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Big ship vs. small ship: how to choose the cruise for you

The MSC Preziosa has 14 decks, 21 bars, four restaurants, and a theater.

The MSC Preziosa has 14 decks, 21 bars, four restaurants, and a theater.

Fueled by crab legs and Cajun shrimp, we club-hopped our way around our mega-size cruise ship, catching the finale of a lavish musical production in the theater, followed by a pop-in at a late-night comedy show. Still raring to go, we decamped to a cozy lounge, where a performer played piano, sang, and teased the audience. After a rousing sing-along of “Sweet Caroline” we called it a night.

“This is nothing like my Alaska cruise,” our companion said as we trudged to our cabins. “For entertainment, there was this guy who talked about whales. The next night, same guy — talking about sea otters.”

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Therein lies one of the differences between the super-size cruise ships and the smaller ones: the entertainment. Big ships have a variety of nightclubs, bars, and theaters, some with Broadway-caliber productions. Smaller ships have similar entertainment but on a smaller scale; often a shipboard cast of singers and dancers who put on a revue. Expedition ships are more about enrichment programs, often featuring specialists discussing wildlife, architecture, or other topics that tie in with the itinerary. A river cruise might bring on a local folkloric troupe, but if the vessel is sailing, there’s likely to be a singer, musician, or DJ performing in the main lounge.

If you’re thinking of joining the ranks of cruise-goers (who numbered more than 20 million last year, according to ETN Global Travel Industry News), one of the first things to consider is what size ship suits you best. According to Erica Silverstein of www.cruisecritic.com, the size ship “influences the overall cruise experience, including queues, cost, sociability, luxury and service factors, onboard activities and amenities, cabin types, and kids’ programming.”

Generally speaking, “If you want a luxury experience with lots of fare inclusions, really personal service, and no crowds, it’s probably best to go with a smaller ship. If you want a ship with tons of onboard amenities and extensive kids’ programming, you’ll want to go big,” Silverstein says. The largest ships might carry 3,000 passengers or more; the smallest, as few as 75.

Here are a few more factors to keep in mind:

Got kids? Go big or stay home

One of our best family vacations was aboard the 3,082-passenger Crown Princess, sailing from New York to the Caribbean. Our boys — a teen and a ’tween — had a blast hanging at the teen center after dining with us in the evening and doing shore excursions as a family. Aboard ship, the boys got a taste of independence, but we still shared some great experiences together. That’s one benefit of a large ship: multitiered children’s programs, with amenities akin to those at a large resort hotel. On small ships, kids’ programs are limited.

One of the chief joys of cruising is waking up in a different port nearly every day, so why not include some of your must-see destinations?

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If you’re sailing with an extended family or having a family reunion at sea, a bigger ship has a major advantage: With numerous entertainment options, there will be something to keep everyone happy. The kids can compete in a Guitar Hero playoff, while the grandparents slow dance to Sinatra tunes, and Mom and Dad try their luck at the blackjack table.

Where do you dream of going?

One of the chief joys of cruising is waking up in a different port nearly every day, so why not include some of your must-see destinations? If your dream trip includes an exotic locale, “you’re really at the mercy of [which cruise lines] are offering that destination,” Silverstein says. For example, if you want to visit Vietnam, you can sail Seabourn (200 passengers), Azamara (700), Crystal (900), Celebrity (2,000), Royal Caribbean (3,000), and other ocean ships as part of longer Asia cruises, she says. Or you can take a river cruise on a 100- to 200-passenger ship. Given that, “your choice ultimately depends on how you want to see the destination — and what you want to do on your sailing days in between,” Silverstein says. However, some exotic locations may be reachable only by a limited number of cruise lines, often the luxury options, she adds.

Keep in mind that small ships can go where big ships can’t, and once you arrive in port, you won’t be part of a cast of thousands. “Going into a small port, on a ship with less than 200 passengers, is exquisite,” says Cynthia Boal Janssens of www.allthingscruise.com. “Usually you are the only visitors there. Compare that to a large port like St. Martin with 12,000 visitors in one day.”

What’s the vibe?

If you love lots of action and choices galore, consider a big ship. At any given time, there are myriad things to do, from salsa dancing lessons to art auctions to baccarat demos and behind-the-scenes tours — not to mention a lively poolside scene and evening entertainment options worthy of a small city. On a big vessel, there’s just more of everything: maybe 15 clubs, as opposed to two on a small ship, and five pools instead of one.

On the other hand, a smaller vessel has a more intimate setting and more personalized service. “Within a couple of days most of the staff will know who you are and know what drink you prefer,” Janssens says. Small expedition ships carry small inflatable boats, allowing up-close exploration. So, “whether you are going to Alaska, Antarctica, or the Galápagos, you will have a much more personal experience, landing on the shores of your destination, rather than sailing by,” she says.

Are small ships more expensive than big ones?

“In general, small ships are more costly, but a good travel agent can help you track sales,” Janssens says. Sign up for e-mail news from cruise lines to learn about specials and “if you are flexible regarding when you can sail, you might nab an excellent fare.” Some small ship lines are not so expensive, Janssens adds. “Take a look at Star Clippers, Blount Small Ship Cruises, Windstar, and American Queen Cruises,” she says, and always look at what is included in the fare before deciding.

And here’s something you may not know: Even some of the larger companies have small ships in their fleet, Silverstein says. “For example, Princess Cruise’s smallest ships, the Ocean and the Pacific, carry 700 passengers, but they follow Princess’s mainstream pricing.”

Can’t decide?

Consider a midsize ship if you’re looking for more amenities than the small ships offer and fewer people than the big ships carry.

Ships in that range (1,000-2,000 passengers) span a variety of cruise lines, Silverstein notes. “For example, Oceania’s new Riviera carries 1,250 passengers and has cool amenities, like a demo kitchen for cooking classes. It’s not cheap, but it might be less expensive than some luxury lines, especially if you don’t require a suite.” Oceania’s rates also include airfare.

Since cruise lines aren’t building many midsize vessels these days, these ships are older, with smaller cabins and fewer balconies, but often they’ve been refurbished — and you can still get a balcony or larger suite if you book early. “If you can’t afford a small ship and don’t want to sail a mega-ship, a midsize ship is definitely worth looking into,” Silverstein says.

“You really have to just look at which ships are going on the itinerary you like, and then compare amenities and prices to see what best fits your needs.”

Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at bairwright@gmail.com.
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