Carnival vs. Royal Caribbean: How do they compare?

by Fran Golden

Carnival vs. Royal Caribbean: How do they compare?

by Fran Golden

If you’re shopping for a sunny Caribbean cruise, chances are ships by these lines will come up in your research. After all, both lines cater to everyone from small kids to retirees, as well as millennials and baby boomers, with a couple dozen ships that hold thousands of passengers each. Both also offer fun, lively vacations that are packed with activities and entertainment options. So how do the two lines stack up against each other? Here's our take.  AtmosphereFor decades, industry giant Carnival has delivered casual, unpretentious fun for the young and young at heart (think poolside dance parties) at an affordable — and often bargain — price.

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Allure of the Seas and Carnival Glory / Royal Caribbean International, Carnival Cruise Line
Carnival Freedom's BlueIguana
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Food: Carnival

Buffets and dining rooms vary from ship to ship, but Carnival wins points for excellent complimentary poolside eats, including decadent (1,900-calorie) burgers created by TV chef Guy Fieri and a taco stand serving made-to-order burritos. There are fees if you want to do the steakhouse, Italian, sushi, Asian, or seafood specialty restaurants. But, the buffets and dining rooms have gotten a lot better in recent years, especially on the newer ships. Carnival Vista even has a sold-by-the-pound seafood market, and you can have your catch delivered to any restaurant onboard. (We'd like to see this on other ships, too.)

Buffets and dining rooms vary from ship to ship, but Carnival wins points for excellent complimentary poolside eats, including decadent (1,900-calorie) burgers created by TV chef Guy Fieri and a taco stand serving made-to-order burritos. There are fees if you want to do the steakhouse, Italian, sushi, Asian, or seafood specialty restaurants. But, the buffets and dining rooms have gotten a lot better in recent years, especially on the newer ships. Carnival Vista even has a sold-by-the-pound seafood market, and you can have your catch delivered to any restaurant onboard. (We'd like to see this on other ships, too.)

Smoked Sriracha Eggs at Royal Caribbean's Wonderland
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Food: Royal Caribbean

Royal Caribbean does a better job with buffets than it does with its bland dining room menus. And while the hot dog stands offer free (and yummy) dogs, about half the restaurants on board come with an extra charge, including the Johnny Rockets diners and restaurants serving Mexican, Asian, Italian, and steak. While Carnival wins on the complimentary fare, Royal comes out on top with its specialty restaurants: Spots that are worth the splurge include 150 Central Park (a farm-to-table restaurant by James Beard Award-winning chef Michael Schwartz), Schwartz’s equally impressive pub, Jamie Oliver’s Italian trattoria, and the molecular gastronomy outpost Wonderland.

Royal Caribbean does a better job with buffets than it does with its bland dining room menus. And while the hot dog stands offer free (and yummy) dogs, about half the restaurants on board come with an extra charge, including the Johnny Rockets diners and restaurants serving Mexican, Asian, Italian, and steak. While Carnival wins on the complimentary fare, Royal comes out on top with its specialty restaurants: Spots that are worth the splurge include 150 Central Park (a farm-to-table restaurant by James Beard Award-winning chef Michael Schwartz), Schwartz’s equally impressive pub, Jamie Oliver’s Italian trattoria, and the molecular gastronomy outpost Wonderland.

Carnival Vista's Family Harbor Cabin
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Cabins: Carnival

Carnival scores points with generous cabin size though there isn't a huge variety of choice beyond your basic categories. Some ships have Cloud 9 spa cabins, which come with spa-related perks, and Carnival Vista has Family Harbor cabins (with access to a special lounge with games and snacks) and Havana cabins (with colonial-inspired furniture, verandas that are decked out with hammock chairs, and access to a palapa-topped pool area).

Carnival scores points with generous cabin size though there isn't a huge variety of choice beyond your basic categories. Some ships have Cloud 9 spa cabins, which come with spa-related perks, and Carnival Vista has Family Harbor cabins (with access to a special lounge with games and snacks) and Havana cabins (with colonial-inspired furniture, verandas that are decked out with hammock chairs, and access to a palapa-topped pool area).

Crown Loft Suite on Harmony of the Seas
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Cabins: Royal Caribbean

What it doesn't offer in cabin size Royal Caribbean makes up for in innovation. Some of the larger ships have two-dozen cabin categories, and you can choose everything from an inside with a virtual balcony (you see the sea through a floor-to-ceiling screen showing a video feed) to a fancy duplex loft suite with access to a suites-only restaurant.

What it doesn't offer in cabin size Royal Caribbean makes up for in innovation. Some of the larger ships have two-dozen cabin categories, and you can choose everything from an inside with a virtual balcony (you see the sea through a floor-to-ceiling screen showing a video feed) to a fancy duplex loft suite with access to a suites-only restaurant.

Carnival Dream's waterslides
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Daytime Activities: Carnival

The top deck of Carnival ships is like a big beach party with a DJ, pools and waterslides, outdoor bars, and amusing-if-silly activities such as hairy chest contests. The scene is lively and often loud, though adults age 18 and up can slip away to the adults-only Serenity area, a quiet stretch of sun deck done up with cushy furnishings and (on some ships) hot tubs. Kids are well entertained in Camp Ocean (for age 2-11) and there are also separate tweens and teens clubs. Dr. Seuss characters are on board for parades and character breakfasts on sea days. (Yes, that means this is the place to get Green Eggs and Ham.)

The top deck of Carnival ships is like a big beach party with a DJ, pools and waterslides, outdoor bars, and amusing-if-silly activities such as hairy chest contests. The scene is lively and often loud, though adults age 18 and up can slip away to the adults-only Serenity area, a quiet stretch of sun deck done up with cushy furnishings and (on some ships) hot tubs. Kids are well entertained in Camp Ocean (for age 2-11) and there are also separate tweens and teens clubs. Dr. Seuss characters are on board for parades and character breakfasts on sea days. (Yes, that means this is the place to get Green Eggs and Ham.)

FlowRider and RipCord by iFLY on Quantum of the Seas
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Daytime Activities: Royal Caribbean

You may find yourself saying "wow" a lot on a Royal Caribbean ship; their newer vessels have some of the most innovative activities in the industry. The options simply top those of every other line in creativity and breadth: This is the line that brought ice-skating rinks, rock-climbing walls, zip lines, surfing simulators, bumper cars, and real carousels to sea. (Surprisingly though, only Harmony of the Seas has waterslides.) In addition to an excellent kids program, several ships have nurseries for babies and toddlers. DreamWorks costumed characters and movie screenings are only featured on some of the ships, so if those are important to your family, you’ll want to choose your vessel wisely.

You may find yourself saying "wow" a lot on a Royal Caribbean ship; their newer vessels have some of the most innovative activities in the industry. The options simply top those of every other line in creativity and breadth: This is the line that brought ice-skating rinks, rock-climbing walls, zip lines, surfing simulators, bumper cars, and real carousels to sea. (Surprisingly though, only Harmony of the Seas has waterslides.) In addition to an excellent kids program, several ships have nurseries for babies and toddlers. DreamWorks costumed characters and movie screenings are only featured on some of the ships, so if those are important to your family, you’ll want to choose your vessel wisely.

Lido deck party on Carnival Vista
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Nightlife: Carnival

Carnival's lively nighttime roster includes R-rated comedy clubs, excellent piano bars, action-packed casinos, band-backed karaoke, late-night discos with prime DJs, and high-energy Playlist show productions (which are better than the revues the line used to present). The Alchemy Bar, with its creatively concocted cocktails and prime people-watching location, may just be the best bar on the line, though RedFrog Pub — a Caribbean-style beer pub with a live guitarist — comes in a close second. On the line’s newest ship, Carnival Vista, RedFrog even brews three varieties of beer on board. We're also big fans of that ship’s new Havana Bar, where a live Latin combo plays at night.

Carnival's lively nighttime roster includes R-rated comedy clubs, excellent piano bars, action-packed casinos, band-backed karaoke, late-night discos with prime DJs, and high-energy Playlist show productions (which are better than the revues the line used to present). The Alchemy Bar, with its creatively concocted cocktails and prime people-watching location, may just be the best bar on the line, though RedFrog Pub — a Caribbean-style beer pub with a live guitarist — comes in a close second. On the line’s newest ship, Carnival Vista, RedFrog even brews three varieties of beer on board. We're also big fans of that ship’s new Havana Bar, where a live Latin combo plays at night.

"Grease" on Harmony of the Seas
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Nightlife: Royal Caribbean

Royal does real Broadway and West End-style shows (such as “We Will Rock You,” "Mamma Mia!," and "Grease"), which are such a hit you will want to reserve a ticket in advance. (Fortunately, the tech-forward cruise line lets you do that online or on their app.) As for the rest of the after-dark scene, you'll find a party going on into the wee hours. Try your luck in the Casino Royale before showing off your best salsa moves at the popular Latin dance club, Boleros, or grabbing the mic at the karaoke bar. Stop by the disco, or catch live comedy or jazz. Bar choices abound, including (on the largest ships) a bar that actually moves up and down between decks.

Royal does real Broadway and West End-style shows (such as “We Will Rock You,” "Mamma Mia!," and "Grease"), which are such a hit you will want to reserve a ticket in advance. (Fortunately, the tech-forward cruise line lets you do that online or on their app.) As for the rest of the after-dark scene, you'll find a party going on into the wee hours. Try your luck in the Casino Royale before showing off your best salsa moves at the popular Latin dance club, Boleros, or grabbing the mic at the karaoke bar. Stop by the disco, or catch live comedy or jazz. Bar choices abound, including (on the largest ships) a bar that actually moves up and down between decks.

Styx performing with Carnival LIVE
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The Cool Factor: Carnival

Tired of underwhelming cruise ship performers? Carnival LIVE brings big name performers — such as Journey, Little Big Town and comedian Jay Leno — on board select cruises for live concerts while ships are in port. Our advice? Spring for a VIP ticket so you can meet the star, too.

Tired of underwhelming cruise ship performers? Carnival LIVE brings big name performers — such as Journey, Little Big Town and comedian Jay Leno — on board select cruises for live concerts while ships are in port. Our advice? Spring for a VIP ticket so you can meet the star, too.

Anthem of the Seas' Bionic Bar
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The Cool Factor: Royal Caribbean

This may just be the most tech-savvy cruise line of all. Among Royal's many innovations are robot bartenders, but it’s the practical improvements — fast, inexpensive Wi-Fi, luggage tracking apps, and online check-in — that really wow us.

This may just be the most tech-savvy cruise line of all. Among Royal's many innovations are robot bartenders, but it’s the practical improvements — fast, inexpensive Wi-Fi, luggage tracking apps, and online check-in — that really wow us.

Carnival Magic's SkyCourse
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The Verdict

Carnival focuses on American-style fun, with an emphasis on the casual and the unpretentious. The crowd includes budget-conscious Americans in a wide range of age groups, from the young to the young at heart. The stage shows, for example, aren't full productions of Broadway musicals — that’s just one example of how Carnival doesn't try to be fancy.

Ships range in size from those that carry fewer than 3,000 passengers to newer ships that cater to more than 4,000. While the intimate size of the smaller ships is nice, if you're not going with one of the newer ships, you may want to make sure the one you're choosing has been updated with the latest features. That said, on the older ships you get a lot for your vacation buck.

vs.

Royal Caribbean goes after active, mainstream cruisers of all ages interested in (and willing to pay a premium for) big ships that deliver a memorable experience — including cruises on the three largest ships in the world. The line's older ships don't have all the marquee attractions but they do have lower fares. And while the food may not be all that, there are plenty of brag-worthy moments, and whether you’re trying skydiving or surfing simulators or partying at the DJ-fueled roller skating party, you can post proof on Instagram using the fastest internet at sea.

Carnival focuses on American-style fun, with an emphasis on the casual and the unpretentious. The crowd includes budget-conscious Americans in a wide range of age groups, from the young to the young at heart. The stage shows, for example, aren't full productions of Broadway musicals — that’s just one example of how Carnival doesn't try to be fancy.

Ships range in size from those that carry fewer than 3,000 passengers to newer ships that cater to more than 4,000. While the intimate size of the smaller ships is nice, if you're not going with one of the newer ships, you may want to make sure the one you're choosing has been updated with the latest features. That said, on the older ships you get a lot for your vacation buck.

vs.

Royal Caribbean goes after active, mainstream cruisers of all ages interested in (and willing to pay a premium for) big ships that deliver a memorable experience — including cruises on the three largest ships in the world. The line's older ships don't have all the marquee attractions but they do have lower fares. And while the food may not be all that, there are plenty of brag-worthy moments, and whether you’re trying skydiving or surfing simulators or partying at the DJ-fueled roller skating party, you can post proof on Instagram using the fastest internet at sea.

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