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Pros and cons of small-ship cruising in Alaska

June 11, 2022
10 min read
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Editor’s note: TPG contributor Jeri Clausing sailed on Ocean Victory on a free trip provided by American Queen Voyages. The opinions expressed below are entirely hers and weren’t subject to review by the line.

As I walked the streets in Wrangell, Alaska, I was thrilled not to have to share the town with thousands, or even just hundreds, of other cruisers.

Except for the welcoming locals, who were happy to talk about life in small-town Alaska, the only people I encountered were a few fellow passengers from American Queen Voyages’ 186-passenger expedition ship Ocean Victory.

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My sailing aboard this small cruise ship in Alaska was a welcome change from my previous big ship experience in the region, where the shops and restaurants were crowded with other tourists and passengers were subjected to sold-out or large-group tours.

The in-port experience wasn’t the only positive of seeking out a small ship in this huge state. Here are some of the pros and cons of small-ship cruising in Alaska, so you can decide if a little ship will make a big difference in your vacation enjoyment.

Pro: No lines or long waits

I knew my first big ship experience, a 2,000-passenger cruise to Alaska, would likely be my last when I arrived at the docks in Vancouver, British Columbia, at the same time as thousands of others eager to board the multiple giant ships in port. Once on board, I waited in another nightmare queue for dinner, as most passengers had not yet figured out the reservation system for dining venues.

On small cruise ships like Ocean Victory, the dining room opens at a set time and passengers can generally file in and out at their leisure, with no wait for a table.

Although we embarked in Vancouver, our smaller ship left late in the day, after the crowds for the big ships had cleared the terminal. Getting on and off during a port day was a breeze because tour groups were small and left at staggered times. The only time I had to wait to get on or off the ship was when the crew had to change the gangplank to a different level due to the rising tide.

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Pro: Intimate ships

Figuring out the right size cruise – or any group travel experience – can be challenging. To me, small ships that carry between 70 to 200 passengers, like many in Alaska, are the perfect middle ground.

Related: A beginners guide to picking a cruise line

These ships are small enough for you to connect with fellow travelers and find like-minded shipmates while offering enough room for you to seek out quiet space when necessary. The more intimate setting also means more personal engagements with staff, who quickly learn your name and your individual tastes. That generally translates to more personal, attentive service.

On Ocean Victory, the expedition team and onboard scientists are encouraged to eat with the passengers so you can get to know them and tap into their expertise about the Last Frontier.

For travelers comfortable going even smaller, UnCruise has ships carrying between 22 and 86 passengers. Alaskan Dream’s fleet carries from 10 to 76 passengers, while Lindblad Expeditions/National Geographic Alaska cruises carry up to 100 people.

Con: Fewer dining options

Ocean Victory's dining room. (Photo by Jeri Clausing)

If your idea of vacation is to sample as many restaurants as possible, small cruise ships aren’t for you.

Ocean Victory, for example, has only two dining venues — the main dining room and a more casual bistro-style area with indoor and outdoor seating on the top deck. The menus vary daily, serving a wide range of options at every meal, and I certainly never lacked for food I enjoyed.

However, if you prefer variety, the ship has no room for specialty venues or bonus shops like ice cream or hamburger stands. On the flip side, you avoid the up-charges and scrambles to secure reservations that go along with additional onboard restaurant options.

Related: The ultimate guide to cruise ship food and dining

Pro: Casual ambiance on board

As with many small cruise ships in Alaska, Ocean Victory’s onboard experience was relaxed and casual. As one travel advisor noted, it was “not for people who want to get dressed up and bring out the jewels.”

While some cruisers love to get glammed up for formal nights on their big-ship sailings, I’d bet the majority of travelers would rather leave the cocktail dresses and suits at home and stick to comfortable clothing for their vacation.

Related: Alaska cruise packing list: What to pack for a sailing up north

Con: Minimal entertainment on board

If you choose to sail a small cruise ship in Alaska, forget about nightlife. Intimate ships like Ocean Victory do not provide casinos, musical shows or specialty bars for your entertainment.

The extent of evening entertainment on my sailing was a few nighttime stories from expedition team naturalists over after-dinner cocktails and late-night tunes from the onboard pianist.

You can also forget about waterslides, expansive spas, kids clubs and the like. Ocean Victory did have a tiny spa and gym. But most of the small lines who sail Alaska are bare-bones, focused on adventure rather than amenities.

Related: The best Alaska cruise for every type of traveler

Pro: Authentic experiences in Alaskan ports

LeConte Glacier, Alaska. (Photo by Peter Szyszka)

In Alaska, smaller adventure ships can sail through narrower passages and stop in less-visited towns, which offer a much more personal and authentic look at the real Alaska and its people.

For instance, between Vancouver and Alaska, Ocean Victory ventured out of the main part of the Canadian Inside Passage, sailing through a narrow maze of channels and passages to give an up-close view of the shorelines and wildlife of remote places like Queen Charlotte Sound and the Fjordland Conservation Area.

Related: Best time to cruise Alaska

Except for a stop in the popular port of Ketchikan, we visited smaller ports like Wrangell, Petersburg and Kake, getting a glimpse of everyday life and warm interactions at locally owned businesses rather than chain jewelry and souvenir ships.

These smaller towns also offered easy access to places such as the Tongass National Rainforest, LaConte Glacier and Sitkine river, which are off the better-traveled routes of the big ships.

Mixed: Limited shopping options in small towns

The flip side of getting off the beaten path is you won’t find the same shopping options in small ports that you would in the major cruise ports of Juneau, Ketchikan and Skagway. This could be a plus or minus depending on your point of view.

Most cities on major cruise line routes are known for their endless rows of jewelry, souvenir and specialty shops — many of which are not locally owned. If you love to spend hours looking for deals and gifts to bring home, you’ll find the most variety in the big-ship ports.

Related: Best Alaska cruise tips to help you make the most of your time aboard and ashore

The smaller ports take a different approach to souvenirs. In Wrangell, there were only about a half dozen stores, including a grocery store, drug store and a few stores that offered essentials, like swimsuits, flip-flops, T-shirts and sweatshirts. One was more of a traditional store than souvenir shop, and the other, the Compass Line Gift Shop, offered high-quality T-shirts, hats hand-designed by the owner, candles and handmade soaps.

“We purposely don’t carry items that other shops may carry on the island,” the shop’s website says. “We like our neighbor shops, so why compete with them.”

In Kake, population 500, I didn’t come across any souvenir stores at all. Instead, a few locals sold handmade jewelry, postcards and other odds and ends in the community center before the town’s children performed local dances for the cruise passengers.

Pro: More adventure

The kayak and zodiac fleet on Ocean Victory. (Photo by Jeri Clausing)

Instead of just sailing between ports, small cruise ships in Alaska offer expedition days. The ships sit anchored, completely alone, and expedition teams lead passengers in the exploration of rugged coastlines via onboard kayaks and Zodiacs.

That to me is the biggest plus of small ship cruising. You don’t need to sign up for excursions, disembark, then travel somewhere else to launch your adventure. On my cruise, we simply walked to the Deck 4 mudroom to suit up in life jackets and rain gear (when needed), then boarded the kayaks and Zodiacs right from the side doors and a rear platform that folded out from the ship.

While all Alaska cruises offer stunning views day in and out, there’s nothing quite like skimming the coastline from your own kayak, watching for wildlife in the water and on land. We watched sea otters carrying their babies, floated among chunks of glacial ice, and viewed starfish nestled on the sea floor below and mountain goats on the cliffs above. A few lucky passengers even watched a moose take a swim.

The highlight: feeling at one with Alaska’s majestic outdoors.

Con: Fewer excursion options

Because the smaller ships have fewer passengers looking to book tours, and the smaller ports have fewer companies offering day trips, shore excursion options are limited. You will get a greater variety of excursion choices on big ships.

For instance, most big ships in Alaska offer shore excursions ranging from helicopter rides to glaciers and small plane excursions to known bear habitats to scenic train trips, zip-line adventures, salmon bakes and city tours by bus or on foot.

Other than pre- and post-cruise city tours in Sitka and Vancouver, our 10-day sailing on Ocean Victory only had three days with excursion options. Each included one free basic highlights tour of the port and a few premium experiences, including sport fishing, a nature walk and two different jet boat tours.

If you like planned activities and want a larger choice of tours, the small-ship experience is not for you. But for me, the ability to wander the streets of the less tourist-oriented towns was better than any group tour. In Wrangell, a few of us stopped in the Totem Bar, where bartender Drew Eyon gave us a more interesting and real take on life on this island of 2,500 than any official tour guide ever could.

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Featured image by Ocean Victory's fleet of kayaks. (Photo by Jeri Clausing)
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.