Travelers looking for a fun cruise vacation have literally tons of vessel choices. But which one to choose? A “Big” ship or a “Little” ship? What are the advantages and disadvantages to each? Is one perfect for a getaway, a honeymoon, destinations, simple relaxation or best for families? Will there be enough activities, fine dining and wine? Everybody is different so which is best for you?
For sake of argument, in the “Big” category I’ll use very large ships that can house 3,000 passengers or more. Some, like the leviathan Symphony of the Seas (and its sister ships) can carry more than 6,600 passengers plus a crew of almost 2,300. For “Little” I am including cruise vessels that house less than 1,000 passengers. However, most of the boutique ships in this category carry far less, usually between 300 and 600 guests.
5 Pros of a Big Ship
One way to think of the mega-sized ships is like being on a floating Las Vegas, with its vast array of eye candy, open twenty four hours a day, people of all shapes and sizes and ages, and some sort of stimulation around every corner.
*So Many Choices: “Mega ships absolutely give more options than any other ship – with a wide range of cabin sizes, configurations and price ranges, to many dining option,” said Pennsylvania based Sandy Fenton, noted cruise expert, travel broadcaster and travel writer. There are usually so many dining choices (though many are for an additional fee) that you can’t hit them all.
*Great for Families: For families this can be an ideal vacation as kids and hard-to-please teens will be entertained. For instance, Oasis of the Seas features teen-only sessions on the FlowRider wave and surfing pool, a huge rock climbing wall and popular basketball court. Norwegian’s Breakaway offers a three-story sports complex with the largest ropes course at sea; a rock climbing wall, miniature golf course, bungee trampoline and a 24 foot enclosed climbing cage called the “spider web.” The Norwegian Pearl has a popular 4 lane bowling alley onboard. Kids will always find something to do on a big ship.
*Lots of cabins: On such big ships with thousands of cabins to fill for every sailing, guests have a huge array of cabin choices and price ranges. They come in various configurations, sizes, with or without balconies – even in different neighborhoods.
*That’s Entertainment: Big ships really go all out on entertainment, with giant, state-of-the-art stages and current Broadway shows like “Hairspray,” and “Mama Mia.” Large cruise lines also host popular music cruises like The Moody Blues Cruise with Roger Daltry, soon on the MSC Divina. Big vessels also have large casinos, lots of watersports and a variety of pools.
*Value Cruising – with a Caveat: The big cruise lines do run some great sales on various voyages. But beware, all the small charges can really add up. However, if you’re a teetotaler, don’t plan on buying much onboard, yet want to see it all and be entertained, a big ship experience may be perfect.
5 Cons of a Big Ship
*Too big? These ships are very large and can get pretty crowded at times. For instance, the Oasis of the Seas’s Opus Dining Room – the main central dining area, can seat 3,096 guests at a time. You will be travelling with 4,000 + new friends, so if you don’t like crowds, perhaps this isn’t the experience for you. If you prefer peace and quiet, look elsewhere.
*Many Kids: If you aren’t a kid friendly person or just prefer the company of mostly adults, on a very big ship you may be out of luck. With the value pricing options and numerous programs directly aimed at children and teens, there will be kids aplenty aboard big ships, particular in the summer.
*Embarkation and Disembarkation: With so many passengers getting on and off prior to a cruise, during shore visits and at the conclusion, this process can be extremely tedious. Be patient, there is no way around this process.
*Nickel & Dime: These large ships are not generally all-inclusive meaning passengers will pay for virtually every item, whether alcoholic beverage or not. Tipping for everything and shore excursions quickly adds up and the bill at the conclusion of this type of “inexpensive” cruise can be quite a shock. Onboard drink packages can save a lot of money.
*Dining and Service: Mega ships really do try hard to satisfy their passengers, but with many thousands of hungry passengers to feed every day, quantity usually trumps quality. And those buffet lines can be ceaseless. The same goes for service as the endless stream of passengers, requests, issues and complaints can wear down even the friendliest crew.
Pros of a Small Ship
Small ship cruising is like living aboard a 5 star luxury hotel, and gently sailing from port to port. Boutique vessels can provide all the opulence, top notch service as well as little touches one might expect in a world class hotel, or restaurant. Staffing levels are most often exceedingly high and most cabins will have balconies.
*All-Inclusive: In some instance that means virtually everything. Regent offers free roundtrip air, free shore excursions, all gratuities, most wines and spirits, and included specialty dining on every cruise. Tipping or signing a bill is rarely needed aboard an All- Inclusive ship. Included wines and spirits at all hours, day or night, with or without meals is a huge plus to many travelers.
*Luxury and Top Notch Service: Many of the smaller, premium lines have experienced butler service for all suite guests. Sanjay, my butler on a recent Silversea Spirit went above and beyond and leant me a pair of cufflinks when I realized I’d forgotten mine. Embarking on these voyages is usually a stress free boarding experience ending with a glass of Champagne. Servers will remember your preferences and bring you your favorite appetizer, or drink, often without asking.
*True Fine Dining: These types of smaller ships offer gourmet level cuisine in the dining rooms and at the alternative dining restaurants such as La Terrazza – the first and only Slow Food approved restaurant at sea. Restaurants also offer high-end presentation, service knowledgeable staff. And the quality of the cuisine is on par with many of the finest land lubbing restaurants.
*Exclusive Itineraries: These types of cruise offer various language and cultural programs, and some present posh culinary classes like the L’Ecole des Chefs by Relais & Châteaux on the Silver Spirit, art and literature courses, enrichment programs with world famous lecturers and wine themed cruises complete with winemakers aboard
*Peaceful and Gorgeous: Smaller ships generally do not cater to families and there will be few, if any children aboard. The cabins are finely appointed with high-end amenities and the vessels often display beautiful, and expensive artworks scattered throughout the ship. Fellow passengers tend to be more educated, worldly and curious.
5 Cons of a Small Ship
*It’s too quiet: Most of the smaller ships close up early, and do not have much in the way of late night bars, nightclubs scenes or gambling. Most restaurants and dining stations close around 11 O’clock – so no midnight buffet. There’s usually one late night bar with so music, but don’t expect too much action.
*Entertainment options limited: Since this is not a priority on small luxury vessels, the shows tend to be few and less elaborate. Entertainment options consist of smaller shows, solo entertainers, screenings of current films, well attended trivia contests, bridge clubs and lectures. Libraries are usually fully stocked as passengers on these cruises tend to read quite a bit.
*Kids may be bored: Smaller vessels have few options devoted to children and teenagers. The ships do have pools but normal youthful play around them is discouraged. Onboard sports options are usually limited to golf practice, ping pong, shuffleboard and gym workouts. Sorry, no ropes courses.
*We will meet again: Since the size of the ship is small, and importantly the overall number of guests is low, it is likely that you will meet each and every passenger aboard more than once. If this is a problem, you may want to sail on a larger ship.
*Itineraries are longer: Many luxury cruise lines have itineraries beginning with 8 day voyages and up. This can be too long or expensive for some travelers. Seabourn is one of the luxury carriers that run many shorter.
Conclusion: Mega sized cruise ships are very stable on the high seas and are always great for people watching. The varied entertainment, activities and dining options onboard are frankly astounding. However, if included wine and drinks, fine dining, stellar service and a tranquil atmosphere is a priority, a smaller ship may be right for you.
If all prices are compared – the All Inclusives luxury voyages actually come out only slightly more expensive than the mega ships. Either way, “There have never been more choices, ever, for the cruise passenger,” stated Sandy Fenton.
© Bob Ecker November 2019
Bob Ecker is a Napa Valley, California based travel writer
Cover photo: Along Stranden in trendy Aker Brygge harborfront section of Oslo with marina and cruise ship Eurodam of Holland America Line in port ©Dennis Cox/WorldViews