Cruise Comparison: NCL vs Carnival Cruises
If you’re looking for a fun, family-friendly mega-liner that is available for budget cruisers, you can’t do go wrong with Norwegian Cruise Line or Carnival Cruises . Both cruise lines offer a generous selection of onboard activities ranging from waterslides to adult-only restaurants. When deciding which cruise line is right for you and your family, the difference really is in the details.
Carnival Cruise Lines currently owns 25 cruise ships, with another two due to set sail next year. Their newest ship is the Carnival Horizon, which cruises to the Caribbean and is homeported in Miami. Its stand-out amenities are the Havana Pool & Bar, IMAX Theatre, Dr. Seuss WaterWorks, Serenity Adult-Only Retreat, Cloud 9 Spa, and Lip Sync Battle. Many of these features are new, but older ships are regularly going back to into dry-dock for upgrades (Carnival Legend, for example, has just returned from dry-dock).
NCL has a smaller number of ships at just seventeen. Their newest is Norwegian Bliss, which sails around Alaska and will move onto the Caribbean. And next year the Norwegian Encore will set sail for the first time and will sail around Bermuda and the Caribbean. Full details haven’t yet been announced, but we know the ship will be home to a 180-degree Observation Lounge. NCL’s ships also regularly enter dry-dock and all its ships have been refurbished within the last 5 years.
Both cruise lines boast nightly entertainment, with plenty of variety to keep your eyes and ears wowed throughout your time on-board.
On-board NCL you’ll enjoy Broadway-style shows, theatrical performances from ballroom and Latin dance company Burn the Floor, dinner while acrobats dance above you, bars with live bands, and comedy from the Levity Entertainment Group (who have worked with Daniel Tosh, Amy Schumer, Gabriel Iglesias and Jeff Dunham). What is exactly available will depend on the ship and the itinerary.
On Carnival, it is much the same though there is more shows aimed exclusively at children. Depending on the ship, there’s a combination of Lip sync Battle, murder mysteries, The Punchliner Comedy Club, the 4D Thrill Theatre, movies on the pool deck, Broadway-style shows, karaoke, and bars with live music. Children will also love the live-version of the Hasbro board game.
Both cruise lines are famed for their adventurous on-board activities, and it’s unlikely you’ll get bored on any of the ships in their fleet.
Norwegian Bliss is NCL’s newest ship, released earlier this year. On-board you will find the largest race track at sea, as well as laser tag, mini-golf, fitness centre, casino, and Aqua Park. While its sister ship Norwegian Escape is home to the fastest waterslide at sea, a multi-level Sports Complex and The Plank - which extends 8 feet over the side of the ship!
Carnival doesn’t boast anything record-breaking, but still has much of the same type of activities. For the adrenaline-junkies, there is the SkyRide (a bike ride high above top deck – but you’re strapped in), mini-golf, a water park, IMAX cinema, basketball, and a video arcade. They also offer low-key activities such as cooking demonstrations, bingo, art exhibitions, a spa, and a library.
Both cruise lines offer great amenities for children, with little difference between the two.
On-board Carnival you can drop your little ones off at Camp Owl, a kids club that is split into three age groups:
- Penguins (2 to 5 years)
- Stingrays (6 to 8 years)
- Sharks (9 to 11 years)
Run by experienced counsellors, your mini-me will enjoy activities like arts and crafts, songs, games, toys, dancing, movies and video games. The kids also eat together and get their own menus. There’s also an evening crèche so the kids can stay up late while the parents enjoy a night at the bar.
Kids (and even adults) will also love the Build-a-Bear Workshop at Sea, Hasbro Game Show, and Cherry on Top candy store.
But Carnival’s unique family-fun feature is Seuss at Sea, which includes a special onboard character parade, interactive story time, arts & crafts activities, and breakfast featuring their favourite Dr. Seuss characters.
Over on Norwegian Cruise Line, families are also well catered for.
Their complimentary youth programme is split into five age groups:
- Guppies Programmes (6 months - under 3 years)
- Turtles (3-5 years)
- Seals (6 – 9 years)
- Dolphins (10 -12 years)
- Entourage (Ages 13 – 17)
Depending on which age group your little ones fall into, they will enjoy a wealth of activities ranging from circus skills, arts & crafts, sensory play, treasure hunts, and video games. There’s also a nightclub for teenagers.
There’s also a Late Night Fun Zone where parents can leave their kids between the hours of 10:30 p.m. and 1:30 a.m. This involves a fee and the centre will close if no kids are registered by 11:30pm.
NCL have long been champions of Freestyle Dining with no fixed times, while Carnival offers both fixed and flexible dining. But all ships in NCL and Carnival’s fleets offer numerous dining options.
Norwegian boasts one of the industry’s largest selections of onboard restaurants, with as many as 25 dining choices. Complimentary choices include buffets, supper clubs, and standard pub grub. But, if you’re willing to pay a fee, you can choose from Japanese teppanyaki grills, steakhouses, Italian spots, Brazilian restaurants, French, sushi bars, and Asian noodle houses.
Carnival also offers 20+ dining options, though it will depend on which ship you are on. Complimentary dining includes the Main Dining Room, a Mexican cantina, a burger joint, a salad bar, pizzeria, ice cream parlour, room-service and a Mongolian restaurant. Complimentary restaurants include a Dr Seuss themed restaurant for kids, a sushi bar, a coffee bar, and a steakhouse.
Carnival also has a partnership with American chef Guy Ramsay Fieri. He has opened three different restaurants on-board Carnival Cruise Line ships: Guy’s Burger Joint, and the Guy’s Pig & Anchor Bar-B-Que Smokehouse. Both of these restaurants are included in the price. There is also a Brewhouse that is an additional cost.
Both NCL and Carnival offers a range of room and suite types.
On board an NCL cruise, you can choose between the following (depending on the ship):
- The Haven by Norwegian®
- Concierge Suites
- Suites and Penthouses
- Spa Staterooms
- Mini-Suites and Balconies
- Studios for solo cruisers
- Connecting staterooms
The first option, The Haven by Norwegian®, is a yacht-with-a-ship concept where can enjoy the perks of an exclusive area with butler and concierge service but still reap the benefits of a superliner. Inside the Haven there is a lounge, restaurant, and sundeck with small pool. There are also six room types to choose from in The Haven, but for something extra special there’s the 3-bedroom Garden Villa that can fit up to 8 guests and comes with an outdoor terrace with a hot tub and a private dining area.
Carnival takes a more no-frills approach to their staterooms with four basic categories: Interior, Ocean, Balcony and Suite. Connecting rooms and wheelchair accessible rooms are also available. There are, however, four other options (depending on the ship) for families who need extra room and couples looking for something special:
- Family-friendly Staterooms
- Cloud 9 Spa Staterooms
- Family Harbour Staterooms
- Havana Staterooms
Carnival doesn’t have their own version of The Haven by Norwegian® or any penthouse suites.
Out of the two cruise lines, NCL offers a wider range of destinations with a selection of Caribbean, Bermuda, Bahamas, Mexico, New England/Canada and Alaska itineraries. They also offer seasonal Mediterranean and seasonal Northern Europe itineraries. There’s also occasionally exotic sailings including South America, as well as Asia, Australia, India and the Arabian Gulf.
Carnival Cruise Line, however, only offers standard Caribbean, Bermuda, Bahamas, Mexico, Alaska and Hawaii itineraries. There’s no European sailings or exotic itineraries. They do however offer the occasional Australia itinerary.
Price wise, Carnival is more purse-friendly than NCL and offers some of the most competitive rates out of all the major cruise lines. For example, both cruise lines have a November 2018 Caribbean cruise that leaves from Miami. Our price with Carnival is £391.71pp on-board the Carnival Sensation. While our price with NCL for a similar cruise is £590.05pp on-board the Norwegian Getaway.
Both cruise lines include accommodation, entrainment, and complimentary restaurants within the cost of the cruise. Guests on-board NCL who opt for The Haven by Norwegian® will also enjoy gourmet dining options in speciality restaurants, 250 minutes free WiFi per Suite, and US $100 onboard spending money per suite. NCL do occasionally offer all-inclusive sailings, but it’s not the norm.
So which one is best for my family?
If it’s a fun ship with exciting activities to keep your children busy that you're looking for, both cruise lines hold up.
The two major differences between the NCL and Carnival are the price point and the itineraries on offer. If you want to cruise around Europe, NCL is the only one between the two that offers this. However, Carnival is cheaper if you are looking for a Caribbean cruise.
Minor differences include the accommodation options and the onboard activities. NCL offers a wide range of high-end suites and penthouses (and a 3-bedroom villa) if you are looking to treat yourself. And there are the themed Dr Seuss activities for children on-board Carnival, though NCL still has a lot to offer families.
Edited by Morag@BarrheadTravel