Advice

Smackdown: Big Cruise Ships vs. Small Ships

Crystal Symphony sails past Portofino, Italy. - Photo by Crystal Cruises

There’s no denying it: When it comes to cruises, size matters. Big ships, the largest of which can carry more than 5,000 passengers, offer plenty of everything — restaurants, bars, entertainment, pools, and (of course) people. These cruises can be noisy, yet they allow you to retain your anonymity.

Small ships carry just a few hundred passengers: You’ll bump into shipmates often as there are fewer public spaces to choose from. Not sure which cruise you’d prefer? Read on to find out what size suits you best:

pool on wind star cruise ship

Pool on Wind Star
Photo by Roger Paperno/ Windstar Cruises

Waiting in Lines:

On ships carrying fewer than 1,000 passengers, it’s quicker to get off at each port, easier to get a chaise lounge by the pool, and faster to order your favorite omelet at breakfast. On the largest ships, it can take hours to get off the ship on the last morning — and the same in port — especially if the ship is anchored and you have to wait your turn to board a tender boat to get ashore. 

Winner: Small ships (This one is easy.)

chefs at taste bar restaurant on carnival sunshine

Taste Bar on Carnival Sunshine
Photo by Carnival Cruise Lines

Dining:

The biggest ships serve up lots of choices, with as many as a dozen dining venues. Norwegian Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean International offer a variety of styles, from giant formal dining rooms and sprawling buffet restaurants to intimate venues that serve, say, noodles or steak. The smaller, high-end ships have fewer choices, but the cuisine in the main dining room tends to be more carefully prepared.

Winner: Draw — it depends on whether you prefer lots of variety or a bit more attention to detail.

girl on waterslide norwegian cruise line

Aqua Park on  Norwegian Epic 
Photo by Norwegian Cruise Line

Activities:

Whether it’s a water slide or a volleyball game, big ships offer lots of opportunities to get involved. You can be busy all day long: Sea day events range from classes (line dancing anyone?) to cooking demos and singing competitions. Smaller ships have lectures about the ports, as well as trivia contests and sometimes classes, but be prepared to entertain yourself at times.

Winner: Big ships

family playing mini golf on cruise ship

Royal Caribbean ships have miniature golf courses.
Photo by Royal Caribbean International

Family-Friendly Fun:

Big ships offers lots of opportunities for families to play together — and separately. These ships have large playrooms for young kids and distinct spaces for teens, plus video arcades, pizzerias, and ice cream stands. Smaller ships typically don’t have playrooms, or even organized activities.

Winner: Big ships

bollywood show on norwegian cruise ship

Bollywood show on  Norwegian Dawn
Photo by Norwegian Cruise Ship

Entertainment:

If you like comedy acts, Broadway-style song and dance shows, thumping dance clubs, and big exciting casinos clanging into the wee hours, then you’re definitely a big-ship person. On the smaller ships, entertainment is limited to a live musician or two, movies, and shared cocktails and conversation with fellow shipmates.

Winner: Big ships 

seabourn odyssey cruise ship in sydney

 Seabourn Odyssey in Sydney's harbor
Photo by Seabourn Cruise Line

Ports:

If you cruise because you love being on the ship and consider it the main destination, then 2,500-passenger-plus ships are winners. If you cruise to explore the destinations, then a small ship will get you closer to port — big ships often have to anchor offshore or dock farther from the main attractions. For instance, small ships get closer to the British Virgin Islands, as well as Bangkok. 

Winner: Small ships

people eating at cruise ship cafe

Seabourn's Veranda Cafe
Photo by Seabourn Cruise Line

Quiet:

Small ships are low-key, quiet, and tend to attract far fewer families than the big ships — except during holiday weeks like Thanksgiving or Christmas. You won’t have children running down the halls, or roving ship’s photographers snapping photos at every opportunity, on a small ship. There won’t be music blasting, or a jumbo movie screen, poolside on small ships.

Winner: Small ships

people swimming in cruise ship pool

Pool on Crystal Serenity
Photo by Crystal Cruises

Pools:

During prime daytime hours, hot tubs and pools on the biggest ships are literally stuffed with people — including lots of kids. On smaller ships, there may be just one hot tub and one pool, but they’re rarely packed. 

Winner: Small ships 

Overall Winner? Small ships tend to offer higher-quality service and food, and an increased focus on the destination, but if entertainment is what you want, then a big ship is best for you.



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