Considering taking a cruise, but not too familiar with all the various cruise lines? You may find yourself debating between Royal Caribbean and Carnival. Both are incredibly popular cruise lines, but both are very different.
While Carnival Cruise Line is more affordable and known for its family-friendly amenities, Royal Caribbean offers family-friendly amenities, but with more of a luxurious feel and a “wow” factor.
Itineraries differ as well, with Carnival offering more U.S.-based sailings, and Royal Caribbean sailing to more destinations outside of the United States.
To help you pick the best cruise line for your next vacation, we’re breaking down everything you need to know about Royal Caribbean vs. Carnival.
In This Article…
When it comes to fleet size, both of the major cruise lines are pretty well matched, but in recent years Royal Caribbean has pushed ahead with more new ships joining the fleet. Carnival Cruise Line has 25 ships and Royal Caribbean International has 26.
Carnival has a few older ships, with its oldest being the Carnival Elation, built in 1998, but it also offers a few newer ships, too, with its newest ships, such as the Excel class of Mardi Gras, Carnival Celebration and Carnival Jubilee.
Royal Caribbean, on the other hand, has a slightly younger fleet, with its oldest ship, Grandeur of the Seas, being built in 1996.
In terms of ship sizes, the two cruise lines are well-matched there, too. Carnival’s smallest ships are its Fantasy-class vessels, which hold just over 2,000 passengers, while its largest ship is the Mardi Gras, which holds just over 5,000 passengers.
Similarly, Royal Caribbean offers smaller ships in its Vision class, with capacities hovering around 2,000 people. Royal Caribbean’s largest ship as of July 2023 is Wonder of the Seas, which has a gross tonnage of 236,600 and a passenger capacity of 5,734 at double occupancy.
However, in January 2024 Royal Caribbean’s new class Icon of the Seas will become the new world’s largest cruise ship at 250,000 gross otns a guest capacity of 5,610 at double occupancy.
So, who wins? Both cruise lines offer a range of ships of varying ages and varying sizes. Carnival has led for a long time, but Royal Caribbean is becoming the leader in terms of passenger numbers and ships.
When cruising with Carnival, you’ll find that there are more than a dozen home ports in North America, with a ton of cruises available out of Florida and New England. There are lots of itineraries that travel around the Caribbean and along the Mexican Riviera and to Cancun. On rarer occasions, Carnival offers longer sailings and sailings to and around Europe, but it’s not the norm.
Royal Caribbean, on the other hand, has fewer North American home ports, but it still offers a lot of the same itineraries to the Caribbean and Mexico, in addition to cruises to Hawaii and Alaska. There are European cruises available more regularly with Royal Caribbean than with Carnival, and there are even some cruises that travel around Asia and Australia.
Who wins? It depends on what you’re looking for. If you want a more affordable cruise headed out of a popular North American port, and you primarily have your sights set on Caribbean destinations, you’ll do fine with Carnival.
If you want to travel to Alaska, Hawaii or anywhere off the East Coast or around Europe or Asia, you’ll do best to pick Royal Caribbean.
Carnival offers large cabins in general and, the newer the ship you book, the better and more modern your cabin. There are specialty cabins available, too, such as the Cloud 9 Spa rooms that provide extra spa-related amenities, and the Havana cabins on newer ships, which include access to a private Havana-class pool and deck.
There are some family cabins, though not as many as you might think that they would have based off of how much the cruise line markets itself to families. Family suites are available on select ships.
In general, Carnival’s cabins (as well as the entirety of the line’s ships) feel more colorful, bold and cheerful. Everything is very festive and fun.
On Royal Caribbean, you can find a wide array of cabin styles, with some pretty cool features that you might not see with other cruise lines. These include the cruise line’s virtual balcony interior cabins that project real-time exterior views onto your interior wall, for the illusion of a floor-to-ceiling window. Large suites are also available, as are family cabins.
Royal Caribbean’s vibe and decor style is a little more elegant and upscale than what you’ll see on Carnival. The bright colors have been swapped out for sleeker color palettes, more similar to what you might see in an upscale, modern hotel.
Who wins when it comes to cabins? Royal Caribbean takes top points for its upscale feel and hotel-like designs.
Entertainment and Activities
As you could probably guess, Carnival Cruise Line offers loads of family-friendly, kid-geared activities. Activities include pools, waterparks (including the WaterWorks water park), outdoor sports centers (with mini golf, basketball, volleyball and more) and, for the new Mardi Gras ship, a roller coaster. Other entertainment options on newer ships include ropes courses and SkyRide, a recumbent bike ride on the top decks.
When it’s time to head indoors, Carnival offers your standard comedy sets, Broadway-style performances and live music. Nightlife options include poolside movies, nightclub-esque parties and DJ sets.
However, Royal Caribbean takes the fun up a notch. While the line may not be as renowned for its family-friendly atmosphere as Carnival is, it still manages to “wow” with all things entertainment-related.
Royal Caribbean boasts multiple pools on each ship, FlowRider surfing simulators, water parks, zippiness, indoor skydiving and rock climbing walls, among other entertainment options. About half of Royal Caribbean’s ships offer indoor ice skating rinks.
Newer ships in the Quantum-class offer the SeaPlex, an indoor entertainment center with activities such as roller skating and trapeze classes. Of course, Broadway-style shows are on tap, as are aerial shows, acrobatic stunts at the AquaTheater and DJ sets.
Who wins? Royal Caribbean is your place to go for truly “wow”-worthy entertainment and activities. No matter which ship you sail on, you’re sure to find near-endless ways to stay busy and have fun.
Dining and Bars & Lounges
Carnival offers both fixed and flexible dining options. There are fewer specialty dining options on Carnival cruise ships, and the included, basic dining options are firm fan favorites. These include long-standing options such as the BlueIguana Cantina, Guy’s Burger Joint and Guy’s Pig & Anchor Bar-b-Que.
Carnival is no stranger to celebrity restaurant concepts, either, as is obvious with the line’s partnerships with celebrity chef Guy Fieri, Shaq and Emeril Lagasse.
Royal Caribbean offers, similarly, fixed and flexible dining options. There are many more specialty dining options on Royal Caribbean ships, as compared to Carnival cruise ships. The basic restaurants included in your fare are pretty standard, though, and pretty much just include a few casual and cafe options, as well as ships’ main dining rooms.
Royal Caribbean doesn’t have as many celebrity endorsements, though it does offer a restaurant concept from celebrity chef Jamie Oliver.
Both cruise lines offer drink packages to help you cover the cost of your bar tab versus paying for drinks one at a time. The packages allow you to pay one price for your drinks.
Royal Caribbean’s drink package is more expensive than Carnival’s; however, Royal Caribbean’s drink package doesn’t limit the number of alcoholic drinks you can consume in one day, whereas Carnival’s drink package limits you to 15 drinks.
When it comes to dining, who takes the top prize? It’s a tie here, because, as with sailings and deployment, which cruise line has the best dining and drinking option for you will all depend on what you’re after.
If you want flexibility and lots of free dining options, go with Carnival. If you want lots of specialty dining options, and free-flowing drinks — and don’t mind paying for them — go with Royal Caribbean.
Other Onboard Features
Other onboard features that the two cruise lines offer?
Carnival’s family focus is pretty solid, as you might expect. Kids clubs include separate clubs for elementary-age kids, preteens and teenagers. The Seuss at Sea program is pretty popular, and includes several events throughout each cruise, including costume parades and breakfasts with characters. Babysitting is available, as are spa treatments for teens.
Royal Caribbean also boasts plenty of family fun, with programming for elementary-age kids, preteens and teenagers as well. Babysitting is also available.
Beyond the family stuff, other amenities abound and each cruise line offers its own special twist on the cruising experience.
Royal Caribbean, for example, is known for some high-tech amenities, such as its robotic bartenders, fast WiFi, app, luggage tracking and online check-in. Royal Caribbean also boasts its own private island with a water park, which is an included stop on many Caribbean siblings.
For other onboard features, Royal Caribbean wins for its plenteous amenities, even if its children’s programming isn’t as robust as what Carnival offers its passengers.
The Perfect Day Island at Cococay in the Bahamas has been recently redesigned and features tons of ways to play and have, well, a perfect day — all without battling the crowds you might find at a normal cruise port.
Carnival’s private island, on the other hand, is Half Moon Cay, also in the Bahamas. While it certainly offers its own perks and benefits, it’s not nearly as hype-worthy as Perfect Day Island.
When you’re on a cruise, you end up sailing with the same few thousand people for a week or more, and while that might seem like a ton of people and you probably would think that wouldn’t run into the same folks twice… You’d be surprised how much and how often you see the same individuals.
For that reason, it’s nice to cruise with people you like and people that are similar in things such as taste and preferences.
On Carnival, you’ll find a lot of families, children, singles and budget-traveling couples. Most passengers are middle-aged adults. On Royal Caribbean, you’ll find more couples and singles than families, with most travelers being middle-aged or older adults.
There’s no clear winner when it comes to cruisers, as each line caters to different types of travelers, though some cruisers may find things to love about both lines.
When it comes to cost, there’s no argument that Carnival offers the more affordable cruise fares. The cruise line’s entire reputation has been built on affordable cruises for the entire family. Pricing includes most of your dining venues and entertainment, and you can often find sales and promotions that allow you to cruise at an even lower cost.
Royal Caribbean, on the other hand, certainly doesn’t break the bank when it comes to cruising. It’s still entirely possible to cruise on a budget with the line. However, Royal Caribbean is slightly more expensive than Carnival, and this is especially the case when it comes to its newer, ritzier ships.
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Additionally, Royal Caribbean’s basic cruise fares don’t offer all the same inclusions that Carnival bundles into its basic cruise fares; you might find yourself paying extra for things like dining and entertainment.
The clear winner is Carnival when it comes to cost, for sure. You just can’t beat the line’s prices.
Carnival Cruise Line operates 25 ships on voyages ranging from 2 to 17 days, with three new ships planned to start sailing over the next few years.
Royal Caribbean operates 26 ships as well, and is building new ships to add to the fleet. There are five Oasis- and Icon-class ships that are either under construction or under agreement.
Technically, Carnival Cruise Line could be considered larger than Royal Caribbean, given that the line is a part of Carnival Corporation, which oversees nine different cruising brands, making it the largest cruise vacation company in the world. Carnival Corporation’s brands include AIDA, Carnival Cruise Lines, Costa, Cunard, Holland America, Princess Cruises, P&O Cruises Australia, P&O Cruises UK and Seabourn.