Carnival and Royal Caribbean Cruises, a Comparison 3-day Trips for First-time Cruisers

Love it or hate it, cruising in Southern California is here to stay. With Carnival’s announcement last June that the CARNIVAL SPLENDOR would be offering year-round cruises out of Long Beach starting in March, 2009, it appears that Carnival is committed to providing Southern California residents and visitors with all the cruising they can handle.

Carnival is the only cruise line that disembarks regularly from Long Beach. All the other guys, including Royal Caribbean, throw down their anchors in the World Cruise Terminal in the Port of Los Angeles. Not that it makes much difference for anyone, since the two terminals are separated by only about nine miles of Ocean Boulevard/State Route 47. The proximity of the two terminals gives Southern California residents and visitors their choice of cruise offerings. And since both Carnival and Royal Caribbean offer year-round, three-day, weekend cruises to Ensenada, cruising out of Southern California couldn’t be more convenient.

The hardest part might be choosing which line to take, particularly if you’ve never cruised before. While every cruise is different, a rundown of one person’s experience on both Carnival and Royal Caribbean might help you decide. Please note that this comes from the perspective of someone (me!) who can have a good time anywhere, given the right company. Neither Carnival’s Paradise or Royal Caribbean’s Monarch of the Seas are luxury vessels, but both can offer a good time if you have the right mindset.

Here’s the context: We took the Carnival cruise on the Paradise in June, 2007 and the Royal Caribbean Cruise on the Monarch of the Seas in December of 2006. For both, we stayed in ocean view cabins.

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The Carnival atmosphere was certainly the rowdier of the two. In all fairness, this was probably due to the hot and sunny weather, which seemed to promote some serious drinking. Fellow passengers included bachelor/bachelorette parties, groups of energetic, early-20s singles and couples in their 20s and 30s. There were also some families with kids, older singles and some corporate parties, but these were the exception.

The dancing, drinking and karaoke activities on Carnival’s Paradise were pretty lively. Poolside music and entertainment on the Lido Deck during the Fun Day at Sea (Sunday) set the stage for all sorts of bumping and grinding on the dance floor. For those of us who stayed on our deck chairs, the people-watching was hilarious.

The Royal Caribbean cruise had a generally more diverse group of passengers, with a visibly higher population of families. This more subdued crowd made use of the family dance hour and brought their kids to the karaoke hour–some parents even ushered their child up to the microphone despite the kid’s obvious reluctance to sing! No matter, as the karaoke as still generally entertaining.

During the Royal Caribbean’s day at sea, the weather was not conducive to hanging out on the pool deck. So there was relatively little opportunity for the wild behavior that characterized the Carnival cruise.

Neither ship had exquisite cuisine, but Royal Caribbean wins out the match-up, simply for being more consistent. For the most part Royal Caribbean’s food, including the buffet, was pretty good, while Carnival’s ranged from OK to pretty good. Carnival’s best options were the burgers from the outdoor grill and the made-to-order Panini.

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Both cruise lines offered karaoke, table games and slot machines, comedy shows, night club dancing, art auctions, Broadway-style shows and more. Carnival’s comedian was surprisingly funny. Also, Carnival’s entertainment schedule seemed to be more robust, with overlapping activities and very few gaps. Both cruises offered plenty of things to do–to the point that trying to fit it all in left us feeling the need to slow down. Thankfully, both ships offer a variety of indoor and outdoor seating areas for simply hanging out. And there’s always someone nearby who’s ready to bring you a drink. Oh, and if you like to drink, here’s a tip for either cruise line: Don’t miss the captain’s reception, because the drinks are free.

Formal night
If you don’t have room for the chiffon gown in your weekend bag, don’t worry about it. Maybe it’s different on longer cruises, but Formal Night was hardly formal on either cruise line. Apparently there are many different interpretations of formality, from a suit accessorized with a baseball hat to a denim skirt and halter top. Some passengers went all out for formal night–perhaps they were sold an expensive package by the spa staff–and probably had some great photos to take home. In general, Carnival was the more casual of the two.

Royal Caribbean’s cabins were significantly smaller than Carnival’s. Carnival also has the advantage of extraordinarily comfy beds. Besides those differences, the two cabins were roughly the same in condition and style. Both had a decidedly basic decor and showed a little wear and tear.

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Embarkation/Debarkation. Getting on the ship was relatively straightforward in both cases. Getting off the Monarch of the Seas was a breeze; we got up early and just walked right off with no hassles. Deboarding the Carnival ship was more time-consuming; we stood in line on the ship and then again to get through the customs window. If you’re in a hurry, make sure to get up early, carry your own bags and fill out the customs form ahead of time.

The key takeaways, based on one person’s very limited experience, are:

* If you’re uptight about drinking and slightly rowdy behavior, you might want to avoid any weekend cruise, but particularly Carnival.

* If the quality of the food is a big deal, go with Royal Caribbean.

* If you’re taking the cruise to relax, try Royal Caribbean.

* If you’re taking the cruise to whoop it up and have a good time, Carnival is ideal.

* If you’re worried that cruising will be boring, head for Carnival and challenge yourself to participate in as many ship activities as you can. And then work in a trip to the gym, a facial, a few games of Ping-Pong and perhaps some mini golf. By the time you get home, you’ll be in need of another vacation. Then maybe you can book a Royal Caribbean weekend cruise to catch up on your R&R.;