Carnival vs Royal Caribbean vs Norwegian - Comparing Cruising's Big Three

After three decades of explosive growth, the cruise industry has come to be dominated by just a handful of companies. Whenever you set sail on the high seas, there's a 40% chance that you are doing so aboard Carnival, Royal Caribbean, or Norwegian; 70% if you count the subsidiary lines owned by cruising's "Big Three." Over the years, this consolidation has lead to a homogenization of cruising, with all three companies battling for your vacation dollars while offering increasingly similar products. There are some key differences between Carnival, Royal Caribbean, and Norwegian, however,  which may influence what line you choose for your next cruise. Having sailed on all three, I'm proclaiming myself an expert in the field and hope to answer the question of which cruise line is right for you.

Cruise Ships in Nassau

Ships

The Big 3 cruise lines have been locked in a perpetual battle to keep ahead of one another by building the newest, biggest, most tricked out ships on the planet. Royal Caribbean has mostly played this game of one upmanship with themselves by launching 10 of the 15 largest cruise ships in the world, and their mega Oasis-class liners are 50% bigger than the next closest competitor. When it comes to cruise ships though, does bigger mean better?

Maybe.
Oasis of the Seas Theater
The open air theater on the stern of the Oasis of the Seas
Credit

If you're a first time cruiser or are simply looking for a few days of R&R, then the basic amenities which you'll find on all three lines should do the trick. If you're the adventurous type or are wanting to push the envelope beyond the casino, spa, and duty free shopping, then one of the mega-ships is likely the place for you. Want to learn to surf? Go for it. How about zip lining or rock climbing? No problem. Maybe a little ice skating in the Caribbean? Sure thing. You have all of this and more at your fingertips, but there's really only one cruise line where you'll find it.

Verdict: Royal Caribbean

Food

If you've ever asked someone about their recent cruise, chances are within the first six words they mentioned the food. I think most would agree that the food on Carnival, Royal Caribbean, and Norwegian is not nearly what it was say a decade ago, but it is still hard to find fault with a week filled with four course dinners. The problem with rating the food on cruise lines is you're likely to find a wide range of opinions on who's is the best. For me, it comes down to consistency and my experience points to Carnival delivering the best product night after night. But only in the main dining room...
Cruise Ship Lobster
I'm a big fan of lobster night on Carnival.

A popular trend in newer cruise ships has been the addition of specialty restaurants. These are designed to dip into your wallet a little further, but the quality of the experience is typically far superior than the main dining room. The restaurants on Norwegian did little to impress me on our recent cruise, and Carnival's affiliation with Guy Fieri's Burger Joint automatically disqualifies them from consideration. On the other hand, I have wonderful memories of the best Filet Mignon of my life at Royal Caribbean's Chop's Grille.

Verdict: Main Dining Room - Carnival. Specialty Restaurants - Royal Caribbean

Service

If there's one thing that Carnival, Royal Caribbean, and Norwegian all have in common, it's that their staff is far over worked and under paid for the job they do. There's a reason you won't find any Americans working on cruise ships; we'd quit in disgust after about a day and a half. And yet despite the difficult conditions and lousy pay, the staff aboard these ships deliver consistently great service with a smile. Usually...
Cruise Ship Staff
Our server busting a move.

The exception to that rule - again, in my experience - would be Norwegian, but in numerous sailings between Carnival and Royal Caribbean I've never once remarked on disappointing service. I will say, however, that the cruise directors aboard Carnival seem to really embrace the "Fun Ship" mantra of their line, and for that I'll give them a slight edge. Of course, I'm overlooking the time our cruise director sucked down a few too many vodka tonics with some friends and I in the piano bar, and was mysteriously absent from the PA system the next day.

Verdict: Carnival

Staterooms

The staterooms on Carnival, Royal Caribbean, and Norwegian are so similar I doubt executives from each company could pick theirs out of a lineup. Here, you give it a try...

Carnival Stateroom Royal Caribbean Stateroom Norwegian Stateroom

Verdict: Push

Alcohol Policy

When you're sailing the high seas, few things are more important than the cruise lines alcohol policy. Carnival, Royal Caribbean, and Norwegian will all allow you to bring wine or champagne aboard at embarkation only - usually 1 bottle per person - but if they find your stash of Absolut you can kiss it goodbye. Even liquor purchases from the duty free shops or at the various ports will be held until the last day of the cruise. So how can you get your hands on the good stuff to avoid the exorbitant bar prices? Well, there's a couple options...
Best Welcome Gift Ever

Norwegian has started offering an Ultimate Bar Package which grants you unlimited liquor and wine purchases, with the exception of a few premium selections. The cost for the package has a fairly high breakeven point, however, so it isn't the best choice for someone that wants to enjoy a glass of wine with dinner and a martini during the comedy show. On the other hand, a little known secret about Carnival is that you can arrange before departure for the stateroom to be stocked with your favorite rum, gin, or vodka, for a price which is only a few dollars more than your local liquor store. Trust me, there's nothing better than mixing a Captain and Coke from the comforts of your private balcony.

Verdict: Carnival

When it comes down to it, the similarities between Carnival, Royal Caribbean, and Norwegian far outnumber their differences. While these grades have been based solely on my own experiences on each line, there is no one size fits all approach to cruising. You may prefer Carnival's ships, Royal Caribbean's food, and Norwegian's service, which is how all three manage to pack their ships week in and week out. The important thing to remember is to keep the expectations in check and realize that you're still boarding a ship with several thousand people. There's only so much they can do in the way of food, service, and entertainment, but if you keep that in mind above all else, then chances are high that you'll have a wonderful vacation on any one of cruising's Big 3.

Enjoy Your Stay