Norwegian vs Carnival: A Guide to Help Choose Your Next Cruise

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When choosing a cruise line for your next vacation, two names that often come up are Norwegian and Carnival. Both have unique offerings with various amenities and experiences.

A side-by-side comparison of a colorful Norwegian cruise ship and a blue and white Carnival cruise ship, with the text 'Norwegian vs Carnival' indicating a comparison or rivalry between the two cruise lines.

From the size and diversity of their fleet to the destinations they offer, dining options, cabin comfort, onboard activities, kids’ programs, nightlife, pricing, demographics, and overall impression – I’ll cover all these aspects to help decide which cruise line is best for you.

Before going into each section, here are the key features to know about each cruise line.

Norwegian Cruise Line

  • Pioneers of “Freestyle” dining, offering a range of dining options without traditional scheduled dining times.
  • High-quality entertainment, including Broadway-style shows and guest entertainers performing magic, comedy, acrobatics, and more.
  • Cutting-edge amenities like go-karting and adults-only Vibe Beach Club, although some require additional fees.
  • A wide variety of specialty dining experiences is available for an extra charge.
Elegant dining area inside Ocean Blue on Norwegian Bliss with neatly arranged tables, contemporary chairs, and large windows offering ocean views, showcasing a sophisticated onboard dining experience.
Ocean Blue on Norwegian Bliss

Carnival Cruise Line

  • Known as “Fun Ships,” ideal for first-time cruisers, families, and budget travelers.
  • Casual, affordable, and family-friendly, with a relaxed and party-friendly atmosphere.
  • Partnerships with Dr. Seuss and family-friendly activities like Hasbro: The Game Show.
  • Notable for great service and a lineup of included onboard dining options such as Guy’s Burger Joint and Blue Iguana Cantina
Guy's Burger Joint on Carnival Liberty, featuring a classic American diner theme with a warm wooden interior and nostalgic decor. The serving counter is adorned with signage celebrating the "Hot Rod" and "California US 101," evoking the spirit of vintage car culture, while guests can enjoy watching TV as they wait for their freshly grilled burgers.
Guy’s Burger Joint on Carnival Liberty

…and here are the quick takeaways in the table below if you don’t have time to read the whole thing.

CategoryNorwegian Cruise LineCarnival Cruise Line
Dining StyleFreestyle dining with no set times, variety of specialty dining options for extra chargeRange of included dining options, less emphasis on specialty dining
EntertainmentBroadway-style shows, diverse guest performancesLively parties and music, stage shows with technology, comedy club
ActivitiesUnique activities like go-kart tracks, laser tag, sports, spa optionsWaterWorks water park, SportSquare, deck and indoor games
Cabin TypesStandard cabins, The Haven luxury area, Studio Cabins for solo travellersRoomier-than-average cabins, unique options like Family Harbor and Havana cabins
Family and KidsComprehensive kids’ program, clubs for different age groups, late-night fun zoneDr. Seuss-themed events, WaterWorks aqua park, Camp Ocean, family-friendly activities
ItinerariesStrong presence in the Bahamas, Caribbean, Europe, and more; variety of cruise lengthsFocus on the Caribbean, Bahamas, and Mexico; mostly shorter cruises
PricingOlder, smaller ships generally cheaper; newer, larger ships more expensive than Carnival’s counterpartsOne of the most affordable lines, especially in the Caribbean; great pricing on select west coast cruises
Overall RecommendationExcels in itineraries, entertainment, and dining quality; ideal for those seeking a sophisticated atmosphere and varietyPerfect for families and budget travelers looking for a casual, fun-filled experience with more included amenities

Norwegian Cruise Line

Comprises 19 ships. Each ship varies in size, with the smallest carrying just over 1,900 passengers. Their larger ships can accommodate around 4,100 passengers. Norwegian ships are known for their diversity in size, offering an ideal option for every type of cruiser.

Three Norwegian Cruise Line ships at sea, featuring vibrant, artistic hull designs with marine motifs, symbolizing the lively and colorful experience offered aboard these floating resorts.

Carnival Cruise Line

When it comes to size and diversity, Carnival Cruise Line takes the lead with a total of 25 ships. Several of these ships have a 2,100-passenger capacity. But most Carnival ships can accommodate between 3,000 to 5,000 passengers. This allows Carnival to cater to a broad range of travellers, from those who prefer cosier cruises to those who enjoy the lively atmosphere of larger ships.

Recommended reading: The Best Carnival Cruise Ships.

A fleet of Carnival cruise ships gathers in the tranquil blue waters of the Bahamas under a vast sky with scattered clouds.

Norwegian’s Destinations

Norwegian Cruise Line offers a more diverse international spread. However, cruises are usually going to the Bahamas and the Caribbean from ports such as Florida, such as Miami and Port Canaveral. In addition to these locations, they offer a selection of cruises to Mexico, Hawaii, Canada, Australia, Asia, and the Middle East.

Europe is another key destination for Norwegian, with a significant number of their ships (between five to ten) regularly navigating both the Mediterranean and Northern European waters. Moreover, Norwegian offers a wide range of cruise durations, from short weekend trips to extended voyages exceeding nine nights.

The Norwegian Jade cruise ship docked in the picturesque port of Ålesund, Norway, with its distinctive colorful buildings and majestic mountain backdrop, highlighting the ship's global itineraries.
Norwegian Jade docked at the port of Alesund, Norway

Carnival’s Destinations

Carnival Cruise Line primarily sails in the Caribbean, Bahamas, and Mexico, with a selection of cruises extending to Europe, Alaska, and Hawaii. They operate from several major ports, including Miami, Port Canaveral, Galveston, New York, and Los Angeles.

While Carnival offers a range of longer cruises exceeding nine nights, these are less frequent compared to Norwegian Cruise Line’s offerings. The bulk of Carnival’s cruises are designed for shorter durations, typically lasting eight nights or fewer.

The Carnival Sunrise cruise ship docked at Grand Turk, with the island's stunning turquoise waters and lush landscapes in the background, embodying tropical travel and leisure.
Carnival Sunrise docked at Grand Turk

Key Takeaway:

  • Norwegian has a strong presence in the Bahamas, Caribbean, Europe, and other global destinations, offering a variety of cruise lengths.
  • Carnival focuses mainly on the Caribbean, Bahamas, and Mexico, with most sailings being 8 nights or less.

Norwegian Cruise Line

Norwegian Cruise Line is well-known for its innovative approach to dining at sea, notably its ‘freestyle dining’ concept. This approach means there are no fixed dining times on their ships, offering a more flexible dining experience for those who prefer not to be tied to a schedule. However, this flexibility can sometimes lead to waits during peak dining times, similar to a regular restaurant on land. Each evening might bring a different set of servers, so they might not get familiar with your specific dining preferences.

For those who like a bit more predictability, Norwegian does allow guests to make dinner reservations in advance, and you can request a specific server’s section, although this isn’t guaranteed. When it comes to dining options, Norwegian’s ships, including the smaller and older ones, are well-equipped with a variety of specialty restaurants, although these often come with an additional cost.

You’ll find a range of culinary experiences, from Italian dishes at La Cucina to Brazilian flavours at Moderno Churrascaria, and even a barbecue venue complete with live country music on their newer ships. For a more complimentary dining experience, guests can enjoy the ship’s buffet or O’Sheehan’s/The Local, which offer a more casual setting and are open round the clock.

The dress code for sit-down restaurants is smart casual, and Norwegian also offers a unique twist on formal nights, known as “Dress-Up or Not Night,” giving guests the freedom to choose their level of formality.

The inviting interior of La Cucina Italian restaurant on Norwegian Bliss, showcasing elegant dining tables, plush seating, and warm lighting, for a cozy and upscale dining experience.
La Cucina on Norwegian Bliss

Carnival Cruise Line

Carnival Cruise Line may not have as many specialty restaurants as Norwegian, but their range of included dining options is quite impressive, especially given their affordability. You’ll find popular fast-casual choices like Guy’s Burger Joint, created by Food Network’s Guy Fieri, available on 24 ships, and his Pig & Anchor Bar-B-Que Smokehouse on 7 ships. For those who enjoy Mexican cuisine, BlueIguana Cantina on the lido deck offers delicious burritos, including a must-try breakfast option.

For something different, Carnival also features JiJi Asian Kitchen with its array of Chinese and Asian dishes, and the Seafood Shack, known for its fresh seafood and lobster rolls. The line is also launching a new complimentary chicken restaurant, Big Chicken, in collaboration with NBA legend Shaquille O’Neal.

However, it’s worth noting that Carnival has occasionally faced food consistency issues in their buffet and main dining room, which might vary across ships.

Also, it’s worth noting that for those who enjoy dressing up, Carnival hosts one formal night per cruise (or two on longer journeys), but guests preferring a casual dining experience can always opt for the buffet or room service.

The Crimson Dining Room on the Carnival Dream, set for dinner with a luxurious red and gold color scheme. The room features elegantly set round tables with sparkling glassware and a vibrant red glass chandelier as a centerpiece, reflecting an upscale and welcoming atmosphere for dining.
Dining Room on the Carnival Dream

Key Takeaway:

  • Norwegian offers “freestyle dining” with no set dinner times and a variety of specialty dining options.
  • Carnival boasts a range of included dining options and is known for venues like Guy’s Burger Joint and innovative restaurants like JiJi Asian Kitchen.

Norwegian’s Cabins

On Norwegian Cruise Line, passengers can expect cabins typical of mainstream cruise lines, with standard-sized, well-laid-out bathrooms. Newer ships have replaced shower curtains with curved glass doors for a more convenient shower experience.

Unique to Norwegian are their Spa Staterooms offering free access to the spa’s thermal suite and a zen-like decor. Their Studio Cabins are specifically designed for solo travelers, avoiding extra fees. The Norwegian Epic features a novel split-bathroom design.

A standout feature is The Haven, a luxurious ‘ship within a ship’. Here, suites range from spacious to opulent three-bedroom villas, featuring unique bathroom designs with marble surfaces and double vanities, elevating the standard of luxury on the seas.

Luxuriously appointed bedroom in the Haven Deluxe Owner's Suite on Norwegian Bliss, featuring a plush bed with a view of the sea through floor-to-ceiling windows and elegant modern decor.
Haven Deluxe Owner’s Suite on Norwegian Bliss

Carnival’s Cabins

Carnival Cruise Line is known for its spacious cabins, larger than the average, enhancing comfort for daytime relaxation and preparation. Standard features include bedside reading lights, conventional bathrooms, and a desk/vanity area. Newer ships offer unique cabin choices like Family Harbor and Havana staterooms.

Family Harbor rooms grant access to a lounge with complimentary breakfast, snacks, and family activities. Children in these rooms dine free in most specialty restaurants and enjoy complimentary babysitting services.

Havana cabins, with a Cuban theme, offer exclusive access to the Havana Bar and Pool, and some even have private outdoor areas with hammock chairs.

Cloud 9 Spa staterooms offer more luxurious decor and amenities like Elemis toiletries, with priority access to spa reservations and classes and unlimited thermal suite access.

Recommended reading: Deciding between a suite and a balcony room on Carnival?

Cloud 9 Spa suite on Carnival Panorama featuring a comfortable queen-sized bed with a turquoise and white patterned runner. The room is equipped with a plush green sofa, a simple wooden coffee table, and an ocean-themed artwork adorning the wall. Large windows provide ample natural light and a breathtaking view of the sea.
Cloud 9 Spa Suite on Carnival Panorama

Key Takeaway:

  • Norwegian features standard cabins with unique offerings like The Haven luxury area and solo traveller-friendly Studio Cabins.
  • Carnival offers roomier-than-average cabins, including unique options like Family Harbor and Havana cabins.

Norwegian Attractions

Norwegian Cruise Line has been innovating its onboard activities, notably introducing go-kart tracks on the Norwegian Bliss, Joy, and Encore, and establishing permanent laser tag arenas on these ships.

Adventurous passengers can experience the thrilling ‘walk-the-plank’ feature, stepping out over the ocean on a securely attached plank. Other attractions include ropes courses, mini-golf, rock walls, and water parks on newer and refurbished ships.

For fitness enthusiasts, there are basketball courts, convertible for other sports, and well-equipped gyms with a variety of equipment and fitness classes. Those seeking relaxation can enjoy the casino, lounges with live music, hot tubs, and spas with treatments and thermal suites, some offering ocean views.

A row of elliptical machines in the Fitness Center on Norwegian Epic, with expansive windows offering serene ocean views, combining exercise with the beauty of maritime travel.
Fitness Center on Norwegian Epic

Carnival Attractions

Carnival Cruise Line has evolved from its traditional fun activities, incorporating a wide range of new and exciting options. Their WaterWorks water park boasts various water slides, while most ships feature mini-golf. The SportSquare on select ships includes basketball courts, a ropes course, and table tennis.

The Lido deck offers relaxed activities like unique contests, and indoor options include trivia, bingo, dance classes, and ‘Hasbro, The Game Show’ for interactive family fun. Adults seeking tranquility can retreat to the Serenity Retreat, a child-free zone, or indulge in the onboard spa’s relaxing treatments.

The Serenity Adult-Only Retreat on Carnival Celebration features a chic pool area shaded by elegant white canopies, with luxurious daybeds and a bar in the background, all designed to provide a relaxing and sophisticated atmosphere for guests to enjoy the sunshine and sea breeze.
Serenity Adult-Only Retreat on Carnival Celebration

Key Takeaway:

  • Norwegian provides unique activities like go-kart tracks, laser tag, and various sports and spa options.
  • Carnival’s activities include WaterWorks water park, SportSquare, and a variety of deck and indoor games​.

Norwegian Activities

Like many cruise lines, Norwegian offers a comprehensive kids’ program, which is called Splash Academy. Children aged 3-12 are grouped into age-specific clubs where they engage in activities like arts, crafts, treasure hunts, sports, and themed nights. Family events allow kids to join in with parents for activities like game shows and pizza-making.

Teens have their own area, Entourage, for video games, themed parties, and other activities. There’s also a space for babies, named ‘Guppies’, with areas for play and sleep. Additionally, Norwegian provides a Late Night Fun Zone for supervised child care, allowing parents to enjoy an evening out.

The vibrant and modern Entourage teen lounge on Norwegian Epic, featuring cozy seating, colorful lighting, and multiple screens for entertainment, designed as a fun hangout space for younger passengers
Entourage on Norwegian Epic

Carnival Activities

Carnival Cruise Line offers numerous family-oriented activities. Highlights include the Twister Water Slide, a mini water park, and interactive games like Hasbro: The Game Show. The decks boast play areas with basketball hoops and jungle gyms, and indoor game rooms. Camp Ocean caters to different age groups with activities like crafts and dancing, while Circle C is a haven for teens.

Night Owls provides supervised evening childcare. Young children can enjoy Zumbini classes, and the ‘Dr. Seuss at Sea’ program adds to the fun. Dining options cater to young tastes, and the Bottomless Bubbles Soda Card offers unlimited drinks for kids.

Related reading: The best Carnival Cruise ships for kids.

Suess-a-Palooza Storytime and Parade on a Carnival Cruise, with characters from Dr. Seuss's books like the Cat in the Hat and Things 1 and 2 engaging with an audience against a whimsical stage backdrop.
Suess-a-Palooza Storytime and Parade

Key Takeaway:

  • Norwegian has a comprehensive kids’ program with clubs for different age groups and a late-night fun zone.
  • Carnival offers a wide array of family-friendly activities and amenities, including Dr. Seuss-themed events and expanded kids’ menus​.

Norwegian Entertainment

Norwegian Cruise Line stands out for its top-tier entertainment across various venues. The ships host Broadway shows like “After Midnight” and “Rock of Ages,” alongside unique dinner shows such as “Cirque Dreams.” With a rotating roster of guest performers, including acrobats and magicians, the entertainment is always fresh and varied.

For those seeking different entertainment styles, Norwegian offers piano bar sing-alongs, live bands, and lively deck parties, ensuring a diverse range of options for all tastes.

The sophisticated Mixx Bar on Norwegian Bliss, positioned between the Taste and Savor restaurants, with stylish bar stools and a sleek, modern design, creating an inviting atmosphere for cocktails and conversation.
Mixx Bar on Norwegian Bliss

Carnival Entertainment

Carnival Cruise Line is celebrated for its vibrant parties and dynamic night scene, featuring energetic discos and piano bars. While their stage shows are not the main focus, they offer unique performances like “America Rocks” through Playlist Productions, which incorporates LED screens and special effects.

The Punchliner Comedy Club presents both adult and family-friendly comedy, and interactive activities like ‘Clue: The Murder Mystery’ and a Lip Sync Battle add to the entertainment. These offerings showcase Carnival’s commitment to diverse and engaging onboard experiences.

The Punchliner Comedy Club on Mardi Gras, featuring a chic, dimly lit interior with emerald green walls, modern spherical lights, and plush brown seating, ready for an evening of entertainment.
The Punchliner Comedy Club on Mardi Gras

Key Takeaway:

  • Norwegian is known for high-quality Broadway shows and diverse guest performances.
  • Carnival excels in lively parties and music, with stage shows enhanced by technology and various group entertainment options​

Norwegian Pricing

Norwegian Cruise Line’s pricing strategy varies: older and smaller ships generally offer more affordable options compared to similar Carnival ships, while their newer and larger vessels tend to be pricier. Pricing also depends on itinerary popularity, with roundtrip journeys influencing costs.

For budget-conscious travellers, Norwegian offers competitive pricing on shorter Bahamas trips, with inside cabins often available for under $60 per night. Additionally, economical choices include one-way or repositioning cruises or travelling during the shoulder season in regions like Alaska, where lower demand leads to more attractive pricing.

Carnival Pricing

Carnival Cruise Line stands out for its affordability, particularly in the Caribbean and on select West Coast cruises. They offer competitive pricing for balcony cabins, often as low as $75 per night per person, which is notably lower than many other cruise lines. Additionally, Carnival provides budget-friendly options for interior cabins on shorter Bahamas and Caribbean cruises, frequently priced below $50 per night. This pricing strategy on shorter cruises generally attracts people who would like to have a party weekend or go for Spring Break.

Key Takeaway:

  • Norwegian’s older, smaller ships tend to be cheaper than similar Carnival ships, while newer, larger Norwegian ships are more expensive.
  • Carnival offers very affordable options, especially for balcony cabins and short cruises to the Bahamas and the Caribbean

You May Also Be Interested In…

If you’re comparing Carnival to other cruise lines, you may also be interested in these articles: Carnival vs MSC, Royal Caribbean vs Carnival, Carnival vs Princess or Disney Cruise vs Carnival.

Final Thoughts

I hope this has given you enough to make a decision on which one to book, at the end of the day it’s about what type of experience you would like. Both lines are comparable in many categories: Norwegian excels in itineraries, entertainment, and dining quality. In contrast, Carnival’s variety of unique cabins, onboard activities, and complimentary restaurants make it a great choice for families seeking variety and more included amenities.

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I'm Hannah and I've been cruising for as long as I can remember.

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