Big vs. Small Cruise Ships: We Surveyed 3,000 Cruisers

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Oasis of the Seas docked beside Serenade of the Seas at Cozumel Mexico

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  • Big and small cruise ships offer different experiences, amenities, and atmospheres.
  • Personal preferences, such as desired activities, entertainment, dining options, and itineraries, play a role in determining the best choice.
  • Evaluating factors like budget and aversion to crowds can guide your decision between big and small ships.

Every year, cruise lines launch new ships, and the focus always seems to be bigger is better.

Big ships often feature various activities, including swimming pools, spas, fitness centers, and different entertainment options, catering to a diverse audience. On the other hand, small ships tend to have a more intimate atmosphere and may offer unique itineraries and destinations that larger ships cannot access.

There’s no winner between big or small cruise ships.

What’s most important is deciding what style of cruising is best for your vacation.

With that in mind, this article helps you decide between big vs. small cruise ships. Let’s dive in.

At a Glance

Big cruise ship Oasis of the Seas docked beside a smaller Celebrity cruise ship. It's a good comparison of a Big vs. Small Cruise ShipsPin

When considering a cruise vacation, one of the most important factors is the ship size. Choosing between a big ship and a small ship can significantly impact your overall experience.

Before we compare cruise ship sizes, it’s important to understand how big is a cruise ship.

Big cruise ships can carry over 5,000 guests and offer dozens of bars, pools, restaurants, activities, and entertainment options. Today’s mega cruise ships are best described as floating resorts, with attractions and amenities that rival some of the largest amusement parks in the world.

Large cruise ships offer activities, entertainment, and dining options for all ages. They cater to a diverse group of people. However, because they can carry as many as 6,000 people at one time, big cruise ships often feel crowded, especially on sea days when everyone wants to spend the day on the lido deck.

Conversely, small cruise ships create a more intimate and personalized experience. With a passenger count generally ranging from a few hundred to 1,600, guests can expect much smaller crowds while enjoying a generally lower-key ambiance. Smaller-sized boats can access smaller, less-traveled ports, taking you to less frequented ports of call.

Large cruise ships of Carnival, Norwegian and Royal Caribbean cruise lines docked in port of Nassau, Bahamas on sea water and cloudy sky backgroundPin

Let’s take a look at some pros and cons of big and small ships:

Big Ships:

  • Pros:
    • Variety of Activities: Large ships often have a wide range of activities, including theaters, climbing walls, pools, and spas.
    • Multiple Dining Options: Passengers can choose from various dining venues, from buffets to fine dining restaurants.
    • Entertainment: There’s typically a robust entertainment schedule, like Broadway-style shows, live music, and comedy acts.
    • Amenities: Bigger ships might have amenities like movie theaters, ice-skating rinks, or even surf simulators.
    • Kids’ Programs: Families benefit from extensive kids’ clubs and activities tailored to different age groups.
    • Social Opportunities: With more passengers, there are more chances to meet and interact with a diverse group of people.
    • Accommodation Options: There’s a wide range of cabin types to suit different preferences and budgets.
  • Cons:
    • Crowds: With thousands of passengers, public areas can get crowded, especially on sea days or at mealtimes.
    • Less Personalized Service: The sheer number of passengers leads to a less personalized experience with the staff.
    • Longer Wait Times: More people can mean longer lines for boarding, disembarking, and customer service desks.
    • Limited Access to Ports: Larger ships are restricted from docking at smaller ports, which limits destination choices.
    • More Impact on Environment: Larger ships have a more significant environmental footprint due to their size and the number of people on board.
    • Possibly Overwhelm: The array of choices and the sheer scale of the ship can be overwhelming for some passengers, especially those new to cruising.

Small Ships:

  • Pros:
    • Intimate Experience: Smaller ships offer a more personal and personalized experience.
    • Access to Smaller Ports: They can navigate smaller, less crowded, and often more exotic ports that big ships can’t reach.
    • Shorter Lines: With fewer passengers, there are shorter wait times for embarkation, meals, and customer service.
    • Community Feel: A smaller number of passengers allows one to get to know fellow travelers and crew members better.
    • Personalized Service: Staff can provide more attentive and personalized service due to a better passenger-to-crew ratio.
    • Less Environmental Impact: Generally, smaller ships have a smaller ecological footprint.
    • Onboard Tranquility: Fewer people can create a quieter, more relaxing onboard atmosphere.
  • Cons:
    • Fewer Amenities: Smaller ships may not have as many facilities as larger ships, like multiple dining venues or expansive entertainment options.
    • Limited Entertainment: The range of entertainment and activities might be more limited, both in variety and scale.
    • Older Ships: Many small cruise ships are older vessels in the cruise line fleet. While ships are revitalized every five or so years, many older ships have outdated decor and amenities.
    • Cabin Size and Variety: There is a variety of cabin types, and they can be smaller compared to those on larger ships.
    • Motion on the Ocean: Smaller vessels may be more susceptible to feeling the motion of the sea, which could be a problem for those prone to seasickness on cruise ships.
    • Fewer Social Opportunities: There are naturally fewer people to meet, which might be a disadvantage for those looking to socialize.
    • Limited Kids’ Programs: Families might find fewer activities and facilities designed for children.

Ultimately, choosing between a small or big cruise ship will depend on personal preferences and priorities. Whether you seek endless entertainment or a cozy, close-knit atmosphere, there is a cruise experience tailored to everyone’s desires.

Comparing Big vs. Small Cruise Ships

There are several differences between big and small cruise ships.

And there’s one that’s better than the other.

When planning your cruise vacation, choosing the correct ship for you and your family is always best.

If you’re unsure which suits you, keep reading as we compare the significant differences between big and small ships.

Number of Passengers

Scarlet Night on Virgin Voyages. The pool deck is full of passengers and crew throwing a party under the starsPin

The largest ships in the world, such as Royal Caribbean’s Icon of the Seas, can have up to 7,600. These mega vessels are so big that it’s unlikely you’ll run into the same passengers twice on a 7-day sailing.

Large cruise ships feel more crowded than smaller ships. Although there’s enough space to accommodate many guests, you’ll find big crowds on the pool deck during sea days. You’ll also find crowds at the ship’s popular activities, restaurants, and entertainment venues.

But, if you need to escape the crowds, there are plenty of hidden nooks and crannies to escape a big ship’s hustle and bustle.

That said, sailing on a mega-cruise ship can be intimidating. Big ships might not be for you if you prefer a quiet getaway over a bustling city at sea.

On small cruise ships, there are fewer passengers, usually ranging from 110 to 1,300 guests. You’ll often see the same people daily and become familiar with the staff members.

You’ll find a more intimate and personalized experience on small cruise ships because the crew members have the opportunity to get to know you.


The three-level main dining room on board Odyssey of the Seas.Pin
(Photo Credit: Royal Caribbean)

On big cruise ships, passengers can access various dining venues. These ships might have numerous restaurants, bars, and cafes, each providing a unique culinary experience.

Big ships also tend to have more extensive buffet options and specialty restaurants, allowing guests to indulge in different cuisines during their trips.

On a large ship, you can have sushi one night, Italian the next, Mexican on the third, and something entirely different afterward. If you’re looking for endless possibilities, large ships offer plenty of options.

The more extensive selection and restaurant selection make bigger cruise ships better for picky eaters, adventurous guests, or those who don’t want to eat at the same restaurant every night.

On the downside, several alternative restaurants, often called specialty restaurants, cost extra. If you want to try some of the higher-end culinary experiences or unique flavors, there’s a good chance that you’ll have to pay extra.

Inside the coastal kitchen restaurant on symphony of the seasPin

On the other hand, small cruise ships typically have fewer dining choices.

However, smaller ships can still present a more intimate and personalized atmosphere, often focusing on top-quality food and service. 

While small cruise ships don’t provide as many food options, you’ll often get better food and service than on a giant cruise ship.


The rockclimbing walls and ultimate abyss slide at the aft of a Royal Caribbean cruise shipPin

Big cruise ships are best known for their innovative thrills and attractions.

You can take advantage of the lavish spa facilities, try your luck at the onboard casino, or participate in fitness classes at the well-equipped fitness center. Adrenaline-seekers will also find thrilling attractions like surf simulators, rock climbing walls, roller coasters, bumper cars, go-kart tracks, zip lining, water slides, and ropes courses.

Families traveling with children will appreciate the dedicated kids’ clubs that provide age-appropriate entertainment, including games, crafts, and supervised playtime.

All these activities mean big ships are noisier than smaller vessels. And you’ll likely be sharing the decks with kids and teens.

You won’t find the same heart-pounding activities on smaller vessels.

Smaller cruise ships, though having limited space, still manage to offer a variety of enjoyable activities. Passengers can indulge in relaxing spa treatments, participate in daily exercise classes, and socialize over board games or during themed nights. While smaller ships might not be able to boast the extensive array of amenities that larger ones can, they offer a more intimate, personal experience that can be just as rewarding.

Smaller cruise ships cater to a more mature demographic and provide a slower, more relaxing experience. 

The small cruise ships are quieter than their larger counterparts. With fewer heart-pounding thrills, there’s a more significant focus on traditional cruise activities and relaxation.


An acrobat performs during the Hiro show in the AquaTheatre on Symphony of the SeasPin

Large cruise ships boast more entertainment options. Additionally, the newer vessels use state-of-the-art technology to create one-of-a-kind experiences.

On big ships, you can expect a variety of high-energy activities, such as Broadway-style performances, comedy acts, and bustling dance clubs. These ships usually have extensive casinos that stay open late into the night, ensuring there’s always something happening.

Perhaps the biggest downside is that there are so many entertainment options that many of the shows overlap. If there are two shows taking place at the same time, you’ll have to choose only one.

And many of the shows only take place once during a cruise.

Of course, missing a show isn’t everything. But it isn’t a great feeling when you have to choose which event to attend.

Dual Reality entertainment show in the Red Room on Valiant LadyPin

Small cruise ships don’t provide nearly as many entertainment options.

Entertainment options might include live music, cultural presentations, and small-scale performances. Small-ship passengers enjoy spending time with like-minded travelers and engaging in more personal interactions with crew members and performers.


Bimini Beach Club Lagoon PoolPin

Big cruise ships are hindered by their size when it comes to destinations.

Big cruise ships often visit popular destinations such as the Caribbean, Bahamas, Mediterranean, and cruise line private islands. A significant advantage of these ships is that they offer diverse shore excursions at each port, giving passengers numerous options to explore.

However, due to their size, these ships may not have access to smaller, more intimate ports, potentially limiting the exploration of localized, unique experiences.

While many cruise ports have upgraded facilities to support bigger ships, the largest cruise ships in the world are limited to a handful of ports that can accommodate their size.

If you want to experience exotic destinations, only the smaller ships will get you there.

For example, both large and small cruise ships sail to Alaska.

Aft of Serenade of the Seas while docked in Haines AlaskaPin

But the smaller vessels will bring you to more glaciers and ports than the big ships.

We recommend sailing on a small ship if you genuinely want to experience Alaska.

Small cruise ships can visit the less traveled destinations and ports of call. These ships often visit smaller ports and remote destinations like the Galapagos, the Arctic, or wilderness areas. Passengers aboard small cruise ships will likely encounter less crowded shore excursions, providing a more authentic, close-up experience with nature, wildlife, and local culture.

Uncruise, for example, is a small ship experience that focuses on nature, wildlife, and being guided by naturalists throughout each destination. Since these ships have better access to smaller ports and remote areas, passengers can enjoy activities like kayaking and trekking to see the beauty of the unspoiled wilderness.

Our Study of 3,000 Cruise Passengers to Find Out If People Prefer Big or Small Cruise Ships

We surveyed 3,000 avid cruisers to determine if people prefer big or small cruise ships.

For our survey, we considered a large cruise ship to be greater than 90,000 GT while a small cruise ship is less than 90,000 GT. All of the participants of the survey had sailed on at least one large and one small cruise ship to ensure that they had first-hand experience on all sizes of ships. 

What were the results?

Out of 3,000 people, 2,456 people said they preferred to sail on big cruise ships, while 544 people chose to sail on small cruise ships.

What do you prefer? Let us know in the comments.

Article by

Marcello De Lio

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