Which cruise line to choose? It’s often a dilemma for first time cruisers. Even seasoned cruisers loyal to a particular line often wonder what it might be like if they were to jump ship and try out the competition.
Carnival Cruise Line, Norwegian Cruise Line, and Royal Caribbean all target a similar passenger demographic: singles, couples, and families in their 20s-50s.
While all cruise lines offer a similar product, there are some general differences between lines, which might make one more appealing than another.
Here are 10 main areas of interest and how these cruise lines compare.
If there’s anything consistent about cruise fares is that they are inconsistent. An incredible amount of variability exists when it comes to cruise pricing. It may vary depending on itinerary, season, age of the cruise ship, cabin category, etc. Therefore, it can be a challenge when trying to compare apples to apples.
For cost comparison purposes, I looked at double-occupancy 7-night high-season balcony sailings in Alaska and 7-night low-season Caribbean inside cabins. All fares were obtained directly from the cruise line websites.
To see prices on all three cruise lines across multiple travel websites, you can instantly find prices by clicking on the following links:
It may be surprising to some that although Carnival is frequently touted as a budget line, its sailings were not always the cheapest from cruises that I looked at.
Based on this small sample size, Royal Caribbean tends to be the most expensive cruise line. The exception being for the Northbound Alaska route where it is inexplicably both the most and least expensive, even when ships are similar in age and identical in class.
It should also be noted that on the Norwegian sailings, you can pay a higher fare and receive the Free at Sea selections as an additional benefit. Passengers may choose from a beverage package, shore excursion credits, specialty dining, or onboard WiFi. The Free at Sea is not included in OX, BX, or MX categories (the cheapest cruise fares).
Though not included for this comparison, there are often reduced rates for the 3rd and 4th passenger in a cabin. Carnival tends to steeply discount additional passengers, while Royal Caribbean will sometimes offer Kids Sail Free promotions.
2. Cruise Ships
Just as there is wide variety in cost, ships within each lines fleet can have dramatic differences.
Carnival currently has a fleet of 27 cruise ships. More than half of the fleet would be considered smaller ships by today’s standards, with capacities of less than 3,000 passengers. Carnival has a cruising long history and continues to sail 8 cruise ships that originally made their debut in the 1990s.
Norwegian’s fleet is comprised of just 17 ships and is the youngest line in this comparison. Norwegian has embraced the mega-ship concept with 6 of its ships close to or exceeding, 4000 passengers.
Royal Caribbean sails 26 ships across eight different classes. Though its fleet is similar in size to Carnival, its passenger capacity is much greater. Megaships are synonymous with Royal Caribbean. Ten ships have capacities ranging between 3,782 to a whopping 5,518 passengers. Royal Caribbean has also been the most innovative line of the bunch, building ships that feel much more like Las Vegas hotels than cruise ships.
Whether seeking a basic bargain of a cabin or desiring all the trappings of luxury, each of these lines offers something a bit different.
Carnival offers some of the largest staterooms in the industry. Regular cabins are comfortable and have great storage even when sailing with four, but most Carnival cabins lack much of anything that makes them special.
In recent years, Carnival has made an effort to differentiate some staterooms. Ships with Cloud 9 Spa cabins include some upgraded amenities and a few spa perks.
The newest ships, Vista, Horizon, and Panorama, have Family Harbor and Havana staterooms, each with private areas reserved exclusively for passengers sailing in those category cabins. Read: Unique Staterooms Only Found on Carnival
Norwegian has a couple of unique stateroom categories that make it stand out from the rest of the pack. Anyone who has ever been interested in solo cruising quickly learned that they will pay double for the privilege. Seven of Norwegian’s ships cater to solo travelers with Studio rooms and a special lounge where Studio guests can meet and mingle.
At the other end of the spectrum is The Haven. Passengers sailing in Haven staterooms will experience all the luxury Norwegian offers. Between well-appointed rooms, a private restaurant and lounge, concierge, butler, and Haven Courtyard, these guests will experience true cruise ship pampering.
Standard Norwegian rooms are cozy with some nice decorative touches. Balconies on the newer ships can be on the small side, though still large enough for two to sit and enjoy. The trade-off may be the large bathroom–large by cruise ship standards anyway. The large size and layout of Norwegian Breakaway Class bathrooms are my favorite of any cruise line.
Royal Caribbean has almost a dizzying variety of unique staterooms available. There are inside rooms with virtual balconies depicting exactly what it looks like outside of the ship at that moment. Other inside staterooms or balconies overlook the inside of the ship, providing views of the Royal Promenade, Central Park, and the Boardwalk.
If money is no object, families may choose to splurge on Royals Caribbean’s Ultimate Family Suites. This two-deck, fully tricked out suite is more than 1,300 sq ft of fun and games, complete with slide, because taking the stairs isn’t fun for kids or kids at heart.
There are those who still enjoy classic cruise entertainment after dinner and others who wouldn’t be caught dead at a production show. While the classics still exist, cruise lines have really stepped up to offer new and different entertainment options in an effort to both evolve and distinguish themselves.
Carnival’s main theater Playlist Productions is still mostly traditional cruise ship singing and dancing without much a story or plot to follow. More fun are the shows where the passengers take part in.
Hasbro, The Game Show is a family-friendly game show where passengers play life-size games to compete for prizes. And Lip Sync Battle: Carnival is the ship version of the hit television show where uninhibited passengers can strut their stuff on stage and live out their rock star dreams.
Where Carnival really shines is the Punchliner Comedy Club. Every comedy show throughout the cruise will be completely different with both family-friendly and adult shows scheduled.
Norwegian has a nice mix of production shows, consisting of traditional singing and dancing, as well as Broadway musicals with a true storyline to follow. More impressive are the dinner shows such as Cirque Dreams. For an additional fee, passengers are served a set menu while being mesmerized with acrobatics and other circus-like acts.
Elsewhere onboard, passenger participation shows like Deal or No Deal can be found, along with dueling pianos and comedy.
While the quality of the comedy shows has been quite good, each show is not unique. In addition, we’ve been disappointed to find that the seating for most comedy shows and dueling piano performances consists of hard, wooden, straight-back chairs. They are not very comfortable.
Royal Caribbean is again the most innovative when it comes to onboard entertainment. Main theater production shows on Oasis, Quantum, Freedom class ships are true Broadway musicals with elaborate sets.
Ships with an ice rink will hold remarkably well-done ice skating shows, given how small the rink actually is. But most spectacular are the shows held in the AquaTheater. Aerialists, divers, and synchronized swimming come together in stunning, edge-of-your-seat performances.
The rise of the mega-ships has resulted in some negative consequences for entertainment. Ships with 4,000-6,000 passengers just cannot devote enough space to accommodate the audiences these shows attract.
The solution has been to implement a reservation system. It’s a good way to ensure you will get to see a show that interests, but it results in a more scheduled, less-spontaneous vacation. It also means a lot of waiting. To keep reservations, passengers must arrive 15 minutes prior to the start of the show. For those without reservations, is the standby line. After waiting standby, you may or may not get in. Although usually you won’t have a problem.
For the most part, Norwegian and Royal Caribbean have done a great job of breaking up the crowds so that it never feels overly crowded on their mega-ships. Entertainment is the one area where I feel they have fallen short.
5. Shipboard Activities
What’s there to do onboard? Anyone who thinks it’s all shuffleboard, bingo, and salsa lessons hasn’t heard about today’s cruise ships.
Carnival calls its ships Fun Ships and they really do live up to the name. Whether out of the pool deck or somewhere below, there are always fun and lively activities going on. However, if dance contests and mixology competitions aren’t your thing, the adult only Serenity area is perfect for relaxing.
Slower to innovate its ships with new deck activities, Carnival is now rising to meet the competition. Six cruise ships now have an exhilarating sky-high ropes course towering over the Sports Square.
Unique to Vista Class ships is the Sky ride, a peddle-powered vehicle riding high above the deck. Carnival Panorama is the only ship in its class to have a SkyZone trampoline park. Finally, Mardi Gras will feature the first ever roller coaster at sea when the ship debuts in 2020.
Norwegian’s newer ships also began debuting with novel activities on deck to keep the fun going. There are thrilling drop slides, rock climbing walls, and ropes courses. Truly brave souls can walk The Plank, an extension of the ropes course extending 8 feet over the side of the ship. Even if you don’t have fear of heights, walking out over the side of a mega-ship will get your heart racing!
Laser tag is available on several ships, but Norwegian’s most original shipboard activity has been the installation of racetracks on the decks of Norwegian Bliss, Encore, and Joy.
Below decks, pub-style gaming can be had at O’Sheehan’s, including a small bowling lane.
Royal Caribbean continues to lead the way in shipboard activities as well. Famous for its Flowriders and multi-deck rock climbing walls, Royal Caribbean is even pushing the envelope with its shipboard waterslides. Riptide is the first headfirst waterslide at sea and The Blaster, an aqua coaster, are both onboard Navigator of the Seas.
Royal Caribbean has plenty of thrills that don’t involve getting wet. The Ultimate Abyss is the newest attraction on Symphony of the Seas, a slide twisting down for 10 decks of darkness. Thrill-seekers’ days at sea can be action-packed with zip line rides over the Boardwalk, ice skating, carousel rides, laser tag, bumper cars, escape rooms, sky diving simulators, bungee trampolines, and even a trapeze school.
6. Complimentary Dining
There has been a tremendous increase in the number of restaurants onboard cruise ships. Though many of them do require an additional fee, every ship has plenty of complimentary dining options to choose from.
Carnival moved to a more casual dining room experience several years ago with the introduction of American Table. Gone are the starched white tablecloths in favor of warm wood tabletops and modern décor. The exception is on Cruise Elegant nights when tablecloths and a more formal dinner service returns.
Menus were revamped with American Table. Nightly menus feature a changing selection of starters, soups, salads, and 8-11 entrees, including a selection of dishes representing local ports of call. Both traditional set dining times and Your Time dining are available in the main dining room.
Elsewhere on board, Carnival ships have well laid out buffets with themed-stations to go between rather than single entrances backed up with long lines.
Highlights on the Lido deck are Guy’s Burger Joint, with a selection of burgers and toppings to choose from. The Blue Iguana Cantina is a popular spot for tacos and burritos. Blue Iguana is also open for breakfast and rarely crowded. It serves breakfast burritos, huevos rancheros, and arepas.
Pizza preferences are very personal, but in my opinion, Carnival has the best pizza at sea. The fresh, handmade crusts are super thin, coming out of the ovens hot and crispy. My personal favorite is the Quattro Formaggi. Pizza is available 24 hours a day and there is almost always a line for these excellent pizzas.
Newer ships have additional complimentary options such as Guy’s Pig and Anchor BBQ, and even a small buffet below deck in Ocean Plaza.
Norwegian’s introduction of its Freestyle cruising concept revolutionized cruise ship dining. With no set dining times, no formal nights, and multiple venues to choose from, it became widely popular and other lines quickly adopted some of its ideas.
On Norwegian, passengers dine where they want, when they want. Main dining room menus consist of a rotating selection of starters, an always available selection of 6 Classic Entrees, and changing selection of around 6 Featured Entrees.
Though Freestyle Cruising means there is no need to dress up for dinner, the white tablecloths and décor still give the experience an elegant feel. Some dining rooms may host a live band and dance floor, resulting in an enjoyable supper club vibe.
The Garden Café is a comprehensive buffet with traditional buffet selections for breakfast and lunch, as well as pizza, deli, and grilled items. On ships such as Bliss, Getaway, Escape, and Breakaway, it is the only pool deck dining location with complimentary food and can get quite crowded during prime breakfast and lunch hours.
Other complimentary options are popular Asian-themed restaurants such as Shanghai’s Noodle Bar, and a true pub-style venue, O’Sheehan’s. Open 24 hours, O’Sheehan’s is a great place to grab a quick bite. Though the menu is somewhat limited, the pub offerings are quite good and served quickly. This is a venue I would definitely like to see other cruise lines implement.
Royal Caribbean’s main dining rooms also have set dining and My Time dining options to choose from. As with Carnival, Royal Caribbean is keeping with the tradition of formal nights.
Main dining room menus on Royal Caribbean are the least exciting of the bunch. There are fewer selections in each category and several of them repeat over the course of a 7-day cruise. That being said, in my experience, the quality of the beef entrees has been better than on other lines.
The Windjammer buffet is extensive with multiple stations spread out, breaking up the crowds. We appreciated that on busy mornings, crewmembers would seat passengers at empty tables in an effort to get passengers in and out efficiently.
Other complimentary venues near the pools are the Wipeout Café offering burgers, hot dogs, and pizza, while healthier dishes served in the Solarium Bistro.
Below decks are favorites such as the Boardwalk’s Dog House, Sorrento’s Pizza, the Café Promenade, and the Park Café.
It’s a good idea to check the Cruise Compass for dining options. While some restaurants like Johnny Rockets charge a fee for lunch and dinner, it serves breakfast items free of charge and is likely less chaotic than the buffet.
7. Specialty Dining
Cruise lines are offering more specialty restaurants than ever before. If looking to celebrate a special occasion, or just indulge in an over-the-top experience, there are unique dining venues to choose from.
Carnival has been adding its list of specialty dining concepts with each new ship build. Once limited to a single steakhouse, depending on the ship, Carnival now has restaurants featuring a variety of cuisines. Onboard you may find Italian, Asian, Sushi, Seafood, Teppanyaki, a brewhouse, and a Chef’s Table experience.
Recently announced is Carnival’s partnership with Emeril Lagasse for a Creole-themed restaurant on Mardi Gras coming in 2020.
Norwegian ‘s specialty dining restaurants include popular cuisines such as French, Italian, and Asian, as well as concepts like teppanyaki and churrascaria, and even a raw bar. Specialty dining packages may be purchased pre-cruise or selected with a Free at Sea promotion, making it an economical to visit several of your top choices during a cruise.
Onboard Breakaway, Epic, Escape and others, theater lovers can also choose to enjoy a meal while enjoying a show. Wine Lovers the Musical is held during the day, with Cirque-style shows in the evening.
Royal Caribbean debuted Johnny Rocket’s on Voyager of the Seas in 1999 and has been adding new and exciting options ever since. Steak, seafood, Italian, Mexican can be found along with the interesting, imaginary, and very instagrammable venue, Wonderland.
Royal Caribbean now offers both 3 restaurant and Unlimited Dining Packages. Pricing depends on length of cruise and class of ship. Chef’s Table is excluded.
8. Drink Prices/Packages
How much are the drinks? Cruising and tropical drinks were made to go together! After indulging on vacation, many are nervous to see how big their bar bill is going to be.
Carnival has the most reasonably priced drinks and drink packages. Domestic beers are around $6.25 while imports are $5.95-$7.95. Wines by the glass range from $7.25-$12.75. Cocktails will vary from around $8.50 to $10.95. Gratuities are an additional 18%.
Carnival’s beverage package, known as Cheers, may be purchased before your cruise or while on board. Pre-purchase prices are $51.95/day, plus 18% gratuity. Total cost for a 7-day cruise is $429.11 per person. The cost when purchased onboard is $56.95/day.
Unlike other lines, Carnival’s beverage package is not unlimited. Only 15 alcoholic drinks are allowed each day. Soda, bottled water, specialty coffees, and energy drinks are included and will not count against the 15 drinks.
All adults in the same stateroom must purchase Cheers.
Norwegian’s drink prices are also fairly reasonable. Domestic beers are $6.75 and imported are $6.95. Wines by the glass are $7.95-$10.95. Cocktails vary from $8.95-$12.95. Gratuities are an additional 20%.
Norwegian’s Unlimited Beverage Package is a great deal if chosen as part of a Free at Sea promotion. You’ll still pay gratuities on the “free” package, but it’s a better deal than purchasing the package outright. The Unlimited Beverage Package is $99/day with a 20% gratuity, or $831.60 for a 7-day cruise. There is no limit to the number of alcoholic beverages, but it only covers drinks priced up to $15 and does not include specialty coffees or bottled water.
The newer Premium Beverage Package priced at $128/day includes higher-end liquors, specialty coffees, and bottled water.
All adult passengers in the same stateroom, adjoin stateroom, or on the same reservation must purchase the package.
Royal Caribbean’s drink prices are higher than the competition. Domestic beers are $7.99 and imports are $7.25. Wines by the glass vary from $8-$48. Cocktails are between $10.99-$15. Gratuities are an additional 18%.
Royal Caribbean’s beverage package is priced between $63 and $70/day depending on the sailing and ship class. As with Norwegian, there is no limit to the number of alcoholic drinks but does not include drinks priced higher than $12. A $12 credit is given to any beverage purchases over the limit. Soda, specialty coffees, and bottled waters are included with the package.
All adults sailing in the same stateroom must purchase the beverage package.
Royal Caribbean frequently offers sales on the pre-purchase of beverage packages. If interested in a beverage package, log in to your booking and keep an eye out for sales.
9. Private Islands
Many cruises schedule a port call at their private island. It’s a great way to enjoy a relaxing beach day without having to spend a lot of money.
Carnival has several private island-like ports of call. Half Moon Cay, located in the Bahamas, was originally purchased by Holland America. As the cruise lines fall under the same corporate umbrella, Carnival ships will use it as well. Half Moon Cay is fairly basic as far as private island amenities go, and the use of tenders is required, but the clear turquoise waters and powder white sand help make up for the lack of flashy features.
Mahogany Bay in Roatan, Honduras is another Carnival Corporate private beach retreat. Passengers can walk to Mahogany Bay’s beach or take a ride on the chair lift. Facilities are owned and operated local Honduran businesses, so while food and drink are available, they are not included.
In the Dominican Republic, is Amber Cove, Carnival’s newest and most developed private island cruise port. This stop has both beach access and a pool with swim-up bar, waterslides, and lazy river.
Norwegian’s private island, Harvest Caye, is located off the coast of Belize. The impressive 75-acre facility features a giant pool with swim-up bar, waterfalls, and tropical palm tree islands. The beach area, with its overwater zip line, is expansive with plenty of complimentary loungers in both sun and shade. Food and drink are available for purchase at the Landshark Bar and Grill.
Great Stirrup Cay in the Bahamas does not have a pier like Harvest Caye and requires tendering. Though also lacking in some of the amenities of Harvest Caye, there are complimentary dining venues at Great Stirrup Cay.
Royal Caribbean has 2 private islands. The original, Labadee is located in Haiti. Lunch buffets are complementary and served at several locations so food is nearby no matter which part of the island you find yourself in. Most activities, such as the aquapark, waterslide, and dragon Coaster are an additional fee to enjoy. See our article on things to do in Labadee here.
Royal Caribbean claims the perfect day will be had at its brand new private island, Coco Cay. The creativity implemented on Royal Caribbean ships appears to have also been applied to this private island. The overwater cabanas, a hot air balloon, towering water slides, and a wave pool have been extremely popular with cruisers.
Complimentary food will be available, however, the waterpark, zip line, and hot air balloon experience are an additional charge.
10. Embarkation Ports
Just getting to your cruise port of embarkation can be a significant expense. Cruise lines are making an effort to expand their footprint in order to make cruising as accessible as possible.
Carnival has done an excellent job at adding ships to a large number of cruise ports. Carnival ships embark from 17 different domestic ports.
- Fort Lauderdale
- Los Angeles
- New Orleans
- New York
- Port Canaveral
- San Diego
- San Francisco
- San Juan
Norwegian’s footprint is considerably smaller but still manages to maintain a presence in different regions of the United States.
- Los Angeles
- New Orleans
- New York
- Port Canaveral
- San Francisco
- San Juan
Royal Caribbean offers sailings from 15 domestic embarkation ports. While several cities in the West Coast are included in the list, these are all seasonal or repositioning sailings. Royal Caribbean has not had a permanent presence on the West Coast in a number of years.
- Cape Liberty, NJ
- Fort Lauderdale
- Los Angeles
- Port Canaveral
- San Diego
No one should feel like they have to book cruises on the latest and greatest ships. Megaships can be overwhelming, especially for those new to cruising. Even ships without all the best innovations onboard provide a fantastic vacation experience.
This is a guest post written by Melissa Lagerquist.