I was always curious if there were any differences between two of the major cruise line players in the industry. It seems I can now express my opinion as to what I experienced as I just completed my first Carnival cruise compared to two previous with Royal Caribbean.
The day before embarkation we drove from Tulsa, OK to Galveston, TX and stayed the night so we could overcome any potential mishaps and simply wake up and go to the terminal and get on the ship. We arrived at the terminal at about 12:30 P.M. to find ourselves stuck in an hour long WAIT just to make it through security...an announcement was made which apologized for the WAIT something about a 90 day crew change and visa verifications or something to that effect so at least they acknowledged the long WAIT times. I was somewhat understanding at this point until after passing through security we turned the corner and found ourselves stuck in yet another long line resulting in another hour long WAIT to actually check-in and board the ship (maybe some on-board credit would have made things better). Overall it appeared the screening and check-in staff was not sufficient for the guests coming onboard. The previous cruises with RC amounted to essentially no wait times and simply a walk up and exchange of required documents and such, for the most part it was like a 10-15 minute process.
Finally we made it through and immediately on the ship we were bombarded with drink offers, while I like a stiff drink to loosen things up it seemed there was a little too much aggressive selling of drinks. I probably declined drink offers at least 10 times in the first 30 minutes onboard the ship...it just seemed a little tiresome after a two hour WAIT, I thought about writing my drinking preference on my forehead at one point. Additionally I reflected and thought who looks forward to paying $4 plus 15% gratuity for a Bud Light (a domestic beer going for $5-$6 a six-pack), other non-special drinks seem to start at $6.95 plus 15% gratuity. (See my comments about gratuity later...) Even if you buy beer in a bucket no discount is applied which I thought was another chapter in the "Let's nickel and dime these folks to death" book. In order to be fair, I voiced the same complaints to RC about their drink prices, both are relatively high and seem to be an act of price gouging.
We made it to our room, for the most part I found little difference in the rooms between Carnival and RC (we've had nothing but interior rooms on all our cruises)...the first thing that I noticed was the absence of a small couch on Carnival, it was nothing huge but a difference. My wife was quick to frequently remind me that the hair dryer in the room wasn't getting the job done (to put it nicely) because it required you to hold the button down which made it hard for styling of hair (perhaps it's a fire hazard, not sure but probably should have brought our own).
Overall the ship was very well kept and clean, I am not sure I ever really found my way around...compared to RC I found the Carnival Conquest to be much more darker with less views of the sea and such. Maneuvering through the ship many times involved going through blank wood panel corridors, some decks do not go all the way through so you usually find that out the hard way. I am no ship expert, but it seemed the Conquest rocked quite a bit more than that of RC when in the same sea conditions, the lower level main dining hall (Monet) was located in the back of the ship and felt like it was directly above the propellers or engines because it resulted in a noticeable vibration, not sure if there was something out of balance or not but it would seem that wasn't the best place for a dining hall.
Formal dining was good but forgettable compared to that of RC, it seems the Carnival menu had some wide ranging options which is a good thing I suppose. Our service did not meet our expectations, we found ourselves refilling our own drinks and passing the bread basket around the table, which I don't mean to complain but then again I am on vacation and I didn't recall asking for refills and such on RC. What would appear to be a recurring theme on this cruise there was again a significant WAIT for our food, not sure if it was because we had a table of 8, but we had comparable numbers on RC and didn't experience the same WAIT times. Additionally we found it interesting that knowing you are expected to tip the maître d' we did not see him other than from a distance and/or over the microphone when compared to RC the maître d' made several trips to your table asking how everything was and even cutting our lobster tails (which I thought was very cool) or even just conversing about where we were from or the usual chit chat.
Casual dining was for the most part of the same quality to that of RC, however again there was some significant WAIT times for both breakfast, lunch, dinner, and late night eating. Carnival seemed to offer more options with hamburgers, hot dogs, chicken strips, deli, asian, and pizzeria, however not all of those options were available at the same time which was a little frustrating. RC offered pizza, hamburgers, hot dogs, and cookies at all times so that was a noted difference. I took notice of one scenario in which there was probably a line of 10 people looking to get pizza and the primary server was busy with his back turned while another food crew member (who is in a vest) just sat and looked toward the line. My initial question was there some reason he was unable to serve pizza to those WAITING in line?
We always thought that room service was a really nice benefit especially with the ability to specify what time you would like it brought to your room (very handy for those early excursions). The room service menu was lacking when compared to that of RC, it seemed for breakfast you were limited to continental breakfast items, and other room service options were simply sandwiches, no soups or substantial hot food available...that was a little disappointing.
Internet availability is offered but at a hefty price...the price is the same as RC, which I feel does not make it easy for simple communication to what might be a small business or a family back home. In our case we have children back home that we would like to check in via email without having to pay 75 cents a minute or being forced to purchase a package of discounted minutes for $55. Additionally you pay by the minute for a service that is miserably slow so you are definitely victim of some price gouging there. You can always pick up the phone and absorb the $6.99 per minute rate as well - but no thanks.
Probably the most frustrating thing that Carnival makes policy of was the automatic $70 per person charge for service gratuities. While you are free to adjust that amount after the fact, for me there was a feeling of being cheap in going that route. Additionally it would seem that when you automatically assume and apply the gratuities it would inadvertently result in the service personnel not "working" as hard to earn the gratuity if they know it most likely will automatically be there. I think RC has a better way of handling this by suggesting how much to tip and offering a voucher that you can adjust and personally hand to each service individual (maître d', headwaiter, assistant and cabin steward) which will then be applied to your account. In the end it amounts to GRATUITIES BEING EARNED, NOT ASSUMED!
I had previously heard the main difference in Carnival versus RC was in the clientele...typically it was always expressed to me that on a Carnival cruise you would expect an average age of 30, while RC was the more tamer and less "party boat" type with an average age of 40. Having that understanding and me being a 33 year old who thinks he is still 22 I thought I would enjoy Carnival's atmosphere more than RC, however after seeing two potential arguments with brawl potential (who goes on vacation and starts a fight?) and seeing security breaking up other potential altercations I started to really wonder how does such a thing happen?
The last thing that I took notice of...we were once again WAITING for an elevator which resulted in others joining in line. When the elevator arrived a group of crew members just happen to stumble upon the scene at the right time and quickly jumped in the elevator in front of the waiting guests. At first I didn't notice the uniforms and just wrote it off as being the act of some rude individuals but then it hit me that it was actually Carnival crew members and unfortunately that simple event is what has stuck in my mind when comparing Carnival with Royal Caribbean.
Maybe it was a case of the hard work of so many being sacrificed by the lack of thoroughness by a few....I don't know, but from my experience RC is definitely my preferred cruise line.