Let me kick this off by pointing out that I've only ever been on Carnival cruises, so I don't have the perspective of comparing this cruise line to any experiences on Royal Caribbean, Norwegian, Disney, etc. When it comes to my vacations, I like to balance quality with affordability, because my number one priority is relaxation. I work hard all year and my wife works the opposite shift (evenings), so our favorite part of cruising is getting away from it all and spending time together, so everything else is secondary. I've just had too good of a time on my Carnival cruises to worry too much about paying more to cruise on a different line. Just a personal preference - to each their own.
My wife and I were married aboard the Carnival Paradise last year and decided that it would be fun to celebrate our 1-year anniversary aboard the much larger Carnival Dream. This was my third cruise (second with my wife), and each time the ship has been about twice the size as the one before it, so I thought I'd keep that tradition going as long as I could (my first trip was aboard the Tropicale).
Here are my favorite things about my experience last week aboard the Dream:
1. Cove Balcony Room: We loved it! There is literally no better view on the entire ship than the one you get in a cove balcony room. You're underneath the lifeboats, so there's no obstruction and your balcony is even in the shade most of the day. The best part is that it's on the 2nd floor, so you're as close to the water as I've seen on any ship I've been on. It's not a huge balcony, but it doesn't need to be. It is the single best place on the ship, in my opinion.
2. Steakhouse: My wife made a reservation in the steakhouse on the day of our anniversary, and it turned out to be a great experience. It's not cheap, but it's a great idea to help you celebrate an occasion. The food and service were just great.
3. The Outdoor Video Board: I think this is a nice touch by Carnival. We went up there the first night and watched Beauty and the Beast on the video board, and it was probably one of my favorite cruise experiences. When they have deck parties on the Lido, they've got cameramen running around and sending live video feeds up to the screen.
4. Getting on/off the ship: I've seen reviews to the contrary, but I found it incredibly quick and easy to get on and off the ship. With this being my 3rd cruise, I've learned that it's best to wait half an hour or so after they announce that you can head to the gangway to avoid the rush of people. My wife and I would just go up and have breakfast and then head down afterward. We were mostly just wandering around the shops of two of the ports, though, so time wasn't constricted for us as it is for some others who enjoy getting out and seeing more of the islands.
5. Serenity Deck: Cruising in early May, there were not many kids aboard anyway (keep that in mind - don't cruise over spring, summer, or winter break if you don't want a lot of kids around) but all the same, we loved the Serenity deck. It is a great place to get some sun and read a book. If relaxation is your main thing, you almost don't need anything else.
Here's my bottom line on Carnival: for the price you pay, I can't imagine better value on any cruise line. I've disembarked from three different Carnival ships, and have had a completely fantastic experience on each one. I'm positive that the food is better and the activities are better on Royal Caribbean, but you're also going to pay more money for it. For the cruiser who just wants to relax and get away from it all, Carnival is nothing short of perfect.