Small vs Large: Which Alaska Cruise Ship is For You?

cruise ship
••• Princess Cruises Coral Princess awaits passengers in Victoria, B.C. Getty Images/Louise Heusinkveld

Are you one of the million people who cruised Alaska last year? If so, did you sail on an enormous ship with multiple decks and endless on-and-off-board activities, or on a smaller vessel upon which you knew everyone on board? Or, perhaps, you couldn't yet decide and are looking toward this year. 

Cruising represents at least half of the total Alaska visitor population, and as an industry is growing among the Southeast region's Inside Passage port cities.

Ships sail from late April through September, offering visitors seasonal opportunities for viewing Alaska's stunning scenery, abundant wildlife, and culturally-relevant activities, all within the scope of efficient organization. 

Obviously, size matters when considering a cruise in any location, but it can be even more important in Alaska, where recreational activities and destinations can or cannot be reached by some vessels. Therefore, careful consideration to your own abilities and travel desires, coupled with the length of time you plan to spend in Alaska is highly recommended. 

For the purposes of discussion, below is a breakdown of the industry's deliniation for large vs small ships. 

Large ships: 2,000-4,000 passengers

Middle ships: 1,000-2,000 passengers 

Small ships: Under 1,000 passengers

Note: Alaska also has a growing number of very small cruise ships, billeting under 500 passengers, and it is these ships to which I shall refer in the information below.

 

Ask yourself these questions: 

1. How do I like to travel in general? 

If you are the type of vacationer who enjoys a full-service style of travel, then a larger ship, with scheduled activities, more formal dining, and larger-group tours may appeal to you. From room service to  nightly dance parties, larger ships have a broader offering of services, and many passengers appreciate this aspect, especially when traveling with larger family groups of many generations.

GoTip: Even larger ships have different styles of cruising, so do your homework and investigate the different options for activities, dining, and onboard life. 

2. Is travel for relaxation or exploration? 

Would you rather curl up with a book in a window seat and watch the scenery go by, or jump in a kayak and paddle along a rocky cove? Smaller cruise lines, while still providing many opportunities for taking a break, do operate with a more adventurous traveler in mind. Hiking, kayaking, stand-up paddle boarding; the list goes on of active adventures aboard a small cruise ship. GoTip: Smaller ships typically send passengers out for activities rain or shine, so knowing the expectation for adventure is important. 

3. How long will I be in Alaska? 

If your trip to the Last Frontier involves land travel, especially land travel to more remote sections of the state, you might enjoy a larger ship's elements of convenience and luxury before or after a land-based few days in an RV or backcountry lodge. If, however, you feel a sense of adventure and have a shorter length of stay, a smaller ship, with the ability to nose into secluded nooks and bays of Southeast Alaska, might be just the thing you need for checking Alaska off your bucket list.

GoTip: Many smaller cruise lines also offer intimate land tours that integrate many aspects of their areas of focus on culture, history, and wildlife. 

4. What is my level of ability? 

Smaller ships generally stretch in length between 70 and 500 feet in length, depending upon the vessel, and thus, do not have the capacity for some accessibility aids like roll-in showers, elevators, and the like. Thus, individuals with mobility issues may find a larger ship accommodates difficulties like standing, walking, lifting up feet (as smaller ships also have watertight doors and inches-high metal seals around passageways). Also important to note: Parents of infants and toddlers will not find services like childcare or many spaces to allow crawling or newly-walking children room to explore, due to size constraints.

 

5. What can I afford? 

In general, the smaller the cruise line, the more expensive the experience. Sometimes referred to as "boutique cruises," small cruise ships or yachts provide the utmost in personal attention, service, and gourmet dining. That said, some cruise lines also cater to independent-minded, adventure-seeking passengers who don't want anything to do with formal meals or fine wines, and yet are willing to pay premium prices for the solitude and access to wilderness a more remote cruise provides. GoTip: On a budget? Sail early or late in the season for the best deals.