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Cruising: Big ships vs Small Ships

Thanks to those who messaged me on Facebook to let me know what you’re interested in reading when it comes to cruising, this month’s cruise blog is comparing small ships to big ships.

I think I must be ambidextrous. I like big and small ships, having sailed on both on several occasions. They both have their pros – and their cons. So to help you decide which ship is right for you, read on to see what to expect.


Size matters!

The size of ship affects many aspects of your cruise: the number of passengers you’ll be holidaying with, the amount of activities onboard, the amount of restaurants and therefore food choices available, the price, the ports you’ll call at and the ambience.

So let’s go…

Holland America Panama

Onboard Holland America in the Panama Canal

What are Big Ships like?

Firstly there are big ships and there are mega ships. Depending on what you’re after, you can voyage with 3500 or under 2000 and still be in the big ship category.

Westerdam gym

The gym onboard Holland America Line’s Westerdam


  • You have a huge amount of choice when it comes to onboard activities. There will likely be a veritable theme park of water fun. From slides that twist and turn – some even over the side of the ship, to pools (plural) and watery games in designated kids areas.
  • Carnival ships are known for their pools and outdoor activities like cinema under the stars.
  • There will be a well-kitted out gym, a cinema, a theatre for daily and nightly shows, a casino, a library, an IT centre.
  • On Holland America Line ships there is a Culinary Kitchen where free demonstration and hands-on classes are held with pro and celebrity chefs.
  • Kids clubs are extremely well organised and cater for all ages up to about 17 years. You can also often use a crèche or sitter if you’d like a romantic meal away from your tots.
  • Cuisine choices are vast with several restaurants, some for private dining, some all in together, plus kiosks by the pool serving snacks 24/7.


  • If you’re anything like me you’ll get lost. Fortunately there are maps on the walls, but even then I get myself all turned around and can’t tell my aft from my bow. On one large ship I tied a ribbon to my cabin door handle.
  • If you don’t book a balcony cabin you’ll need to bags your deck chair early.
  • The entry level price is usually for an interior cabin – that means no windows.
Windstar yacht

The Windstar is like being on your own private luxury yacht

What are Small Ships like?

L Austral

The pool deck of Ponant’s L’Austral with Mt Etna behind


  • There are less people to hog the sun loungers.
  • It’s much easier to meet people, many of whom are fascinating and fun (for some that might be a ‘con’, but I’ve met some fabulous people on cruises).
  • The ships are usually more luxurious and that flows through to your cabin where things like iPod docks are pretty standard. The bathrooms are generous. The beds are sumptuous and if you’re on a Ponant ship you’ll be slathering yourself in Bulgari bathroom products.
  • Smaller ships can access smaller ports so your itinerary will seldom run into multi-thousands of other cruisers.
  • Dining is going to be gourmet rather than burgers and pizza.
  • Most (I would say all, but need to cover myself) cabins will have a private balcony.


  • Less onboard activities will mean you’ll have to load up your Kindle or take some books. There is likely to be a gym however and sun loungers.
  • Kids are probably not going to enjoy a smaller ship as much to be honest. Unless they are huge bookworms! Some small ships do not allow children either.
  • There are less dining options, but the chef will never repeat a menu.
  • The price is going to reflect the boutique/luxury experience, so don’t expect a bargain.


My picks for best large and small ships are:

Quark Antarctica

Quark Expeditions. Photo credit Mike Murphy

Holland America Line for luxurious mid-to-large ship cruising: 835-2100 passengers

Carnival ships for families and fun on a large ship: 2000-3600 passengers

Ponant for boutique, luxurious cruising : 64-264 passengers

Windstar for small, luxury yachts, including some with sails: 150-300 passengers

Quark Expeditions for Arctic and Antarctic sailings: 68-160 passengers

Luftner for river cruising in Europe and Asia: 56-180 passengers

The Tannery, Woolston, Christchurch
Christchurch: 3 years on
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Hi, I'm Megan Singleton and I'm the word slinger of this travel blog as well as on radio in NZ every Sunday. Former Travel Editor at Yahoo NZ and current freelance writer for a few newspapers and mags from time to time, I set off on this travel writing journey 20 years ago and I've pretty much always got a suitcase half packed (or half un-packed!) I'd love you to join me on Facebook or Twitter and sign up for my newsletters if you want loads of travel tips, advice and deals!

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