One of the most confusing and time-consuming hurdles potential cruise passengers face is selecting a cruise ship. Some cruise lines have ships of all sizes and styles to choose from, and that can add to the challenge for first-timers.
In addition to a cruise's itinerary and price, an important factor in finding a cruise that's right for you (and your family or companion or you alone) comes down to its size (how many passengers are on board), its ship class (explained below) and its overall category (luxury, excursion, mass market).
Figuring out the sizes of cruise ships
Back in the day, a big ship was one that could accommodate 2,000 passengers and up. Nowadays, many of the newest ships fall into a new “mega-ship“ category with space for more than 4,000 passengers. Royal Caribbean's newest ships, Symphony of the Seas and Harmony of the Seas, hold more than 5,000 passengers at double occupancy and more than 6,000 at full capacity. On the other end of the spectrum, there are smaller, boutique ships that hold fewer than 250 passengers. Many of these are expedition ships that explore exotic locations such as the Galapagos or Antarctica.
There is no universal yardstick for ship size, but here's how we break it down at Cruiseable:
- Intimate (boutique): Up to 250 passengers (examples: SeaDream I, Celebrity Xpedition)
- Small: 250 to 750 (examples: Wind Surf (photo at top), Azamara Journey, Paul Gauguin, Seven Seas Mariner)
- Medium (mid-size): 750 to 1,750 (examples: Holland America's Zaandam, Oceania's Marina)
- Large: 1,750 to 4,000 (examples: Island Princess, Celebrity Solstice)
- Mega-ship: 4,000+ (examples: Oasis of the Seas, Norwegian Epic)
Some sites determine size by gross registered tonnage (a measurement of space on board, not weight), and Cruiseable's Ship Discovery Tool lets you sort 400+ ships to see which ships are about the same size.
The larger the ship, the more likely it will be that it has multiple pools, larger fitness centers, bigger theaters, multiple dining venues and entertainment venues. The smaller the ship, the more likely it will be that you'll never have to fight the crowds and your itineraries will take you to smaller, more out-of-the-way ports. In general, smaller ships cost more, and almost all luxury ships fall into the small or mid-size range.
Pay attention to a ship's class
Did you know that a ship class refers to a group of ships of a similar design? In cruise lingo, they are known as “sisters.”
Royal Caribbean has 26 ships and seven ship classes: Quantum, Oasis, Freedom, Voyager, Radiance, Vision and Sovereign. The reason that this is important to those of you researching cruises is that not all features are found on all ships. For example, Harmony of the Seas has no NorthStar viewing pod, iFly sky-dive simulator or bumper cars in the SeaPlex. That's because she's part of the Oasis class of ships, not the Quantum class (Wikipedia has the rundown).
Don't overcomplicate it
A final word of advice: Don't make your decision-making harder than it needs to be. Only certain size ships (Panamax) fit through the Panama Canal — the cruise lines certainly know which ones, so you just need to decide if you want to sail through this modern wonder of the world. Mid-size and large ships won't fit through the Corinth Canal in the Aegean Sea, and behemoth mega-ships won't be sailing through Venice or into the caldera of Santorini.
Want to take a river cruise in Europe? You'll find that almost all river ships there are the same size, thanks to the dimensions of the locks along Europe's waterways: A foot or two wider or longer, and they wouldn't scoot through.
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