. With the upgrade, we would also get another booking perk. I figured if we got the SDP, it would save us another expense: the one or two meals we planned to do in the specialty venues. This way we would get a third. Score! I did a mock booking to see room availability and realized that if we did room 14750, we would score an extra large angled balcony. I called up NCL and made it happen. I learned on the phone that in addition to the UBP and the SDP, I would be getting $100 OBC.
In the fall, hurricanes slammed the Eastern Caribbean. The devastation in Tortola and St. Thomas was awful. Most remaining fall and winter cruises were rerouted to the West. I continued to read cruise reviews(*cough*mitsugirly*cough*) and almost regretted booking Eastern rather than Western. Then… in January (I think?) ourc ruise was rerouted to the Western route! From St. Thomas, Tortola, and Nassau to Costa Maya, Harvest Cay, Roatan,and Cozumel.
Re-planning the excursions commenced immediately. I was a little gun-shy about booking through independent vendors. I know, I know… less money, fewer people,blah blah blah. I risked it for one excursion which we’ll get to in a minute. I planned on our excursions mostly involving laying on sandy beaches since I figured we would be tired after a week at Disney and Universal. As I browsed cruise line excursions for Costa Maya, I came across “Salsa & Salsa.” The reviews sounded great: making guacamole and two salsas, a couple of margaritas, a brief salsa dancing class,and a beautiful beach to lay on afterward. I didn’t expect DH to go for the dancing part but he did! Done. In Harvest Cay, I was thinking we might splurge on a beach cabana… then the price went up to $699.00. Yeah,no. A couple of loungers and maybe a clamshell would be fine. In Roatan, I had every intention of booking outside of NCL. I was thinking about Little French Key but after some research (and some discomfort with the animal confiscation thing) decided on Maya Key. Problem: they only book through cruise lines. *Sigh* Book through NCL it is… ForCozumel, I was determined to do it on our own. Many reviews later, I settled on Nachi Cocom. I reserved our spot online and paid the deposit. Done and done.
I started booking meals and shows as soon as possible (90 days, I think?). For the first night, I booked us an early dinner at the Tropicana Room. I booked Moderno for Monday, Teppanyaki for Tuesday, and Le Bistro for Saturday. I booked the early showing of “Burn the Floor”for Wednesday and “Million Dollar Quartet” for Friday, both early showings.
Planning done, the waiting commenced. And while I was planning to post the whole cruise review in one, I have written over two thousand words so I’m going to break it up. Unless everyone is dying to hear, I was planning to gloss over the Disney/Universal part of the trip. Let me know if you want the gory details.