The cruise industry is booming, and cruisers today can choose from hundreds of ships now sailing the seven seas. Before you begin weighing your vacation options, a good first step is to consider whether you want to escape on a large or small ship.
The experience on a mega-ship will be fundamentally different from a sailing on a small ship. Budget is one factor in your decision, of course, but so are things such as itineraries, service, entertainment and dining.
“Small-ship cruising” keeps getting redefined in an industry now launching mini-cities at sea with more than 7,500 passengers and crew on a single ship. So for purposes of comparison, we'll define the tipping point at about 500 passengers and set aside river ships and expedition vessels, which are an entirely different kettle of fish.
What does that leave us? The fleets of Windstar Cruises and Star Clippers, the two ships from Paul Gauguin and luxury ships from SeaDream, Seabourn, Silversea and Ponant. (Azamara and Oceania and Regent Seven Seas ships just miss the cut under our definition, though the 490-passenger Seven Seas Navigator slips in.)
Here are nine factors to consider when sizing up a ship for your next cruise. Tip: Use Cruiseable's Bliss Filters at the right — including the “Ship Size” section — to zero in on the right cruise for you.
Activities galore or laid-back?
My Cruiseable colleague JD and I are recently back from a weeklong voyage aboard the 310-passenger Wind Surf (flagship of Windstar Cruises), and the experience stood in stark contrast to my voyages on some of the mass market ships. Every traveler is different, so you'll need to draw your own conclusions about which is a better fit for your travel style. (Now that my kids have grown, the smaller ships are calling my name.)
If you’re the type of cruiser who likes the surprise-around-every-corner vibe of a large ship with so many amenities and activity options you almost need a spreadsheet to keep them straight, by all means, choose a large ship.
If, on the other hand, you aren’t wild about crowds, get cranky waiting in lines, aren’t traveling with kids and can be happy as a clam curled up on deck with a book, a small ship might be more your style.
Onboard amenities: Do nothing or do it all
On a large ship, the choice of attractions and amenities can lead to sensory overload. There may be multiple pools, waterslides, a cinema, large and small showrooms, an art gallery, putting greens, rock-climbing walls, a full-service spa, a state-of-the-art fitness center, rows of shops, two dozen bars, a giant movie screen at poolside and a daily calendar crammed with multiple activities every hour of the day. You can learn how to two-step, play bridge, carve fruit, fold towels into fanciful shapes or build a website. You can also ship the kids off to a playroom or to an age-appropriate “club” on board where they’ll make new friends while participating in fun activities.
By way of contrast, most activities on small ships are of the DIY variety. On Wind Surf, for example, there are lots of lounge chairs where you can relax, read and watch the world slide by. Afternoons bring a briefing on the next day’s port of call and maybe a trivia game, while evening entertainment is decidedly low-key. The whirlpools and pool on the aft deck had plenty of takers on our cruise — as did the adjacent bar stools. Most popular, though, was the sports deck that opened up at the stern on days the ship was anchored in calm water. Passengers could check out kayaks, paddleboards, snorkel gear, water skis or other toys, or swim out to sun themselves on a giant trampoline tethered to the ship. None of it cost extra. Wind Surf also has a small fitness center and a spa.
Where are we going?
Do you care where you’re going? For some cruisers, the ship is the destination. For others, it’s the ports that count. Small ships go where large ships can’t — but then, some passengers would prefer a day in an action-packed city over a day on a deserted beach.
Wind Surf’s “Classic Caribbean” itinerary artfully mixed busy with relaxed. Departing from tourist-heavy St. Maarten, we called first at Barbuda, a small island off Antigua where passengers were turned loose to decompress on empty beaches stretching as far as the eye could see. Other micro-ports on the itinerary included Pigeon Island, a dot of a landmass on St. Lucia where a beach barbecue was set up; and Les Saintes, a charming, French-speaking village on an island belonging to Guadeloupe, a department of France. We also called at several ports — Roseau, Dominica; Basseterre, St. Kitt’s; and Gustavia, St. Barts — where a mid-size ship was in port at the same time as Wind Surf.
Mega-ships on Caribbean itineraries don’t call at any of these places. Their schedules are more likely to feature mass-market, deep-water ports in the Bahamas, Puerto Rico, St. Thomas and St. Maarten, which are equipped to welcome three or more ships on any given day.
Who’s on board?
Large ships, depending on season, attract lots of families with children, catering to them with kids’ clubs, play rooms, waterslides and other amenities to keep them active, supervised and engaged.
Smaller ships, on the other hand, tend to be pretty much couples’ territory. On our Wind Surf cruise, the majority of passengers were active, middle-age couples, although there was also a sprinkling of honeymooners, female friends traveling together, singles and multi-generational families. Almost everyone was an experienced traveler.
Wind Surf offers no special activities or amenities for kids or for solo travelers. Large ships, on the other hand, not only roll out the red carpet for children, they actively court singles with mixers, meet-ups and other activities. Most also hire dance hosts to waltz with the unattached, and a few large lines, like Norwegian, have begun to offer solo staterooms.
What’s up on shore?
Small ships like Wind Surf typically offer just a handful of high-quality, small-group shore excursions or water-sports activities in each destination. A mega-ship, on the other hand, may tempt with dozens of options, including large-group motor-coach tours.
One nice feature about small ships: Very little time is spent, either pre- or post-excursion, waiting around or lining up to get off or on the vessel. A large ship, on the other hand, may have hundreds if not thousands of people to accommodate, and may require hours in which to do so. Those booked on organized shore excursions are generally guided off the ship first, while those on their own are relegated to later time slots. Either way, expect lots of waiting around in the lounge for your group to be called, especially in ports where the ship is anchored and you have to wait your turn for a lifeboat (tender) shuttle to shore.
How personal is the service?
Not everyone is a stickler about attentive, personalized service, but there's something comforting about being on a small ship where the crew knows you by your name. (See Cruiseable's Ship Discovery Tool to sort ships by passenger-to-crew ratio.) On Wind Surf, we began recognizing crew members by day two. On a larger ship with, say, more than 1,500 crew members, that's hard to do. More to the point, crew members on a big ship will try their best to recall familiar guests, but they may not remember you (unless they're your room steward). On some of the luxury lines, they even assign you a personal butler and stock your mini-bar with your favorite beverages.
What’s for dinner?
A large ship may offer a dozen or more dining options ranging from formal venues requiring dress-up clothes and reservations (and sometimes an extra charge) to casual, family-friendly cafeteria or buffet-style eateries. While many cruise lines adhere to the old-school standard of early and late dinner seatings at pre-assigned tables, others, like Norwegian, have adopted a more flexible, “free-style” approach.
Wind Surf has two small “alternative” restaurants that can be reserved at no extra charge. In the main dining room, guests are free to arrive at their leisure between 7 and 9 pm and can choose to be seated at either a private or shared table. There’s also a grab-and-go venue for coffee and pastries in the morning and sandwiches in the afternoon. One night during every cruise is devoted to a lavish barbecue on deck.
On a large ship, expect to be wowed with high-quality song, dance, music, comedy and magic in the showroom, and multiple genres of entertainment elsewhere on the ship. There may be disco in one lounge, Latin music in another, classic rock in a third, a crooner in a piano lounge — something for everyone, in other words. The large ships often offer dazzling, professional stage productions worthy of a Broadway stage.
On Wind Surf, an acoustic duo entertained in an al fresco cocktail lounge while a scripted show with a larger musical ensemble took to the stage in the main lounge. A staff talent show one evening and a line-dance night on deck provided additional diversion.
Cheers! Are you on ‘The Plan’?
When you hear people complain about being nickel-and-dimed to death on cruise ships, they’re usually referring to beverages. It’s the rare ship that allows passengers to bring their own alcohol on board (except for a bottle or two of wine at embarkation), and some even charge separately for every Coke or iced tea that comes out of the tap.
To avoid sticker shock at checkout time, a beverage plan is worth investigating.
Just about all ships offer them, whether it’s a single charge for unlimited soft drinks or alcoholic beverages consumed throughout the cruise, or a simple wine plan for dinner. Some luxury ships include all beverages, alcoholic and not, in the fare. (See our guide to all-inclusive pricing.) Wind Surf offers an alcoholic beverage plan that can be purchased in advance or on the first day out. Non-alcoholic beverages are complimentary.
OK, ready to start planning your next cruise getaway? Contact the Cruiseable Business Department to speak with a travel professional at 1-877-322-3773.