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.
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:
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.