Cruise Critic breaks down the different offerings from two cruise industry giants. We compare fleet size and age, pricing, cabins, dining, entertainment, family and more. Discover which line is best suited for your needs.

In a Nutshell

Carnival Cruise Line

Casual, family-friendly cruise line for the budget-conscious who appreciate a we-don't-take-ourselves-too-seriously vibe.

Norwegian Cruise Line

Freestyle cruise line designed for those that want a larger choice of dining and entertainment options, even if it requires paying more for them.


Fleet | Pricing | Demographics | Itineraries | Cabins | Dining | Pool Deck Fun | Sports Deck Fun | Indoor Fun | Nightlife | Family Focus | Tradition vs Innovation


Fleet size, ship sizes and ages

Carnival Cruise Line

  • 27 ships by end of 2019, eight built before 2000
  • Smallest ships: Fantasy Class (2,052 passengers) -- Carnival Ecstasy, Carnival Elation, Carnival Fantasy, Carnival Fascination, Carnival Imagination, Carnival Inspiration, Carnival Paradise, Carnival Sensation
  • Largest ships: Carnival Vista (3,954 passengers), Carnival Horizon (3,960 passengers)
  • Oldest ships: Carnival Fantasy (1990), Carnival Ecstasy (1991)

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)
  • Oldest ships: Norwegian Spirit (1998), Norwegian Sky (1999)

Pricing

Woman Paying for Cruise Online (Photo: Yuganov Konstantin/Shutterstock)

Carnival Cruise Line

  • Offers some of the lowest cruise fares available
  • Prices include most alternative restaurants on each ship
  • Most entertainment included (exceptions are the 3D Thrill and IMAX theaters, which are only available on select ships)

Norwegian Cruise Line

  • Known for adding extra fees, but cruise fares are comparable to mainstream industry averages
  • Pricing includes less than half of the restaurants offered onboard
  • Most entertainment included (exceptions are lunch and dinner theaters, as well as alcohol-included special experiences such as Prohibition, the Musical, all of which are only available on select ships)
  • Two ships (Norwegian Sky, Norwegian Sun) offer "all-inclusive" cruise fares on short sailings from Florida that include all drinks (soft and alcoholic, with premium exceptions) onboard and on Great Stirrup Cay


Demographics

Spice H2O on Norwegian Getaway

Carnival Cruise Line

  • Families, friends and couples in their 30s to 60s
  • About half of all passengers are 35 to 55 years old

Carnival Cruise Line Forums

Norwegian Cruise Line

  • Families, friends and couples aged 35 to 65
  • Larger numbers of solo cruisers on ships that offer Studio cabins

Norwegian Cruise Line Forums


Itineraries/Destinations/Homeports

Carnival Cruise Line

  • Sails out of 17 departure ports on the North American mainland, plus Puerto Rico on a regular basis, if not always year-round
  • Offers standard Caribbean, Bermuda, Bahamas, Mexico, Alaska and Hawaii itineraries
  • Will begin sailing in Europe in 2020
  • Two Carnival ships sail out of Australia regularly but can only be booked through the line's Australian division
  • No exotic itineraries

Norwegian Cruise Line

  • Sails out of 11 homeports on the North American mainland, plus Puerto Rico on a regular basis, if not always year-round
  • Offers standard Caribbean, Bermuda, Bahamas, Mexico, New England/Canada and Alaska itineraries
  • Offers seasonal Mediterranean and seasonal Northern Europe itineraries
  • Only big-ship line to sail year-round from Hawaii, doing all Hawaiian islands cruises
  • Exotic sailings include South America, as well as Asia, Australia, India and the Arabian Gulf

Cabins

Carnival Breeze Cabins

Carnival Cruise Line

  • Large standard cabin sizes, among largest in the industry
  • From as few as five room categories on the smallest ships to more than 25 categories on Carnival Vista and Horizon
  • Eight ships have spa cabins that include free fitness classes, access to the thalassotherapy pool and select discounts on spa treatments
  • Suite privileges limited to priority embarkation and debarkation
  • Has limited family accommodations, including some cabins with connecting doors; largest selection of family cabins (insides, oceanviews and balconies that can hold up to five people) can be found on Carnival Vista and Carnival Horizon

Norwegian Cruise Line

  • Cabin sizes are in line with industry standards, though balconies on some of the newest ships are notably small
  • Lots of cabin categories to choose from, even on the smallest ships
  • Six ships (Norwegian Epic, Norwegian Breakaway, Norwegian Getaway, Pride of America, Norwegian Escape, Norwegian Bliss) offer Studio cabins, which are inside cabins sized and priced for solo travelers; the Studio cabins on Bliss have virtual windows showing exterior views
  • Nine ships have a top-deck Haven suite complex with exclusive key-card access to a private courtyard and pool; of these ships, five also have a private lounge and dining room
  • Four ships have spa cabins, all of which feature calming decor and include free access to the onboard saunas and steam rooms
  • Suite privileges include priority embarkation, debarkation and tender boarding; butler and concierge service; exclusive breakfast location; complimentary sparkling wine, bottled water and fruit on embarkation day; and daily canapes
  • Extensive selection of family cabins, including suites, oceanviews, balconies and inside options

Dining

Carnival Cruise Line

  • Offers fixed and flexible dining options
  • Ships have a handful of specialty restaurants. Some -- like Guy's Burger Joint and BlueIguana Cantina -- are included in the cruise fares; others cost extra; most ships feature just three to four specialty restaurants, but newer ships have more
  • Has a partnership with celebrity chef Guy Fieri, whose Guy's Burger Joint is found on 24 Carnival ships and whose Guy's Pig & Anchor Bar-b-Que is on five ships (seven by end of 2019)
  • At least one formal night per cruise, on which passengers are encouraged to dress up for dinner

Norwegian Cruise Line

  • No set dining times; you can eat in any of the main dining rooms at any time during open hours
  • Most ships also have one free Asian restaurant and all have a pub/restaurant or diner that is open 24/7
  • Every ship has three to six extra-fee specialty restaurants that might include a steakhouse, Italian, French, Japanese hibachi and Brazilian, as well as sushi; all but two are priced per item
  • Five ships (Norwegian Breakaway, Norwegian Joy, Norwegian Getaway, Norwegian Escape and Norwegian Bliss) feature The Waterfront, an outdoor area offering alfresco seating for several restaurants and bars.
  • One optional formal night on weeklong sailings; dress code in general is the most relaxed of all the big-ship lines

Pool Deck Fun

Main Pool on Norwegian Sky

Carnival Cruise Line

  • All ships have at least one main pool; many also have aft pools
  • The top-deck WaterWorks, found on 16 ships, features a variety of water slides
  • Frequent poolside fun includes traditional cruise-ship contests like hairy chest, sexy legs and belly flop
  • Lots of food and drink venues around the pool deck, including RedFrog Rum BarGuy's Burger Joint and the BlueIguana Tequila Bar

Norwegian Cruise Line

  • All ships have at least one large pool or two smaller pools, as well as four to six outdoor hot tubs
  • All ships have kids pools
  • Eight ships have pools with at least one slide, with six having multi-slide Aqua Parks
  • Some poolside fun, but pool decks are primarily for lounging around

Sports Deck Fun

Carnival Cruise Line

  • All ships have mini-golf courses and several have basketball or volleyball courts
  • Five ships have ropes courses (seven by end of 2019)
  • Carnival Vista and Carnival Horizon offer the SkyRide, an aerial ride on which riders race each other on hanging recumbent bikes around an 800-foot suspended track, some 150 feet above the sea

Norwegian Cruise Line

  • Most ships have basketball courts, as well as golf driving nets; a handful have mini-golf
  • Four ships have rock climbing walls, two of which also have a ropes course; a fifth ship, Norwegian Escape, has a massive ropes course and mini-golf but no rock climbing wall
  • Norwegian Bliss and Norwegian Joy have a two-level Go-Kart racing track as well as an outdoor laser tag course; both cost extra to use; the ships also have a mini-golf course, but no rock climbing wall or rope course

Indoor Fun

The Dark Ride in the Galaxy Pavilion (Photo: Norwegian Cruise Line)

Carnival Cruise Line

  • Daily indoor activities include trivia, bingo, cooking demos, dance classes, the interactive "Hasbro, the Game Show," cocktail mixing contests and martini tastings
  • Three ships (Breeze, Vista and Horizon) have 3D Thrill Theaters (cover charge required); Vista and Horizon also have an IMAX theater

Norwegian Cruise Line

  • Daily indoor fun includes trivia, bingo, dance classes, the interactive "Deal or No Deal" show, and beer and wine tastings
  • Select ships feature full-size or miniature bowling in one of the lounges or pubs
  • Several ships have a complimentary circus-themed escape room experience from which participants must escape within a specified time frame by solving puzzles
  • Most ships have a wall-sized Wii screen in the atrium for group Wii play

Nightlife

The Punchliner Experience Onboard Carnival (Photo: Carnival Cruise Line)

Carnival Cruise Line

  • Playlist Productions theater shows (available on 26 ships by end of 2019) are 30-minute, highly visual musical performances that run several times an evening
  • Available nightly on all ships, the Punchliner Comedy Club offers family-friendly and adults-only comedy sets
  • Has poolside "Dive In" Movies
  • Nightclub DJs on all ships have been trained by the Miami Heat's official scratcher, DJ Irie
  • The onboard Piano Bar is a sing-along good time, while the Sports Bar is the spot for catching a game while having a brew

Norwegian Cruise Line

  • Five ships feature Broadway shows in the onboard theaters: "Rock of Ages" on Norwegian Breakaway, "Million Dollar Quartet" on Norwegian Getaway, "Pricilla Queen of the Desert" on Norwegian Epic, "After Midnight" on Norwegian Escape and "Jersey Boys" on Norwegian Bliss
  • Nightlife spots beyond the usual bars include the Beatles-inspired Cavern Club on Norwegian Epic and Bliss,  as well as a comedy club on Norwegian Getaway, Epic, Escape and Bliss
  • Select ships also feature alternative theater shows or dinner/theater shows, most for an extra fee
  • Ships without comedy clubs feature comedians at least once per sailing in the main theater
  • Most ships, including those with Broadway entertainment, offer musical revue-style song-and-dance shows several times a sailing
  • All ships have at least eight to 10 bars located throughout

Family Focus

Norwegian Getaway's Splash Academy (Photo: Norwegian Cruise Line)

Carnival Cruise Line

  • Genuinely family-friendly
  • Seuss at Sea comprises multiple activities, including the Green Eggs and Ham breakfast, Seussapalooza parade and movie screenings of Dr. Seuss classics. Carnival Freedom, Carnival Vista and Carnival Horizon have the whimsical Dr. Seuss' Bookville, a reading area and play space for kids and parents
  • Offers kids programs for smaller kids (2 to 11), tweens (12 to 14) and teens (15 to 17)
  • Teen girls will love getting manis/pedis at the teens-only ZSPA
  • Teens can learn to DJ with the Spin U program
  • Nighttime baby-sitting (for a fee) with the Night Owls program

Carnival Family Cruise Reviews

Norwegian Cruise Line

  • Four kids programs for those ages 3 to 5, 6 to 9, 10 to 12 and 13 to 17
  • The Guppies program offers play areas and activities for parents with babies and toddlers, ages 6 months to 3 years; Norwegian Escape and Bliss have an actual Guppies Nursery where parents can drop off their kids between 6 months and 3 years for an hourly fee
  • Evening and port day group baby-sitting (for a fee) is available for kids ages 3 to 12

Norwegian Family Cruise Reviews


Tradition vs. Innovation

Carnival Cruise Line

  • Places high value on cruising traditions like set dining times, poolside fun and North America-based cruising
  • Newest ships have some innovations; the ropes course on Carnival Breeze was the first at sea, and SkyRide (a midair, suspended bike course) debuted on Carnival Vista in 2016

Norwegian Cruise Line

  • Innovations, found only on the newest ships, might include water parks, ropes courses, laser tag, Broadway shows and the innovative alfresco dining area, The Waterfront
  • Norwegian Bliss and Joy have full-scale Go-Karts racetracks