Cruise Halong Bay by small ship

Small Cruise Ships versus Big Cruise Ships – When Size Matters

Royal Caribbean’s “Icon of the Seas,” a mammoth 365 meters long (nearly 1,200 feet), weighing in at a projected 250,800 tonnes, set sail in the Caribbean waters in January 2024. How can small cruise ships compete with these massive floating cities?

“That’s like trying to keep two CN towers afloat,” says CNN Travel editor Maureen O’Hare in her article entitled, “The World’s Biggest Cruise Ship is Almost Ready.

It won’t be long before some punter rivals the competition with yet another monstrosity, hoping to grab the coveted spot of the biggest and brightest gem on the high seas.

But is bigger better?

It ain’t the size of the boat; it’s the motion of the ocean,” said one Nepoleanic wannabe. I’m assuming that was in reference to ships.

Anon

As a small cruise ship expert, clearly, I have my bias in this debate, but let me unravel my reasons why. Before I get started, let me first outline how I define a small ship vs. a big ship. For the purpose of this argument, I’m classifying any ship with the capacity to carry 500 passengers or more as “big.” Everything else falls within the small ship category.

Atmosphere

The vibe with small ship cruising is intimate. It’s not uncommon to know crew members by first name within the first 24 hours. There is an immediate familiarity with your surroundings and a feeling of having a home away from home. A quick circle around the ship, and you know the location of the dining facilities, the closest public washroom, the bar, the library and, of course, the nearest lifeboats.

There is little concern about losing your way back to your cabin. You aren’t likely to get lost and find yourself confused by a sea of similar doors. You may start to recognize fellow passengers in the hallways and call them by first name. Next you realize, you may even find yourself enjoying an evening nightcap with new aquaintances. It’s neighbourly.

Comparatively, on a big ship, it’s not uncommon that nooks and crannies are left waiting to be explored even after a seven-day journey. For some, the sense of newness and adventure hiding around every corner can assuage their fears of confined boredom. But epic-sized atriums can dwarf and overwhelm the traveller looking for an intimate setting. Big ships offer a sense of anonymity compared to the companionship and familiarity of a small cruise ship.

What is your travel personality style? Are you someone who prefers the intimacy of a small dinner party, or is a vibrant cocktail party with many guests more your style?

Making friends while cruising
Small ships offer the perfect environment to meet like mind-travellers.

Staterooms

Surprisingly, the size of the ship doesn’t necessarily denote the size of the cabin. Small cruise ships can offer the same spacious staterooms as you might expect on a big ship. The size of the cabin usually boils down to the price point. With a small ship, extra attention has been paid to ensuring that most cabins have access to a view of the water, whether with a balcony suite or even just a room with a porthole for viewing.

On a big ship, there is simply more interior space to create inside cabins that offer more affordable options for those who aren’t as concerned with a view of the water if it means saving a few dollars. Some big ships, like those offered by Norwegian Cruise Line, are even specifically designed to cater to a solo traveller clientele, with areas dedicated to singles on a budget. Small ships don’t typically have the space to offer the same affordability.

However, whether you choose a big ship or a small ship cruising, you have options when it comes to space.

Variation of itineraries

Choosing the perfect itinerary is often a big part of cruising. If this statement rings true for you, then a small ship experience might be your best option. With small cruise ships, you simply have the flexibility and maneuverability to get into ports and destinations that larger ships cannot manage. A general rule is the smaller the ship, the more flexible the itinerary. It’s magical to awaken to hear the ship’s captain announce an unexpected detour to spot a pod of whales performing synchronized aquatics off the ship’s starboard side. Large cruise ships don’t offer the same spur-of-the-moment deviations.

The Fleur de Lys, Belmond's small ship that sails through Burgundy
Sail through the storybook rivers of Burgundy aboard Belmond’s Fleur de Lys.

For some travellers, however, where the ship sails is of little importance. They may not even venture ashore. For them, the ship is the destination. They prefer the variety of onboard activities. Whether it be the waterpark on Deck Fifteen, the raucous casino hidden on Deck Seven, the Broadway-style shows on Deck Nine or the pool-deck limbo contest…if this sounds like more your style, then a big ship is your safer bet.

One thing to consider if you decide to go with a big ship option is how the ship will dock. Will it actually dock at port, or will tenders be used to get to shore?

Tender: A type of watercraft used to transport passengers between ship and shore. Some ports do not have the facilities to allow larger ships to dock. The disadvantage of using a tender is that these watercraft are small, so multiple trips are expected. Be prepared to book a time slot and wait. Also, depending on the conditions of the water, it may not always be possible to use the tenders to get to shore. Generally, alighting the boat is not guaranteed if a port is considered a tender port.

When choosing a small cruise ship, there are few places in the world you cannot visit. Imagine waking up and drawing back your balcony curtain to this view…

view from a small ship in Vietnam
Wake up with a morning coffee with spectacular views close to shore.

You won’t see large ships get this close to the shoreline. So when choosing between a big ship vs. a small ship, decide what falls highest in your list of priorities…destination or means to get there.

Dining Options

Holistically speaking, both with small ship cruising and big ship cruising, both offer incredible dining options for all palettes regardless of the size of the ship; however, there are still a few clear differences that should be considered.

Larger ships simply have the space to offer a multitude of restaurants. It’s not uncommon to have a steakhouse, an Italian bistro, a French brasserie, a Teppanyaki Grill and even an ice cream parlour to choose from. And let’s not forget about the all-day dining options on the ship’s buffet. “Choice” is never the problem. Note: Most big ships charge a premium for the opportunity to eat at these specialty restaurants.

But quantity is not necessarily a determinant of quality. Discerning epicureans may want to steer clear of the moussaka made en masse and expected to last the day under the warm glow of heat lamps.

On the flip side, small ship cruise dining rarely disappoints. Every reputable cruise operator understands the criticality of delighting the tastebuds. What small ships lack in options, they make up for in sapidity. Gourmands need not worry about finding memorable morsels at every meal to write home about.

By the numbers

Earlier, I defined big ships as those that carry anything over 500 people. So, let’s dig deeper into how the numbers actually play out.

Large ships mean more people

  • More people to queue behind when trying to grab an egg benny on the breakfast buffet. 
  • More people to navigate when trying to grab an elevator necessary to transfer between the host of decks
  • More people to contend with when trying to nab a deck chair near the limited space by the pool
  • More people to patiently await for your spot on the tender
  • More people to grate on your last nerves
  • But equally, more people with whom to make a new connection. In a sea of 5000, you are bound to find someone you like. 
  • Or…you can equally blend in if privacy is what you are after.
Big crowded cruise ship featuring lots of people by the pool.
Big cruise ships means lots of people and lots of activities.

Small cruise ships mean fewer people

  • Less chance of having to wait in lines
  • More chance of receiving personalized service from the crew
  • More chance of having deep conversations and making life-long friendships because you share similar travel values
  • Less chance of blending into obscurity
  • And with fewer people on board, if someone really gets up your nose, there are fewer places to hide.
A small ship cruise bartender pouring a glass of wine for a guest.
Small ship cruising offers personalized service for guests.

Shore Excursions

Both small ships and big ships have much to offer once they’ve arrived at their destination. Both offer the option to do-it-yourself or take advantage of organized excursions. However, small ships win this round when it comes to exploring small communities. 

Imagine being a local living in a coastal village of Belize and preparing for a shipload of 5000 passengers to descend on your small town. It’s difficult to roll out your best welcome mat knowing it’s about to be trampled. Conversely, a small group of passengers disembarking from a small ship seems less intimidating. Again, it comes down to the closeness and familiarity small groups of people evoke.

Two large cruise ships dock at port
Two large cruise ships dock in the Caribbean.

Travel should be about exploring and understanding different cultures, finding commonalities and bridging differences. That’s challenging to do when you have a stadium of people advancing on a small community.

Multi-Generational Travel

 This round goes to big ships. With so many activities on offer and many dining options, you can’t beat the variety a large ship has available, especially for younger children. Big ships have waterparks, kids’ clubs, rec rooms, arcades, laser-tag, and even some with go-carts. Children of all ages won’t be disappointed. This allows parents and grandparents time to relax and enjoy the things they prefer to do without needlessly worrying about the safety of their children.

Small ships don’t have the same facilities, so if you plan to travel with youngsters, you may opt for a big ship to give you peace of mind knowing every age of traveller will be catered to.

Entertainment

When it comes to the entertainment options available on both sizes of ships, one isn’t better than the other; they are just different.

With big ships, you are more likely to find Broadway-esque shows, comedy routines, dancing, and a host of other activities usually spearheaded by a cruise director whose job is to encourage guest participation.

With small ships, the entertainment is no less engaging, just on a smaller scale. It’s not uncommon to have expert lecturers on board who interact with guests. The vibe is more laid back and low-key, with emphasis again on intimate interactions.

Affordability

No question, economies of scale play a role when it comes to making a cruise affordable. Hiring a guest lecturer to speak in front of thousands of people costs the same as hiring one to speak in front of 50. The same is true for most amenities and attractions available on a ship. When big ship cruise operators purchase supplies in bulk, those savings are passed down to the guests.

Making a ship decision based on price alone will leave you wanting, and I don’t think anyone does, but large ships do offer price points that are difficult not to appreciate and take into account.

Motion Sensitivity


Mal de mer, or seasickness as it’s more commonly known, is a reality of travel by ship. If you know you suffer from motion sickness, larger ships are often equipped with stabilizers that offer a smoother sailing experience that comes in handy on the wide-open ocean. But even stabilizers are no match for angry seas. Consider consulting with your family doctor for alternative methods to ensure your cruising experience is more enjoyable.

Small Ship cruising vs. Big Ship Cruising
Choosing the right size ship for you.

Choosing the size of the ship that is right for you

Ultimately, choosing between small and big ships hinges on your travel preferences. Those seeking a culturally immersive journey with more personalized service and a friendly, small-town atmosphere will fare best on a small ship. Those who prefer variety, anonymity, the excitement and hustle that a big city might offer will do best on board a large ship. Make no mistake, though…when it comes to cruising, size matters.

Still not sure? Why not book an appointment to discuss the best cruise option for you?

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