Small Ship or Large? How to Choose the Right Cruise
Cruising on a big ship is vastly different than cruising on a small one. Every cruise is different; but there are commonalities that can help you decide whether a large or small vessel will best meet your needs. For the purposes of this article, a small ship is defined as less than 1700 passengers; and a large as more.
If you are a first-time cruiser, read on for 10 size-related cruise tips to consider before booking. We will discuss:
For more travel advice on cruising read our articles on:
1. Food & Drink
Large Ships tend to have more eating and drinking venues. These venues usually have extended hours. There are a wide range of eatery options from cafeteria style buffets to sit-down restaurants. Often, there are bars tucked into hidden corners. Depending on the cruise, you will generally have to pay extra for alcohol and finer dining. Reservations may also be hard to attain at sought-after restaurants.
Small Ships often offer one main dining room that is open all three meals, and a few satellite specialty restaurants and bars. The emphasis in on finely prepared food in a comfortable setting. Dining hours are usually set, and sometimes seating assignments. Reservations will likely be required for specialty dining, but there is often no upcharge. On many cruises, some alcohol is included in the basic fare. Drinks and snacks are generally available throughout the day at different areas throughout the ship or stocked in your cabin’s mini-fridge.
Large Ships are synonymous with entertainment. Most have large theatres and robust family-friendly and adult-only entertainment offerings. Schedules often include nightly Broadway-style reviews, dancing, comedy, and musical acts. Entertainment is generally included in the cruise’s base fare.
Small Ships offer more subdued entertainment offerings. If there is a theatre, it hosts much smaller productions. Nightly entertainment may include small groups of musicians who are brought in from local ports. There are usually educators onboard who lecture about upcoming ports of call. Many cruises offer hands-on experiences such as cooking, or working with local artisans and fishermen.
Large Ships are known for offering activities for many ages and abilities. There are kiddie camps for youngsters. Rock climbing, zip lining, pool surfing, and other adventure activity for teens. For adults there are exercise classes, shooting, and gaming tournaments. The activity staff is large. Events are planned throughout the day. Many large vessels also have enormous casinos and shopping malls. Lounge chairs by the pool can be difficult to come by, and public areas can feel cramped and overcrowded at peak hours.
Small Ships will likely offer more lowkey activity programs. Socialization is likely to occur around the pool, library, or game room areas. Some small ships have small casinos and shopping malls.
Large Ships will likely offer a long list of cabin options. Cost is dependent upon the size of the room and whether it has a window or balcony. More affordable cabins tend to be small, cramped, and dark. There can also be a considerable amount of walking to get from the cabin to other parts of the ship. Due to the size of the ship, it is easy to get lost finding your way back to your room, especially in the early days of the cruise. Embarkation and debarkation to quarters can be time lengthy.
Small Ships also price quarters according to room size, window configuration, and balconies. However, on small ships there tends to be less of a distinction in room quality. In general, rooms tend to be larger, more luxurious, and well-appointed. There are likely to be more inclusions such as free Wifi, cable channels, stocked in-room minifridge, and maid/butler service. Embarkation and debarkation tend to be well-orchestrated and timely.
5. Destinations / Ports of Call
Large Ships travel the world over, but are limited to ports (mostly large cities) where they can safely dock. Large ships are more likely to tender (transport by small boat) guests in and out of port from the ship. Stops at ports of call tend to be shorter. Lines getting on and off the ship can be long, and wait times extensive. All of this limits the amount of time you spend in port.
Small Ships have much more flexibility about where and when they are able to dock. Often, guests can walk from ship, to pier, to destination city. If tendered, it a short trip. The hours in each port of call tend to be longer, and there is less wait time getting on and off the ship.
Large Ships offer a wide range of adventure and sightseeing excursions. Transportation tends to be on large coaches due to the sheer number of participants. Ports of call where large ships dock tend to be very crowded during the afternoon hours (sometimes there are multiple large ships sharing the same port of call). The atmosphere can be phenetic and lines getting on and off transport can be long. Reservations for some of the more popular excursions can be expensive and hard to come by.
Small Ships tend to focus highly on the quality of their excursion offerings. Their ports of call (not activities or entertainment) are likely why their customers booked passage. Excursions on small ships tend to be experiential, culturally-rich, and limited in size with local guides. Since there is a longer time in port and less waiting in transport line, excursions also tend to be longer and to go further into the countryside.
7. Cruise Duration
Large Ships offer cruises of many lengths ranging from a few days to a few weeks (or longer). If you only have a short duration for your cruise, you will find many more options on large ships. It is also easier to book a large ship on short notice.
Small Ships tend to be more destination focused; therefore, cruises tend to range in the 10 day and up range.
Large Ships offer a wide range of fares (and accommodations). Due to the enormous number of rooms and frequency of sailing there tend to be more sales, especially for last minute bookings.
Small Ships tend to cost more than large ship cruises going to a similar destination for the same number of days. You are likely paying for upgraded accommodations, a higher level of service, and higher quality food and excursion experiences.
9. Inclusions /Added Costs
Large Ships generally include your cabin, standard dining, entertainment, and activities (which are plentiful). However, add-on costs can include tipping, alcohol, specialty dining, adventure activities, and specialty entertainment. The cost of excursions, airfare, and transport to/from airport is also likely not included.
Small Ships offer a more inclusive experience. Many include some level of airfare, alcohol, tipping, specialty dining, and excursions in the base price (saving you a significant amount of money). On small ships many of the ‘details’ like transport to and from the airport and a stocked minifridge in your cabin are standard. You will likely have many less charges on your credit card upon disembarking a small ship.
10. Shipboard Culture
Large Ships are known for having out-sized personalities and offering loads of fun activities for all ages and members of the family. They are busy, loud, crowded, and there is always some place to go. They are great for traveling with large groups. They can feel impersonal to solo and couples traveling.
Small Ships have a much more personalized, intimate. lowkey atmosphere. Since the ship is smaller, you will likely run into the same people multiple times making it easier to make connections. There is much more of an emphasis on adult travel, and less on children.
There are two sandbars on the lake where we dock our boat. Sandbar 1 is a hopping, happening little stretch of sand. On warm days, boats tie off next to each other in concentric circles. Everyone gathers in the water to drink, play games and sunbathe. There is a ice cream truck on floating pontoon. People share their barbeque and music. Sandbar 2 has deeper water and beautiful views of the mountains. Boats dock with a good distance between each other. Nobody plays their music loud. People snorkel and fish off of the back of their boats.
If Sandbar 1 appeals to you, choose a Large Ship.
If Sandbar 2 appeals to you, choose a Small Ship.
Happy cruising! Laura and Randy