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Carnival and NCL - first hand comparison


coldweather
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Greetings!   (post 1 of 4)

 

I have seen posts in the past asking for comparisons between the cruise lines.  In January 2019 we completed 2 consecutive cruises departing from San Juan, Puerto Rico.  I decided to write 1 review and make it a comparison so you can see the differences.  I have received a lot of great information over the years from Cruise Critic.  This is my giving back.  My hope is this review will help you make decisions on your future cruise.

 

Ships:

Carnival Fascination built in 1994 with passenger capacity of 2056.  

 

NCL Dawn built in 2002 with passenger capacity of 2340. 

 

The ships sailed from San Juan on Southern Caribbean itineraries. On both ships we had inside cabins.  7 days on Carnival Fascination cost ~$1000 or $150/night for 2 people.  10 days on NCL Dawn cost ~$2500 equals $250/night.  This included 1 perk.  We chose the $50 off shore excursions as we had 9 port stops.  I share this so you can factor the price difference into the comparison I will share below.

 

I thought this was a good comparison because both ships are considered older and smaller compared to the rest of the fleet.  Here goes….

 

Cruise Demographics:

Carnival Fascination:  In our 50s, we were in the older 1/3 of passengers.  Sailing from San Juan, about 25% of the ship was local families.

 

NCL Fascination:  In our 50s, we were in the younger 1/3 of passengers.   There were almost no local families on the ship.

 

SHIP AND CABIN

 

Ship Décor:

Carnival Fascination: Bright, exciting, fun colors that are bold.  The ship lives up to Carnival’s brand promise of the fun ships.

 

NCL Dawn:  We sailed Carnival first.  We boarded the Dawn the same day we disembarked the Fascination. I was struck instantly with the difference in décor.  NCL Dawn was a refined beige and brown color scheme.  The ship feels classy with subtle décor.

 

Cabin Layout:

Carnival Fascination: Grade A+:  2 closets, lots of drawers.  We easily flowed around the room without bumping into each other.

 

NCL Dawn: Grade 😄 The inside cabin configuration is the same as I have experienced on the NCL Gem and NCL Star.  We had to share a closet.  Not many drawers. Opening the bathroom door conflicts with the closet. We were constantly bumping into each other.  Frequently 1 of us would have to sit on the bed and wait for the other to finish getting things in and out of the closet.  It was not pleasant.

 

Cabin Steward:

Carnival Fascination:  Our steward greeted up and provided a business card with name and photo and contact phone number.  We were encouraged to call him if we needed something and he was not in our hallway.  He also ran showed us a paper check list that he reviewed with us.  We were to indicate how many towels we want on a regular basis,  if we request a bath robe, if we need a hair dryer and a few other line items I cannot recall.  He also asked is we wanted morning, evening or both times to service our room.  I did not feel that he was trying to sway our answer to only 1 time.  He cheerfully serviced our cabin 2 times per day. 

 

NCL Dawn:  Steward greeted us and did a great job throughout the cruise. 

 

Shower Pressure:

Carnival Fascination: Grade A+:  Pressure was powerful, hot and strong.  Shower had a curtain.

 

NCL Dawn: Grade 😄  Pressure was very weak.  A bit annoying.  Shower had a door.

 

Bedding:

We all know that when you ask for 1 bed it is really 2 beds pushed together.  Usually it feels like 1 bed.

 

Carnival Fascination: Grade A – Very comfortable!

 

NCL Dawn: Grade 😄  The beds were 2 twins of unequal height. When pushed together they created a lump in the middle of the bed. Comfort in each twin bed was fine but didn’t feel like 1 bed.

 

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(Post 2 of 4)

 

FOOD

 

Main Dining Room:

Carnival Fascination:  Grade 😄   Only ate dinner in the main dining room 2 times on a 7 day cruise. The food was so-so. I noticed as others have reported there are no table cloths in the dining room except on formal night.  I would have never noticed this except people on CC comment about it.  The dining room tables were nice without the cloth.  They had some type of subtle decoration on each table.  This was fine for me.  I ate breakfast in the dining room most mornings.  I enjoyed that there were 3 or 4 items listed as more of a “health” choice.  I loved the egg white frittata and the avocado toast.

 

NCL Dawn:  Grade A:  Food was great! White table cloths for every meal including breakfast.  Wait staff puts cloth napkin your lap (I don’t care for this but I know others have observed this.) Feels like fine dining at every meal.

General Food:  I found the quality of the food on NCL was higher than Carnival.  Here are some examples.  Both ships had watermelon every day.  Carnival had seeded watermelon.  NCL had seedless watermelon.  Both ships had shrimp cocktail on the menu.  Carnival had very small shrimp.  NCL had large ship.  Carnival had complementary lobster and steak on formal night.  I didn’t see lobster on the NCL main dining room menu and they had an upcharge for steak.  (I may have missed the lobster on NCL.)  Both ships offered soft serve ice cream.  In addition, NCL offered scooped hard ice cream during lunch on the pool deck.

 

Pizza:

Carnival Fascination: Grade A:  Hands down Carnival beats NCL.  Carnival has a dedicated pizza restaurant open 24 hours per day.  There are 4 or 5 choices of pizza and it is made for you.  The pizza is not sitting out on a buffet.  This is a very popular food option.

 

NCL Dawn:  Grade 😧  The pizza is offered on the buffet.  It looks like boxed frozen pizza from the grocery store.

 

Hamburgers:

Carnival Fascination: Grade A: Carnival has Guy Fieri’s Burger restaurant.  This is a restaurant on the pool deck that is dedicated to hamburgers.  They are awesome and the french fries were great.  The customer demand for these burgers is high so they are always right off the grill and fresh.

 

NCL Dawn:  Grade 😧 The hamburgers were served on the buffet.  They looked like hockey pucks that had been sitting under the lights too long.  In 10 days I never saw anyone select a hamburger from the buffet.

 

Taco/Burritos:

Carnival Fascination: Grade A:  Carnival has a pool deck restaurant named Blue Iguana that is dedicated to preparing custom ordered tacos, burritos or taco salad.  There is an extensive topping and salsa bar to complete your meal.  This is awesome.  We ate here multiple times for a late lunch when returning from a day ashore.   Very well done!

 

NCL Dawn: Grade 😄 NCL offers a specialty, sit-down restaurant called Los Lobos that served Mexican food.  There is a surcharge for this restaurant.

 

Deli/Smoked Salmon:

Carnival Fascination: Grade A:  In addition to complimentary restaurants of the Main Dining room, Guy Fieri’s Burgers and Blue Iguana taco/burritos, Carnival offers a deli where they custom make hot and cold sandwiches to order.  They offer a smoked salmon with cream cheese on a bagel.  The portion of smoked salmon is very generous.  I had this a few times.  I saw people order the salmon with no bagel or cream cheese if they just wanted the salmon.  In addition, the deli offered hot sandwiches like a reuben and cold sandwiches like turkey on a ciabatta.  Smoked salmon was also available in the Main Dining room. 

 

NCL Dawn:  Grade N/A: I chose to comment on this because over the years I have seen some threads about smoked salmon.  I did see salmon mousse on the buffet and smoked salmon was available in the Main Dining room.

 

Buffet layout:

Carnival Fascination:  Grade A+: I ate 5 of 7 dinners in the buffet. I don’t usually do this but because there was so much evening activity with the comedy club and lively music, the buffet just fit our schedule better.   The buffet is well laid out.  You could get your food and sit down.  You were NOT constantly bumping into people.  They have different stations that are spread out within the buffet dining room so the flow of people is disbursed.  They had a dedicated salad bar and dedicated dessert station.  The buffet itself is shorter than on NCL.   There are fewer choices.  I found this to be a plus as I was not wandering looking at all of the options.   I was able to go down the line and chose between 4-5 appetizers, 4-5 main entrees, 4-5 sides, a carving station and a large choice of bread selections.  I could always sit down without a problem.

 

NCL Dawn: Grade 😧  I dreaded going to the buffet.  You were constantly bumping into people and finding seats was a challenge.  The length of the buffet is huge.  This is a plus and a minus.  Many food choices but it encourages guests to wander around in search of food choices.  This leads to constantly bumping into people.  Many times the food looked like it was sitting under the heat lights.  Many of the entrees were covered in gravy or sauce.   I definitely preferred the NCL main dining room over the NCL buffet for ease of service and a more pleasant meal.

 

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(Post 3 of 4)

 

ENTERTAINMENT

 

Broadway style shows:

Carnival Fascination: Grade C   We went to the All Board preview show the first night.  The dancers/singers were ok. The aerialists were great. Magician was entertaining.

 

NCL Dawn: Grade B : Much better dancers/singers.

 

Comedy:

There is a very clear difference between the brands for comedy.  Carnival has a lounge called the Punchline Comedy club.  The comedians are highlighted entertainment.

 

Carnival Fascination: Grade A:  On a 7-night cruise there were 4 nights of comedy with 5 shows and 2 comedians each night.  The first 2 shows were family friendly.  The later 3 shows were adults only.  For the later shows, they make an announcement asking children to leave.  They also announce if you are easily offended, you will be so please exit the lounge.   I like that they don’t dumb down the comedy to fit the masses.   The comedy is packed every night.  You need to arrive a bit early to get a seat.

 

NCL Comedy: Grade 😄  They had 2 comedians over a 10-day cruise.  Both performed in the main theater.  Not a very intimate comedy setting.  The comedians provided generic comedy that is rated G.  Comedy is clearly not a focus for NCL.

 

General Music:

Carnival Fascination:  Grade A:  There were music venues each night in addition to the comedy club and the main theater show.  There was a Latin music band, Dance music band, 70s/80s.  As we were sailing from Puerto Rico, there were a lot of Puerto Rican families onboard.  The Latin music band was fantastic and packed every night.  It was the fun place to be.  

Carnival sail away each day had a DJ playing fun, Caribbean music.  The general sound track that played around the ship in the hallways was 70s and 80s classics.

 

NCL Dawn: Grade B: The music was subtler.  There were duets and slow music.  There was a live band for the sail away for each port.  The general soundtrack around the ship was easy listening.  I found the music a bit dull.   I don’t recall this from my prior NCL cruises but the music catered to the older average age of the passengers.

 

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(Post 4 of 4)

 

GENERAL/OTHER/RANDOM:

 

Adult Only Pool Area:

Carnival Fascination:  Grade A: They offer a complimentary area for adults only that is called Serenity.  It is quiet.  No sound track playing.  Nice loungers with cushions.  A bar and waiter service available.

 

NCL Dawn: Grade N/A:  No dedicated adult only area.  (There is a dedicated children’s area off the back of the ship.)

 

Fitness Center:

Carnival Fascination: Grade A:  The fitness center was in the front of the ship with many windows.  You could be using the equipment looking at the Ocean.   I used this every morning.

 

NCL Dawn:  Grade F:  The fitness center was in a dark, dingy area.   The equipment is against a wall with mirrors.  When running on the treadmill you stare at yourself.  It was poorly laid out and not inviting.  I used it 1 day and then moved outside to the walking track.

 

Guest Services Desk:

Carnival Fascination:  Grade F:  The lines are always long.  There is a dedicated line for guests with platinum status or who purchased the Faster to the Fun package.  It is like Carnival wants this line to be long and slow so guest who have a dedicated line can feel they are getting a benefit for their status.

 

NCL Dawn:  Grade A:   The line always moved along quickly.

 

Beverage Policy:

We did not have beverage packages on either cruise.

 

Carnival Fascination: Grade A:  Passengers are allowed to bring one 750ml bottle of wine per person for no charge.  Additionally, you may bring 6 cans of soda per passenger.  You must carry the beverages on yourself.

 

NCL Dawn: Grade 😄  No beverages may be carried on with the exception of wine.  Wine may be carried on with a corkage fee of $15/bottle. On previous NCL cruises I have had the beverage package as an included “perk” so I did not pay much attention to the beverage carry-on policy.  

 

Documents/Final invoice:

Carnival Fascination: Grade A: Easy to complete check in. Flow was clear and easy to complete. 1 document for each person. Prints on 1 page.   In general, I found the user experience better on the Carnival website.  The guest invoice on the ship was easy to read and understand.

 

NCL Dawn: Grade B: Check in was ok.  Print spills over to multiple pages. 1 document for the cabin.  The guest invoice was not user friendly.  In all fairness we had a lot of charges and perk-credit for 9 shore excursions.

 

Conclusions:  Carnival lives up to its brand as the fun ship!  NCL is a step over Carnival in luxury.  Each ship and brand does an excellent job.  As a customer it is important that you select the brand, ship and sailing that meets your interests and your expected level of service.  Keep traveling!

 

 

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I forgot one.

 

Carnival Fascination has guest, self-serve laundry.  Bring quarters or plan to wait online at guest services to make change for quarters.  It is an older ship and does not use your room card to charge the laundry fee.

 

NCL Dawn does not have any self serve guest laundry.  They do have a service where you can send out your laundry and they will wash it for you for a charge.  (I don't know what the charge is.)

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We are platinum (or the equivalent) on both lines.  We just took a Christmas cruise on NCL and will be doing the same cruise on the new Panorama ship for Valentine's in 2020.  The NCL cruise was significantly more money than the Panorama will be, but we got a lot of included extras.  The drink package for both of us, $50 per port shore excursion credit, 3 specialty dining credits (along with 2 additional credits for being platinum), the wifi package, laundry service and some OBC.  NCL can come up with some great "extra offers".  I want to compare the pricing after we cruise on the Panorama.  When we got off NCL, the only charge was for a spa service - I'm sure when we get off the Panorama, our on board charges will be significantly more than the NCL ones were.  I'm wondering if they are going to "even out" as far as the price.

 

We like both lines and are looking forward to trying a brand new Carnival ship.

 

 

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Thanks for a wonderful review! We've never been on NCL and have no plans yet to try the line. I found all of your comments interesting.

 

Guy's Burgers: *insert drooling emoji here*

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I'm platinum on both lines and sail big ships, small ships....all ships.....on both.

NCL definitely has better buffets, way more variety.  At dinner, on Carnival, it's very basic.  Nobody starves but on NCL you have a choice of "anything you could think of".

Cabins on Carnival are larger...even the insides.  On NCL (after the smallest cabin in the world on the Breakaway once) I'd only do a balcony.  It's not that I need the balcony, but, I do like storage and room to move.

Entertainment is hit or miss depending on the ship.  I loved the entertainment when I was on the Horizon.  I loved the entertainment the first time I was on the Escape (10/18).  I just did the Escape again and the entertainment was weak.

Stewards....it's a personality thing.  I'm happy as long as I get service once a day.

MDR and other food....can't say because we eat almost exclusively in the buffet.

Price....I almost always pay more per day on Carnival.  It may be that I am a great value shopper and can get better deals on NCL.

Fellow passengers-depends on the time of year.  Now that Carnival only sails out of NYC during the warm months there are younger people and more children.  On our "just off the Escape" I was one of the kids and I'm almost 70.

 

I sail both because I like variety.  There are good things on both lines and there are some "not as good things".  However, I'm easy to please so as long as there's hot water and the ship stays afloat, I'm good.

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Great comparison! I just got off my first Carnival cruise on the Elation (I think it's in the same Fantasy class as the Fascination) and I'm platinum on NCL - I sailed the Dawn, but it was in 2012 before its most recent renovation. On that sailing, we had a balcony, but my kids had an inside across the hall, and it was...snug. Our cabin on the Elation was fairly spacious for an inside, and even with the curtain, the shower felt bigger.

 

I did miss the little NCL touches in the main dining room, like the napkin being placed in my lap, however, I really liked having the same wait staff each night on Carnival - they really do try and remember what you like!

 

I liked NCL's buffet food better in general, but Carnival's Blue Iguana, Guy's Burgers, and Pizza Pirate could not be beat! So good!

 

The Dawn does have a very nice adult thermal suite, but it's only available for an upcharge - I liked Carnival's Serenity area for adults - NCL does have their Spice H2O on some of their newer, bigger ships, but as a teacher, I really liked having an adult area on the Elation (and there were a lot of kids on our sailing).

 

Now I have to work on getting to platinum on Carnival!! 😀😀

 

 

 

 

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 Thanks for your comparison. We are platinum on NCL and approaching that on Carnival as well.   I have to disclose that the Dawn is my favorite ship. We enjoy both  Cruise lines. Each has their own  personalities. Depending on the situation, on the time of the year, and the itinerary, we decide what is best for us.  I look forward to following this thread just to see what others have to say.

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On 3/1/2019 at 4:37 PM, coldweather said:

I see on some of my posts, the system corrected my grades of A, B, C etc to emojis.  That was not my original intent.  I think from the text you get the point.  Enjoy!

I liked it better with the emojis! Thanks for your review. I agree that NCL is a little better than CCL in some areas BUT I'm not willing to pay a premium to sail on NCL. The last time I did a price comparison CCL was $2200 and NCL was $3600 and I don't see NCL as being $1400 more than CCL. (And in that same price comparison Royal was $1880, so that's the one we went with.) 

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I have sailed both ships and agree with all your observations. I never liked that NCL uses buffet real estate for things like burgers and pizza, and neither looked appetizing to me.

 

Also, since everyone has different preferences, especially around decor, entertainment, and food, the letter grades are a bit subjective.

 

Good review though. I give it a B+   LOL

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Thank you so so much for this review!!  I've been wanting a reasonable comparison between the 2 lines and since you used similar ships/itinerary this is a perfect example!  We just took our first cruise and it was on Fascination.  I've always wondered about NCL because so many people swear by it but I'm glad that your review was objective and showed that NCL is not all that.  Actually, based on your review I definitely wouldn't book my next cruise with NCL but that's prob because everyone has different things that are important to them and you touched on deal breakers for me.  Thanks again!

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On ‎3‎/‎1‎/‎2019 at 4:53 PM, NCbmwmom said:

Great comparison. We’ve thought about trying NCL because of the discounts for Total Rewards. Haven’t taken the plunge yet. 

Try them, you will love them.  My favorite line.

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On March 1, 2019 at 8:33 PM, fabby50 said:

We are platinum (or the equivalent) on both lines.  We just took a Christmas cruise on NCL and will be doing the same cruise on the new Panorama ship for Valentine's in 2020.  The NCL cruise was significantly more money than the Panorama will be, but we got a lot of included extras.  The drink package for both of us, $50 per port shore excursion credit, 3 specialty dining credits (along with 2 additional credits for being platinum), the wifi package, laundry service and some OBC.  NCL can come up with some great "extra offers".  I want to compare the pricing after we cruise on the Panorama.  When we got off NCL, the only charge was for a spa service - I'm sure when we get off the Panorama, our on board charges will be significantly more than the NCL ones were.  I'm wondering if they are going to "even out" as far as the price.

 

We like both lines and are looking forward to trying a brand new Carnival ship.

 

 

 

One of the reasons the NCL cruise was so much more expensive was because you were paying for the gratuities on the "free" perks (UBP and dining).  I guess if you add your shipboard account bill to purchase price for both cruises then you could get a "true" idea of what the cost per night was for each cruise.

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On 3/1/2019 at 4:29 PM, coldweather said:

The ships sailed from San Juan on Southern Caribbean itineraries. On both ships we had inside cabins.  7 days on Carnival Fascination cost ~$1000 or $150/night for 2 people.  10 days on NCL Dawn cost ~$2500 equals $250/night.  This included 1 perk.  We chose the $50 off shore excursions as we had 9 port stops.  I share this so you can factor the price difference into the comparison I will share below.

 

So if you saved $50 per port on your excursions, and there were 9 ports, then you saved $450. Subtract that from the total cost of your cruise, that leaves the cost at $2,050. Which equates to $205/night for your 10-night cruise. Bottom line, even with “free” perks, NCL is still more expensive than Carnival. 

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Yes, that's what I was saying jakesnana, I won't have a true cost comparison till we checked out of the Carnival cruise, mostly due to the beverage bill.  I don't think we spend as much as buying a beverage package on either line costs, but it was nice to have it included if only for not having to sign for anything.  They also didn't charge us for the drinks in our mini fridg or re-filling it, which wasn't supposed to be included, but our steward did for us anyway.  It appears NCL is moving towards no-host bars, but at a higher base cost.  Great for those who drink, not so good for those that don't.

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The other thing to consider when comparing cruise lines are discounts.  I used Carnival gift cards to pay for our cruise.  Does NCL have anything like that?  If not, then that's a huge perk for CCL since every $100 of cost I only paid $90 on the bill.  Our 7 day Southern Caribbean on Fascination total cost(cruise, port fees, flights, transfers before and after cruise, excursions, souvenirs and drink package-oh and we were on Empress level right near the atrium)for 2 people was less than $3500 and since I paid for it with Carnival gift cards take $350 off that. 

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I so enjoyed your review of Carnival verses NCL.  To top it, you compared "Fascination," as one of the ships.  We are to do the Fascination for the first time the end of this month.  Your review was very enlightening, even thought it was YOUR opinion, and I have no problem with that.

 

I have a feeling NCL ships may be better now, but my friend and I took a cruise on the brand new Star ship, several years ago. I won't go into all the details, but I never heard so many people complaining about what was going on the ship, etc.  In fact, when we got on the airline, we could "still" hear people that had been on the same cruise complaining as well. We decided that there would be no more NCL ships for us, unless it is FREE. 🙂  As for Carnival, yes it has its ups/downs, but I look at the itinerary, and for what I get this time going on the Fascination is what I want! 🙂

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2 hours ago, jakesnana said:

 

One of the reasons the NCL cruise was so much more expensive was because you were paying for the gratuities on the "free" perks (UBP and dining).  I guess if you add your shipboard account bill to purchase price for both cruises then you could get a "true" idea of what the cost per night was for each cruise.

And I find NCL less expensive because I get the "sailaway" rate.  The down side is that I can't pick my cabin.

 

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On 3/1/2019 at 4:37 PM, coldweather said:

I see on some of my posts, the system corrected my grades of A, B, C etc to emojis.  That was not my original intent.  I think from the text you get the point.  Enjoy!

I feel as if the emoji's added comedic effect. The newer ships for NCL better compare with Carnival's ships, just are more luxurious and more expensive. 

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