How To Choose The Right Size Ship For You

If you’ve never cruised before – and even if you have – choosing the right size ship can be a real challenge. After all, most of us try a cruise once, decide it’s a good fit, and leave it at that. With precious vacation time (and dollars) at risk, many of us prefer to stick with what we know, believing that the grass really is greener on our side of the fence.

So how do you pick the cruise ship size that’s right for you? We take a look at some of the most popular ships and outline who they’re good for – and who they aren’t.

Mega Ships

Allure of the Seas is currently the largest cruise ship in the world. Photo courtesy of Royal Caribbean.
Allure of the Seas is currently the largest cruise ship in the world. Photo courtesy of Royal Caribbean.

Mega ships – like Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas or Norwegian Cruise Line’s Norwegian Epic are the new norm among mainstream cruise lines. Typically carrying more than 4,500 guests, these ships are big, brash and bold – and that’s okay. They offer dozens, if not hundreds, of individual diversions, along with an array of increasingly complicated and elaborate features. Ice bars, surfing and skydiving simulators, bumper cars, elevating bars, robotic bars – you’ll find them all on these technological marvels.

Quantum of the Seas will feature the first Bumper Cars at sea. Photo courtesy Royal Caribbean
Quantum of the Seas features the first Bumper Cars at sea. Photo courtesy Royal Caribbean

Of course, if you’re put off by the thought of sailing aboard the S.S. Mall of America, you should probably go with your gut instinct: These ships are designed to appeal to travelers that, ordinarily, may not choose a cruise vacation. Thus, you may find a disconnect with the sea and a stronger allegiance to something that resembles a great Las Vegas amusement park gone to sea.

Recommended For: Multigenerational families, young couples, travellers who want the latest entertainment, features, and attractions. If you like the idea of riding a surfing simulator before chowing down on some Sushi and then going for drinks at the Bionic Bar, these are the ships for you.

Not Recommended For: Those seeking an intimate, educational, or quietly romantic cruise vacation. This isn’t it.

Big Ship Voyage Report: MSC Cruises’ MSC Divina

Midsize Mainstream

The beautiful Coral Princess. Photo courtesy of Princess Cruises
The beautiful Coral Princess: a great example of a mid-sized mainstream cruise ship. Photo courtesy of Princess Cruises

Yes, we just made that moniker up. But it refers to an increasingly-large category of ships; ships that, until about a decade ago, would have been considered Mega Ships.

We’re talking, of course, about vessels like Holland America Line’s Zuiderdam, Princess Cruises’ Grand Princess, and Royal Caribbean’s Radiance of the Seas.

Back onboard the soothing Star Princess. Shown here is Crooner's Lounge on Deck 7...Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Midized mainstream ships still offer cruisers plenty of choice. Shown here is the Crooner’s Bar aboard Star Princess.Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

These ships typically carry between 1,900 and 3,000 guests apiece. They’re a great ‘happy medium’ for cruisers who are put off by small or luxury cruise ships, but who get a little knock-kneed at the thought of cruising on gargantuan behemoths like Oasis of the Seas and her similarly-sized sisters. These “Mainstream Medium” ships offer up all of the entertainment, amenities and features as their larger counterparts, but they typically have a better connection with the sea through open deck spaces and an abundance of floor-to-ceiling windows.

That doesn’t mean these ships are frumpy: Disney Cruise Line’s happy Disney Magic and her fleetmates fit in her, as does Norwegian Cruise Line’s Jewel-class ships like Norwegian Jewel. They offer expansive spas, multiple dining venues, upwards of three dozen different bars and lounges, and staterooms to suit every budget type. Even better, they’re perhaps the most abundant examples sailing around the world.

Celebrity Summit docked in one of the "classic" Canada & New England itinerary ports of Saint John, New Brunswick. Photo © Aaron Saunders
Celebrity Summit docked in one of the “classic” Canada & New England itinerary ports of Saint John, New Brunswick. Once considered a megaship, she’s now comfortably ‘mid-size.’ Photo © Aaron Saunders

Recommended For: Couples, families and friends travelling together who want a good quality cruise at a reasonable price. These ships aren’t the biggest in the world, but they make up for that with better guest-to-crew ratios and more “classic” cruise features.

Not Recommended For: Small-ship luxury aficionados. These are great ships, but they’re certainly not luxury.

Midsize Ship Voyage Report: Princess Cruises’ Star Princess

Small Ships

Seabourn is sending the sleek Seabourn Sojourn to Alaska in 2017; the company's first sailings to the region in 15 years. Photo courtesy of Seabourn
Seabourn Sojourn is a sleek example of small-ship cruising. Photo courtesy of Seabourn

This category is getting harder and harder to define, simply because there are so many small-ship players in the market right now. In fact, despite all the press afforded to the behemoths of the seas, it might surprise you to learn that small-ship cruising is enjoying something of a renaissance right now.

Small ships tend to fall into two categories: luxury small ships and mainstream small ships. On the luxury side, we’re talking about vessels like Seabourn Quest and Silver Spirit. On the mainstream side, Holland America’s Prinsendam is one of our favorites, with a guest capacity of just 835.

Holland America's venerable Prinsendam began her life as the Royal Viking Sun. Photo courtesy of Holland America Line
Holland America’s venerable Prinsendam began her life as the Royal Viking Sun. Photo courtesy of Holland America Line

Yes, small ships are small. But, as anyone who has sailed aboard a small ship will tell you, small is beautiful. You’re not going to find lines or queues that stretch into the horizon. You won’t have to leave that copy of War and Peace to reserve your deck chair by the pool. There are no ziplines, no bumper cars, no rock-climbing walls – and that’s just how small-ship lovers like it.

What you get with a small ship – be it luxury or mainstream – is a more relaxed cruise experience. Service tends to be better. Onboard cuisine leans to the more elaborate side of the scale. The connection with the sea is superb. If the megaships are a Hilton, small ships are a Kimpton.

Recommended For: Couples, honeymooners, and adult extended families or friends looking for an intimate, relaxing, destination-focused cruise experience.

Not Recommended For: Those who need constant entertainment and scheduled activities. While many small ships offer full-blown production shows, lectures, seminars and the like, entertainment tends to be more cerebral than the options aboard the big ships.

Small Ship Voyage Report: Seabourn in Antarctica

Expedition Ships

Sailing Haida Gwaii, off the coast of British Columbia, Canada, aboard Outer Shores Passing Cloud. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
Outer Shores Passing Cloud carries just eight guests off the coast of British Columbia, Canada. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

The last major category of ship is the one that we personally feel is the most fun. With a few exceptions (notably Silversea’s elaborate Silver Explorer, Silver Discoverer and Silver Galapagos), these vessels are more Spartan than their small-ship counterparts. Typically, these ships hold fewer than 200 guests, and many will hold less than 100. You can expect one or two lounges, one dining venue, and accommodations in a handful of stateroom categories.

Un-Cruise Adventure's Safari Endeavour in Alaska. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
Un-Cruise Adventure’s Safari Endeavour in Alaska. Expedition cruise experiences abound on this intimate, 64-guest ship. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

What you’ll get from these ships -which can range from small, eight-passenger sailing vessels to full-blown Nuclear-powered Russian icebreakers like Quark Expeditions50 Years of Victory – is an adventurous experience. These ships sail to places that are off-limits to even the small ships, tendering guests ashore to some of the world’s most remote and wild places.

...guests were invited to take a quiet moment. I did. And it was stunning. Sometimes silence really is golden. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Silversea’s Silver Explorer: going where big ships can’t. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Where do expedition ships take you? Everywhere, from Alaska to the Arctic and Antarctic, and even through hot, sunny, destinations like Costa Rica, Panama, Australia, and Southeast Asia.

Recommended For: Adventurous travellers keen to see the world’s most remote places by ship.

Not Recommended For: Those who are looking for a quiet, relaxing cruise, or a cruise with tons of amenities. Aboard an expedition ship, the destination is king.

Voyage Report: Silver Explorer in the Arctic

Of course, there’s always river cruising … and you can learn all about that by visiting our sister-site, River Cruise Advisor.

Viking Odin
Of course, you can always try a river cruise. © 2012 Ralph Grizzle

What ship size is your favorite? Why? Let us know using the comment form below.

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  • In your Small Ships category, I would make special mention of the former ‘R-ships’ that are now scattered around in several different brands – Princess, the new Fathom, Azamara, Oceania. We really love these elegant little ships, in whatever incarnation.


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