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Royal Caribbean vs. Carnival Cruise Line
800px MS Carnival Valor at Half Moon Cay from beach

Perhaps the two most famous cruise lines in the U.S. cruise industry are Royal Caribbean and Carnival. Both draw millions of cruise guests every year and are equally popular among their passengers. For this reason, first-time cruisers often mistake one cruise line for the other.

However, while there are many similarities between Carnival and Royal Caribbean, there are also many differences between them. Keep reading to discover the major differences between Royal Caribbean International and Carnival Cruise Line and how they compare.

Differences between Carnival Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean International

Cruise Cost

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Both Carnival Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean International are classified as mainstream cruise lines and offer affordable Caribbean getaways and other cruise vacations.

Another similarity between the Royal Caribbean and Carnival cruise lines is that they both favor three ports to embark from, namely: Galveston, Port Canaveral, and Miami.

For this reason, it is easy to compare the prices between the two cruise lines. Typically, July is the peak season for cruises in North America, and the average cruise prices for each line are as follows:

Carnival Cruise Line

  • 3 Nights – 343 USD
  • 5 nights – 569 USD
  • 7 Nights – 884 USD

Royal Caribbean International

  • 3 Nights – 415 USD
  • 5 Nights – 595 USD
  • 7 Nights – 1102 USD

The average cruise fare tends to be slightly cheaper for Carnival cruises than for a Royal Caribbean cruise. However, while Carnival’s fares are lower, it is important to remember that many other factors may affect the price of a cruise. These can include the specific ship in the fleet, the sail date, shore excursions, what is included, and the route of the cruise. You may also find that paying a little bit extra for a more exciting experience onboard is well worth it.

Cruise Ship Size

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One of the categories where Royal Caribbean and Carnival differ is in the ships the cruise lines offer. While the Carnival fleet is home to many large vessels, Royal Caribbean’s fleet is renowned for the sheer size of its vessels and is home to some of the largest cruise ships in the world.

Currently, Icon of the Seas is the World’s Largest Cruise Ship, at nearly one thousand two hundred feet long and with a total guest capacity of seven thousand six hundred passengers. Other Oasis-class ships that have gained notoriety for their size include Royal Caribbean’s Wonder of the Seas, the previous record-holder for the world’s biggest cruise ship.

While slightly smaller, there are some Carnival cruise ships that are comparable to Royal Caribbean ships. Carnival’s largest ship is Carnival Celebration, stretching just over one thousand one hundred feet and with a total guest capacity of six thousand five hundred.

In general, Royal Caribbean International is home to more big ships. Not only does it have several large Oasis-class vessels, but its Quantum-class ships are just as impressive.

Onboard Entertainment and Activities

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Many first-time cruisers don’t realize that the vast majority of their cruise vacation will be spent on the ship itself. Even on shore excursions and port days, cruise ships typically only stay docked for around eight hours at a time. Because of this, the activities and entertainment options cruise ships offer become very important. They can make or break a cruise vacation.

Both Royal Caribbean and Carnival have a lot to offer in terms of onboard entertainment, including live performances and shows, casinos, pool decks, and more. However, Royal Caribbean is known for its innovative cruise ship activities.

Some of the newer Royal Caribbean Ships include things like the tallest water slides at sea, ice skating rinks, bumper cars, rock climbing walls, escape rooms and observation pods where guests can hover directly over the water. Some ships are also home to a surf simulator.

Most Carnival ships have a more classic approach in terms of entertainment, including things like pools, movies, mini-golfing, and jogging tracks. Some recent developments, like the roller-coaster on Carnival Mardi Gras and the onboard IMAX movie theatre on some ships, suggest that Carnival Cruise Line is moving in the same innovative direction as Royal Caribbean’s ships.

Departure Ports

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As cruise lines add more and more ships to their fleet, they are able to set sail from a wider variety of ports, including smaller ones. As mentioned before, both cruise lines tend to favor bigger ports like Miami, Galveston, and Port Canaveral.

However, passengers will be delighted to know that Carnival’s ships also depart from smaller cruise ports, like Jacksonville, Charleston, and Mobile. Royal Caribbean ships depart from New Orleans and Baltimore.

The benefit of smaller cruise ports is that passengers nearby no longer have the added cost of plane tickets for flights to the bigger cruise ports, which can significantly decrease the price of cruise vacations.

Keep in mind that it is typically the smaller and older ships that depart from small ports. The newer Carnival ships and Royal Caribbean ships still sail from the larger cruise ports.

Drink Packages and Pricing

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Alcoholic beverages make up a big part of a cruise ship’s business. It is not uncommon for guests to pay up to fourteen USD for a cocktail, or nine USD for a beer. As a result, bar tabs can get steep.

One way to stay within your cruise budget is by purchasing onboard drink packages ahead of time. With a drinks package, guests pay a set fee every day for an unlimited amount of drinks, making it a great money saver.

Most cruise lines include such packages, with some differences between cruise lines. While the Carnival CHEERS! Package is less expensive, at around sixty USD per day, there is a limit of fifteen alcoholic drinks per twenty-four hours. Non-alcoholic drinks are unlimited. The Royal Caribbean beverage package is slightly more expensive and the price ranges from sixty-three to eighty-nine USD a day, depending on your cruise ship. However, Royal Caribbean has no limit on how many alcoholic beverages can be bought.

Onboard Atmosphere

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Most seasoned passengers agree that there is a different atmosphere on each of the cruise line’s ships. Carnival’s vessels tend to evoke a relaxed and party-friendly atmosphere, often dubbed the “fun ships” of the cruise industry, while Royal Caribbean offers a posh and elegant journey.

This is not to say that Royal Caribbean passengers won’t have a good time, as both cruises include a wide variety of activities and attractions sure to please any kind of guest, but Royal Caribbean vessels seem slightly more subdued than the outgoing atmosphere found on Carnival ships.

Ship Décor

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The décor on the two cruise lines seems to mimic the atmosphere, with Carnival cruise ships typically including bolder, brighter, and more festive colors. Royal Caribbean ships are more focused on an elegant style, with subdued colors, rich wood, and chrome.

These differences are especially noticeable on older Carnival ships, as the newer Carnival vessels seem to lean more towards the muted elegance always found on Royal Caribbean vessels.

Onboard Costs

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One of the main factors that determine the cost of a cruise, is the amount of money spent onboard. This includes everything from souvenirs and gambling to drinks and specialty restaurants. These are all optional expenses, however, and there are more than enough free dining options to choose from – such as meals in the main dining room, included in the ticket fare.

Guests who do plan on spending money on the ship will find that Carnival ships tend to be cheaper than Royal Caribbean vessels. For example, The Wi-Fi plan on a Carnival ship typically costs around fifteen USD a day, while Wi-Fi on a Royal Caribbean ship costs around twenty-three USD a day.

Before cruise lines closed during the pandemic, the average Carnival cruise guest spent around fifty-two USD onboard every day, and the average Royal Caribbean guest spent around sixty-four USD a day.

Added Perks and Benefits

Harmony of the Seas III

If you’re not on a tight budget and you don’t mind spending a little extra, you can make use of one of the VIP perks programs that both Carnival Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean International have to offer.

Faster to the Fun

Faster to the Fun is a perk program offered by Carnival for between forty and one hundred and twenty USD per cabin, depending on the ship and length of your cruise. The following perks are included in the program:

  • Early cabin access
  • Priority delivery of luggage
  • Dedicated guest services
  • Priority reservations for dinner
  • Priority shore access
  • Choice in time for debarkation

The Key

Royal Caribbean offers a similar VIP perks program, called “The Key”. Much like other cruise lines, the price varies between cruise ships and depends on the length of your cruise. However, unlike Carnival cruises, The Key is priced per passenger, per day. It can be more expensive, but this is something that can be determined by the passenger. It also includes more perks, namely:

  • Priority check-in and boarding
  • Welcome lunch (served at Chops Grille)
  • Private hours at attractions (like the rock climbing walls and FlowRider)
  • Priority port departure
  • VIP seating at evening shows
  • Complimentary access to VOOM Internet (only one device)
  • Choice in time of departure

Worldwide Sailings

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If you’re fond of traveling worldwide, you’ll be delighted to know that Roya Caribbean vessels journey all over the globe, including places in the USA, Europe, South America, and Asia. Most ships embark from the U.S., but there are some exceptions.

Typically, Carnival offers U.S. sailings, with a few trips to Europe. Most ships embark from the U.S., with Australia being the only exception.

Private Islands

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It is common practice for cruise lines to have their own private island destinations, exclusive to passengers on their cruise ships. These private islands are typically home to shops, restaurants, and stunning white-sand beaches with turquoise water – ideal for a day out in the sun. Visitors can enjoy kayaking, snorkeling, and a variety of other activities.

One such private island destination is Royal Caribbean’s recently renovated CocoCay. After its renovation, it includes a waterpark with some of the highest waterslides in existence, restaurants, markets, and a freshwater pool. This makes it stand out from other private destinations offered by cruise lines like Carnival.

But not for long. Carnival Corporation announced plans to create a private island destination in the Bahamas (in 2024) that is even larger and better than CocoCay.

Food and Dining

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One of the most important parts of a cruise is the food. Both Royal Caribbean and Carnival offer delicious free and paid dining options, with some differences.

Carnival cruises have fewer free dining options, but the ones that are, include fuller meals. Guy’s Burger Joint, Pizzeria del Capitano, and Blue Iguana Cantina are some of the most popular places to eat for free. There are also some restaurants where lunch is free, even if dinner isn’t.

Royal Caribbean has more places to eat for free, but most of them offer snacks rather than full meals. Two places where you can get full meals for free are the Royal Caribbean dining room and buffet.

Royal Caribbean vs. Carnival Cruise Line FAQs

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How many cruise ships are there in the Carnival Cruise line fleet?

There are twenty-four cruise ships in the Carnival Cruise Line fleet, including its largest cruise ship – Carnival Celebration.

Are Royal Caribbean Cabins bigger than Carnival Cabins?

Cabin sizes are typically smaller on Carnival vessels than on Royal Caribbean vessels.

The Royal Loft Suite is the largest cabin on Royal Caribbean’s Wonder of the Seas. It measures one thousand five hundred and thirty square feet, with an additional eight hundred and fifty square feet making up the terrace. The smallest Royal Caribbean rooms are the interior windowless cabins, measuring around one hundred and seventy-two square feet.

The largest cabin on the Carnival Celebration is the Excel Presidential Suite, measuring a total of one thousand one hundred and twenty square feet in total – balcony included. The smallest cabins are interior windowless cabins, measuring around one hundred and fifty-eight square feet.

Is Carnival Cruise Line bigger than Holland America?

Holland America falls somewhere between luxury and mainstream cruising, dubbed “premium-mainstream cruising”. As a result, it has a much smaller fleet (as is typical with luxury lines) that includes eleven cruise ships.

Its ships are also much smaller. The largest ship in its fleet, the MS Rotterdam, can only accommodate two thousand six hundred and fifty passengers – nearly four thousand fewer people than the Carnival Celebration.

Is Princess Cruises smaller than Royal Caribbean International?

There are fifteen ships in the Princess Cruises fleet, making it a much smaller fleet than the twenty-four ships operated by Royal Caribbean. Its largest ships are the Enchanted Princess and Sky Princess, both capable of accommodating three thousand six hundred and sixty passengers.

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