I visited the same three ports (Puerto Vallarta, Mazatlan, and Cabo San Lucas) on two different ships one year apart. Both times I had a balcony stateroom. The first cruise was on Holland America's Oosterdam out of San Diego in April 2007, the second cruise was on Carnival's Pride out of Long Beach in April 2008. The first time I researched and chose HAL because of its reputation and the fact that it left from San Diego. The second cruise I went on Carnival Pride because that was the ship my group was on. I can't compare everything. Some things on both cruises were very similar, but there were subtle differences.
Hotel for the 2008 Cruise
Hotel: We stayed at the Marriott Courtyard in Long Beach the night before the cruise. The hotel is in a nice area, and our overnight stay included one week free parking and an excellent breakfast. In the morning we walked down by the harbor and looked across at the Queen Mary and the Carnival Pride. Around noon we walked back and took a short taxi ride to the ship.
Comparing the Cruises
Embarkation: HAL wins. Carnival Pride's Embarkation process was chaos! We had to walk quite a distance to find a porter who would take our bags, and then there seemed to be just one long line. First someone would tell us to go stand one place, then someone else told us to stand somewhere else. At one point after we had got into the building a whole lot of us were directed into a large empty room and told to make more lines. While we were waiting outside I had had hours to get to know the faces of the people in line with me, and at some point the line order got reversed, with people who had been ahead of me behind me, and vice versa.
We had booked months in advance and Carnival had stressed how important it was to print out the "Fun Pass" ahead of time They implied that that would speed our embarkation process. It didn't make any difference, as the people in front of us had never heard of it and were processed just the same. When we finally got to the check-in desk the young lady there did her best to cheer me up but it took a long time for me to become ungrumped. Holland America's embarkation process was smoother and faster.
Stateroom: Pretty much the same on both ships. HAL always had fresh fruit in the room; Carnival always had ice in the ice chest. Oosterdam had a DVD player in the stateroom, but Pride didn't.
Ship DEcor: Pride had very large reproductions of paintings of naked ladies in the common areas but these were Art so it was OK. Oosterdam's art was more subdued.
Service: Both Holland America and Oosterdam staff did a great job. I think the HAL staff on the LIDO deck was more efficient, but I enjoyed watching the Carnival omelette chefs flipping omelettes.
Food: HAL wins for variety and quality of the "ordinary" food on the LIDO deck. HAL also had live orchids on the tables. Carnival wins for service in sit down restaurant and managing to make "Spa" food interesting. I would also like to praise the fresh fruit that was in the Pride's Lido deck salad bar.
Ship Staff: This is just generalization, because I think I saw one female officer on both ships, so there must be some rotation, but I felt the staff on the Oosterdam had more class. I know that is hard to define, but on Carnival some guy named "Butch" made a bad joke at the expense of a passenger who tried to leave his Disembarkation lecture early. He threw her a roll of toilet paper. Not cool. Never make fun of the passengers. I never saw any of the Oosterdam staff throw toilet paper at the passengers.
Entertainment: I enjoyed the talent contest on the Oosterdam, and the Interactive Midnight Rocky Horror Picture Show on the Pride. The live music was easier to listen to on the Oosterdam.
Kitchen Tour: I think HAL wins, but only by a nose. Both kitchens were very impressive but HAL handed out a neat information sheet.
Midnight Food Extravaganza: On HAL I believe it was mostly desserts, but on the Pride they also had other fare. Pride would win for variety here, but unfortunately many of the beautiful dishes were not labelled so I couldn't sample them because I have a shellfish allergy.
High Tea? HAL wins because Pride had the handicap of trying to have "tea" in an area beside a busy corridor. I have to say that the crew serving tea on the Pride were really trying, but it must have been difficult for them. The location also made it hard to hear the live music.
Class of Passenger? I've heard Carnival fans complain that HAL fans are "dull" and HAL fans complain that Carnival fans are "party animals." I don't think you can generalize. There were snobs on both cruises. One thing both ships had were people who seemed determined to get their money's worth, like the man who explained that he ordered room service for breakfast and then went to the Lido Deck for another breakfast because "I like to eat."
Exercise: Oosterdam had one lower walking deck that went all around the ship, while Pride had a smaller open track. Oosterdam had a lot of participants for "On Deck for the Cure" but I didn't see many on the Pride. I believe part of the problem was that that morning the upper walking deck was closed because of high winds. Gyms were about the same, although I think the Oosterdam's were more accessible.
Daily Program: Oosterdam's had better layout and content. The Oosterdam also had a daily printed digest of the New York Times.
Shopping Lecture: Comparing the "In Port" handouts, Oosterdam's has more detailed information on the ports and better maps; however, the shopping guide is almost identical on both ship's handouts. If you are serious about shopping you should do research ahead of time.
About the same: "Art" auctions, fancy drinks, ship photos, casino and Bingo.
Disembarkation: No great difference in procedure, but there was no one who could direct us to the taxi line when we got off the Pride. Here the terminal layout is partly to blame because of the way the parking structure is set.
In a year, things could have changed, but if I was going again I would go with Holland America. Perhaps it is because (I have been told) your first cruise is always the best, but I felt there was more attention to detail on the Oosterdam and perhaps more of an attitude that passengers were intelligent people.