Small ships, with 300 passengers or fewer, pride themselves on their intimacy and their ability to go into ports and bays that the bigger ships can't touch. But just because they can do this doesn't necessarily mean that they do. I went on a small-ship cruise to Alaska once and it stopped at every major port that the big boys did, and only utilized its size once, to get closer to the glaciers of Glacier Bay National Park. I'm not sure it was worth the trade-off, because the ship only had one public room, a lounge, and virtually every passenger was there all the time. My idea of a great cruise is finding quiet places where I can be alone to admire the scenery when I want, and it was practically impossible on the small ship. Make sure as you inspect the ship's qualities you check out the number of public rooms. Small ships are excellent for itineraries where you'll be getting off the boat every day to do things, like the Royal Clipper cruises in the Caribbean or Windstar in the Mediterranean.
Big ships, with over 1,000 passengers, are like mega-resorts. They have nightclubs and multiple bars and things like climbing walls and even, in the case of the new Norwegian Cruise Lines mega-liners, bowling alleys. The cabins are going to be smaller and in long, long hallways running the length of the ship, and every thing that calls for a movement of people – meal-times, shore excursions, nightclub shows – will bring with it long lines and crowds. If you want all of the glitz and entertainment and a variety of eating and drinking options, a large ship will have it. But the cruise will be far more about the ship than it is the destination.
I've never been a big-ship cruiser. I prefer the medium ones, with about 300-700 passengers, which offer a nice balance of public rooms and entertainment without the enormous crowds. And I always make sure that I'm the last to arrive at a meal or an open gangway, because everyone else on board will try to be the first. Of course, the bigger the space you can buy, the better. My best cabin ever was a suite on a Regent Seven Seas ship sailing from Tahiti to Los Angeles that was all the way aft and had a huge private balcony where I spent many leisurely hours reading and watching the clouds drift by. A butler suite on a Crystal ship to Alaska was a great way for my whole family to have enough room to enjoy the cruise.
What are your favorite cruise experiences? Drop us a comment below, and happy sailing.