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What Size Cruise Ship is Right for You?

SmarterTravel

A ship’s size—and not necessarily its cruise line—is one of the most important factors you’ll need to weigh when choosing a cruise that best fits your lifestyle. That’s because size directly affects what kind of amenities are onboard, the ambience of the ship, and the level of luxury available—and indirectly affects the price of the cruise and the average age of passengers.

In a nutshell, big ships have more features and amenities, but smaller ones tend to offer a cozier, more community-like ambience. Newer ships tend to be bigger ships, so you may have to choose between an intimate atmosphere and access to the most up-to-date onboard offerings. And because smaller ships often belong to the more luxurious lines and come with more personal levels of service, they also tend to have higher price tags and a more mature clientele than the mega-ships. On the other hand, families are typically better served on the largest ships.

Remember, too, that cruise lines can have small, medium, and large ships within their fleets, so don’t make assumptions about size based on company. For example, Princess owns the 3,080-passenger Crown Princess, the 1,970-passenger Island Princess, and the 710-passenger Royal Princess—meaning it has ships in each of our categories. You can bet that cruises on the line’s smallest and largest ships will offer very different experiences. And if it’s amenities you’re after, don’t forget to check up on ship refurbishments. Several lines are upgrading their smaller vessels by adding the latest amenities (more balconies, pool-side movie screens, alternative restaurants, and adults-only deck spaces) during dry-dock renovations.

A couple of size-related trends to keep in mind are:

The big, bigger, biggest trend is thriving and healthy. Royal Caribbean ‘s 225,282-ton, 5,400-passenger Oasis of the Seas is the largest cruise ship afloat. The line’s Freedom-class ships (Freedom of the Seas, Liberty of the Seas, and Independence of the Seas) are number two at 154,407 tons and 3,634 passengers. Cunard‘s Queen Mary 2, once the largest, now places second in the size category. In 2008, several lines launched their largest ships ever, including Celebrity CruisesCelebrity Solstice and MSC CruisesMSC Fantasia. Carnival‘s biggest ever, Carnival Dream, is due out September 2009. Not to be outdone, Royal Caribbean goes even further with its Oasis class of ships; that first one, Oasis of the Seas, set to launch in December 2009, will measure 220,000 tons and carry a whopping 5,400 passengers!

The contrarians: Cunard, which built Queen Mary 2 and was reigning title holder of the biggest-ship-ever crown for three years, unveiled Queen Victoria in late 2007—and it’s about half the size! Costa will also buck the trend when Costa Luminosa debuts in spring 2009. The ship will feature a new, smaller design.

Even as big ships are making the headlines, cruise lines are valuing older, middle-sized ships. Among the lines transforming outdated ships into exciting ones via refurbishment are Celebrity, Holland America, Carnival, Princess, Regent Seven Seas, and Crystal.

Even “small” is undergoing a redefinition. Luxury lines Seabourn and Silversea will also launch their biggest ships ever in 2009—the 32,000-ton, 450-passenger Seabourn Odyssey launched in June and the 36,000-ton, 540-passenger Silver Spirit is due out in November. Though in this case, bigger is relative. The ships are small compared to industry standards, but both are nearly twice the size of the other ships in the fleets; Seabourn’s older ships carry just 208 passengers, while Silversea’s hold 296 to 388.

Also for small-ship aficionados: During the reign of Renaissance Cruises in the late 1990’s to early 2000’s (the company went bankrupt in fall of 2001), the line built eight magnificent ships. Called the R-series ships, they represent a perfect blend of big ship features and amenities (balconies, show room, casino, alternative restaurants) and smaller vessel pluses (a lovely informal and cozy ambience). The ships, since the company’s demise, have been snapped up by other lines that value small-size ships. These former R-series vessels now make up Oceania Cruises‘ and Azamara Cruises‘ fleets, and Princess claims the final three.

Here’s our nuts and bolts look at what to expect from big, middle-sized, and small ships:

The Big Ships: 2,000- to 4,000-Plus Passengers

Pros

  • They’re like a big resort hotel, with lots of variety.
  • Activities aplenty, from hairy chest contests to computer classes.
  • Multiple swimming pools; some adult (or kid) only.
  • Plentiful, affordable cabins with balconies.
  • Huge casinos with the latest, trendiest table games, such as Texas Hold ‘Em.
  • Big gyms with state-of-the-art equipment.
  • Lavish spas, often with a dedicated thalassotherapy pool.
  • Multi-tiered children’s programs with a range of facilities.
  • Theaters featuring Broadway-esque musical productions.
  • Variety of nightclubs and bars; most of which feature themes and entertainment.
  • Alternative dining options, ranging from ultra-casual to date-night formal.
  • Demographically diverse, ranging from families to seniors and in-between.

Cons

  • Crowds, including lines at buffets and at embarkation and disembarkation.
  • Not enough deck chairs (you may have to get up early to get a good one).
  • Lots of families (for those without kids).
  • Visit ports that are rather standard (those that offer beaches, bars, and shopping).
  • You are likely to have an assigned dinner time and table (though more big ships are offering flexible dining).
  • You may need a map to find your way around.
  • Service can be impersonal.

Big-ship cruise lines: Carnival, Cunard Line, Disney Cruise Line, NCL (except Norwegian Majesty), Royal Caribbean, and many of the ships operated by Celebrity, Costa, MSC Cruises, P&O, and Princess.

The Middle Guys: 1,000 – 2,000 Passengers

Pros

  • Best of both worlds with a more village-like ambience, but room for popular amenities.
  • Casinos.
  • Substantial entertainment offerings.
  • Interesting—even exotic—itineraries.
  • Enrichment activities.
  • Several swimming pools.
  • Functional gyms and spas.
  • A handful of alternative dining options.
  • Fewer families (for those traveling without kids).
  • Generally more value-priced.

Cons

  • Few lines are building ships this size so they tend to be outdated (unless they are refurbished).
  • Passengers tend to be older.
  • Fewer families (for those traveling with kids).
  • May be more sedate than bigger ships.
  • Smaller public rooms.
  • Smaller cabins.
  • Balconies, if they exist at all, are limited to suite residents.
  • You may have to eat at an assigned mealtime and at an assigned table.

Mid-size cruise lines: Several or all of the ships operated by Celebrity, Costa, Holland America, MSC Cruises, P&O, Princess Cruises, Ocean Village, and Thomson Cruises.

Small Ships: Under 1,000 Passengers

Pros

  • New or not as new, these ships have up-to-date features and amenities.
  • Personalized service.
  • High levels of cuisine.
  • Less waiting in lines.
  • Clever uses of space to enable them to offer more services, such as in-cabin massages.
  • Exotic itineraries are the norm (and even mainstream ones call at unusual ports).
  • Fewer families.
  • Very relaxed pace.
  • Luxury, particularly in cabins, is emphasized.
  • Dining is an open-seating, flexible scenario.
  • Significant enrichment programs featuring world-famous experts.
  • Smaller scale, more elegant entertainment.
  • Michelin-level alternative restaurants.
  • Often, much is included in the fare (alcohol, gratuities).

Cons

  • Often (though not in all cases), they have fewer balconies; some have none at all.
  • Activity wise, it’s definitely low-key.
  • Limited kids programs and facilities; some actively discourage them.
  • Fewer public rooms.
  • Most expensive cruise fares.
  • Pools may be small.
  • If there’s a spa and gym, they may be tiny.

Small-ship cruise lines: Azamara, Fred. Olsen, Hapag Lloyd‘s Europa, Oceania, Princess, Regent Seven Seas, Saga Holidays, Seabourn, SeaDream Yacht Club, Silversea, and Windstar.

What size ship do you prefer cruising on, and why? Have you noticed a difference in your cruise experiences because of the ship’s size? Share your thoughts and advice below!

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