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Compare: Carnival vs. Norwegian Cruise Line

Carnival vs. Norwegian Cruise Line

Nobody wants to spend a hard-earned cruise vacation wishing they had chosen a different line.

If you're deciding between Norwegian vs. Carnival cruises, you won't want to make a decision until you've properly compared the two lines in some of the most important areas -- cabins, dining, entertainment and, of course, price.

Overall

678 Ocean Place on NCL's Norwegian Bliss (source: NCL)

Exuding upbeat, lively vibes, the atmosphere on both of these lines' ships is one of fun, and passengers will find plenty of activities for all ages -- including kids.

Carnival offers a casual "come as you are" feeling that focuses on celebrations, parties and games. It's also an exceptional value for money, with many alternative eateries -- serving up everything from BBQ and burgers to pizza and burritos -- carrying no additional fee.

Norwegian, meanwhile, feels a bit like Las Vegas at sea, particularly on its newer ships, which house 678 Ocean Place. This three-deck atrium and social hub aggregates entertainment venues, restaurants and the onboard casino. You should expect to pay extra for a lot of the line's flashiest offerings.

Food

Guy's Burger Joint on Carnival Vista (source: Carnival Cruise Line)

When it comes to food, both lines' fares include complimentary meals for breakfast, lunch and dinner in the onboard self-service buffets and waiter-served main dining rooms.

For dining room dinners on Carnival ships, cruisers can choose from set-seating (fixed dining time at the same table every night) or flexible (eat any time between set hours at any table that's available) options. With Norwegian, all eateries allow you to dine whenever you'd like, but reservations are recommended.

If you prefer something less casual than the dining room but you're not a fan of buffets, there are plenty of alternative restaurants, including poolside eateries on both lines' ships and dinner theater on select Norwegian vessels.

Where the lines differ is in how many options are available and how much extra it'll cost you. In general, Norwegian has a larger number of alternative dining options than Carnival; most of them are not included in the price of your cruise fare, however. While Carnival has fewer choices -- which can include pizza, burritos and Guy Fieri burgers and BBQ -- most of them are free.

Cabins

Garden Villa suite on NCL's Norwegian Star (source: NCL)

With so much to do onboard, it's likely you won't spend too much time in your cabin, whether you choose Carnival or Norwegian Cruise Line. Even so, passengers should still weigh their accommodation options.

Where Carnival cabins excel is in their largely spacious and simple layouts. The line is known for boasting some of the largest -- and most affordable -- staterooms afloat.

Norwegian shines with The Haven, an exclusive enclave of cabins on some ships, which includes butler and concierge service, as well as access to private amenities like a dedicated pool and restaurant.

Family Harbor Cabin on Carnival Vista (source: Carnival Cruise Line)

NCL's most standout suites are its Garden Villas, which each sleep up to eight people -- ideal for large groups traveling together. Most include a living room setup with entertainment system, separate bedrooms and bathrooms, a dining table, bar area, large balconies, a baby grand piano and a private sun deck area.

Carnival has suites available, but they're fewer in number and don't come with nearly as many perks, which include things like priority embarkation and disembarkation.

Speaking of group accommodations, Carnival does have some connecting cabins that are ideal for families or other groups traveling together. It also has Family Harbor staterooms on its newer vessels, but they aren't available at the suite level, nor are they outfitted with splashy amenities.

Things to Do

A couple's massage in the Mandara Spa on NCL's Norwegian Getaway (source: NCL)

Whether you cruise to relax or prefer to stay active onboard, you won't be disappointed with either a Norwegian or Carnival cruise. Both offer quiet, out-of-the-way spaces for reading and napping, secluded sun decks for your vitamin D fix and adults-only spaces for escaping the kiddos and enjoying the hot tub. All ships in both fleets have spas, too, if you'd prefer a day of pampering instead.

Both cruise lines offer daily schedules filled with trivia, bingo, movie screenings, port talks, shopping opportunities and live music. Further amenities -- like fitness centers, for-fee arcades and nightclubs with DJ-spun music -- allow cruisers to make their own fun without a schedule.

You'll also find plenty to keep yourself busy outdoors during the day, with NCL and Carnival providing at least one pool on every ship (but usually two or more), as well as water slides, children's splash areas, mini-golf courses and basketball courts on most vessels.

A comedian performs in Carnival's Punchliner comedy club (source: Carnival Cruise Line)

Game shows, including "Battle of the Sexes" and the "Love and Marriage"/"Not So Newlywed" game, draw regular crowds. Following dinner, a slew of production shows -- featuring singing and dancing, magic, comedy and more -- round out the list of activities.

One of Carnival's strong suits is its branded "Hasbro, the Game Show," which offers family fun in the way of life-size board games like Connect Four and Yahtzee, which are played on stage in the theaters on select ships.

The line also stands out with its comedy shows, scheduled throughout each sailing in the Punchliner Comedy Club. A family-friendly version is usually offered first, followed by a more R-rated version later at night.

A family plays mini-golf while the ropes course looms above on NCL's Norwegian Breakaway (source: NCL)

Over the years, Norwegian has showcased several Broadway productions -- including "Legally Blonde," "Rock of Ages," "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" and "Six" -- on select ships. Additionally, the line's Latin-meets-ballroom dance show "Burn the Floor" has been a hit with passengers.

Carnival relies mainly on its Playlist Productions -- high-energy musical tributes and revues created specifically for the line and set to well-known songs.

NCL has also given its newest ships a heavy focus on gaming by introducing Galaxy Pavilion, an extra-fee complex that encompasses a large arcade and a series of virtual-reality rides that make you feel like you're evading dinosaurs, walking a tightrope high above city streets or hang gliding through the mountains. It has also outfitted a couple of its new ships with free top-deck ropes courses and go-karts that carry a surcharge.

But, not to be outdone, Carnival is ramping up entertainment efforts on its newest vessels, which include ropes courses, IMAX theaters, SkyRide pedal-operated aerial recumbent bikes that are suspended over the ocean, and BOLT, the first roller coaster at sea.

Price

A rendering of the BOLT coller coaster on Carnival's Mardi Gras ship (source: Carnival Cruise Line)

Prices for these lines vary based on several factors, including ship, destination, cruise length, cabin type and add-ons, but when it comes to overall value, Carnival takes the cake.

Carnival is known for its affordability and value, with nearly all dining and entertainment included in its fares. You'll find fewer high-tech entertainment options onboard, but you also won't find a lot of nickel-and-diming in terms of added fees.

NCL does offer more cutting-edge diversions and slightly higher-end production shows, but fares tend to be on the higher side for mainstream cruise lines. Although it's possible to have a great time onboard without spending an extra cent, most of the line's enticing experiences -- from dining to entertainment -- cost extra.