Carnival vs. MSC: 11 Major Differences Between the Two Cruise Lines

When it comes to value, anyone searching for cruises is likely to run across two lines that offer some of the least expensive trips: Carnival and MSC.

Carnival Cruise Line comparison to MSC
Carnival and MSC are both known for offering affordable cruises. If you’re debating between the two, what differences should you know?

And while Carnival is arguably the most well-known cruise line anywhere, MSC isn’t exactly a household name here in the United States. As a result, many people see the two lines offering some similar trips and wonder how they compare.

Having sailed both multiple times, we have insight into what you can expect onboard the cruise lines, including some of the major differences that you should know before you choose one over the other.

Cruise Fleet in the U.S.

If you live in the United States, you might be surprised to learn that MSC actually has a fleet that’s comparable in size to Carnival. Both lines offer more than 20 ships, with Carnival’s fleet being slightly larger overall than MSC.

The difference is that MSC isn’t near as focused on the North American market — although it continues to make a strong push. As a result, the number of ships you can sail from U.S. cruise ports on MSC is far fewer than Carnival.

For example, in 2025 we found seven ships from MSC sailing from U.S. ports. Carnival offers trips aboard 27 vessels according to its schedule.

Bottom line, if the ship you sail is important to you, then you’ll have a lot more options on Carnival than MSC.

Departure Ports

Carnival Jubilee docking in Galveston
MSC serves far fewer ports than Carnival. For instance, Carnival has sailed from Galveston for decades, which MSC will add to its lineup next year.

Similar to the number of ships sailing in the United States, there are major differences between MSC and Carnival when it comes to departure ports. Make no doubt, Carnival is a U.S.-focused line. MSC is much more global in nature.

In fact, MSC sails from only three U.S. ports — Miami, Port Canaveral, and New York. Galveston will be added in 2025. Carnival sails from countless ports, including the same ones as MSC plus spots like Seattle, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Tampa, Baltimore, and more.

If you don’t live in Florida and New York and want to be able to drive to a port instead of fly, then Carnival will be your best bet.

Types of Passengers Onboard

While both lines aim to appeal to families and vacationers hunting for value, there is a lot of difference in passenger base.

Specifically, while the difference seems to be narrowing in our opinion, Carnival’s passenger base seems much more American than MSC. Being a line with a major presence in other parts of the world, we’ve found that the passengers on MSC seem to have more people from Europe and South America sailing on the trips we’ve taken. In fact, announcements were in five different languages on our first cruise with the line to make sure everyone understood.

We will say that a more recent cruise saw less of a difference as the cruise line establishes an identity in the United States and gradually appeals to more Americans. But we wouldn’t say that the passenger groups on Carnival and MSC are the same.

Evening Entertainment

Shows on MSC tend to be more “cirque” style with acrobatics and jugglers compared to Carnival.

The entertainment on a cruise is a major part of the experience. Here, there is a big difference between Carnival and MSC.

On Carnival, you have a lot of classic-style shows and game shows. For instance, a recent cruise included live Family Feud with passengers as contestants. There’s the “Love & Marriage” game show (a take on The Newlywed Game), and large scale production shows with lots of singing and dancing.

We’ve loved MSC programming, but it certainly has a different feel to us. At least on the ships we’ve been on, the shows have a more “acrobatic” feel that focus less on Broadway-style performances and more on amazing performers similar to Cirque du Soleil. We also have to especially mention a Michael Jackson tribute show that featured the songs of the King of Pop and an impersonator that was a dead ringer for the late singer.

Ocean Cay (MSC’s Private Island)

View of MSC's Ocean Cay from cruise ship
Ocean Cay is a massive island in The Bahamas that’s exclusive to MSC. It features lots of space to spread out and have a low-key beach day.

Both cruise lines offer private destinations. Carnival in particular has quite a few, including private areas in The Bahamas, Dominican Republic, and Roatan. To be sure, any visit to these spots will be a good time as they are tailor-made for cruise passengers.

We do have to give special mention, however, to MSC’s Ocean Cay. The cruise line spent hundreds of millions developing this island in The Bahamas. It’s an enormous spot with tons of space for everyone, beautiful beaches, and gorgeous water. While many cruise line islands are essentially theme parks, Ocean Cay is a much more relaxing and subdued. If you’re wanting a chilled-out beach day, this is it.

One other perk? MSC often has extended stays at Ocean Cay, including some that stay overnight. The ability to enjoy the island at night is something unique to the cruise line.

We will say that Carnival’s upcoming Celebration Key will be a game-changer for the cruise line, but that’s not until 2025.

Food & Included Restaurants

Guy's Burger Joint on Carnival
When it comes to included food, Carnival takes the crown with spots like Guy’s Burger Joint being incredibly popular.

What’s a cruise without food? It’s a major part of the overall experience and also a difference between the two lines.

To us, Carnival is one of the most generous cruise lines around when it comes to food. Yes, there are paid options like the steakhouse and high-end dining, but there are plentiful free options included. Of course, there is the buffet and main dining room. Carnival also offers Guy’s Burger Joint, a pizza spot, a deli, BlueIguana (Mexican) and on some ships Chibang! (Asian/Mexican) and Big Chicken.

MSC (at least on the ships we have sailed) has far fewer options. There is the buffet and dining room, and then everything else offered was a specialty restaurant. As well, we noticed that in general there were just fewer restaurants overall.

Venues on the Ship

While hard to explain, many venues on MSC simply feel more generic rather than “branded” venues with their own unique identity. For instance, this sports bar that’s just named “Sports Bar.”

One difference we’ve noticed sailing both MSC and Carnival is one that’s actually a little hard to explain but it has an impact on the feel of your cruise.

Every cruise line has their own venues. For instance, Carnival has areas like Guy’s Burger Joint, or the RedFrog Bar. Royal Caribbean has Lime & Coconut, Sorrento’s, and Playmakers. These areas have their own theme, style, and menus.

We’ve noticed that MSC feels more “generic” in their venues. Yes, the bars and restaurants have different names, but the vibe and theme isn’t as unique from spot to spot on the ship.

For instance, on a recent trip aboard MSC Seaside, we stopped and enjoyed some time in the ship’s sports bar, which is aptly named… Sports Bar.

Gratuity Charges

If traveling with children, then a little-known way that you can save money on MSC versus Carnival is when it comes to gratuities.

First off, both cruise lines charge the same rate currently — $16 per person, per day for most rooms. And if you’re traveling with infants or toddlers, then both have no gratuities for passengers under two years old.

But if taking a family vacation, MSC may offer a nice value. Carnival charges the same gratuity rate for all passengers over two years old. MSC, however, charges $8 per day for kids from 2-12 years.

A family of four with two kids under 12 years old would end up paying $336 for gratuities on a 7-day MSC cruise, but $448 on Carnival. That’s a decent chunk of change that you can save with MSC.

Drink Package Options

Drink packages are a popular item for some passengers. For one set daily price, you don’t have to worry about a bar tab and just get what you want.

Carnival, however, has a much simpler offering. They offer only one package for alcoholic drinks. The price varies depending on the length of the cruise, with one price for cruises under six days and another price for trips six days or longer. There is also a limit of 15 alcoholic drinks per day.

MSC offers three different packages — Easy, Easy Plus, and Premium Extra. These three packages provide drinks at different price points. That can make things more complicated for cruise passengers as they need to do some analysis to compare the differently-priced packages with what’s included.

Fans of the Cruise Line

If you’ve ever sailed Carnival, then you know that there are people that treat the cruise line like a religion. They have high status (with cards that show it off), pins showing off their past cruises, Carnival clothing, and they love to talk about what ship they’ve been on and which ship they are headed on next.

In fact, we’d argue that no other cruise line quite has the loyalty that Carnival seems to endear. These superfans eat, sleep, and breathe Carnival.

MSC, however, is much more low key. You’ll see far fewer people flashing their loyalty status or wearing clothing emblazoned with MSC. Part of this is the fact that the cruise line is relatively small compared to Carnival here and doesn’t have the history in the United States. There hasn’t been the ability to build as deep a fanbase as Carnival. But more than that, there’s just something about Carnival that makes its passengers love the line.

Global Sailings for MSC

If wanting to travel somewhere other than North America, MSC has a much larger presence abroad.

We mentioned how MSC is making inroads into the United States, but is still a relatively small player compared to Carnival. Well, one difference between the lines is that you can flip that status in other parts of the world.

MSC is truly a global cruise line with major operations in Europe, the Middle East, and elsewhere. If you’re wanting to sail somewhere other than the Caribbean or The Bahamas, then it would offer way more options.

Carnival is focused on the U.S., some cruises in Australia, and a few dotted in Europe. There are sister brands elsewhere around the world (such as Costa), but not Carnival.

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