Cruising has gained tremendous popularity over the past few decades and as a result the cruising options have grown. On the “Wow, that’s huge” extreme, the newest luxury cruise mega-ship to hit the scene in 2016 can hold 6,780 passengers and 2,100 crew members. On the opposite end of the cruising spectrum, small ship cruises with only 20-40 passengers are available. And, of course, there are tons of options in between.
So, how do you decide which cruise to take for your next vacation? As a general rule, most cruises provide luxury accommodations, entertainment, stellar service and non-stop amazing food. The larger ships will provide more onboard amenities. The ship with 6,780 passengers has 16 decks, casino, 23 pools and 20 separate restaurants, along with other distractions to keep you so busy 24/7 that you’ll need another vacation when it’s over just to recover. As the size of the ship decreases, so will the onboard activities which places an increased emphasis on the off board activities.
My first two cruises were in 1993, with a small group of 46 of our closest friends, and 1995. They were both standard Caribbean cruises on ships with 2000’ish passengers. The ships were gorgeous, huge and had lots to do on board. I recall thinking, somewhat subconsciously, that the major Caribbean ports like Nassau and Freeport were really nothing to write home about, but we still had fun, drank a lot and gorged on the endless supply of really good food. For the most part, the ports were trashy “tourist traps” with cheap jewelry & gift shops, and t-shirt stops with an average restaurant attached (a la Señor Frogs.) The time in port wasn’t sufficient to get out of the tourist areas and actually explore the area we were visiting to experience the local culture and beauty. An added “bonus” was the 4-6 other ships in port at the same time that added their own crowds of 2-3,000 passengers each to the small tourist area. By far the biggest limitation to these huge ships is that they can only visit large ports that can handle their large size and number of passengers. Sometimes, due to docking limitations, these ships anchor offshore and use ‘tenders’ which are smaller boats to transfer passengers to and from the docks, which can be a very time consuming process due to the huge number of passengers to be transferred. To me the larger ships are more an ocean going “party” than a travel experience to immerse ourselves in different and diverse cultures.
In 2006, I experienced my first “smaller” cruise. The ship had only 684 passengers which allowed us to visit much smaller ports. This cruise was from Rome, Italy to Athens, Greece. Although it was a smaller ship, the on board amenities were quite impressive and the food was amazing. Since the ship was a lot smaller, it was able to dock at smaller ports without requiring tenders, so we were able to visit areas such as Malta, Santorini, Mykonos and other smaller cities that would never be able to accommodate the huge ships. This was by far my best cruising experience up to that point. For the first time, I saw the beauty of a smaller ship that was more relaxed, easier to meet & see the same new friends every day, and placed higher value on the more intimate areas we visited. Often we were the only ship in these smaller venues, so we could wander casually around town without the hordes of other visitors. I vowed then that I would never return to the relative chaos of the larger ships.
Then, in 2015, I had the opportunity to go on a much smaller cruise ship with 168 guests through Brand g Vacations, a boutique tour operator that organizes unique and intriguing cruises for the LGBT community. This smaller river cruise ship was a whole new experience that was absolutely amazing. Instead of just seeing open ocean between ports, we began our adventure with two nights in Prague, Czech Republic and then cruised the Danube River from Passau, Germany down to Budapest, Hungary, allowing us to relax on board while seeing the open countryside along the way between stops. We could even meander by the wheel house and chat with the Captain. In the larger cities such as Vienna where we spent 3 days and 2 nights, there were other cruise ships in port along with us, but their relatively small numbers didn’t create any additional chaos in the port areas. In the smaller ports like Bratislava, Slovakia we were the only ship in port. The ship was our travelling hotel, allowing us to travel off the ship for organized tours and/or personal exploration during the days and return to our same room, and the same group of new friends at night. The smaller number of fellow passengers meant that we ate meals, explored the cities and sites, and enjoyed on board relaxation and entertainment with the same people. We made many good friends that we still remain in contact with after the cruise, something that really didn’t happen on the larger cruises.
Best of all, the smaller ship created the opportunities to visit cities that larger ships could never visit. The ship is a travelling hotel so we didn’t have to pack and unpack every day to visit a new city. Despite being a smaller ship, the service and food were just as good (if not better) as on the larger ships. Evenings were spent in the lounge with live entertainment, and there was always a magnificent view of the passing countryside from outside on deck.
Maybe it’s just my ever increasing age, but when I go on vacation I seek to explore and learn about countries and cultures, and to have new experiences that I could never have at home. The smaller cruises provide that unique experience and relaxation that I never felt on the larger ships where it was much harder to make new friends and experience all the trip has to offer.
Ultimately, choosing what kind of cruise you are going to take is about what you want from your vacation. If you want a non-stop party with little reason to leave the ship, the huge ships may be more for you. However, if you want a more intimate experience that is relaxing while seeing smaller, less tourist dominated areas without giving up the luxury amenities of a cruise you should definitely seek the small ship experience.
Our next cruise is also with Brand g Vacations, in September 2016, on a 5-masted clipper sailing ship (think huge ‘pirate ship’) from Istanbul, Turkey to Athens, Greece, and I can’t wait for this new experience. With only 226 passengers and 5-star amenities, this unique vacation will visit some of the most important antiquity sites on a voyage along the coast of Turkey and through the Greek isles.
Join us for a vacation you will never forget! For information about all of their unique cruise experiences, visit their website at www.BrandgVacations.com or visit them on Facebook at www.facebook.com/BrandgVacations.