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Norwegian Cruise Line vs. Carnival Cruise Line (Photo: Norwegian & Carnival Cruise Line)

Norwegian Cruise Line vs. Carnival Cruise Line

Norwegian Cruise Line vs. Carnival Cruise Line (Photo: Norwegian & Carnival Cruise Line)
Jason Leppert

Last updated
Oct 24, 2023

Read time
14 min read

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.

Carnival Vs. Norwegian: Who Will Like It

Carnival Mardi Gras (Image: Carnival Cruise Line)

Carnival Cruise Line

Casual, family-friendly cruise line, known for its signature “Fun Ships,” for the budget-conscious who appreciate a we-don't-take-ourselves-too-seriously vibe. The ships are unquestionably playful vessels where guests of all ages can let their hair down and enjoy an excellent value proposition, thanks to a wide range of included activities, food and entertainment. Newer ships boast innovations like the SkyRide (a midair, suspended bike course) and Bolt (full roller coaster at sea).

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. Even though the ships have lots of la carte extra-cost activities and dining, there’s still plenty that is bundled into the base fare. Norwegian is always pushing the limits of what can be placed on a cruise ship, from ropes courses to go-kart raceways.

Carnival Vs. Norwegian: Fleet size, ship sizes and ages

Norwegian Epic (Photo: Norwegian)

Carnival Cruise Line

Carnival has one of the largest fleets at sea, with several classes of ships, each offering its own spin on fun. The newer ships tend to be larger, with more amenities.

• 24 ships by end of 2022, four built before 2000

• Smallest ships: Fantasy Class (2,052+ passengers) -- Carnival Elation, Carnival Paradise

• Largest ships: Mardi Gras (5,282 passengers), Carnival Celebration (5,282 passengers)

• Oldest ships: Carnival Elation (1998), Carnival Paradise (1998)

Norwegian Cruise Line

While Norwegian’s fleet is not as large, the line has more breadth in passenger counts – meaning you have more choices among size of ship. Some of Norwegian’s newer ships are actually smaller, a move that the line sees as making the experience more upscale.

• 18 ships, two built before 2000

• Smallest ships: Norwegian Sun (1,936 passengers), Norwegian Sky (2,004 passengers)

• Largest ships: Norwegian Escape (4,266 passengers), Norwegian Epic (4,100 passengers)

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

Carnival vs. Norwegian: Pricing and Cost

Guy's Burger Joint on Carnival Breeze

Carnival Cruise Line

Carnival offers some of the lowest cruise fares available, making for an exceptional value

• Prices include most alternative restaurants (including Guy’s Burger Joint and BlueIguana Cantina) on each ship

• Most entertainment included (exceptions are the 3D Thrill and IMAX theaters, which are only available on select ships)

Norwegian Cruise Line

Norwegian is known for adding extra fees, but bottom-line cruise fares are comparable to standard mainstream cruise line averages

• Pricing includes less than half of the restaurants offered onboard

• Most entertainment included (exceptions are lunch and dinner theaters, which are only available on select ships)

Norwegian vs. Carnival: Demographics and Who is Onboard?

nclencore Passengers ( Photo by Aaron Saunders)

Both lines cater to similar demographics. With more homeports spread throughout the US, Carnival’s ships often draw people from states close by who can drive to the port, while more people usually fly to catch a Norwegian cruise.

Carnival Cruise Line

• Families, friends, couples and singles in their 30s to 60s

• About half of all passengers are 35 to 55 years old

Norwegian Cruise Line

• Families, friends and couples aged 30s to 60s

• Larger numbers of solo cruisers on ships that offer Studio cabins

Carnival vs. Norwegian: Top Itineraries, Destinations and Homeports

Carnival Sensation in Mobile (Photo: Carnival Cruise Line)

Carnival Cruise Line

Carnival is known for having the most U.S. homeports, making them an economical choice for people or families who wish to drive.

• Sails out of 14 departure ports on the North American mainland on a seasonal or regular basis, if not always year-round

• Offers standard Caribbean, Bermuda, Bahamas, Mexico, Alaska, Canada/New England and Hawaii itineraries

• Is back to sailing in Europe and Australia as well

• Exotic itineraries include the South Pacific and Papua New Guinea

Pride of America

Norwegian Cruise Line

Norwegian’s fleet is generally spread across more international homeports and has less of a focus on smaller U.S. homeports than Carnival.

• Sails out of 14 homeports on the North American mainland, plus Puerto Rico on a seasonal or 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, Africa and elongated Extraordinary Journeys


Carnival vs. Norwegian: Cabins

Carnival Spirit Cabins

Carnival Cruise Line

Carnival has spacious 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 Mardi Gras and Carnival Celebration

• Thirteen ships have spa cabins that include free fitness classes, access to the thalassotherapy pool and select discounts on spa treatments

• Common suite privileges include priority check-in, embarkation and debarkation; priority dining reservations and main dining room times; two complimentary bottled waters; pillow-top mattresses and bathrobes; other suite categories offer even more such as access to Loft 19 on Excel class ships (Mardi Gras, etc.)

• Has limited family accommodations, including some cabins with connecting doors on most ships; largest selection of Family Harbor staterooms and suites (insides, oceanviews and balconies that can hold up to five people) can be found on the Vista and Excel (Mardi Gras, etc.) classes of ships (including exclusive access to the Family Harbor Lounge)

Studio Cabin on Norwegian Getaway

Norwegian Cruise Line

Cabin sizes on Norwegian 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

• Eight ships (Norwegian Epic, Norwegian Breakaway, Norwegian Getaway, Pride of America, Norwegian Escape, Norwegian Bliss, Norwegian Encore, Norwegian Prima) offer Studio cabins, which are inside cabins sized and priced for solo travelers; the Studio cabins on Bliss have virtual windows showing exterior views

• Twelve ships have a top-deck Haven suite complex with exclusive key-card access to a private courtyard and pool; of these ships, eight also have a private lounge and dining room

• Seven 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; a dedicated breakfast and lunch; cocktail party with ship’s officers; 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

Carnival vs. Norwegian: Dining

carnival Sunshine restaurant

Carnival Cruise Line

Carnival offers one of the most accessible and consistent array of dining at sea with something for everyone, from poolside comfort foods to elegant steakhouses. To that end, the line offers both fixed and flexible dining options, as well as:

• 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, especially Mardi Gras onwards, have more

• Has a partnership with celebrity chef Guy Fieri, whose Guy's Burger Joint is found on 23 Carnival ships and whose Guy's Pig & Anchor Bar-B-Que is on ten ships (by the end of 2022); also in collaboration with Shaq, three ships (by the end of 2022) will feature the “Chief Fun Officer’s” Big Chicken

• At least one formal night per cruise, on which passengers are encouraged to dress up for dinner

Onda by Scarpetta on Norwegian Prima (Image: Norwegian Cruise Line)

Norwegian Cruise Line

Following the “freestyle” format, there are no set dining times and you can eat in any of the main dining rooms at any time during open hours aboard Norwegian. Just keep in mind that reservations may be required and fill up quickly at the most popular restaurants. Among those dining options are these:

• All ships have a pub/restaurant or diner that is open 24/7, in addition to complimentary buffets and main dining rooms for breakfasts, lunches and dinners

• Every ship has four or more extra-fee specialty restaurants that might include a steakhouse, Italian, French, Japanese hibachi and Brazilian, as well as sushi; most are priced a la carte

• Six ships (Norwegian Breakaway, Norwegian Joy, Norwegian Getaway, Norwegian Escape, Norwegian Bliss and Norwegian Encore) feature The Waterfront, an outdoor area offering alfresco seating for several restaurants and bars; the Prima class has an outer dining deck known as Ocean Boulevard

• In partnership with Scarpetta is Onda (premier Italian cuisine) on Norwegian Encore, Norwegian Spirit and Norwegian Prima

• One optional formal night on weeklong sailings

Carnival vs. Norwegian: Pool Deck Fun

The Main Pool on Carnival Panorama (Photo: Chris Gray Faust/Cruise Critic)

Carnival Cruise Line

Carnival has always been about pool deck fun and features some of the most elaborate water areas, parks and slides of any cruise line encompassing:

• All ships have at least one main pool; many also have aft pools, some of which are adults-only

• The top-deck WaterWorks, found on 20 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 Bar (a double-decker tiki bar on Mardi Gras and Carnival Celebration),Guy's Burger Joint and the BlueIguana Tequila Bar

Norwegian Sky's Updated Pool Deck (Photo: Norwegian Cruise Line)

Norwegian Cruise Line

Norwegian ships in the Breakaway class have surprisingly constricted and crowded pool decks. However, most make up for any shortcomings with a large variety of extra water features including:

• All ships have at least one large pool or two smaller pools, as well as four or more outdoor hot tubs

• Several ships have kids pools or water parks for youngsters

• Many ships have pools with at least one slide, with eight having Aqua Parks with one or more slides (though, Norwegian Prima has more dry slides than water slides)

• Some poolside activities, but pool decks are primarily for lounging around

Carnival vs. Norwegian: Sports Deck Fun

BOLT on Carnival Mardi Gras (Photo: Chris Gray Faust)

Carnival Cruise Line

Carnival significantly raised the bar when it was the first to install a full-blown roller coaster — Bolt (for an added fee) — on Mardi Gras and Carnival Celebration. Of course, they still offer traditional sports varieties as well:

• All ships have mini-golf courses and several have basketball or volleyball courts

• Ten ships have ropes courses (by end of 2022)

Carnival Vista, Carnival Horizon and Carnival Panorama offer the SkyRide, an aerial ride and self-propelled Bolt predecessor on which riders race each other on hanging recumbent bikes around an 800-foot suspended track, some 150 feet above the sea.

Go-Kart Racetrack on Norwegian Bliss

Norwegian Cruise Line

Norwegian was one of the first to enhance its sports decks, placing genuine go-kart tracks in addition to ropes courses and laser tag arenas in outer areas, and with every added ship, the line expands its inclusions, some of which cost extra:

• Most ships have traditional sports courts, as well as many with golf driving nets or mini-golf

• Five 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, Norwegian Joy, Norwegian Encore and Norwegian Prima have a two- or three-level Go-Kart racing track as well as an outdoor laser tag course (not on Prima); both cost extra to use; the ships also have a mini-golf course, but no rock climbing wall or rope course

• Norwegian Prima introduced three dry slides extending from the top of the ship nearly all the way down to the bottom in addition to its one and only water slide

Carnival vs. Norwegian: Indoor Things to Do

Hasbro, the Game Show on Carnival Glory

Carnival Cruise Line

Carnival manages to take traditional cruise activities like trivia, bingo, cooking demos, dance classes, cocktail mixing contests and martini tastings and always makes them more engaging and fun, not to mention the following:

• The interactive "Hasbro, the Game Show"  is one of several specialty offerings that has since expanded to Family Feud Live on the line’s newest ships

• Three ships (Breeze, Vista and Horizon) have 3D Thrill Theaters (cover charge required); Vista and Horizon also have an IMAX theater and Panorama features a Sky Zone trampoline park instead

• The Excel class (Mardi Gras, etc.) showcases Grand Central as an atrium turned scenic entertainment core for game shows and other live events

Various Virtual Reality Rides in The Galaxy Pavilion (Photo: Norwegian Cruise Line)

Norwegian Cruise Line

Indoor play on a Norwegian cruise starts with trivia, bingo, dance classes, and beer and wine tastings and further extends to:

• Three ships (Norwegian Joy, Norwegian Encore, Norwegian Prima) tout the Galaxy Pavilion, an extra-cost virtual reality complex that is as much of a hit with adults as it is with kids and teenagers

• Select ships feature full-size or miniature bowling and other video games 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; a pair of ships (Norwegian Encore and Norwegian Prima) feature dedicated escape rooms

• Most ships have a wall-sized Wii screen in the atrium for group Wii play

Norwegian vs. Carnival: Nightlife

The Alchemy Bar aboard Carnival Spirit (Photo: Aaron Saunders)

Carnival Cruise Line

Unlike other standard mainstream cruise lines, Carnival has shied away from remounting full-scale Broadway shows on its ships, instead favoring its in-house Playlist Productions kinetic revue-style performances as well as the rest:

• Available nightly on all ships, The Punchliner Comedy Club offers family-friendly and adults-only standup comedy sets

• Has poolside “Dive-In" Movies

• Nightclub DJs can be expected onboard as can karaoke and live music permeating the ships

• 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

• Themed parties further range from 80s Night to White Hot Night

Choir of Man on Norwegian Encore (Photo: Adam Coulter/Cruise Critic)

Norwegian Cruise Line

Norwegian is one of the cruise lines to expand from musical revues to add in stage shows remounted from Broadway. Its entertainment offerings, subject to swaps and updating, include the following and more:

• Several ships feature Broadway shows in the onboard theaters and other large-scale performances: “Burn the Floor" on Norwegian Breakaway, "Million Dollar Quartet" on Norwegian Getaway, "Pricilla Queen of the Desert" on Norwegian Epic, “The Choir of Man" on Norwegian Escape,”Jersey Boys" on Norwegian Bliss, “Footloose” on Norwegian Joy, “Kinky Boots” on Norwegian Encore and “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical” on Norwegian Prima.

• Nightlife spots beyond the usual bars include the Beatles-inspired Cavern Club on Norwegian Epic,Bliss, Joy and Encore;  as well as a comedy clubs on most of the line’s newest ships; vessels without comedy clubs feature comedians at least once per sailing in the main theater

• Select ships also feature alternative theater shows or supper club shows, most for an extra fee

• 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 bars located throughout

Carnival vs. Norwegian: Are the Ships Family Friendly?

Green Eggs and Ham Breakfast (Photo: Carnival Cruise Line)

Carnival Cruise Line

• 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, Carnival Horizon, Carnival Panorama, Mardi Gras and Carnival Celebration have the whimsical Dr. Seuss Bookville, a reading area and play space for kids and parents

• Offers Camp Ocean kids programs for smaller kids 2 to 5 (Penguins), 6 to 8 (Stingrays) and 9 to 11 (Sharks), as well as tweens 12 to 14 (Circle “C”) and teens 15 to 17 (Club O2)

• Build-A-Bear Workshop At Sea is a great opportunity for kids to craft their very own stuffed animals aboard all the ships in the fleet; and Towel Animal Theater is a cute show that brings the ships’ terrycloth friends to life on stage for the whole family to enjoy

• Teen girls will love getting manis/pedis at the teens-only ZSpa

• Nighttime baby-sitting (for a fee) with the Night Owls program

• Family Harbor staterooms and suites are available on the Vista and Excel (Mardi Gras, etc.) classes of ships including exclusive access to the Family Harbor Lounge

The Aqua Park on Norwegian Encore (Photo: Cruise Critic)

Norwegian Cruise Line

• Three youth programs for those ages 6 months to under 3 (Guppies), 5 to 12 (Splash Academy), and 13 to 17 (Entourage)

• The Guppies program offers play areas and activities for parents with babies and toddlers, ages 6 months to under 3 years; Guppies hosted activities and open play are available across the fleet

• Evening and port day group baby-sitting (for a fee) is available for kids ages 5 to 12

• Family-friendly staterooms and suites include 2-Bedroom Family Suites, as well as Family Mini-Suites, Balconies, Oceanviews and Inside cabins

Publish date September 15, 2022
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