In recent years the cruise industry has been favoring a “bigger is better” approach, with heaps of publicity surrounding so-called mega-ships that carry 5,000 to 6,000 passengers. These “mega-ships” certainly have their place, and many make cruising an attractively affordable alternative for travelers on a tight budget.
But there’s also a booming cottage industry of small ships and boutique cruise lines that offer a very different sort of travel experience from the mega-ships. From cruising the world’s most iconic rivers to voyages in the Galapagos, Cuba and Patagonia, there are myriad options to choose from, with prices ranging from ultra luxury to budget-friendly.
Here are five reasons why journalists believes that small ship cruises are the best cruises:
More Elbow Room
The first (and only) time I took a big cruise – which was actually fairly small by industry standards, with around 700 passengers – I was so overwhelmed by the crowds that I actually felt a little claustrophobic for the first time in my life. Avoiding the jostling crowds at the buffet line, the ship disembarkation points and during excursions became an annoying distraction.
But the best small ship cruises carry less than 300 passengers, and Exodus’ small ship cruises to the Galapagos Islands, Cuba, Peruvian Amazon, Ecuadorian Amazon and Northern Patagonia allow no more than 18-46 people total.
The experience is so different that it’s virtually impossible to compare the two. With one you feel like a nameless face among the huddled masses; with the other you feel like a treasured guest with room to roam. Which makes it much easier to find your own personal space to have quiet time or memorable moments.
Everybody Knows Your Name
When you’re just one of over 5,000 passengers crowded onto a massive floating city, it’s unreasonable to expect four-star service.
For some travelers, sacrificing luxury and comfort in exchange for all-inclusive convenience and budget-friendly affordability is a fair trade-off. There’s also a lot to be said for the value of experiences where everyone from the restaurant staff to the cruise director knows your name (and, more importantly, your preferences).
Having a bartender who knows you want a Pisco Sour with your Happy Hour appetizers may not make or break your trip. But traveling with a company who makes you feel like more than just a number on a sign can definitely go a long way towards making your trip feel special.
Connecting with Fellow Passengers
One of our favorite things about small ship cruises is the lasting friendships we’ve made on our travels over the years.
When you’re on a ship with just 30-40 passengers for a week to 10 days, you tend to get to know everyone on board to some degree. There almost seems to be an unspoken agreement that passengers will swap dining tables like a game of musical chairs, giving you plenty of opportunities to find out who you click with and who you don’t.
Inevitably, you’re bound to meet a handful of folks that share your same ideals. Especially on a nature-focused cruise, which tends to attract a certain type of traveler. Going on life-changing adventures with perfect strangers can create some surprisingly strong bonds. Perhaps you’ll even meet future travel buddies!
You Can Go Where the Big Ships Can’t
I must admit to getting a perverse sense of pleasure from our small ship being able to slip into a tiny port and our entire group being able to disembark while the big cruise ships were still waiting for their Zodiacs to get lined up so they could transport passengers to shore.
But it’s even better when you’re cruising in places like the Amazon River and the Galapagos Islands, where those massive ships aren’t even allowed.
Trust me, there a few things that can make your shore excursion more stressful than trying to rush through it before teeming hordes of 5,000-6,000 people descend on a port city like vultures on a kill.
Because companies like Exodus severely limit the number of people on their small ship cruises and typically have at least one naturalist guide for every 15 passengers, you’re virtually guaranteed to have intimate, once-in-a-lifetime experiences.
Whether you’re visiting a tiny village or ecotourism attraction that no other tour operator travels to, getting to see a rare endangered Amazon manatee that rangers rescued from poachers, swimming alongside Galapagos penguins or simply savoring a spectacular view with no other travelers in sight, the best small ship cruises create memories you’ll be telling friends and family about for years to come.
The only downside? Once you’ve experienced the alternative to mass market travel, you’ll probably never want to travel any other way again.