To make this more fair, I am not going to include our honeymoon cruise to the Eastern Caribbean. We had a super ship for that 7 day cruise with everything from an ice skating rink to a climbing wall!
So, in 2006 we took the 3 day Mexico cruise on RC to celebrate Mike's 30th birthday. This cruise leaves Friday afternoon, arrives in Ensenada Saturday morning, leaves Ensenada Saturday afternoon and arrives back in Long Beach Monday morning. Back in 2006, both RC and Carnival did the same cruise and we chose RC based on our previous good experience with them. Unfortunately RC doesn't do the cruise anymore, so we were forced to use Carnival this time.
First things first - boarding the ship Friday afternoon. RC required that you check your bags with a porter. The porters were just outside where you enter the boarding station, and there were clear signs based on where your room was, who to check your bags with. I believe you received a checked baggage claim as well. On Carnival, things were very different. Porters were haphazardly placed on the ground floor of the parking garage, next to a randomly placed table with one guy writing room numbers on tags to attach to your luggage. People were milling around trying to figure out who to give their baggage to, porters were running back and forth getting carts to take bags to the ship with, and it took us 3 tries to even find a porter to take our bags from us. Then we prayed they made it on the ship! Mine showed up pretty quickly, but Mike's never did, and we had to end up calling down and have them find it.
Checking in was about the same between both cruise lines, wait in a line, get issued a room key (with credit card attached), move on to get your picture taken before walking up the gangway. My only complaint here was Carnival checked my passport at the door and then checked it again at the desk where the employee didn't look at the amendment to my passport and actually issued my room key in my maiden name! I had to explain it to her, and she had to go get another key made in my married name.
Once on the ship, the differences were huge! Let's start with a similarity. Both ships require you to purchase soda and alcohol seperately. The difference is, RC's unlimited soda card was a bit expensive (I remember it being around $15), but it included your own reusable cup that you could refill at any soda fountain, which were placed in several places around the ship. The dining room also provided soda upon showing your soda card. Carnival's was pretty inexpensive ($6) but you could only get soda at the bar, and they gave you very small glasses. Getting a soda in the dining room was next to impossible.
Both ships had a swimming pool on the top deck. Carnival's was tiny. And not only that, but half of it was used for where the pool slide came out onto. So at any given time you could get like 5 kids in the half swimming pool. The other half of their "pool" deck was a huge stage which they used for various entertainment shows. Also, while both ships had chairs to lay on around the pool, RC had tons more available than Carnival did. Part of the problem is Carnival had one main "buffet" style restaurant and it was right next to the pool area, so the tables & chairs from that area spilled into the pool area and didn't leave a lot of room for the lounge chairs. Thus, as the sun came out on our sea day, we were forced to find lounge chairs on the upper decks, which tend to be much more windy and cold.
Room sizes were about the same. I think all cruise ships are gonna have tiny rooms. Although on Carnival, I paid for a "suite" but the only extra we got was the balcony. I saw lots of inside cabins that looked the exact same size, just no balcony! On RC we had an inside cabin for the 3 day cruise and I feel like we had about the same amount of room for far less money. The Room Stewards were another huge difference. On RC they make a point to come introduce themselves and get to know your name. On Carnival, the guy said hi to us only a handful of times and never introduced himself. And on top of that, he messed up our room accounts on the last day and everyone got the wrong bill for the wrong rooms!!
On RC, the price of your room includes just about everything. Like I said, alcohol & sodas are extra, and there's the choice to eat in the high end restaurant for a bit extra if you would rather do that (reservations are required). On Carnival, the room price seemed to include just the bare minimum. Even in the dining room there were options to pay more for certain foods. Speaking of food, the food on RC is far superior. Their chefs have awesome selections each night to choose from with spices and flavors to wake up even the sleepiest of pallates! Not on Carnival. In fact, they pretty much had the same thing every night. And you have to pay more for a different selection. *sigh*
Also a huge difference when it comes to food on RC is the choice of places to eat. Even on the "smaller" 3-day cruise ship to Mexico there were 2 buffets, dining room, and 2 coffee shops to choose from. On Carnival, one dining room and one buffet. If you didn't like either of them, you were pretty much screwed. As I started to mention before, I felt like the layout on RC ships is much better. They had a bar/lounge that looked out the front/side of the ship so we got to relax with some drinks while we watched the ship pull away from the dock. Carnival used that area for the gym. And the deck to go out and look over the front of the ship was only accessible by walking through the suite's hallway. Convenient for me, but I'm sure a lot of people didn't know about it.
I also did the spa on both ships. They were pretty comparable. Not much to say on that one.
Now, disembarking. Again RC was far superior. Everyone had to put their bags outside their stateroom the night before. People who needed to get off early (for early flights) had to check in with guest services and were allowed off at the earliest disembarking time. Everyone else was assigned a time to get off based on a group number. The group numbers were announced throughout the entire ship, so no matter where you were, you knew when you were called. Not Carnival though.
Carnival had 2 types of disembarking - self service & "relaxed". Then within those types, you disembarked based on where your room was. So being a suite, the self service disembark time was 7am. Um, no thank you. So we chose the relaxed one and put our bags out the night before. We got a letter saying to wait in the library and we'd be called at 9am. So, we got up, went to breakfast and were in the library by 8:15am. Announcements apparently were being made elsewhere in the ship, and no one ever came to get us. And at 9:30 I finally went to ask someone what was going on. At that time they decided to let me know we were part of group #2 and they were up to calling #16-20. So we missed our debarking time by a mile. I know you want my money, but to keep me on the ship w/o letting me know to leave?!?! Come on!!
Oh, and another difference was RC did everything by interactive TV. You could buy your excursions, book spa appointments, check your charge account, etc without setting foot outside your stateroom. Not Carnival. You had to get up and go find one of the desks. I found that a little inconvenient, especially since there were several names for each deck, and it was fairly hard to figure out where you were at any given time. I had to carry a map around with me at all times!
One thing I liked about Carnival is they had a "kids" pool and an "adult" section. RC did not have that and if you are traveling without kids, it would have been nice to have an area to not have to be surrounded by kids.
Definitely the "rumor" that Carnival is the party ship is true. RC is much more relaxed and catered to the "non-party" crowd.