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.
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.
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.
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.