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Royal Caribbean vs. Carnival: Find the Right Family Cruise

The two biggest cruise lines both offer similar things, but there are clear differences that can help you decide which one to book your cruise on.



The two biggest cruise lines both offer similar things, but there are clear differences that can help you decide which one to book your cruise on.

Both Royal Caribbean International (RCL) - Get Royal Caribbean Group Report and Carnival Cruise Line (CCL) - Get Carnival Corporation Report operate massive cruise ships packed with family-friendly activities. Most of the ships in the two biggest cruise lines sailing from the United States offer water slides, amusement park-style rides, climbing walls, impressive kids' clubs, multiple pools, and countless dining and drinking options.

If you sail comparable ships in either the Royal Caribbean or Carnival fleet, on a surface level you're getting a pretty similar experience. There are, however, some major differences between the two cruise lines.

In a broad sense, it's important to realize that no two cruises are the same, even back-to-back sailings on the same ship can see one voyage filled with families and the next having a much older crew. The ship doesn't change but the makeup of who's onboard can impact your sailing (so consider whether you're booking during a school vacation or over a major holiday).

But, while cruising is a social thing where the makeup of the passengers can impact your trip, there are some major factors to consider when deciding between Royal Caribbean and Carnival.


Here's What Royal Caribbean Does Better

Royal Caribbean's largest Oasis-class ships have two large outdoor "neighborhoods" that are completely unlike anything Carnival offers. The first, the Boardwalk, offers a carousel, outdoor dining, and the Aquatheater where some very unique shows are performed. The second, "Central Park," is a literal park onboard dotted with a casual cafe, upscale restaurants, and a tranquil bar.

In addition to offering those unique ships, Royal Caribbean broadly has more added-fee dining options than its rival. And, while some might argue, it's fair to say Royal Caribbean has somewhat superior food in its main dining room.

In addition, Royal Caribbean offers its adults-only Solarium on many of its ships, with Solariums on Oasis and Quantum Class ships being truly spectacular setups with pools, hot tubs, a bar, and a healthier buffer option than the main buffet.

And, for adults looking to seriously imbibe, Royal Caribbean's drink package offers a truly unlimited experience (as long as you're not visibly impaired) while Carnival's caps you at 15 alcoholic beverages.

Royal Caribbean also offers actual Broadway plays on some ships, which Carnival does not. The cruise line also offers acoustic guitarists playing rock, folk, pop, and country covers in the British Pubs on most its ships, which offers a lower-key alternative to the major production shows.

And, for coffee lovers, Royal Caribbean has added-fee Starbucks  (SBUX) - Get Starbucks Corporation Report locations on many ships and serves the chain's coffee at its onboard cafes.

Here's What Carnival Does Better

While Royal Caribbean may have a better main dining room and more added-fee dining options, Carnival does free and casual really well. Its partnership with Guy Fieri has led to the famed chef putting his Burger Bar concept on most Carnival ships while his barbecue restaurant (which at some times costs extra) is on a few.

Most Carnival ships also have a free, casual Mexican restaurant that's by the pool and while Royal Caribbean has a similar offering, Carnival's is open for breakfast with a unique menu. Carnival also has fairly spectacular desserts in its main dining room which are generally better than its rival's offerings.

At night, Carnival offers more jukebox-style musical reviews, (think "Songs of the '90s" or "Love Songs") which might have a broader appeal than some of Royal Caribbean's production shows. In addition, many Carnival ships offer dedicated comedy club spaces, while Royal Caribbean only offers that on its largest ships.

And while both cruise lines offer a lot of fun bar concepts, Alchemy Bar on most Carnival ships offers a mixology experience its rival cannot match. In addition, Carnival's pool bar area offers multiple bar concepts that are differentiated while Royal Caribbean has more of a basic pool bar that just has a variety of locations.

In a broad sense, Carnival also has a reputation for having more of a party crowd. That can be a positive or a negative, but it's also relative with shorter sailings on mid-size ships being more party-heavy on both cruise ships, while longer voyages on bigger, newer (and more expensive) ships are less likely to have that vibe.

How Do You Pick Between a Royal Caribbean and Carnival Cruise?        

There are a lot of similarities between the two cruise lines. The pool decks, casinos, and cruise cabins are roughly similar on both Royal Caribbean and Carnival. The crews are also attentive and friendly on both companies' ships and the kids' clubs offer similar services.

While you're picking a cruise, you need to consider a few factors including the size/age of the ship, destinations, and price. Bigger and newer ships generally cost more while older, smaller ships may cost less sailing basic Caribbean itineraries (or more if they make really interesting stops).

Before picking, you should examine what you get for similar prices on each cruise line. If you can book an Oasis-class ship for the same price as a similar, smaller Carnival ship, your choice might be easy. The reverse would be true if you're booking Carnival's flagships Mardi Gras and the upcoming Celebration over any Royal Caribbean ships outside the Oasis or Quantum classes.

Prices can vary from under $500 for two people booking an interior cabin on a three-day Caribbean weekend on a mid-size, middle-aged ship from either line to thousands of dollars for the same room on a newer ship for a week-long trip.

Trying a short cruise on a mid-tier ship from both lines is an excellent way to gauge the key differences between the two. If that's not possible, it's really important to understand what you value most -- is it food? Drinks? Entertainment? Pools? Price? Once you know that, you can narrow your choices and set sail on a trip that's more likely to be the dream vacation you hope for.

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