Last year, two Insider reporters embarked on voyages on Carnival’s UK and US-based cruise lines.
In July, Monica Humphries embarked on a seven-day cruise on the Carnival Vista, which made stops in Mahogany Bay, Honduras; Belize; and Cozumel, Mexico.
The following October, Mikhaila Friel boarded Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth ship from the UK for a five-night Western Europe voyage stopping in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, for two nights.
Monica’s seven-day cruise cost $1,081, or about £788, without gratuities. Mikhaila’s five-night cruise cost £628, or around $856 without gratuities. The nightly rate on the Carnival Vista was about $20 cheaper than the Queen Elizabeth. (For full disclosure, Insider paid for both cruises, per our reporting standards.)
While both cruise lines are owned by The Carnival Corporation, they are vastly different.
Cunard is Britain’s high-end cruise line and is known for luxury and its links to royalty. The Queen Mother, Princess Diana, and Queen Elizabeth II all visited Cunard ships over the years, and the Queen Elizabeth ship was even named after the royal herself.
The cruise line mostly caters to older guests. A Cunard spokesperson told Insider that the average age of its guests is 61.
On Carnival Cruises, the theme is fun. Carnival’s ships are nicknamed the “fun ships,” and the brand is seen as more of a budget-friendly option in the cruising industry, according to Cruise Critic. The ship’s audience is a bit younger, and the average age of passengers is 45, according to Cruise Compete.
While fun and luxury aren’t exclusive, both reporters disembarked from their cruises with completely different experiences. From dolling up for formal nights to afternoon tea, every bit of Mikhaila’s trip oozed elegance while Monica’s cruise had a more relaxed vacation vibe.
Mikhaila was welcomed onto the Queen Elizabeth with calming music whereas the Carnival Vista greeted passengers with upbeat music streaming throughout the lobby.
The Queen Elizabeth guests were welcomed by musicians who played relaxing music, Mikhaila reported. Passengers were scattered across the ship, with some indulging in afternoon tea and others lounging on deck chairs.
Monica noted that everyone on the Carnival Vista was celebrating the moment they stepped onto the ship. She spotted people sipping piña coladas and strawberry daiquiris at the bar, and loud music echoed through the lobby.
Cunard’s stateroom featured royal-inspired decor while Carnival’s stateroom emphasized comfort and space-saving features.
Mikhaila stayed in a windowless 152-square-foot room that stood out thanks to its royal decor. A blue blanket and two matching pillows — both of which featured Cunard’s crown logo — were on the bed when Mikhaila arrived.
While small details like fluffy pillows, art above the bed, and a real headboard created an elegant atmosphere in Mikhaila’s stateroom, Monica’s cabin was more minimal and had space-saving features. She found it to be comfortable, with everything she needed during her stay.
Mikhaila’s cabin also came with free perks, such as complimentary tea and chocolates on her pillow, while Monica was greeted with animal-shaped towels each day.
All customers on Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth had a kettle with a tea-and-coffee station in their staterooms. Mikhaila also noticed Godiva chocolates were placed on her pillow each night. The brand has a Belgian Royal Warrant, making it the official chocolatier of the Belgian royals.
Monica’s room was a more simple stay and thought the new animal-shaped towel on her bed each evening was a fun, nice touch. However, Monica was a bit envious of Mikhaila’s coffee machine. If she wanted coffee, she could order room service or go to one of the ship’s buffets.
Details — like the name-brand shampoo and conditioner — were an elegant touch in Mikhaila’s stateroom. Monica’s bathroom was stocked with nameless shampoo and body soap.
The shampoo, body soap, and hand soap in Mikhaila’s bathroom were by royal-warrant holder Penhaligon’s. A royal warrant is a distinction provided to companies that offer goods or services to the Queen or Prince Charles, according to the official Royal Warrant website.
The hand and body soap retails for £38, or around $51, at the British department store Harrods.
Monica’s room did come with provided shampoo and body soap, but Carnival did not prominently label the brand of products.
Both Mikhaila and Monica had robes waiting for them in their closets.
Mikhaila and Monica both had robes in their staterooms upon arrival to wear during their trip. Mikhaila’s cabin took it one step further by also providing slippers.
On Cunard, Mikhaila spent her nights watching ballroom dancing and theater shows, while Monica attended laid-back comedy performances and rock-and-roll-themed dances.
Every night, the Queen Elizabeth ballroom — named the Queen’s Room — was packed with couples on the dance floor. There was also the occasional jazz band performance, and Mikhaila noticed professional violinists in the lobby each night.
Meanwhile, the entertainment on the Carnival Vista vastly varied. There were some refined events, like a small band at the Havana Bar and art auctions. And there was also a raunchy comedy show, sing-along performances, and karaoke.
Beyond entertainment, the activities on the ship seemed to target different vacationing styles.
The Queen Elizabeth had a games deck, an arcade, and various activities throughout the day, including line-dancing classes and ballroom dancing classes.
Meanwhile, waterslides on the top deck of the Carnival Vista were a huge hit with passengers. There was also an arcade, basketball court, panoramic bicycle ride, and ropes course.
The Carnival Vista had two main pools for guests, which embraced a tropical theme. The Queen Elizabeth pool wasn’t themed.
The Carnival Vista’s pools each had tropical themes. At the main pool, tiki-style gazebos covered the pools’ two hot tubs, which created a casual, laid-back atmosphere on the decks.
The Queen Elizabeth pool area wasn’t themed, but it did have a hot tub and deck chairs scattered across the deck.
The Queen Elizabeth had a croquet court. On the Carnival Vista, there wasn’t croquet, but there was mini golf that was popular with teens.
Hints of the cruise’s royal theme were all over the Queen Elizabeth, and on one deck, people played croquet, one of the Queen’s beloved sports.
The Carnival Vista didn’t have croquet, but it did have a mini golf course. Although everyone on the ship could access these spaces, Monica typically spotted younger crowds playing on the course.
The largest ballroom on the Queen Elizabeth featured stained-glass windows, sparkling chandeliers, and a hardwood dance floor. There wasn’t a ballroom on the Carnival Vista, though there was a large auditorium.
A majority of the activities and events took place in the Queen Elizabeth’s ballroom, which is the largest ballroom at sea, according to Cunard’s website. The elegant room was complete with chandeliers and stained glass for a lavish atmosphere that was ideal for the ballroom-dancing classes that took place there.
While there wasn’t a ballroom on the Carnival Vista, there was an auditorium with seats, colorful lights, and a stage.
On the Queen Elizabeth, nearly every guest participated in formal night. On the Carnival Vista, formal nights were optional.
There were two black-tie formal nights on Mikhaila’s cruise, both of which were themed. Mikhaila dressed for both themes (a black-and-white theme and roaring ’20s theme, pictured above). Although guests were not required to dress to match the theme, they were asked to dress in formal wear when dining in the main restaurant, which included a dress shirt and pants for men and a blouse or cocktail dress for women.
If guests wanted to dine in the main dining room on the Carnival Vista, they needed to follow a smart dress code for formal nights. This meant no jean shorts,
, or bathing suits. Monica opted for a casual black jumper and strappy sandals. While she wasn’t overdressed, she also wasn’t underdressed. Throughout the night, she spotted a handful of passengers in gowns, but the vast majority of people wore shorts and casual dresses.
Both reporters agreed that the standard of food was excellent on both ships.
Each night, Monica and Mikhaila joined hundreds of passengers for dinner in their ship’s main dining room. The menus, which offered guests an appetizer, main entrée, and dessert, were served by cruise workers in smart attire.
While Mikhaila could eat in the main dining room or the Lido buffet, Monica had about a dozen options for food, ranging from a Guy Fieri-themed barbecue buffet to a steakhouse.
While the food was good on both cruises, the details inside the dining room on the Queen Elizabeth stood out strongly.
Mikhaila’s dinner was served on gold-detailed plates next to a vase of flowers and silver salt-and-pepper shakers.
The dining room on the Carnival Vista was one of the more luxurious places on Monica’s ship, but it lacked the type of glitzy details Mikhaila spotted. While Monica hadn’t expected a luxe experience, she noted that the dining room did feel grand and the waitstaff was always happy to chat with passengers about their day.
Both ships had buffets that offered a similar experience to passengers.
Both the Queen Elizabeth and Carnival Vista had a Lido buffet where passengers could eat an array of foods, including cereal, pizzas, chicken dishes, cakes, and other desserts.
While Mikhaila enjoyed her afternoon tea and pastries on the Queen Elizabeth, Monica opted for soft-serve ice cream on the Carnival ship.
Mikhaila spent her afternoons debating which scones, cakes, and finger sandwiches she wanted to enjoy with afternoon tea.
Around the same time each day, Monica made the important decision between chocolate, vanilla, or swirled ice cream.
Overall, it seemed like Cunard offered more refined dishes to its passengers, which was to be expected since it’s focused on luxury. And while the Carnival Vista had a steakhouse and sushi restaurant, crowds flocked to the popular burger buffet, taco stand, and barbecue eatery.
Both reporters saw violinists playing in the lobby on each ship.
Music was a big element on both Queen Elizabeth and Carnival Vista ships. On most nights of the cruises, violinists played for guests in the lobby.
The Queen Elizabeth also had a grand piano in its lobby. On the Carnival Vista, the majority of the lobby was dedicated to a bar.
The lobby of the Queen Elizabeth was decked out in high-end decor, and its centerpiece was a grand piano.
On the Carnival Vista, a bar with a digital screen took center stage. The colorful designs and the sound of cocktails shaking emphasized a fun, carefree environment throughout the lobby.
On the Queen Elizabeth, guests staying in penthouse suites had their own butler. On the Carnival Vista, there were a handful of suites with a range of amenities.
During her cruise, Mikhaila met Peter and Wendy Townsend, a married couple staying in one of Cunard’s Queens Grills suites. The couple was kind enough to show Mikhaila their suite, which had a living room, a minibar, a bedroom, a dressing table, two TVs, a private balcony, and a bathroom that had both a shower and a bathtub.
They also had a private bar and their own butler, who served the couple drinks, meals, snacks while dressed in a tuxedo. The butlers are also able to unpack guests’ suitcases if they ask.
The Carnival Vista has six types of suites passengers could choose from, offering a range of size and amenities. All Carnival suite guests have their own dedicated room steward and priority check-in and checkout. Carnival’s top-tier suites, like the Havana Suite, come with an extra layer of luxury, including access to a private pool and bar.
Art and history could be spotted throughout the entire Queen Elizabeth ship. There was one section where art was displayed on the Carnival Vista, but it was mainly there for purchasing purposes.
In general, Mikhaila thought the Cunard team put time and dedication into designing the Queen Elizabeth ship. There were areas that dove into royal history and art hung on walls across the ship.
The Carnival Vista also had thoughtful interiors, but the designs were more geared towards creating a casual and lively atmosphere.
The only area Monica spotted where art was displayed was part of an auction, where guests could bid on and buy different works.
By the end of their respective voyages, Mikhaila left feeling like royalty and Monica disembarked from the ship with a smile, sunburn, and fun memories.
Both reporters felt like they had been given the luxe treatment thanks to the customer service, food, and entertainment offered on board.
Mikhaila’s experience, though, was a bit more sophisticated. She left the Queen Elizabeth feeling well rested, well fed, and utterly pampered.
Monica learned just why Carnival’s US ships are nicknamed the “fun ships.” While she wasn’t washing her hair with royalty-approved shampoo or feasting on afternoon tea, she disembarked from the Carnival Vista with a hoarse voice from singing karaoke, a sunburn due to time at the pool, and a new set of friends.