Comparing Carnival and Celebrity

| January 21, 2008

After back-to-back cruises on each, Kuki evaluates the two lines' respective strengths and weaknesses.

At first glance, some might wonder why anyone would attempt to compare a Carnival cruise to one on Celebrity. You may think they are at opposite ends of the cruise line spectrum, and thus it would be comparing apples to oranges. You might also assume the costs would be dissimilar, since Carnival is considered a mass market line, while Celebrity is considered a premium line.

Are these perceptions factual, or are they myths?

We recently completed back-to-back cruises on the Carnival Freedom and on Celebrity's Constellation. And though the experiences were quite different, a comparison of the two produces some unexpected findings.

Pricing On our Carnival Freedom cruise, the cost -- including port charges and taxes -- for a standard balcony cabin was approximately $121 per day per person. The comparable cost for the same cabin category on the Constellation was about $145. Shipboard credits were available when we booked both cruises. Our credit was slightly higher on the Constellation, reducing the effective difference in price between the two cruises to about $20 per day, per person.

Embarkation and Disembarkation We are Platinum level members of Carnival's repeater club, and Elite level members of Celebrity's. As such, we are entitled to VIP priority embarkation and disembarkation on both lines.

When we checked in for our Carnival cruise, once the pierside staff noticed our VIP status, they directed us to a VIP line for clearing security before entering the main terminal, which went very quickly. After carry-ons were X-rayed, we were directed to a VIP check-in lounge. The process took just a few minutes; then we were escorted onto the ship as soon as boarding was allowed.

Our check-in the following week for Celebrity was similar: After we entered the terminal, we were directed to a separate check-in line for Elite Captain's Club members and Suite guests. The check-in desks were set up by deck number, with four desks for Elite and Suite guests. But as we waited in line for our "priority" check in, it seemed like we would have gone through the process more quickly if we'd checked in by our deck number.

Neither process was too arduous or long, but Carnival's check-in process struck me as a more "premium" experience than Celebrity's.

The same held true when disembarking. On Carnival, we were given priority luggage tags and called to disembark immediately after self-assist passengers (who haul off their own luggage) had left the ship. On Celebrity, we were invited to wait comfortably in the ship's alternate restaurant, Ocean Liners, where we were served a continental breakfast, but we did not have any priority in disembarking. We had to wait there until our luggage tag colors were called.

We didn't mind disembarking like most passengers do. However I think it shows the differences in the way both cruise lines deliver perks for high-level members of their repeater clubs -- especially because one would expect Celebrity to do the better job, when in fact Carnival was the winner in this area.

The Onboard Experience Carnival Freedom is 110,500 tons, and carries 2,974 passengers vs. Celebrity Constellation's 91,000 tons and 2,034 passenger capacity. While Freedom is about 20 percent larger, it can carry nearly 45 percent more passengers. This translates to a smaller passenger space ratio than the Celebrity Constellation.

The eight-deck-high atrium on Carnival Freedom is very impressive when you first walk onboard, whereas the lobby level of the Constellation feels more like a land-based hotel. The decor of the Freedom is a blend of the eccentric and eclectic that few people would ever replicate in their homes, whereas the decor on Constellation (exception for the Bar at the Edge of the Earth) has a more reserved elegance.

Standard cabins on Freedom are nearly 15 percent larger than equivalent cabins on Constellation, but they have a more basic interior decor than the richer-looking Celebrity cabins. Freedom's cabin bathrooms are also larger than Constellation's, with larger showers as well, but they are also more bare-bones in design. The smaller Constellation bathrooms use finer materials, and have plenty of storage space below the sink, while those on Freedom have a couple of metal wire shelves above the vanities.

Both ships feature the cruise lines' new beds, linen and bedding. Personally, I found Carnival's felt more luxurious, and the beds more comfortable.

When it came to cabins, I found no clear winner. It would depend on whether you prefer larger size or more refined decor.

There are many more bars and lounges on the larger Freedom, with more varieties of entertainment in them. Constellation has Michael's Club, a lounge with piano entertainment; a huge two-deck lounge divided into the Champagne/Martini Bars on one deck and the Rendezvous Lounge one deck below; the Bar at the Edge of the Earth (which used to be the Observatory Lounge), and the Cova Cafe. Freedom has a sports bar, cigar bar, casino bar, the atrium bar, sing-along piano bar, disco, the Swing Time Lounge, and the International Lounge. With the exception of the Sports Bar, all the Freedom lounges had live entertainment in the evening. On the Constellation, there is a circular opening in the ceiling/floor between the Champagne and Martini Bars, and the Rendezvous Lounge below, so the upper-level lounges share the musical entertainment offered in the lower Rendezvous Lounge. All other musical lounge entertainment is in the Bar at the Edge of the Earth (except for the piano player in Michael's Club every night).

On both lines, some entertainment options were better than others, in both the lounges and the main showroom theater. But other than the greater variety in musical choices on Freedom, I felt entertainment on both lines was good, and more or less equal.

It might seem odd to mention TV programming on cruise ships, but it's worth noting that Carnival offers all the major U.S. networks, while Celebrity's TV programming is very weak. Live programming on Celebrity is limited to CNN and ESPN international feeds.

Staying connected is becoming more important to passengers, and both ships had Internet services available for a cost. Both have Internet Cafes or WiFi service. On the Carnival Freedom, WiFi is available ship-wide, including the cabins. The Constellation has Wi-Fi hotspots in many public areas, but it is not available in guest cabins.

Service & Food If food and service are your primary criteria for choosing a cruise, here's where Celebrity knocks the socks off Carnival. This is true not so much in the quality of food, because we thought the cuisine in all venues of both ships was quite comparable, even in the extra-cost alternate restaurants.

But the food presentation and service on the Constellation was quite a step up from that on Carnival. The service staff on Constellation, throughout the ship, was noticeably better-trained than their counterparts on Freedom. The service on the Constellation was uniformly professional and friendly. Service on Freedom was friendly enough, and they did try hard, but it seemed to stumble in several areas. One factor that could be a contributor is that Celebrity employs several headwaiters, each responsible for a section of the dining room, whereas Carnival has only one maitre d' in each dining room, plus what they call a Dining Room Host. These dining rooms are simply too large for one person to keep track of what is going on. On our Carnival cruise, we were visited at our table once during the cruise; on Celebrity, a headwaiter stopped by every night to see if we had any problems. Plus he circled his section every evening to assist any waiters who were having difficulties. Problem-solving is much easier if it's dealt with at the time the problem arises.

If we had only done a Carnival cruise, we'd probably have found the service more than acceptable, with a few gitches. But experiencing the service on Celebrity immediately afterwards clearly displayed quite a gap.

Both ships offer an extra-charge, upscale alternate restaurant. On Freedom, it's the Sun King Supper Club. On the Constellation, it's Ocean Liners Restaurant. Both venues carry a $30 per person surcharge. The quality of the food was outstanding in both; and the decor in both, though different, offered the upscale atmosphere and ambience of high-end land-based restaurants.

The Sun Viking Supper Club has a duo performing quiet dance music, and a dance floor for guests to enjoy between courses. The Ocean Liners Restaurant has a harpist playing pleasant background music.

To my mind, Ocean Liners stood out more -- not because of the food, but because of the tuxedo-clad staff, the table-side food preparation, and the butterfly service. The Sun King Restaurant offers an excellent dinner, in beautiful and relaxing surroundings, but Ocean Liners distinguishes itself because the combination of staff, service style and food are more about creating a great dining experience rather than simply having a great dinner.

Summing It Up There is certainly a different energy level on a Carnival ship compared to a Celebrity ship. Carnival concentrates on the high-energy fun experience, while Celebrity creates a more refined, relaxing ambience.

This alone might lead one to believe one or the other is not the right cruise line for them. Hopefully this article has shown you more specifically the similarities and differences between the two lines: Each had its areas of strength and weakness when compared to the other. Hopefully the information supplied here can help you decide which ship or cruise line might be best suited to your cruise needs. And possibly we've changed your preconception that one or the other line would not be right for you.

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