Opinion10 Biggest Differences Between Carnival and Royal Caribbean

10 Biggest Differences Between Carnival and Royal Caribbean

Comparing two of the largest cruise lines in the world isn’t as cut and dry as some think.  Any Carnival vs. Royal Caribbean cruise discussion depends on a ton of factors, including personal taste and what a perfect cruise actually looks like.

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I’ve heard it said that you should choose Carnival if you want to party and have fun, and choose Royal Caribbean if you want to play like you’re a child but still feel sophisticated.

But are these generalizations true?

Carnival and Royal Caribbean cruise ships
Allure of the Seas and Carnival Celebration docked in Costa Maya. Photo Credit: Cruise Fever

*This article has been updated since its original publication date.

In this article I will point out the 10 biggest differences between Royal Caribbean International and Carnival Cruise Line so you can better make this decision yourself.

Remember, you can always sail both and enjoy both (like I do). Each has its perks and quirks, and sometimes it comes down to which sailing has a better itinerary or fits your schedule and budget.

First, a few things the cruise lines have in common

In a lot of ways Carnival and Royal Caribbean have more in common than most people think, especially if they have not tried both lines.  I have sailed on both many times.

Both lines have mega-ships now that Carnival has the 180,000+ gross ton ships Mardi Gras, Carnival Celebration, and Carnival Jubilee. These Excel-class ships offer a much different Carnival experience than the line’s other ships.

But Royal Caribbean still has the largest cruise ships in the world, dominating the top 6 slots for the biggest cruise ships on earth and another coming soon (Utopia of the Seas).

We’ll talk about that a little later in this article

Both of these cruise lines cater to families and offer both affordability and tons of things to do on board. Some would call them floating, bustling resorts that are jam packed with amenities and activities.

They both have water parks (on some of their ships), free entertainment in the theater, comedy shows, casinos, and free or specialty restaurants for an extra charge.

Most first-time cruisers will choose one of these two cruise lines, so it’s a great comparison. Although fans of each will tell you how bad the other is (can’t we all just get along?), the answer truly depends on your own preferences.

 

1. Vibe

decor of Carnival Horizon and Harmony of the Seas cruise ships
Carnival Horizon on the left and Harmony of the Seas with Central Park on the right. Photo Credit: Cruise Fever

The two cruise lines have slightly different vibes when you step on board. This one is fairly subjective though, so I will admit you might have a different perspective on this point.

In general, a Carnival cruise will have a lively, fun, and often party-like atmosphere at certain times and places on the ship.  They are called the “fun ships” after all.

A Royal Caribbean cruise can feel more sophisticated and upscale but definitely with a playful and adventurous vibe.  With all those water slides, zip lines, FlowRiders, and trampolines it’s a playground for adults in many respects.

The atmosphere on a cruise can come from the decor and design of the ship as well as how the ship is operated. A good cruise director can really enhance the on board experience as well.  On a Carnival ship you will know your cruise director, and there is a greater emphasis on the entertainment and activities onboard.

I’ve had some amazing cruise directors on Royal Caribbean ships as well, and they tend to make fewer announcements and be seen more in the theater and during certain ship events.

Royal Caribbean’s decor is more resort-like and understated with wood tones and a traditional maritime feel while Carnival has a more vibrant touch with colors and glamor.  Although the debut of Icon of the Seas blows away that theory with tons of pops of color.

Even though it’s just design it does reflect the mood and feel of these two cruise lines.

The solariums on Royal Caribbean ships are some of my favorite places to relax and find some quiet.  But if you want non-stop action and fun, Carnival might be more your flavor.  The adult-only Serenity area on a Carnival ship is typically a good place for some quiet too.

 

2. Cost

Carnival and Royal Caribbean cruise ships in port in Nassau, Bahamas

A Royal Caribbean cruise will typically have a higher price point than Carnival.  On average Royal Caribbean will be anywhere from 15%-20% more expensive for a 7 day cruise with this percentage being lower for shorter cruises.

The charts below are for the parent companies of Carnival and Royal Caribbean.  We broke down these costs in another article on the cost of a cruise.

The figures for Carnival represent all the cruise lines under Carnival Corporation & plc which includes Princess, Costa, Holland America and others, with Carnival being the largest.

Royal Caribbean Group’s cruise lines include Royal Caribbean International, Celebrity Cruises, and Silversea.

While these charts include all the cruise lines under that brand (not JUST Royal Caribbean and Carnival), it still provides a decent idea of costs across the board, including onboard spending.

Average amount passengers paid with a Carnival Corp

Cruise Fare $890
Onboard Spending $678
Fare + Onboard Spend $1,568
Fare Cost Per Day $126/Day
Fare + Onboard Spend Per Day $222/Day
Avg. 7-Day Cruise $1,554
Avg. 3-Day Cruise $667
based on recent earnings reports averaged together

Average amount passengers paid with Royal Caribbean Group

Cruise Fare $1,041
Onboard Spending $564
Fare + Onboard Spend $1,605
Fare Cost Per Day $163
Fare + Onboard Spend Per Day $252
Avg. 7-Day Cruise $1,764
Avg. 3-Day Cruise $756
based on recent earnings reports averaged together

 

In reality, when you cruise with either Carnival or Royal Caribbean you can expect to pay a little less.  You can pay as little as $30-$35/day with Carnival and $40-$50/day with Royal Caribbean if you choose an older ship and an interior cabin.  But that’s just the base price without taxes and fees, and again, a lot of variables go into the cost of a cruise.

Newer ships like Icon of the Seas can set you back almost $4,000 for an interior cabin for two on a 7-night sailing.  Prices on new ships go down over time, but expect to pay a premium for a newly debuted ship with any cruise line.

 

3. Dining options

johnny rockets and la cucina restaurants

You will find dozens of dining options on either line, but Carnival does tend to have more restaurants that are complimentary.  Places like Guy’s Burger Joint, BlueIguana Cantina, Pig & Anchor Bar-B Que, Shaq’s Big Chicken, and even the popular Chibang are all included in the cruise fair.  And that’s not to mention some of the restaurants that are free for lunch but have a surcharge for dinner.

With Royal Caribbean some of the free dining options include Sorrento’s Pizza, Cafe Promenade, Wipe Out Cafe, Park Cafe, and El Loco Fresh.  A Johnny Rockets burger is really good but will cost you extra.

Icon of the Seas has some new dining venues that are free too.  These include: AquaDome Market, Surfside Eatery, and a few choices at Basecamp.

Restaurants that have a surcharge with Carnival include Fahrenheit 555, Seafood Shack, Jiji Asian Kitchen, Bonsai Teppanyaki, and Emeril’s Bistro. Prices range from $18 to $48, and the Chef’s Table can be $80 or $99 depending on the ship.

Royal Caribbean specialty restaurants include Chops Grille, Giovanni’s Table, Izumi Sushi, Hooked Seafood, Jamie’s Italian, Wonderland, 150 Central Park, and Playmakers with prices that range from $25 to $65.  Some venues have a la carte pricing.

Royal Caribbean has some of the most creative and innovative restaurants on it’s ships with Wonderland being an entire experience that blew me away when I was on Oasis-class ships.

You won’t go hungry with either cruise line, and while Royal Caribbean has more innovation in its restaurants, Carnival has more complimentary options.

Drink packages with each line is different as well.  These packages allow passengers to drink as much as they want without having to worry about the cost for each drink.

Carnival’s CHEER drink package starts at $59.95 per day and allows for up to 15 alcoholic drinks per day with unlimited non-alcoholic drinks.  If one person in a stateroom has the drink package everyone else in the same stateroom over 21-years-old needs to buy it as well.

With Royal Caribbean the drink packages come in different forms.  You can buy a water package to have 24 packs of water delivered to your stateroom, a soda package for only bubbly drinks, a refreshment package for almost all drinks that are non-alcoholic, or the deluxe package that includes everything both alcoholic and non-alcoholic.

Royal Caribbean also has dynamic pricing for some things, so the Deluxe Beverage package will cost anywhere from $56 to $105 per day, depending on the ship and dates of the cruise.

The soda package currently costs $12.99 per day per person.

 

4. Ships

Symphony of the Seas with Quantum of the Seas and Carnival's Mardi Gras cruise ship

Royal Caribbean currently has the same number of ships as Carnival: 27.   Royal also has the largest cruise ships in the world.  The Oasis-class vessels, of which there will be six, have a gross tonnage of around 225,000 GT.  These ships can carry 5,400 passengers at double capacity (6,800 at max capacity) and are 1,181 feet long and as wide as 198 feet.

Icon of the Seas is even larger at 250,000 gross tons with a maximum capacity of 7,600.

This kind of size allows for lots of space for all kinds of amenities that we will talk about in a later point.

In 2020 Carnival Cruise Line built its own mega-ship.  The Excel-class ship, Mardi Gras, is a 181,000 gross ton vessel and the sister ship to the latest Carnival Jubilee.

These ships can carry 5,374 passengers at double capacity and are 1,130 feet long with a beam of 137 feet.

Both lines have older and smaller ships still in service as well.  These ships have a much different feel than the newer ships so when comparing two cruise lines you really need to compare old with old and new with new.

Carnival Elation is 25-years-old and just recently came out of dry dock.  The 71,909 gross ton ship has a capacity of around 2,000 and is the oldest in the fleet.

Royal Caribbean’s oldest ship is 27 years old.  Grandeur of the Seas is a Vision-class cruise ship, has a gross tonnage of 73,817, and can carry 1,996 passengers at double-capacity.

So, both cruise lines offer large and smaller ships.  Still, Royal Caribbean dominates in the size category which also allows for more amenities than almost any other line.

See list of every Carnival ship here.
See list of every Royal Caribbean ship here.

What about cabins?

In addition to the standard cabin options, both Royal Caribbean and Carnival offer specialty cabins that cater to different preferences.

For instance, Carnival provides Cloud 9 Spa rooms, which offer exclusive access to various spa-related amenities, and the newer Havana cabins that come with a private Havana-class pool and deck, offering a unique and luxurious experience.

Royal Caribbean offers a range of specialty cabins on their ships, including suites with exclusive amenities and separate living areas, Boardwalk and Central Park view cabins that provide unique views of the ship’s attractions, virtual balcony cabins that give the illusion of having a balcony, family-connected cabins for added space and privacy, and accessible cabins that cater to guests with disabilities. The specific cabin options and features vary depending on the ship.

Related: How to choose the best cruise cabin

 

5. Departure ports

Cruise capital of the world, PortMiami with a Carnival and Royal Caribbean ship ready to start their voyage. Photo Credit: Cruise Fever

One of the most important categories when cruising is the port of embarkation.

Carnival offers more departure ports from the United States, especially when sailing from smaller ports like Mobile, AL or New Orleans, LA.

But if sailing out of Fort Lauderdale, FL or Bayonne, NJ Royal Caribbean is the only cruise line of the two that offers cruises.

I looked at every Royal Caribbean and Carnival cruise departing from the U.S. from the past year of 2023 through the spring of 2025 to break down which ports are used most often by these two cruise lines.

The table below shows the number of cruises departing from that cruise port with that particular cruise line over the next 2 years.  If left blank it means that cruise line does not offer cruises departing from that port city.

Carnival Royal Caribbean
Anchorage, AK 19
Baltimore, MD 108 93
Bayonne, NJ 146
Boston, MA 6
Charleston, SC 137
Fort Lauderdale, FL 279
Galveston, TX 389 289
Honolulu, HI 9
Jacksonville, FL 171
Los Angeles, CA 353 170
Miami, FL 740 542
Mobile, AL 26
New Orleans, LA 283
New York, NY 77
Norfolk, VA 37
Port Canaveral, FL 602 465
San Francisco, CA 31
Seattle, WA 101 82
Tampa, FL 226 230

 

6. Ports of call

royal caribbean and carnival in Nassau

If the destination of your cruise is the most important element to you then picking the right cruise line makes all the difference.

If you’re wanting to cruise to Asia or Europe, Royal Caribbean is your best option and has more sailings available.  If you want to cruise to the Mexican Riviera or Australia, Carnival has more cruises to choose from.

Both cruise lines offer many sailings to popular destinations like the Bahamas and the Caribbean.

Once again, I looked at every cruise offered for the next two years and made a table so you can see how often each cruise line visits these destinations.

Each number represents how many cruises that cruise line has made available to that region of the world from 2023 to April of 2025.

Carnival Royal Caribbean
Alaska 124 191
Asia 4 106
Australia 231 92
Caribbean 1723 1351
Central America 367 332
Europe 23 371
Hawaii 13 13
Mexico 1301 849
Baja Mexico 352 169
Middle East 44
Panama Canal 11 7
Tahiti / South Pacific 88 48
Transatlantic 5 23

 

 

7. Activities and amenities on board

Carousel on Harmony of the seas, theater, and pool deck with waterslides on Carnival Horizon

Both cruise lines can keep you busy on a sea day.  But each offers slightly different kinds of things to do on board.

Carnival ships typically have a mini-golf course, water park, basketball court, and jogging track.  The newer ships even have a first for cruise ships, an incredible roller-coaster at sea.   Vista-class ships have a SkyRide track (think flying bicycle) and a ropes course.   A couple ships even have an IMAX theater on board.

Royal Caribbean Oasis-class and Quantum-class ships offer more activities and amenities than I can even list there.   Add in the new features on Icon of the Seas and the list seems unending. Here are just a few things you can do on some Royal Caribbean ships: zip lining, surfing on FlowRider, rock-climbing walls, bungee trampoline, sky-diving simulator, bumper cars, ice-skating, laser tag and more.

Quantum-class ships also have a glass-enclosed capsule that will take you 300 feet above the sea and provide epic 360-degree views.

There’s definitely more tech and innovation when it comes to Royal Caribbean ships, while Carnival’s “fun ships” emphasize some of the events and activities that the cruise director will operate.

Also, Royal Caribbean ships have Broadway style shows like Hairspray, Mamma Mia, Grease, and Cats on their Oasis-class vessels.  The shows in the Aqua Theater and on the ice skating rink are some of the best you can witness at sea.

I was recently blown away by the Wizard of Oz show on Icon of the Seas, and the new AquaDome shows were a blast to watch.

Royal Caribbean should definitely be your pick if you want to see great shows.  Although Carnival’s comedy shows are very popular as well and there’s usually a family-friendly option.

Both cruise lines offer fun things to do on board.  It’s just a matter of what you and your group care about most.

 

8. Thermal suites

Thermal suites on Carnival and Royal Caribbean
Left: Thermal suite on Carnival Horizon. Right: Thermal suite on Icon of the Seas
Photo credit: Cruise Fever

This is a category I had to mention.  In my experience, thermal suites on Carnival ships are a bigger priority with the cruise line, and have better views than on Royal Caribbean ships.  On Oasis-class and even Icon-class ships with Royal there are no ocean views.

Even some of the older Carnival ships offer a free dry sauna near the locker rooms, and some of the thermal suites on Vista-class and newer ships have multiple thermal rooms.

I’ve been in the thermal suites for Oasis-class ships and while they do have heated loungers and thermal areas, it’s on the interior of the ship so you don’t have any views of the open ocean.

Thermal suite access has an extra surcharge for both cruise lines (unless you book a spa cabin), and this might not even be an area of interest for you.  It’s just something to keep in mind for those wanting to spend a lot of time in the spa.

 

9. Laundry Options

Royal Caribbean laundry pricing
Laundry prices on Icon of the Seas. Photo Credit: Cruise Fever

If you’re on a 7-day or longer cruise laundry will start to become an issue.  Carnival ships usually have a self-service laundry room on several decks.

These “launderettes” will have a few washers and dryers that cost about $3.50 per load.  There’s also an iron and ironing board.  I recommend not trying to use the iron right before dinner as it will hardly ever be available.  Iron during late or early hours if you can.

Royal Caribbean ships do not have self-service laundry, unless you count washing your shirt in the stateroom sink and hanging it over the shower clothes-line.  The line states that it does not offer self-service laundry due to safety concerns but it will wash and fold your laundry for a fee.

Both cruise lines offer valet laundry that can be paid by the item or by the bag.

If you need the cruise line to press an article of clothing for you both of these lines are about the same price.  It will cost $4 for a pair of pants or skirt and another $4 for a long sleeve shirt.

A two-piece suit will cost about $15 to have dry-cleaned and pressed, and a dress will cost about $9.

Carnival Luminosa, Carnival Venezia, and Carnival Firenze are the only Carnival vessels that don’t have irons or self-service laundry, while there are no Royal Caribbean ships that have irons available for passengers.

 

10. Private Islands

Royal Caribbean really turned heads when it turned it’s private island at CocoCay into an action-packed water park with some of the tallest water slides in North America.  The company spent more than $250 million on Perfect Day at CocoCay.

There are 13 water slides at Thrill Waterpark, and the island also hosts a helium balloon ride that takes you up to 450 feet into the air.  And the new adult-only Hideaway Beach is already a very popular area on the island.

It’s free to explore and enjoy several beaches and the large fresh water pool ,but the water park does come with a charge.  The amount Royal Caribbean charges can change depending on the season and ship in port.  It can range from $80 to $139 for full access to the water park.

Carnival is working on their own private island to compete with CocoCay.

Debuting in July 2025, Carnival Cruise Line’s private island, Celebration Key, will have its own dock which can also accommodate two cruise ships at once. The 65-acre island will feature 5 distinct zones catering to various preferences. Families will be able to enjoy a huge freshwater lagoon, waterslides, and beach activities, while adults can seek solace on pristine beaches and a dedicated private club.

Half Moon Cay, on the other hand, is a much more subdued private island, belonging to Carnival.  There are no water slides and zip lines, but you will find an incredibly beautiful beach, cabanas, and water sports equipment.

The island is very popular with Carnival passengers and has been voted best private island by many outlets for years.

Carnival Cruise Line is also developing a new “port destination,” Grand Bahama Port, on the south side of Grand Bahamas. The port will be able to accommodate two of Carnival’s largest ships at a time and will feature a nature reserve, an interior pool, beach access, and lots of food options.

While this won’t technically be an island, it will play the role of a private island in all other aspects, and passengers will be able to explore the rest of the area outside of the port if they would like as well.

Final Thoughts

Which cruise line do you prefer?  Or do you sail both depending on what works best with your schedule?

We all cruise for various reasons, and sometimes a cruise line just suits our needs a little better than another.

I’ve heard some say that Carnival is like Walmart and Royal Caribbean is like Target.  I wouldn’t necessarily say this is true or fair, especially since I’d rather be on a cruise ship with either line than any retail store.

If you’re cruising on a budget and like a more lively, care-free atmosphere on your cruise, choose Carnival. If you want a more upscale feel to your cruise with a combination of relaxation and adventure, choose Royal Caribbean.

Leave us a comment below to tell us which cruise line is better for you.

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J. Souza
J. Souza
Jon is the co-founder of Cruise Fever and has been on 50+ cruises since his first in 2009. As an editor, 15-year writer on the cruise industry, and avid cruise enthusiast he has sailed with at least 10 cruise lines and is always looking for a great cruise deal. Jon lives in North Carolina and can be reached at [email protected].
Opinion10 Biggest Differences Between Carnival and Royal Caribbean
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12 COMMENTS

    • That’s a great idea Ilene. Feel free to input your thoughts on the onboard booking experience for each as well. Would love to hear.

  1. we’ve sailed carnival, rccl, hal, celebrity and like them all for different reasons. we’ve found that service differs from cruise to cruise even on the same ship. we’ve also found that the better you treat your cabin steward the better your cruise experience will be. shake his hand, be glad to see him, ask about his country and family. treat him well and he will take great care of your needs.

  2. I’ve been on Carnival a dozen times since the 80’s. Back then you had the Ice Sculptures at the Midnight Buffet which was EVERY NIGHT!!

    FOOD AND SERVICE WERE OUTSTANDING BUT I THINK SINCE IT WAS MY FIRST CRUISE IT ALWAYS WILL BE MEMORABLE!!

    I went on Royal Caribbean once and it was a BEAUTIFUL SHIP, ESSENTIALLY A ” FLOATING CITY”!! SERVICE WAS FIRST CLASS IN THE DINING ROOM AND WITH MY CABIN STEWARDS!!

    Since these trips have all been paid for by family members I don’t always have a choice of which one but one thing I preferred on Carnival was I thought the breakfast buffet was much better on Carnival and the scrambled eggs on Royal Caribbean tastes like ” powdered eggs”!!

    Loved the Arboretum / Solarium on Royal Caribbean as it was TRANQUIL AND MORE RELAXING!!

    So in a NUTSHELL there are PROS AND CONS ON EACH LINE!!

  3. We prefer Royal Caribbean by far. I am a disabled and, there is huge differences between the two in this category. Carnival is extremely hard to maneuver in a wheelchair. You have to sometimes go across the ship, up an elevator, and back across to just avoid a tiny set of stairs. Also we had and issue with security at the ports. Carnival wanted to take my walking assist devices away to get back on board. Geez! Royal goes out of their way to do security and still assist the passenger. Another note the basic drink package is better on Royal. U just walk up to an automatic dispenser. No additional charge ls. Carnival is stand in line at a bar and still pay a tip.

  4. I was always loyal to Royal but services and food are on a declining scale. Started in 2004 when cruising was a great experience with midnight buffers on deck, icesculptures, great shows, 4 waiters per table ( what was a bit over the top to be honest), excellent food and Johnny Rockets for free. These days no more midnight buffets, no more icesculptures, cleaning your stateroom once per day, prices for the drinks and tips rices skyhigh, fewer shows on board the smaller ships ( and no more Broadway style). And the shore excursions in Spanish or Italian language is always a lot cheaper then the one in English. (Up to 40 dollar p.p. No matter which port) . Not as loyal anymore. I book a cruise because of a few things. Inituary is the most important and Royal Switch these days a lot of ports before the cruise to less wanted once. No payment back. ( Europe conditions) For our next cruise the switch Malaga Spain for Palma de Mallorca ( been there so many times they think i’m a resident 😉) and Gibraltar wich i would love to see for Valencia wich we didn’t like at all. ( All because of refuelling) B S reason imho. It is just cheaper for them and the could knew these before the put the cruise online. Not happy with that one. So the next cruise will be with MSC Virtuoza.

  5. I have sale both I give Royal Caribbean in the edge stated above their loyalty program a little bit better in their entertainment. There are things in carnival that I like to.

  6. I have been on both cruise lines. We found the bathroom facilitiesn on Carnival ships to be better than Royal Caribbean . Also, we found Carnival’s food consistency to be much better than Royal Caribbean. Royal Caribbean wins the entertainment.

  7. An important thing to mention is the rewards program offered by each cruise line. While I enjoy both Carnival and RCCL, Royal has the best rewards program at sea. Offering free drinks and WIFI at higher levels to frequent cruisers. These perks can make a significant difference to overall pricing if you become a frequent cruiser.

    • Great point, Jim. I should have mentioned that as well but may do a future post on Royal’s rewards program. Appreciate you bringing that up.

  8. At the end of it all both lines are the same in what’s being sold, almost exact when talking about older ships. Both give good value for the money.
    The big difference I’ve noted between these lines and others i. e. Norwegian is the staff and service. Here you are comparing Walmart to Dillards.
    When you want pampering and great service, pay the extra and leave the amusement park cruise lines for the kids and college students.

  9. What’s your reason for liking your favorite cruise line? Or are you like me and just like all kinds of cruise lines for different reasons.

Comments are closed.

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