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. And 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.
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 offer 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:
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 Vista is a full 120 feet shorter and carries under 4,000 passengers. When it comes to size, Royal Caribbean ships definitely have an edge.
Want to do something fun on the ship? Good news — each company offers round-the-clock entertainment. However, Royal Caribbean definitely seems more innovative with the things to do on the ship. Newer ships include the world’s tallest waterslide at sea, bumper cars, ice skating, a surf simulator, and even an observation pod that can take you up and out over the water.
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.
Ports of Departure
Are you near a major cruise port like Miami or Galveston? The good news is that you have your choice of either cruise line. If you are close to a smaller cruise port like Mobile, Charleston, or New Orleans, then you’ll be glad to know you still can sail aboard Carnival.
Carnival offers up trips from many 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 Carnival takes the cake. In fact, you may not realize that Carnival actually has 10 cruise lines that operate around the world and 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. Hands down Carnival is the larger of the cruise line with more ships, more ports, and more cruises.
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. 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.
In fitting with the ship’s atmosphere, the ship decor is also much different between Carnival and Royal Caribbean. Carnival’s decor around the ship is often brighter and bolder — more colors, more neon, 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 color and rich wood around the ship. If Carnival’s style is akin to Miami, then Royal Caribbean is more like a luxury New York hotel.
Are you a get there early sort of person? If so, then you’d probably enjoy Royal Caribbean’s check-in process. While the cruise line is likely moving toward staggered check-in, as of now you simply show up at port any time during the boarding window and wait your turn to get on the ship.
Carnival has moved to staggered check-in. Here, passengers get a 30-minute time to board. Show up before your time and you’ll be turned away. It actually makes boarding much smoother. Instead of lots of people arriving right when the ship opens, boarding is a steady stream of people. That means there aren’t long lines right at the start of boarding.
Faster to the Fun
Some see it was well worth the money, while others see it as a way to nickel and dime passengers. Either way, Carnival’s Faster to the Fun is something that Royal Caribbean doesn’t have. Faster to the Fun runs between $50-$80 per trip and helps you avoid lines. Pay the fee and you’ll get priority boarding, dining, and your own line at Guest Services. You’ll also be first in line for departing the ship on port day.
Shorter vs. Longer Cruises
How long do you want to cruise for? If you’re looking for a short cruise (5 days or fewer), then Carnival is likely to fit the bill. With more ships than Royal Caribbean, Carnival offers more options across the board — including short getaways. Royal Caribbean does offer shorter cruises on its older ships, however, it larger and newer ships almost exclusively sail week-long trips.
That said, Royal Caribbean is making a move toward shorter trips with some of its newer ships. Recently the Navigator of the Seas was refitted with a $115 million upgrade and will sail from Miami on short round trips.
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 or non-alcoholic beverages. Milk and water for infants or medical use are also allowed.
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.
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.