Carnival vs. Norwegian: Smackdown!

norwegian vs carnival better cruise ship
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:


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 an excellent variety with more than 10 choices, though you’ll pay from $5 to $75 a person to eat in most of them. 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.


Carnival deals from $


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.


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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.


Carnival deals from $



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.


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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.


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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. 


Join the discussion

Which line do you prefer?
Hknee's Avatar

Posted by Hknee

Norwegian is the cleanest and best cruiseline one gets sick on it.....Very clean......and lots of fun and destinations, too!!!

Den1212's Avatar

Posted by Den1212

After spend 10 years working as a manager on Carnival in Food and Beverage department,i will never go with Carnival even for free.Do you want know more?

sweetliberty13's Avatar

Posted by sweetliberty13

My personal preference is Norwegian. However, I am out-voted in my own household. My daughter and son-in-law prefer Carnival (taking their 4th Carnival cruise - so it is Reward point related, even though the rewards are a very small carrot to hunt for). My son prefers the food selections on Carnival. My wife has no preference.

Flea's Avatar

Posted by Flea

You gave the edge to NCL for kids in part due to the Nickelodeon partnership, but now that NCL's annouced the partnership is being phased out starting in the fall (completely gone in January), does that impact your rating in this area? I know the article was written well before that was announced, but figured I'd ask.

FD: The kids club on the Jewel in '06 was one of the only redeeming factors of our single NCL experience to date (going on the Escape in mid-Nov, sans kid)

bobbychad's Avatar

Posted by bobbychad

Been on 9 cruises all with NCL and Carnival except for 1...we decided to try Royal Ceribbean on the Indy of the seas...the ship was awesome, but the cruise was mediocre at best. Royal is the nickel and dime line. They upcharge for everything. As far as NCL and Carnival they are almost equal in my book. I think NCL also has a sleight edge...most the carnival ships are the same..same layout same everything. If you go on the valor, you have then sailed on the Liberty, Victory and most other ships as far as something new. We sailed on the dream in 2010, and then the breeze this last february. I felt like i was on the Dream again. NCL their ships have something new on most ships. they are not laid out exactly the same....But i am a ship guy..which ship i sail on has a big part in what cruise i am going to take. I dont like to sail on the same ship twice. Up next for me ..NCL Getaway!!!!

FamilyCrusing1's Avatar

Posted by FamilyCrusing1

I think it depends on the ship in the cruise line. I've been on the NCL Getaway and WOW what a beautiful, fun ship!! There are four sit down restaurants with great food! And the buffet was also great! There is another free restaurant that is an outdoor Cuban dining venue. We didn't eat there, so I can't vouch for the food. We are going on this ship again and plan to put this restaurant on our list of things to do. The other restaurants, steakhouse, Italian, Japanese, French and Ocean Blue do cost extra, but you can easily enjoy the free restaurants and not feel like you're missing out.

The things that really stand out on the Getaway are the customer service and the activities/entertainment. I had a question for our room steward one day and I called him. As we were talking on the phone, within 1 minute he was knocking at the door. The bartenders were exceptional and we never had to wait more than a few minutes for a drink. They would make drinks that weren't even on the menu.

Pools could get crowded especially on sea days, but what ship's pool don't get crowded. I would take in the cooking demonstrations, origami, Bingo, and trivia contests on sea days. We would get off the ship early on port days, take in the culture and then hit the pool on the ship by early afternoon.

We later cruised on the Carnival Liberty. While we had a good time, we just kept thinking, "This isn't the Getaway." We were never greeted by anyone by name or told "Hello" by anyone on the ship unless you spoke to them first. I was amazed at how many of the crew on the Getaway knew my husband and I both by name and everyone, and I mean everyone on the Getaway gave you a smile and a "hello."

One thing that I did like better about the Liberty was the room service. If the order was spontaneous, they were always there within 15 minutes. If it was a breakfast order put in the night before, they were right on time. The Liberty also had larger portions and more variety on the room service menu.

Hand sanitizers were everywhere on the Getaway! Including crew at the entrance to the ship to spray everyone boarding the ship. There were some hand sanitizers on the Liberty, but most of the time they were empty.

Our son enjoyed the kids camp on the Liberty, but didn't spend a lot of time there...maybe an hour or two a day. I also saw one time when I went to pick him up there were three kids and no camp counselor in sight.

He wasn't with us for the Getaway cruise, but he is looking forward to the activities on the Getaway. The kids camp on the Liberty wasn't open at night. The Getaway is free until 10. They do close down for two hours at lunch time and again at dinner time, but I would want my son to be with us for meals anyway.

If you check prices often, you can sometimes find that prices have gone down for your cruise (Ours has gone down once and they also added a deal where the 3rd person is half price). The cruise we booked on NCL for next Thanksgiving week is currently $3175 for the three of us. This includes the beverage package (For the next day or two, your cruise includes one of the following: Ultimate Beverage Package, Dining Package, $100 on board credit (for up to 3 people per cabin), or free gratuities package.) There is also the "book a future cruise {four years to book} with a $250 deposit and get $100 on board credit for the cruise you are on now. We are locked in at $2400 and this includes insurance:) (We always book insurance. This means you can cancel your cruise up to the day before for a full refund, it gives you some $$ towards airfare if you miss the cruise, it covers $$ for lost luggage, covers medical services on the ship {your health insurance doesn't cover expenses on the ship), and it covers some of the $$ if you need to be medivaced back to the states. It's $89 and in my opinion, it is well worth the price. I looked up the price on the Carnival Breeze for a cruise for the same week and it was $2500. The cruise is for an 8 day Southern Caribbean, but the oceanview room is on level 1. I'm not sure if I want to be that far down in the ship? It also doesn't include the beverage package or insurance.

I've heard some not so good reviews of the NCL Sun. I really think you'll hear good and bad reviews about ships in any cruise line. I think some ships are old and just need to retire or be perked up a bit. I think it pays to research and if you are a smart shopper you can find a great cruise for a good value on either.

But bottom line...NCL Getaway gets my vote HANDS DOWN!!

Arch0's Avatar

Posted by Arch0

Cruise Like A Norwegian all the way! I have four booked at the moment and I plan on booking many more.

MarcusII's Avatar

Posted by MarcusII

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

OZZIE's Avatar

Posted by OZZIE


Pam97217's Avatar

Posted by Pam97217

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!!!

TaraBonVoyage's Avatar

Posted by TaraBonVoyage

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

SuzieQT's Avatar

Posted by SuzieQT

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.

TaraBonVoyage's Avatar

Posted by TaraBonVoyage

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

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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