Small ship cruises get less publicity than the giant ships do, but there are strong reasons why people love them. Here are the best ones—and some of the best small-ship cruise companies.
After taking more than 125 cruises on ships of all sizes, from 12 passengers all the way up to 5,000 (and that’s not including the crew), I know a thing or two about the differences between cruising big and cruising small.
Small-ship cruises (I’m talking around 300 passengers) have taken me from the Upper Mekong River in Laos with Mekong River Cruises to America’s Tennessee River with American Queen Voyages, the Nivernais canal in France aboard the barge Luciole, and the waterways of The Netherlands and Belgium with AMAWaterways. The smallest of these boats, which I cover on the website I co-founded, QuirkyCruise.com, carried just 12 passengers, and even the largest had only 417. I enjoyed them all
Here are five reasons I think you should consider cruising small, too.
1. Small-ship cruises grant up-close access.
Smaller vessels have just two or three decks, unlike the 15 to 20 decks of the floating behemoths, so passengers are closer to the water line. That allows them to more easily see the seals floating past on icebergs in Alaska, whales breaching off the coast of Maui, or birds swooping past their cabin windows in India—and you won’t need binoculars.
And because smaller ships are more compact and carry fewer people than the big guys do, there’s a more intimate vibe onboard as well. A community forms almost immediately among fellow shipmates because you’ll see each other at meals, on deck, and on excursions. In contrast, on a bustling city-sized ship, you’re anonymous and you may never run into the same person twice.
2. Small-ship cruises = No lines. Anywhere.
This is one of my favorites aspects of small-ship cruises: There are no lines for anything. With only a few dozen passengers, or several hundred at the most, there will never be long snaking queues at the lunch buffet, to get a drink at the bar, or to get on and off the ship for excursions. Small-ship cruises are a civilized way to travel. The energy is calm compared to the more frenetic big-ship hustle-bustle.
3. Small-ship cruises offer flexible itineraries and schedules.
Big ships have to contend with scheduling complications like port staffing and supply issues, but I have found small-ship cruises are generally flexible with their itineraries and daily schedule. A small-ship cruise captain may linger longer in a fjord because some wildlife was spotted, or they might spontaneously tie up along a beautiful sandy riverbank to let passengers have a swim. The operation of a small ship is usually trim and agile, allowing for more surprises than on a giant ship carrying thousands, where the schedule and rules have to be more rigid.
4. Small-ship cruises include sporty accessories.
Canal barges and river boats in Europe are known for carrying their own bicycles for passenger use in port. This is a huge perk that allows passengers to cycle along the tow paths that flank canals in France or pedal on the extensive network of bicycle paths in countries like the Netherlands, Belgium, and Germany. In contrast, you definitely won’t find bicycles for passengers on the mega ships—can you imagine how many bikes a 5,000-passenger ship would need?
In similar vein, sporty accessories are another wonderful benefit of small-ship cruising. For instance, Windstar, UnCruise, SeaDream, Lindblad, Emerald, and Ponant are all small-ship cruise lines that have retractable marinas at the back of their ships, which they use when anchored in calm seas for easy access to kayaking, sailing, swimming, banana boat rides and such. You’ll never be allowed to swim or paddle off the stern of a massive cruise ship.
5. Small-ship cruises pass on fewer extra charges.
Because smaller ships don’t have roving photographers, casinos, multiple boutiques, and special alternative restaurants, there are fewer extra charges to add up.
Not all small-ship cruises are all-inclusive, but generally speaking, there’s more included on small cruise ships than the mainstream megas. Barge operators in France and lines like UnCruise and Silversea, and river lines including AMAWaterways, Scenic, and Uniworld all include open bar and excursions in the rate.
Other small-ship cruise companies such as Pandaw, Mekong River Cruises, Far Horizons Tours India, and American Queen Voyages, as well as many polar-going expedition lines, cover excursions in the fares (though not booze). And some small-ship lines, such as SeaDream Yacht Club and Ponant, include open bar in their fares but not excursions. But the megaships will charge you extra for those all the time.