The Windstar Wind Song in the tiny bay of Moorea near Tahiti
Each has its advantages and drawbacks, but which one is better depends on what you want.
I just returned from an extensive cruise on a very small (64 passenger) cruise. One refrain I heard from my fellow passengers was "we tried sailing on big cruise ships, but they weren't for us." The most common complaint I heard was "too many people." But there are still distinct advantages to larger ships we can explore. After all, the big cruise ships continue to sell far more cruises than all of the small ship cruise lines put together, so they must be doing something right.
- Fellow Passengers
To keep it simple, let's define a small cruise ship as one that carries 200 passengers or less. This includes river boats and many other "adventure cruising" or "expedition" vessels. To be clear, there are ships of much larger size from luxury cruise lines like Crystal, Regent and Oceania, for example, that offer a sublime "small-ship style" cruise experience, even though they sail relatively larger ships in the range of 600 to 1000 passengers - but these luxury ships are a special case we will address later.
Most non-cruise people do not realize that smaller cruise ships actually carry a much friendlier population. Why? Envision spending two weeks in a small hotel with only 75 people, where everyone dines, tours and spends almost all of their free time in the same place as you. By the end of the stay there is a good chance you will have met everyone onboard, and some may become new friends. This offers a distinct advantage to solo cruisers - because it is easy to relocate the friendly people they meet.
Large cruise ships are different. They are populated with couples and families who tend to socialize only within their own group. On a very large cruise ship a solo cruiser can meet someone nice but end up never seeing them again for the rest of the cruise. This is because the ship is so big it is far less likely that both of them will be in the same place at the same time.
The handling of young children is another big difference between small and large cruise ships. Taking younger kids on a very small ship cruise is generally a bad choice because there will be no other kids or planned activities for them. Only large cruise ships truly welcome kids of all ages and provide special programs divided by age categories so they can get to know other kids in their own grades right away. In a way, large cruise ships have many of the benefits of the "small ship experience" for these kids.
Along those lines - let's be honest about another small ship cruise factor. Any small ship cruise that is longer than seven days tends to attract much older audience, 90% of them will be retired. They are still interesting and accomplished people, but their life experience is generally much different from younger people.
You will also find retired people on larger cruise ships, but they often bring their kids and grandchildren along - knowing that the kids will have their own things to do, so they will not be babysitting them most of the time.
I heard people on my small ship cruise say there were "too many lines" on big ships. It is true that small ships have the advantage there, but the "line- factor" on bigger ships depends on the vessel.
Really, only the most crowded ships from mainstream cruise lines like Carnival, Norwegian Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean (with passenger loads as high as 5000 people) get the longest lines. Premium cruise lines like Disney, Holland America, Celebrity and Princess (in the range of 2000 to 3200 passengers) deliver a much larger variety of cuisine, activities and entertainment in order to alleviate the crowding. Upscale lines like Azamara, Windstar and Oceania carry far fewer people than the mainstream cruise lines (about 700 to 1000). Finally, luxury cruise lines like Seabourn, Regent, Crystal and Silversea tend to carry as few as 350 passengers and make an effort to have enough service people on hand that one rarely has to wait for anything.
There is one factor that is more important than size - the "passenger/space" ratio. This is an measure of how much public space is available per passenger. Some small cruise ships have higher ratios (higher is better), but vessel size alone is never an exact indicator. The largest ratios tend to appear on the ships that carry about 350 to 1000 people (Seabourn and Crystal). So, it is neither the smallest nor the largest cruise ships that have the best passenger/space ratios.
In truth, however, the trend on all newer ships is towards lower passenger/space ratios, because it is a fact of life that in the current world economy all cruise lines need to lower their "cost per passenger" and one way to do that is to add more passengers.
Similarly, while the size of a vessel is a good indicator of the quality of the cuisine, it is not perfect. Most small cruise ships specialize in freshly prepared, quality cuisine. However, the smaller ships often have the most limited menu selections.
Once again, the sweet spot where vessel size meets the best quality and variety of cuisine is with the luxury cruise ships of 350 to 1000 passengers. Cruise lines like Seabourn, Silversea, Azamara, Regent, Crystal and Oceania, (listed roughly by vessel size) offer the best variety of extraordinary cuisine.
- Ports of Call - flexible itineraries
Ports of call are the area where the smallest ships really shine. If you want to go someplace truly exotic; up the Amazon River, to the Galapagos Islands, down the Nile River or to the barrier reefs of Belize then you need a very small ship. Larger ships can't reach those places, and those places can't handle large numbers of tourists. Even better, a very small ship tends to have more flexibility in timing, so if they see a pod of whales, or encounter a special event in a port of call, they can choose to spend extra time there.
Consider that the "shore tours" offered on big cruise ships like snorkeling, whale watching and special beach parties often involve smaller boats which one boards while the ship is in port. But a small cruise ship can give you the same experiences without changing boats and at no added effort or cost - it is just part of the cruise.
Large cruise ships definitely have the edge in entertainment. They provide huge stage shows with large casts of talented singers and dancers. They also offer comedy clubs, Karaoke, ballroom- and disco-style dancing. Most large cruise ships also have a casino, but please don't think gambling is a prime reason to take a cruise. Most ship casinos are sparsely populated much of the time, except for the people who will play any slot machine they can find.
But small cruise ships rarely schedule more than one activity after dinner - it could be a guest speaker, a local music act or the showing of a recent release movie. These small shows are good quality, as long as you enjoy the selected fare, but there isn't any alternative. Small ships rarely have a casino. Some don't even have gift shops.
- Sea Sickness
It should definitely be noted that small cruise ships have a much harder time handling rough seas - except for river boats (where the water is generally not rough). If you tend to get sea-sick, be sure to bring medication with you. Seasickness can also happen on a larger ship, but the motion of the ocean is far less noticable. I have been on ships where I never even felt the ship move during a 7-day cruise.
Feeling a Connection to the Land and Sea
This idea sums up the difference - smaller cruise ships make people feel more connected to the ports they visit and to the scenery they can see from the vessel because they sail closer to shore and have more windows. Small ships are for travelers.
Big cruise ships tend to sail beyond the land horizon, so while you can feel connected to the sea, you won't see much land scenery from the ship. They focus inward on resort-style experiences such as lavish entertainment, a variety of cuisine, room service, children's programs and spa facilities. They do visit exotic ports of call but the time in port is shorter. It is not unusual for large ship cruisers to say, "We actually enjoyed the ship more than the itinerary."
So, it is up to you to decide what you want in your cruise. If you want to feel really connected to your destination and one of the main things you enjoy about travel is meeting new people then you should consider a small ship.
But if you have a large group of diverse travelers; kids, grandparents and younger couples, who enjoy nighttime and resort-style activities as much as seeing new places, then you should consider a larger ship. Larger ships tend to offer something for everyone. As I said, one can see the world by large cruise ship, but smaller ships tend to offer more travel experience to people.