Take a cruise and the chances are high that you’ll be traveling on one of three lines: Carnival, Norwegian, or Royal Caribbean. After all, these three cruise lines make up the bulk of cruises from North America.
If you’re searching for your next (or first!) cruise, then it can be overwhelming trying to figure out all the differences between these lines. At first glance they can seem very similar.
In fact, we think that most passengers will find their experience largely the same on each cruise line. That’s not to say they are exactly the same, but the mass-market lines like Norwegian and Carnival do share a lot in common.
That said, you will notice some differences between each of the cruise lines. Below, we’ve covered a number of differences between Carnival and Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL). In addition, we’ve previously covered differences between Royal Caribbean and Carnival.
Remember, in general your experience is going to be similar on these cruise lines, but here’s where there are some differences you’ll notice:
Ports of Departure
As the largest cruise line Carnival has a big advantage when it comes to departure ports. In fact, the cruise lines sails from more ports than any other. That means ports like Jacksonville, Baltimore, Galveston, and more have a Carnival cruise ship departing from there. Norwegian sails from tons of ports too, but not near as many as Carnival.
Why is this so important? With more ports of departure served, it means millions more people can take a cruise without having to fly to get to the ship. Not only does this save time, but it also can save a ton of money. Consider that passengers flying to a cruise should arrive in port the night before their ship departs just to be safe in case there are any flight delays. That means in addition to airline tickets, they also need to buy a hotel room and meals — plus take more time off of work.
With Carnival being a short drive of many more people, it helps to appeal to millions more cruise passengers looking for a quicker (and cheaper) getaway.
Free At Sea Sale
If you’re looking into a cruise on Norwegian, then it’s likely you’ve run across the cruise line’s “Free at Sea” sale. It’s pretty enticing. Depending on the type of room you book, you can select up to six free offers that cover everything from free drinks to free wi-fi to free specialty dining to free airfare.
The sale has a lot to offer cruise passengers. For those sick of being nickeled and dimed on a cruise ship, it offers a way to essentially make your cruise all-inclusive again.
While we’ve seen other cruise lines test the waters with “free perk” deals like Norwegian, as this point Carnival hasn’t offered such a sale. If you want nearly everything included on your cruise, then this deal might tip the favor to NCL.
Cost of Cruising
If we could point to one major reason that Carnival is the largest cruise line in America, then it would have to be the price of taking a cruise. No cruise line has offered such low fares, allowing anyone to take a cruise for vacation.
For example, a quick search found a Carnival cruise departing Miami for seven days to the Eastern Caribbean in September. The price for an interior cabin (the lowest available) is $414 per person. A similar cruise on Norwegian to the Eastern Caribbean was $529 per — $115 more. Multiply that times two passengers in a cabin and you can save $230 right off the bat.
We’re not saying Norwegian is expensive; in fact, it’s highly affordable. We’ve just noticed that Carnival tends to offer the lowest prices around.
Guy’s Burger Joint
Norwegian and Carnival both have a number of free food options from the BlueIguana Cantina on Carnival to O’Sheehans Bar & Grill on Norwegian. But perhaps no place is as popular in the hearts (and stomachs) of its passengers than Guy’s Burger Joint on Carnival.
The fast-service burger is tasty and served fresh. You also don’t have to spend more than a few minutes in line, even if there is a crowd waiting for their burger. Best of all, it’s free. You’ll find Guy’s across the Carnival fleet, and it’s located right by the pool. They serve lunch, although you can also get an early dinner if you like before they close at 6 p.m.
Want to try your luck in the casino? A cruise ship without a casino is like sitting poolside without a drink in your hand — it just doesn’t happen.
For the most part, cruise ship casinos are friendly for new and low-level players. Classes are held regularly for you to learn a new game, as are tournaments. Also, low limits are the rule, not the exception. For example, sail on Carnival and you’ll always find $5 tables (or $6 for blackjack).
We’ve noticed, however, that the minimum on Norwegian were $10 tables for things like blackjack and craps. That means your bankroll only stretches half as far. There are still penny slots in abundance for lower level players, but if plan to play the tables, be sure to budget a little more on Norwegian.
Faster to the Fun
There’s a little secret about cruise ships… there can be a lot of waiting in lines. There can be lines to board, lines to get off the ship, lines to talk to Guest Services about your bill, lines to get into the dining room.
For the most part you can avoid these lines by arriving earlier or later than most other people. So if the time to get off the ship is 9 a.m., hang out and wait to get off the ship until 10. That way there is time for the lines to die down.
However, you can also use Carnival’s Faster to the Fun program. This service charges you an extra fee (prices differ depending on the length of trip) and in return you get priority access to all sorts of things, including getting on and off the ship and your own dedicated line to talk with Guest Services.
Only a handful of Faster to the Fun passes are sold each cruise so as not to “water down” the advantages.
To keep things fresh, cruise lines regularly rotate ships around their ports. So a ship sailing from Miami one year might sail from New Orleans the next year and then Los Angeles the next. In our experience, Norwegian rotates its ships much more often.
For instance, Carnival Horizon — Carnival’s newest ship — sails only from Miami during the course of the coming year. Norwegian’s Bliss cruise ship has sailings from five different ports over the next 12 months.
If you sail regularly from the same port, then you might like that you could see a lot of different ship options from Norwegian in a relatively short period of time.
Norwegian’s The Haven
Most cruise lines have perks for suite guests like priority boarding or restaurant reservations. Norwegian takes this one step further with The Haven. This exclusive area is like a resort within a resort.
In addition to your room, you’ll get personalized service including your own butler and concierge. There is even a lounge exclusive to The Haven guests, a private restaurant, and a private courtyard and sundeck. There are even special mattresses, towels, and bathrobes for people bookings these rooms.
Basically if you love cruising but want to elevate the level of service and have more exclusive spaces that aren’t shared with everyone else, then Norwegian’s The Haven is unique and could be just the thing.
Have more questions about sailing on Carnival or Norwegian? Let us know in the comments below.
You can also see the differences between Royal Caribbean and Carnival here.