Choosing Between Two Cruise Lines: Gather Facts Not Just Opinions

miracle

No matter what cruise review site you visit you will find both negative and positive reviews of the same cruise line. I have always said that when reading cruise reviews, you have to do a little “reading between the lines” to fully understand how the information in a particular review would apply to your experience. One way to enable yourself to read between the lines in cruise reviews is to gather facts in addition to opinions. In trying to decide between two cruises, I read quite a few reviews, and then set out to gather some facts.

We have recently been re-evaluating our cruise choice for next year. We currently have a cruise booked for just my husband and myself that we know would be spectacular. It goes from Sydney to Honolulu with stops in French Polynesia. That one is on one of our favorite ships on our preferred line, Celebrity Solstice. However, parental guilt has set in and we are now looking into a cruise we could take over spring break with the kids rather than just a cruise for the two of us.

The requirements for my husband are that the cruise be two weeks long and that it fall completely into the two week window of our kids spring break. We found two cruises that fit that criteria: Back to Back cruises on the Celebrity Silhouette and a Carnival New York to Los Angeles cruise on the Carnival Miracle.

Obviously Carnival and Celebrity have different reputations but both are extremely popular cruise lines for different reasons. Since I’ve taken 7 cruises with Celebrity and I know I like the product all around, I didn’t need to research Celebrity. However, I have never taken a Carnival cruise so I posted on a few different cruise sights looking for both opinions and facts. In addition to a few posters expressing their positive reviews of Carnival, several very nice people were able to give me links to concrete information about Carnival. I’d like to share what I have learned and some of those links with our readers.

1. Food – One great sight I found featured the Carnival Magic bloggers cruise. This sight has many pictures of the food and also menus. While this ship is a different class from the Miracle on which I would be sailing, the food and menu pictures would apply across the line. The Carnival website also served as a great resource in researching food and dining options.

Carnival Bloggers Cruise 2012 on Magic

Carnival Cruise Lines Miracle Dining Options

After reading the menus, reviewing the pictures, and listening to others opinions I formed the following thoughts about the difference between Celebrity food and Carnival food. Both lines feature comfort food like burgers, dogs, and lasagna, and both lines features more gourmet items like prime rib, escargot and frogs legs. Both lines also features international cuisine in their buffet area. The main the difference I could discern is that the Celebrity menu is that it is slightly lighter, slightly more on the gourmet side, and less deep fried food.

2. Dress Code – I pretty much knew the dress code difference between Carnival and Celebrity. First, both cruise lines have problems with people showing up in clothing that doesn’t quite meet the dress code and nobody enforcing the code, but what was important to me was seeing what most people actually wear. Formal nights, per the written code are more formal on Celebrity with suits or tuxes most common for the men and very nice dresses or pants suites and even long gowns being worn by the ladies. For anywhere but the Main Dining Room (MDR) on formal nights, the prevailing evening dress code is Smart Casual and Above. For Carnival the most formal level of dress is Cruise Elegant where only a dress shirt is required, jacket is suggested, and tuxes and suits are welcomed. The ladies dress code for elegant is dresses or nice slacks, with gowns welcome. So both cruise lines have a minimum dress code for the MDR on the dressiest nights and casual alternatives to the MDR and through out the ship.

What I wanted to see was examples of what people actually wore in the evenings on Carnival. Again, the Bloggers Cruise pictures by ZydecoCruiser were very helpful, though a different ship and class. His blog features dining room, dance lounge, and late evening after dinner entertainment pictures. On Cruise Elegant nights, most people, with a few suits and gowns thrown in, were dressed like a smart casual night on Celebrity, and most people after dinner and on other evening were dressed in cruise casual, rather than smart casual. On Celebrity tuxes, and evening gowns are about 33%, suits and cocktail dresses are about another 33% and possibly up to about another 33% are people dressed in smart casual who choose alternative dining or slip into the MDR against the written code.

(ZydecoCruiser’s sight also features pictures on a Trans-Atlantic from 2009 where people do seem to be dressed up more than on the Bloggers Cruise perhaps it was because it was during an older revision of the dress code, longer cruise and a TA. Not sure how that would apply to a 2013 15 Night Panama Canal Cruise)

Bloggers Cruise Cruise Elegant Night

From these pictures I was able to discern that the Carnival evening atmosphere is more casual than the Celebrity evening atmosphere.

3. Itinerary – To compare itineraries, I simply utilized each cruise lines web site and looked at number of sea days, ports visited, and excursions offered. The Celebrity BTB option offers an Eastern Carribean on the first week, and Western on the second week. However both are port intensive and only feature 5 sea days between the two cruises. However, if you count the turn around day, a few of the ports we have already visited and would likely remain on ship, and a private island day, you could easily increase you number of “sea” days to 9, though the extras would not be true sea days. Those might be instead “relaxation days”. The Panama Canal Miracle cruise has 9 sea days. That includes the Canal Transit, which is the most exciting part of that cruise and a “Bucket List” item for me. As far as the ports and excursions offered, most of them offer beach and snorkel excursions which would be our first choice with the kids. The Celebrity cruise, though be it on a very long all day excursion, offers the opportunity to visit Mayan ruins, also a “Bucket List” item for me. Both itineraries are attractive.

4. Fellow Passengers – We have always found a fairly nice mix of families and very nice well traveled older couples on Celebrity for shorter itineraries. Longer cruises tend to be made up of very nice young at heart retired couples with a few old curmudgeons mixed in. Carnival has a reputation of attracting a party crowd for its shorter cruises and spring break cruises, but consensus among most knowledgeable cruisers has been that the 15 day Trans-Canal itinerary would attract a similar demographic as to what we have experienced on Celebrity, a few nice families and well nice traveled older couples. Perhaps the main difference would be that on the BTB Celebrity cruises there would be a near 100% turn over in fellow passengers from week one to week two. We have enjoyed making long term friendships on cruises and would hate to have to say good bye to new friends after only one week.

5. Wine List – My husband and I are quite the wine enthusiasts and we have enjoyed Celebrity’s extensive wine list over our many cruises with them. Here is where that ZydecoCruiser blog helped me tremendously. I was delighted to find that the list included many higher end wines at excellent prices. Often the price was not much more than the current retail price of the finest wines.

Bloggers Cruise Wine List

6. Activities – Having been on 7 Celebrity Cruises I have been very pleased with the variety of activities offered on Celebrity, though some cruises have had a better flow and timing of those activities than others. Thanks again to that ZydecoCruiser blog, I was able to review all the “Fun Times/Carnival Capers” for his Magic cruise from Galveston.

Fun Times from Bloggers Cruise

Lots of fun activities listed and a few that interested me were the afternoon Karaoke and comedy brunch. Similarly to Celebrity, many of the listed activities are actually sales pitches for goods or services. Both lines offer an extensive youth program, but only the Carnival offers a water slide and mini golf. After reading through the many activities offered by Carnival and reading reviews, I gave Carnival a slight edge in the activities, though we have always enjoyed a more laid back approach offered on Celebrity.

7. Ship Size, Lay Out and Accommodations – Both the Miracle and Silhouette are some what in the same size range with the Carnival ship being Panamax and the Silhouette only slightly bigger. They both carry about the same number of passengers at around 2200 double occupancy. The longer itinerary would likely have the Carnival ship booked at closer to double occupancy capacity, with the Celebrity ship likely to have more families sharing rooms, it will probably be booked much higher than double occupancy capacity. Crowd flow and feel might end up being about the same when you figure those factors into the mix.

One of the things we enjoy on the Celebrity ship is the observation lounge. During the day this is a a great place to enjoy panoramic views of the sea and at night it is transformed into a disco with moonlit views of the sea. The Carnival ship does not have such a lounge. Other than that aspect the lay out of the ships is very similar.

Regarding the state room size, the information is not easy to find on the Carnival site. As I write this article I can’t find it anywhere on the Carnival site, however I seem to remember that the Balcony state rooms are about 185 sq ft. The Celebrity site clearly states that their standard Balcony state rooms have 194 sq ft and the Ocean View state rooms have 177 sq ft. The comparatively the smaller Celebrity cabin with no balcony is the same price as the larger balcony cabin on Carnival. For 1600 more we’d get a larger cabin on Celebrity and a balcony.

8. Freebies – Since we have Elite Captains Club status with Celebrity, we get lots of freebies including a 2 hour free cocktail party almost every night, wine appreciation event, laundry, internet, and a few more. This would be our first cruise with Carnival, so we are not even eligible for the repeat customer discount.

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So what to do? Choose a line with which we are unfamiliar and enjoy the Panama Canal? or go with a known product? We invite your opinions. Do you think my review of the facts has led me to correct conclusions as to the pluses and minuses of Carnival? We’d love to hear from you.