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Norwegian Cruise Line vs. Carnival Cruise Line: Which cruise line to take?

Norwegian Cruise Line vs. Carnival Cruise Line

Carnival Cruise Line and Norwegian Cruise Line are two of the most popular cruise lines in the industry. Both companies operate a large fleet of cruise ships that appeal to a wide demographic of travelers.

Norwegian Cruise Line and Carnival Cruise Line are home to large cruise ships with plenty of attractions and onboard activities at an affordable price point. You’ll find these family-friendly cruise lines attract more than just kids by also appealing to couples, seniors, and solo travelers alike.

It’s cliche, but both cruise lines offer a little something for everyone with a casual, fun atmosphere onboard. These mainstream cruise lines have delicious cuisine, stunning entertainment, unparalleled onboard thrills, and a range of stateroom accommodations for guests.


Carnival Cruise Line considers itself to be America’s cruise line with the most fun ships at sea. The lively and energetic atmosphere onboard is a non-stop party from the moment you step onboard. In the same way, Norwegian Cruise Line is known for its "freestyle" approach to cruising. This means you can customize your cruise with no traditional dining times and no formal attire. Instead, it’s relaxing and casual onboard Norwegian’s ships.

You’ll find that Carnival Cruise Line and Norwegian Cruise Line each offer a variety of sailings predominately from North America. Both cruise lines feature itineraries to the Caribbean and Bahamas, along with other popular cruising destinations like Alaska, Mexico, Australia, Hawaii, and Europe.

Even with all of these commonalities, Carnival Cruise Line and Norwegian Cruise Line have some very distinct differences you should know about. Come along as we explore these two mainstream cruise lines with a comprehensive overview so prospective travelers can decide which cruise line to take.

Overview of Fleet


Both Carnival Cruise Line and Norwegian Cruise Line operate a large fleet of cruise ships. Although the cruise lines’ newest ships always receive the most attention and hype, you can also find smaller and older ships still sailing.

Carnival Cruise Line operates a fleet of 24 cruise ships around the world. Most of the cruise line’s ships hold around 3,000 passengers. However, the cruise line’s oldest and smallest ships in the Fantasy Class hold only 2,000 passengers, while the newest and biggest ships in the Excel Class hold more than 5,000 guests.

Speaking of the Excel Class, this is where you can find Carnival Cruise Line’s most innovative cruise ships. You’ll be able to ride the world’s first rollercoaster at sea on these ships. In contrast, most of Carnival Cruise Line’s ships are all built to be similar in size and design. There is less variation among Carnival’s fleet, which only just changed with the new Excel Class.

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Comparatively, Norwegian Cruise Line’s fleet is slightly smaller with 19 operating cruise ships, but you can find a wider range of ship sizes and designs within the cruise line’s fleet. The cruise line’s oldest and smallest ships, Norwegian Sun and Norwegian Sky, hold only 2,000 passengers. Those looking for a floating resort can sail on Norwegian Epic or Norwegian Escape, which can hold double the capacity at 4,000 passengers.

Prima Class

In an unprecedented move, Norwegian’s newest cruise ships in its Prima Class are actually not the largest. These newer vessels were built to hold around 3,200 passengers at double occupancy. Norwegian Cruise Line stated that building a newer, smaller cruise ship cultivates a more upscale experience onboard and provides more flexibility with itineraries.

Target Demographics


Carnival Cruise Line and Norwegian Cruise Line are considered mainstream cruise lines with family-friendly cruise ships. This means you’ll find affordable fares regardless of which cruise line you choose. Along with families, both cruise lines still provide an excellent vacation experience for couples, seniors, and solo travelers. Even still, you’ll find slightly different demographics onboard.

The majority of Carnival Cruise Line’s guests live within driving distance of the departure port. Because of this convenience, you’ll tend to find more multi-generational families and party-oriented groups traveling together. This means you’ll be among many family reunions and bachelorette parties onboard, which aligns perfectly with Carnival Cruise Line’s focus on fun and affordability.

Read more: Pros and Cons of a Carnival Cruise

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Norwegian Cruise Line appeals to broader demographics, which also includes families, couples, and seniors. However, Norwegian tends to attract more solo travelers and seasoned cruisers. This is because the cruise line has one of the best solo cruising experiences in the industry. Additionally, Norwegian Cruise Line offers some very exotic itineraries that appeal to seasoned cruisers.

In general, Carnival Cruise Line’s demographics are slightly younger than Norwegian’s target audience. First-time cruisers gravitate towards Carnival’s fun ships and affordable cruise fares, along with the accessibility of being within driving distance to many departure ports. Young cruisers looking for a party experience will want to choose Carnival Cruise Line.

Viva Pooldeck

Alternatively, Norwegian Cruise Line is the best choice for solo cruisers and seasoned travelers looking for destination-focused itineraries. The cruise line is also an excellent choice for families, couples, and seniors who value flexibility and freedom - not necessarily partying.

Itineraries and Destinations

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Both cruise lines have itineraries to the most popular cruise destinations in the Caribbean, Bahamas, Mexico, Alaska, Hawaii, New England, and Australia. Although you can find a variety of itineraries with both cruise lines, Norwegian Cruise Line and Carnival Cruise Line are more different than they are alike.

To start, Carnival Cruise Line has more short Caribbean itineraries ranging from 3-night to 5-night sailings. This is perfect for first-time cruisers or those wanting a weekend getaway; this contributes to Carnival dubbing itself as having the most fun ships at sea. Carnival currently sails from 14 different homeports in North America.

Amber Cove

Carnival does offer a few limited sailings to Australia and Europe; however, this is not the cruise line’s prominent market. 

Comparatively, Norwegian Cruise Line offers more unique itineraries around the world, including destinations in Asia, Africa, South America, Antarctica, Northern Europe, Mediterranean, Middle East, Australia, and South Pacific.

NCL Star Cobh

Norwegian Cruise Line is also the only mainstream cruise line to offer round-trip sailings in Hawaii. Although Carnival Cruise Line does sail to Hawaii, these are typically only one-way, transpacific sailings where the ship is repositioning. Additionally, Norwegian Cruise Line has plenty of options for sailing in the Caribbean year-round. Destination-focused cruisers will be enticed by Norwegian Cruise Line’s exciting lineup of itineraries around the world.

Read more: Norwegian Cruise Line: Pros and Cons

Food and Drink

NCL Food

Enjoying unlimited food during your sailing is one of the best perks of cruising. With both Carnival Cruise Line and Norwegian Cruise Line, you’ll find an assortment of complimentary and specialty dining options onboard. Carnival’s fun ships are heavy on complimentary dining, while you’ll find more specialty dining options with Norwegian Cruise Line.

Carnival Cruise Line is known for having some of the best food in the industry. You won’t find 5-star cuisine, but the grubby, greasy, and casual dining options on Carnival’s ships are worth the hype. Even better, almost all of the dining on Carnival’s ships are inclusive. Celebrity chef partnerships bring fan-favorite eateries onboard serving up juicy burgers at Guy’s Burger Joint and crispy chicken at Big Chicken. Other included eateries can be found serving tacos, burritos, pizza, and paninis.

Guy's Burger Joint

As for traditional cruise dining, Carnival Cruise Line has a main dining room with both traditional and flexible dining times. There is also a buffet onboard for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Finally, you can enjoy specialty dining as well with Carnival Cruise Line, but most ships only have a couple for-fee restaurants.

Dining on Norwegian Cruise Line is based around the cruise line’s freestyle approach with no set dining times or even dress codes. Instead, the cruise line has multiple restaurants available for dining each evening. You’ll enjoy more freedom and flexibility with your dining, but most restaurants onboard are specialty restaurants that cost extra. Most cruise ships will have upwards of 8 specialty restaurants, including Italian, French, Brazilian, and Japanese.


All of Norwegian Cruise Line’s ships feature a pub serving food 24/7, along with complimentary main dining rooms and buffets. The newest Prima Class ships feature the very popular Indulge Food Hall, which is a new complimentary dining concept for the cruise line.


Carnival Entertainment

Whether you choose to cruise with Norwegian Cruise Line or Carnival Cruise Line, you’ll find excellent entertainment options onboard. Both Norwegian Cruise Line and Carnival Cruise Line will feature large-scale headliner productions in the evenings and daily activities that include trivia, name-that-tune, crafts, and small-scale game shows.

Evenings are filled with themed parties, such as Norwegian’s Glow Party and Carnival’s Mega Deck Party, that keep the fun going late into the night, but each cruise line takes its own approach to headliner productions and nighttime shows.

When it comes to entertainment, Carnival Cruise Line specializes in comedy with its Punchliner Comedy Club. Carnival’s ships are home to multiple comedy shows throughout your cruise. In fact, you can typically find multiple comedy shows every day for both adults and families. All of Carnival’s ships across its fleet have a Punchliner Comedy Club.

Punchliner Comedy Club

For headliner productions, Carnival Cruise Line also offers an array of other entertainment options. You won’t find big Broadway shows onboard. Instead, the cruise line focuses on creating its own production shows called Playlist Productions. These headliner shows are comprised of singing, dancing, and high-tech performances.

The newest ships from Carnival Cruise Line have some of the cruise line’s best entertainment shows with dazzling music, gravity-defying aerialists, and jaw-dropping performers. Finally, guests of Carnival can partake in gameshows onboard with “Family Feud” and “Deal or No Deal."

Comparatively, Norwegian Cruise Line focuses on featuring real Broadway production shows, which currently include “Jersey Boys,” “Beetlejuice,” and “Kinky Boots.” These big-name productions are one of the signature offerings of Norwegian Cruise Line and are typically found on the cruise line’s biggest and newest ships, including the Prima Class and Breakaway Classes.

NCL Variety Act

The cruise line also brings onboard excellent variety acts for its smaller and older ships, including acrobats, magicians, aerialists, and comedians. These vessels will also feature headliner production shows with in-house singers and dancers that are must-sees.

Onboard Thrills


With Norwegian Cruise Line and Carnival Cruise Line focusing on family and fun, both fleets are home to plenty of thrilling, innovative attractions. The newest ships from each cruise line, namely Norwegian’s Prima Class and Carnival’s Excel Class, are home to the most advanced onboard thrills. Both of these cruise lines have ships that are packed with attractions to keep everyone busy and amused.

Carnival Cruise Line’s top decks are akin to an actual amusement park with miniature golf, ropes courses, and water slides. The cruise line’s water park area is called WaterWorks with thrilling slides for the entire family, along with splash pads for the littlest cruisers. You can also find an obstacle course high above the pool deck on most of Carnival’s cruise ships.


Additionally, Carnival Vista, Carnival Horizon, and Carnival Panorama have the innovative SkyRide, which is a bike in the sky that soars around the top deck. Finally, the Excel Class is home to the only roller coaster at sea, called Bolt: The Ultimate Sea Coaster. But, this once-in-a-lifetime thrill will cost $15 per rider for two laps around the track.

Norwegian Cruise Line has many onboard attractions for guests to enjoy, but most are not complimentary. To start, you’ll find the only go-kart tracks at sea called Speedway on Norwegian Cruise Line on their newest ships: Norwegian Joy, Norwegian Encore, Norwegian Bliss, Norwegian Prima, and Norwegian Viva.

NCL Waterslide

Moreover, Norwegian Cruise Line’s biggest and newest ships have heart-pumping water slides that drop riders from the highest decks. Guests can also enjoy the high-tech wonderland of Galaxy Pavilion that transports you to a virtual world with simulators, arcade games, and laser tag. Each game or experience is around $10 each while unlimited passes are closer to $199.

Atmosphere and Ambiance

Celebration Party

Carnival Cruise Line and Norwegian Cruise Line are both mainstream cruise lines with family-friendly ships and affordable cruise fares. There is plenty of fun to be had onboard with both of these cruise lines regardless of which you choose. Even with these similarities, the ambiance and atmosphere onboard Carnival Cruise Line is notably different.

Carnival Cruise Line attracts more party-oriented guests onboard, along with groups traveling together. This cultivates a very energetic atmosphere onboard with non-stop fun from the moment you step onboard one of Carnival’s fun ships. 

Sail Away Party

Take, for instance, the Sail Away Party on any Carnival ship - this is a giant celebration kicking off the start of any cruise. Think of this as a nightclub energy with most guests enjoying the activities into the early morning. The weekend itineraries on Carnival Cruise Line will have the highest energy. For some low-key cruisers, the party mood on Carnival Cruise Line could be considered too rowdy or chaotic.

On the other hand, Norwegian Cruise Line is considered to be a little more subdued while still aiming for an exciting, casual cruise environment. 

NCL Pool Deck

This is not to say Norwegian’s cruises are not fun, but the environment tends to be a little more scaled back than Carnival’s. The parties onboard would typically not be considered as crazy or rowdy. The general ambiance onboard is low-key, although shorter itineraries, especially during spring break, can be more lively. 

Youth Programming

Splash Academy

Both cruise lines have excellent childcare and youth programming available onboard where parents are able to drop off their kids. Children are grouped according to age with both cruise lines where staff members facilitate age-appropriate activities, games, crafts, and more.

The youth programming is available for kids ages 6 months to 17 years old with both Carnival Cruise Line and Norwegian Cruise Line. Most of the services provided are included in your cruise fare.

For Carnival Cruise Line, the youth program is called Camp Ocean. Children are broken into the following age groups: Turtles (6mo - 1 year, costs extra), Penguins (ages 2-5), Stingrays (ages 6-8), Sharks (9-11), Circle “C” (tweens 12-14) and Club O2 (teens 15-17). The cruise line also offers its Night Owls program, which is nighttime babysitting for a fee.

Camp Ocean

Carnival Cruise Line has also partnered with Dr. Seuss for Seuss at Sea, which includes Seuss-themed activities, movies, parades, and even a Green Eggs and Ham brunch. In addition, the cruise line offers services during port days, which allows parents to get off the cruise ship while children are supervised at Camp Ocean.

Norwegian Cruise Line has fewer age groups with its youth programming. The cruise line breaks up children into the following age groups: Guppies (6mo - 3 years), Splash Academy (ages 5-12), and Entourage (ages 13-17). Norwegian has suspended their port drop-off program. However, their youth programming is still well-established and kids will be able to enjoy games, activities, crafts, and parties for their age group.


Lisbon NCL Sun

Carnival Cruise Line and Norwegian Cruise Line have budget-friendly fares available for cruisers wanting to sail on a mainstream cruise line. Both of these cruise lines have a variety of sailings and itineraries available to fit many different budgets.

When it comes to cost, however, Carnival Cruise Line will have the most affordable fares, offering an excellent value for cruisers. You won’t feel as nickel-and-dimed onboard either, as most dining and activities are included in your cruise fare. Specialty dining, excursions, drink packages, and onboard internet are all additional add-ons to consider when pricing your cruise. With a lower cruise cost, the cruise line attracts a wide range of travelers.

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On the other hand, Norwegian Cruise Line tends to be a little more pricey. Less than half of Norwegian’s restaurants are included with your cruise fare. The cruise line is also known for adding extra fees, which can take some aback once onboard.

However, guests can often find good deals on Norwegian’s cruise fares with their Free at Sea program. This allows you to book a drink package bundled with your cruise fare, along with included specialty dining, internet minutes, and shore excursion discounts.

NCL Star

Norwegian Cruise Line even offers Free at Sea airfare promotions where you can receive BOGO airfare for your cruise; the cruise line will book your airfare for you in this instance. If you want a one-stop shop for booking your entire vacation, Norwegian Cruise Line has more pricing options and packages available to save you money.


NCL Viva

For stateroom accommodations, you won’t have any shortage of options when booking your vacation with either cruise line. From affordable inside cabins to luxurious suites, Carnival Cruise Line and Norwegian Cruise Line have staterooms to fit every cruiser’s budget. Generally speaking, Norwegian Cruise Line has more innovative stateroom accommodations while Carnival Cruise Line has a more basic approach to its cabins, with the exception of its newest Excel Class ships.

Carnival Cruise Line has some of the most spacious cabins in the cruise industry. In addition, you can find themed staterooms which allow cruisers to be conveniently located to some of their favorite places onboard, such as Camp Ocean for families and the Cloud 9 spa for wellness-focused guests looking to retreat. For example, Family Harbor is a designated area of staterooms for families that provides access to a family-friendly lounge and close access to the kids' club.

Read more: Interior vs balcony staterooms on a Carnival cruise. Here's how they compared.

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The cruise line’s oldest ships have fewer stateroom categories, with as few as five different categories available. The largest and newest ships in the Excel Class have upwards of 25 different categories with unique balconies and suite staterooms.

On the other hand, Norwegian Cruise Line has some of the most innovative cabins in the cruising industry with modern, functional, and stylish cabins. Solo cruisers and suite guests interested in an upscale, resort-within-a-resort experience will want to consider booking with Norwegian Cruise Line for this reason. The cruise line’s renowned suite area, called The Haven, is exclusive for suite guests and includes special restaurants, lounges, pools, bars, and more.

Read more: How does a standard interior stateroom on Norwegian compare to a family interior stateroom?

Studio Cabin

For cruisers traveling solo, Norwegian Cruise Line has the best selection of studio cabins designed specifically for one guest. These solo cabins receive special perks for guests traveling alone, such as access to their own solo traveler lounge to mingle with other solo travelers.

Bottom Line: Which is Better?

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As with anything related to travel, there is not a one-size-fits-all approach to cruising. One person’s preference might not align with another person’s travel needs. For this reason, there are many cruise lines to choose from.

For mainstream cruising, you can have a fantastic cruise with both Norwegian Cruise Line or Carnival Cruise Line. While both cater to families, couples, seniors, and solo travelers, each cruise line caters to slightly different crowds.

Carnival Cruise Line is the better pick for the following potential cruisers:

  • Budget travelers wanting to save money
  • Groups looking to cruise together, such as family reunions or bachelorette parties
  • Partiers wanting to dance, drink, and socialize
  • Families with children, particularly in the Family Harbor staterooms
  • Guests wanting a casual, upbeat, and energetic atmosphere
NCL Ship

Norwegian Cruise Line is the best choice for the following guests:

  • Destination-focused travelers looking for unique itineraries
  • Guests wanting easy-to-book pricing for all-inclusive fares
  • Cruisers wanting a flexible, low-key experience
  • Solo travelers looking to connect with others
  • Guests looking to splurge, especially on a suite in The Haven
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