I took the Margaritaville cruise. It’s like basic economy at sea.

by Сашка

We watched our budget waste away on one of the cheapest cruises out there

RIVIERA BEACH, Fla. — There was panic in the Port of Palm Beach. Cruise ship passengers in flip-flops and tank tops scattered from the deck covered in artificial turf to rendezvous at their muster stations. It was only a drill, but we did have an emergency: We were out of margarita. And this was a Margaritaville cruise.

Yes, that Margaritaville. Beyond the restaurants, residential communities, hotels and resorts (RV, beach and ski), in the late Jimmy Buffett’s hospitality empire, there are also two cruise ships, the Margaritaville at Sea Paradise and Islander. I embarked on the former for a two-night sailing from Florida to Grand Bahama. It’s one of the cheapest cruises on the market, constantly running sales such as a $49 trip for teachers or buy one, bring three friends “free.”

En route to our muster station, an anxious bartender stopped me and my fiancé, Dan, asking whether we would like a refill. This was the last opportunity to get a drink for a while, he warned. Dan and I exchanged worried glances. Our novelty cup, shaped like a blender, rattled with ice. How long?

“About 30 minutes,” the bartender said.

It was a warning shot. The website had promised a “floating island vacation,” but we seemed to have boarded an extended booze cruise run by Spirit Airlines.

Fees lurking behind every corner

I tried to book a solo reservation during a “Season’s Greetings Sale,” but a pop-up said I couldn’t book a cabin for one on my particular sailing. That meant Dan got to come.

For the price of $239.20, we got the cheapest room with a window on the 658-cabin ship, plus five free drinks. A few steps into the reservation process came the add-ons: $57 for WiFi on two devices and $188.80 for other taxes and fees, making it $485 for the two nights.

It would have been $50 cheaper if I had forgone a window, and significantly more expensive if I added a shore excursion or upgrades, such as the $749 Ultimate License to Chill package, which included express check-in, priority luggage delivery, 10 premium drinks and a $300 spa credit, among other perks.

My rate covered meals at certain restaurants on board, some nonalcoholic drinks such as juice and tap water (but not soda, one of the cheapest beverages on the planet), and access to the ship’s live entertainment and supervised kids’ programs during certain hours.

It did not include a “fuel supplement” of $15 per person, per night, or a gratuity fee of $18 per person, per night. Both charges appeared on my credit card after we boarded.

By the end of our trip, adding in specialty coffee, some food and more cocktails, we totaled $780.36 for the room and other charges.

Big, comfy rooms meet bare-bones amenities

Without buying express check-in, it took us 30 minutes to board the ship after our arrival to the port. We went through a metal detector and couldn’t bring drinks or food in our luggage, which was scanned by an X-ray (although I did get some plantain chips through). There were signs everywhere warning against bringing marijuana on the ship. The final challenge was getting through an obstacle course of salespeople vying for our attention like auctioneers, pressing us to buy drink packages, shore excursions and professional photos.

On board, it was calm. The “casual-luxe” vessel, formerly known as Grand Classica, was built in 1991. It’s considered old for the cruise world but had a multimillion-dollar renovation to add Margaritaville touches. Buffett references and beachy decorations abound, including a gargantuan teal flip-flop statue, a brand signature we also saw at the Margaritaville resort in Hollywood, Fla. There’s a casino, an arcade and a spa that charged about $180 for massages. It seemed well-worn, but more dated than run-down.

Outside there were deck chairs around two tiny swimming pools — or if you’re a glass-half-full kind of person, two huge plunge pools — a pair of four-person hot tubs, a jogging track, some cornhole boards and a pickleball court with a scraggly net pushed off to the side. Dan and I brought paddles, but with the outdoor court being vulnerable to wind and rain, a game was out.

Our room was our silver lining: It was much bigger, brighter and cleaner than we had expected. The title of the Buffett classic “Nothin’ but a Breeze” was painted over the porthole, and in the closet we found robes and slippers. The sheets were white and crisp with a subtle parrot motif etched into the bedspread. The mattress and pillows were comfortable. The shower got hot fast and had good water pressure. A corner table held $4.95 bottles of water and a $29.95 bottle of Robert Mondavi red blend wine.

The confounding process of buying drinks

At lunchtime, our options were the Port of Indecision Buffet or the Cheeseburger in Paradise Burger Bar — two of the three places on the ship that serve the food included in our rate. There are three other “specialty dining” options where you have to pay extra, as well as in-room dining and a bunch of bars.

The buffet had an off-putting aroma reminiscent of another budget cruise I took years ago, or a retirement home cafeteria. Maybe it was the cleaning supplies, or maybe the food. We grabbed burgers (nothing to write home about) that we dressed ourselves at an unkempt salad bar station and sat on the open-air 5 o’Clock Somewhere Bar & Grill deck. “I can see how disease can spread quickly on a cruise ship,” Dan, who’s a science teacher, mentioned as we ate. We discovered someone else’s hair on his plate.

When we flagged down a server to order margaritas, we found out we couldn’t cash in our five free drinks until we got a wristband on another floor. We asked about the other drinks packages, and the server described them at a rapid-fire clip:

For $99, we could get the Boat Drinks package, a discount of 35 percent off 10 alcoholic drinks, but only on drinks that cost $12 or less. The $119 No Doubts Premium Drinks package covered 10 top-shelf drinks, and the $119 Blender Cup Package got you six 22-ounce drinks (more than double the size of a typical cocktail) from a certain menu selection, served in a little blender (sans blades) that looked like an adult sippy cup. Each included an 18 percent gratuity charge.

Read also:
Why used books make the best travel souvenirs

It felt like a riddle. We went with no package, but panic-ordered the sippy-cup version of the Who’s to Blame margarita with Margaritaville Gold Tequila, triple sec and a “house margarita blend.” It was $29 and just fine.

We watched others struggle to order, such as the two ladies who had to go back and forth with their server for a few minutes to figure out how to get a Grey Goose and soda, price be damned. The complex system — combined with the constant pressure from staff to purchase more drinks — became a shared bond between guests.

“The price [of the cruise] is fantastic, I’ll give them that,” said Peter Austin, from the Orlando area. “But they’ve approached us I think about 25 times to buy drinks. It’s very, very aggressive.”

Complimentary food — with a catch

We missed the complimentary dinner at Fins Dining the first night because we weren’t aware there were only two set seatings per evening until we had missed both. (We never got our welcome packet.) That left us with Frank & Lola’s Pizzeria, a specialty restaurant with red-checkered tablecloths where we got a three-course meal for two for $20.

The Caesar salads were serviceable, but the pepperoni pizza was too fatty, like they added extra oil to the cheese or sauce. It left us feeling queasy after, so we took our lovely tiramisu back to our room to eat later. Wine was sold separately and couldn’t be ordered at the pizza place; Dan had to walk over to the coffee shop to grab two glasses with our drinks package.

There was no messing around on Night 2; We showed up to Fins at 5:45 p.m. for the 6 p.m. seating. The sprawling dining room was decorated with white tablecloths and gleaming light fixtures. Dinner came with a bread basket and three courses. You could order an extra entree for $7, which some people around us did because the appetizers — three slices of tuna and a couple of arugula leaves for Dan, a slight bowl of gumbo for me — were comically petite.

My gumbo and signature pasta with shrimp were all right. Dan’s Tuscan mac and cheese with grilled chicken, vegetables and a “cacio e pepe sauce” was inedible. “It’s like watered-down Stouffer’s,” Dan said. We saw two tables send theirs back. I gave Dan my ice cream course to bulk up his brownie sundae.

For breakfast at the buffet, I got by with fresh fruit and English muffins; Dan went for breakfast sausage and some French toast he liked. The drip coffee was free, but nearly as thin as tea — another reminder that Margaritaville was cutting costs where it could.

I talked to people on the cruise who enjoyed the food, people who hated it and one group that had a great review of their meals at JWB Prime Steak & Seafood, a specialty dining option.

“It’s been great,” said Mark Seeley, 37, who came with his two friends from New York after seeing an ad for the cruise on Instagram. “I thought it was really high quality.”

Parrotheads have the best time

Despite the booze cruise reputation, Paradise was pretty tame after dark.

After catching a musical performance at the Stars on the Water Theater one night and a stand-up comic the other, the party died down fast. We could always find live music, and no, it was not strictly Buffett songs.

If you went in with low expectations, you could have a nice time on this bop to the Bahamas. I loved watching people have fun — like the rousing party game we saw one night in the Euphoria lounge that got participants to do wild challenges (men wearing bras on their heads, people riding each other like horses). I laughed so hard my face hurt.

Most of the travelers I met felt the same way, particularly those traveling in big groups. “We hear a lot of people have mixed TikTok reviews, but for the price, it was great,” said Khaila Dennis, 23, a Miami resident traveling with her family.

We skipped the shore excursions sold by the cruise in favor of going our own way, saving money in the process. The Austins did the same, as did a handful of people we met. Dan and I rented a scooter in Freeport for $50, spent the day exploring the island, its white-sand beaches and the incredible local cuisine. We shared a fat lobster tail, fried on the spot for $25, from a shack on the beach; ordered two rum cocktails for $10; and tried a fresh conch salad, straight out of the shell, for $11. It was a ball, one we wouldn’t have had if we didn’t take the cruise.

The takeaway

Unless you’re a die-hard Buffett fan, I’m not convinced that spending $780, plus the price of airfare and transportation to and from the ship, gets you the best vacation for the price.

It’s definitely not the best place to get a margarita, either.

More cruise news

Living at sea: Travelers on a 9-month world cruise are going viral on social media. For some travelers, not even nine months was enough time on a ship; they sold cars, moved out of their homes and prepared to set sail for three years. That plan fell apart, but a 3.5-year version is waiting in the wings.

Passengers beware: It’s not all buffets and dance contests. Crime data reported by cruise lines show that the number of sex crimes has increased compared to previous years. And though man-overboard cases are rare, they are usually deadly.

The more you know: If you’re cruise-curious, here are six tips from a newcomer. Remember that in most cases, extra fees and add-ons will increase the seemingly cheap price of a sailing. And if you happen to get sick, know what to expect on board.

Related Posts