Carnival vs. Norwegian: Smackdown!
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 prices are lower than their competitors. Similarities aside, Carnival Cruise Line and Norwegian Cruise Line have their differences too. Read on to vote for your favorite, and see our selections:
Norwegian Cruise Highlights: Known for their lack of traditional scheduled dining times, Norwegian was the pioneer in coining the term “Freestyle” dining. The line has something for every cruiser, with a sophisticated atmosphere that doesn’t sacrifice family-friendly amenities. Solo passengers that are weary of single supplement fees will find a home in Norwegian’s studio cabins. Those with a taste for luxury will enjoy The Haven, an exclusive ‘ship within a ship’ space filled with roomy suites and its own pool, restaurant, and other amenities.
- Norwegian is known for their high-quality entertainment, both in their resident Broadway-style shows as well as from guest entertainers who perform magic, comedy, acrobatics, and more.
- To fully experience all of the cutting-edge amenities that are offered on a Norwegian ship, such as go-karting or the adults-only Vibe Beach Club sundeck, you’ll have to pay extra on top of your cruise fare. The vast majority of cruise lines are not all-inclusive, but vacationers may find that they have to swipe their cruise card even more while on a Norwegian sailing.
- A large variety of dining options are available on most of Norwegian’s ships, ranging from Brazilian and French, to Italian, Mexican, and more. Foodies that are willing to pay extra for a specialty dining experience will be especially satisfied with the selection. Tip: purchase a dining package to save some cash on these specialty dining experiences.
Carnival Cruise Highlights: Carnival's ships are known as the “Fun Ships” for a reason. The casual, affordable, family-friendly (and party-friendly) line is one of the best choices for first-time cruisers, families with young kids, teens and tweens, and young at heart folks on a budget.
- Despite the low price point, service from staff and crew is often considered among the best in the business, and their solid lineup of included onboard dining features fan-favorites like Guy’s Burger Joint and Blue Iguana Cantina.
- Cruises on Carnival are extremely laid-back and often have a backyard barbecue atmosphere (think of a neighborhood pool party with beer buckets and belly flops). These sailings aren’t for those that are looking for a quiet and elegant journey on the high seas.
- Carnival’s partnership with Dr. Seuss, plus their activity-filled SportSquare and family-friendly games like Hasbro: The Game Show, make them the perfect line for families with kids that are cruising on a budget.
Norwegian Cruise Prices: Generally speaking, you’ll find that Norwegian’s older, smaller ships are cheaper than the same on Carnival, but their newer, larger ones are more expensive than Carnival’s similar offerings. As with most lines, pricing is also heavily determined by the popularity of the particular itinerary, especially whether it’s roundtrip or not.
- Inside cabins on short sailings to the Bahamas are consistently available for less than $60 per night, per person.
- If you want to try out a new ship or exotic itinerary without breaking the bank, look for a one-way or repositioning cruise, or a voyage at the beginning or end of a season for that region such as Alaska in May or September. The shoulder season sailings are less popular, and are priced at lower rates accordingly.
Carnival Cruise Prices: Carnival Cruise Line is one of the most affordable lines sailing in the Caribbean. It’s also common to find great pricing on select west coast cruises, depending on the time of year.
- Balcony cabins on many sailings can go for as low as $75/night, per person. (You’ll struggle to find balcony cabins for less than $100/night on most other lines.)
- Interior cabins on short, 3-5 night cruises to the Bahamas and Caribbean are almost always available for less than $50/night, per person.
Photos by Carnival and Norwegian
Our Pick: Carnival — The lowest interior fare for Carnival and Norwegian is comparable on most similar itineraries, but you’ll find much better balcony deals on Carnival than you will on Norwegian.
Norwegian Cruise Itineraries: Norwegian Cruise Line has a strong presence in the Bahamas and Caribbean, with the majority of voyages to that region starting in a port from Florida, especially Miami or Port Canaveral. The line also has a few ships sailing in Mexico, Hawaii, Canada, Australia, Asia, and the Middle East. After the Caribbean, the other place Norwegian really shines is in Europe. At any given time, there are 5 to 10 Norwegian ships sailing around both the Mediterranean and Northern Europe, making this line an excellent choice for those who want a familiar line in a faraway place. Norwegian also boasts a great variety of cruise lengths, with lots of weekend getaway voyages all the way up to an assortment of longer 9+ night journeys.
Carnival Cruise Itineraries: Carnival Cruise Line generally focuses their attention on sailing in the Caribbean, Bahamas, and Mexico. However, they do have some ships that sail in Europe, Alaska, and Hawaii. Major port cities for the line include Miami, Port Canaveral, Galveston, New York, and Los Angeles. While Carnival does have a decent variety of 9+ night cruises, they don’t have nearly as many to choose from as Norwegian does. The vast majority of Carnival sailings are 8 nights or less.
Photos by Carnival and Norwegian
Our Pick: Norwegian — If you’re looking to expand your horizons, Norwegian offers the greatest variety of sailings and diversity of destinations globally compared to Carnival.
Norwegian Cruise Dining: Norwegian Cruise Line pioneered the “freestyle dining” concept, which means that you won’t find a set time dinner seating anywhere on their ships.
- For those who don’t want to be constrained by a schedule each night, freestyle dining proves to be a great system. However, it does have its own set of cons. During the busiest dining time, you may have a wait before you will be seated (just like at a landside restaurant). Also, you’ll likely have a different team of servers each night, which means that they will never get to know you and your dietary needs and preferences.
- If you like to have a dinner schedule without waiting, Norwegian does allow dinner reservations to be made in advance. You can also ask to be seated in a specific server’s section at the time you make the reservation, but that won’t be guaranteed.
- As far as other dining options, Norwegian impresses with variety across the fleet — even on smaller and older ships. The majority are specialty restaurants, though, meaning you’ll have to pay extra to enjoy them. Specialty venues include La Cucina with Italian fare, Moderno Churrascaria — the line’s take on a Brazilian steakhouse, hibachi-style dining at Teppanyaki, and Q Texas Smokehouse, a barbecue venue on newer vessels complete with live country music. On some ships, you’ll also find Mexican restaurant Los Lobos, as well as the line’s take on a classic diner called American Diner, complete with booths that look like vintage cars.
- Those looking for more complimentary dining options will enjoy the ship’s buffet, as well as O’Sheehan’s/The Local (similar venues; one or the other can be found on every ship except Pride of America), a casual sit-down restaurant that’s generally in the atrium and open 24/7.
- The sit-down restaurant dress code is smart casual, and Norwegian has their own take on optional formal nights, aptly called “Dress-Up or Not Night.”
Carnival Cruise Dining: While Carnival doesn’t quite boast the array of specialty restaurants that Norwegian has, the line’s selection of included dining options is very impressive considering their price point.
- Fans of fast-casual cuisine will love that Guy’s Burger Joint (launched by Food Network star Guy Fieri) is included in the cruise fare. You can grab a Guy’s burger on 24 ships in the fleet, and his Pig & Anchor Bar-B-Que Smokehouse is now on 7 different ships. Across from Guy’s burgers, BlueIguana Cantina serves excellent burritos on the lido deck — be sure to try the breakfast burrito! These two venues alone make Carnival a serious contender for the title of “Best Cruise Poolside Eateries.”
- Two special restaurants on Carnival include JiJi Asian Kitchen serving up Chinese food and other Asian staples, as well as the Seafood Shack which offers a “catch of the day” and fan-favorite lobster rolls. These venues and more really demonstrate that Carnival is still committed to innovation — the line will also be debuting a complimentary chicken venue — called Big Chicken — with NBA star and Carnival CFO (Chief Fun Officer) Shaquille O’Neal on Carnival Radiance and Mardi Gras.
- Carnival Vista became the first North American-based cruise ship to house its very own craft brewery, and Carnival Horizon and Panorama followed suit. Vista’s is in the RedFrog Pub & Brewery venue, and Horizon and Panorama’s is housed in their larger, sit-down restaurant version of Guy’s Pig & Anchor Bar-B-Que, called Guy’s Pig & Anchor Smokehouse | Brewhouse. Mardi Gras will also include a brewery in the popular barbecue venue.
- Among the specialty options, the modern steakhouse Fahrenheit 555 tends to stand out with its elegant cuisine, ranging from escargot tucked into tiny rounds of puff pastry to vertical platings of steak topped with roasted garlic, to the chocolate tastings in elegant little glasses.
- One thing to keep in mind is that Carnival has struggled with some food consistency issues, particularly in the buffet and the main dining room. Quality might be different from one ship to the next, so take this into consideration.
- There is generally one formal night per cruise (or two on long voyages) where passengers are asked to dress up for dinner. Those who don’t wish to participate are welcome to eat in the buffet or enjoy room service.
Fajitas from Carnival's Blue Iguana Cantina and Teppanyaki, a specialty restaurant on Norwegian.
Our Pick: Draw — Both lines are strong in the dining category for different reasons. Norwegian impresses with its food quality and variety of specialty restaurants, but Carnival shines when it comes to its vast range of included dining options.
Norwegian Cruise Cabins: On Norwegian Cruise Line, passengers will find a typical cabin that they would expect on any mainstream line. Bathrooms are standard sized and laid out nicely. On newer vessels, the line has moved away from shower curtains in favor of curved glass doors, which makes taking a shower easier since you aren’t getting tangled in a shower curtain.
- A number of Norwegian ships include Spa Staterooms, which offer complimentary access to the spa’s thermal suite and zen-inspired decor exclusive to these cabins.
- Norwegian is known for their Studio Cabins, which allow solo travelers to have a room designed especially for them without paying a dreaded single supplement fee.
- One exception to Norwegian’s typical cabin layout is on Norwegian Epic, which has a split-bathroom concept with the shower on one side, the toilet on the other, and the sink essentially in the cabin. This is something to take into consideration if you’re thinking about sailing on this ship.
Something that really sets Norwegian apart is their ‘ship within a ship’ area called The Haven.
- Suites in The Haven were designed from beginning to end with luxury in mind, and there are a variety of spacious sizes and layouts to choose from. The Haven’s largest offerings include three-bedroom villas with separate living and dining areas and massive outdoor balconies.
- Bathrooms are especially unique, lacking a boxy ‘one-size-fits-all’ feeling that you’ll find in standard cabins. Marble surfaces, double vanities, and even separate bathtubs can be found in The Haven suite bathrooms.
Carnival Cruise Cabins: For decades, Carnival Cruise Line has built roomier-than-average cabins, which makes relaxing during the day or moving around to get ready a more enjoyable experience. Staterooms are typical, with bedside reading lights, standard bathrooms, and a built-in desk/vanity. On newer vessels, the line has started offering a variety of unique cabins to choose from, such as Family Harbor staterooms and Havana cabins.
- Family Harbor staterooms come with exclusive access to the nearby Family Harbor Lounge, which features complimentary breakfast in the morning and snacks throughout the day, plus family-friendly activities like board games, movies, and more. Booking one of these staterooms allows children to eat for free in most specialty restaurants, and also comes with one free evening of the line’s group babysitting service, Night Owls.
- Havana Harbor cabins are designed to feel like an exclusive island resort and come with exclusive access to the Havana Bar and Pool at the ship’s aft. As you might expect, the rooms have a delightfully Cuban aesthetic, and cruisers who upgrade to the Havana Cabana will have their own outdoor space with a hammock chair.
- Cloud 9 Spa staterooms come with more elegant decor than a typical Carnival cabin, along with in-room amenities like Elemis toiletries and spa-branded bathrobes and slippers. Spa cabins also come with priority for spa reservations, fitness classes, and unlimited access to the spa’s thermal suite.
Balcony cabins on Carnival are a bit bigger than their Norwegian counterparts.
Our Pick: Carnival — While The Haven is far more luxurious than anything you’ll find on Carnival, the variety of unique staterooms introduced in recent years make Carnival a great option for lots of different types of travelers. Plus, the slightly larger staterooms (on average) give families more room without having to upgrade to higher categories.
Norwegian Cruise Activities: Norwegian Cruise Line has been stepping up their game as far as unique onboard activities go with the debut of a go-kart track on Norwegian Bliss, Joy, and Encore, as well as the permanent laser tag arenas on the same vessels.
- Many Norwegian ships offer the heart-pounding ‘walk-the-plank’ experience, which allows passengers to walk out onto a “plank” suspended over the side of the ship (while still safely attached, of course). Other fun amenities include ropes courses, mini golf, and rock walls, and ships built since 2013 (and some older refurbished ones) also include some form of a water park.
- Passengers not wanting to give up on their exercise routines will find a basketball court (which can be converted to play other sports) on most ships as well as an onboard gym with treadmills, ellipticals, stationary bikes, weight equipment, and more. Fitness classes are also offered.
- Travelers who want their time at sea to be slower paced are likely to be spotted at the casino, one of the numerous lounges and bars with live music and group activities, various hot tubs around the ship, or the spa — complete with treatments, massages, and the relaxing thermal suite. Depending on the ship, the thermal suite might even include a panoramic view of the ocean.
Carnival Cruise Activities: For years, Carnival relied on basic fun, with passengers happily swigging beer and cheering on shipmates in belly flop contests by the pool. Nowadays, we have to give the line props for rolling with the times by continuing to add a great variety of new activities.
- You can find a variety of water slides at the WaterWorks water park, and most ships have mini-golf courses. The SportSquare on 7 ships includes basketball courts, a ropes course, table tennis, and more.
- Lido deck activities (usually hosted by the cruise director) have a casual feel, complete with contests for the hairiest chest, sexiest legs, and biggest belly flop splash.
- For indoor fun, Carnival’s activity lineup includes cruise classics like trivia, bingo, and dance classes, along with ‘Hasbro, The Game Show,’ an interactive and family-friendly game where cruisers can play enormous versions of Hasbro games like Yahtzee, Connect Four, and Simon.
- Adults can find much-needed solace at the Serenity Retreat (a kids-free area with a bar and plenty of lounge chairs) or the onboard spa with hot stone massages, full-body wraps, maini/pedis, and facials.
The SkyRide on Carnival and Speedway go-karting on Norwegian
Our Pick: Carnival — You’ll find a similar variety of activities on both lines, but typically Norwegian charges extra for more than Carnival does.
Norwegian Cruise Entertainment: Norwegian Cruise Line is known for their high-quality entertainment offered in a variety of venues.
- Many ships feature Broadway shows, such as “After Midnight,” “Rock of Ages,” and “Burn the Floor.” Norwegian also boasts dinner productions such as “Cirque Dreams” and a special show that includes five different cocktails, called “Happy Hour Prohibition - The Musical.”
- The line excels in their variety of guest performers that are only at sea for a short time, or travel around to different ships. This gives Norwegian cruises great variety on the entertainment front, as you never know who will be performing even if you’ve recently sailed the same ship. Acrobats, magicians, singers, comedians, contortionists, and more are some of the variety acts you’ll find on a Norwegian cruise.
- If theater shows aren’t your thing — or you’re looking for other entertainment around the ship — you’ll find sing-alongs in the piano bar, bands and instrumentals in various lounges and bars throughout their ships, as well as high-energy music and dancing during parties on the lido deck or in the atrium.
Carnival Cruise Entertainment: From the start, Carnival’s forte has been its ability to throw a really great party night after night, with passengers dancing the hours away in cavernous discos and popular piano bars. Their stage productions play second fiddle to the music and parties, but you’ll still find some unique and awe-inspiring shows across the fleet.
- Carnival’s Playlist Productions features LED screens and special effects for a number of different stage shows including "America Rocks," "Flick," "Amor Cubano," "Heart and Soul" and "Epic Rock." The use of technology mixed with talent is something that’s becoming more common across the cruise industry, and we’re happy to see Carnival implementing it.
- The Punchliner Comedy Club has both R-rated and family-friendly shows from talented and high-profile comedians. Just be sure to get there early, as these shows are very popular and fill up quickly!
- Other group entertainment offerings from Carnival include ‘Clue: The Murder Mystery’ which involves audience participation around the ship, Carnival’s very own version of Lip Sync Battle, and the ever-popular Love & Marriage Show that never fails to have the audience rolling on the floor with laughter.
"Burn the Floor" on Norwegian and LeAnn Rimes performs for Carnival Live
Our Pick: Norwegian — The variety of entertainment offered for all age groups on Norwegian is quite impressive, and the overall quality far outweighs that of Carnival’s.
Kids and Families
Kids and Family Amenities on Norwegian: Like other mainstream cruise lines, Norwegian has a kid’s program across the fleet called Splash Academy.
- Kids ages 3-12 are divided up into three different clubs based on their age, and enjoy activities such as arts and crafts, treasure hunts, circus school, sports, team-building challenges, video games, and theme nights.
- Kids also have the opportunity to participate in activities with their parents and other members of the family during special family events like game shows, sports challenges, pizza-making, and more.
- Teens have their own space onboard, called Entourage. It’s a hangout for teens to kick back, play video games, attend themed parties, try their hand at crafts, and participate in other organized activities. There are also activities hosted by teen counselors around other parts of the ship including circus school, improv classes, and sports tournaments.
- Babies ages 6 months to 3 years are referred to as ‘Guppies,’ and have their own space which consists of a quiet room for sleeping and a playspace that they can enjoy with their parents.
- Norwegian offers Late Night Fun Zone hours for parents who want to spend a night out aboard the ship. Starting at 10:30 p.m., kids can be dropped off at Splash Academy for a small fee to be supervised with games and activities throughout the late hours of the night. Reservations should be made in advance, but aren’t always required.
Kids and Family Amenities on Carnival: Carnival’s decks are filled with family-friendly activities, including the fan-favorite Twister Water Slide at the WaterWorks aqua park. There’s even a “splash zone” mini water park for the littlest cruisers. Carnival also scores points among kids and teens for Hasbro: The Game Show, Build-a-Bear Workshop at Sea, and their 24-hour pizza counter.
- The outdoor play areas feature mini-basketball hoops and jungle gyms, and indoor game rooms offer the latest video and arcade games.
- At Camp Ocean, kids are divided into three groups: ages 2 to 5, 6 to 8, and 9 to 11. They do activities such as dancing, crafts, playing games, and having sing-alongs. Kids ages 12 to 14 can head to Circle C, which features a dance floor, plasma screens displaying movies and videos, a jukebox, gaming pods, and more.
- For a small fee, kids ages 11 and under can participate in Night Owls, a supervised babysitting service so that parents can have a night to themselves on the ship. They will enjoy music, play games, and do other fun activities until as late as 1 a.m.
- Pint-sized cruisers might enjoy taking part in a Zumbini class, a group session developed by Zumba and BabyFirst. On every sailing, kids 2 to 5 years old can enjoy a free 30-minute Zumbini class featuring Zumba songs, special instruments, and more. On cruises 6+ days, a family Zumbini class is offered.
- Carnival’s partnership with Dr. Seuss Enterprises, called ‘Dr. Seuss at Sea,’ has only expanded over the years. On various ships across the fleet, you’ll find Dr. Seuss parades, themed activities, the Dr. Seuss Bookville kids’ library, storytimes, and even a special Green Eggs & Ham breakfast.
- Expanded kids’ menus in the dining room include a daily special, and older kids can grab dinner poolside at the 24-hour pizzeria or the grill and — of course — pick up soft-serve ice cream anytime. If you purchase the Bottomless Bubbles Soda Card, kids will have access to unlimited sodas and juices in various venues across the ship.
Dr. Seuss Bookville on Carnival and a waterpark on Norwegian
Our Pick: Carnival — The offerings for kids are pretty similar on both lines, but Carnival’s partnership with Dr. Seuss gives them the edge.
Both lines provide affordable Vegas-meets-Orlando vacations — a marriage of flashy decor and theme park-style amenities.
Our Pick: It’s a tough call, but Carnival edges out Norwegian ever so slightly. These two lines are very comparable in most categories, but Carnival nudges Norwegian out in more of them. Norwegian excels when it comes to itineraries, entertainment, and dining quality, but Carnival’s variety of unique cabins, included onboard activities, and complimentary restaurants make them the perfect option for families who value variety and are looking for more included amenities in their cruise fare.
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