Decades ago, we got on our first cruise ship as a couple.  A special itinerary charter of the Caribbean, the trip was a ‘reward’ from Pirate’s company. 

On a scale of five stars, this small ship was SIX BIG BRIGHT ONES!  Huge marble bathroom.  Gourmet meals for breakfast, lunch and dinner.  Complimentary bottles of wine from around the world.  Attentive, fun crew. 

“Don’t get used to this, honey,” I told Pirate.  “We will never be able to afford this kind of luxury again.”  (Hopefully I will be wrong.)

How do you decide if you want to spring for a little ship like this one, or try a big one with resort attraction features?  Ask yourself these important questions.

Are You’re a Big Resort Person?

If you like to have lots of activities, rides and shows to amuse you daily, you want a mega-ship.  The largest cruise ships in the industry feature water slides, wave rides, Vegas-styled shows and some, road racing.  You can shop at a plaza that rivals mega-malls and eat at a couple of dozen themed or specialty cuisine restaurants.

Large ships like this are like destination resorts you never have to leave.  You might not even care where they’re going, because you never plan to take a single shore trip.  You might miss some of the scenery since mega-ships can’t always go where small ones can, but that isn’t important to you.

A mid-sized option. Note the orange tenders running between ship and shore.

Do You Appreciate Elbow Room?

If you’re someone who likes to find a quiet corner to read or wants to engage in thoughtful conversation with your traveling companions, a small ship might be a better choice.  Oddly enough, the big ships can feel crowded even with all that space because they carry a LOT of people.  There is scant room to spread out and very few cubbyholes.  Peaceful is not the norm on big ships.

Small ships don’t usually scrimp on features and since they carry a much smaller number of passengers, people have room to spread out.  You’re more likely to find a chair in common areas or a lounger on deck.  Those who like small ship cruising tend to pick those ships on purpose, so they are more likely to be fans of calm reflection too.

What’s the Itinerary?

Big ships need to fill all those cabins, so they tend to run the most popular itineraries on the planet.  Common trips are in the Caribbean, the Mediterranean, and Alaska.  If you would like to see different ports from those crowded with six other big vessels and all the people they carry, a smaller ship can go where the behemoths can’t.

Think too about the locale and how much competition you’ll have at the sights.  In certain towns in Alaska, for example, you’ll barely have room to walk when the big ships are all in at the same time.  Major ports in Europe are perennially overcrowded, and unless you do good planning ahead of time, you won’t be able to get in line for a ticket to see a sight because everything books up ahead of time.

Is Accessibility an Issue?

In some ports, ships large and small must drop anchor away from the port and tender in their passengers.  Tenders are the lifeboats hanging from the sides of your ship, and they serve as your shuttles to shore.  If you need a walker or use a power scooter, you won’t be able to get ashore in those places.

Note that this applies to all ships in many ports, like popular Cabo San Lucas and many islands in the Caribbean.  In some places, though, the smaller ships can come in and tie up because they don’t need as much water under them and/or aren’t too long for the pier.  Cruise lines post tender-only ports on their itinerary schedules, so check that before you book.

Afternoon tea – a nice feature on many intimate ships

Do Some People Drive You Crazy?

We recently got off a big ship – not the largest out there, but bigger than anything we’ve ever traveled before.  In many ways, it was a party ship, not our favorite vacay because it lacked a relaxing atmosphere.  Because of the ship’s many activities and its destinations (Mexican Riviera), it attracted more, shall we say exuberant, passengers than what we’ve found on this same line before.  (Think loud and way too many drinks into their beverage package…wearing shorts in the fine dining venues on formal night.)

On the other hand, we have an upcoming trip on a small ship, a segment of that line’s World Cruise.  This will be a high-end crowd with the necessary deep pockets to fund six months at sea.  Ergo, we will need a slightly better wardrobe than what we usually sport on these trips!  People aren’t generally snobs on cruises, since we’re all there because of our love for being on the water, but still…

Know before you go that within the same cruise line, the features and personalities of the ships can differ, large versus small.  Do your homework by looking at past passenger reviews (always taken with a healthy dose of reality-check) and ratings from trusted travel sources for both the ship AND the cruise line.  It will pay off in an experience more to your expectations and liking, which add together to equal a trip you’ll rave (positively) about!

What’s your cruising preference, big ships or small ones? What excites you about that mode of travel?

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