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Does (Ship) Size Matter? The Big vs. Small Ship Debate

In short (pun intended): yes.

There are many reasons to take a cruise over any other type of vacation, but talk to any frequent cruiser about what kind of cruise ship they like, and you’ll hear two distinct viewpoints. There’s the “I only cruise on small ships because I don’t want to spend time waiting for an elevator or queue to get off the ship in port, and plus, the restaurants are better” camp.

On the other side of the buffet line is the big ship crowd who will tell you all the reasons why big ships are better than small ships and about how much they love all there is to do, including go-karts, laser tag, escape rooms, surf simulators, outdoor movies, roller coasters, and tons of water slides.

So yes, (ship) size does matter. Knowing yourself is the first step toward knowing which kind of cruise ship you should book. Regardless of the size of the ship you end up on, make sure your luggage is full with the right items. Here’s a look at the top five benefits of each of the smaller ships and the massive cruise ships.

Small Cruise Perk: The Quality of the Food

A smaller cruise ship is usually associated with an increase in the quality of everything across the board, and this is most obvious when it comes to the food. While the dining destinations will be fewer, haute cuisine will prove that less is most certainly more. Expect the freshest fish, succulent lobster, and other shellfish, prime cuts of meat, and a fine wine list and sommelier on board to guide you through the reds, whites, roses, and champagnes offered.

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Small Cruise Perk: A Heightened Sense of Luxury

From luxurious bedding to high-end bath amenities, a small ship has the ability to offer more of the finer things in life. If you are a traveler with discerning tastes and a keen eye on the details of design and service, it’s likely that the overall experience on a small ship will be more pleasurable in every aspect for you. Not to say that the staterooms and bathrooms, dining rooms, and common areas of bigger ships are not well appointed and comfortable, but smaller ships, by and large, tend to take things to another level for their guests. 

Small Cruise Perk: Increased Level of Service

The crew-to-passenger ratio will be narrower on a small ship, and because of this, smaller ships can offer their guests more personal service in an intimate setting. While the crew of every cruise ship is famously friendly, kind, and welcoming, a smaller ship’s crew has a better ability to get to know you, learn your favorite wines and have a glass ready for you at mealtime, and provide an increased level of service in the staterooms (including butler service on some small ships), dining rooms, and throughout the entire ship for the duration of your vacation at sea.

Small Cruise Perk: More Variety of Ports of Call

Big ships simply cannot get to all of the world’s ports. Smaller ships, on the other hand, have the ability to dock in more ports of call and often dock closer to the center of those cities and towns, meaning less time on shuttle buses or on tender boats to reach the most memorable destinations on land when you are cruising on a smaller ship. Whether your smaller ship is tucking into St. Vincent and the Grenadines in the Caribbean or in front of the old port of Dubrovnik, sailing small gives you the benefit of not only disembarking faster (smaller queues to get on and off the ship), but see and do different things than those cruising on the big ships.


Small Cruise Perk: Wider Array of Cruise Experiences

From river cruises in Cambodia and Europe, private yacht charters in Croatia and beyond, sailboats, barge cruises, expedition itineraries to the Arctic or Antarctica, and so much more, smaller ships have the unique ability to offer travelers a wider array of experiences on the waters of the world.  For example, small luxury expedition ships from the likes of Viking, Silversea, and Hurtigruten (among other cruise lines) can navigate the Drake Passage and put your boots on the continent of Antarctica to photograph and frolic with adorable Adélie chinstrap and gentoo penguins. This is something the massive ships, with their exciting go-kart tracks and multi-deck waterparks, simply cannot offer. And there’s no way a large ship will ever put you on the Mosel River to quietly cruise past breathtaking castles in Germany’s most beloved wine region, where you can step off the ship into picturesque villages to sample the local Rieslings.

Big Cruise Perk: Diverse Entertainment Offerings

Every single day of the year, on the theater and jazz club stages of big ships across the globe, there is Off-Broadway quality talent singing, dancing, playing music, doing acrobatic tricks, and even figure skating and high-diving into pools, much to the delight of cruisers. As a passenger on the bigger cruise ships, you are treated to a diverse lineup of entertainment each and every day and night of your vacation at sea. You’ll be hard-pressed to find the same level of entertainment offerings onboard a smaller ship.

Big Cruise Perk: An Endless List of Activities

There is little chance of you ever being bored on a big cruise ship. From the hot tubs and pools to the spa and serene spaces to relax, there is an abundance of R&R available, but it’s the endless list of activities that truly set the bigger ships apart from their tiny peers. Depending on the ship you choose, you could have surf simulators, laser tag, ice skating, escape rooms, arcades, karaoke, trivia, art auctions, mini golf, roller coaster, water parks, go-karting, bingo, casinos, darts, beer pong, shuffleboard, VR-gaming, zip-lining, and more available to you. Once upon a time, it was the ports that were the biggest draw of cruising, but today, the biggest cruise ships at sea are destinations unto themselves!

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Big Cruise Perk: Kids’ Clubs

The age-based kids’ clubs on big ships are phenomenal for kids and adults alike. With scavenger hunts, arts and crafts, video games, dance parties, group meals, and more, big cruise ship kids clubs allow you to take a family vacation at sea, but also have plenty of date nights. Even better, these kids’ clubs usually carry no additional cost (with the notable exception of baby care and after-hours activities).

Big Cruise Perk: Enjoy Alone Time

Just like being in an enormous city such as New York or London versus growing up in a small town, it’s easier to “disappear” into a crowd on a big ship. This is because there are nooks and crannies, private lounges, and adult-only sun decks that can give you much-needed alone time. Also, as opposed to a small ship, you are not likely to run into that one loud, annoying passenger you saw and heard at dinner ever again! So, pack plenty of books, download a ton of podcasts, movies, or a new TV series to binge, or simply plan to unwind from the stress back at home and know that there’s a secluded spot on a big ship waiting for you.

Big Cruise Perk: Affordability

At the end of the day, it’s a basic economics lesson that gives the biggest cruise ships the edge for the vast majority of travelers—there is much more supply to adequately meet the demand. With hundreds of big cruise ships on the water every day, each with thousands of cabins, the cost of booking a cruise on a big ship is significantly cheaper than a stateroom on a smaller ship. While the entertainment and activities, kid’s clubs, and places to hide are important, at the end of the day, what matters most to the majority of travelers tends to be the cost of the cruise, and there’s simply no competing with big ships on price.

thixon March 28, 2023

My husband and I absolutely love the smaller cruise ships now. When our sons were young we had to do the big ones for the kid club activities.  But now that they are grown it isn't a concern.  We enjoy not having to deal with the long lines, searching for a place to sit, no pool loungers and no one running down the corridor late at night- we haven't seen any of that on the small ships.  I think the only thing you really give up on the small ships is entertainment.  They still have plenty of activities- cooking demonstrations, kitchen tour, port talks, evening newlywed game, team trivia, etc.  But you won't find a circus performance or Vegas sized show.  But still, we've found them to be worth every penny.  The food is superb , the service is more personal, the excursions more intimate.  

Subsrosa February 24, 2023

Fortunately, there is a cruise for everyone... although many folks are priced out of the small ship option. For us, smalll ships provide everything we want and exclude that which we do not want... kids, rowdy teens, corwded decks and chair hording, photograhers, and buk meals designed to feed the masses that elbow for room at the buffets. We just returned from the Nile where we shared the entire top observation deck/lounge/pool area with only one other couple!