Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Fun vs. Elegance- A Side by Side Comparison

Carnival vs. Royal Caribbean

August 2014

Chris and I are addicted to everything cruising. We went on our first cruise back in 2006 with Chris's parents and family. A belated wedding present from them, if you will. This was a Western Caribbean cruise leaving out of Galveston on the Carnival Conquest. We fell in love with the whole experience right then and there. Unfortunately, we were not in a financially stable situation to feed this addiction for another 6 years. Last year we took our 2nd cruise in July, once again on Carnival and oddly enough on the Carnival Conquest. This year we decided we would branch out and try and new ship AND A NEW CRUISE LINE. We decided to see what all the "hype" is about aboard Royal Caribbean ships and we sailed on Royal Caribbean's Navigator of the Seas. This ship recently came out of a month long dry-dock and we saw the upgrades and improvements that were installed. We absolutely LOVED our 1st two cruises on Carnival and didn't have any issues whatsoever. We also thoroughly enjoyed our Royal Caribbean cruise this past summer. However, there are some noticeable likes and dislikes for each company:

Staterooms- Carnival 
We have only cruised on balconies and I even wonder how an inside cabin would feel to us now. With that being said we immediately noticed upon arrival in our Royal Caribbean balcony cabin that it was noticeably smaller. In addition, the Royal Caribbean beds were not only hard as a brick but also about 6" smaller than a regular King-sized bed. In addition to these details our Royal Caribbean cabin had a sliding balcony door that was nice but incredibly loud and had to be "double-locked" at all times in order for the AC to work properly after a certain period of time. This was a detail that was not made known to us until the last night and could be the reason our room was never cold enough for me and often felt stuffy.

However, Royal Caribbean had much better, nicer and newer decor throughout the room including flat screen TV's in addition to more organized accommodations like shelves behind mirrors and a sliding glass shower door. But in the long run the constant stiffness of the bed and the frustration of the AC made us choose Carnival. I honestly feel that if Royal Caribbean would get better mattresses then this would be a no brain-er in favor of Royal Caribbean

Complimentary Food Carnival
(Buffets and other non-Main Dining Room venues) 
Both ships and cruise lines had ample amounts of food to choose from throughout our week long adventures but Carnival completely outdid Royal Caribbean in this category. Royal Caribbean's Windjammer buffet will officially go down as one of the worst buffet's I have ever had in my life. On a cruise ship even the buffet should be grand. In addition, Royal Caribbean only offered the Cafe Promenade for additional snacks and food throughout the day. This was a 24 hour restaurant but the quality of the food was also lacking. The cookies and desserts were usually hard, not moist and sometimes stale (it seemed, we were told they were all baked fresh). The pizza was tasty but rarely available when we went by.

Carnival, on the other hand, had a very good buffet with 2-4 different "lines" and themes each and every meal. In addition, Carnival is currently upgrading most of their ships to "Carnival 2.0" which includes a complimentary Guy's Burger Joint where good ol' fashioned burgers were served around the clock. This upgrade also included a Tex-Mex style cafe called Blue Iguana Cantina. This reminded me of a Free-bird's World Burrito style of set-up and was constantly changing with topping varieties each day. The Blue Iguana also served breakfast burritos which were to die for. Not all Carnival ships have this upgrade but with this upgrade it completely surpasses Royal Caribbean in this category.

Main Dining Room Food- Tied
Both cruise lines really set the bar high in the Main Dining Room. The menu options seemed to be higher on Royal Caribbean and they had a nightly "theme" which was interesting and intriguing. Royal Caribbean's service in the Main Dining Room was beyond comparable as it was here that we received the best service of our lives and were truly treated like "royalty".

Carnival's nightly Main Dining Room menu was not as extensive and did not quite match up to the quality of Royal Caribbean in most cases. However, the breakfast and lunch (or in some cases brunch) category was disappointing on Royal Caribbean and Carnival has them beat in this category. Carnival was serving up dishes like Egg's Benedict and Filet Migon' for breakfast daily in the Main Dining Room!

Room Service Menu and Food- Royal Caribbean 
Going into a cruise Chris and I talk about how much we will use room service and on each of our 3 cruises have only used them a few times. Royal Caribbean had a very extensive and quality lead menu which included NY Strip Steak, exotic cheeses and cheesecake. This food was good enough that if you wanted to you could sit in your underwear and never leave your room all week.

Carnival's room service menu was sketchy at best. On both of our voyages on her fleet the menu was listed as one thing but when we called to order they said they were "out" or had something else listed. In addition, Carnival's execution of these dishes was lacking and disappointing both times.

Entertainment- Royal Caribbean
Royal Caribbean had a great nightly entertainment team called "The Royal Caribbean Singers and Dancers". These were vocal performers that reminded me of people who had made it very far, if not all the way to the end, of some of the TV shows currently airing on TV such as "The Voice", "American Idol" or "America's Got Talent". The dancers and performing teams were very good, especially the Ice Dancing team. These were world class skaters and some even had Olympic medals or World Championship medals from their respective countries. Royal Caribbean also hired in some entertainment teams to perform on the ship during our cruise. This may or may not have been a one-time thing but this group "Tribute to the Temptations" were fantastic! But Royal Caribbean really brought home the "WOW" factor with their Ice Skating Spectacular Show. This was so impressive and even more so because it was on a cruise ship. 

However, the main idea behind most of their nightly shows was not as interesting as that of Carnival and overall I would say that Carnival's entertainment team had more pure talent than the dancers and singers of Royal Caribbean. But overall, I think Royal Caribbean will take the prize in this category!

Music- Royal Caribbean 
There is absolutely NO QUESTION in this category. Royal Caribbean had their own band and musicians that performed at all nightly entertainment shows as well as their own shows throughout the week. These were top notch musicians and highly impressive to someone who has a Bachelors and Master's degree in Music and Music Education. The lead trumpet player in this group was the best I have ever heard (and I have heard Maynard Ferguson LIVE). He was AMAZING! The aspect of the music being LIVE was a huge hit in my book. 

Carnival, on the other hand, did not have LIVE musicians and all their music was piped in through the speaker system (at least on the 2 sailings we took. I have heard that Carnival does have LIVE music on some ships). Even the late night deck parties had music through the massive speakers. I greatly prefer the LIVE music over CDs any day! 

Ship's Decor- Royal Caribbean's Navigator of the Seas 
The inside decor of the Navigator was beyond impressive. The Royal Promenade was covered in floor to ceiling high class decorations and a stunning ambiance. It made me feel like "royalty". The decor down the inside of the stateroom hallways was very laid back with themes of movies, music and art on each deck.

Carnival's Conquest was a french impressionist motto and was nice but in comparison to The Navigator it left much to be desired.

Deck Life (Pools, hot tubs, deck chairs and overall atmosphere)- Royal Caribbean
Royal Caribbean's Navigator of the Seas had 2 main pools that were average 10'X30' and an adults only "solarium" pool that was approximately 10'X18'. These had shallow areas for kids to play in and deeper sections for the adults. These were even large enough to do lap swimming in. The Navigator also had 4 hot tubs in the main pool section (2 large/ 8-10 people, covered and 2 smaller/ 4-6 people), 2 massive Jacuzzi whirlpools in the "solarium" section and even a 20+ person whirlpool in the fitness center. We never had an issue finding space and getting into a hot tub plus the covered option really made sunburning less of a problem for our delicate red-head skin. Royal Caribbean had higher quantities and quality of deck chairs, especially in the "solarium".

Carnival's Conquest had 2 main pools that were an average of 10'X15' and 1 "adult's only" pool at the aft of the Lido deck. This pool was approximately 12'X16'. The Conquest had a total of 5 hot tubs, all the same size, in various locations of the pool deck including 2 in the retractable roof section near the "adult's only" area of the Lido deck. None of these hot tubs were covered which meant constant re-applying of the sunscreen and a possible loss of our spot in the hot tub. Carnival's deck chairs were few and far between and seemed like a constant battle to get one. They also had random upright bubble chairs near the pool which seemed weird for laying out in the sun.

Physical Activities- Royal Caribbean 
Where do I even begin? The Navigator got some major upgrades during their dry dock back in January 2014 when they received a FlowRider surf simulator. This was in addition to their Rock Wall, Ice Skating rink, Miniature golf course and golf simulator which they already had. These things kept us busy all week and honestly we were not even able to experience them all because there was just too much! These activities would be amazing on land but to think that they were available floating down the ocean is fascinating.

Carnival's Conquest had a pretty awesome water slide that would rival most small water parks on land. However, this was constantly busy both times we sailed on her since there were not as many physical activity options. The Conquest also had a miniature golf course.

Non-Physical Activities- Carnival 
During sea days it is the job of the Cruise Director and his staff to keep the guests occupied, so to speak. The activities offered on board the Navigator during the day were few and far between. They did have trivia but the timing of these were terrible, such as 7:30 PM right in the middle of dinner and show time. They also offered karaoke sessions but they were in small venues and not for prizes but rather just fun (which is fine). They had several deck parties such as Country Western and Caribbean and these had LIVE musicians playing but they were barely a "party" and once again these events came at very busy times of the day. However, Royal Caribbean offered more activities with their "suits" and higher up staff members such as "The Captain's Corner" where you could ask the Captain and other staff members questions. The Captain and his staff also participated in the "Walk for Wishes" on the last sea day and were overall very well seen throughout the week. This is something I highly respect in the real world.

Carnival offered numerous trivia games (80's, movie, TV show and even logos) during the days and had prizes to give away if you got them all right. They also sponsored game shows like "Love and Marriage" and "The Hasbro Game Show". In addition, they had an American Idol style of karaoke competition which was pretty cool despite us not participating. The cruise director we had on Carnival, Cory Rogers, was very entertaining and kept all of the guests having fun at all times and busy. While both companies offered a variety of things, we chose Carnival because we like trivia and it seemed as if Royal Caribbean didn't offer it as much and when they did we were busy.

Service of Staff- Royal Caribbean
This category is a hand's down winner for Royal Caribbean. The service we received in the Main Dining Room for all of our meals was beyond impressive and satisfactory. Our waiters and cabin stewards waited on us hand and foot. In fact, there were often times crew members randomly walking around asking if we were having a good cruise and if not could they fix it. They really did try to make up for any mistake they made, which we will elaborate upon later.

Carnival crew members seemed to be having fun on the surface and I believe some of them were but on numerous occasions I can remember a crew member not smiling and seeming as if they hated their jobs. Our waiters on both Carnival cruises were superb, or so we thought... until we met Agnelo and Sachin on Royal Caribbean.

Drinks/ Bar Service- Royal Caribbean 
These were some of the strongest drinks of my life and some of the neatest and weirdest concoctions. In addition, traditional cocktails were priced $1.50-3 lowered than the same cocktails on Carnival. The service in this category was just as astonishing as the Main Dining Room so Royal Caribbean wins hands down. 

Casino- Carnival
The Royal Caribbean "Casino Royale" was just another typical cruise ship casino with about 75% slot machines and 25% table games. There was only about 10 tables total and only 2 of these were full time blackjack, which is our signature game. And the lowest Blackjack table was a $6 minimum, which was odd and annoying to say the least. This forced us to play $10 most of the time which was good... if you were winning. 

Since the "2.0" upgrade on the Carnival Conquest, the casino had many more table games, which is what Chris and I play ("Slots are for losers"). In addition to more tables they also had computerized Blackjack which was still played with 7 players on a table but the dealer was the computer. This also had lower minimum bets than the regular tables, didn't require a real dealer so was literally open 24/7 while in international waters and in addition to this it tracked your betting and winning percentages and then gave you free drinks. This was great and we took advantage of this the entire length of our Summer 2013 cruise. 

Clientele- Royal Caribbean 
As expected, Royal Caribbean had a much nicer clientele on board. There were 3,894 guests on board during our cruise (double occupancy is 3,450) and 1/3 of them were kids but this was a summer high for this ship. As per the Executive Chef during our galley tour, the usual percentage of kids on board The Navigator of the Seas is 15-25% depending on time of travel. As a teacher this was important to us since we have to deal with kids 9 months out of the year. However, you would not have noticed that 1/3 of our cruise guests were kids because they were much more well-behaved than those we ran into on our previous cruises. These kids used manners, opened doors for older guests and didn't run around like crazy people all the time. 

On Carnival we had bad experiences with children of all ages running wild on board. On both cruises we saw kids stand at the elevators and push both up and down buttons just to annoy people or get into an elevator and push all the buttons. And sadly, parents were in the elevator too. The lack of discipline on Carnival ships was unreal. I think the main idea of the parents on board Carnival ships was "See you in a week kids, if you need me I will be at the bar". Lots of bad children and drunk adults. If this is your style, then Carnival is for you! But it is NOT our style for sure. 

Execution of details (it's the small things)- Carnival
As mentioned in our "Embarkation Day" blog entry (found HERE), the Windjammer Buffet on Royal Caribbean was not open on time and in fact, was over 1 hour late in opening it's doors on embarkation day. This left somewhat of a sour taste in our mouth at the start of our cruise. Then there were issues such as getting someone else's dinner reservation tickets, getting the wrong Captain's Dinner tickets (Wrong date and people's names) as well as the overall cancellation of the Captain's Dinner. However, Royal Caribbean did seem to go ABOVE and BEYOND to correct these minor mistakes. For example, having a private dinner with 2 "4 1/2 stripe" staff officers because of the dinner cancellation. This was literally a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and was all at the kindness, cost and discretion of Royal Caribbean.  

Carnival did not completely "WOW" us so to speak but they never had the opportunity to "cover their tracks" due to minor mistakes either. This is not a deal breaker type of category but is worth mentioning anyway. 

Overall- ?!?!? 
We had great experiences on both cruise lines. Our 2nd voyage on Carnival Conquest was remarkably better than the 1st and that is mainly due to the upgrades and our overall cruising knowledge. Royal Caribbean hit several home runs during our most recent cruise but the uncomfortable bed really left a bad taste in our mouths. After all, one should be COMFORTABLE during their vacation. We came home last week even more tired than when we left and this should not be the case, especially on a cruise. I know we will look like trash but we plan on taking "Egg Crates" for the beds on our upcoming Serenade of the Seas cruise in March. A friend and Royal Caribbean "Diamond" cruiser mentioned that for whatever reason most ships that come out of dry-dock have stiff and hard beds for about a year. This makes me feel a LOT better about Royal Caribbean. I think if we find out that the bed we had was just a "fluke" then Royal Caribbean will win hands down!

Chris and I would like to work our way to the top of a cruise line's loyalty program. We would like for this to be Royal Caribbean and I think after our second voyage in March we will have a better idea but at this time we are just going to choose our cruises by whomever offers the best price. Especially when traveling with kids, which we plan to do in the very near future.

Overall I think you have to ask yourself "Do I want a FUN cruise or an AMAZING ON BOARD EXPERIENCE". Partying all the time on Carnival (With 1/3-1/2 of the guests being kids... bad behaved kids at that) or living it up like royalty on Royal Caribbean (With the higher class and less kids) and STILL HAVING A GREAT TIME. The choice is yours!

Once again, we are beyond blessed to be able to take this cruise this past August and even more so to take our upcoming Anniversary cruise in March. A big shout out goes out to my parents, Ron and Shirley Klingsick, and Chris's parents, Dan and Jackie Davis, for taking care of our kids while we went on this adventure. But most importantly, we would like to thank God for giving us this opportunity and blessing us with this fantastic week at sea!

Until March... Think Caribbean thoughts!

God is good... All the time!

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