When it comes to the cruise industry, there are a number of cruise lines to sail, but three major ones stand out: Carnival, Royal Caribbean, and Norwegian. If you are planning to set sail, the odds are high you’ll be booking on one of these lines.
Of course, if you are about to set sail on one of these lines — or if you are just planning your next vacation — then you might be wondering exactly what the difference is between the lines. After all, at first glance they all seem like massive ships sailing to exotic ports of call with thousands of passengers.
The truth is, there are a lot of things that are similar between the cruise lines. For the most part taking a cruise on any of them will have a similar feel. But that’s not to say they are exactly the same. Each line has things unique to its service that can endear them to passengers.
Below, we cover some of the bigger differences between Norwegian Cruise Lines (NCL) and Royal Caribbean. This should give you a better idea of what you can expect on each cruise line.
Free At Sea Offer
Perhaps the biggest difference you’ll find with Norwegian and Royal Caribbean is NCL’s “Free at Sea” offer. In an industry that’s known for extra charges for extra perks, the popular sale offer is a breath of fresh air.
Put simply, Free at Sea is Norwegian’s ongoing sale where passengers get to pick among perks to have for free on their trip. The options include everything from free drinks on the ship to free specialty dining to free wi-fi and even free airfare. (The number of free perks depends on the type of room you book.) To be sure there are some terms and conditions, but overall the sale can give you up to six different items for free.
We have yet to see Royal Caribbean offer its passengers anything similar yet.
If you sail aboard Norwegian, then you’re going to hear about “Freestyle Cruising”. This catchy name is meant to shed the image of cruising as being on a set schedule of when you eat and what you do.
To be honest, in our experience it’s not that big of an issue. Yes you have no set dinner time, unlike other cruise lines like Royal Caribbean, which give you set dining times. But that is only for the main dining room. You can still eat anywhere else on the ship when you like. And if you show up late (or early) to your dining time they will still try to seat you if they have room.
If you want to dine in the specialty restaurants on Norwegian, you’ll still need to make a reservation. In other words, the importance of “Freestyle Cruising” seems to have diminished.
Status On the Ship
Check out the message boards for Royal Caribbean and you’re likely to hear a lot about Gold, Platinum and Diamond status. These are levels of the cruise line’s loyalty program, which indicate how many days you’ve sailed with the company. Anecdotally, we’ve found status to be flaunted much more on Royal Caribbean than on Norwegian.
This isn’t to say a lack of status is held against you; truth is no one really cares if it’s your first cruise or 100th cruise. We’ve just noticed that there are a lot more high-status badges being shown on Royal Caribbean ships (most often being on a lanyard).
On Norwegian cruises we saw very few people with high-status key cards and few people in general wearing lanyards that show off the status of their card.
It seems like a no-brainer that if you are at sea then dining out in the fresh air will come with the territory. Truth is that the wind when the ship is underway can be a major issue. A five MPH breeze into the face of the ship can turn into 25 MPH when the ship is underway. That means everything on your table will be blown off.
In other words, a cruise line has to think a lot about how to set up outdoor dining so that it’s a comfortable and relaxing experience — not a mess that leaves you annoyed.
Norwegian seems to focus more on outdoor dining, with several spots on its ships where you can sit in the outdoors and eat without having to worry about the wind ruining your dinner. We have yet to see as much emphasis (although there is some outdoor dining) on other cruise lines.
The Ships Themselves
When it comes to the largest ships with the most features, there’s little argument that Royal Caribbean is the gold standard. Its Oasis-class ships are the largest cruise liners in the world, measuring more than 1,000 feet and 225,000 tons. The ships are also well-known for having unique things to do, including ice skating, FlowRider standing waves, huge multi-story slides, and tons more. If you want a ship with the most to do at sea, then Royal Caribbean is likely your choice.
Norwegian is making huge strides in this area, however, as a whole the fleet isn’t quite there yet. Its Breakaway-Plus class of ships are the cruise line’s largest. These ships measure about 165,000 tons. On board you will find a number of unique things to do, including go-karts(!), laser tag, and even waterslides that will take you out over the edge of the ship.
To be fair, we think these ships are comparable with Royal Caribbean, it’s just that on average Royal Caribbean offers larger ships with more things to do.
Are you a gambler? Many people on cruise ships like to spend some time in the casino, testing their luck to try and come home a winner. Both cruise lines offer full casinos on their ships, complete with slots, blackjack, craps, other table games, and a number of casino games you won’t find on land like “coin-pusher” games.
We’ve noticed that Norwegian, however, has higher minimums to play. Table games carry a $10 minimum. On Royal Caribbean, this has always been a $5 minimum in our experience.
That may not sound like much of a difference, but if you’re a lower-level gambler (most people on cruise ships are), then your bankroll will only give you half as much play.
Lower-level games like penny slots are still available on Norwegian and Royal Caribbean.
These days every large cruise line offers a private island. Norwegian offers two — Harvest Caye near Belize and Great Stirrup Cay in the Bahamas. Royal Caribbean offers CocoCay in the Bahamas.
We love going to these private islands. They have beautiful beaches and are custom-made for the cruise passengers. If you just want to hang out by the pool or work on your tan, then you can — without worry about transportation or paying fees like in other ports.
So what’s the difference? Royal Caribbean is transforming CocoCay into more than just a simple island where you sit and relax on the beach. The new features, set to debut in 2019 include a waterpark with 13 waterslides, a wave pool, 1,600 feet of ziplines, over-the-water bungalows, and the largest freshwater pool in the Caribbean. Similar to Royal Caribbean’s ships, the company is planning to “go big” with its private island.
In comparison, Norwegian’s island are a bit more laid back. They still offer plenty to do and enjoy, but without the massive scale you’ll find at CocoCay.
Cruise ships rotate home ports regularly. It keeps people in the region interested in cruising, with new ships to try out. In general you can expect a ship to stay in a port for about a year or two, depending on the port and if the ship is needed anywhere else.
We’ve found that Norwegian can rotate ships much more often. For example, we recently looked at the schedule for the next year for the Norwegian Bliss. In the coming 12 months the ship will sail from five different ports. The Norwegian Breakaway sails from three different ports in the coming year.
In comparison, Oasis of the Seas — one of Royal Caribbean’s largest ships — only sails from Fort Lauderdale and Miami in the next year.
Have more questions about sailing on Royal Caribbean or Norwegian? Let us know in the comments below.