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The ultimate guide to Carnival Cruise Line ships and itineraries

The Points Guy logo The Points Guy 6/24/2022 Gene Sloan
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If the United States has a national cruise line, it’s Carnival.

The self-described ‘fun ship’ line is the king of short, affordable, fun-focused cruises from U.S. ports to the Caribbean, Bahamas, Mexico and other nearby destinations. No matter where you live in the U.S., you’re probably within a few hours of a Carnival ship.

You won’t find Carnival ships in Asia, South America or, for the most part, Europe. Unlike other big cruise brands such as Royal Caribbean, Norwegian Cruise Line and Princess Cruises, Carnival doesn’t spread its vessels around the world to draw a fly-in crowd. Aimed squarely at Americans, its trips are all about cruising close to home at a reasonable price.

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Chances are, if you’re going on a Carnival cruise, you’re driving to the ship, not flying, and you’re probably not paying much more than you would for a trip to a local beach town.

You’re also not going for anything too highbrow. Carnival ships are all about fun in a very laid-back, unpretentious, nothing-too-fancy sort of way.

Entertainment, at times, is as lowbrow as the line is low-cost. This is, after all, the brand that famously holds a Hairy Chest Contest around the pool deck on every voyage, to a standing-room-only, hooting and hollering crowd.

The fun comes in many ways, though. While Carnival’s ships aren’t quite as big as the giant ships operated by Royal Caribbean and Norwegian, they’re packed with a wide range of fun features, from waterparks with multiple waterslides to cooking classrooms where you can learn how to make the line’s signature chocolate melting cake.

Related: A beginner’s guide to picking a cruise line 

In This Post

3 things TPG loves about Carnival

  • The “fun” focus that oozes into everything.
  • The food (really — see below).
  • The kids programs.

What we could do without

  • The smoke in the casino.

The Carnival Cruise Line fleet

Carnival is one of the world’s biggest cruise lines by passenger capacity, with 25 ships that together offer more than 76,000 berths.

In general, these are big ships. However, with one exception, they’re not giants by today’s standards. Carnival just began operating its first truly giant ship in years, the 181,808-ton, 5,282-passenger Mardi Gras. The line’s next-biggest vessel, the 4,008-passenger Carnival Panorama, measures just 133,868 tons. That’s about 40% smaller than the biggest ships operated by Royal Caribbean.

Eight of the line’s 25 vessels measure less than 100,000 tons, which makes them almost midsize by today’s cruise ship standards.

This is a notable change for the brand from just a couple of decades ago. There was a time when Carnival operated some of the biggest cruise ships in the world.

However, for many years it chose not to follow rivals such as Royal Caribbean and MSC Cruises in building ever-bigger ships. Mardi Gras is now the only Carnival ship on the list of the 50 biggest cruise ships.

Related: 6 ways to get a deal on a cruise 

Most of Carnival’s ships are big but not giant by today’s standards. One of the line’s biggest ships, the 4,008-passenger Carnival Panorama, shown here, is about 40% smaller than the biggest Royal Caribbean ships. (Photo courtesy of Carnival Cruise Line) © The Points Guy Most of Carnival’s ships are big but not giant by today’s standards. One of the line’s biggest ships, the 4,008-passenger Carnival Panorama, shown here, is about 40% smaller than the biggest Royal Caribbean ships. (Photo courtesy of Carnival Cruise Line) The top deck of Carnival Panorama. (Photo by Gene Sloan/The Points Guy) © The Points Guy The top deck of Carnival Panorama. (Photo by Gene Sloan/The Points Guy)

The arrival of Mardi Gras in 2021 marked a major turning point for the line. At 181,808 tons, it’s the 11th-largest cruise ship in the world and 35% bigger than the line’s next-biggest ship. Two more ships in the series — Carnival Celebration and Carnival Jubilee — will arrive late this year and in 2023, respectively.

Carnival’s 25 current ships can be broken down into eight classes: Fantasy, Spirit, Conquest, Splendor, Dream, Sunshine, Vista and Excel. Many of those classes have a lot in common. Unlike Royal Caribbean, Carnival doesn’t always drastically change the design of its ships from class to class.

Note that Carnival recently announced it would remove two of its oldest vessels — Carnival Ecstasy and Carnival Sensation — from its fleet in 2022 (and, indeed, the latter vessel has already sailed its last voyage for the line). At the same time, it will be adding a ship that formerly sailed for its sister brand, Costa Cruises. Currently called Costa Luminosa, that ship will be renamed Carnival Luminosa after joining the Carnival fleet.

With the above changes and the arrival of the currently under construction Carnival Celebration late in the year, Carnival will end 2022 with 25 ships — the same number it had at the start of the year.

Carnival will also begin operating two more Costa ships — Costa Firenze and Costa Venezia — in 2023 and 2024, respectively, that will maintain their Costa branding but be marketed to Carnival’s core North American passenger base. To be marketed as “Costa by Carnival,” the sailings on the two ships will take place out of New York and Los Angeles.

Related: The 8 classes of Carnival ships, explained 

Destinations and itineraries

Carnival is all about cruises from U.S. ports. You’ll find at least one of its ships sailing out of pretty much every major port city around the country. It’s rare to find them based anywhere else.

Carnival’s biggest operations are out of PortMiami and Port Canaveral in Florida; Galveston, Texas; Long Beach, California; and New Orleans — all major cruise hubs. You’ll also find Carnival ships in such secondary cruise ship ports as Baltimore; Charleston, South Carolina; Mobile, Alabama; and Jacksonville, Florida.

The overarching idea for Carnival’s ship deployments is that a large percentage of the U.S. population can reach one of the line’s ships by car, saving the cost of flights.

For the most part, Carnival ships sail relatively short voyages of three to eight nights.

Carnival vessels based on the East Coast and along the Gulf of Mexico mostly sail to the Caribbean and Bahamas. Some East Coast ships also head to Bermuda, New England and Canada. On the West Coast, sailings to Mexico, Hawaii and Alaska are the norm.

Carnival also offers some Panama Canal voyages.

Occasionally, Carnival will deploy a ship to Europe for a few weeks or months. This often takes place when a vessel needs to go to a European shipyard for an overhaul.

In recent years, Carnival also has deployed two of its vessels to Australia to operate voyages from Sydney and Brisbane, though such sailings are currently on hold due to COVID-19-related restrictions (they’re scheduled to restart in late 2022 on at least one ship). In a departure from Carnival’s American-focused business model, the Australia sailings are aimed mostly at the local Australian market.

Related: The 5 best destinations you can visit on a Carnival cruise 

Who sails Carnival Cruise Line

Carnival is the undisputed leader among North America-based cruise brands when it comes to affordability, which makes it popular with vacationers on a budget.

It’s also popular with a fun-seeking crowd. Carnival trips are all about letting loose and having a good time. Maybe you’ll drink a little too much, eat a little too much, play a little too much — but in the end, you’ll say it was your best trip ever.

At one level, Carnival can best be described as a working man’s or working woman’s vacation. The typical Carnival customer is a teacher, a nurse, a firefighter, a contractor or the like, either still working or retired. This isn’t a line for Wall Street bankers or white-shoe lawyers.

Carnival also is huge with families. The “fun” is for all ages, from 2-year-olds to retirees.

Teens dance to the sounds of a DJ at Club O2, a teen-only lounge on Carnival ships. (Photo by Andy Newman/Carnival Cruise Line) © The Points Guy Teens dance to the sounds of a DJ at Club O2, a teen-only lounge on Carnival ships. (Photo by Andy Newman/Carnival Cruise Line)

Still, it’s just as much psychographics as demographics that define the typical Carnival customer. Carnival executives have often used the word “spirited” to describe the people who are drawn to the line, and that’s as good a word as any.

Carnival draws a lively, outgoing crowd looking to be part of the action. The typical Carnival customer is the sort of person who shoots up a hand when an entertainer asks for a volunteer to come on stage or jumps up to dance during midmeal music shows in the dining room starring the waiters (yes, on Carnival, this is a thing).

Cabins and suites

Unlike some of its biggest competitors, Carnival isn’t known for a huge range of cabin categories on its vessels. The vast majority of the accommodations on Carnival ships fall into one of three broad buckets: windowless “inside” cabins, oceanview cabins and balcony cabins.

You’ll find relatively few suites on Carnival ships. Each of the vessels in Carnival’s recent Vista Class series, for instance, offers fewer than 75 suites. Each of the line’s earlier Conquest Class ships has around 50 suites. The oldest Fantasy Class vessels have 28 suites and 26 junior suites.

A recently refurbished cabin on Carnival’s 2,984-passenger Carnival Sunrise is typical of the new look for cabins on Carnival ships. (Photo by Gene Sloan/The Points Guy) © The Points Guy A recently refurbished cabin on Carnival’s 2,984-passenger Carnival Sunrise is typical of the new look for cabins on Carnival ships. (Photo by Gene Sloan/The Points Guy)

This is in part due to Carnival’s focus on affordability. The typical Carnival customer isn’t in the market for a super fancy, high-priced suite.

That said, Carnival has seen the success that some of its competitors have had with a bigger range of upscale accommodations, and it’s eyeing more suites for future vessels. The new Mardi Gras has 180 suites — more than twice the number of Carnival’s other recent ships.

Mardi Gras has 11 different categories of suites in all, four of which are part of a new premium Excel category of suites that come with extra amenities and access to a new-for-the-line, resort-style enclave at the top of the ship called Loft 19.

An artist’s drawing of an Excel Presidential Suite on Carnival’s newest ship, Mardi Gras. It began sailing in the summer of 2021. (Image courtesy of Carnival Cruise Line) © The Points Guy An artist’s drawing of an Excel Presidential Suite on Carnival’s newest ship, Mardi Gras. It began sailing in the summer of 2021. (Image courtesy of Carnival Cruise Line)

Design-wise, Carnival’s cabins and suites are fairly basic and comfortable, if not super stylish. Cabins on recently unveiled or overhauled vessels have a soothing palette of creams and blues. Cabinetry in these rooms is a crisp and clean faux wood and cabin bathrooms are neutral.

Note that Carnival’s oldest ships — those that are part of the 1990s-built Fantasy Class — have relatively few balcony cabins by today’s standards (after retrofitting, several have around 150 balcony cabins, out of a total of more than 1,000 cabins in all). In part because of this, Carnival is beginning to phase these ships out of its fleet.

Related: Everything you want to know about cabins and suites on Carnival ships 

Restaurants and dining

Like other big-ship operators, Carnival packs a lot of dining options onto its vessels — some included in the price, some at an extra charge.

Every vessel has two main dining rooms and a casual buffet eatery where meals are included in the fare. The buffet is called the Lido. For dinner in the main dining room, you must sign up for either Your Time dining, which is when you go whenever you want, or Traditional Dining, where you have a fixed table and time for dinner.

Carnival ships typically have two large main dining rooms that are included in the fare, such as the Sunrise Restaurant on the line’s Carnival Sunshine. (Photo by Andy Newman/Carnival Cruise Line) © The Points Guy Carnival ships typically have two large main dining rooms that are included in the fare, such as the Sunrise Restaurant on the line’s Carnival Sunshine. (Photo by Andy Newman/Carnival Cruise Line)

Other included-in-the-fare options found on most ships include what may be the two best quick-serve poolside dining venues at sea: BlueIguana Cantina and Guy’s Burger Joint.

BlueIguana is a Carnival knockoff of Chipotle, with yummy made-to-order burritos and tacos. Created in partnership with Food Network’s Guy Fieri, Guy’s Burger Joint offers burgers that beat anything you’ll find around the pool on other mass-market ships and even most luxury vessels.

Food Network’s Guy Fieri partnered with Carnival to develop casual, top-deck Guy’s Burger Joint outlets found next to the main pools on Carnival ships. (Photo by Gene Sloan/The Points Guy) © The Points Guy Food Network’s Guy Fieri partnered with Carnival to develop casual, top-deck Guy’s Burger Joint outlets found next to the main pools on Carnival ships. (Photo by Gene Sloan/The Points Guy) Healthy? We’re not so sure. However, the burgers at the Guy’s Burger Joint outlets on Carnival ships surely are yummy. (Photo by Andy Newman/Carnival Cruise Line) © The Points Guy Healthy? We’re not so sure. However, the burgers at the Guy’s Burger Joint outlets on Carnival ships surely are yummy. (Photo by Andy Newman/Carnival Cruise Line)

In addition, every ship has at least one and usually several extra-charge eateries. The most common ones found across the fleet are Fahrenheit 555, the line’s signature steakhouse, and Italian-serving Cucina del Capitano (if you’re a Carnival fan, you know this as the place where waiters sing and dance between courses). The two venues have flat fees of $38 and $15 per person, respectively.

Other extra-charge eateries often found on Carnival vessels include Bonsai, an a la carte sushi restaurant (now on 11 ships) and Ji Ji Asian Kitchen, which costs $15 per person (now on five ships). The price for kids at these outlets is only $5.

Three of Carnival’s newest ships — Mardi Gras, Carnival Panorama and Carnival Horizon — also have teppanyaki eateries called Bonsai Teppanyaki (priced at a flat $32 per person) and a la carte barbecue-and-beer joints called Guy’s Pig & Anchor Smokehouse Brewhouse. The latter venue was created in partnership with Food Network’s Guy Fieri and serves a free lunch on embarkation and sea days, with all items smoked on board.

A chef prepares lunch at Ji Ji Asian Kitchen on Carnival Sunshine. (Photo by Andy Newman/Carnival Cruise Line) © The Points Guy A chef prepares lunch at Ji Ji Asian Kitchen on Carnival Sunshine. (Photo by Andy Newman/Carnival Cruise Line)

Guy’s Pig & Anchor Smokehouse Brewhouse, notably, has its very own in-house brewery you can see behind glass walls — something still relatively rare on cruise ships. It makes house beers including Parched Pig West Coast IPA and Parched Pig Toasted Amber that you’ll find on many Carnival vessels in kegs and cans. Carnival is the only cruise line to keg and can its own beer.

The quality of the food (and drink) on Carnival ships always surprises us, given the budget pricing of the brand. Despite being one of the industry’s lowest-cost operators, Carnival manages to pull off one of the best steakhouses at sea in Fahrenheit 555, and even the no-extra-charge main restaurants get the basics right.

In general, the food isn’t gourmet. For the price point of the line, it’s really quite impressive, though.

Related: The 7 best meals you can have at sea 

Entertainment and activities


Video: Carnival Freedom cruise ship catches on fire (NBC News)

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For the most part, Carnival ships don’t have quite as many features on board as Royal Caribbean or Norwegian vessels, in part because they’re not as big. They’re still packed with a variety of attractions, including multiple entertainment venues, casinos, spas and lots of deck-top fun zones such as water parks and ropes courses.

Theaters and shows

There’s seemingly always something playing on a Carnival ship, whether it be a glitzy singing-and-dancing production in the main theater, a comedy show in a secondary lounge, a magical act or a call-you-up-on-stage interactive game show.

Every Carnival ship has one big theater where you’ll often find flashy, fast-paced production shows that string together a medley of loosely related tunes. Designed to be quick and digestible, they typically last around 30 minutes and have relatively small casts (just eight on some ships).

Flashy, rock-infused shows are a hallmark of Carnival Cruise Line ships. (Photo by Andy Newman/Carnival Cruise Line) © The Points Guy Flashy, rock-infused shows are a hallmark of Carnival Cruise Line ships. (Photo by Andy Newman/Carnival Cruise Line)

In general, the production shows aren’t nearly as sophisticated — or as long — as what you’ll find on Royal Caribbean or Norwegian ships. But they’re lively.

Carnival also uses its big theaters for lots of interactive shows that involve you, the passenger, getting a little silly. They include Lip Sync Battle Carnival — a shipboard adaptation of the Paramount Network TV series — and Hasbro, the Game Show. With the latter, you can team up with your friends and family to play giant versions of Connect 4 Basketball or Simon Flash in front of a live audience.

Carnival is also well known for the Punchliner Comedy Clubs on its ships, which draw quality comedians and can get a little raucous late at night with adult-only performances.

When it comes to raucous, though, nothing on Carnival ships quite compares to the frequent karaoke nights on board. On Carnival, it’s a thing. Sometimes held in a secondary lounge or a shipboard pub, karaoke on Carnival draws a big crowd. Passengers come prepared with rehearsed songs and sometimes even their own guitars.

Insider tip: Get to the comedy shows early to snag a good seat — or any seat at all. These shows on Carnival ships are hugely popular.

Other interior attractions and activities

In addition to entertainment spaces, the interiors of Carnival ships are loaded with other venues where passengers can kick back and let loose day and night, including a wide range of bars, lounges and nightspots.

Every Carnival ship has a casino, usually smack in the middle of the main entertainment deck.

Also, there are always several music venues where you’ll find live performers in the afternoons and evenings, including — on some ships — the Atrium Bar and a secondary hub area called Ocean Plaza. There’s almost always a piano bar that’s home to lively singalongs.

Every Carnival ship has a casino. (Photo by Gene Sloan/The Points Guy) © The Points Guy Every Carnival ship has a casino. (Photo by Gene Sloan/The Points Guy) The Magic Piano Bar on a Carnival ship. (Photo courtesy of Carnival Cruise Line) © The Points Guy The Magic Piano Bar on a Carnival ship. (Photo courtesy of Carnival Cruise Line)

Other popular venues found on some Carnival ships include RedFrog Pub, which serves up Carnival’s tasty housemade beers on tap, as well as plenty of other choices. On one of Carnival’s newest ships, Carnival Panorama, there’s no RedFrog Pub, but the Smokehouse Brewhouse has a stage that’s home to live music nightly and some of the ship’s karaoke sessions.

Carnival Panorama also houses Carnival’s first cooking classroom. Dubbed Carnival Kitchen, it’s located near the ship’s main restaurants and is a seriously tricked-out venue complete with nine state-of-the-art, marbled granite cooking stations for two and a dedicated dining area.

Passengers can learn to cook everything from Carnival’s classic warm chocolate melting cake to its popular saffron risotto during one- to two-hour classes that cost $30 to $59 per person.

Carnival’s newest ship, Carnival Panorama, has the line’s first cooking classroom. (Photo courtesy of Carnival Cruise Line) © The Points Guy Carnival’s newest ship, Carnival Panorama, has the line’s first cooking classroom. (Photo courtesy of Carnival Cruise Line) The Sky Zone trampoline park on Carnival Panorama includes an interactive climbing wall. (Photo by Gene Sloan/The Points Guy) © The Points Guy The Sky Zone trampoline park on Carnival Panorama includes an interactive climbing wall. (Photo by Gene Sloan/The Points Guy)

One other new-for-Carnival attraction on Carnival Panorama is the first Sky Zone trampoline park at sea.

Near the ship’s tween and teen clubrooms, it has two padded trampoline areas where you can jump around and take part in games like jousting on a balance beam or shooting baskets while bouncing. There’s even trampoline dodgeball and, at one end of the room, a climbing wall augmented with interactive game elements.

Deck-top attractions

The top decks of Carnival vessels are covered in family-focused attractions – pools, waterslide areas and bustling fun zones with such draws as ropes courses and miniature golf.

Waterslides, in particular, are a big thing. In fact, when it comes to waterslides on ships, Carnival is the cruise world’s king. The line began adding them to vessels way back in 1978. There’s now at least one waterslide on every ship in the Carnival fleet — something no other line can say.

The Kaleid-O-Slide on Carnival Vista is typical of the giant waterslides that Carnival has been adding to ships in recent years. (Photo by Andy Newman/Carnival Cruise Line) © The Points Guy The Kaleid-O-Slide on Carnival Vista is typical of the giant waterslides that Carnival has been adding to ships in recent years. (Photo by Andy Newman/Carnival Cruise Line) Many Carnival ships have a full water park area called WaterWorks with multiple waterslides and a play area. (Photo by Gene Sloan/The Points Guy) © The Points Guy Many Carnival ships have a full water park area called WaterWorks with multiple waterslides and a play area. (Photo by Gene Sloan/The Points Guy)

On the vast majority of Carnival ships, there’s not just a single waterslide but a whole water park area. Dubbed WaterWorks, these areas vary in size and features from vessel to vessel. They typically have one or two big waterslides, a play zone with interactive water features and a large, continuously filling dump bucket that periodically soaks everybody within range.

On some Carnival ships, there’s also a SportSquare area with such gee-whiz attractions as the high-flying, pedal-powered SkyRide (something that first debuted in 2016 on Carnival Vista and is now on three ships), a suspended-in-the-air ropes course, a basketball court, miniature golf, miniature bowling, ping-pong tables and other outdoor games.

A fun zone called SportSquare found on some Carnival ships offers such attractions as suspended-in-the-sky ropes courses. (Photo by Andy Newman/Carnival Cruise Line) © The Points Guy A fun zone called SportSquare found on some Carnival ships offers such attractions as suspended-in-the-sky ropes courses. (Photo by Andy Newman/Carnival Cruise Line)

It’s a fun-at-sea focus that went to new levels in 2021 with the debut of Mardi Gras, which has — get this — a roller coaster on its top deck. Really. We’re not making that up. At 800 feet in length, it isn’t the biggest roller coaster ever. However, it’s a real one — the first ever on a cruise ship.

Meanwhile, for passengers hoping for quiet time away from the kids, many Carnival ships also have an adults-only Serenity retreat area on their top decks with padded loungers, daybeds, hot tubs and often a bar.

An overhead view of the adults-only Serenity area (foreground) and main Lido Deck pool area on the Carnival Sunshine. (Photo by Andy Newman/Carnival Cruise Line) © The Points Guy An overhead view of the adults-only Serenity area (foreground) and main Lido Deck pool area on the Carnival Sunshine. (Photo by Andy Newman/Carnival Cruise Line)

In short, there’s a ton to do up top on Carnival vessels — and it’s almost all available to every passenger on board the vessels at no extra charge (the roller coaster is the only exception).

Unlike some lines, Carnival has resisted the trend of big-ship operators carving out whole sections of deck-top areas for the exclusive use of passengers staying in suites or willing to pay hefty access fees.

Related: The 12 cruise ships with the most spectacular attractions at sea 

Children’s programs

Carnival claims to draw more children than any other cruise line. So perhaps it makes sense that it has one of the most extensive children’s programs at sea. The line has formal children’s programming and activities for children as young as 2 years old through the age of 17.

The heart of the program, called Camp Ocean, brings free, supervised activities daily for children ages 2 to 11. The line splits children here into three age groups — Penguins (ages 2-5 years), Stingrays (ages 6-8 years) and Sharks (ages 9-11 years). Each group has its own age-appropriate activities ranging from face painting to pirate adventures. On many ships there are extensive dedicated spaces for the different groups.

Group games are among the activities at Carnival’s Camp Ocean program. (Photo by Andy Newman/Carnival Cruise Line) © The Points Guy Group games are among the activities at Carnival’s Camp Ocean program. (Photo by Andy Newman/Carnival Cruise Line)

While the free programming ends at 10 p.m., you can pay extra to leave your kids at Camp Ocean until 1 a.m. During those hours, Camp Ocean transforms into a supervised slumber party-type environment with games, movies, crafts and snacks, along with late-night parties called Night Owls.

Carnival also offers dedicated tween and teen programs on ships for children ages 12 to 17. The younger children in this age range (12-14) are grouped into what’s known as Circle C and have their own dedicated lounge on ships. It’s a place to get together to talk, watch movies, play video games and take part in other activities.

Older kids (ages 15-17) are grouped into what’s known as Club O2 and have their own lounge for meeting up, listening to music, dancing, singing karaoke and other activities.

What to know before you go

Required documents

If you’re a U.S. citizen on a cruise that starts and ends in a U.S. port, you’ll need a current passport or an official copy of your birth certificate and a driver’s license or other government-issued photo identification to sail. A few other forms of identification, such as a passport card, also are acceptable.

Passports must be valid for at least six more months. For cruises from international ports, you’ll need a passport. Note that it is important that the name on your reservation be exactly as it is stated on your passport or other official proof of nationality. All this said, we recommend checking Carnival’s website before sailing for the very latest on requirements.

Gratuities

Carnival adds an automatic service gratuity of $13.99 to $15.99 per person, per day to final bills, depending on the cabin category (children under the age of 2 are exempt). If you are unhappy with the service you receive, you can adjust this amount at the Guest Services desk before disembarking. Also, an 18% gratuity is added to bar bills and the cover charge of the Chef’s Table.

Related: Everything you need to know about tipping on cruise ships

Wi-Fi

Carnival has been rolling out faster Wi-Fi systems across its fleet in the last couple of years, such that you can now stream video on some ships. Pricing changes over time, but the fastest “premium” service on Carnival vessels was recently priced at $16 per person, per day.

Carnival also offers a less expensive “social” plan that only allows access to key social networking sites (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.), as well as messaging services such as WhatsApp for $8 a day. A slightly more expensive “value” plan, at $12 per day, adds access to email and most websites. Passengers who pay for a plan in advance of sailing receive a 15% discount.

Related: Wi-Fi on ships really is getting better 

Carry-on drinks policy

Carnival allows you to bring one bottle of wine or Champagne per person onto ships at boarding plus up to a dozen standard cans or cartons of nonalcoholic drinks such as sodas.

Nonalcoholic drinks in glass or plastic bottles are not allowed. Note that you’ll be charged a $15 corkage fee if you want to bring the wine or Champagne to an onboard restaurant or bar to drink. Drinks brought on board must be carried in your carry-on luggage.

Smoking policy

On most ships, smoking (including electronic cigarettes) is only allowed in designated outdoor areas and in casinos and nightclubs. It’s forbidden in cabins and on cabin balconies. In casinos and nightclubs, only cigarette smoking is allowed. On Carnival ships in Australia, smoking is only allowed in designated outdoor areas.

Laundry

Carnival ships have self-serve launderettes on cabin decks with washing machines, dryers, irons and ironing boards. There’s a $3.25-per-load charge to use a washer or dryer. The launderettes also have vending machines that dispense small boxes of detergent and water softener at $1.50 per box.

In addition, vessels offer extra-charge laundry and, on select ships, dry cleaning services.

Note that Carnival’s Mardi Gras does not have launderettes. Carnival fans are quite peeved about this, and you should be, too. Write the line a letter.

Electrical outlets

Most vessels have standard North American-style, 110-volt outlets in rooms as well as European-style, 220-volt outlets. A growing number of vessels also have USB ports in cabins.

The exceptions are the two Carnival ships that traditionally have sailed in Australia (Carnival Spirit and Carnival Splendor), which are fitted with a standard Australian three-point plug or adapter providing 220/240 volt 60Hz. Adapters are available on these ships for purchase if needed.

Currency

The currency used on most Carnival ships is U.S. dollars. The exceptions are any Carnival ship based in Australia, where pricing is listed in Australian dollars.

All vessels operate on a “cashless system,” with any onboard purchases you make posting automatically to your onboard account. You’ll receive a Sail & Sign card that you can use to make charges. This same card also gets you into your cabin.

Drinking age

You must be 21 to consume alcohol on most Carnival ships. The drinking age on sailings on Carnival ships in Australia is 18.

Dress code

During the day, there is no specific dress code and people dress casually. If it’s a sea day in a warm-weather destination, and you’re bound for the top deck, that means looking like you’re going to the beach — T-shirts, shorts and bathing suits (with a cover-up to go inside) are just fine.

During the evenings, there is an official dress code, but it’s pretty laid-back. Most nights are designated “cruise casual,” which means just that — khakis or jeans, polo shirts, sundresses, etc. Super casual items such as cutoff jeans, men’s sleeveless shirts, T-shirts and gym shorts aren’t permitted.

One or two nights a cruise, there will be a more formal “cruise elegant” night where men are expected to turn out in dress slacks and a dress shirt, preferably with a sports coat, or even in a suit. The suggested attire for women on such nights is cocktail dresses, pantsuits, elegant skirts and blouses.

Related: What to pack for your first cruise

Carnival Cruise Line loyalty program

Carnival has a point-based frequent cruiser program, the VIFP Club, that has five tiers, ranging from Blue (requiring no points) to Diamond (200 points).

Members earn one point for every night they sail on one of the line’s ships. To hit the second tier, Red, takes one cruise. Reaching the third tier, Gold, requires 25 points.

There is one twist to the earning structure, and it’s in your favor: If you’re going to hit a tier cutoff during a voyage, you will receive the benefits of that tier from the beginning of that cruise.

Carnival Cruise Line’s VIFP Club has five tiers. This chart shows some of the benefits available to members. (Screenshot from carnival.com) © The Points Guy Carnival Cruise Line’s VIFP Club has five tiers. This chart shows some of the benefits available to members. (Screenshot from carnival.com)

In other words, if you are sailing seven-night cruises, you will be Gold level on your fourth sailing, as you will be passing the 25-day mark on that sailing.

As is typical with cruise line loyalty programs, lower tiers don’t bring all that much in terms of truly valuable benefits.

In fact, the lower tiers of the Carnival program are among the most stingy in the entire cruise universe. You’ll get things like a single complimentary bottle of water (at the Red tier) and a single free drink that only can be ordered on the last night of a cruise (at the Gold tier). Higher levels of the program are more enticing.

Related: Everything you need to know about Carnival’s loyalty program

The second-to-highest tier, Platinum (75 points), brings such perks as priority check-in and boarding, priority debarkation, priority dinner reservations, priority spa reservations and priority water shuttle boarding. Platinums also get complimentary wash-and-fold laundry service (with a limit of two to five bags, depending on the length of the cruise).

The top Diamond level (200 points) brings such added perks as unlimited free wash-and-fold laundry service, a guaranteed seating time in the main restaurant, a dedicated toll-free number for sales and service and a one-time room upgrade.

Note that, in contrast to airline frequent flyer programs, cruise line loyalty programs do not require you to requalify for status every year. So, yes, the perks with lower tiers aren’t great. However, it’s not as difficult as it might at first seem to hit the more rewarding higher level tiers in just a few years if you’re cruising a lot.

A Carnival passenger taking seven-night cruises will hit the Platinum level during their 11th sailing. Sail a few longer voyages, like a transatlantic sailing, and you could reach it even sooner.

In case you’re curious, VIFP stands for Very Important Fun Person.

Related: The TPG guide to cruise line loyalty programs 

How much does a Carnival cruise cost?

In general, Carnival ships are among the most affordable at sea. It’s not uncommon to find Carnival voyages to the Caribbean, Bahamas or Mexico starting under $100 per person, per night including all taxes and fees — at least in the offseason.

As of the date of this story’s posting, for instance, seven-night sailings from New Orleans to the Western Caribbean in September were starting at just $264 per person, not including taxes and fees of $119.86. That works out to just $55 per night, per person with taxes and fees for a package that includes your lodging, transportation and meals.

As you might expect, pricing for ships generally will be lower during offseason periods such as September, October and parts of November.

The timing of when you book also can matter. Cruises book up much further in advance than airplanes or hotels, and many cruisers will tell you that the best pricing for any given sailing is often available when cruises first go on sale (which can be a good two years before a departure). Booking far in advance gives you the best chance of getting your preferred cabin type and location on a ship.

Once on board a Carnival ship, you’ll pay extra for most drinks, extra-charge restaurants, spa services, shore excursions, internet service and a few other things — unless you’ve bought a package for some of these items in advance. Most onboard activities such as shows and deck-top attractions are included in the fare.

Related: 15 ways that first-time cruisers waste money on a cruise 

How to book

If you’re sure you know what sort of cabin you want, on which ship, on which itinerary — and about a dozen other things — you can head over to Carnival.com to book directly.

That said, given the complexity of booking a cruise — there are a lot of decisions to make during the booking process, trust us — we recommend you use a seasoned travel agent who specializes in cruises.

A good travel agent will quiz you about your particular interests, travel style and preferences, and steer you to the perfect cruise line, ship, itinerary and cabin for you. They can also help you if something goes wrong just before, during or after your voyage.

If you’re sure Carnival is your line, look for a travel agent who specializes in trips with the brand. You want someone who understands all the little quirks that are unique to Carnival’s cabin categories and, preferably, has done ship inspections to see the cabins firsthand.

Related: How to book a cruise with points and miles 

Whether you use a travel agent or not, make sure to maximize your credit card points when paying for the cruise by using a credit card that offers extra points for travel purchases. This could be the Chase Sapphire Reserve, which offers 3 Ultimate Rewards points on travel and dining (excluding the annual $300 travel credit). There’s also the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card, which brings 2 Ultimate Rewards points on travel and 3 Ultimate Rewards points on dining.

Bottom line

Carnival ships are all about fun, in a lively, let’s-not-take-this-too-seriously sort of way. They’re also incredibly affordable. Just don’t expect anything too fancy or highbrow. This is a budget vacation, not a luxury product, and one that is sometimes a bit over the top in its keep-the-party-going formula. If the idea of a Hairy Chest Contest around the pool deck makes you cringe, this isn’t the line for you. But if you’re ready to let loose and be a little goofy, it may be the perfect choice.

Planning a cruise? Start with these stories:

Featured image of Carnival’s Mardi Gras courtesy of Carnival Cruise Line.

SPONSORED: With states reopening, enjoying a meal from a restaurant no longer just means curbside pickup.

And when you do spend on dining, you should use a credit card that will maximize your rewards and potentially even score special discounts. Thanks to temporary card bonuses and changes due to coronavirus, you may even be able to score a meal at your favorite restaurant for free. 

These are the best credit cards for dining out, taking out, and ordering in to maximize every meal purchase.

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Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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