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Norwegian Cruise Line vs. Carnival Cruise Line: Battle of the big-ship brands

Sept. 06, 2022
12 min read
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If you’re considering a cruise with Norwegian Cruise Line or Carnival Cruise Line, you’re looking at two big-ship brands offering lots of onboard activities and attractions at an affordable price.

The two highly popular cruise lines operate fleets of megaships with facilities you would expect to find at a resort, such as casinos, pools, restaurants, live entertainment, fancy spas and lots of bars.

Both lines offer something for everyone. Couples, seniors, solo travelers and families with kids come on board for a lively roster of activities and some “wow” attractions. Both lines focus much of their attention on fun-in-the-sun itineraries in the Bahamas and Caribbean, sailing from U.S. ports. Norwegian also has the only ship that sails year-round in the Hawaiian Islands.

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Let’s compare Norwegian vs. Carnival to see what they have in common, and what they don’t, to help you find the cruise that’s right for you.

Size of ships

DANNY LEHMAN/NORWEGIAN CRUISE LINE

Norwegian Cruise Line’s 18 ships carry from just over 1,900 passengers (small by megaship standards) to around 4,100 passengers. The line is not trying to win the size war (Royal Caribbean, for instance, has ships that top 6,000 passengers) but has plenty of excitement on board. For example, some of the latest Norwegian ships are topped by multilevel go-kart racetracks, ropes courses and laser tag arenas.

Carnival Cruise Line’s larger fleet has several 2,100-passenger ships, though most Carnival ships carry 3,000 to 4,000 passengers. The latest ships — Mardi Gras and Carnival Celebration — have a passenger capacity topping 5,200. Those two ships are topped by real roller coasters, an industry first.

Mardi Gras also debuted in 2021 as the first ship in North America to operate on cleaner burning Liquified Natural Gas (LNG), which reduces the ship’s output of carbon. The soon-to-debut Carnival Celebration is LNG-fueled as well. Norwegian’s newest ship, Norwegian Prima, also operates on LNG.

Related: The 8 classes of Norwegian Cruise Line ships, explained

Cabins and suites

Cabin choices abound on both cruise lines, but Norwegian is particularly innovative in this realm and in some ways Carnival is playing catch up with its rival.

On upper decks on several Norwegian ships is The Haven, akin to a boutique hotel located within the larger ship. Suite guests receive exclusive access to the gated complex, where they can escape the crowds elsewhere on the ship in their own private oasis with its own restaurant, lounge, pool and sundeck. The decor of the suites has a contemporary flair that matches the fancy surroundings. Haven passengers are, of course, free to roam the entire ship and enjoy all its attractions.

Another area where Norwegian gets particularly creative on the latest ships is in accommodations for travelers cruising solo. Studio cabins are designed for one, with mood lights and other features that make the inside accommodations seem more spacious than they are. The benefit here is single-occupancy pricing and a private lounge for socializing with other solo passengers.

Also on select ships are cabins specifically designed for families (near kids’ play areas) and spa lovers (near the spa).

Carnival tops Norwegian, and other competitors, with the largest standard cabins in the industry. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the line has taken a deep dive into suites on its latest ships, creating impressive accommodations with their own outdoor plunge pools, plus a private sundeck for suite guests.

Select ships have special Family Harbor staterooms and suites that come with the benefit of a shared family lounge. Havana Suites are accommodations designed for sun-worshippers; these come with daytime access to a private pool area. Spa accommodations feature easy access to the spa and special amenities.

Related: Everything you want to know about Carnival cabins and suites

Food and drink

The Chef's Table on a Carnival Cruise Line ship. CARNIVAL CRUISE LINE

Carnival has long managed to have some of the tastiest food at sea, including extra-fee specialty dining venues. Favorites include JiJi’s for authentic Asian cuisine and the various steakhouses for a date-night splurge.

You don’t have to pay a cent extra for many of Carnival’s mouthwatering restaurants. Decadent poolside burgers by Food Network star Guy Fieri are a particular passenger favorite, but you can also find complimentary tacos and burritos, as well as crispy crust pizza.

The Carnival chefs are not afraid of titillating tastebuds with flavor; if you like Indian cuisine, request it from your dining room waiter and you are in for a treat. On select ships, Carnival brews its own beer on board, and the beer may be accompanied by barbecue by Guy Fieri (for a fee). On Mardi Gras and the upcoming Carnival Celebration, there are New Orleans bistros by Emeril Lagasse.

Fun bars also abound. At Carnival’s Alchemy Bar, patrons fill out a prescription pad of their favorites and bartenders “prescribe” a special concoction. On Mardi Gras, molecular drinks smoke and otherwise impress at The Fortune Teller bar, and Carnival Celebration will feature a menu of throwback drinks to celebrate the cruise line’s 50th anniversary.

Norwegian’s “Freestyle Cruising” dining concept skips giant main dining rooms with assigned tables and dining times in favor of multiple restaurants, where you can eat whenever you want. However, many of these eateries cost extra and require reservations. Foodies don’t mind paying for the upgrade in meals; look for dining packages to keep costs in check.

Norwegian is all about giving its guests choices, and its newest ships boast more than two dozen dining options. Free eats include smaller dining rooms, pubs with grub and buffets, while splurges include steak, Asian, French and Brazilian venues. You can even order “Cheeseburgers in Paradise” at an onboard outpost of Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville.

The line also shines when it comes to outdoor dining with views. Indoors, Skyy Ice Bars are a kitschy attraction for those who don’t mind bundling in a parka to enjoy vodka on ice.

Related: The ultimate guide to cruise ship food and dining

Kids activities

Both cruise lines have well-established drop-off kids programming that takes place in dedicated play areas and cool hangout spaces. Youth counselors lead age-appropriate activities, such as arts and crafts, movies, and sports, or let kids veg out with video games and movies. (In the meantime, grownups can get a break from parenting and spend some time enjoying the spa or a drink by the pool.)

Carnival’s Camp Ocean program caters to kids ages 2-11 (with an emphasis on marine-themed activities that are fun and educational), while Circle C and Club O2 are its cool clubs for tweens and teens, respectively. The line has partnered with Dr. Seuss to offer libraries of kids' books, story times and parades with the author’s beloved characters, and a Green Eggs and Ham Breakfast, hosted by The Cat in The Hat, that’s fun for all ages. (Breakfast does incur a nominal fee.)

Norwegian’s Splash Academy keeps kids ages 5-12 happy with all the usual creative games and crafts, plus a Circus School. Teens ages 13-17 make friends at Entourage, where they can play the latest video games, dance at evening parties or just chill out in comfy seating areas.

Related: 5 best cruise lines for families

Onboard attractions

GENE SLOAN/THE POINTS GUY

Would you rather race on a go-kart track or push turbo for a faster ride on a roller coaster? Those are the top attractions on the newest four ships of Norwegian and the two newest ships of Carnival, respectively. These active floating playgrounds offer supercharged indoor and outdoor activities for all ages.

In addition to BOLT, the first roller coaster at sea on Mardi Gras and Carnival Celebration, Carnival has its WaterWorks waterparks with exciting waterslides. Depending on the ship, you might also find outdoor ropes courses where you can walk a plank off the ship (while in a harness); an elevated recumbent bike you can pedal around a track; mini golf; Imax theaters; and indoor trampoline parks.

Norwegian matches Carnival with a ropes course on select ships, complete with The Plank. It also goes hi-tech with its Galaxy Pavilion, full of virtual reality gaming and experiences. Look for Aqua Parks equipped with racing slides, full-size basketball courts, escape rooms, augmented reality laser tag, mini golf and bowling. The new 3,250-passenger Norwegian Prima will feature a first for the line — a pair of 10-story free-fall thrill slides.

Related: The 9 craziest attractions you'll find on a cruise ship

Entertainment

Both lines excel in entertainment, though they take different approaches.

Norwegian Cruise Line signs Broadway and West End shows for slightly shortened shipboard productions, creates its own shows and searches around the world for interesting acts. You can catch productions of such popular shows as “Kinky Boots” and “Six,” as well as the super-fun pub show “The Choir of Man” and Latin dance show “Burn the Floor.”

Adults can pay extra for shows themed around wine or prohibition cocktails; kids aren’t allowed because the fun comes with drinks. Comedy, improv and themed parties are all favorites of the late-night crowd.

Comedy is front and center in Carnival’s entertainment lineup. The cruise line’s Punchliner Comedy Clubs host more than 27,000 live performances a year, which makes Carnival the largest employer of comics in the world. It also wins the live music battle and puts together its own bands — whether jazz, rock ‘n‘ roll, show band, or classical.

You won’t find Broadway here, but Carnival does create its own high-tech shows called Playlist Productions. These feature singers and dancers and familiar tunes but are purposely limited to 35- to 45-minute performances.

Both lines offer a roster of games and contests tied to popular TV shows. Carnival has shipboard versions of “Lip Sync Battle” and “Family Feud,” while Norwegian runs “Deal or No Deal” and “The Price is Right” games (complete with prizes).

Both lines recruit performers from around the world and have their own Florida studios where the casts and musicians rehearse.

Who is on board?

Passengers looking out over the ocean as part of Carnival's 'Funderstruck' marketing campaign. CARNIVAL CRUISE LINE

Carnival strives to offer affordable and fun cruises for everyone. The family-friendly ships are casual and carefree; the crowd is mostly American, with both couples and families on board. Carnival cruisers stay up late to take advantage of the casinos, dance clubs and late-night themed parties.

Carnival fares are also among the lowest in the Bahamas and Caribbean, and the line sails from multiple U.S. home ports, making its cruises accessible to a vast pool of vacationers.

Norwegian’s “Freestyle Cruising” attracts all ages, from kids to seniors, who prefer the casual, less traditional onboard vibe. No one is forcing a dress code here; you can get dolled up for date night, or stick with jeans for a casual dinner. On cruises from the U.S., the crowd is mostly from North America.

Norwegian’s prices are typically higher than Carnival’s cruise fares, but often include a list of pick-your-own value-added perks, such as free drinks, Wi-Fi or onboard spending credit.

When comparing prices on the two lines, it’s important to look at what is included and what is not.

Related: The ultimate guide to Carnival Cruise Line

Itineraries

Norwegian has the bulk of its ships in North America but also sails to destinations around the world. Carnival sticks closer to North America.

Carnival ships cruise the Caribbean, Bahamas, Bermuda, Alaska, Canada/New England and the Mexican Riviera from convenient drive-to ports along the U.S. coast. For instance, you can sail to Cabo from Long Beach or Cozumel from New Orleans. The line also offers limited sailings in Europe.

Norwegian is the only cruise line with a ship — the American-flagged Pride of America — that is based in Hawaii year-round. Norwegian focuses much attention on the Caribbean and Bahamas, Alaska, New England and Canada, the Mexican Riviera and Bermuda. The line offers popular, affordable sailings in the Mediterranean and Greek Isles. Other destinations include Northern Europe, Africa, Australia and New Zealand and South America.

Related: The 5 best destinations you can visit on a Norwegian ship

Bottom line: Carnival vs. Norwegian Cruise Line

As a first-time cruiser you can’t go wrong with either line. Pick Norwegian Cruise Line if you are looking for innovative onboard attractions and a contemporary take on casual cruising. Choose Carnival if you want great food and a “Fun Ship” experience in a casual environment and at a very affordable price.

Planning a cruise? Start with these stories:

Featured image by Carnival Ecstasy cruise ship (Photo courtesy of Carnival Cruise Line)
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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3XEarn 3 Points per $1 spent at Restaurants and Supermarkets
3XEarn 3 Points per $1 spent at Gas Stations, Air Travel and Hotels
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    For a limited time, earn 80,000 bonus ThankYou® Points after you spend $4,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening

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  • Annual Fee

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The Citi Premier’s 3 points per dollar spent across a wide range of popular categories is one of the more lucrative offerings in the world of points and miles. The Citi Premier comes with a $95 annual fee and is currently offering a solid sign up bonus of 80,000 points after you spend $4,000 on purchases within the first three months. It also has some valuable transfer partners to make the most of your rewards. Add in access to Citi Entertainment plus a $100 hotel credit for any single-stay hotel booking that exceeds $500 or more, excluding taxes and fees, booked through the Citi travel website, there are few reasons why the Citi Premier should not be in every traveler’s wallet.

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  • $100 annual hotel savings benefit (on single hotel stay bookings of $500 or more, excluding taxes and fees, booked through thankyou.com)
  • Points transfer to 16 airline programs, from JetBlue to Virgin Atlantic.
  • World Elite Mastercard benefits, extended warranty, damage and theft protection.

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  • $95 annual fee
  • Lacks travel protections that other travel rewards cards come with
  • For a limited time, earn 80,000 bonus ThankYou® Points after you spend $4,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening
  • Earn 3 Points per $1 spent at Restaurants and Supermarkets
  • Earn 3 Points per $1 spent at Gas Stations, Air Travel and Hotels
  • Earn 1 Point per $1 spent on all other purchases
  • Annual Hotel Savings Benefit
  • 80,000 Points are redeemable for $800 in gift cards when redeemed at thankyou.com
  • No expiration and no limit to the amount of points you can earn with this card
  • No Foreign Transaction Fees on purchases