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Royal Caribbean vs. Carnival: Which big-ship cruise line should you choose?

July 25, 2022
10 min read
Carnival and Royal Caribbean cruise ships in Nassau, Bahamas.
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If you’re considering a cruise with Royal Caribbean or Carnival Cruise Line, you’re looking at an affordable big-ship experience with lots of activities.

These two companies are the largest in the cruise industry, each with two dozen ships carrying millions of passengers a year. They are popular for a reason: Their ships offer something for everyone, from kids to seniors.

Let’s go head-to-head, Carnival versus Royal Caribbean, to highlight their similarities and differences and help you choose the line that’s right for you.

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Size of ships

Both Carnival Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean have two sizes of megaships. Their smaller ships carry 3,000 to 4,000 passengers; their larger ships are huge and carry more than 5,000 guests. Royal Caribbean wins the battle of size, with five of the world’s largest ships — including Wonder of the Seas, the largest cruise ship afloat.

Royal Caribbean’s largest, Oasis-class ships are so big they are divided into neighborhoods, including a Central Park with real trees and a Boardwalk area with a carousel and high-diving show. Not to be outdone, Carnival’s largest ship, Mardi Gras, and soon-to-debut sister ship Carnival Celebration are divided into zones — such as Mardi Gras’ French Quarter with a live jazz club.

No matter the size, all the ships of both lines qualify as floating resorts, with onboard casinos, pools, live entertainment, elaborate spas, lively dance clubs, lots of bars — and crowds.

Related: The 6 classes of Royal Caribbean ships, explained

Cabins and suites

(Photo courtesy of Royal Caribbean)

Both lines cite with pride their price range for all vacationers, but you’ll notice each excels in a different accommodation area.

Royal Caribbean is a better option if you want a huge selection of cabin categories. The cruise line offers everything from tight inside cabins with virtual balconies (a video replicates the sea) to fancy two-story loft suites, with the most room choice on its largest ships. You can book suites with views of the high-diving show. The soothing decor is like a Marriott or Hilton hotel, nice and slightly upscale.

Carnival wins for the size of its standard cabins, which are the largest in the industry. The decor is typically bright and casual. Specialty cabins on select ships include Family Harbor cabins, with access to a shared family lounge, and Havana suites, with daytime access to a private pool area. The newest ships have more suites than earlier ships.

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

Food and drink

When looking at dining options on Royal Caribbean versus Carnival, Carnival has the edge for abundant included offerings and Royal Caribbean leads with its number of extra-fee specialty restaurants.

Carnival fans will tell you the food onboard is great, and most travel writers will agree the line shines in this area — including extra-fee options such as impressive steakhouses and JiJi for Asian cuisine. Carnival’s lineup of free eats is impressive — headlined by poolside burgers by Food Network star Guy Fieri, but also including Mexican, barbecue and excellent Italian-style pizza.

If you like Indian cuisine, you are in for a treat with delicious vegetarian dishes on the main dining room menu each night. On select ships, Carnival has its own breweries, where the drink is accompanied by barbecue by Fieri (for a fee), and New Orleans bistros by Emeril Lagasse.

Most of Royal Caribbean’s free food is found in its Windjammer Marketplace (the buffet) and main dining rooms, the focus again on normal cuisine you’d expect to find at a hotel. Ships offer a variety of extra-fee restaurants, with specialties ranging from sushi to steak. A shining point in these alternative venues is Jamie’s Italian, in partnership with British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver. You also can pay for a burger and milkshake at Johnny Rockets on Royal Caribbean’s larger ships.

Related: The ultimate guide to cruise ship food and dining

Kids activities

Wonder Playscape on Royal Caribbean's Wonder of the Seas. (Photo courtesy of Royal Caribbean)

Both cruise lines have well-established programs to keep your kids happy, so you can get some downtime to relax and do grown-up things. Both lines host more than a million children a year. The camp-like programs include age-appropriate activities such as arts and crafts, movies and sports in playrooms and cool clubs for tweens and teens.

Royal Caribbean’s Adventure Ocean program (for ages 3-12) includes an opportunity for kids to become Certified Jr. Adventure Scientists. There are also Royal Babies and Royal Tots options for those travelers with infants and toddlers.

Carnival’s Camp Ocean program (for ages 2-11) has some activities designed to educate kids about the ocean. Carnival also has a partnership with Dr. Seuss that includes encouraging children to read the classic books and get to know the characters in a participatory parade, during story times and at an extra-fee Green Eggs and Ham Breakfast hosted by the Cat in the Hat.

Related: 5 best cruise lines for families

Onboard attractions

Active cruisers take note: Royal Caribbean is an innovative company and pushes the envelope on activities. All the cruise line’s ships have rock climbing walls and many have FlowRider surfing simulators.

Among the activity choices on various ships are ice skating rinks, carousels, zip lines, miniature golf, laser tag, escape rooms, water slides, simulated skydiving setups, a 10-story thrill slide called Ultimate Abyss, a mechanical arm that lifts a London Eye-style pod high above the ship for views, and other mind-blowing features. The larger the ship, the more onboard activities you’ll find.

Carnival can’t quite compete in this department, but you certainly won’t be bored. It’s known for its WaterWorks water parks with multiple waterslides and splash areas for little kids, as well as for Bolt, the first rollercoaster at sea (found only on Mardi Gras and the new Carnival Celebration).

On select ships, you will find outdoor ropes courses where you can walk a plank off the ship (while in a harness), a top-deck ride involving pedaling a hanging recumbent bike, miniature golf, Imax theaters and indoor trampoline parks.

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

Entertainment

Available on the top decks of many cruise ships, miniature golf is a fun way for passengers to pick up clubs without polluting the ocean. (Photo courtesy of Carnival Cruise Line)

Royal Caribbean and Carnival take different approaches to onboard entertainment, as well, though you’ll never be bored on either line.

Royal Caribbean produces real Broadway shows (albeit shortened versions) such as “Grease,” “Hairspray” and “Cats” on its biggest ships. Select ships feature innovative performance spaces; you’ll find outdoor shows featuring acrobats and high-divers at the line’s Aqua Theaters, and ice skating shows at its ice skating rinks.

Multimedia shows in high-tech Two70 theaters on the Quantum-class ships feature performers and robotics. A popular late-night hangout spot is the Boleros salsa dance clubs.

Carnival also excels at live entertainment, but its style is different from Royal Caribbean’s. Instead of Broadway musicals, it offers 35- to 45-minute high-tech Playlist Productions, featuring singers and dancers performing to familiar tunes. Carnival puts a big emphasis on comedy; the line’s Punchliner Comedy Clubs hosts more than 27,000 live performances a year, which makes Carnival the largest employer of comics in the world.

Carnival also puts together its own live bands and musical acts — whether jazz, rock ‘n' roll, show band or classical — that entertain at various bars and public areas throughout its ships.

While both lines offer a roster of games and contests, Carnival has shipboard versions of popular shows such as “Lip Sync Battle” and “Family Feud." It’s known for its audience participation games around the pool and rollicking music trivia.

Related: Which cruise ship activities should you book ahead of time?

Who is onboard?

Carnival’s focus is affordable contemporary cruising for everyone, with an emphasis on fun. Its “Fun Ships” provide a casual and carefree experience; the crowd is mostly American, young and young-at-heart adults and their families. A lot of people come aboard looking for fun times — but don’t think it’s a haven for debauchery; it’s still a family line.

Since Carnival sails from many U.S. ports, you’ll find a high percentage of cruisers on board hail from nearby states and have driven to the ship — meaning different ships can have different vibes and passenger bases.

Royal Caribbean’s crowd is a mix of international travelers and those from North America, including couples, families and singles from all walks of life. You’ll find night owls on Royal Caribbean too, though the crowd is a tad more upscale, and less rowdy, than on Carnival. That’s partly because Royal Caribbean ships have a higher percentage of expensive suites on board and attract the types of travelers who can afford to pay for that type of luxury.

Itineraries

Carnival ships mostly cruise in North America, with voyages in the Caribbean, Bahamas, Bermuda, Alaska, Canada/New England and the Mexican Riviera (from California). The line offers limited sailings in Europe. It will return to Australia in 2023 (with sailings marketed to locals).

Royal Caribbean puts much emphasis on North America – the Caribbean, Bahamas (including the line’s own extravagant private island, Perfect Day at Coco Cay), Alaska, Canada/New England and the Mexican Riviera – but also sails several regions in Europe. Its ships can be found in other international destinations such as Australia and New Zealand and the Middle East.

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

Bottom line

As a first-time cruiser, you can’t go wrong with either line. Pick Royal Caribbean if you are looking for innovative attractions and a slightly more upscale atmosphere, and Carnival if you want great food and to have a blast in a casual environment at a very affordable price.

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Feature photo by Daniel Piraino/EyeEm/Getty Images.

Featured image by Daniel Piraino/EyeEm/Getty Images
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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  • Earn 3 Points per $1 spent at Restaurants and Supermarkets
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  • 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