Big vs. Small Cruise Ships: Does Size Matter?

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

While bigger ships provide more activities, entertainment, and dining options, the number of choices can be overwhelming.

Small cruise ships provide fewer choices, offering quieter, more intimate vacations.

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

There’s no winner between Big vs. Small cruise ships.

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

With that in mind, we’ve highlighted the pros and cons of sailing on different-sized cruise ships. The following article will help you narrow down which size of the vessel is right for your cruise vacation.

At a Glance

Royal Caribbean's Wonder of the Seas aerial view from behind
(Photo Credit: Royal Caribbean International)

Big cruise ships can carry over 5,000 guests and offer dozens of bars, pools, restaurants, activities, and entertainment options. With so much to see and do on the ship, today’s mega cruise ships are best described as floating resorts.

These vessels offer something for everyone and attract a broad demographic of passengers. But with up to 6,000 passengers on a single vessel, the larger ships might feel crowded.

On the other side, small cruise ships provide fewer offerings for passengers. Instead, smaller vessels provide more intimate, laid-back, and quiet vacations.

Holland America Cruise ship Zaandam motoring through Tracy Arm on summer morning in Alaska

The smaller cruise ships tend to be the older vessels in the fleet. While larger vessels are limited by the ports they can visit, smaller ships can access more remote destinations and exotic ports of call.

Bottom Line: Big cruise ships are best for people who want to experience the latest attractions and big thrills and don’t mind crowded ships. Small cruise ships are best for those who prefer a more relaxed, intimate cruise vacation and don’t need the bells and whistles of newer vessels.

Big vs. Small Cruise Ships Compared

Big cruise ship Oasis of the Seas docked beside a smaller Celebrity cruise ship

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 right ship for you and your family is always best.

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

Number of Passengers

View from the pool deck of the Norwegian Cruise ship Pearl with live dj in the background

The largest ships in the world, such as Royal Caribbean’s Oasis-class, carry over 5,000 passengers per sailing. These vessels are so big that it’s unlikely you’ll run into the same passengers twice on a 7-day sailing.

Large vessels might feel somewhat crowded despite having enough space to accommodate many guests. You’ll especially notice the crowds on sea days when you visit the ship’s popular activities, restaurants, and entertainment venues.

Large ships often require reservations for nighttime shows to reduce crowds. Unfortunately, the need to reserve your seat means you might not get to see and do everything you want.

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.

Passengers relaxing on a cruise ship pool deck while departing St Maarten

When you sail on a small ship, you’ll share the space with fewer passengers. You’ll often see the same people daily and become familiar with the staff members.

A small ship is a better fit if you prefer a more intimate cruise vacation. But, you won’t find the latest thrills and activities on smaller vessels.

Bottom Line: Big cruise ships provide a broad offering of restaurants, activities, and entertainment. With significant demand, large ships might feel crowded and noisy. If you prefer a quiet vacation with fewer passengers, you should stick to the smaller cruise ships.

Dining

Royal Caribbean's Costal Kitchen Specialty Dining Restaurant on Harmony of the Seas Cruise Ship
(Photo Credit: Royal Caribbean)

If you’re looking to try new culinary experiences or get tired of eating at the same place for a week, large ships provide plenty of opportunities to switch it up.

Big ships provide dozens of restaurants, bars, and lounges.

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.

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.

The Main Restaurant Onboard the Celebrity Silhouette

On the other hand, small ships provide fewer dining choices. The smallest vessels might not have much more than the main dining room, buffet, and a couple of bars.

Smaller ships have smaller menus and fewer dining options. Some might have specialty dining, but they will be limited.

Bottom Line: If dining isn’t high on your list of requirements, you’ll be okay with the food provided on smaller ships. But, if you prefer many choices, you’ll find a diverse selection of restaurants on bigger vessels.

Activities

Man Surfing on Royal Caribbean FlowRider on the Spectrum of the Seas Cruise Ship
(Photo Credit: Royal Caribbean International)

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

Think surf simulators, rock climbing walls, roller coasters, bumper cars, go-kart tracks, zip lining, and ropes courses.

These cruise ships have something for everyone. Their expansive offering means they appeal to a wide demographic and are the primary choice for families with kids.

All these activities mean the ship will be noisier than smaller vessels. And you’ll likely be sharing the space with kids and teens.

Passengers playing shuffleboard on a princess cruise ship

You won’t find the same heart-pounding activities on smaller vessels. With fewer offerings, the small cruise ships often appeal to an older demographic.

The ships are quieter than their larger counterparts. There’s a more significant focus on traditional cruise activities and relaxation.

Bottom Line: If you’re looking to experience the latest thrills at sea, you’ll want to stick to the largest cruise ships. Small ships have fewer activities but provide a quieter and more relaxing vacation.

Entertainment

AquaTheatre show on Harmony of the Seas
(Photo Credit: Royal Caribbean International)

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

The ships provide a more diverse range of activities.

Think comedians, magicians, Broadway-style shows, dinner theatre productions, casinos, karaoke, movies, and high diving. Like the wide range of activities provided, there’s something for everyone.

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.

Royal Caribbean Guest Lectures

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

Instead, smaller vessels provide enrichment programs like educational seminars and lectures. You’ll still find shows and regular entertainment. But on a smaller scale than the shows on bigger cruise ships.

Bottom Line: Big cruise ships offer a wide range of entertainment options and feature big-budget productions. Small cruise ships focus more on enrichment opportunities with fewer onboard entertainment choices.

Destinations

Carnival Vista and the Royal Caribbean International ship Allure of the Seas docked in PHILIPSBURG SAINT MARTIN

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

Cruising has been around for decades. Many cruise ports were built to support ships of the era they were created.

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.

Royal Caribbean cruise ship Radiance of the seas docked in skagway alaska

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.

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

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

The same is true for European ports – including sailings in the Mediterranean and Scandinavia.

Bottom Line: Big ships can only visit a limited number of cruise ports. If you want to experience an exotic destination and see less traveled locations, you’ll want to stick with smaller cruise ships.

Cost

Princess Cruise ship docked in Juneau Alaska
Photo by Danika Perkinson on Unsplash

Generally speaking, smaller cruise ships cost less than larger ships.

That’s because many of the smaller cruise ships offered by mainstream lines are some of the oldest in their fleet.

While cruise fares vary based on the destination, length of cruise, cabin choice, and more, voyages on a big ship often cost more than similar sailings on smaller vessels.

Cheaper cruise fares mean you can afford a larger cabin or a longer itinerary on a small ship.

seabourn odyssey sailing with island in the background
Fira, Greece – July 16 2019: The American luxury cruise ship Seabourn Odyssey anchored in the Aegean Sea just off Fira in Santorini

The big exception is ultra-luxury cruise lines like Silversea Cruises, Regent Seven Seas, and Seabourn Cruises.

Luxury cruise lines offer small ship experiences at a hefty price tag. Of course, when you sail on a luxury cruise, you get what you pay for – an upscale atmosphere, more inclusive pricing, extraordinary culinary experiences, and first-class service.

Bottom Line: Cruise fares are typically lower when sailing on a smaller vessel. If price is a consideration, you can save hundreds of dollars sailing on a smaller ship.

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Marcello

I’ve been cruising since I was 11 years old. I love the freedom that cruising provides, meeting new people, and exploring amazing new ships. I love to share my passion for cruising and travel with readers.

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Dont Miss the Boat

Get the latest travel tips, news, and advice to get the most out of your next cruise vacation.

Vector Image of a Cruise Ship