Royal Caribbean International and Carnival Cruise Line are two of the largest cruise providers operating in the United States. Both cruise operators are known for their well-rounded cruises from ports in North America as well as overseas, and both have frequent sales that let cruisers score hefty discounts or onboard credits they can use for drinks, specialty dining and more.
Which one of these two cruise lines is the best? This question is difficult to answer since individual ships each have their own features and amenities — and because personal preference comes into play. Each cruise vacation can vary just as much by the vessel and the itinerary you select as by the cruise brand.
That said, U.S. News has compared the offerings of Carnival and Royal Caribbean to figure out which one came out ahead overall in the most important categories. Ultimately, Royal Caribbean stood out due to its bigger, more elaborate ships; its roomier cabins; its live entertainment and activities; and its private island experience.
|Fleet size||Royal Caribbean|
|Drink packages||Royal Caribbean|
|Onboard activities||Royal Caribbean|
|Live entertainment||Royal Caribbean|
|Private island experiences||Royal Caribbean|
Winner: Royal Caribbean
When it comes to fleet size as well as the features available on cruise ships, Royal Caribbean has an edge over Carnival Cruise Line. That’s because Royal Caribbean already has 28 ships in operation, including its incredible Oasis Class, Quantum Class and Quantum Ultra Class ships. Oasis Class vessels like Allure of the Seas, Symphony of the Seas, Wonder of the Seas and Utopia of the Seas are some of the largest in the world — and Royal Caribbean Group is constantly rolling out new, even bigger cruise ships with better amenities and new features. For example, the new Icon of the Seas (scheduled to debut in 2024) plans to have the largest water park at sea, the largest swimming pool at sea, and a range of over-the-top cabins and suites for families of all sizes.
Meanwhile, Carnival currently operates 25 different vessels with a few more on the way. Newer ships like Carnival Celebration and Carnival Venezia aren’t as large and grand as Royal Caribbean ships, nor are the brand-new vessels the company is planning for late 2023 and 2024. For example, the new Carnival Jubilee that is set to begin sailing later in 2023 will have 15 passenger decks and capacity for up to 6,631 guests, compared to 18 guest decks and 7,600 passengers on Icon of the Seas.
Winner: Royal Caribbean
Comparing cabins across cruise lines as a whole isn’t an easy feat, mostly because companies tend to offer larger suites and cabins with a better layout on their newer ships. You’ll therefore likely have a nicer cabin on one of Carnival’s newest vessels compared to an older ship from Royal Caribbean, and of course the opposite is also true. Cabin sizes and layouts also vary widely across the vessels of both brands, and that’s true even for basic interior, ocean view and balcony cabins.
That said, Royal Caribbean still comes out ahead in this category, since the line boasts more square footage in some of the most basic cabins as well as more over-the-top luxury accommodations, especially for families.
As an example, most inside cabins on Allure of the Seas feature 172 square feet of space, whereas Carnival Celebration’s inside cabins are slightly smaller at 158 square feet. Meanwhile, the largest suites on Celebration are the Carnival Excel Presidential Suite, with 1,120 square feet of space including the balcony, and the Carnival Excel Aft Suite, which has 861 square feet of interior and balcony space. Compare those options to the Sky Loft Suites on Allure of the Seas, which feature 1,132 square feet across the room and balcony, and the spacious two-bedroom AquaTheater Suites with 1,595 square feet including the balcony.
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Food options vary widely across vessels within any cruise brand, and this is especially true with Royal Caribbean and Carnival. For example, older ships from both cruise lines offer fewer specialty dining options overall along with the main dining rooms and buffet options cruisers come to expect, whereas newer ships from both lines feature a lot more unique and innovative options.
When you view the cruise dining options from both lines, you’ll quickly find that both Carnival and Royal Caribbean pull out all the stops when it comes to food. For example, Carnival ships include a range of eateries from large and expansive buffets to main dining rooms to unique offerings like Big Chicken, Guy’s Burger Joint and BlueIguana Cantina. Meanwhile, specialty dining on Carnival vessels features options like teppanyaki, Emeril’s Bistros at Sea and Guy’s Pig & Anchor Smokehouse.
Royal Caribbean ships feature convenient buffets and main dining room experiences, as well as included options like pizza kitchens, noodle bars and casual fast food. Specialty dining on Royal Caribbean ranges from the brand’s Chef’s Table experience to Johnny Rockets’ burgers and shakes to innovative fine dining at Wonderland.
Winner: Royal Caribbean
Both Carnival and Royal Caribbean offer drink packages that cruisers can purchase as part of their vacation to get a more all-inclusive feel. Then again, the value of these packages depends on how much you drink over the course of your trip. Also note that the cost of drink packages across all cruise lines can vary depending on the ship, itinerary, travel dates, length of trip and more.
Royal Caribbean comes out slightly ahead in this category because the line offers three tiers of drink packages for guests with different needs. Choose from the Classic Soda Package; the Refreshment Package, which includes soda along with coffees, juices and even milkshakes at Johnny Rockets; and the Deluxe Beverage Package, which adds in beer, cocktails and wine by the glass. Meanwhile, Carnival offers just two different drink packages: the Bottomless Bubbles package, which covers soft drinks and juice, and the Cheers! drink package, which adds in spirits and cocktails, beer, wine by the glass, specialty coffee, energy drinks and more.
Winner: Royal Caribbean
Analyzing onboard activities across cruise lines isn’t always easy — you really have to break down this category by ship for a true comparison. When you do that with Carnival and Royal Caribbean, you’ll find that both lines offer fun activities for all ages, from onboard water parks to hosted games, casinos and more.
That said, Royal Caribbean does take things up a notch in this category, especially on the line’s newer ships. Some Royal Caribbean vessels offer escape rooms, surf simulators, zip lines, game shows and over-the-top water parks with incredible slides for thrill-seekers. For example, Freedom of the Seas boasts huge onboard waterslides, glow-in-the-dark laser tag, mini-golf and more. Don’t forget about Icon of the Seas with its massive water park and pool offerings in the works. Meanwhile, standout activities on Carnival ships include Family Feud Live, onboard water parks and the thrilling SkyRide.
Compare Royal Caribbean cruises on GoToSea.
Winner: Royal Caribbean
The quality of cruise ship entertainment varies widely based on the quality of the talent booked for individual ships. Both Carnival and Royal Caribbean offer their share of live music and entertainment, including performances by bands and singers, karaoke, and piano bars. Meanwhile, both lines also boast their own theaters on every vessel, which often feature Broadway-style shows, singing and dancing, comedy acts, and more.
Royal Caribbean comes out ahead in this category since its vessels feature award-winning musicals like “Hairspray,” “Mamma Mia!” and “Cats.” The open-air AquaTheater on Oasis Class ships also wows guests with incredible diving feats, stunts and aerial acrobatics. Some Royal Caribbean ships even have onboard ice skating performances and ice games.
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Both cruise lines have kids clubs that cater to younger guests of all ages, with each one offering supervised care so parents can drop the kids off for some alone time or a quiet dinner on the ship. However, Carnival stands out slightly in this category due to the six different clubs offered across the fleet for children and teens between 6 months and 17 years old. Carnival also offers supervised Night Owls services for kids 11 and younger, which lets parents get out and have some late-night fun for an extra charge.
Royal Caribbean offers four kids clubs for children ages six months to 12, along with a separate club for tweens and teens. Supervised child care is available for free during the day, and you can opt for paid care after hours as well.
Both cruise lines offer their share of adults-only spaces and things to do, from onboard casinos to luxurious spas to bars that offer cocktails and live entertainment at all hours of the day and night. Carnival and Royal Caribbean also offer adults-only areas on some of their ships.
On Carnival, for example, cruisers will find the Serenity Adults-Only Retreat for sailors 21 and older with extra space and comfortable chairs for relaxation, along with its own bar nearby. On many Royal Caribbean vessels, on the other hand, the onboard Solarium for ages 16-plus has its own pool and extra space to find peace and quiet.
Carnival’s Serenity relaxation area is included for guests. While Royal Caribbean’s Solarium is typically also included, on certain sailings there is restricted access by fare class.
Shore excursions offered by cruise lines are largely operated by third-party companies and are often the same across brands. Both Carnival and Royal Caribbean boast a broad selection of excursions in destinations around the world, from snorkeling and scuba tours in the Caribbean to city tours, horseback riding, cooking classes and more.
Both cruise lines offer private and custom tours you can book through your ship as well.
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Private island experiences
Winner: Royal Caribbean
Royal Caribbean and Carnival each have their own private island in the Bahamas, which is included in most itineraries to this part of the world. These private islands provide a fun beach escape for families to enjoy, whether you want to relax in the sun or take part in some of the available activities.
Royal Caribbean’s private island, called Perfect Day at CocoCay, is the more impressive option due to everything it includes: a heart-thumping water park, its own wave pool, a zip line, a hot air balloon experience and overwater bungalows you can book for the day, among other offerings. Meanwhile, Carnival’s Half Moon Cay has a unique beached pirate ship to explore — but fewer amenities overall.
Note that both private islands have plenty of beach space for guests to spread out and relax, as well as restaurants and bars. You can also book excursions on both private islands, which include activities like snorkeling and water sports.
Comparing costs across cruise lines can be tricky since fares and available sales vary throughout the year, as well as based on the vessel booked, the cruise itinerary, the number and age of travelers, and more. To get an idea of who wins on price, we looked for two similar cruises on comparable ships from Carnival and Royal Caribbean, then priced out an option for a family of four with two children ages 8 and 10. For the purpose of this comparison, we used seven-night eastern Caribbean cruises on Carnival Celebration and Royal Caribbean’s Wonder of the Seas, both of which began sailing in 2022.
The Carnival Celebration itinerary from Miami stops in Amber Cove, Dominican Republic; San Juan, Puerto Rico; and St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands. By comparison, the Wonder of the Seas sailing leaves from Port Canaveral, Florida, with stops in Philipsburg, St. Maarten; San Juan; and Perfect Day at CocoCay in the Bahamas.
The chart below shows the total cost (including taxes and fees) for a family of four in January 2024 in both an ocean view and a typical balcony cabin across both cruise lines. Note that, for the purpose of this comparison, we selected the least expensive room option in each category.
|Carnival Celebration (7-night Eastern Caribbean cruise in January 2024)||Royal Caribbean’s Wonder of the Seas (7-night Eastern Caribbean cruise in January 2024)|
|Ocean view cabin||$2,820.80||$4,839.28|
Why Trust U.S. News Travel
Holly Johnson is a professional travel writer who has covered cruises and other family travel for more than a decade. She has cruised more than 30 times across most of the major cruise lines and has ventured on itineraries around the world. Johnson used her personal experience and research expertise to curate this cruise line comparison.
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