Carnival Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean, two of the cruise industry's biggest players, go head to head as Cruise Critic breaks down what's on offer from each line in a number of categories, including fleet, pricing, cabins, dining, entertainment, family and more.
Whether you're looking for more included dining options, Broadway shows or the line with the most poolside fun, find out which line is best for you with our comprehensive breakdown.
Royal Caribbean beats Carnival Cruise Line and number of ships and size, with 26 in the fleet, plus more on the way.
The line's oldest and smallest ship is Grandeur of the Seas (or Grand-daddy of the Seas), which debuted in 1996.
Royal Caribbean's largest ship is Wonder of the Seas, which is also the world's biggest cruise ship -- carrying 5,734 passengers and 2,300 crew -- that is, until the line's next new crown-stealing ship, Icon of the Seas, launches in 2024.
Carnival Cruise Line maintains a reputation for some of the lowest cruise fares in the industry, with pricing including multiple dining options (though not all specialty restaurants); a wide array of entertainment, with the exception of 3D Thrill and IMAX theaters (available on select ships) and BOLT rollercoaster on Carnival's Mardi Gras.
Discounts, specials and reduced deposit offers are frequently available, and solo occupancy pricing can be generous, particularly at lower cabin grades.
Prices on Royal Caribbean's newest ships are significantly higher than prices for other ships in its fleet.
Pricing includes only about half of the line's alternative restaurants, with Royal Caribbean debuting an increasing number of specialty restaurants -- including Chops Grille, 150 Central Park, Izumi and Johnny Rockets -- in recent years.
All entertainment is included, with the exception of lunch or dinner theater shows.
Last-minute discounts are typically only available on shorter cruises of four nights or less. Single supplement pricing tends to be higher, except for dedicated solo occupancy cabins.
Don't forget, using Cruise Critic's Find a Cruise tool, you can compare fares from both lines.
Primarily draws families, couples and singles in their 30s to 60s. About half of all passengers are 35 to 55 years old.
Families with children increase on sailings of one week or less and during school breaks.
Families, plus couples and singles in their 30s to 50s
The median age is low to mid-40s, but it's slightly lower on shorter cruises and slightly higher on cruises of 10 nights or more.
Has 14 homeports in North America from which cruise ships depart regularly, if not always year-round
Carnival offers standard Caribbean, Bermuda, Bahamas, Mexico, Alaska, Hawaii, and Canada and New England itineraries. European and transatlantic sailings are sometimes offered.
The line two ships sailing out of Australia (Brisbane and Sydney) regularly but can only be booked through the line's Australian division
Few exotic itineraries, though one-off sailings sometimes occur to reposition ships.
Royal has 17 homeports in North America from which cruise ships depart regularly, if not always year-round. The line offers standard Caribbean, Bermuda, Bahamas, Mexico, Alaska, Canada and New England and Hawaii itineraries
Cruises Europe seasonally, offering Baltic, Northern Europe and Mediterranean cruises out of ports throughout the continent, including Southampton, England, and Barcelona, Spain.
Royal also bases ships in Australia and Asia that can be booked by North American cruisers. Exotic itineraries include those visiting South America, the Middle East and the South Pacific.
Among the industry's largest standard cabin sizes, even at entry-level grades. Carnival has a relatively simple cabin structure with standard cabin grade options (exceptions being newer ships like Mardi Gras, which have many cabin types to choose from)
Select ships have Cloud 9 Spa accommodation, which include free fitness classes and access to the thermal suites and Thalassotherapy pool, as well as discounts on spa treatments when the ship is docked in port.
Suite privileges include priority check-in, embarkation and debarkation; priority dinner reservations and main dining room time assignment two complimentary large bottles of water; pillow-top mattresses and bathrobes. The line's newer ships offer separate Havana Cabins that include a private pool and deck area at the stern of the ship.
Carnival Celebration, Carnival Horizon, Carnival Jubilee, Mardi Gras, Carnival Panorama and Carnival Vista have the line's largest selection of family-specific cabins with their Family Harbor rooms that include insides, oceanviews and balconies that can hold up to five people
Royal Caribbean offers a large variety of cabin categories, especially on its newest ships. Innovative cabin options include Virtual Balcony inside cabins with giant LED screens that give the impression of floor-to-ceiling windows.
The line offers comprehensive tiered suite privileges, including free drinks and specialty dining (on Quantum- and Oasis-class ships only), priority boarding and disembarking, reserved theater seating, VIP pool seating where available, and more
Royal also has some of the largest suites in the mainstream cruise category, including some duplex options, including the extraordinary (and costly) Ultimate Family Suite on Symphony of the Seas, Spectrum of the Seas and Wonder of the Seas. On Icon of the Seas, this expansive room has been renamed the Ultimate Family Townhouse to reflect its spacious, multi-story layout.
Royal also some of the smallest standard cabin categories.
Offers fixed and flex dining options, accented with performances by the dining room team on select nights. Each ship has just a handful of specialty restaurants, and most -- like Guy's Burger Joint and BlueIguana Cantina -- are included in the cruise fares. Others cost extra with cover charges ranging from $15 to $38, or are priced a la carte in the case of Bonsai Sushi. Only a handful of ships have more than three or four specialty dining venues
Carnival has a partnership with celebrity chef Guy Fieri, whose Guy's Burger Joint is found across the fleet and whose Guy's Pig & Anchor Bar-b-Que is on 10 vessels.
Mardi Gras offers new dining venues curated by Rudi Sodamin of Holland America Line, and famed chef Emeril Lagasse. Emeril’s Bistro 1396 is on Mardi Gras, Emeril’s Bistro 1397 is on Carnival Celebration and Emeril’s Bistro 717 is on Carnival Jubilee.
At least one formal night per cruise, asking passengers to dress up for dinner (or eat in the Lido Marketplace, where casual dress is acceptable)
Royal offers fixed and My Time dining options with an extraordinary array of specialty restaurants. On the downside, few are included in the cruise fares: Sorrento's pizzeria and the Cafe Promenade are two that are complimentary.
Royal Caribbean has a partnership with Jamie Oliver, whose Jamie's Italian is on Quantum-class ships as well as Harmony of the Seas and Symphony of the Seas. Hooked Seafood and the Mason Jar for southern dishes are among the line's newer specialty restaurants.
At least one formal night per cruise requiring passengers to dress up for dinner (or eat in the Windjammer Buffet, where casual dress is acceptable)
Suite guests can exclusive access to the Coastal Kitchen.
All ships in Carnival's fleet has at least one pool; many also have an aft pool. The WaterWorks water park, featuring a variety of water slides, is onboard most ships; some older ships have just one waterslide.
Newer ships offer large waterpark venues for kids, outdoor fitness and activity centers.
Carnival is all about poolside fun, including traditional cruise ship contests like hairy chest, sexy legs and belly flop.
Lots of branded food and drink venues around the pool deck, including Guy's Burger Joint, RedFrog Rum Bar and the BlueIguana Tequila Bar
Mardi Gras also offers BOLT, the world's first roller coaster at sea.
All Royal Caribbean ships have at least two pools, with some having three or four
Royal Caribbean highlights include: FlowRider surf simulator, the kids' H2O Zone or Splashaway Bay and the Ultimate Abyss water slide.
Poolside fun can include sexiest man and belly flop competitions, but some ships will have little poolside activity.
Most ships have mini-golf courses and several have basketball or volleyball courts.
Eleven ships have ropes courses, with three more coming.
Carnival Vista, Horizon and Panorama feature SkyRide, a pedal-powered, open-air aerial bike ride, in which riders race each other on hanging recumbent bikes around an 800-foot suspended track, some 150 feet above the sea
All ships have basketball courts and rock climbing walls, and most also have mini-golf courses.
Daily indoor fun includes trivia, bingo, cooking demonstrations, dance classes, the interactive Hasbro the Game Show, cocktail mixing contests and martini tastings.
Seuss at Sea activities are offered for kids across the fleet, including a parade through the vessel culminating in story time in the theatre
Carnival Horizon and Vista have the 3D Thrill Theatre and an IMAX theater (cover charge required).
Comedy Clubs offered aboard all vessels, with G-rated and R-rated shows. Plenty of live music offered in lounges onboard, particularly during the pre-and-post-dinner hours.
Daily indoor fun includes trivia, bingo, napkin folding demonstrations, dance classes, scrapbooking sessions and jewelry-making classes.
On Oasis-, Quantum-, Voyager- and Freedom-class ships, the Promenade is the place to people-watch, hit a shop, or grab a bite to eat or beer to drink.
Several ships have indoor ice skating rinks with complimentary skating. Royal's Quantum-class ships have the SeaPlex, an indoor activity center that plays host to bumper cars, roller skating, trapeze classes and an arcade.
Carnival's evening entertainment is lively. Playlist Productions theater shows are short (think 30 minutes), highly visual musical performances that run several times an evening and on multiple days. Standard cruise evening gameshows and diversions, including the popular Love and Marriage Show.
The Punchliner Comedy Club, found on all ships, offers nightly family-friendly and adults-only comedy routines. Dive-In Movies offered poolside on select ships with outdoor LED screens (most of the fleet).
All ships feature nightclubs with DJs trained by DJ Irie, the official DJ of the Miami Heat. The onboard Piano Bar is a hoot-and-holler sing-along good time (come early, or it will be standing room only!), while the Sports Bar is perfect for catching a game or having a brew.
Equally buzzy, night-time entertainment ranges from Broadway shows to virtual concerts.
Seven ships feature Broadway and West End shows: Anthem of the Seas ("We Will Rock You"), Oasis of the Seas ("Cats"), Liberty of the Seas ("Saturday Night Fever"), Allure of the Seas ("Mamma Mia"), Independence of the Seas ("Grease") and Harmony of the Seas ("Grease"); and Symphony of the Seas ("Hairspray")
All ships also feature musical revue-style song-and-dance shows, as well as occasional performances by comedians and magicians.
Oasis-class ships feature AquaTheater gravity-defying diving and acrobatic performances, while Quantum-class ships feature Two70, a three-deck-high lounge and performance space featuring stunning acts that combine digital visuals with music, dancing and acrobatics.
The onboard Schooner Bar provides a nautical-inspired casual spot for a pre-dinner drink (or post-dinner piano sing-along), while Bolero's, with its Latin beats, is a spot for salsa dancing and sipping mojitos. All ships feature a nightclub for nighttime dancing.
Carnival is a genuinely family-friendly with Seuss at Sea (fleetwide) incorporating several events, including the Green Eggs and Ham breakfast, costume parade with characters from Dr. Seuss' most beloved books and movie screenings of Dr. Seuss classics.
Kids clubs include programs for smaller kids, tweens and teens. Teens can get their hair done or a mani/pedi at the teen-only ZSPA and learn to DJ with the Spin U program.
Nighttime baby-sitting is available (for a fee) with the Night Owls program.
Royal Caribbean is also a big hit with families. With My Family Timing Dining, kids ages 3 to 11 are served their meals first and then picked up by kids club staff so parents can have the rest of dinner to themselves.
Kids clubs include programs for smaller kids, tweens and teens. There's also Royal Babies and Tots Nursery (on select ships) is for babies ages 6 to 36 months; a fee applies for daytime and nighttime sessions.
Passengers can pre-order diapers, wipes, cream and baby food through the Babies 2 Go program.
There are many different family-friendly cabin configurations -- including the eye-popping Ultimate Family cabins.
Carnival is known for sticking with cruising traditions like set dining times (though anytime dining is also available), poolside fun and North America-based cruising.
Newest ships have a few innovations, including the ropes course (the first at sea for any line was on Carnival Breeze), SkyRide, which debuted on Carnival Vista in 2017, and the BOLT onboard roller coaster, which debuted aboard Mardi Gras in 2021.
Known for constantly innovating the cruise industry with first-at-sea features like rock climbing walls, ice skating rinks, the FlowRider surf simulator and vertical tube skydiving. The line's Bionic Bar, featuring a robot bar tender, is found on several Royal Caribbean cruise ships.
Carnival Cruise Line is a budget-conscious, family-friendly cruise line with a casual, 'we-don't-take-ourselves-too-seriously' vibe that's all about having fun.
Royal Caribbean International Focus on the "wow" factor with big ships, high-tech entertainment and activities, a vast array of dining choices and an emphasis on family togetherness.