Advice

Smackdown! Carnival vs. Norwegian

carnival vs norwegian ncl smackdown cruise
You can head to a Caribbean beach on either mainstream line ... so which one is right for your cruise? - Photo by Carnival Cruise Lines and Norwegian Cruise Line

These two cruise lines have a lot in common: huge ships that attract families with kids, as well as couples and singles. Their appeal boils down to plenty of choices and features like water slides, climbing walls, and ropes courses. On both fleets, the vibe is casual, and the price is low. Similarities aside, Carnival Cruise Lines and Norwegian Cruise Line have their differences too. Read on to vote for your favorite, and see our selections:

Dining

Norwegian has been the trendsetter ever since it rolled outs its Freestyle Cruising® program more than a decade ago. Most of Norwegian’s ships have more than 10 choices, though you’ll pay from $5 to $75 a person to eat in most of them. The newest Norwegian ships have a restaurant by Food Network Chef Geoffrey Zakarian and a bakery by Buddy Valastro, TLC's “Cake Boss.” Recently, Carnival started improving its own dining lineup, with Food Network star Guy Fieri-branded burgers and impressive poolside taco stands — and its Fahrenheit 555 steakhouse could hold its own in New York.

Our Pick: Draw — A few years ago, Norwegian would have won easily, but Carnival has upped its game.

 

Standard Cabins

For decades, Carnival has consistently built ships with roomy standard cabins, measuring 185 square feet or larger, with sizeable showers and bedside reading lights. Norwegian, on the other hand, scrimps on cabin size: 128 square feet. 

Our Pick: Carnival — If you like space and plan on spending time in your room, Carnival comes out on top.

 

Specialty Cabins

Norwegian’s new studio cabins are a boon for singles: They’re tiny but come with a low price tag and access to a private lounge. Norwegian has come up with other innovative cabins too. Spa cabins have free access to the thermal suite, and suites in the Haven area share a private pool, hot tub, gym, and butler. 

Our Pick: Norwegian — While Carnival’s standard cabins are big, the options are less innovative.

 

Entertainment

Norwegian is great at trendsetting, with entertainment from Blue Man Group and Second City. On the other hand, Carnival has always excelled at providing a party atmosphere, with big discos and packed piano bars. The line’s stand-up comedy acts — both family and adult-only shows — are also big hits, and Carnival just launched a Live Concert series, featuring stars like Jennifer Hudson and REO Speedwagon. 

Our Pick: Carnival — The new concert series is groundbreaking and gives the line an edge.

 

Itineraries

With a few exceptions, Carnival sticks to the Caribbean, The Bahamas, and Mexico. Norwegian cruises those destinations as well, plus has multiple ships in Europe and Alaska, the Panama Canal, and Bermuda. 

Our Pick: Norwegian — If you’re looking to expand your horizons, Norwegian pushes the boundaries more than Carnival.

 

Kids

The newest ships of both fleets have large drop-off playrooms divided into sections by age. Both lines also have water slides, water playgrounds, and ropes courses on their latest ships, and both have character partnerships

Our Pick: Norwegian — Norwegian pulls ahead with its Nickelodeon partnership and circus schools. Carnival’s new partnership with Dr. Suess has promise, but it’s only on one ship so far and just for ages 2 to 5.

 

Overall

Our Pick: Norwegian wins by a hair, as a result of innovation. But both lines provide affordable Vegas-meets-Orlando vacations — a marriage of flashy decor and theme park-style amenities. 


Heidi Sarna

Heidi Sarna  

Heidi Sarna is a Singapore-based contributing writer for Cruiseline.com. She has also written for the International Herald Tribune, Condé Nast Traveler, Travel Weekly, and Parenting.



21 Comments

MarcusII's Avatar

Posted by MarcusII 9 days ago

I wouldn't go on another Norwegian Cruise at gunpoint. If you take the cheapest dining the food is not quite up to low life diner standards. They charge just as much for as any other cruise line and then you have to waste time trying to get a reservation at a decent restaurant and pay on top of that. The desert buffets that are spectacular on similarly priced cruises are just tiny scoops of ice cream (one to a person) on Norwegian.



"Freestyle cruising is aimed at people who don't know how to tie a tie or prefer to slop cheap food all over themselves rather than enjoy a fine meal. There is nothing to recommend on these cruises and you can get much more for the same money anywhere.

Vickilu2's Avatar

Posted by Vickilu2 1 month ago

Carnival is by far the better of the two lines. Food, entertainment, casinos and staff. I love the anytime dining on Carnival and I hate standing in line for 45 minutes to be seated in the dining room on NCL. I will NEVER cruise on NCL again. I cruised NCL 5 times and Carnival 31 times. I am now cruising some with Celebrity as I get older and love the quiet and not so rowdy with lot's of kids. But, by far carnival still has the best food in the dining room and the Specialty Restaurants.

Gampy70's Avatar

Posted by Gampy70 3 months ago

My wife and I have cruised more than 30 times. I dislike Royal Carribean for poor customer service and intrusive security staff. NCL is better although now that we've sailed Cunard (QM2) and HAL we know what elegant cruising is like. Princess is nice but not that nice. Which brings us to Carnival. This line is dedicated to getting you on board and then selling you all kinds of stuff. Their marketers studied cruiser behavior and realize the casino (smoking allowed), the shops and photos are money makers. You can't get around a Carnival ship without passing by the casino and lots of phogtographers ready to take a portrait. But we like Carnival because it allows people access to cruising they might otherwise not afford. The line is not pretentious in any way. It's the low price brand and proud of it. They really do try to make cruising fun. Judging from their clientele of young families they are hitting their goal. But here's to the Norway, the Regal Empress, the Pacific Princess, the Sun Viking and all the other retired vessels that we enjoyed over 28 years of sailing. And may all of you have calm seas and following winds.

DarrenSisco's Avatar

Posted by DarrenSisco 4 months ago

I've been on one cruise and it was with Carnival on the Sensation. They treated me and my family with the upmost respect and care. I was treated like a high class passenger for 5 days, literally VIP treatment. Our Steward knew each of my family members name immediately and remembered it throughout the journey. I was embarassed because I didn't even know his. The Matre'ds played with my children and gave them whatever they desired plus they had the Camp Carnival for me to drop them off at during the day so Mom and Dad can have fun. I would pick the kids up late into the evening and they didn't want to leave! We loved it so much we are going again, booked a cruise in August with them on the Elation.

McRat's Avatar

Posted by McRat 4 months ago

We (family of four) had a couple of really bad experiences with Carnival which pretty much crossed them off our list for good after perhaps 6-7 cruises with them. Notably, something went wrong with engineering, and the hot water shut off for more than a day. To "reward" the passengers, they had Free Drinks for 1 Hour. It was a mess. Dumb thing to do. It was like a scene from Animal House. People were hassling our kids, stumbling on the stairs, spilling drinks everywhere. We had to spend the night in the suite. There were many other blunders, but that was the most memorable. Poorly managed was the issue with all our problems. The crew was friendly, good activities, good food, but nobody in charge seemed to have a clue what to do when something goes wrong.



We just completed our first cruise on NCL to Alaska. The Haven concept is really smart. You can go in your robe, sit down and get served breakfast. It is a "restricted" floor level that is quiet, uncrowded, and relaxing in all weather conditions due to it's atrium area.



But if you REALLY want a good time, it has to be a Royal Caribbean Oasis Class ship. The upscale suites are VERY luxurious and spacious. While it is a really large ship, it seldom feels crowded. 3 cruises so far on the two flagships, and the WORST one whipped the BEST experience on any other ship. Money well spent.

brooks86's Avatar

Posted by brooks86 4 months ago

I have never been on Nowegian, only Carnival and Royal Carribean. I prefer Royal Carribean but Carnival is nice too.

Julie1953's Avatar

Posted by Julie1953 4 months ago

My favorite is NCL all the way the staff is happy to work on there ships I've had the opportunity to talk to some of the staff and that's what they told me. I've been on several cruises with them. Carnival every time I went it went wrong. Royal Caribbean is too much money and the last time the service and food sucked. And Celebrity I had one good one and one not so much. I actually have 3 bookended on NCL. I will have the experience on trying MSC Divina in 2 months.

popweazl's Avatar

Posted by popweazl 5 months ago

went on a carnival. spoiled me in a bad way. will never go on another, they couldn't pay me enough to step onto one of those hellholes.

Vactionqueen's Avatar

Posted by Vactionqueen 6 months ago

I read the post about an NCL cruise that was cancelled at the last minute and all the headaches they went through. My advice to anyone on any line, ALWAYS BUY THE INSURANCE. It will be the best 79.00 investment you ever make. No matter what happens, you will be covered. Just make sure you add your airfare on to the insurance also. All cruise lines have issues from time to time. Carnival has more publicized than most so one event with NCL should not discourage a second chance. I suggest that couple try Royal because they will then realize how bottom of the barrel Carnival really is. Royal treats you like royalty compared to Carnival. I have been on plenty of Carnival cruises and each time I tell myself it will get better. It doesn't. NCL & Royal both have entertainment that is for real. Carnival is designed for people that care very little about the shows and more about the bars. It all boils down to personal taste. If you enjoy being drunk and having kids run wild on a ship, try Carnival. If you want a great vacation with respectable entertainment and food, go Royal or NCL or Princess.

skippers44's Avatar

Posted by skippers44 6 months ago

I have cruised on Carnival and NCL. I prefer Carnival for cabin size , entertainment and food. Also, Carnival is an American owned business and NCL is owned by Orient which is Chinese.

Grandmarolls's Avatar

Posted by Grandmarolls 7 months ago

We have sailed MANY times on NCL. We have also sailed on Carnival and on Princess. I deal with accessibility issues, which NCL is much better at. The entertainment is better on NCL (I mean REALLY Carnival? Bean bag toss as the evening's entertainment in the three deck high theater? or line dancing? I don't think so. Or Princess putting the wheelchair section BEHIND the projection equipment so all we can see is the bottom quarter of the screen?). Excursion prices are better, food is better. We've given the other cruise lines a fair chance. We're NCL all the way!

ksimpso3's Avatar

Posted by ksimpso3 7 months ago

I have been on 2 Carnival cruises and will be leaving on my 7th Norwegian cruise 2 weeks from today. Hands-down winner of 2 for me is NCL. I find Carnival very gaudy and hate their dining situation. I also thought the entertainment was far superior on NCL. I won't say I will never cruise Carnival again but it certainly won't be my first choice. I love everything about NCL from crew to dining to entertainment.

taragp's Avatar

Posted by taragp 7 months ago

My husband planned our first cruise for our 10th wedding anniversary. We arranged babysitting for our four children and were taking a much deserved vacation that also happened to be a New Years Eve cruise. We were very excited and bags were packed and kids were dropped off with grandma when we received the phone call at 10pm the night before our cruise was supposed to depart. The cruise was CANCELLED! We planned this vacation for the two of us for almost a year and we were devastated. I thought it was a sick joke until I called NORWEGIAN and found out the boat had broken down and we would not be sailing. NORWEGIAN was absolutely no help at all, I asked to be put on another ship and they couldnt' accomodate. My husband and I had not gone on a vacation alone in 10 years and this was supposed to be special. At the last minute I had to scramble and find and pay for somewhere else to go. It took Norwegian over 2 months to reimburse us for a cruise they cancelled. After speaking with a travel agent she said she was surprised that ship was still in service as it was broken down more than it sailed. I apparently did not do my homework and will NEVER sail NORWEGIAN again. Since that disasterous non cruise we have been on 10 Carnival cruises and have never had a problem. I would never even consider looking at a Norwegian cruise. Carnival is much better and makes sure you get where you need to go or you are compensated. I didn't even get back the entire price of the cruise they considered the deposit non-refundable and said we needed to book another Norwegian cruise to keep it. Screw Norwegian. Carnival is the BEST!

slotaddict's Avatar

Posted by slotaddict 7 months ago

Norwegian hands down...I sail both lines...I prefer Norwegian....food is better...better entertainment..booked for next January...first time in Haven...yay me....

OZZIE's Avatar

Posted by OZZIE 7 months ago

I THINK PAM97217 GOT ON THE WRONG CRUISE SHIP, NORWEGIAN IS THE BEST, ARE YOU SURE YOU ARE NOT TALKING ABOU CELEBRITY

Pam97217's Avatar

Posted by Pam97217 7 months ago

No more Norwegian !!! Went on two Norwegian cruises in the past six months. The food is the worst n lacks variety. The entertainment is almost non-existent. Price for a balcony cabin is not cheap!!! Crew do not seem happy...rarely smile n have no time to visit. I am partial to Holland America n that is where I will go for the next cruise!!!

CommunityMangr's Avatar

Posted by CommunityMangr 7 months ago

Hi SuzieQT. Have you tried retreating to the Serenity deck for some peace and quiet?

Hknee's Avatar

Posted by Hknee 7 months ago

Norwegian is the cleanest and best cruiseline around.....no one gets sick on it.....Very clean......and lots of fun and destinations, too!!!

SuzieQT's Avatar

Posted by SuzieQT 7 months ago

I really enjoy Carnival cruises, but wish there weren't so many kids on board. It's not that I dislike children, it's just that the parents let them run wild on the ship and don't teach them any manners at all! How hard is it to say excuse me? I think the food on Carnival is very good, and the service is awesome. I have tried other cruise lines and they were all very good, but Carnival has the best prices, and leaves from my home state of Texas, making it affordable and convenient.

CommunityMangr's Avatar

Posted by CommunityMangr 7 months ago

Thanks for your suggestion glomarrone. The prices do vary, but are often so similar that we thought it would be fun to find out what cruisers thought about the other important aspects of the experience with each brand. Did you vote Carnival across the board?

glomarrone's Avatar

Posted by glomarrone 7 months ago

I think that a good question would have been "Which cruise line has the best prices?" For families, this is an important consideration. For me the answer is Carnival.

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