7 Reasons Why You Should Consider a Small-Ship Cruise

Deck chairs awaiting passengers on Wind Spirit of Windstar Cruises
Barry Winiker / Getty Images

If the idea of being trapped at sea on a mega-hotel, with no land in sight and upwards of 6,000 strangers vying for all the same resources, doesn’t exactly float your boat, there’s no need to absolutely label yourself as “not a cruise person” just yet. It may only mean you haven’t found the right type of cruise for you—and that’s where small-ship cruising comes in.

While there’s no standard definition of a “small ship” when it comes to the cruise industry, “technically, experts agree that small ocean-going ships are under 450-feet in length and usually carry an average of nearly 1,000 passengers,” says Ellen Bettridge, CEO and president of Uniworld River Cruises.

Several popular cruises lines meet these requirements, including Windstar Cruises (its fleet of six yachts carry between 148 and 342 passengers), Uniworld (its Super Ships average 300-feet in length and host 120 to 150 guests per sailing), Azamara (ships hold 700 passengers and are and 592-feet long), and Viking (the majority of its river ships accommodate 190 guests, while ocean ships carry 930 passengers).

With at least seven benefits of small ships over booking with the big guys, cruising just may be smooth sailing for you from here on out.

Individualized Attention

Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name—but that won’t just be in the bar on your small-ship cruise. “A higher ratio of crew to passengers means guests are given a highly personalized experience, such as being greeted by name,” says Michelle Fee, founder and CEO of Cruise Planners, an American Express Travel Representative. “Have a special request? The answer is always yes.” Chances are, your servers will begin to anticipate how you take your coffee in the morning, your bartender will learn your favorite pre-dinner cocktail, and your cabin steward will leave extra chocolates on your pillow because you mentioned, in passing, how much you love them.

Access to More Remote Destinations

For those who have sailed on a large ship before, you’ve likely encountered a day where you and a handful of other large ships all dock in the same port at the same time—and that means tens of thousands of tourists pouring into that community simultaneously, all competing for the same shore excursions, restaurants, beaches, attractions, and activities. That’s less likely with small-ship cruises, as their itineraries often include smaller ports the big guys can’t reach.

“Smaller ships can simply navigate smaller ports and squeeze their way into the off-the-beaten-path places that big ships physically can’t access,” says Betsy O’Rourke, chief marketing officer of Xanterra Travel Collection, Windstar Cruises’ parent company. Indeed, small ships can cruise under Tower Bridge in London, through the Corinth Canal in Greece and down Venice’s Grand Canal. They also offer itineraries to more remote and ecologically rich environments, such as Tierra del Fuego, the Galapagos Islands, and Antarctica.

Another perk of less-populated destinations is the access to more exclusive shore excursions and experiences, such as cooking classes in someone’s home or bike tours through quaint villages. “People who seek out small-ship cruises tend to want to travel more intimately,” says O’Rourke. “Smaller ports offer the opportunity for a more authentic experience closer to the local culture and way of life. Smaller destinations are also easier to explore on your own and engage with the local people.”

Greater Flexibility to Handle Emergencies

With less tonnage and fewer passengers to manage, the ship’s course and itinerary become more flexible in times of need, whether due to weather or a pandemic. “We’re able to continually monitor and modify the ports that we visit, based on the current situation,” says O’Rourke.

Bettridge points out a few other benefits to help quell any fears of being at sea: “The higher staff-to-guest ratio and small number of guests make ensuring that wellness protocols are consistently being met easier and more effectively. And, perhaps most importantly, passengers are never far from land—they are within the countries where we are sailing, which immediately makes getting back to shore, if necessary, much simpler.”

More Inclusive and Luxurious

Hate the feeling of being nickeled and dimed for extras while on vacation? “Small ship cruises typically have a number of components already added into the cost—such as excursions, gratuities, transfers, and internet service—making it more affordable than expected,” says Dr. Terika Haynes, owner of Dynamite Travel, LLC, a five-star rated luxury travel consultancy. Some lines also include a limited selection of beer, wine, and spirits at lunch and dinner, too.

Plus, small cruise ships are known for exuding luxury, much like a boutique hotel. “You will find that most of these ships are designed at a four- or five-star quality level, and most rooms will come with a view,” she continues. “Smaller cruise ships are typically catered to an adult audience, so most of the ships will include high-quality, state-of-the-art facilities.”

With such an elegant environment, you might infer you’ll need to pack a fancy wardrobe to hobnob on a small ship, but that’s not the case—most of these cruise lines encourage “resort casual” attire and eschew formal nights entirely.

Gourmet Dining and Drinks

Foodies and self-proclaimed wine connoisseurs alike are often drawn to small-ship cruises because the cuisine is a step (or two) above mega-ships. “A smaller number of people means that the food does not have to be mass-produced,” explains Dr. Haynes. “Chefs can be more creative with their culinary dishes, and because of the ports that these ships visit, they can often source food locally, which makes the food fresher than on larger ships.”

For instance, Windstar’s chefs source local ingredients when possible to impart a flavor of the destination; the cruise line has also has partnered with the James Beard Foundation to elevate its dining program’s repertoire further. Likewise, Uniworld chefs and sommeliers immerse their guests in regional cuisine and wines by scouting local produce, cheese, and wines along the way.

Easier to Make Friends

For those who travel alone but don’t want to spend their entire vacation in solitude or are looking to make new friends from around the world (and possible future travel companions), a small ship is the dream scenario. “The experience of cruising with a smaller amount of people ensures passengers serendipitously cross paths more than once during a trip,” says Fee. “Friendly acquaintances emerge quickly, and great friendships form effortlessly. Conversations are interesting, as many small-ship cruisers are well-traveled.”

Fewer Lines and Crowds

Ask any of the 13 million people who took a cruise from the United States in 2018 what their least-favorite part of the experience was; you’ll undoubtedly hear some complaints about the long queue for embarkation (boarding the ship), debarkation (getting off the ship) and tendering (when the ship anchors at sea instead of docking in a port, and passengers must take smaller boats to and from shore). “The larger the ship, the longer the line,” says O’Rourke, “which takes up precious time otherwise spent onshore.” You’ll find fewer lines across the board, too, from the elevator to the buffet.