Cruising isn’t just about tooling around the Caribbean, Mexico, or Alaska in a floating city with 2,000 to 5,000 other cruisers. Although you can certainly do that, some very different cruise experiences are available if you’re interested. Cruising in a small ship—typically accommodating fewer than 500 travelers, with many carrying only 50 to150—can take you places those behemoths couldn’t get near. On a small-ship cruise, you typically get to know everyone else traveling along with you. The downside, however, is a big one: Small-ship cruises cost far more than megaship mass-market cruises.
Small-ship cruises fall into three main categories:
Ocean cruises operate into ports too small or too remote to accommodate or attract the mass-market megaships. The range of options is extremely wide. Several lines explore Antarctica during the southern summer. Others explore Arctic areas during the northern summer, with itineraries that range from Alaska and Canada to Greenland, Iceland, Spitsbergen, and the Kamchatka Peninsula. You can find small-ship cruise itineraries in Africa (coastal areas; the Seychelles), Asia (Indonesian islands; Indian Ocean islands; major cities), Australia-New Zealand (coastal areas; Great Barrier Reef islands), Canada (West Coast Inland Passage; St. Lawrence areas; Maritime Provinces), South America (Coastal areas; Falklands; Cape Horn), and the South Pacific (various island groups).
Cruises within the United States include several itineraries on the Great Lakes, as well as cruises in the Puget Sound area. Of course, some small ships ply the same Caribbean, European, and Mexican waters as the larger ones, but stopping in less visited ports. Wherever they sail, small ships in these categories are fully seaworthy and, in many ways, replicate the big-ship experience, except with a vast range of new destinations and much less entertainment and organized onboard fun.
River cruises ply major rivers on all the continents. In North America, a few ships still do the Mississippi (although the line that once ran the Delta Queen and other similar boats is currently not operating). Several lines operate trips on itineraries that include Long Island Sound, the Hudson River, the Erie Canal, Lake Ontario, and the St. Lawrence. American Cruise Lines operates itineraries on several East Coast waterways systems, including the Intracoastal Waterway, and with a paddle wheeler on the Columbia-Snake system in the West.
River cruises operate the full navigable length of the Danube and Rhine rivers of Europe as well as shorter segments on dozens of other river and canal systems. The Nile, the Amazon, the Yangtze, and the river-canal stretch between Moscow and St. Petersburg see heavy cruise schedules, but you’ll find others ranging from the Mackenzie in the Yukon to the Murray in Australia. A big advantage of river cruises is that you’re never more than a few yards from something to see, with lots of opportunity for short stops. However, river ships are generally shallow draft vessels with only a few decks—low enough to pass under city bridges along the way. Typically, they’re big on sightseeing opportunities, small on entertainment.
Finally, you also find hundreds of cruise options in very small boats, barges, and sailing ships just about anywhere in the world. If you want, you can even rent your own small barge and freewheel it through river-canal systems in France, Germany, and the United Kingdom.
The big downside to small-ship cruising, of course, is the price. I spot-checked dozens of examples, and found none starting at less than $200 per person per day, most starting at around $300 per person per day, and many starting as high as $500 per person per day. By contrast, you can sometimes find special-promotion prices on the mass-market lines for as little as $50 per person per day, and even regular list prices start at around $100 per day. Clearly, you pay a big premium for the small-ship advantages. But the advantages are certainly worth the cost to many travelers—maybe to you, too.
The best way to get acquainted with the marketplace is by visiting Small Ship Cruises, calling them at 866-949-0132, or by contacting a travel agent.
Have you ever taken a small-ship cruise? Do you know of any good deals on small-ship ocean or river cruises? Share your thoughts, experiences, and advice by submitting a comment below!