There’s no denying it: When it comes to cruises, size matters, but bigger isn't always better. Both ship sizes offer fundamentally different experiences and as a result, attract very different clientele.
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. The atmosphere is more relaxed, and the dining options favor quality over quantity.
Not sure which cruise you’d prefer? Read on to find out what size suits you best:
Tip: While the price of sailing on both big and small cruise ships depends largely on the cabin type you choose, smaller ships are, generally speaking, significantly more expensive.
Lines and Crowds:
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.)
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.
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?), cooking demos and singing competitions to basketball courts and rock-climbing walls. Smaller ships have lectures about the ports, as well as trivia contests and some classes, but be prepared to entertain yourself at times.
Winner: Big ships. The variety of activities on newer ships is astounding.
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, popular children's characters, pizzerias, and ice cream stands. Smaller ships typically don’t have playrooms, or even organized activities.
Winner: Big ships. Kids tend to get bored on smaller ships.
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. It's a matter of preference, but most people prefer the options on larger vessels.
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. They can explore where other ships can't.
Peace and 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. It's not even close.
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. The difference in size is neglibible, but the difference in crowds is not.
Small ships tend to offer higher-quality service and food, and an increased focus on the destinations, but if non-stop action and entertainment is what you want, then a big ship is best for you.