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Big vs. small cruise ships: Which will I like better?

Oct. 17, 2021
9 min read
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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; 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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Small ships, on the other hand, tend to cater mostly to adults who want to travel in more intimate – or luxurious – surrounds. 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. To help you with your choice of ship, here are some fine points for both types of cruise travel.

Big ships, big action

The newest floating titans deliver amusement park attractions – such as the roller coaster on Carnival Cruise Line’s 5,282-passenger Mardi Gras, 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 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.

RELATED: The 6 best waterslides and watery fun zones at sea

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 "Jersey Boys." On MSC Cruises ships you may also catch Cirque de Soleil, the famous circus troupe. 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.

Royal Caribbean's giant ships often have large waterslides and surfing pools, among deck-top attractions. (Photo courtesy of Royal Caribbean.)

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 (especially when ships ramp up to their pre-pandemic occupancy levels). But that does not mean grownups can’t sneak away to more sedate areas such as the adults-only pool and sundeck areas, the extensive spa and fitness areas, or a specialty restaurant for a romantic dinner. While the grownups play, the kids will be well-occupied and looked after in camp-like kids’ program. There are often separate activities for teens and hard-to-please ‘tweens.

Big ships have a vast choice of accommodations that range from inside cabins for the budget-conscious to balcony cabins to lavish suites, some with their own outdoor hot tub. Some of the largest ships have ship-within-a-ship suite complexes complete with their own private restaurant and pool.

There are dining options that may 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.

Small ship intimacy and Mother Nature

Small ships, which for purposes of this story we are defining as 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 Silversea's 100-passenger Silver Origin in the Galapagos or on luxury line Crystal Cruises' new polar-class, 200-passenger Crystal Endeavor, you’ll stay in an elegant suite with butler service.

Don’t expect many onboard places to go – your choices may include a few dining venues and lounges, a spa and a small fitness center (though you may also find a small casino). There may be a pool on the top deck, or not. There will likely be a hot tub.

The new Crystal Cruises expedition ship Crystal Endeavor. (Photo by Gene Sloan/The Points Guy.)

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 their own aft-end marina stocked with water toys, so you can borrow a kayak, paddleboard or even a sailboat to spend time on the water on your own. Diving right off the ship into the sea is considered a rite of passage – especially if the water is frigid, in which case your efforts will likely be applauded by your fellow passengers.

A marina at the back of Silversea's small, Galapagos-based Silver Origin. (Photo courtesy of Silversea Cruises.)

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 (even 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 luxury line SeaDream Yacht Club, you may arrange your own dinner party out on the deck.

RELATED: These 6 luxury ships are like nothing you've ever seen before

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 that be remote tropical islands, polar regions or bucket list places in between. Some of these ships rarely do the same route twice.

In between

If you can’t decide between a big ship and a small ship, there is a middle ground in ships that carry 450 to 1,800 guests, which include many of the vessels operated by the main luxury lines – Seabourn, Silversea, and Regent Seven Seas Cruises -- as well as those operated by upscale lines such as Viking, Oceania and Azamara, plus the smaller Holland America Line ships.

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 that larger ships simply 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.

Planning a cruise? Start with these stories:

Featured image by Michel Verdure
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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Why We Chose It

The Marriott Bonvoy Business Amex is a stacked card with a rewards rate that will help you earn bonus points on everyday and business-related purchases. You'll earn 15 elite night credits each calendar year, and receive automatic Gold elite status. Finally, the free night award certificate with a redemption level of 35,000 points or less can get you hundreds of dollars in potential value each year.

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  • Receive a 7% discount off standard rates for reservations of standard guest rooms at hotels that participate in the Marriott Bonvoy program when you book directly. Terms and Conditions Apply.
  • Receive 1 Free Night Award every year after your Card renewal month. Plus, earn an additional Free Night Award after you spend $60K in purchases on your Card in a calendar year. Awards can be used for one night (redemption level at or under 35,000 Marriott Bonvoy® points) at hotels participating in Marriott Bonvoy®. Certain hotels have resort fees.
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