Carnival vs. Royal Caribbean

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So far I’ve cruised with three different cruise lines: Commodore (1992, now extinct), Carnival (5-night to Cozumel/Cancun on Holiday in 2003 and 8-night to Southern Caribbean on Legend in 2006), and Royal Caribbean (4-night to Bahamas on Majesty of the Seas in 2010). Jenny and I sailed with Carnival the first two times we cruised together and really enjoyed it, but we wanted to try some other lines for comparison. Here are my thoughts on how Carnival and Royal Caribbean line up in our own experience. Keep in mind that some things could have changed on Carnival since our last sailing four years ago, and I can only compare the ships and itineraries I’ve actually sailed. Newer ships are generally better than older ships, which can make a big difference.

Food – Carnival

I thought the food on both lines was very good, but I’ll give Carnival a slight edge. They use similar approaches, with two main dining rooms for formal/semi-formal dining, a casual buffet, and a few smaller restaurants, some of which cost money. In the main dining room, both menus included excellent food, but Carnival’s was more varied and offered some special treats like lobster tail that Royal Caribbean did not. The buffets were very similar.

The current trend is to offer a high-end dining experience (think fancy steakhouse or similar) for an extra fee. I understand the appeal to the cruise lines, but I’m not a fan. The whole point of a cruise, to me, is for nearly everything to be included. Carnival Legend offered a few of those options, although we chose not to partake. Royal Caribbean only offered one on our ship, a Johnny Rockets. I like Johnny Rockets a lot, but I was miffed at paying a $4.95 service fee PLUS getting charged for sodas or shakes. I could almost get a burger and fries at a land-based Johnny Rockets for $5.

Dining Room Seating – Royal Caribbean

This is a huge one for me. When I go on a cruise, I’m spending hundreds of dollars and lots of time to travel with my wife, not to get stuck at a dinner table with a bunch of strangers who don’t want to dine with me, either. Royal Caribbean let us sit by ourselves at a two-top every night in the main dining room, which was wonderful. They also have added My Time Dining, which lets us adjust our dining time as needed instead of being locked into a specific early or late seating. Carnival might have changed its dining policies since we sailed with them. If not, it needs to.

Service/Staff – Tie

Although as you’d expect, both lines have a few employees who obviously don’t enjoy their jobs, most of them were nice, friendly, and eager to please. On our RC cruise, our waiters and the Guest Relations rep really shone, while the rock climbing wall guys were just going through the motions. Jenny remembers the Carnival staff being overall more helpful and friendly, so perhaps I should hand this one slightly to Carnival.

Rooms – Carnival

Carnival’s rooms are bigger and include more storage and better TVs. Sure, you don’t really need a huge amount of space on a cruise, but it’s definitely nice to have when you’re traveling with someone. Royal Caribbean really packs in the rooms. Cruise bathrooms are always small unless you pay big money for a deluxe room, but Carnival offers more living space, including a separate couch in many cases. Compare an oceanview room on Carnival Legend to the same room on Majesty of the Seas.

Ship Design – Tie

Carnival’s decor is much bolder. Some call it gaudy, and with good reason. Royal Caribbean’s is more subdued and to my taste, like a nice hotel. I prefer Carnival’s ship layout in general. Carnival Legend is my favorite ship so far. However, somehow RC’s Majesty felt less crowded despite being smaller and holding more people.

Shows – Royal Caribbean

Carnival had some decent song-and-dance shows, but Royal Caribbean’s really impressed me. They had four singers and five or six dancers who seemed to really love their craft and were blessed with real talent. When a singer makes me want to sing myself, I get happy.

Onboard Amenities – Tie

Naturally, this one varies strongly from ship to ship, based largely on the size of the ship. As a matter of policy, Carnival seems to focus more on dancing than Royal Caribbean, although both get started too late for my taste, making me feel quite old. Our RC ship had one dance club that didn’t open until 11:30pm, so we never went dancing like we’d wanted. RC did offer the rock climbing wall, which we really enjoyed. RC had a better, larger jogging track but a smaller gym with a ceiling so low that it couldn’t offer elliptical machines.

Sunbathing Dress Code – Carnival

Some, if not all, of Carnival’s ships offer a clothing-optional sunbathing area on one of the highest decks. Royal Caribbean ships do not except on European itineraries. It’s nice to have the option for those who prefer not to have tan lines.

Embarkation/Disembarkation – Royal Caribbean

We made the fortunate mistake of getting to the Royal Caribbean terminal a bit later than planned, around two hours prior to departure. Apparently, most of the guests were already onboard, so we had NO wait. Both times we sailed with Carnival, we had to wait in line for some time, maybe 30 minutes or more, and fill out lots of paperwork. (Carnival might have streamlined their embarkation process by now) Upon our return, we chose Express Departure with RC and had virtually no waiting there, either, compared to 30-60 minutes or more with Carnival.

Little Details – Carnival

Royal Caribbean missed a few details that Carnival got right, such as forgetting to give us soap in our bathroom at first, forgetting to give us a guest satisfaction survey at the end, and neglecting to station someone at the gangway to steal store our wine purchases.

Price – Carnival

In general, Carnival seems to be a bit cheaper, but not by much, especially on the off-season cruises we choose.

Clientele – Carnival

We normally sail in October, so your experience might be different. Carnival seems to cater to younger people. I’m sure this could be more of a problem during Spring Break and summertime when the college students go out to drink as much as possible, but it also means that they offer more of the things that appeal to people our age. (Yes, I still consider myself sort of young!) I encountered a few more rude passengers on Royal Caribbean than I did on Carnival, and Jenny found some of the older crowd to get obnoxious when they drank, whereas the younger people on Carnival just got buzzed and happy and weren’t too difficult to tolerate. Obviously, this is very subjective. =)

Overall – Carnival

I think I have to go with Carnival by a small margin. The dining-room seating on Royal is a big sticking point for me, but if Carnival would give us a way to sit alone (I’ve read this is possible now), I think I would come down more strongly on the Carnival side. However, we did have a very good experience on Royal Caribbean and wouldn’t mind sailing with them again. Actually, we hope to try a different line for our next cruise, possibly Norwegian. Eventually (once we have more money!), we hope to sail on Disney, Princess, and Holland America to see what they are like. Since each cruiser values different things, you can find devoted fans of all cruise lines.

For other opinions, check out CruiseCritic.

What are your thoughts? Have you sailed on any of these cruise lines?

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