The size of a cruise ship can make or break your vacation. Big and small ships have major differences in atmosphere, activities and entertainment. One person’s dream cruise might even be another person’s nightmare.
When choosing a ship, it’s important to think about what you and your traveling companions want to do on your cruise vacation. This guide will help you weigh the decision on which type of ship might be best for you. For additional help in your decision-making journey, read some of our other guides, like how to pick the best cruise line.
If you are a small-town person or big-city resident looking for a big-city experience — think New York and Las Vegas or even Walt Disney World for entertainment, food, nightlife and excitement — book a big ship. You want action, and crowds and their noise are not a problem. Big ships visit bustling ports on well-traveled routes — such as the Caribbean from Miami — and the ships put equal (or even greater) emphasis on what’s happening on board the ship itself, with activities for your whole family, including the kids.
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On the other hand, small ships tend to cater mostly to adults who want to travel in more intimate — or luxurious — surroundings. They may or may not offer evening entertainment or any casino action. Often, they focus on close-up experiences in some of the world’s most out-of-the-way places, filling off-tour hours with lectures.
Of course, some cruise ships fit somewhere in between these extremes. Here are some fine points of big versus small cruise ships to help you with your choice of ship.
Big ships, big action
The newest floating titans deliver amusement park attractions — such as the roller coasters on Carnival Cruise Line‘s newest ships, Royal Caribbean‘s thrill slides and the go-kart racetracks on the top of the latest Norwegian Cruise Line vessels. Multiple waterslides are part of the fun, too. Activities abound, such as contests, participatory game shows and sports tournaments. Virtual reality experiences, escape rooms and laser tag games are new additions to the family fun roster.
While some of the largest ships in the world may carry more than 6,500 passengers, other big ships carry a few thousand passengers on board, pairing some big ship attributes with a less frenetic pace.
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On all big ships, entertainment is a focus, with multiple shows in the theaters, sometimes even full productions of Broadway musicals such as “Cats” and “Beetlejuice.” Live music takes place in many venues, so passengers may choose to listen to classic rock, jazz, Caribbean tunes or a classical quartet. Comedians perform, the casino is active and you’ll find a big late-night party at the disco — or sometimes even on deck. You may have a choice of a dozen bars and lounges.
The noise level may be high, especially when lots of kids are on board, and you will definitely feel like part of a crowd at times. However, that does not mean grown-ups can’t sneak away to more sedate areas, such as the adults-only pool and sun deck, the expansive spa and fitness center, or a specialty restaurant for a romantic dinner. While the grown-ups play, the kids will be well-occupied and looked after in a camp-like kids’ program, with separate activities for teens and hard-to-please tweens.
Big ships provide a vast choice of accommodations, including inside cabins for the budget-conscious, cabins with private balconies and lavish suites, some with outdoor hot tubs. Some of the largest ships have exclusive suite complexes complete with a private restaurant and pool.
Dining options rival what you’ll find in a small city — dining rooms serving leisurely multi-course meals, food courts, buffets, hamburger grills, pizza and taco stands, and specialty restaurants serving sushi, French, Italian or fine steaks.
While doing nothing but staring at the ocean is an option on big ships — and you can choose to stay to yourself and order room service in your cabin — that is not really what they are about. It’s much more fun to dress up for a night on the town and socialize with other guests on board.
Small ship intimacy and Mother Nature
Small ships, which we are defining as vessels carrying fewer than 400 passengers, are more about where you are going — and cultural and nature pursuits — than constant action.
On the smallest and oldest small ships, cabins may be basic — even with fixed twin beds — and balconies may be a rarity. On the other hand, if you sail on luxury line Silversea‘s 100-passenger Silver Origin in the Galapagos or on Seabourn‘s 264-passenger Seabourn Venture, you’ll stay in an elegant suite, perhaps even with butler service.
Don’t expect many onboard places to go — your choices might include a few dining venues and lounges, a spa and a small fitness center (though you might also find a small casino). The top deck might have a pool — or not. The ship will likely have a hot tub.
While some of the larger small ships have musicians, including a piano player and a song-and-dance team, if you’re on a ship with only a few dozen fellow passengers, don’t expect too much entertainment. A crew member might take out a guitar for a singalong, or local performers hired by the cruise company may come on board at a port of call and get everyone dancing around the deck.
Ship size affects where you go. Small ships, thanks to their shallow drafts, can bring you right into yacht harbors.
Another advantage is that many small ships have an aft-end marina stocked with water toys, so you can borrow a kayak, paddleboard or even a sailboat to spend time on the water. Diving right off the ship into the sea is considered a rite of passage — especially if the water is frigid, in which case your fellow passengers will likely applaud your efforts.
Within this category, purpose-built expedition ships get you up close to glaciers, waterfalls, whales, blue-footed boobies and other sights. On board, naturalists, scientists, glaciologists, historians and other experts deliver lectures. They also lead explorations via inflatable Zodiac boats and kayaks. On the latest expedition ships, toys for exploring remote destinations might also include private helicopters and submarines.
Dining options vary by brand. On Windstar Cruises‘ upscale small sailing and motor yachts, for instance, you have a choice of dining rooms and specialty restaurants (with dishes created by celebrity chefs). On small Lindblad Expeditions and UnCruise Adventures ships, dining is a communal event for everyone on board at one seating. On the luxury line SeaDream Yacht Club, you may arrange a private dinner party on the deck.
With only a few hundred or a few dozen people on board, you will get to know your fellow travelers — and “hiding” in the crowd is difficult. On the other hand, it’s easy to make friends.
Your companions at sea may be experienced cruisers or newbies attracted to the ship by the destination — whether remote tropical islands, polar regions or bucket list places in between. Some of these ships rarely do the same route twice.
Between big and small ships
If you can’t decide between a big ship and a small ship, look for ships in the middle that carry 450 to 1,800 guests. These include many of the vessels operated by the main luxury cruise lines — Seabourn, Silversea and Regent Seven Seas Cruises — and upscale lines such as Viking, Oceania and Azamara. The smaller Holland America Line ships also fall into this category.
These ships wholly or mostly cater to an adult crowd — people who don’t need waterslides but want choices in entertainment, accommodations and activities along with fascinating places to visit.
On these ships, you’ll still find impressive guest lecturers and such adult spaces as a thermal spa suite with soothing water treatments. Guests might be content to entertain themselves with a good book, though they may also enjoy a cooking class or wine-tasting event. Trivia is a competitive sport.
You’ll find a great selection of lounges and dining options, live music and entertaining diversions like the super fun ABBA show on Viking. You’ll also find wonderful and often luxurious pools, hot tubs and other spots where you can spend your time outdoors feeling one with the sea.
These ships visit both the expected and more unusual ports, including places larger ships can’t visit because of their size. Itineraries may, for instance, take you deep into the southern Caribbean and the South Pacific, to Iceland or through the Greek Isles.
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