12 Major Differences Between Royal Caribbean and Carnival Cruise Line

While there are a lot of cruise lines out there, when it comes to the United States, two main players come to mind: Carnival and Royal Caribbean.

That’s for good reason. The two cruise lines are by far the most popular in the country, with millions of cruise passengers sailing on their ships each year.

Carnival Vista leaving Port of Miami

If you’ve never taken a cruise… or you’ve only sailed with one cruise line or the other… then you’d be forgiven for thinking that both Carnival and Royal Caribbean are exactly the same.

In fact, while both lines do have a lot of similarities, there are also some major differences.

Anyone that is loyal to either Carnival or Royal Caribbean would tell you as much. To be sure, you’re bound to have fun on either company’s ships, however, if you want the real dirt on how they differ, we’ve laid out some of the major differences below.

Cost of Royal Caribbean vs. Carnival

Want to sail cheap? Both Royal Caribbean and Carnival offer affordable vacations. If you want to sail the cheapest cruise line, however, then you’re better off with Carnival. We recently analyzed more than 2,500 cruises from across both cruise lines. The result? Carnival was on average cheaper, no matter how long of a cruise you took.

According to our study, the average price of all Carnival cruises was just $458 for the base fare across all cruises. Royal Caribbean was about $200 higher, coming in at $666.

Furthermore, Carnival was also cheaper on a “per day” basis than its rival:

Price of Carnival cruise per night compared to Royal Caribbean

Now keep in mind that this doesn’t mean your cruise will automatically be less expensive on Carnival or more expensive on Royal Caribbean.  What you pay for a cruise depends on a lot of factors, including when you sail, the specific ship you choose, and the route you take. But in general, you can figure that a Carnival cruise will run less than a similar one on Royal Caribbean.

Bottom line: When it comes to cost, Carnival is usually cheaper to sail than a similar trip on Royal Caribbean.

Size of Ships

While both cruise lines have ships ranging from older, smaller vessels to brand new mega-ships, Royal Caribbean and Carnival’s vessels definitely differ. Royal Caribbean is well known for having the largest cruise ships in the world. And while Carnival’s ships can be of comparable length, the size of Royal Caribbean’s biggest ships is noticeable.

Consider that Royal Caribbean’s Symphony of the Seas is nearly 1,200 feet and carries more than 5,500 guests. Carnival Horizon is a full 120 feet shorter and carries about 4,000 passengers. When it comes to size, Royal Caribbean ships definitely have an edge.

Of course, with larger ships you can pack a lot more onto the vessel. While both cruise lines take advantage of all the space on their ship, you’ll see below that there are major differences in activities and entertainment between the two cruise lines due partly to the ship size.

Bottom line: If you want to travel on the biggest cruise ships, then Royal Caribbean is the clear winner. It sails the largest ships in the world.

Activities & Entertainment

You might not realize it, but the vast majority of your time on a cruise is actually spent on the ship. Even on days in port, the ship is normally docked for only about 8 hours. That means the activities and entertainment on the ship are important to the fun you’ll have on the ship.

Good news — both cruise lines offers round-the-clock entertainment. In fact, we find that the entertainment like evening shows, comedians, onboard contests, evening game shows, casino gaming and more are very similar between the two lines.

But when it comes to activities on board, we think Royal Caribbean and Carnival are very different.

Royal Caribbean definitely seems more innovative with the things to do on the ship. Newer ships include the world’s tallest slide at sea, bumper cars, ice skating, a surf simulator, and even an observation pod that can take you up and out over the water on some ships.

Carnival offers plenty of fun things to do as well, but it’s typically more of the classic things to do on a cruise ship, like mini-golf, movies, pools, and jogging tracks.

That said, Carnival is moving in the direction of Royal Caribbean. For instance, the new Carnival Mardi Gras will have the first-ever roller coaster at sea and the cruise line is the only one to have an IMAX on its ships.

Bottom line: While the entertainment on board may be similar, the activities on Royal Caribbean are more innovative in our opinion.

Ports of Departure

One of the biggest benefits to the growth of the cruise industry? As cruise lines grow their fleet, they are able to add more cruises — including from smaller ports.

Are you near a major cruise port like Miami or Galveston? The good news is that you have your choice of either cruise line. You’ll find both lines in any port with heavy cruise traffic.

If you are close to a smaller cruise port like Mobile, Jacksonville, or Charleston, then you’ll be glad to know you still can sail aboard Carnival. Royal Caribbean is catching up in this regard, sailing from spots like Baltimore and New Orleans.

What’s so nice about sailing from smaller ports is that it means more people can cruise without the added expense of flying. The added cost of plane tickets on top of a cruise can be burdensome for some people who would otherwise set sail.

Bottom line: Carnival offers up trips from more departure points than Royal Caribbean. Yes, trips from smaller ports are usually aboard smaller and older ships. But we think any cruise is better than no cruise.

Size of Cruise Line

Broadside view of Carnival ship in port

Make no doubt, both Carnival and Royal Caribbean are major companies, but when it comes to overall size, Carnival takes the cake. In fact, you may not realize that Carnival actually owns 10 cruise lines that operate around the world and has more than 100 ships in operation. In fact, in terms of revenue Carnival is about twice the size of its competitor, bringing in more than $16 billion annually.

What does that mean for cruise passengers? While either line can get you to the beach, Carnival with its larger scale offers more ships, ports of departure, cruise lines, and sailings.

Bottom line: Hands down Carnival is the larger of the cruise line with more ships, more ports, and more cruises. That offers more flexibility in choice of sailings.

Atmosphere on Board

While it’s hard to explain, Carnival and Royal Caribbean just have a different “feel” to most passengers. It’s purely anecdotal, but you’ll hear many say that Carnival has more of a laid-back party atmosphere. Want to have a pina colada and dance in conga line around the pool? Let’s just say, there’s good reason that Carnival is known as the “Fun Ships.”

To us, Royal Caribbean has more of a elegant, luxury feel. That’s not to say it’s stuffy (far from it), however, it feels more subdued than Carnival. Either way, you’ll have plenty of fun.

Bottom line: Both ships have a fun atmosphere and are similar, but the vibe on Carnival is a bit more “outgoing” than what we’ve found on Royal Caribbean.

Ship Decor

Theater on Royal Caribbean
The Savoy Theater on Royal Caribbean.

In fitting with the ship’s atmosphere, the ship decor is also different between Carnival and Royal Caribbean.

To us, Carnival’s decor around the ship is often brighter and bolder — more colors and more festive. Royal Caribbean, on the other hand, seems to focus more on elegance and style. Sure there is still plenty of bright chrome and colored lights, however, there are much more subdued colors and rich wood around the ship.

If Carnival’s style is akin to Miami, then Royal Caribbean feels more like a luxury New York hotel. One thing we have noticed is that newer Carnival ships and Royal Caribbean ships are more similar. You’ll often find bigger differences between older ships.

Bar on Carnival Valor
The colorful bar area on Carnival Valor.

Bottom line: While newer ships are more similar in decor between the lines, older ships can be pretty different with Carnival having more festive decor and Royal Caribbean being more luxurious in style.

Costs on Board

In general, about 25-30% of a cruise line’s revenue comes from what passengers spend once they are on the ship. That means even once you buy your cruise, then you can plan on spending more on your vacation.

The money you’ll spend includes everything from specialty restaurants to gambling to souvenirs to drinks, and more.

The good news is that this spending is optional. If you don’t want to spend anything on the ship, you don’t have to.

There’s is also a difference between Royal Caribbean and Carnival when it comes to how much you’ll spend. We’ve run the numbers based on financial reports, and the average passenger spends about $52 per day on Carnival. On Royal Caribbean that figure is $64 — or about 23% more.

While $12 per person, per day may not sound like much, a couple taking a week-long cruise would end up spending about $170 more on Royal Caribbean compared to Carnival.

Bottom line: Passengers on Royal Caribbean spend about 23% more than those on Carnival according to our analysis.

Extra Perks: Faster to the Fun vs. The Key

If you’re willing to spend the extra money, both cruise lines offer some perk programs that can make your cruise more special.

For Carnival, this program is called Faster to the Fun. The costs run between $40-$120, depending on the length of your cruise and the ship that you sail. That price is per cabin, not per person.

For Faster to the Fun, you get the following perks:

  • Early access to your stateroom
  • Priority luggage delivery
  • Dedicated guest services
  • Priority dinner reservations
  • Priority tender access to shore
  • Choice of debarkation time

Royal Caribbean also has a program that give some VIP perks. Known as “The Key,” the price you pay will vary as well (we’ve seen it priced at $32 per person, per day) depending on your cruise.

The perks of “The Key” include:

  • Priority boarding and check-in
  • Welcome lunch from Chops Grille
  • Private hours at the rock wall, FlowRider, and other attractions
  • Priority departure at ports
  • VIP seating at evening shows
  • VOOM  Internet for one device
  • Choice of departure time

As you can see, there’s a substantially higher cost to the Royal Caribbean package, but it does offer more perks — including Internet access.

Bottom line: Both cruise lines offer VIP perks, but Royal Caribbean’s costs more (and offers more). Carnival’s is less expensive, but doesn’t include perks like Internet.

Shorter vs. Longer Cruises

It used to be that if you wanted a shorter cruise, then Carnival would be the clear choice. With more ships than Royal Caribbean, Carnival offered more options across the board — including short getaways.

These days, however, Royal Caribbean has made a sharp move into shorter trips — especially with its completely redone private island, CocoCay. For instance, recently the Navigator of the Seas was refitted with a $115 million upgrade and sails from Miami on short round trips.

At this point, we’d say that the gap between the two lines has closed and whether you want to take a short getaway or a week-long cruise, either cruise line has a lot to offer.

Bottom line: While there used to be a difference between the number of shorter trips on each cruise line, today they both offer a wide range of lengths to accommodate any schedule.

Private Islands

CocoCay entrance
Photo courtesy of Royal Caribbean.

For years cruise lines have had private islands. In the Bahamas Carnival has Half Moon Cay and Royal Caribbean has CocoCay.

These islands had largely been the same, with both offering some restaurants and shops, but the big draw being white-sand beaches with beautiful water. These spots offer snorkeling, beach activities, kayaking, and other beach activities.

However, that’s changed with the recent renovation of CocoCay by Royal Caribbean. The cruise line spent $250 million to completely transform the place from a sleepy tropical island to a full-blow destination.

Today CocoCay features a full waterpark (with one of the tallest slides in the world), a massive freshwater pool, restaurants, and tons more. While we’re sure that Carnival will catch up in the future, for now Royal Caribbean is the clear winner in private islands.

Bottom line: Royal Caribbean’s CocoCay gives it the lead in private islands and marks a big difference with Carnival.

Bringing Drinks on the Ship

No ship allows you to bring on beer or hard liquor. However, different cruise lines do have different policies surrounding bringing on wine, champagne, and other drinks. In this area, Carnival is much more generous.

Carnival allows one bottle of wine or champagne per person to be brought on board. In addition, you can bring a 12-pack of non-alcoholic drinks (like juice or soda) in cans or cartons. Royal Caribbean allows you to bring two bottles of wine or champagne per stateroom. Since most cabins have two people, that’s similar to Carnival. However, you aren’t allow to bring on non-alcoholic drinks.

Update: Since this article was first published, Royal Caribbean now allows passengers to bring 12 cans, bottles, or cartons of non-alcoholic beverages. Milk and water for infants or medical use are also allowed.

Bottom line: With the change in rules for Royal Caribbean, the cruise lines now have similar policies regarding bringing drinks onto the ship.

Food

Guy's Burger Joint hamburger

What’s a cruise without food? As you might expect, it’s one area that the cruise lines differ a little bit. Overall, we’ve found the food quality to be similar between Carnival and Royal Caribbean. You won’t be going hungry and both offer tasty options. Where the difference lies is in your free versus paid choices.

In our opinion, Carnival has better “free” options. One of the most popular places on the ship is Guy’s Burger Joint — a tasty fresh-grilled burger with seasoned french fries. If you want to eat there, it’s free. As well, there is also BlueIguana Cantina, Pizzeria del Capitano and a few other places where you can grab a bite without any additional charge.

Royal Caribbean seems to focus more on specialty restaurants that charge extra for food. They offer a number of choices (usually sit-down restaurants with waitstaff), but they can be an additional $15-20 per person. Even Johnny Rockets — Royal Caribbean’s quick burger restaurant — is an extra charge.

Bottom line: While both lines won’t leave you hungry, in our opinion Carnival offers more tasty free options that are included in your fare.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is Carnival better than Royal Caribbean or vice versa?
Like most preferences, the decision of which cruise line is better is subjective. Many people are steadfast fans of one ship over another — and won’t hear anything otherwise. In our opinion both offer an experience that’s about 80% the same. It’s that other 20% that may sway you one way or another. Like big ships with lots to do? Royal Caribbean may be for you. Like more free dining options and a fun atmosphere? You’ll enjoy Carnival.

I have the choice between a Royal Caribbean cruise and a Carnival cruise. Which should I pick?
If you have two cruises — one from each cruise line — that you are choosing between, then it’s a good problem to have! To help you decide, we’d suggest taking into account a few items like the ship (we think newer is better), the cost, and the ports of call. The good news is that you’ll have fun on either line.

What about a different cruise line like Norwegian?
You might realize that Carnival and Royal Caribbean are not your only choices. There are a number of cruise lines out there. In terms of larger lines, Norwegian is one of the other options for many passengers. If you want to know more about it, you can read the differences between Carnival and Norwegian or the differences between Royal Caribbean and Norwegian.

Have more questions about sailing Royal Caribbean or Carnival? Let us know in the comments below.

11 COMMENTS

  1. Royal Caribbean allows you to bring non-alcoholic beverages as carry-on items on boarding day. Non-alcoholic beverages may not exceed 12 standard (17 oz.) cans, bottles or cartons per stateroom. Milk and distilled water brought on for infant, medical, or dietary use are permitted.

  2. Royal has free burgers hot dogs a fries as well in the huge free buffet called windjammer, also free pizza buffet and more. Symphony of the seas has both plus a mexican food buffet with burritos, tacos, quesadillas, nachos and cheese etc. They also have free ice cream machines. I feel your food comparison is wrong because they have a pretty good selection of free food as well as fancy dining (lobster, steak, fancy desserts etc) that is free every night with a reservation.

    • you seem to have been on Royal before how about drink package on Royal the one on Carnival isn’t that good as for as for alcohol.

  3. Organization the hospitality on Royal is priority, their staff makes sure you are comfortable and well taken care off. It’s a very warming welcome and their cocktails drinks consist with alcohol not juice and ice. Royal Carbbean take good care of their Ship when it come to cleaniness and top of it all well organize especially in the buffet when you dont know when the lines start. Payless dont expect more hospitality is key.

  4. Justin B – some of those items you mentioned are NOT free. The Windjammer cafeteria is free, and most of the smaller second restaurant (Solarium) is free, but they charge extra for the lobster and (I think) the lamb chops. The drinks here are expensive and they even charge for soda, which I find strange as it’s one of the cheapest things to produce I could go on and on but I will say for those on any type of budget to watch yourself closely with Royal Caribbean and check your bill (for their extra “surprises”) with RC Guest Services. They are absolutely horrible at upwelling and misc nickel and dime charges.

    Source—sailed on Ovation of the Seas

  5. Honestly, I think most Carnival ships are beautiful (especially the Dream, one of my favorites) However, the picture of the ship chosen was the Valor which is one of the strangest and, in my opinion, ugliest ships in the fleet. The design makes very little sense and the decor is strange and unattractive. I think that was not the best representation for Carnivals ships, just my opinion.

    • Valor is definitely… unique. That said, even on other Carnival ships that may be a bit more modern there’s still a different feel compared to Royal Caribbean.

  6. The quality and variety of food on Royal Caribbean seems to depend on the size of the ship, sometimes. It is only as good as the chef’s they have and the space they have. That being said, we’ve been on a ship with approximately 1200 passengers and the food was wonderful. We were recently on a ship of approximately 3200 passengers and the food varied greatly between the buffet, the main restaurant and the specialty restaurants.

    The layout of the ship was terrible and the buffet was very small for the number of passengers. The buffet variety tended towards junk food with very little healthy food and very little variety from day to day. The traditional dining menu did not seem typical of what we’ve had in the past. We have cruised since 2006, mainly on RCL, but have cruised on Holland America, Celebrity and Norwegian. We cruise at least once per year, but often twice per year. This year was extremely disappointing on a number of aspects.

    This post would go too long if I posted what happened with everything so I will just touch on some of them; distance from ship to boat into Venice was further than told, much too far for older people to walk without having to get someone to get them a wheelchair; suddenly notified of a fee to take the boat back & forth to Venice at the last minute.(on top of the walk back to the ship), even if you have an excursion, told if you have an excursion to Venice you would be picked up and returned to the ship, NO, picked up yes, returned, NO.

    Dropped of the full distance away where the other boats pick up and drop off which is the full walking distance,(again,too far for older people-which we are not-& I managed, but I was using a cane due to an injury). We arrived back at the ship 2 days in a row and asked them to send a wheel chair for 2 different people. The days weren’t over yet.

    The new “Key” wasn’t what the website described, not totally worth it, most staff doesn’t know what it is and what it covers. NO staff knew where the seating in the theater was. Some excursions were not as described AT ALL. We are typically pretty easy going travelers. We do a lot of our travel planning on our own. We don’t expect a lot. The gathering of passengers in the theater (or wherever) is a “royal” pain.

    No excursion left on time. One left 30 minutes late, none of it was because of late clearance, as we had already heard that the ship was cleared and people were cleared to go ashore. It is waiting on late passengers. When we first cruising we went directly to the buses and boarded ourselves. Once the bus was full and the departure time arrived, if everyone wasn’t there the guide would talk to the shore excursions, we would wait 10-15 minutes and go.

    People are always late because they know that the excursion will wait for them for such a long time. We don’t go on as many excursions because of this anymore. We can do our own thing, get a taxi and see more and not wait on anyone for the same cost or less. The late people don’t even rush anymore. The ship was tired and the washrooms were not kept up. Two “quiet adult only spaces” were directly below shuffle boards that use plastic pucks. Incredible noisy. It was a wonderfully peaceful place when no one played shuffle board. It could be again if they used the original pucks that are quiet. We typically do not complain but this trip was absolutely terrible.

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