The ultimate guide to Carnival Cruise Line ships and itineraries
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If the United States has a national cruise line, it is Carnival.
The self-described “fun ship” line is the king of short, affordable, fun-focused cruises from U.S. ports to the Caribbean, Bahamas, Mexico and other nearby destinations. No matter where you are in the U.S., you’re probably within a few hours of a Carnival ship.
Where you won’t find Carnival ships is in Asia, South America or — for the most part — Europe. Unlike other big cruise brands such as Royal Caribbean, Norwegian Cruise Line and Princess Cruises, Carnival doesn’t spread its vessels around the world to draw a fly-in crowd. Aimed squarely at Americans, it’s all about cruising close-to-home — and at a reasonable price.
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Chances are, if you’re going on a Carnival cruise, you’re driving to the ship, not flying, and you’re probably not paying much more than you would for a trip to a local beach town.
You’re also not going for anything too highbrow. Carnival ships are all about fun in a very laid-back, unpretentious, nothing-too-fancy sort of way. Entertainment at times is as lowbrow as the line is low-cost. This is, after all, the brand that famously holds a Hairy Chest Contest around the pool deck on every voyage, to a standing-room-only, hooting-and-hollering crowd.
But the fun comes in many ways. While not quite as big as the giant ships operated by Royal Caribbean and Norwegian, Carnival’s ships are packed with a wide range of fun features from waterparks with multiple waterslides to cooking classrooms where you can learn how to make the line’s signature Chocolate Melting Cake.
Related: Which cruise brand is right for you?
3 things TPG loves about Carnival
- The “fun” focus that oozes into everything
- The food (really — see below)
- The kids programmes
What we could do without
- The smoke in the casino
The Carnival Cruise Line fleet
Carnival is one of the world’s biggest cruise lines by passenger capacity, with 23 ships in active service that together offer nearly 60,000 berths.
In general, they are big ships. But they’re not giants by today’s standards. Carnival’s biggest vessel, the 4,008-passenger Carnival Panorama, measures just 133,868 tons. That’s about 40% smaller than the biggest ships operated by Royal Caribbean.
Eight of the line’s 23 active vessels measure less than 100,000 tons, which makes them almost midsize by today’s cruise ship standards.
This is a notable change for the brand from just a couple of decades ago. There was a time when Carnival operated some of the biggest cruise ships in the world. But in recent years, it hasn’t followed rivals such as Royal Caribbean and MSC Cruises in building ever bigger ships. Carnival no longer has a single vessel among the list of the 40 biggest cruise ships.
That said, things are about to change. Carnival has ordered a giant megaship called Mardi Gras that will be 35% bigger than the line’s biggest ships today. When it arrives next year, it’ll be one of the 10 biggest cruise ships ever built. A second ship in the series will arrive in 2022.
Carnival’s 23 active ships can be broken down into seven classes — Fantasy, Spirit, Conquest, Splendor, Dream, Sunshine and Vista. But many of those classes have a lot in common. Unlike Royal Caribbean, Carnival doesn’t drastically change the design of its ships from class to class.
Note that, for now, Carnival has two additional vessels — the Carnival Fascination and Carnival Imagination — that are in long-term layup. It’s unclear if they will return to the fleet.
Destinations and itineraries
Carnival is all about cruises from U.S. ports. You’ll find at least one of its ships sailing out of pretty much every major port city around the country. But it’s rare to find them based anywhere else.
Carnival’s biggest operations are out of PortMiami and Port Canaveral in Florida; Galveston, Texas; Long Beach, Calif.; and New Orleans — all major cruise hubs. But you’ll also find Carnival ships in such secondary cruise ship ports as Baltimore; Charleston, South Carolina; Mobile, Alabama; and Jacksonville, Florida.
The overarching idea for Carnival’s ship deployments is that a large percentage of the U.S. population can reach one of the line’s ships by car, saving the cost of flights.
For the most part, the ships sail relatively short voyages of three to eight nights.
Carnival vessels based on the East Coast and along the Gulf of Mexico mostly sail to the Caribbean and Bahamas. Some East Coast ships also head to Bermuda, and New England and Canada. On the West Coast, sailings to Mexico, Hawaii and Alaska are the norm.
Carnival also offers some Panama Canal voyages.
Occasionally, Carnival will deploy a ship to Europe for a few weeks or months. This often takes place when a vessel needs to go to a European shipyard for an overhaul.
In recent years, Carnival also has deployed two of its vessels to Australia to operate voyages from Sydney and Brisbane aimed mostly at the local Australian market.
Who sails Carnival Cruise Line
Carnival is the undisputed leader among North America-based cruise brands when it comes to affordability, and that makes it popular with vacationers on a budget.
It’s also popular with a fun-seeking crowd. Carnival trips are all about letting loose and having a good time. Maybe you’ll drink a little too much, eat a little too much, play a little too much, and in the end, you’ll say it was your best trip ever.
At one level, Carnival can best be described as a working man or woman’s holiday. The typical Carnival customer is a teacher, a nurse, a firefighter, a contractor and the like, either still working or retired. This isn’t a line for Wall Street bankers or white-shoe lawyers.
Carnival also is huge with families. The “fun” is for all ages, from two-year-olds, toddlers, tweens and teens to retirees.
But it’s just as much psychographics as demographics that define the typical Carnival customer. Carnival executives often have used the word “spirited” to describe the people who are drawn to the line, and that’s as good a word as any.
Carnival draws a lively, outgoing crowd that is looking to be part of the action. The typical Carnival customer is the sort of person who shoots up a hand when an entertainer asks for a volunteer to come on stage, or jumps up to dance during mid-meal music shows in the dining room starring the waiters (yes, on Carnival, this is a thing).
Cabins and suites
Unlike some of its biggest competitors, Carnival isn’t known for a huge range of cabin categories on its vessels. The vast majority of the accommodations on Carnival ships fall into one of three broad buckets: Windowless “inside” cabins, oceanview cabins and balcony cabins.
You’ll find relatively few suites on Carnival ships. Each of the vessels in Carnival’s most recent series, the Vista Class, offer fewer than 75 suites. Each of the line’s earlier Conquest Class ships have around 50 suites, and the oldest Fantasy Class vessels have 28 suites and 26 junior suites.
This is in part due to Carnival’s focus on affordability. The typical Carnival customer isn’t in the market for a super-fancy, high-priced suite.
That said, Carnival has seen the success that some of its competitors have had with a bigger range of upscale accommodations, and it’s eyeing more suites for future vessels. Carnival’s soon-to-debut Mardi Gras, which already is bookable, will have 180 suites — more than twice the number of its most recent ships.
Mardi Gras will have 11 different categories of suites in all, four of which will be part of a new premium “Excel” category of suites that come with extra amenities and access to a new-for-the-line, resort-style enclave at the top of the ship called Loft 19.
Design-wise, Carnival’s cabins and suites are fairly basic and comfortable, if not super stylish. Cabins on recently unveiled or overhauled vessels have a soothing palette of creams and blues. Cabinetry in these rooms is a crisp-and-clean faux wood, and cabin bathrooms are neutral.
Note that Carnival’s oldest ships — those that are part of the 1990s-built Fantasy Class — have relatively few balcony cabins by today’s standards (after retrofitting, several have around 150 balcony cabins, out of a total of more than 1,000 cabins in all). In part because of this, Carnival is beginning to phase these ships out of its fleet.
Restaurants and dining
Like other big-ship operators, Carnival packs a lot of dining options onto its vessels — some included in the price, some at an extra charge.
Every vessel has two main dining rooms and a casual buffet eatery where meals are included in the fare — the latter called the Lido. For dinner in the main dining room, you must sign up for either Your Time dining, which is where you go whenever you want, or Traditional Dining, where you have a fixed table and time for dinner.
Other included-in-the-fare options found on most ships include what may be the two best quick-serve poolside dining venues at sea: The BlueIguana Cantina and Guy’s Burger Joint. BlueIguana is a Carnival knock-off of Chipotle with yummy made-to-order burritos and tacos. Created in partnership with The Food Network’s Guy Fieri, Guy’s Burger Joint offers burgers that beat anything you’ll find around the pool on other mass-market ships and even most luxury vessels.
Many ships now also offer Guy’s Pig & Anchor Smokehouse Bar-B-Que, another venue created in partnership with Guy Fieri. It serves a free lunch on embarkation and sea days with all items smoked on board with special smokers.
In addition, every ship has at least one and usually several extra-charge eateries. The most common ones found across the fleet are Fahrenheit 555, the line’s signature steakhouse, and Italian-serving Cucina del Capitano (if you’re a Carnival fan, you know this as the place where waiters sing and dance between courses). The two venues have flat fees of $38 and $15 per person, respectively.
Other extra-charge eateries often found on Carnival vessels include Bonsai, an a la carte sushi restaurant (now on 10 ships) and Ji Ji Asian Kitchen, an Asian outlet that costs $15 per person (now on four ships). The price for kids at these outlets is only $5.
Two of Carnival’s newest ships — Carnival Panorama and Carnival Horizon — also have teppanyaki eateries called Bonsai Teppanyaki (priced at a flat $32 per person) and an a la carte barbecue-and-beer joints called Guy’s Pig & Anchor Smokehouse Brewhouse. The latter venues also were created in partnership with The Food Network’s Guy Fieri.
The Guy’s Pig & Anchor Smokehouse Brewhouse, notably, has its very own in-house brewery you can see behind glass walls — something still relatively rare on cruise ships. It makes house beers including Parched Pig West Coast IPA and Parched Pig Toasted Amber that you’ll find on many Carnival vessels in kegs and cans. Carnival is the only cruise line to keg and can its own beer.
The quality of the food (and drink) on Carnival ships always surprises us, given the budget pricing of the brand. Despite being one of the industry’s lowest-cost operators, Carnival manages to pull off one of the best steakhouses at sea in Fahrenheit 555, and even the no-extra-charge main restaurants get the basics right. In general, the food isn’t gourmet. But for the price point of the line, it’s really quite impressive.
Related: The 7 best meals you can have at sea
Entertainment and activities
Carnival ships don’t have quite as many features on board as Royal Caribbean or Norwegian vessels, in part because they’re not as big. But they’re still packed with a lot of attractions, including multiple entertainment venues; lots of deck-top fun zones such as waterparks and ropes courses; casinos; and spas.
Theatres and shows
There’s seemingly always something playing on a Carnival ship, whether it be a glitzy singing-and-dancing production in the main theatre, a comedy show in a secondary lounge, a magical act or a call-you-up-on-stage interactive game show.
Every Carnival ship has one big theatre where you’ll often find flashy, fast-paced production shows that string together a medley of loosely-related tunes. Designed to be quick and digestible, they typically last around 30 minutes and have relatively small casts (just eight on some ships).
In general, the production shows aren’t nearly as sophisticated — or as long — as what you’ll find on Royal Caribbean or Norwegian ships. But they’re lively.
Carnival also uses its big theatres for lots of interactive shows that involve you, the passenger, getting a little silly, including Lip Sync Battle Carnival — a shipboard adaptation of the Paramount Network TV series — and Hasbro, The Game Show. With the latter, you can team up with your friends and family to play giant versions of Connect 4 Basketball or Simon Flash in front of a live audience.
Carnival also is well known for the Punchliner Comedy Clubs on its ships, which draw some quality comedians and can get a little raucous late at night with adult-only performances.
But when it comes to raucous, nothing on Carnival ships quite compares to the frequent karaoke nights on board. On Carnival, it’s a thing. Sometimes held in a secondary lounge or a shipboard pub, karaoke on Carnival draws a big crowd, and passengers come prepared with rehearsed songs and sometimes even their own guitars.
Insider tip: Get to the comedy shows on Carnival ships early to snag a good seat — or any seat at all. The comedy shows on Carnival ships are hugely popular.
Other interior attractions and activities
In addition to entertainment spaces, the interior of Carnival ships are loaded with other venues where passengers can kick back and let loose day and night, including a wide range of bars, lounges and nightspots.
Every Carnival ship has a casino, usually smack in the middle of the main entertainment deck. There also always are several music venues where you’ll find live performers in the afternoons and evenings, including — on some ships — the Atrium Bar and a secondary hub area called Ocean Plaza. There’s almost always a piano bar that’s home to lively singalongs.
Other popular venues found on some Carnival ships include RedFrog Pub, which serves up Carnival’s tasty housemade beers on tap as well as plenty of others. On Carnival’s newest ship, Carnival Panorama, there’s no RedFrog Pub, but the Smokehouse Brewhouse has a stage that’s home to live music nightly and some of the ship’s karaoke sessions.
Carnival Panorama also houses Carnival’s first cooking classroom. Dubbed Carnival Kitchen, it’s located near the ship’s main restaurants and is a seriously tricked out venue complete with nine state-of-the-art, marbled granite cooking stations for two and a dedicated dining area. Passengers can learn to cook everything from Carnival’s classic warm chocolate melting cake to apple pie during one- to two-hour classes that cost $30 to $59 per person.
One other new-for-Carnival venue on Carnival Panorama is the first Sky Zone trampoline park at sea. Located near the ship’s tween and teen clubrooms, it has two padded trampoline areas where you can jump around and also take part in games like jousting on a balance beam or shooting baskets while bouncing. There’s even trampoline dodgeball and, on one end of the room, a climbing wall augmented with interactive game elements.
The top decks of Carnival vessels are covered in family-focused attractions, including pools, waterslide areas, and bustling fun zones with such allures as ropes courses and miniature golf.
Waterslides, in particular, are a big thing. In fact, when it comes to waterslides on ships, Carnival is the cruise world’s king. The line began adding them to vessels way back in 1978, and there’s now at least one waterslide on every ship in the Carnival fleet — something no other line can say.
On the vast majority of Carnival ships, there’s not just a single waterslide but a whole waterpark area. Dubbed WaterWorks, these areas vary in size and features from vessel to vessel, but they typically have one or two big waterslides, a watery play zone with interactive water features and a large continuously filling dump bucket that periodically soaks everybody within range.
On some Carnival ships, there’s also a SportSquare area with such gee-whiz attractions as a suspended-in-the-air, pedal-powered SkyRide (something that first debuted in 2016 on Carnival Vista and is now on three ships), a suspended-in-the-air ropes course, a basketball court, miniature golf, miniature bowling, ping pong tables and other outdoor games.
It’s a fun-at-sea focus that is about to go to a new level in 2021 with the debut of Carnival’s new Mardi Gras, which will have — get this — a roller coaster on its top deck. Really. We’re not making that up. It won’t be the biggest roller coaster ever, at 800 feet in length. But it’s a real roller coaster — the first ever on a cruise ship.
Meanwhile, for passengers hoping for some quiet time away from the kids, many Carnival ships also have an adults-only Serenity retreat area on their top decks with padded loungers, day beds, hot tubs and often a bar.
In short, there’s a ton to do up top on Carnival vessels — and it’s all available to every passenger on board the vessels at no extra charge. Unlike some lines, Carnival has resisted the trend of big-ship operators carving out whole sections of deck-top areas for the exclusive use of passengers staying in suites or willing to pay hefty access fees.
Carnival claims to draw more children than any other cruise line. So perhaps it makes sense that it has one of the most extensive children’s programmes at sea. The line has formal children’s programming and activities for children as young as two years old through the age of 17.
The heart of the programme, called Camp Ocean, brings free, supervised activities daily for children ages 2 to 11. The line splits children here up into three age groups: Penguins (ages 2-5 years); Stingrays (ages 6-8 years) and Sharks (ages 9-11 years), and they each have their own age-appropriate activities ranging from face painting to pirate adventures. On many ships, there are extensive dedicated spaces for the different groups.
While the free programming ends at 10 p.m., you can pay extra to leave your kids at Camp Ocean past 10 p.m. until 1 a.m. During those hours, Camp Ocean transforms into a supervised slumber party-type environment with games, movies, crafts and snacks, along with late-night parties called Night Owls.
Carnival also offers dedicated tween and teen programmes on ships for children ages 12 to 17. The younger children in this age range (12-14) are grouped into what’s known as Circle “C” and have their own dedicated hangout on ships called the Circle “C” lounge. It’s a place to get together to talk, watch movies, play video games and take part in other activities. Older kids (ages 15-17) are grouped into what’s known as Club O2 and have their own dedicated lounge for meeting up, listening to music, dancing, singing karaoke and other activities.
What to know before you go
If you’re a U.S. citizen, on a cruise that starts and ends in a U.S. port, you’ll need a current passport or an official copy of your birth certificate and a driver’s license or other government-issued photo identification to sail. A few other forms of identification such as a passport card also are acceptable. Passports must be valid for at least six months. For cruises from international ports, you’ll need a passport. Note that it is important that the name on your reservation be exactly as it is stated on your passport or other official proof of nationality. All this said, we recommend checking Carnival’s website before sailing for the very latest on requirements.
Carnival adds an automatic service gratuity of $13.99 to $15.99 per person, per day to final bills, depending on the cabin category (children under the age of 2 are exempt). If you are unhappy with the service you receive, you can adjust this amount before disembarking at the Guest Services desk. Also, an 18% gratuity is added to bar bills and the cover charge of the Chef’s Table.
Carnival has been rolling out faster Wi-Fi systems across its fleet in the last couple of years, such that you now can stream video on some ships. Pricing changes over time, but the fastest “premium” service on Carnival vessels recently was priced at $16 per person, per day. Carnival also offers a less expensive “social” plan that only allows access to key social sites (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.) as well as messaging services such as WhatsApp, for $8 a day. A slightly more expensive “value” plan, at $12 per day, adds access to email and most websites. Passengers who pay for a plan in advance of sailing get a 15% discount.
Carry-on drinks policy
Carnival allows you to bring one bottle of wine or Champagne per person onto ships at boarding plus up to a dozen standard cans or cartons of nonalcoholic drinks such as sodas. Nonalcoholic drinks in glass or plastic bottles are not allowed. Note that you’ll be charged a $15 corkage fee if you want to bring the wine or Champagne to an onboard restaurant or bar to drink. Drinks brought on board must be carried in your carry-on luggage.
On most ships, smoking (including e-cigarette smoking) only is allowed in designated outdoor areas and in casinos and nightclubs. It’s forbidden in cabins and on cabin balconies. In casinos and nightclubs, only cigarette smoking is allowed. On Carnival ships in Australia, smoking only is allowed at designated outdoor areas.
Carnival ships have self-serve launderettes on cabin decks with washing machines, dryers, irons and ironing boards. There’s a $3.25 per load charge to use a washer or dryer. The launderettes also have vending machines that dispense small boxes of detergent and water softener at $1.50 per box. In addition, vessels offer extra-charge laundry and (on select ships) dry cleaning services.
Note that Carnival’s soon-to-debut Mardi Gras will not have launderettes. Carnival fans are quite peeved about this, and you should be, too. Write the line a letter.
Most vessels have standard North American-style, 110-volt outlets in rooms as well as European-style, 220-volt outlets. A growing number of vessels also have USB ports in cabins.
The exception are the two Carnival ships that sail in Australia (Carnival Spirit and Carnival Splendor), which are fitted with a standard Australian 3-point plug or adaptor providing 220/240 volt 60Hz. Adapters are available on these ships for purchase if needed.
The currency used on most Carnival ships is U.S. dollars. The exceptions are the two Carnival ships based in Australia, where pricing is listed in Australian dollars. All vessels operate on a “cashless system” with any onboard purchases you make posting automatically to your onboard account. You’ll receive a Sail & Sign card that you can use to make charges. This same card also is what lets you into your cabin.
You must be 21 to consume alcohol on most Carnival ships. The drinking age on sailings on Carnival ships in Australia is 18.
During the day, there is no specific dress code, and people dress casually. If it’s a sea day in a warm-weather destination, and you’re bound for the top-deck, that means looking like you’re going to the beach — tee-shirts, shorts and bathing suits (with a cover-up to go inside) are just fine.
During the evenings, there is an official dress code, but it’s pretty laid back. Most nights are designated “cruise casual,” which means just that — khakis or jeans, polo shirts, sundresses, etc. Super-casual items such as cut-off jeans, men’s sleeveless shirts, tee-shirts and gym shorts aren’t permitted. One or two nights a cruise, there will be a more formal “cruise elegant” night where men are expected to turn out in dress slacks and a dress shirt, preferably with a sport coat, or even in a suit. The suggested attire for women on such nights is cocktail dresses, pantsuits, elegant skirts and blouses.
Carnival Cruise Line loyalty programme
Carnival has a point-based frequent cruiser programme, the VIFP Club, that has five tiers, ranging from Blue (requiring no points) to Diamond (200 points).
Members earn one point for every night they sail on one of the line’s ships. To hit the second tier, Red, takes one cruise. Reaching the third tier, Gold, requires 25 points.
One caveat to the earning, and it’s in your favour: If you’re going to hit a tier cut-off during a voyage, you will receive the benefits of that tier from the beginning of that cruise.
In other words, if you are sailing seven-night cruises, you will be Gold level on your fourth sailing, as you will be passing the 25-day mark on that sailing.
As is typical with cruise line loyalty programmes, lower tiers don’t bring all that much in terms of truly valuable benefits. In fact, the lower tiers of the Carnival programme are among the most stingy in the entire cruise universe. You’ll get things like a single complimentary bottle of water (at the Red tier) and a single free drink that only can be ordered on the last night of a cruise (at the Gold tier). But higher levels of the programme start to be enticing.
The second-to-highest tier, Platinum (75 points), brings such perks as priority check-in and boarding, priority debarkation, priority dinner reservations, priority spa reservations and priority water shuttle boarding. Platinums also get complimentary wash-and-fold laundry service (with a limit of 2 to 5 bags, depending on the length of the cruise).
The top Diamond level (200 points) brings such added perks as unlimited free wash-and-fold laundry service, a guaranteed seating time in the main restaurant, a dedicated toll-free number for sales and service, and a one-time room upgrade.
Note that, in contrast to airline frequent flyer programmes, cruise line loyalty programmes do not require you to requalify for status every year. So, yes, the perks with lower tiers aren’t great. But it’s not as difficult as it might at first seem to hit the more rewarding higher level tiers in just a few years if you’re cruising a lot.
A Carnival passenger taking seven-night cruises will hit the Platinum level during their 11th sailing. Sail a few longer voyages, like a transatlantic sailing, and you could reach it even sooner.
In case you’re curious, VIFP stands for Very Important Fun Person.
How much does a Carnival cruise cost?
In general, Carnival ships are among the most affordable at sea. It’s not uncommon to find Carnival voyages to the Caribbean, Bahamas or Mexico starting under $100 per person, per night including all taxes and fees — at least in the offseason.
As of the date of this story’s posting, for instance, seven-night sailings from Miami to the Western Caribbean in November were starting at just $349 per person, not including taxes and fees of $154.64 That works out to just $72 per night per person with taxes and fees for a package that includes your lodging, transportation and meals.
As you might expect, pricing for ships generally will be lower during off-season periods such as September, October and parts of November.
The timing of when you book also can matter. Cruises book up much further in advance than aeroplanes or hotels, and many cruisers will tell you that the best pricing for any given sailing often is available when cruises first go on sale (which can be a good two years before a departure). Booking far in advance also will give you the best chance of getting your preferred cabin type and location on a ship.
Once on board a Carnival ship, you’ll pay extra for most drinks, extra-charge restaurants, spa services, shore excursions, internet service and a few other things — unless you’ve bought a package for some of these items in advance. Most onboard activities such as shows and deck-top attractions are included in the fare.
How to book
If you’re sure you know what sort of cabin you want, on which ship, on which itinerary — and about a dozen other things — you can head over to Carnival.com to make a booking directly.
That said, given the complexity of booking a cruise — there are a lot of decisions to make during the booking process, trust us — we recommend that you use a seasoned travel agent who specialises in cruises.
A good travel agent will quiz you about your particular interests, travel style and preferences, and steer you to the perfect cruise line, ship, itinerary and cabin for you. They also can help you if something goes wrong just before, during or after your voyage.
If you’re sure that Carnival is your line, look for a travel agent who specializes in trips with the brand. You want someone who understands all the little quirks that are unique to Carnival’s cabin categories and, preferably, has done ship inspections to see the cabins first hand.
Carnival ships are all about fun, in a lively, let’s-not-take-this-too-seriously sort of way. They’re also incredibly affordable. Just don’t expect anything too fancy — or highbrow. This is a budget vacation, not a luxury product, and one that is sometimes a bit over-the-top in its keep-the-party-going formula. If the idea of a Hairy Chest Contest around the pool deck makes you cringe, this isn’t the line for you. But if you’re ready to let loose and be a little goofy, it may be the perfect line.
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