Are you choosing your next cruise vacation and not sure whether you should pick Carnival or Norwegian cruise lines? Over the years I have heard many people argue that one of the cruise lines is “better value,” “has nicer cabins,” or is “more innovative”. After taking a cruise on both lines, I have decided to share my experience on both to help you pick one or the other!
Carnival Cruise or Norwegian: How Different are They?
Carnival and Norwegian have a lot in common: they have huge ships with plenty of choices and features like water slides, climbing walls, and ropes courses. Both fleets are fun and casual at lower prices than their competitors. Yet many people prefer one over the other and at the end it comes down to what you want on your cruise vacation.
Carnival vs. Norwegian: At a Glance
Carnival Cruise Line
- 27 ships by end of 2019, eight built before 2000
- Smallest ships: Fantasy Class (2,052 passengers)
- Largest ships: Carnival Vista (3,954 passengers), Carnival Horizon (3,960 passengers)
- Sails out of 17 ports in North America, plus Puerto Rico
- Offers standard Caribbean, Bermuda, Bahamas, Mexico, Alaska and Hawaii itineraries with European Cruises to come in 2020
Norwegian Cruise Line
- 17 ships, two built before 2000
- Smallest ships: Norwegian Sun (1,936 passengers), Norwegian Sky (2,004 passengers)
- Largest ships: Norwegian Escape (4,248 passengers), Norwegian Epic (4,100 passengers), Norwegian Bliss (4,004 passengers)
- Sails out of 11 homeports in North America, plus Puerto Rico
- Offers standard Caribbean, Bermuda, Bahamas, Mexico, New England/Canada and Alaska itineraries
- Exotic sailings include South America, as well as Asia, Australia, India and the Arabian Gulf
Prices Vary, But Some Cruises Include More than Others
One of the most common concerns when booking a cruise is the price and what’s included. I have often heard that Carnival Cruise is the budget option, however Norwegian can bulk a variety of things to the price, like flights or open bar. So, here is a breakdown of a couple of offers to a very similar destination. (Do keep in mind that the ships are so different and price can also depend on that.)
Norwegian Cruise Lines: As I’ve mentioned in my post about Norwegian Cruise Tips and Tricks, Norwegian usually has a big promotion going on that can include flights, open bar, excursion credits and more. So, often it comes at a little bit of a higher price than Carnival. However, the prices are comparable and it mainly depends on whether or not you’re planning to purchase the extras.
Carnival Cruise Lines: Prices tend to be cheaper than Norwegian, although it depends on the destination, the ship and what’s included. It is best decided on a case by case basis.
Let’s compare 2 offers on a Caribbean cruise by both cruise lines. Both of these cruises leave on March 6th and last 5 days. They both are going to Cozumel and Costa Maya in Mexico. The inside cabin on Norwegian currently starts at $538 (plus tax), the inside cabin on Carnival starts at $679. For the rest of the prices right now, see the tables below:
The same day, same length, same destinations and Carnival actually seems to be consistently a little more expensive. (remember that both cruises don’t include port taxes in this cost yet, keep reading for the final cost!)
Now let’s see what is included in both of these!
Free at Sea Sale By Norwegian
If you’re looking into a cruise on Norwegian, then you’ve seen the “Free at Sea” sale. Depending on the type of room you book, you can select free offers that cover everything from free drinks to specialty dining and even free airfare. The sale is a great way to make your cruise all-inclusive, and I’ve noticed on my recent trip on Norwegian that it felt like everyone had the Open Bar.
Carnival doesn’t offer such a sale – if you want a lot of things included on your cruise, you might like NCL.
So if you choose the ocean view on March 6th (shown above) and want to use the Free at Sea offers, this is the price for 2 people on Norwegian. If you chose open bar or specialty dining, you will have to prepay gratuities. (depends on the number of days)
Winner: In this case, Carnival still ends up being cheaper but doesn’t include an alcohol package. If you are interested how much will Carnival Cruise cost once you pay for everything, use my Carnival Cruise Price Calculator.
Staterooms – Carnival and Norwegian
You probably noticed that Norwegian had a few other options than just the basics. That’s where Norwegian takes the lead: if you want to spend a little more, you will usually have quite a few options. And, Studio cabins offered on six ships (inside cabins sized and priced for solo travelers) are praised by solo cruisers on Norwegian.
But, what if you’re just looking for a regular interior or balcony room? Are they that different?
Standard Cabins: For decades, Carnival has consistently built ships with bigger standard cabins, measuring 185 square feet or larger, with sizeable showers and bedside reading lights. Norwegian, on the other hand, has a little smaller cabin size: 128 square feet and I have heard that balconies tend to be a bit smaller.
Winner: If you’re looking for a standard cabin, Carnival will probably be bigger, but how much time will you really spend inside your stateroom?
Are you going on a cruise vacation? Use this Cruise Packing List!
Norwegian or Carnival: Ships
Both lines offer a variety of options.
If we look at the same cruises departing on March 6th, 2021 and compare the Carnival Dream and Norwegian Escape, we will see the following:
- The ship is one of the biggest in Carnival’s fleet with about 3,646 passengers aboard
- It had a makeover in 2017
- The ship is smaller than Norwegian Escape, but still has fun waterslides and more to do!
- One of the newest ships in the fleet, sailing since October 2015
- It is huge, it has 20 floors and can accommodate up to 4,266 passengers (plus crew).
- The ship is great for families or adults, and pretty much anyone who likes a big ship with a lot going on
- With 28 bars and restaurants onboard, you probably won’t be able to try out everything in one trip
Norwegian or Carnival: Departure Ports
As the largest cruise line Carnival has a big advantage when it comes to departure ports. In fact, the cruise lines sails from more ports than any other. Norwegian sails from tons of ports too, but not near as many as Carnival.
Why is this important? With more ports of departure, more people can take a cruise without having to fly to get to the ship. It can save time and money. If you don’t need to fly to a port, you will save money on airline tickets, hotel rooms and meals!
With Carnival being closer to more people, it helps to appeal to more cruise passengers looking for a quicker getaway.
Winner: Carnival, it has more departure port options.
Norwegian or Carnival: Destinations
With a few exceptions, Carnival and Norwegian have similar destinations in the Caribbean, The Bahamas, and Mexico. However, Norwegian also cruises to Europe and Alaska, the Panama Canal, and Bermuda.
Winner: Norwegian – it goes to more exotic destinations than Carnival.
Norwegian or Carnival: Dining
To my surprise, I like dining on Carnival more!
Freestyle vs. Scheduled Dining: Yes, Norwegian cruise offers freestyle dining – you can have dinner at any time you feel like. That’s nice. But on Carnival, we made friends with our server and had a more pleasant experience overall. Nd Norwegian has no Showtime!
Specialty Restaurants: If you’re willing to pay extra for specialty dining, Norwegian seems to have more options.
Food Quality: If you go to the main dining room, the food on Carnival seemed to be better than Norwegian: it was warmer and better prepared. On Norwegian, it was hit or miss!
Winner: There is no clear winner here: Carnival has better food at the main areas, while Norwegian offers more unique specialty dining options.
Norwegian or Carnival: Service
Both cruise lines take customer service seriously and are very prompt to help with any issues you have. I thought that many people working on Norwegian were “in your face”. They were so obnoxious at times that it was inauthentic and weird. I guess they thought that it’s better to overdo than not do enough, but there should be a limit!
Norwegian or Carnival: Entertainment
Both cruise lines have great entertainment options at the poolside and shows. In my experience, I enjoyed the shows on Carnival more but had more fun at the piano bar on Norwegian Escape. Norwegian seemed to have more relaxing activities, but there are a lot of fun things to do for any age on both ships.
Is Norwegian Cruise “Nicer” than Carnival?
I heard that phrase so many times that my expectations were a lot higher after going with Carnival several times before. What I found was that I really couldn’t tell the difference. Yes, some ships have a ropes course, others don’t. But all of that depends on the ship. I have heard a lot that a Carnival Cruise is a “Party cruise”. However, with the number of people drinking on Norwegian and the number of bars, it felt like Norwegian was the “party line”.
So Tell Me: Should I Choose Carnival Cruise or Norweigian Cruise?
So which cruise line is better, Norwegian or Carnival? The answer is: it depends on what you’re looking for. Your experience depends on a variety of factors, but hopefully, some of these differences and similarities will help you make a decision!
What is the most important thing for you when you’re booking a cruise? Let me know in the comments below!